In this blog, I aim to analyze the mission of my group, Building a Lexicon for Contemporary Global South Cities. For our team, unpacking informality meant understanding not only the term itself but its usage in different contexts, especially within the cities we were studying. Informality is a loaded term that has cultural, social, and political significance. Understanding informality within the framework of the Global North and South for me meant figuring out how to analyze the role informal settlements have as a result of the transactional relationship between the global halves.

Our readings leading up to our presentation explained the Global North and South through an economic lens, positing it as a “political and economical term that refers to the long-term goal of pursuing world economic changes that mutually benefit countries in the Global South and lead to greater solidarity among the disadvantaged in the world system” (Gray & Gills, South-South cooperation and the rise of the Global South). However, discussing the Global South and North without the context of colonialism, economic injustice, and racism that has occurred in the past and takes place today is a failure to fully understand how the north interacts with the south and the history between the two. This is significant when discussing informality in Guangzhou, whose informality is partially caused by laborers needing cheap and easy access to centrally located jobs where many factories and industrial manufacturing centers are located. Cities across the Global South have expanded dramatically in the past few decades as the world becomes increasingly more interconnected. This rise of the Global South has led to global economic gains that are drastically disparate. It has also formed an urban underclass that occupies the formal city’s informal city, a series of informal neighborhoods whose tenuous relationship with urban government complicates their very existence.

Visualizing Guangzhou through digital means enabled me to present its spatial development through the alleys of its informal neighborhoods. Through the use of photos, maps, and videos, I presented Guangzhou’s informal settlements from an aerial perspective to a pedestrian-level lens as I moved through my presentation. It was this perspective that I believe its informality could be best understood. From an aerial perspective, using interactive maps was helpful to show the spaces informal settlements occupy within Guangzhou. Asking questions such as: Where are these informal settlements located to job centers? How do their locations impact the way the city treats them? Are their futures threatened? are important in conceptualizing the niche they occupy. From a satellite perspective, I highlighted the contrast between the stark Chinese planning of formal towers to the scattered, impromptu-looking developments of informal neighborhoods. Showing small clips of the video was also useful in offering personal accounts of those living in these spaces and how they see themselves within the city. For Guangzhou, informal settlements have a precarious future as government threats could easily turn into action, as many already have. Its this very uncertainty that I believe highlights the complicated past, present, and future of informality in cities like Guangzhou.