Mexico is a country with high levels of urbanisation. Most of the growth has not taken place in the city centres, but in the peri-urban areas surrounding Mexico City that are characterised by a mixture of rural and urban landscapes. While Mexico is marked by a growing middle-class, poverty and deep inequalities still persist. This is especially true in the peri-urban areas of cities where informal settlements and slums are common. Informal settlements, or colonias populares, are areas that have not been planned by city officials or the municipality, but rather have evolved and emerged out of the human need for shelter where access to the formal housing market is not an option. They are characterised by their insecurity of tenure and disconnect from formal mechanisms and institutions providing access to basic services. In many cases, the Mexican government is not improving the living conditions of those residing in colonias populares but is actually contributing to their insecurity.
The emergence and rapid growth of informal settlements is not an inevitable process wherever urbanisation occurs. Rather, its root causes can be found in the insufficient action of governmental bodies regarding urban spaces. For example, the inability to ensure low-cost and affordable housing to accommodate a rapidly growing urban population, coupled with weak urban planning and governance directly contributes to an increase in informal settlements. In Mexico City, the initial development of self-built housing, informal settlements and illegal tenure was largely enabled by the rather laissez-faire approach of the Mexican government. Thus, the forming of informal and irregular settlements was essentially facilitated by the government as a way of mitigating the nation-wide housing shortages. The development of informal settlements in the peri-urban fringe of Mexico City was also largely accepted due to the political benefits it yielded—the informal sale of land was exchanged for the residents’ loyalty and political support.
Informal and insecure tenure directly contributes to unreliable service provision, and the consequences are detrimental to communities. Lack of access to basic and urban services such as water and sanitation, health care facilities, public transportation, etc. means that irregular settlements are characterised by high volumes of inequality and low standards of living. Water often needs to be obtained privately either due to settlements existing outside of the formal infrastructure or because state services are severely lacking in quality. A consequence of this is significant costs for households in irregular settlements where families might be forced to spend up to half of their monthly income only on water. Informal settlements are also by nature remote and often lack sufficient connections to urban spaces.
Since the 1970s, a national land reform aimed at formalising informal settlements has been the main mode of urban governance in Mexico. Its goal is to integrate the urban poor and marginalised politically, spatially, and socio-economically. Policy measures to formalise informal settlements include giving property rights to residents and ensuring that the land complies with Mexican law. This enables residents to make use of and gain revenue from the land. Ultimately, it also aims to incorporate areas into the official jurisdiction and responsibility of the municipalities, as a way of safeguarding access to basic services.
Land tenure security and regularisation efforts are often hailed as solutions for problems existing within informal settlements—especially regarding the question of inequality. However, the evidence from Mexico differs. The degree of consolidation—tenure security obtained, access to services such as telephone lines, roads, sewage systems or water access installed—has varied greatly both across time and between the different colonias. Financial problems or disintegration of the housing conditions have caused some previously regularised settlements to become irregular again.
One of the main issues is that many colonias populares exist in a perpetual state of ambiguity and fragmentation. In the peri-urban context where several different systems, frameworks of governance, and legalities overlap with each other the problem becomes even more pronounced. The way cities are divided into formal and informal areas can create inequality and different levels of development. This depends on who owns the land: whether it is private, under collective ownership for agriculture (ejido), or if the municipality is responsible for it. As a result, providing services to these areas can be confusing, with different groups involved and lacking coordination. This makes the existing inequalities worse—some areas have more resources and opportunities than others.This is highlighted well by an employee from the Xalapa Department of Urban Development: “[…] it’s not very clear where the authority of the ejido ends and the authority of the municipality begins … each is protected by their norms.”.
One example of this ambiguity is the peri-urban area of Santa Lucia which has undergone processes of urbanisation. Yet, the land is still legally under the possession of the ejido and is formally recognized as rural agricultural land by the municipal jurisdiction. The area exists in a state of ‘legal invisibility’ where the land is neither completely rural nor completely urban, as formal recognition (and thus integration into the urban infrastructure) can only occur following tenure regularisation. In this way, the legality surrounding access to basic services such as water is rather contradictory. The constitution states that access to water is a right for all citizens of Mexico City, however, in practice such rights are only applicable to residents in formal housing as people living in informal settlements are not legal residents.
The widespread growth of slums and informal settlements in Mexico City is a problem that deserves continued attention from policy-makers in both local and national government. In particular, the negative effects that such living conditions have on residents’ health and safety should be prioritised. It is also clear when looking at the case of Mexico City that a hard distinction between rural and urban land—which is often reiterated in municipal legislation—is unfruitful and creates a potential breeding ground for conflict due to the lack of coordination and confusion around responsibility. Thus, dealing with the fragmentation, poor coordination, and capacity development of municipalities, ejidos, and governmental bodies ought to be a core principle guiding the future of Mexico City’s urban policy. In the end, we have to ask how we can better facilitate an urban space where everyone, not merely those with formal status, can gain access to the city and to basic services.