By cruel extension, the words used to describe the physical conditions of the settlements also tend to apply to their inhabitants. Despite what normative frameworks might say about all persons being equal before the law and the state, inhabitants of informal settlements are generally treated as second-class citizens.
In academic and government documents, “informal settlements” is the label typically applied to these areas. That those communities are not in compliance with building norms and property and urban planning regulations is often given as the main reason for qualifying them as “informal”. Also defined as “irregular”, they can easily be called “illegal”, and their inhabitants subsequently criminalized, displaced, and persecuted.
By defining what is formal and regular, and changing those definitions over time, according to political interests, involved governments maintain these settlements in a “grey” zone of non-definition and permanent negotiation that makes their inhabitants more vulnerable to clientelistic practices
In more general terms, these classifications do not allow us to analyze the profound, structural causes that explain the creation of precarious and inadequate settlements: expulsion of rural, campesino, and indigenous people due to the lack of government support for small and medium-sized agriculture; lack of mechanisms to control land grabbing and speculation; evictions and displacements due to multifactorial crises, social conflicts over land, resources, and natural or manmade disasters; urban renewal and “development” projects; lack of facilities and services; lack of affordable land and housing policies; social vulnerability and low-paid, unprotected jobs; lack of opportunities for youth; discrimination and marginalization.
(…) The city produced by the people: the urgent need to understand it and support it
(…) Instead of “informal settlements”, we prefer to understand and describe them as practices and social struggles that not only build houses and neighborhoods strictly on a physical level; at the same time, and perhaps even more importantly, they also build active and responsible citizenships against marginalization and social and urban segregation, advancing direct democratic exercise and improving individual and community livelihoods, participants’ self-esteem, and social coexistence
Lorena Zárate is President of Habitat International Coalition. She has participated in the elaboration of the World Charter and the Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City.