Inclusive Cities and the Urban Informal Economy


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Photo: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images Reportage

Cities that recognize informal workers and involve them in every aspect of planning can create cleaner, greener, more socially responsive and more vibrant cities.


Inclusive cities ensure the working poor have access to secure and dignified livelihoods, affordable housing, and basic services such as water/sanitation and electricity.

To reduce urban poverty, cities must support informal workers by reshaping urban planning, zoning, regulations, laws and policies to incorporate the working poor. And representatives of the working poor must have a voice in urban planning processes.


An event in April 2019 examined Informality as a Way of Life: Challenges to Sustainable Urban Development. In her presentation, WIEGO Senior Advisor Marty Chen noted the real challenge of urban informality is "the clash between informality of the elite and informality of the poor and the tendency of cities to privilege the rich and powerful to the detriment of the poor and powerless."

Informal Workers Contribute

As the 10-city, WIEGO-led Informal Economy Monitoring Study (IEMS) showed, urban informal workers make economic, environmental, social and cultural contributions to the cities where they work. In the streets and markets, vendors provide an accessible source of low-cost goods and services to city residents, while waste pickers collect and recycle what would otherwise end up in costly landfills or on the streets. Less visibly, home-based workers produce goods that add value to domestic and international supply chains, while domestic workers make it possible for others to work in the formal economy.

Contrary to mainstream assumptions, many urban informal workers contribute to national and municipal revenue by paying fees to use public space and value-added taxes on inputs and raw materials. Urban informal workers also add vibrancy to public space, and can play a role in preserving cultural heritage, keeping historical markets alive.

Read: Against the Odds: Resilience, Solidarity and Community Spirit Keep Warwick Markets Alive

Despite these contributions, informal work is often stigmatized by city authorities and residents as being illegal or unproductive. Many municipal governments have responded to informality by seeking to eliminate it – through evictions, fines, or restrictive regulations – or by ignoring it altogether in city and economic planning.

Read: Including the Excluded: Supporting Informal Workers for More Equal and Productive Cities in the Global South by Martha Chen and Victoria Beard, published by the World Resources Institute

Inclusive Cities Work Better

Trabajadores Informales

More productive and equitable cities are created when the contributions of urban informal workers are recognized, when informal workers are involved in decision-making and rule-setting processes, and when their livelihoods are integrated into local economic and urban plans.

VIDEO: Inclusive Cities for the Urban Working Poor - Seminar by Martha Chen

NEWS: Los Angeles Decriminalizes Street Vendors

How WIEGO Works for Inclusion

WIEGO engages at multiple levels – carrying out action research and focused activities with membership-based organizations (MBOs) of informal workers in select cities, and bringing the insights and demands of informal workers into global agenda-setting processes.

Public Space for All

Public space is a public good. However, competing uses of public space cause conflict, and often the most vulnerable users, poor informal workers, are excluded. WIEGO believes that regulated public spaces offer possibilities for diverse uses to co-exist, ultimately making cities more vibrant and inclusive.

Our Public Space for All project, launched in 2018 in partnership with Cities Alliance, helps city officials, informal workers and other stakeholders realize the potential of inclusive public spaces. Learn more.

Focal Cities

WIEGO’s Focal Cities initiative provides concentrated support to informal workers. It builds the capacity of informal worker leaders and their organizations across multiple sectors, and fosters dialogue between informal workers and municipal authorities. Currently WIEGO has five Focal Cities: Lima, Peru; Accra, Ghana; Dakar, Senegal; Delhi, India; and Mexico City, Mexico. Learn more

Global Advocacy

Habitat III

In 2015-16, the WIEGO Network participated in the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (known as Habitat III), a consultative process held every 20 years to reinvigorate the global commitment to sustainable development. The process resulted in the New Urban Agenda (NUA), a document that sets global standards and priorities for future equitable, sustainable urban development.

WIEGO actively participated in discussions, and served as co-chair of the Grassroots Partners Constituency Group of the General Assembly or Partners.

Through Habitat III, WIEGO and its MBO partners made visible the contributions of informal workers to cities, and advocated for urban policies that recognize and include informal livelihoods. These efforts are reflected in the NUA document.
Learn more about WIEGO’s engagement in Habitat III

World Urban Forums

WIEGO includes informal workers in its delegations to the World Urban Forum (WUF). Held every two years, WUF is the foremost global arena for interaction among policymakers, local government leaders, non-governmental organizations and expert practitioners in the field of sustainable urban development and human settlements.

In 2018, WIEGO attended World Urban Forum 9 in Kuala Lumpur with workers and organizers from HomeNet Thailand and the Federation of Informal Workers of Thailand. WUF9 focused on implementing the New Urban Agenda

The delegation brought attention to the need for cities to work with informal worker organizations to achieve truly inclusive cities. A full slate of events brought home that message. For example, WIEGO, HomeNet Thailand, Oxfam, the New York Street Vendor Project, and the City of Songkla, Thailand hosted a side event on how promoting decent work for informal workers can contribute to inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities, addressing both the Sustainable Development Goals and the NUA. A networking event highlighted forced evictions and explored innovative policies and practical approaches to increase spatial, social and economic inclusion. Another presented a case study of how a city slum in western India was redeveloped through a public-private collaboration. 

The Inclusive Cities Project

WIEGO coordinated the Inclusive Cities Project – a multi-country project that ran from 2008-14 with partners from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Learn more.

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