Informal Commerce: Expansion and Exclusion in the Historic Centre of the Latin American City

Rosemary D. F. Bromley

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Bromley, R. D. F. (1). Informal Commerce: Expansion and Exclusion in the Historic Centre of the Latin American City. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 22(2), 245–263.

Informal commerce, characterized by market and street trading activities, thrives in the central areas of many Latin American cities. Focusing on the neglected spatial dimension of informal commerce, the paper traces its considerable expansion in the historic centre of Quito in Ecuador since the early 1970s and examines the issues which have prompted municipal intervention. An early municipal response involves some attempts at redistribution of informal commerce, justified by essentially functional issues such as hygiene and congestion. However, the introduction of conservation policy and the way this policy evolved to embrace a broad concern for the urban environment is associated with the emergence of an aesthetic/cultural discourse in attitudes towards informal commerce. The authorities are increasingly motivated towards ‘selling’ a new image of the historic centre and encouraging new economies oriented towards the tourist and a relatively wealthy clientele. Moves to exclude informal commerce have concentrated on the most visible spaces, particularly those of the principal squares. Although informal trade hidden from view continues to thrive, only time and further research will show whether the re‐presentation of the historic centre and the promotion of new economies will finally effect the exclusion of informal commerce as a culmination of long‐term efforts to control its occupation of space.

Main finding
The author found that informal commerce varied by location (market buildings, open-air markets, and streets), time of day, and scale. The expansion of informal commerce was found to be highly concentrated in the historic city center in each daily and periodic markets and street trading. Municipal authorities were found to take a laissez-faire stance in the proliferation of these informal markets which later changed to an intervening approach toward the redistribution of trading/informal activity without any coordinated policies. The relocation of informal markets was justified for functional concerns like hygiene, congestion (linked to criminalizing), and conflicts over space use. However, the author found support for hidden agendas inclusive of concerns for property values and business/private interest which sought to exclude informal economies from the symbolic center of the city and promote an aesthetic/cultural discourse concerned with tourist appeal, imagery and historic conservation.

Description of method used in the article
Municipal documents were heavily consulted to study the expanding occupation of space by informal commerce. In addition to work the author conducted in the 1970s, field surveys and dozens of interviews with key informants were conducted in the summers of 1993 and 1995. To better understand the degree of expansion of informal markets the author assessed the growth of official daily markets, periodic markets, and street trading - of which only daily markets (both open-air and in buildings) had sufficient data on growth.

Of practical use

Organising categories

Economic Transactions
Field Observations
Physical types
Markets Streets
Geographic locations