The ‘Graying’ of ‘Green’ Zones: Spatial Governance and Irregular Settlement in Xochimilco, Mexico City


  • Correction Note: This article was first published online on the 23rd of May 2013, under a subscription publication licence. The article has since been made OnlineOpen, and the copyright line and licence statement was therefore updated in April 2015.
  • Funding for this research was provided by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). The author would like to extend thanks and appreciation to: Janett Vallejo Román and Ana Luisa Diez García for their assistance with field research and transcribing interviews; Héctor Hidalgo Páez for assistance with mapping; local residents and planning officials who participated in the interviews for the research; and to the two anonymous IJURR reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.


This article details the evolving social and spatial dynamics of a planning approach that is now being used to regulate irregular or informal settlements in the conservation zone of Xochimilco in the Federal District of Mexico City. As part of the elaboration of ‘normative’ planning policies and practices, this approach counts, maps and then classifies irregular settlements into different categories with distinct land-use regularization possibilities. These spatial calculations establish a continuum of ‘gray’ spaces, placing many settlements in a kind of planning limbo on so-called ‘green’ conservation land. The research suggests that these spatial calculations are now an important part of enacting land-use planning and presenting a useful ‘technical’ veneer through which the state negotiates competing claims to space. Based on a case study of an irregular settlement, the article examines how the state is implicated in the production and regulation of irregularity as part of a larger strategy of spatial governance. The research explores how planning ‘knowledges’ and ‘techniques’ help to create fragmented but ‘governable’ spaces that force communities to compete for land-use regularization. The analysis raises questions about the conception of informality as something that, among other things, simply takes place outside of the formal planning system.


With a population of over 20 million, the Metropolitan Mexico City Area (MCMA) is well-known as one of the world's largest cities (INEGI, 2010). Beyond its obvious size, Mexico City is also a highly variegated metropolitan area, comprised of the Federal District and 59 municipalities in the adjacent State of Mexico and one municipality in the State of Hidalgo (SEDESOL et al., 2007). The Federal District lies at the center of this extensive metropolitan zone. Contrary to commonly held images of Mexico's capital as not only large but also very urbanized, approximately 59% of the Federal District is actually ‘conservation land’ (PAOT, 2010). There are 88,442 hectares of conservation land dispersed across nine of the 16 sub-districts that comprise the Federal District. Most of the conservation land, however, is concentrated in seven sub-districts in the southern urbanizing periphery, including Xochimilco (see Figure 1). The conservation zone is an extremely intricate patchwork of 36 rural towns (poblados rurales) and other human settlements, interwoven with agricultural and forested areas. This area is not only the largest remaining ‘green’ space in the Federal District, but also significant for its biodiversity and as a vital recharge area for the aquifer that provides for 57% of the potable water consumed by its 8.8 million inhabitants (PAOT, 2010). Despite land-use prohibitions against residential use in protected areas of the conservation zone, these lands are subject to intense urbanization pressures. For example, there are approximately 835 irregular or informal settlements in the conservation zone, including between 295 and 300 in Xochimilco (GDF, 2005; PAOT, 2010).1 The conservation zone also encompasses a range of property types, economic activities, conservation policies and land-use designations — administered under the jurisdiction of an array of federal and local government agencies. To summarize, the conservation zone is a complex terrain of socio-spatial relations, settlement expansion, conflicting land uses and competing claims for appropriating and controlling the area's land and resources.

Figure 1.

The conservation zone in the Federal District and the natural protected area of Xochimilco (source: map drawn up by Héctor Hidalgo Páez)

These competing claims are now managed in the evolving political and planning context of the Federal District. Local elections were reintroduced in the Federal District in 1997, after 71 years of authoritarian rule under the Revolutionary Institutional Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI). Local elections have introduced greater political competition and voters now participate in city-wide electoral contests to choose the mayor, as well as area-specific contests to elect local representatives to the Legislative Assembly of the Federal District and the head of their respective sub-districts. The center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, or PRD) has dominated these electoral contests, beginning with the victory of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas in 1997 as the Federal District's first elected mayor since 1929. Support for the PRD is generally solid among lower-income households in the Federal District, many of whom reside in informally settled communities. In addition, the mayoral position has become a launching pad for several PRD presidential candidates, including Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas (2000) and Andrés Manuel López Obrador (2006 and 2012). The platforms for these presidential campaigns have highlighted the progressive social policies introduced by the PRD in the Federal District. From a strategic perspective, the Federal District represents both an important political base for the PRD and a policy showcase for its broader political ambitions in Mexico. Finally, these political changes have been accompanied by ongoing modifications to planning policies and practices within the Federal District. The latter includes, for example, land-use planning initiatives at the sub-district level, such as the approach for managing informal settlements on conservation land in Xochimilco.

Garza (1997) has referred to urban planning in Mexico as a ‘virtual’ exercise because of the persistent gap between formal plans and actual urbanization patterns. The existence of irregular settlements in the conservation zone is often perceived as evidence of this longstanding characteristic of planning in Mexico. In the case of the conservation zone, this implementation gap is attributed to a variety of factors. On the one hand, the gap is explained by numerous administrative shortcomings, such as the lack of coordination among government agencies, excessive and conflicting land-use regulation, and insufficient monitoring and enforcement of existing planning policies (GDF, 2005; PAOT, 2005; Ruiz-Gómez, 2006; Aguilar, 2008). Explanations also emphasize the highly politicized nature of planning in which political support is exchanged for permitting access to housing and urban services in prohibited areas (Schteingart and Salazar, 2005; Aguilar and Santos, 2011b). As if to disavow participation in these processes, government documents describe the proliferation of irregular settlements in the conservation zone as evidence of ‘anarchic’ urbanization and ‘disorderly’ growth (GDF, 2003: 25), thus implying that irregular settlement is something that takes place outside of ‘planned, orderly’ growth, of which local government presumably is the overseer.

Rather than viewing planning and informality as discrete entities separated by an ‘implementation gap’, this article explores how they are closely connected through planning processes and practices. Even if not fully implemented, urban plans are not ‘virtual’, because they shape state–community negotiations over regularization. In particular, the article examines the evolving social and spatial dynamics of land-use regularization processes in the conservation zone, focusing on a case study of an informal settlement located on private property in Xochimilco.2 The ‘Xochimilco approach’ to managing irregular settlements involves the counting, mapping and classification of settlements on conservation land as zones subject to ‘special regulation’, ‘specific studies’ and ‘control’ (GDF, 2005; Wigle, 2010). Only irregular settlements designated as zones subject to ‘special regulation’ are eligible for the sought-after land-use change that sanctions residential use and urban services in the conservation zone. Other irregular settlements remain in a kind of land-use limbo, albeit with an official-sounding moniker. This kind of discursive differentiation contributes to what Yiftachel (2009: 89) refers to as the ‘graying’ of urban space occupied by informal settlements as they are ‘neither integrated, nor eliminated, forming [the] pseudo-permanent margins of today's urban regions’. The presence of more than 800 irregular settlements in the conservation zone is part of the Federal District's ‘pseudo-permanent’ urban periphery and the subject of the ‘graying’ of ‘green’ zones referred to in this article's title.

This article builds on and extends previous research detailing the operation of the Xochimilco model and its social and environmental implications (see Wigle, 2010) by arguing that this approach incorporates important elements of ‘spatial governmentality’ or forms of regulation designed to manage populations in space (Merry, 2001: 16). The research shows how spatial technologies enable what Crampton and Elden (2006: 681) have termed ‘calculative spatial projects’ that are critical to analyzing the contemporary politics of space — and for the purposes of this article — the governance of informality. While the counting and mapping of irregular settlements for political purposes is not new to Mexico (see Azuela, 1997), the ways in which these spatial calculations are now enacted and disseminated as part of governing informality warrants further study in the evolving planning context of the Federal District.

This article begins with a discussion of informality, planning and spatial governance and then examines land-use planning in the conservation zone. It proceeds by exploring the application of what is known as the Xochimilco approach for managing irregular settlements on conservation land through the case study of El Asentamiento (‘the settlement’).3 The focus on everyday planning practices in the case study is intended to contribute to understanding the intricate relationships among informality, planning and governance. Research for this article is based on a series of semi-structured interviews with residents on El Asentamiento and local officials working in urban and environmental planning in the Federal District. The interviews for this research were mostly conducted in 2008 and complemented by a few interviews for updating purposes in 2009 and 2011.4

Informality, planning and spatial governance

Approximately 60% of Mexico City residents do not earn a sufficient income to be able to afford to buy or rent their housing through the formal land and housing market. In the absence of affordable housing programs, informal or irregular settlement is fundamental to securing access to housing for the majority of Mexico City residents. An extensive body of research has analyzed the social, legal and political dimensions of informal settlement processes in Mexico City (see Schteingart, 1991; Varley, 1996; Azuela and Tomas, 1997; Schteingart, 1997; Pezzoli, 1998; Ward, 1998; Connolly, 2003; 2007; 2010). Informal settlement is usually identified by its lack of access to urban services (e.g. water and sanitation) and the absence of land-use permissions and/or legal property documentation. Accordingly, ‘irregular’ settlements are ‘regularized’ through the extension of urban services, land-use permissions or legal property titles, and/or considered ‘consolidated’ when housing and living conditions improve. While irregular settlements may share these characteristics, irregularity is ultimately defined by the norms that govern urbanization processes and property relations (Duhau and Schteingart, 1997), and as such, definitions of irregularity may vary over time with changing norms (Connolly, 2003). As explored in this article, these norms now also assume salient spatial dimensions used to generate differentiated spaces of irregularity, at least in the case of Xochimilco.

Much of the regularization literature on Mexico has focused on the regularization of land tenure or property rights. Different state and non-state actors are involved in the land-tenure regularization of different property types in Mexico.5 Since at least the 1970s, land-tenure regularization has served as a predominant form of state intervention in urban development (Azuela, 1997). Under the PRI, land-tenure regularization involved extensive networks of state actors, informal power brokers and different social and community organizations in clientelistic relationships through which the benefits of regularization were exchanged for political support (Varley, 1996; Selee, 2011). Many argue that such clientelistic relationships persist in the PRD-governed Federal District (Aguilar and Santos, 2011a). Presently, however, the evolving institutionalization of land-use planning and regulation as a responsibility of a democratically elected government in the Federal District introduces new dynamics to this already complex situation, which warrant further investigation.

The complexity of regularization processes in Mexico defies easy description. As argued by Connolly (2007), it is difficult to define a phenomenon as varied and dynamic as informality, and this is one of the reasons why it is often described in relational terms by what it is not (e.g. formal). Still, binary terms such as ‘regular/irregular’ settlement elide the complexity of existing settlement processes in places such as Mexico City. While the complexity of housing and settlement conditions does not completely discount the usefulness of settlement typologies for analyzing urbanization patterns in Mexico City, it does problematize conceptions of irregularity/regularity as defined through their contrasting relationship to each other.6 Moreover, the use of such binary categories also entails an uncritical view of regular settlement areas. A quick read of almost any daily newspaper in Mexico City highlights that ‘regular’ housing areas also display signs of irregularity, including differential access to urban services and violations of land-use or other planning norms (see Gutiérrez, 2009). This situation underlines the importance of analyzing irregularity/regularity as dynamic, interactive concepts rather than as fixed, contrasting entities. This article proposes that this analysis should include not only the state's role in setting the parameters for what constitutes irregularity (Azuela, 1997), but also consider the ways in which these categories are produced, enacted and contested through planning processes and practices.

As argued by Yiftachel (2009: 93), planning discourses often frame informal settlements as being in need of ‘correction’. Roy (2009: 10) underlines the interactive relationship between planning and informality through her observation that ‘informality … is not a set of unregulated activities that lies beyond the reach of planning; rather it is planning that inscribes the informal by designating some activities as authorized and others as unauthorized’. In particular, Roy emphasizes that informality is produced by the state's ability to enact or suspend certain rules in particular moments and spaces (Roy, 2005: 153). Invariably, however, these spaces are linked to class and power relations with the ‘valorization of elite informalities and the criminalization of subaltern informalities’ (Roy, 2011: 233). This analysis contributes to understanding formal planning and informal urbanization as interactive processes and underlines the state's role in both producing and regulating informality as part of a broader strategy of spatial or urban governance.

Foucault's studies of power and governmentality are also helpful for understanding these intricate connections among social relations, norms, discourses and institutions (Jessop, 2007). For Huxley (2006: 772), governmentality refers to ‘diverse and multiple aims and practices to guide the conduct of others or the self’. In a similar way, Lemke (2001: 191) has referred to these as ‘forms of knowledge’ or the political rationalities that justify government action and as ‘power techniques’ or government interventions. In Xochimilco and elsewhere, an increasingly important part of these techniques includes the spatial calculation of populations linked to ‘spatial governmentality’ or the management of populations in space (Merry, 2001). As argued by Rose-Redword (2006), state-sponsored projects such as mapping or calculating territory represent the spatial prerequisites for constituting ‘governable’ spaces in the city. Moreover, these calculations are useful for governing irregularity because they help to ‘render technical’ (Murray Li, 2007: 7) or at least provide a technical veneer for managing significant issues such as access to land and housing. I draw upon these concepts to analyze the governance of irregularity in the conservation zone of Xochimilco by focusing on how plans (e.g. aims or knowledges) produce discursive understandings of irregularity that influence subsequent interventions (e.g. practices or techniques). The focus on ‘everyday’ practices in the analysis (e.g. conducting surveys, signing agreements) is intended to capture the effects of plans — even when they are not implemented as articulated in documents — in shaping state–community negotiations over regularization and the occupation of space. In addition, I argue that these practices are a fundamental part of ‘doing’ land-use planning, as they make visible and enact the spatial calculations now linked with land-use regularization processes in sub-districts such as Xochimilco.7 These spatial calculations configure the now differentiated contours of irregularity, which serve as key reference points in negotiating regularization and inclusion/exclusion from ‘gray space’. The article also underlines that those living in irregular settlements ‘are not passive recipients of governmental policies and directives’ (Crampton and Elden, 2006: 682) but often contest how they are mapped or classified. To be sure, power is not equally shared, but rather contested in this politicized process in which key characteristics of irregularity are often exploited for political advantage.

The framing and naming of irregularity in the Federal District

Land-use policy falls under the jurisdiction of the Government of the Federal District (Cruz Rodríguez, 2006; Ibarra Hernández, 2008). Along with heightened interest in environmental planning issues in recent years (Aguilar and Santos, 2011a), this perhaps helps to explain the renewed interest in land-use regulation and regularization at the local level. The Federal District is divided into two primary land-use zones: urban land (suelo urbano) and conservation land (suelo de conservación). Urban land is regulated by the General Program for Urban Development of the Federal District of 2003 under the auspices of the Secretariat of Urban Development and Housing (SEDUVI), and conservation land is regulated by the General Program for Ecological Planning of the Federal District of 2000 under the auspices of the Secretariat of the Environment (SMA). While residential use is prohibited in much of the conservation zone, it is permitted in long existing rural towns (poblados rurales). Land use in the conservation zone is also regulated by the urban development plans developed at the sub-district level and is affected by the management of social property by local assemblies of ejiditarios and comuneros. This situation is further complicated by the overlapping and often conflicting land-use designations for conservation land outlined in the General Program for Urban Development and the General Program for Ecological Planning (Aguilar and Santos, 2011a).

Both the General Program for Urban Development of 2003 and the General Program for Ecological Planning of 2000 refer to the presence of irregular settlements in the conservation zone, and stipulate that they are prohibited (GDF, 2000; 2003). According to the General Program for Urban Development (GDF, 2003: 25), over the last several decades the conservation zone has been subjected to:

… strong pressures from anarchic urbanization, one of the principal factors of environmental degradation and loss in this area. It is estimated that the annual deforestation rate is 500 hectares and that the urban occupation rate has increased to more than 300 hectares per year … The disorderly growth towards the city's periphery generates a negative impact on the natural characteristics of the zone. … Urbanization processes are primarily linked to the expansion and consolidation of existing settlements and to the large-scale occupation of land in the context of illegal sales of social or private property in which residential use is prohibited (emphasis added).8

In complementary fashion, the General Program for Ecological Planning (GDF, 2000: 22) emphasizes the importance of ‘fostering and supporting the development of productive and recreational activities compatible with the conservation of the natural characteristics of the zone’ in order to ‘avoid the establishment of human settlements, as well as the introduction of [urban] services and infrastructure that will affect the ecological value of the zone’. Other prominent environmental planning policies, such as the Environmental Agenda for 2007 to 2012 and the Green Plan (GDF, 2009), also refer to the presence of irregular settlements in the conservation zone. For example, the Environmental Agenda's stated objective is to preserve ‘conservation land as a key space for the environmental equilibrium of the city’ (GDF, 2007: 23–25). The document also outlines a two-pronged strategy to ‘control and order’ irregular settlements that includes: (1) a ‘zero growth project’ and (2) a comprehensive, annual monitoring and inventory of irregular settlements to define their ‘treatment and control’. The Green Plan (GDF, 2009: 12) echoes the importance of preserving conservation land for the ‘ecological equilibrium of the city’ and controlling urbanization in the conservation zone through ‘zero growth agreements’.

Together, these documents and policies, even if not fully implemented, are significant in that they promote certain planning ‘knowledges’ (e.g. aims) or discursive constructions of irregular settlements as ‘disorderly, unnatural and detrimental’, thus providing a justification for state ‘interventions’ (e.g. practices) related to their ‘proper’ planning and use. Notably, these planning documents tend to focus on irregular settlement as the main culprit of settlement expansion in the conservation zone rather than the ongoing expansion of rural towns and housing developments of middle-class households (Schteingart and Salazar, 2005; Cruz Rodríguez, 2011; Sheinbaum Pardo, 2011). How these discursive constructions of irregularity are operationalized through specific techniques and practices that are used to regulate space is explored in the next section.

Regulating irregular settlement on conservation land in Xochimilco

The most recent urban development plan for Xochimilco articulates a specific approach to managing irregular settlements on conservation land that is designed to better coordinate environmental and urban planning objectives (GDF, 2005).9 This is a significant planning issue in Xochimilco for a number of reasons. About 82% of Xochimilco's total area is designated as conservation land (GDF, 2005). The sub-district includes over 10,000 hectares or approximately 12% of the Federal District's total conservation land, and between 295 and 300 irregular settlements or roughly 36% of the total number of irregular settlements on conservation land in the Federal District (GDF, 2005; PAOT, 2010). Moreover, almost half of Xochimilco's population resides in irregular or informal settlements (GDF, 2005).

The Xochimilco approach is operationalized through the application of both longstanding (e.g. community surveys) and newer (e.g. aerial photographs) spatial calculation techniques to count, map and categorize irregular settlements. These calculations are used to classify irregular settlements on conservation land as zones subject to ‘special regulation’, ‘specific studies’ and ‘control’.10 In this way, these categories create a continuum for land-use regularization, with only those settlements designated as zones subject to ‘special regulation’ eligible for receiving the desired land-use change that permits residential use and urban services. First, however, irregular settlements classified as zones subject to ‘special regulation’ must undergo urban and environmental studies to determine in situ mitigation measures and the payment of environmental damages to compensate for their presence in the conservation zone.11 These studies are submitted to the Commission for Special Regulation for Xochimilco, an inter-agency committee whose voting members include the sub-district, SMA and SEDUVI. This commission is responsible for issuing a final decision on the approval of land-use changes for irregular settlements on conservation land.12 If the land-use change is approved, mitigation measures and the payment of environmental damages are then formalized in a collaboration agreement (convenio de collaboración) signed by the community. In practical terms, the payment of environmental damages provides resources for mitigating the settlement's environmental impact. In political terms, this sanction reframes local government as the locus for ‘order’ against the ‘disorder’ of informality, thus reasserting the legitimacy of planning norms, however briefly.

By contrast, irregular settlements classified as zones subject to ‘specific studies’ or ‘control’ must continue to negotiate. For example, zones subject to ‘specific studies’ are supposed to undergo more thorough urban and environmental studies than zones subject to ‘special regulation’ (interview with local official, 18 February 2008). Following the completion and review of these studies, irregular settlements subject to ‘specific studies’ may be partially or wholly regularized, or they may be reclassified as zones subject to ‘control’. Irregular settlements in zones subject to ‘control’ are not eligible for land-use regularization and may be subject to containment measures, eviction or relocation (interview with local official, 25 January 2008). This latter category remains the subject of some debate among planning officials. As one SEDUVI official told me:

I have always been against the zones subject to control. But the sub-district … they have very strong social pressure. It's a way of telling them [the settlers]: ‘You know what? We are not going to give you a residential zoning, but neither are we going to evict you’ (interview with SEDUVI official, 6 March 2008).

In planning terms, this creates what Yiftachel (2009: 90) has referred to as a ‘gray space’, a space within which an irregular settlement is neither evicted nor regularized, but rather positioned in a state of ‘permanent temporariness’ — concurrently tolerated and condemned, perpetually waiting ‘to be corrected’. While in the Federal District this usually amounts to a laissez-faire approach, such ‘gray spaces’ create the opportunity for the state to grant minor ‘corrections’ over time in exchange for political support. Such ‘corrections’ may include, for example, a ‘discursive upgrading’ from a zone subject to ‘control’ to one subject to ‘specific studies’, with little or no material investment in community living conditions.

The categorization of irregular settlements into these categories is based on extensive fieldwork to assess community conditions and existing levels of housing consolidation. Factors considered in these assessments include access to urban services, housing conditions, settlement size and age, proximity to built-up urban areas and zones of risk or ecological sensitivity (interview with local official, 25 January 2008; interview with SEDUVI official, 6 March 2008). The official number of irregular settlements in Xochimilco increased from an estimated 179 in 2001 to approximately 300 in 2005 (GDF, 2005). According to a local official, this increase is linked not only to the extensive fieldwork conducted to assess conditions in irregular settlements, but also to a more concerted effort to identify them through aerial photographs (interview with local official, 25 January 2008). Underlining the importance of spatial calculations to this process, an official explained that this assessment helps the sub-district ‘to identify them [irregular settlements] and to give them a denomination, a location in space’ (interview with local official, 25 January 2008). While the inflation in the number of ‘recognized’ irregular settlements became a politically sensitive issue for Xochimilco, the local official overseeing the assessment process explained its importance in the following way:

I said, excuse me, but I cannot deal with a problem that I do not know. I need to know what is happening there [in the informal settlements] to be able to deal with the problem. If we say there is nothing and close our eyes, well for sure, there is nothing, and [if] we do nothing to contain what is happening, this will become a snowball that keeps rolling and we will never stop it. On the contrary, the problem will continue to grow. Everyone wants to put a ‘pretty’ number that is not politically problematic, but we decided to give a ‘real’ number (interview with local official, 25 January 2008).

Such extensive fieldwork also facilitates direct engagement with an important political constituency — those living in irregular settlements. This kind of intensive fieldwork allows Xochimilco's planning ‘aims’ and ‘practices’ for managing irregular settlements to be circulated so as to form the basis for subsequent negotiations with settlements. This enactment of ‘doing land-use planning’ is complemented by public consultations and information made available through the internet.13

In developing a ‘real’ number of irregular settlements in Xochimilco, one of the first challenges local government officials were confronted with was the lack of a common definition for what constitutes an irregular settlement between the sub-district and SEDUVI. As one official related:

We had one concept and they [SEDUVI] had another; everyone had a different concept of what an irregular settlement was. An irregular settlement could vary from one house to thousands of houses. I was telling them that, for me, an irregular settlement was a subdivided space with intentions of growing and that the number [of houses] did not matter — whether it was 10, 20 or 100,000 — but if the space tended towards growth and consolidation. Because for me, a group of 10 houses that are in the most remote place that does not have a growth tendency but provides for the needs of a household — without the intention to subdivide and sell all their lands … they are there because it is all they have. Well, for me, this is the difference between an irregular settlement and a rural homestead. For me, they are different. So, at that time, there was not much agreement, but we did manage to make this distinction between irregular settlements and, as we put it, ‘undefined polygons’ [rural homesteads] (interview with local official, 25 January 2008).

The category of ‘undefined polygons’ (polígonos no-definidos) or ‘isolated nuclei’ (nucleos aislados) was meant to distinguish between settlement land needed for new household formation among ‘locals’ (nativos) living in or near rural towns in the conservation zone and land used by ‘outsiders’ (ajenos) to establish irregular settlements:

An undefined polygon or isolated nucleus is a space occupied because of the natural increase of [local] families, with the desire to protect their lands; even if it is illegal occupation, they do not have the objective of occupying all of their land for residential use … We consider this natural increase, or a little farm or rural house, and we do not give it the name ‘settlement’ (interview with local official, 18 February 2008, emphasis added).

Notably, non-defined polygons are defined as containing ‘natural’ or legitimate growth, thus construing irregular settlements as spaces of ‘unnatural’ or illegitimate growth in ways that echo similar descriptions in urban and environmental plans. In 2005, 291 undefined polygons were counted in Xochimilco (GDF, 2005). To categorize communities as undefined polygons, local officials inquire about the birthplace of residents and document the number of houses and people living in a particular area in order to ‘close the polygon’ (cerrar el polígono). While intended to distinguish between growth in rural towns and the expansion of irregular settlements, these distinctions are complicated by the fact that both locals and outsiders may live in undefined polygons and irregular settlements, and both may demonstrate a clear ‘growth tendency’ (interview with SEDUVI official, 6 March 2008). More recently, the sub-district has moved to group together proximal irregular settlements and non-defined polygons into twenty regions to streamline regularization processes (interview with local official, 5 July 2011). This suggests that the Xochimilco approach is evolving; it is a process that will undoubtedly continue after the 2012 local elections.

Overall, the Xochimilco approach creates new forms of socio-spatial differentiation among irregular settlements that influence state–community negotiations over land-use regularization and the occupation of space. These new forms of socio-spatial stratification introduce greater diversity to the existing complexity within and among irregular settlements in the Federal District through what Yiftachel (2009: 90) calls the ‘uneven incorporation of groups and spaces’ and the expansion of ‘gray spaces’ in the city. In effect, these new classifications represent spatialized norms or ‘power techniques’ used by local government to intervene (or not) in irregular settlements. The relationship between these norms and power is captured in this statement from one official:

The thing is, the distribution of norms is the distribution of power. When zoning takes place, this power is being exercised, and each one wants to hold on to this preserve of power. So, in this disorder, the winners are those who have more power. And as long as the situation is somewhat unclear, those who can impose norms will continue to benefit (interview with SMA official, 19 May 2008).

By differentiating among irregular settlements and ordering them according to distinct zones, the approach also spatializes the political competition among irregular settlements to become ‘regularized’. This represents a calculated ‘graying’ of space and forms an important part of the politics of contemporary land-use planning and the governance of irregular settlements in the conservation zone, as described in greater detail in the case of El Asentamiento.

El Asentamiento — a regularizing irregular settlement?

For most of its history, El Asentamiento (‘the settlement’) has been located within what is perhaps one of the most regulated areas in the Federal District. This area includes the chinampas zone of Xochimilco, an ingenious and highly productive agricultural system that has been used in the Valley of Mexico for over a millennium.14 In 1987, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated this unique cultural landscape a World Heritage Site. By 1992, the Mexican government followed suit, declaring the zone a Natural Protected Area (NPA) ‘subject to ecological preservation’ (refer back to Figure 1) (see GDF, 2006a). While there are clear prohibitions against settlement in this protected part of the conservation zone, these formal declarations and plans have been unable to avert the establishment and expansion of irregular settlements such as El Asentamiento. In 2005, the population of El Asentamiento was approximately 1,200 people living in 150 houses located on 57,000 square meters of land (see Table 1).

Table 1. Chronology of key events and milestones for El Asentamiento, Xochimilco, Federal District (1980s to 2011)
Source: Table compiled by author based on GDF (2005), as well as interviews with residents of El Asentamiento and local government officials.
Mid-1980sSettlement of El Asentamiento begins
Since late 1980sInformal installation of urban services in El Asentamiento by connecting to formal municipal networks in neighboring community
1987Chinampas zone and historic urban centre of Xochimilco is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site
1992Declaration of Natural Protected Area in chinampas zone of Xochimilco
1994Zero growth agreement signed in El Asentamiento
1997Publication of the first urban development plan at the sub-district level after the restoration of local elections in the Federal District
2002Approximately 8 years after the signing of the zero growth agreement, a community survey counts 153 structures and a total population of 663 persons in El Asentamiento
2004Approximately 10 years after the signing of the zero growth agreement, a community survey counts 161 structures and a total population of 740 persons in El Asentamiento
2005Publication of new urban development plan in Xochimilco; El Asentamiento is designated a ‘zone subject to control’, but the plan mentions the intention to disincorporate those settlements founded before 1992 from the Natural Protected Area
2006El Asentamiento disincorporated from Natural Protected Area
2007El Asentamiento designated a zone subject to ‘special regulation’; urban and environmental studies are undertaken
2011El Asentamiento still awaiting their land-use change application to be ratified

El Asentamiento is located on former chinampas that are located adjacent to the historic urban centre of Xochimilco. Chinampas are considered a kind of private property, and as such, land-tenure and land-use regularization processes for communities such as El Asentamiento fall under the jurisdiction of the local government.15 Today, both locals and outsiders reside in El Asentamiento in owned and rented housing of varying condition. The community began over 25 years ago as a fledgling settlement that consisted of precarious housing and had no access to urban services. One of the earlier residents of the community describes it in the following way:

It was beautiful! It was pure grass and trees and the little houses were very separate from each other. You could see from here to the next neighbors' house. There weren't many houses, it was pure grass and we had many trees around us … In this part of El Asentamiento, they weren't cultivating, but they were in the surrounding areas … There were stables in El Asentamiento; there were a lot of cows; there were farms. There was a duck farm, a large one, and the stables sold milk and the cows were put out to graze (interview with female resident, 2 June 2008).

Over time, residents of El Asentamiento worked together to get the community connected to the electricity, water and sanitation networks of an adjacent regularized area, although coverage and service quality is highly uneven.

Shortly after declaration of the Natural Protected Area in 1992, El Asentamiento signed a ‘zero growth agreement’. The terms of the agreement prohibited housing expansion and the extension of urban services beyond the community's limits (interview with resident and community leader, 12 June 2008). According to one female resident involved in a ‘vigilance’ committee charged with reporting on the status of the zero growth agreement in El Asentamiento, these agreements were never closely followed:

They [local government] made an agreement, but never arrived at any agreement because El Asentamiento continued to grow. We took documents to the local government, but they never paid any attention to us. So when they want to complain, you know what? Paper speaks — [they] never paid any attention to us, so it is not our problem. It is only the local government that did nothing, because we communicated: … ‘in this part, they are expanding, they sold, etc.’ … so, that is how the growth went on here (interview with female resident, 25 April 2008).

When asked why these ineffective agreements are being renewed, a community leader provided this response:

More than anything else, I believe they [the local government] do it because it is their work. If they had not let El Asentamiento grow, it would not have grown. As the authorities, they should have done something. For 9 years, I was reporting this [growth]; they were coming to take photos but never did anything. In fact, the fault belongs with the authorities, not the [vigilance] committee (interview with resident and community leader, 12 June 2008, emphasis added).

Still, as implied in the above statement, the zero growth agreements are useful in so far as they enable the performance of acting as a government that is trying to enforce ‘order’ through ‘their work’. When these agreements prove ineffective, it serves to reinforce the framing of irregular settlements as ‘anarchic’ or ‘disorderly’, while giving local government the opportunity for ‘corrective action’ to restore ‘order’ as deemed necessary.

A few years after the signing of the zero growth agreement, the community was also surveyed and photographed by local authorities (interview with resident and community leader, 14 March 2008). Although these actions were regarded with some misapprehension at the time, residents later perceived them as a positive sign that the community was being put on the ‘map’. As one resident told me:

Well, for the needs that we had, it pleased us to see them [the authorities] come into our community to measure and see this [the community]. They came to measure and everything, and to take pictures. That was around 1996 or 1997. It also caused some doubts — that maybe they came to kick us out … but after some time passed, we realized that maybe it was something positive (interview with resident and community leader, 14 March 2008).

Such hopes were somewhat premature, but not entirely misplaced. Although not much changed for the community in the 1997 Urban Development Plan for Xochimilco (GDF, 1997), more significant changes were introduced with the publication of the new sub-district plan in 2005. The 2005 plan states the intention to ‘promote the revision of the Natural Protected Area to exclude those communities that existed in the area before the declaration was made’ (GDF, 2005: 76). In 2006, El Asentamiento was officially disincorporated from the Natural Protected Area (see GDF, 2006b) and its status was subsequently changed from a zone subject to ‘control’ to a zone subject to ‘special regulation’ and therefore eligible for the residential land-use permission required to secure legal property titles (interview with local official, 18 February 2008).

Just as the local state calculates and classifies space for governance purposes, local communities also actively intervene in these processes. Over time, for example, residents in El Asentamiento have undertaken a variety of actions directed at local authorities, including letter-writing campaigns, numerous meetings with political officials and community mobilizations. In the framing of their own space, residents of El Asentamiento are quick to point out the canals as clear boundaries that separate their community from nearby informal settlements, some of which have been subjected to recent evictions.16 While eager to disassociate themselves from these spaces of ‘irregularity’, residents are keen to link themselves to spaces of ‘regularity’. For example, residents enthusiastically report that their voter registration cards indicate that El Asentamiento is a separate ‘section’ or ‘neighborhood’ of an adjacent regularized community. These examples attest to how communities attempt to construct legitimate or distinct identities for themselves as populations residing in particular spaces, often using the tools and discourse of spatial calculation introduced by the state. They also illustrate how land-use regularization — as part of the politics of spatial calculation — can serve to fragment populations in irregular settlements as they participate in competitive claim-making processes related to regularization.

Although officially disincorporated from the Natural Protected Area in 2006, El Asentamiento remains an ‘irregular’ settlement within conservation land because it lacks residential land-use permission. As an irregular settlement subject to ‘special regulation’, El Asentamiento has undergone urban and environmental studies. According to a local official, it is expected that El Asentamiento will eventually be granted zoning permission as a low-density rural residential area (habitacional rural de baja densidad) and approved for closed-loop urban services limited to ‘legitimate’ residents. As of 2011, however, the community was still waiting for the outcome of their regularization process, thus continuing to struggle with their ‘gray space’ status in the ‘green’ zone of Xochimilco and the Federal District of Mexico City.


Different forms of accessing land and housing reflect social and economic inequalities in Mexico, as they do in other places. In Mexico City, these inequalities are often manifested in irregular or informal settlement patterns and conditions. While urban planning does not usually address structural inequities such as access to land, it does play a role in how social and economic inequalities are managed in and through space. This article analyzes the approach for managing irregular settlements on conservation land in Xochimilco, a sub-district on the southern urbanizing periphery of Mexico City. In recent years, the conservation zone has been subject to intense urbanization pressures, including the expansion of irregular settlement in areas now deemed important for ecological reasons. The Xochimilco approach incorporates important elements of spatial governmentality in so far as it seeks to manage specific populations in particular spaces of the city, a situation justified by so-called ‘anarchic urbanization’ or ‘illegitimate growth’ of irregular settlements as articulated in planning documents. A key feature of the approach includes the use of spatial technologies to count, map and classify irregular settlements into three different categories with distinct regularization trajectories and possibilities. As such, the approach creates a differentiated land-use regularization process, including zones subject to ‘control’ — a kind of ‘gray space’ or planning limbo in which settlements are neither regularized nor evicted from so-called ‘green’ conservation land. These spatial calculations are now part of ‘doing’ land-use planning in Xochimilco, as well as part of a broader strategy of governing irregular settlements in the conservation zone. Together with the dissemination of formal urban plans, these calculative exercises become important for negotiating land-use regularization, while also providing a useful technical veneer to what most certainly remains a highly politicized process. Although more research is needed to document a wider range of experiences with the implementation of this approach in Xochimilco and other sub-districts where similar approaches are now being introduced, this research suggests how planning ‘knowledges’ and ‘techniques’ interact to create ‘governable’ spaces that force the populations in such spaces to compete for land-use regularization. While planning policies and land-use regulations tend to be unevenly applied, they remain salient as they serve to frame negotiation processes. This suggests the importance of viewing selective planning as a significant part of spatial or urban governance, thus avoiding the framing of informal urbanization as something that simply happens in the breach between stated planning policy and actual urbanization patterns.


  1. 1

    The terms ‘irregular settlement’ and ‘informal settlement’ are used interchangeably in this article.

  2. 2

    It should be noted that this article focuses on the ‘everyday’ dynamics of these processes in private property. Additional research is needed to document the particular and evolving dynamics of these processes in social property.

  3. 3

    El Asentamiento is a pseudonym for the community.

  4. 4

    List of interviewees and interview dates: (1) local official, subdistrict of Xochimilco: first interview 25 January 2008; second interview 13 May 2008; third interview 5 July 2011; (2) local official, subdistrict of Xochimilco: first interview 18 February 2008; second interview 8 May 2008; (3) official, Secretaría de Medio Ambiente (SMA), GDF: first interview 21 February 2008; second interview 19 May 2008; (4) official, Secretaría de Desarrollo Urbano y Vivienda (SEDUVI), GDF: first interview 6 March 2008; second interview 16 May 2008; third interview 21 August 2009 (interviewee no longer working at SEDUVI at the time); (5) resident and community leader, El Asentamiento: first interview 14 March 2008; second interview 12 June 2008; third interview 20 August 2009; follow-up telephone conversation 12 October 2009; (6) female resident, El Asentamiento: 25 April 2008; (7) female resident, El Asentamiento: 2 June 2008.

  5. 5

    The 1917 Mexican Constitution defines three kinds of property: federal or state property, private property and social property (ejidal, comunal). Social property was redistributed to indigenous communities and campesinos as part of the agrarian reform undertaken in the post-revolutionary period. Although previously prohibited, neoliberal reforms introduced in 1992 now permit the sale of ejidal properties. As elaborated by Cruz Rodríguez (2006), the 1992 reforms mean that an even wider range of state and non-state actors may be involved in land-tenure regularization in social property. In 1993, the Program for the Certification of Ejidal Rights (Programa de Certificación de Derechos Ejidales, or PROCEDE) was established to survey ejidal lands and subdivide individual parcels (parcelas) within them in order to be able to transfer property titles. Among other actors, the Ejidal Assembly, the Secretariat of Agrarian Reform, the Secretariat of Social Development and the National Agrarian Registry all participate in PROCEDE. This program is active in the State of Mexico, but not in the Federal District.

  6. 6

    The Mexico City Observatory produced at the UAM-Azcapotzalco offers a comprehensive settlement typology for the city through its geographic information system entitled OCIM-SIG (see Connolly, 2010).

  7. 7

    The idea of ‘doing’ (land-use planning, in this particular case) comes from Blomley (2004: xvi), who argues that ‘property is not a static, pregiven entity, but depends on a continual, active doing. As settle is a verb, so property is an enactment’.

  8. 8

    Quotations presented from documents published by the Government of the Federal District (GDF) and from interviews have been translated by the author. Where italics are added for emphasis, this has been noted.

  9. 9

    For a more detailed account of the Xochimilco approach, see Wigle (2010). For an account of a similar approach in the adjacent sub-district of Tlalpan, see Aguilar and Santos (2011a; 2011b).

  10. 10

    The most recent urban development plan for Xochimilco specifies that there are 300 irregular settlements on conservation land (GDF, 2005). Of these 300 irregular settlements, 67 are categorized as zones subject to ‘special regulation’ and therefore eligible for land-use change to residential. The remaining irregular settlements are subject to ‘special studies’ (83) or ‘control’ (150) (GDF, 2005; interview with local official, 25 January 2008).

  11. 11

    ‘Mitigation measures’ refer to remedies designed to lessen the environmental impact of human settlement in the conservation zone, such as the use of permeable paving materials (interview with local official, 18 February 2008). ‘Environmental damages’ focus on the loss of rainwater infiltration and are evaluated based on a house's footprint and construction materials (interviews with local officials, 25 January 2008 and 18 February 2008). Payment of the environmental damages is made into a special fund intended to support mitigation measures and/or the relocation of irregular settlements from areas of risk and/or ecological sensitivity.

  12. 12

    After initial delays, the commission became active towards the end of 2008 (interview with local official, 5 July 2011).

  13. 13

    The sub-district presents the land-use regularization process through an illustrated cartoon hosted on its website; see

  14. 14

    Chinampas are built from organic materials in a rectangular shape that is usually about 10 meters wide and 100 meters long and delimited by canals which permit year-round irrigation and cultivation (Genovevo, 2008).

  15. 15

    Chinampas are considered town lands (propiedades de los pueblos), a kind of property dating back to the colonial era and now subsumed by the category of ‘private property’ (see Cruz Rodríguez, 2001).

  16. 16

    The eviction took place on seven hectares of a much larger area of irregular settlement; about 30 houses were destroyed and approximately 78 families evicted (see Santiago, 2001; La Reforma, 2002; 2003; Aguayo Quezada, 2007).