How the Informal Economy Can Help Achieve Sustainable Cities in ASEAN
06 Nov 2017 by Ponsawan Gift Watanasahthorn
Growing up in Bangkok, I oftentimes opted for Bangkok’s (in)famous street stalls for affordable meal and goods.
However, like other locals, I have always been bothered by the fact that they usually occupy the city’s sidewalks. I am divided between having clean public spaces, and preserving social and cultural identity of the city. An effort by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) to reduce the number of street vendors to return pavements to the pedestrians earlier this year again told me that I couldn’t have both.
Bangkok’s street vendors are just one of the examples of informal economies that exist in many thriving cities of Southeast Asia. Just like there are two sides to every coin, there are things that I like and do not like about the informal economies. I am always concerned that informal activities will create social and environmental problems. One example is informal businesses, which are continually associated with human rights violations and environmental degradation due to lack of strict regulations. Nevertheless, I cannot deny that the informal economies fill my basic needs such as missing public services. I cannot imagine my urban living without these informalities.
If you asked me before how I envision Sustainable Cities, I would say a city that is clean, modern, and ‘smart’ without any informality such as slums and itinerant vendors. Basically, pictures of a few cities in Europe would pop up in my mind.
During my internship with UNDP, I have realized that perhaps a different model of urban development is needed for cities in ASEAN. Instantly eliminating informal economies can worsen socioeconomic disparities in the region. It will disrupt livelihoods of the people, including the most vulnerable groups. What ASEAN cities need is engaging and integrating informal players into their urban planning. It cannot be for the purpose of changing their nature or formalizing them, but viewing them as accelerators and agents of change.
As long as policy-makers still see informal economies in ASEAN cities as hindrance to development, and not crucial drivers of Sustainable Cities, how can they come up with innovative policies that truly address urban informal economies?