Apr 072011

In previous posts about Mexico City’s low-cost and “irregular” housing areas, we have seen how the residents of Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl (Nezahualcoyotl, an irregular settlement which grew into a monster) have gradually transformed their urban environment, and are now regarded by some as part of Mexico’s growing middle class (Are the residents of Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl becoming middle class?).

Historically,  low-cost housing areas (Informal settlements or “colonias populares” in Mexico’s cities) have been established throughout the Mexico City metropolitan area, with the notable exception of the city’s high status western sector. The highest concentrations of colonias populares are in the industrial zones, at the periphery of the city, and in undesirable areas such as the former lakebed near Lake Texcoco which is unstable and prone to severe flooding. (See, for example, Subsidence incident leads to demolition of 31 homes in the State of Mexico).

In the 1950s, in an attempt to control urban growth, the Federal District government started to oppose the formation of new colonias populares. In contrast, the neighboring State of Mexico tolerated, and even encouraged, the development of such communities, explaining why numerous colonias populares were established just beyond the Federal District boundary, in municipalities such as Naucalpan, Tlalnepantla, Ecatepec, Chimalhuacán, and Nezahualcóyotl.

Many of these settlements grew very rapidly. For example, Chimalhuacán, on the Texcoco lakebed, just north of Nezahualcóyotl, grew from 20,000 in 1970 to 525,000 in 2005 and 614,000 in 2010. Similarly, Valle de Chalco Solidaridad, on the lakebed of the drained Lake Chalco, and alongside the main highway from Mexico City to Puebla, went from 44,000 in 1970 to 332,000 in 2005 and almost 358,000 in 2010. Currently, about 60% of the Mexico City Metro Area’s population lives in colonias populares.

Over time, almost all of the older, longer-established colonias irregulares in Mexico have been improved, though new ones still spring up almost overnight. It may take 10 years or so for them to look like a regular settlement and acquire some basic urban services (water, electricity, drainage). The first settlers starting a new irregular settlement are often referred to as paracaidistas (parachutists) in reference to the fact that they apparently arrive out of nowhere!

A recent article in Forbes magazine looks at how small businesses in Chimalhuacán are helping to transform the urban landscape and offer increasing opportunities for its residents.

The population figures quoted in the article must refer to a larger area than just the municipality of Chimalhuacán, but the processes described are typical of many colonias populares, augmented in this case by particularly enterprising entrepreneurs.

Prior to the 1960s, villages with telephone service in most parts of Mexico were served by a single “caseta” (phone booth), which inevitably became a center for village gossip. The early adopters who installed the first public phone booth in a particular village usually prospered, encouraging others to follow suit. Back then, phone service was mostly about keeping in touch with family, but now phones promise access to all kinds of services. The  contemporary phone booths (called Barafón, cheap phone) in Chimalhuacán, described in Forbes, greatly improve people’s access to affordable phone service, enabling them to obtain health care and employment information, as well as operate micro-businesses more efficiently.

As the Forbes article concludes, “While the imagery and condition of one of Mexico’s largest urban slums is grim, closer inspection reveals a thriving and ever so gradually modernizing environment.” Indeed. Like many other colonias populares, Chimalhuacán is well on its way to joining the 21st century.

Related posts:

Mexico’s cities and towns are analyzed in chapters 21, 22 and 23 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today!!

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