Words by AbdouMaliq Simone | 14 Apr 2024

Across much of the world, the kinds of work necessary to put food on the table have become more diverse while the kinds of formal jobs available grow more limited and repetitive. Because of technological advances, the geographical shifts of production to regions of cheap labor, the shrinkage of civil servant positions, and the corporatization of agriculture, the jobs available to the majority center on providing services, such as in delivery, call centers, child and healthcare. While small workshops, stores, repair shops, and markets still exist, particularly in the Global South, they are unable to absorb a growing number of young laborers. While education and re-skilling are commonly viewed as a sure ticket to employability, many graduates linger for years without viable positions or are forced to accept work far below their qualifications.

Given the necessity for individuals, households, and neighborhoods to “make” work, urban popular economy,refers to all of those activities undertaken from the ground up to create forms and spaces of livelihood. These efforts might activities that have familiarly been identified as informal sector jobs—jobs off the books, which usually entail petty trade, repair, and care. While these kinds of jobs are important elements of urban popular economy, this notion entails ways of organizing people and space that go beyond them. For example, a common aspect of popular economy is for groups of households to organize and share different kinds of resources, to arrange common child care, pool available money to invest in better infrastructure, or allot a portion of their living spaces to intersecting workshops that make different items that go together, such as cutting patterns, fixing buttons, sewing seams, preparing packaging, driving trucks to markets. At a neighborhood scale, popular economies might entail a shared division of labor among those who use a formal, salaried job to cultivate a customer base for locally made items and services, those who advocate for better municipal services and financial support, those who repair broken electrical lines or water pipes, and those who run afterschool classes for children.

In addition, memberships people might have in collective institutions, such as churches, mosques, temples, unions, community associations, or fraternal organization are instrumentalized to explore potential markets, expanded networks of contacts and support, and often serve as the basis for common economic activities. Urban popular economy concerns then the ways in which the urban itself—its diverse residents, institutions, policies, and ways of doing things—can be engaged as a resource for everyday livelihoods. It focuses on the changing times, seasons, and rhythms of the city—where and how people come and go, where new developments are taking place, where people congregate for business or leisure, and where things are falling apart. It takes advantage of loopholes, gaps, and underutilized spaces. It focuses on bringing together people with different but complementary skills and experiences; it seeks to overcome gender and racial barriers to maximize the value of skills that otherwise might lie dormant. It attempts to organize associations that fight for recognition and better conditions.

Given that popular economies are more than jobs, more than particular kinds or sectors of work, they are changing their shape and character all of the time, and involve dimensions of life that are not strictly economic, that go beyond matters of remuneration to include how people care for each other, how people can be brought together more effectively and judiciously to cooperate with each other, share their ideas and experience, and view themselves as operating in the city together.

Given this notion of urban popular economy, this glossary attempts to think about the words and concepts that seem to be important for these objectives. At first glance, many of these terms will seem disconnected, all over the place. Some of the terms have to do with material things, such as land; others with how people work or experience work; others about how people talk to and pay attention to each other. We are not interested in fixed definitions or to make clear boundaries between sectors, ways of life, or even to distinguish the economic from something that might be called the non-economic. We are open to any lines that might be drawn among these terms, and hope that this way of doing things might inspire more creative thinking about what livelihoods in an urban setting might be and the kinds of considerations that are necessary to realize them.

As this glossary grows over time, what we attempt to do is to expand and complexify what an urban economy might mean, so that we gradually have a better idea of not only how people work in urban contexts, but how the urban itself works.