On the 25th of March we ran a one-day seminar on street trading in the cities in the Global South. Prominent researchers from different parts of the world mixed with young PhDs to share their research and reflections on the topic.
During the reception after the seminar one of the speakers remarked: ‘I feel people in this room are talking on the same language and sharing similar questions; an exciting feeling’.
I really sympathised with that comment: to connect disconnected research and people was one of the key motivations behind the event. In fact, street trading as a tool to understand cities is currently disconnected from major debates, despite their widespread presence in cities in the Global South.
The seminar looked at street trading on two levels: On a practical level about the difficulties encountered with regards to implementing city policies; and another more theoretical level using street trading as a conceptual tool to understand (and challenge understandings) of cities, and city-making processes.
The conceptual problem of street trading
The exercise really started long before the seminar, when we had to choose a title that accurately framed the subject and our objectives. I first proposed the title ‘Street traders and the cities in the Global South’.
This was quickly changed to specify ‘street trading’ as we acknowledged that the commercial system (traders, organisations, marketplaces, local and transnational commercial connections) is far more complex than only street traders, which only considers people and not wider spatial, political and economic contexts.
Looking for a more appealing title, Yves Cabannes and I proposed ‘Street trading: the privatisation of public space’.
However, we realised that that we were getting trapped by the very same conceptual-box that we were trying to escape and challenge: the modern paradigm of cities.
In fact, the definition of ‘public space’ and ‘privatisation’ fail to adequately explain how streets in the Global South work. In this context, the appropriation of the streets and open spaces by street traders, without formal permission from the municipality, is already a current, and to a certain extent, legitimate practice. In other words, to have informal street trading in the streets is normal.
Our discussion on the title illustrates a conceptual problem with street trading: as researchers, we lack theoretical frameworks that fit properly to explain how cities and streets work and the conditions that make them suitable places for street trading. After this discussion we settled on the title Street trading in the Global South: Practical and theoretical challenges.
Informality is never black and white
Among the different discussions held during the seminar, I have chosen three that show how the current theoretical frameworks fail to address street trading.
The first of these discussions was on the concept of informality. It was quickly agreed by participants that while this concept seems to propose a black and white understanding of the phenomenon, the reality that we observe is actually somewhere in-between – different shades of gray.
Is this concept useful to understand how street trading works? Are the street traders doing wrong by operating outside the law, or rather have cities been unable to offer them a dignified role in the city-making process?
Contested urban spaces and city-making
The second discussion related with the claims of vendors to urban space and the legal systems that regulate the activity. Traders have been facing evictions in many locations and some of them start mobilisations to protect their places on the streets. Most of these evictions occur when groups of the urban elite, supported by city authorities, ‘clean’ the streets to re-appropriate spaces used by them in the past such as the city centres.
The contestation of urban space is an interesting angle to see how the city is made and for who. This perspective shows that street traders are not often seen as having a voice in the making of their own cities.
Urban streets are more than mere thoroughfares
We also discussed the need to move to a new paradigm of space that integrates the richness of the streets as vibrant places where many things happen throughout the day. In the past, streets were conceptualised mainly as a ‘road’, a space of transit, where separation of uses and users was optimal to fulfill this function.
This idea still predominates in the way we think about a street and the way city authorities expect it to work. Street trading hardly finds a space in this functionalist conception of space.
Street trading can only find a proper space in the cities if we start thinking about the streets as a different kind of ‘object’, one that understands the vitality, dynamism, polyvalence that streets in the Global South have.
Lastly, I want to thanks to all the participants for making this seminar an exciting space for exchange, and specially to Yves for the enriching discussions we had.
Lila Oriard has recently completed her PhD at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit. Her doctorate explores street vending and its ability to produce space, through an examination of the Tepito market in Mexico City downtown area.