In this lecture, Janice Perlman discusses urban informality against the background of 40 years of research in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The lecture lays particular emphasis on how the changes over this timespan have affected the lives of the people in the favelas. She concludes by introducing the Mega-Cities project strategy to 'shorten the lag time between ideas and implementation' in urban problem solving.
mp3 iconUrban Informality - Marginal or Mainstream? - Janice Perlman


Janice Perlman is an independent scholar and the founder and president of the Mega-Cities Project, a transnational non-profit dedicated to shortening the lag time between ideas and implementation in urban problem solving.  She is now developing Mega-Cities/Mega-Change, or MC2 with the next generation of urban leaders and technologies. Her recent book, FAVELA: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro (OUP) won two PROSE Awards, consecutive Fulbright Fellowships and a Guggenheim. Her seminal book, The Myth of Marginality (UC Press), won the C. Wright Mills Award. She was the first recipient of the Chester Rapkin Award. 

A former Professor of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, Perlman has taught at Columbia, NYU, Trinity, the University of Paris, and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. She was Coordinator of the Neighborhoods Task Force of the National Urban Policy; Director of Strategic Planning for the NYC Partnership; and Director of Science, Technology and Public Policy at the New York Academy of Sciences.


There are already a billion people living off the grid in shantytowns and that number is expected to double by 2030 and triple by 2050 - meaning 1/3 of the world’s population. In this lecture Janice Perlman argues that if we continue to marginalize rather than embrace the people in these vibrant communities, we will miss out not only on their consumer and producer power and their active citizenry, but most of all, on their intellectual capital. She stresses that we need all the brain power we can get to confront the complex challenges of making cities work, and that is impossible without the full participation of all urbanites.

Research on 12 National Slum Upgrading Cases done by WBI in partnership with UN-Habitat, Cities Alliance and GTZ showed that it is easier to install physical urban infrastructure then to address livelihoods, social services and structural reforms (particularly in land tenure).

Perlman concludes with the proposition: “If we can figure out how to tap into the vitality and creativity of the people living in informality DESPITE the power differences, and how to LIBERATE the creativity from the bottom up, we will be taking a big step towards the future we hope to see.“

Sub Propositions:

  1. Research and evaluation studies need to be done over time as initial results can be misleading.
  2. What was marginal is becoming the new mainstream
  3. Urban innovation and creativity are stimulated through diversity, density and proximity, not homogeneity.
  4. Inclusive cities will not be achieved through urban design but through social change: new incentive systems, rules of the game and players at the table.
  5. The “right to the city” and the right to human dignity are fundamental to sustainable, convivial cities
  6. The dichotomy between “the city for all” and “the world-class city” is false because the first is a prerequisite for the second.

Barriers to be overcome in National Slum Upgrading include: conflicts between affordable housing and well located housing; political considerations in site selection and resource-allocation versus areas of greatest need; for success, need to plan for the time and budget needed to build trust and involve the community; lastly, physical improvements make better photo ops but investment in human and social capital make better cities.


Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro, Oxford University Press (2010)

The Myth of Marginality: Urban Poverty and Politics in Rio de Janeiro, UC Press (1976)

“A Dual Strategy for Deliberate Social Change in Cities”