Fluid boundaries of urban living spaces

16. April 2021

Notes from the field: perspectives on informal urbanisation

02/12/2018, Antofagasta, Chile: It is the final week of my second research stay in Antofagasta. I did not know back then that I would be returning for a third time one year later, so the week is packed with farewell-visits in the city’s informal settlements. This is where I spent the past months interviewing residents on their living situations, focusing mainly on practices of water access and use. Today, Julio and Sara[1] invited me over for lunch. The Colombian couple migrated to Antofagasta in 2015. Not being able to afford to rent a flat, they set up a tent on the Eastern outskirts of the city. Now, three years later, their tent has been transformed into a self-constructed two-room house with a small balcony where they live with their newborn. Their house is surrounded by numerous similar constructions, which together form one of the city’s largest informal settlements.

“What do informal settlements look like in Germany?” Julio asks while we are eating. “We don’t have such settlements in Germany,” I reply, trying to think of a German phenomenon that would compare. “But when immigrants come to Germany, where do they live if they cannot afford a normal apartment?” Julio continues. I try to explain that for refugees, there are emergency shelters provided by the state, which aren’t real apartments, but containers, school gyms, or old airport buildings that have been converted into often overcrowded dormitories. But for immigrants with few financial resources such accommodation is not available. Julio persists, “But what happens in Germany when there is a free space? A piece of land or a pasture… why doesn’t anyone build their house there? Perhaps somewhere on the outskirts where there is less policing?” I am struggling to find an answer that does not make me sound like the stereotype of a law-abiding German citizen. The topic of conversation soon changes but Julio’s questions stay with me. First, because his surprise at the lack of informal settlements in Germany made strikingly clear that he thinks about informal urbanisation as a self-evident and omnipresent phenomenon. And second, because his questions hint at the fact that dominant urbanisation theories from the ‘Global North’ fail to fully explain the dynamics of these less institutionalised forms of city-making ‘from below’.

This contribution therefore aims to shed light on processes of informal urbanisation by taking the topic of water access in Antofagasta’s “asentamientos informales” (informal settlements) as an entry point. To this end, both the materiality of informal water acquisition as well as underlying logics and rationalities will be analysed and put into a broader context of urban society.

Dieses Bild hat ein leeres Alt-Attribut. Der Dateiname ist Informal-settlement-in-Antofagasta-Chile-scaled.jpg
Informal settlement in Antofagasta, Chile. © Melissa Bayer 2019

Auto-urbanisation as a form of city-making

Abramo notes that the production and administration of Latin American cities not only follows the logic of both the market and the state, but that there is also a third element: the logic of necessity. This necessity fuels processes in which people individually or collectively occupy land on which they successively build their own houses according to the material and financial resources available to them. These processes of so-called auto-construction and auto-urbanisation (following the Latin American terms “autoconstrucción” and “autourbanización”) contribute to the emergence of so-called informal settlements. In the past, such settlements were often gradually consolidated, eventually legalised, and thus officially incorporated into the socio-spatial fabric of the city (Abramo 2012, Caldeira 2017).

It should be noted, in this context, that informality is not understood as “a separate sector but rather a series of transactions that connect different economies and spaces to one another” (Roy 2005: 148). Instead of viewing informality as a demarcated space, it is thus understood as a mode of urbanisation that is always contingent and operates through transversal logics (Roy 2005, Caldeira 2017).

Living at the hydraulic and social edge of the city

This contribution takes a closer look at the informal settlements in the city of Antofagasta, Chile. To the West, the city is bordered by the Pacific Ocean, while to the East, it is lined by steep slopes that extend into the Atacama Desert, once described by NASA as “the most Mars-like environment on Earth” (McKay & NASA Ames Research Center 2002). It is along these desert-like hills where numerous informal settlements have emerged. While they are located within the municipal boundary, they are at the same time situated on state-owned territory that is classified as uninhabitable. For the 16,396 inhabitants, this entails living in unsecured tenure situations that lack basic service provision – with water access being the residents’ main concern. Thus, life in the settlements involves overcoming significant challenges regarding not only the organisation and auto-construction of housing but also basic service access, let alone the constant fear of being evicted by the provincial government. At the same time, the settlements are subject to social stigmatisation, for they, in the public discourse, are often associated with narratives of illegality, crime and an alleged unwillingness to pay for housing, water and electricity.

Against this backdrop, in what follows, the question of water access in Antofagasta’s informal settlements is used as an empirical starting point from which to draw broader conclusions on urban society. To this end, water is conceptualised as “simultaneously a physical flow (the circulation of H2O) and a socially and discursively mediated thing implicated in that flow” (Bakker 2002: 774). This flow can also be described as a hydrosocial cycle, which in Urban Political Ecology is commonly understood as a socio-natural process through which water and society are constantly being produced and reproduced (Swyngedouw 1996, Linton & Budds 2013).

Informal practices of water access: “we are forced to break the law”

In a desert city like Antofagasta with an average annual rainfall of only 3.1 mm (Houston 2006), the only available water resource for human consumption is the city’s water supply infrastructure. Being denied official access to this form of water provision, the inhabitants of Antofagasta’s informal settlements collectively organise their own (informal) connections to the water network (“conexiones informales”). This undertaking involves residents secretly digging up and tapping the main pipeline of the responsible water company. From this underground connection, PVC pipes are installed, leading to the individual houses in the respective settlement.However, such an informal connection does not necessarily secure a constant and equal water supply for everyone. For example, houses located on the higher end of a settlement struggle with weak water pressure. Consequently, affected residents must get up at night, when pressure is stronger, and fill storage tanks with water for the next day. Moreover, in case of a rupture or failure of the informal connection, people resort to alternative practices of water acquisition. These include tapping fire hydrants with 100 m long garden hoses or paying inhabitants of neighbouring city districts by the hour to fill any kind of water bearing vessel.

To describe such informal water connections, residents usually use the term “robo” (theft), which shows that they are knowingly breaking the law and are well aware of the hegemonic logic that defines water as a commodity for which one has to pay.

However, the residents stress that their informal connections constitute a “robo por necesidad” (theft out of necessity) and that they would be happy to pay for water, given the opportunity. Such a ‘theft out of necessity’ rationale not only demonstrates the fundamental relevance of the resource water, but also shows that most residents only opt to informally tap the official water infrastructure due to a lack of alternatives.

“Coming here [into an informal settlement] is something you do as a last resort […]. So, when people say we wouldn’t be willing to pay for water, no, we all do want to pay […]. But we are forced to break the law… out of necessity.” (resident, informal settlement, 2018; own translation)

A water bill for social integration?

Almost all interviewed residents expressed a desire for formalised and legal water access, i.e. an integration into the official service provision, which would include receiving and paying a monthly consumption bill. The underlying motivation for this is twofold: First, residents associate official water access with improved service. Second, their aspiration to pay for water stems from their desire to be considered equal citizens with the same rights and duties like the rest of the urban population.

“That is what one always strives for: formalising to make things right. Adhere to what the law mandates. […] to be a citizen, you have to comply with the rules set by the country; what the constitution says, everything.” (resident, informal settlement, 2018; own translation)

It becomes apparent that for the inhabitants of Antofagasta’s informal settlements, a monthly water bill represents social as well as residential integration. Social, because the residents hope that by being included in the official water distribution system, the above-mentioned stigmatisation tied to their informal water connections might be alleviated to some extent. And residential, because receiving a water bill would need to include obtaining an official address, which in turn partially symbolises formal recognition of the residents’ auto-constructed living spaces. While such residential integration constitutes the ultimate objective of most residents, the government has so far refused to integrate the informal settlements into the official socio-spatial fabric of the city. Amongst other reasons, this stems from some settlements’ location on land classified as “risk zones” (e.g. due to the possibility of landslides) as well as from the government not wanting to encourage further informal land occupations.

“Our address is an address that we have simply given ourselves […]. But once we receive a bill from Aguas Antofagasta [= the water and sanitation company], this would be something legal, so we could say ‘I live here’, ‘this is where I live’, ‘I have my address and I live here’.” (resident, informal settlement, 2018; own translation)

Rethinking what constitutes the city

By tracing Antofagasta’s urban water through a network of pipes, garden hoses and tanks, intertwined with narratives of illegality, exclusion and necessity, it can be seen how residents of informal settlements defy existing hydraulic and residential boundaries and expand the city’s built environment beyond its current political-administrative limits. However, this contestation is not fuelled by a conscious intention to protest Chile’s neoliberal water model, but rather by a fundamental need for basic service access – because what the residents are striving for is to be included in the official water distribution network in order to get one step closer to social as well as residential integration.

Despite the residents’ willingness to pay for their water consumption, the private water company needs governmental permission to extend services to the informal settlements due to the latter’s juridical status as illegal land occupations. So far, the government has refused to grant this permission, seeing the settlements as a phenomenon which should be eradicated rather than formalised. The conflict that emerges here thus becomes one that revolves around the question of who should be an active agent in the urbanisation of the city’s peripheries. With this question remaining unresolved, residents of Antofagasta’s informal settlements continue to challenge conventional notions of what constitutes the city and its citizens through their processes of auto-construction and auto-urbanisation ‘from below’.

Dieses Bild hat ein leeres Alt-Attribut. Der Dateiname ist Extending-urban-space-–-view-from-an-informal-settlement-overlooking-the-rest-of-the-city-scaled.jpg
Extending urban space – view from an informal settlement overlooking the rest of the city. © Melissa Bayer 2019

Author Information

Melissa Bayer is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Geography, University of Münster. In her research project, she explores the relation between water access and citizenship in the informal settlements of Antofagasta, Chile. During her seven months of fieldwork carried out between March 2018 and February 2020, she employed methods of guideline-based interviews, participant observation, go-alongs and auto-photography. Her research interests include (urban) political ecology, urbanisation ‘from below’, critical infrastructure, environmental conflicts, more-than-human geographies and situated knowledge production.


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[1] To ensure the interviewees’ anonymity, names were replaced with pseudonyms.