Examining the Dynamics Between Formal and Informal Institutions in Progressive City Planning

By Andrea Restrepo-Mieth (University of Pennsylvania)

Urban public space serves a myriad of social, economic, civic, and environmental functions that ultimately play an important role in improving our quality of life.  Uses range from protest and engagement with the state to the manifestation of cultural expressions, and from commercial and livelihood ends to exercise and recreation. Despite its benefits, the conservation and creation of public space can be a challenge in cities with growing populations, little land for expansion due to geographical or administrative boundaries, and tight land markets. Furthermore, given multiple and pressing demands on public budgets, it is easy to bypass investments in creating or upgrading public space infrastructure, prioritizing instead transportation and infrastructures more clearly associated with economic growth objectives. Medellín, like many cities in the global South, is no stranger to these realities and faces serious, persistent public-space deficits.

Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city, has suffered for decades from a dearth of public space. In the 1990s the city began attempts to renew existing public spaces and create new ones downtown and near government buildings. The 2000s brought a shift in the approach to public space provision by recognizing that interventions needed to be carried out in the most marginalized neighborhoods since these had the highest need. The result was the creation of linear parks along creeks; building new parks, plazas, community centers, and children’s playgrounds; and creating and upgrading sports facilities. Interventions were carried out with community input and considerably changed the landscape of long-neglected hillside neighborhoods.

In my Urban Affairs Review article, “Examining the Dynamics Between Formal and Informal Institutions in Progressive City Planning,” I analyze the institutional changes that took place in Medellín starting in the late 1980s to understand why progressive approaches to public space provision have continued to take place despite their less-than-enthusiastic embrace by the most recent mayor.  I draw on interviews with politicians, bureaucrats, community-based organization and civil society organization members, and business elites; direct observation of meetings and events; site visits; document analysis and focus groups to understand how state and non-state actors initiate progressive planning practices and how they seek to give them continuity through institutions.  

My article introduces the idea of institutional compounding and examines the mechanisms and processes that give rise to it in order to highlight its importance. I define institutional compounding as the quest by networks of individuals and organizations to create and sustain both formal (created and enforced by the state) and informal institutions (created and enforced outside the state), where each institutional form maintains its particular defining features, yet together they provide continuity and legitimacy to an existing practice. Individually each institutional form is susceptible to weakness, yet combined these institutions are more likely to achieve persistence through time.

My analysis shows that institutional compounding has been key to the continuity of progressive planning practices in Medellín where a first stage (1988-2003) saw the development in parallel of both formal and informal institutions. Institutions during the initial phase did not interact to reinforce or enhance each other. As a result, we see the development of instruments and growing awareness about the importance of public space, but only a few interventions took place.  The existence of both institutional forms was key during the next phase (2004-2015), where state actors with political will to mobilize formal institutions were strengthened by an increasingly solidified informal institution. We see during this second phase the emergence of complementary institutions that are individually effective yet work to enhance each other. While state actors worked to strengthen the formal institution, which is important in providing official guidance and establishing rules, they were cognizant that a time would come when a mayor would not prioritize increased public space provision in marginalized areas. To attempt to address this, state actors worked with non-state actors to establish enforcement mechanisms outside of official channels through constituency creation, oversight, shaming, and appropriation. While non-state actors also value informal institutions, they see formal institutions as a requirement to widely legitimize pursuits. To that end, non-state actors worked with state actors to ensure that their priorities were codified in formal instruments such as development plans and land-use plans.

A key component that characterizes institutional complementarity is political and societal will. In other words, the formal institution is strengthened through the political will of state actors while the informal institution is strengthened through societal actors’ willingness to replicate the norm. The next phase (2016-2019) saw a break in political will when the incoming mayor made clear that public space was not a priority for his government.  The interaction between formal and informal institutions morphed from one of enhancement to one of enforcement, and it is at this stage that we see institutional compounding in action.   A variety of actors – from business elites to civil society organizations – mobilized to put pressure on the mayor and his team to ensure that increased public space equity was ultimately included in his government plan.  Once this was achieved, non-state actors worked with bureaucrats to monitor implementation and continue to put pressure on the government.  The continued interaction between formal and informal institutions overtime created the mechanisms needed for institutional compounding when political will to enforce the formal institution disappeared. 

The events seen in Medellín in the past decades lead me to conclude that giving continuity to progressive planning approaches requires that (1) the institutionalization of inchoate practices be conceptualized as the product of both formal and informal institutions due to the intrinsic weaknesses in each; (2) a mechanism such as institutional compounding be generated to provide a source of institutional strength; and (3) given the multi-stakeholder nature of emerging progressive practices, institutionalization intrinsically demands the involvement of multiple actors, while the formal/informal dynamics of compounding demand that networks bring together these different actors to ensure legitimacy and enforcement.

Read the full UAR article here.

Photo by Omri D. Cohen on Unsplash

Author Biography

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Perry World House, University of Pennsylvania.  Her research examines the emergence and institutionalization of environmentally sustainable and socially progressive planning practices in cities in the global South, the politics of planning for water services, and grassroots involvement in urban governance.