Editor’s note: Ragene Andrea L. Palma is an urban planner who advocates for inclusive cities. She has worked with the UN HABITAT for local economic development. She volunteers with the group People Make Cities!, which works on public spaces, placemaking, and socio-spatial issues in planning. Any opinion stated in this piece is hers.
Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Everyday, Jun sells taho at the corner of a street block, under a tree. He has a lot of customers who line up for their rushed, warm soy breakfast on the way to work. Jun’s dad sits beside him, white-haired, and looking up from the tree root that makes a good seat. He used to be the one selling taho, but he’s too old now, so Jun has to take over for the family.
Aling Mila is across the street, on the edge of a sidewalk, her back to a smelly and dirty creek. She puts coins, candies, cigarette sticks, and boiled saba bunches in a box with dividers, and waits for her loyal customers to drop by. She knows them only by face, but she always smiles at them. She leans on a rusty rail because her back isn’t as good as it used to be. “Mas malakas ako nung bata [ako],” she says.
Jun and Aling Mila are both street vendors in Metro Manila, with day-to-day earnings that are barely enough for their families to get by. There are so many others who share their daily struggles. But many people — even those who buy from their sidewalk goods — agree how they should be cleared from where they stay, for the sake of having “cleaner” cities.
The state of informality
With the recent clearing and cleaning of Carriedo and the directives for a disciplined city of Manila, photos of the rapid transformation of cleared streets have drawn both criticism and praise online. Some applauded the initiative, calling it a long-awaited “bath” of the old capital, while others made callouts to the clearing process, asking how inclusive it actually was.
The 2017 Labor Force Survey showed that the country had at least 15.6 million informal sector workers (or 38 percent) in the Philippines, contributing to 5 trillion, or a third of the country’s GDP. Our informal sector is part of what the International Labour Organization reports to be a 2 billion worldwide informal economy, and what journalist Robert Neuwirth calls a “powerful force.”
Debates about street vendors and the informal sector have revolved around the use of public spaces for years now. Many throw arguments on legality (Why encourage something illegal? Why do they get to skip taxes while the rest of us pay?), the encroachment of public space (using shared spaces as their own private stalls), and in the case of Manila, the problems of sanitation, petty crime, and a myriad other developmental issues that have hounded the city for decades.
There are also generalizations that some street vendors are also drug dealers or part of syndicates — with Manila, this thinking is understandable. But equating the entire sector to crime is misguided; many street vendors are simply trying to make ends meet. Their lack of protection, which is provided in formal industries, is worsened by our general perception, making them all the more vulnerable.
"If we deprive street vendors and the informal sector of the use of spaces where natural markets have sprouted, where foot traffic has increased, and where culture has been created, then we deprive them of one of their basic rights: Their right to the city."
In urban studies, the phenomenon of urbanization tells us how more and more people will stream into our overcrowded cities. With beliefs in the opportunities that migration brings, our urban environments will be pressured to cater to the needs for survival — and not all means of this are formal. In the urban website CityLab, studies show that “the number of people will likely continue to outpace the availability of formal employment.”
The essence of inclusive cities is how we plan, design, and govern for the people who use spaces. If we deprive street vendors and the informal sector of the use of spaces where natural markets have sprouted, where foot traffic has increased, and where culture has been created, then we deprive them of one of their basic rights: Their right to the city.
Street vendors shape our urban fabric
Often judged to be “eyesores” in what many prefer to be manicured landscapes, people miss the value that street vendors bring to our cities. They encourage foot traffic because of their transactions, bringing more vibrancy to streets.
Vibrancy helps the local (and also formal) economies thrive. Vibrancy encourages our urban environments to become more people-oriented, leading to pedestrianization, and more walkable cities.
“Street Food,” the documentary series on Netflix, shows us a glimpse of how street food vendors fare in different countries. In Thailand, pad thai has brought millions of tourists to the sidewalks, showing how their culture is embedded into the food, and the informality. This is the same way Filipinos have the concepts of suki, tiangge, tusok-tusok, gilid, or tabi-tabi; we have the familiarity, and we build relationships and trust with street vendors.
A classic example is how Divisoria is celebrated; buyers not only visit the place when people have festival needs, but when school starts, when a wedding in the family is to take place, or pretty much anything happens in an urbanite’s life.
Planning with, not just for, street vendors
Clearing streets of vendors has its causes and effects. Motives include the notion to make more spaces for cars and other motorized vehicles because of the traffic. Top-of-mind “solutions” look towards relocation. Many would rather have developers build more malls and condominiums instead of “ugly” kiosks.
But our attitudes on how to plan for our street vendors reveals citizen values — who do we actually plan for? While inclusive mobility is another big fight altogether (as it echoes, “move people not cars”), car prioritization, relocation, and favoring gentrification (transforming places to cater to the middle-class, excluding people in the lower-class and in poverty) are all socially problematic, exclusive, and elitist.
"Providing dignity of space through stalls that have access to clean, public restrooms, trash bins, and dedicated spaces that encourage safety are some ways we can factor in our street vendors into the urban setting."
These arguments against the informal economy deepen the wound of inequality and injustice all the more, instead of uplifting vendors and informal workers from a state they are already persecuted for — one “cleaner” day for the middle and higher classes is one day of “starvation” for someone in poverty. If we cleared these vendors without affordable houses to live in, or relocated them to places where their markets did not exist, they would naturally gravitate towards places where their opportunities serve them better, which is back to the streets of Manila.
Planning for informality is very challenging, but doable. Dialogues work, but including vendors in planning, and learning about their needs are better. Providing dignity of space through stalls that have access to clean, public restrooms, trash bins, and dedicated spaces that encourage safety are some ways we can factor in our street vendors into the urban setting.
Shifting perspective: Vendors as partners
Understanding and addressing the dynamics of informality is not unique to Manila, or even the Philippines alone. But valuing the potential of the sector by treating vendors as partners is strategic.
Bangkok rethought its all-out street food clearing strategy, and set standards for hygiene in their informal stalls, trained vendors on food safety, and enforced waste management and sanitation. Singapore brought together their food carts, and used the hawker (peddler) center strategy in open buildings. This manifests in Metro Manila, but is not a widespread strategy. Bhubaneshwar in India created vending zones, which are a collaboration of authorities, vendors’ associations, and private partners.
Fiercer movements for street vendors have also created historical events. Authorities’ attitudes towards informality sparked the Jasmine Revolution (or Tunisian Revolution), where the immolation of a 26-year-old vegetable vendor led to the ousting of the president. There’s also the Fishball Revolution of Hong Kong. In an interview with the Guardian, Alan Yau, a restaurateur, emphasized how peddling street food was beyond sidewalks and savoury sense: “Street food and the fishball represent the values of entrepreneurship. Of capitalism. Of liberal democracy.”
A call for inclusive governance
In a World Resources Institute report, there are three steps that are recommended to make street vendors and informality work in cities:
1. “Increase access to public utilities, spaces, and resources;
2. Revise laws that have excluded informal workers in the past, and institute ones that actively include them;
3. Fold informal workers into local governance.”
Hopefully, for Jun and Aling Mila, and so many other working Filipinos, living in the city would not mean having to live in fear of being cleared, or being called dirty. Urban writer Tanvi Misra says it simply, and says it best: let’s treat street vendors as “people, not problems.”