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Report: Informal Systems in Urban Sustainability and Resilience

The Climate Change and Environment team at the Issam Fares Institute of the American University of Beirut, in partnership with the Lebanon office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a German non-profit institution working for the public interest, are conducting a research project that explores informality in the urban systems of transportation, water and wastewater, energy, solid waste management, and the use of public space. The main aim of this research project is to identify, map and assess the economic, social and environmental impacts of these informal systems to help establish measures that would reduce their negative impacts, and “institutionalize” or “integrate” some of their aspects into the formal systems for improved overall urban sustainability and resilience.

This research project includes two phases, the first phase being an initial background research phase on the role of informal systems in urban sustainability and resilience across the region. This background report lays the groundwork for the second phase of the project, a case study set in Beirut, Lebanon, which seeks to design and apply a sustainability assessment framework specifically designed for informal systems, which could then be applied to study these systems in urban settings across the region. The research conducted will lay the foundation for a set of informed policy recommendations that seek to enhance urban sustainability and resilience to climate change by learning from informal systems in urban settings.

The first phase report has been published, and below is its summary:

As cities across the region continue to grow, so will the complexity of the urban systems upon which their functions rely. Cities are often viewed as “systems of systems”, and it is vital that these systems are fully understood if efforts to enhance their overall sustainability and resilience are to be undertaken (Da Silva, 2013). Systems of water and wastewater, solid waste management, transportation, and energy, as outlined in this report, are dependent to a large extent on the informal sector. The informal sector in many cases is highly interconnected to the formal sector within these urban systems, and in some cases these connections create a complex web of interactions, as is the case in solid waste management, making a distinction between the formal and the informal nearly impossible. In the case of some systems, such as the energy system, the informal sector operates separate from the formal sector, with little interconnection between the two. As demand for their services grows, and the factors contributing to their growth remain unchanged, the extent and complexity of these informal systems may grow as well. And although complexity of urban systems may contribute to their overall resilience by increasing redundancy, robustness, and diversity, this does not always translate into more sustainable systems over the longterm. In some cases high levels of connectivity and complexity within a system may result in increases in resource use, which in turn diminishes its resilience (Hassler and Kohler, 2014; Ahern, 2011).

Informality across the various systems discussed in this background document results from a complex array of contributing factors. It appears, based on a review of the literature on these systems across the region, that the most common contributors across the systems are either a lack in the provision of services by the formal sector responsible for providing them, particularly in sectors of water and energy, or they provide employment and financial opportunities for urban populations who are dependent on them as their main source of income, as in the case ofinformal waste collection and valorization. The informal sectors across these systems also exhibit some resilient qualities, such as flexibility, creativity, entrepreneurship, resourcefulness, adaptability, and ability to respond quickly to challenges and changing demands. However, there are also numerous environmental, social, and economic costs that result from informal activities in the sectors that cannot be ignored. For these reasons, it is important to gain a better understanding of how these informal systems operate in relation to the formal systems. Addressing urban challenges will be dependent not only on the resilience and sustainability of the formal systems that operate within urban settings, but will also depend largely on the resilience of informal systems as well, particularly in countries where these systems play a significant role in the function of the overall urban system. In order to do so, research efforts are needed to gain a more extensive understanding of informal systems within urban settings, how they operate, their environmental, social and environmental impacts, the links to the formal system, as well as their contributions to overall urban resilience.

[The authors of the report include: Nadim Farajalla (Climate Change and Environment Program Director), Ayah Badran (Project Coordinator), Jad Taha El Baba (RA), Yasmina Choueiri (Consultant), Rana El Hajj (Senior Program Coordinator), Mona Fawaz (AUB Professor, Social Justice and the City Program Director), and Ali Chalak (AUB Associate Professor).]


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