From Cairo, Surakarta to Ho Chi Minh City, attempts to relocate street-vendors are met with civil society claims to recognize their economic and urban value.

 

On August, 24th 2014, Egyptian security forces deployed in Cairo’s downtown in order to move street vendors to Torgoman bus station’s parking lot. They were supposed to stay here and wait for a mall to be constructed within 4 months where they would be permanently based. But street vendors were left with fears and doubts: there are little chances buyers come all the way to Torgoman.

 

Street vendors’ relocation is a largely shared problem amongst cities in the world. Local authorities’ strategy is invariably the same, a top-down decision, forcefully applied by security forces. No attention is given to vendors’ needs, interests and values. Accused of causing traffic congestion and blocking roads, they are not perceived as citizens but rather “treated as threatening, obstructive and criminal” Egyptian NGO Tadamun explains.

Meanwhile, Tadamun refuses the argument that there is no alternative to forceful displacement. The NGO presents in a well-documented article another approach to street vendors relocation.

 

Jokowi: a plea for dialogue and negotiation

In the Indonesian city of Surakarta, also known as Solo, Mayor Joko Widodo (Indonesia’s president since October 2014) faced the necessity to relocate street vendors in a global strategy to revitalize Solo. Yet, he employed a different strategy based on dialogue and negotiation.

Joko Widodo (Jokowi) was elected in 2005. The city faced a large amount of challenges familiar to Egyptian metropoles: “Low-quality and insufficient public services, extensive slums and informal areas, high unemployment, low levels of investment, deteriorating historic urban fabric, corruption, conflict among majority and minority religious and ethnic groups, lengthy bureaucratic registration processes for businesses and permitting processes for developers, and very tight budgets.” (Majeed 2012)

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Jokowi needed to undertake a global series of reform to reinvigorate the town. Part of it was the relocation of street vendors. At that time, they were more than 6,000 in Solo. High unemployment rate drove people to informal sources of income. When Jokowi publicly announced his ambition to clear the historic district of Banjarsari, an outcry that threatened to get violent convinced him to soften his approach. He held some 100 meetings with street vendors and called researchers for an extensive data collection about them. He wanted to understand them.

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Solo streets in 2008 © Jelle Goossens

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Through the dialogue with vendors and data collected by researchers, Jokowi pledged to build suitable stalls at an alternative site four kilometers from Banjarsari Park and to provide public transportation to the new area. He also agreed to publicize the location through a marketing campaign. He offered vendors incentives to move such as free licenses, carts, umbrellas, tents and kiosks, as well as education and training sessions.

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Not only did Jokowi understand that street vending was part of Solo’s economy, but more importantly he highlighted the economic benefits to the city of ensuring that the vendors could preserve their income. In a final move to show them his full support and honor their essential role in the life of Solo, the mayor organised a traditional procession for the relocation to their new marketplace.

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As Tadamun describes the context in which Solo’s revitalisation was made possible, we find out that Jokowi was not alone but could rely on dedicated municipal teams:

He worked closely with his deputy mayor, F.X. Hadi Rudyatmo […] Jokowi created the greater vision for Solo and Rudyatmo implemented the plans. […] They did not tackle one problem at a time, but worked on education, health, economic development, and urban planning all at once, realizing that all of the reforms necessary for revitalizing Solo were interlinked.

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Eventually, Jokowi benefited from a legislative and administrative fertile ground that enabled him to be innovative in tackling Solo’s issues. As we come back to Egypt, the author explains that Egyptian executives do no have the same freedom to act:

As appointed officials, [they] are ideologically aligned with the central government, which, as was the case with removing street vendors, places security above all other concerns. They are limited in their ability to engage in meaningful dialogue with their constituencies because they are ultimately accountable to the President and Prime Minister. Without decentralization or the ability of citizens to elect mayors as the executive of their city or region, there is little possibility of a pragmatic, open, and accommodating government in Egypt that serves the needs of its people.

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Mapping Ho Chi Minh City’s Sidewalk Ballet

I would like to complete those engaging thoughts by a third case. In Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), MIT researcher Annette Kim worked on bringing a new perspective to mapping by focusing on the people, historically overlooked.

.In Saigon, she found a fertile ground for her research in the intense humanity and the diverse rhythms that emanate from the streets. Those founding characteristics of the HCMC’s identity, as she claims, all happen on the sidewalks of the city. While Sidewalks Laboratory (SLAB) team members were meticulously studying the life of the streets, they noticed police clearing off the streets from the vendors. They were later informed that this was a regular attempt to keep the city clean for touristic attractiveness purposes.

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Yet, their research results contradicted official discourses: narratives from tourist interviews would, on the opposite, highlight the preference for the bursting animation of the public spaces. Moreover, it revealed social, economic and cultural constructs that were largely ignored by local measures – as they were not tracked on maps. “The most surprising finding was the many accounts of empathy people hiding them when they are chased, giving them free water and electricity, storing their goods overnight, helping to carry their load.

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Property Rights Maps © SLAB

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From these enriching findings and with innovative maps elaborated to show the life of the city, Kim proposed an alternative strategy to the planning department of HCMC to “build a physical line into the sidewalk to facilitate a pedestrian experience of the city for tourists, which includes interacting with sidewalk vendors”. Officials were struck to see that their vision of planning was totally ignoring the reality of the public life and the places. In 2010, the proposal was officially approved to implement a pilot project by the city government.

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Kim’s claim to bring attention to a wider public and incorporate its needs into plans succeeded in a certain way: she proved that non institutional actors can be heard and listened to by local authorities in order to better address urban issues. Before being too optimistic though, I am curious to see how is the pilot project going and how SLAB’s findings are being used on the long-term by HCMC planners – and other cities.

SLAB’s results were published in the book Sidewalk City that offers many details about their methodologies and findings.

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Eventually, It is an interesting perspective that could inspire other organisations like Tadamun, which have a very extensive knowledge about their cities and could help negotiate more equitable urban policies.

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Alleway visualisation © SLAB

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Readings

Tadamun’s entire and very interesting article on the subject
SLAB’s work. You can also watch this presentation of the project
An Inclusive Design Observatory’s report of Surakarta

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• First published on November 10th 2014 – amended on April 6th 2017 •

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