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Alternative governance and self-help architecture, by Cristina Dreifuss-Serrano

Updated: May 20, 2018

Informal settlements originate from permissive policies. The power at the time doesn’t have the capacity to stop or to regulate the occupation of land, and new neighbourhoods appear in the shadows of informal cities.

When local governments have resources, these occupations are swiftly transformed and become a part of the regular city, by building new housing structures and infrastructure. Architecture becomes a vehicle for assimilating the new urban dynamics, and accompanies the life of the new inhabitants in this process.

However, it might also happen that the government cannot give an adequate answer to these situations. In some cases, informal occupation of the land is a solution, precarious and apparently provisional (De Soto, 1986), yet effective to the problem of lack of housing. In other cases, a succession of permissive policies has given way to an irreversible situation, in which the informal city is bigger in size and occupation percentage than the formal or consolidated city.

The informal city coexists with the formal, with its own regulation system (Allen, 1978 [1972]; Friedman, 2010 [2003]) when official rules don’t arrive. Because of the lack of a normative, the scarce knowledge of it, or the lack of appropriate control devices, self-regulation mechanisms appear (Urban-Think Tank, 2013). The informal city grows as a power, with its own alternative organisations.

Housing reflects all these mechanisms. Groups of people, in common agreement, occupy a territory and turn it, little by little, in a neighbourhood and, eventually, in part of the city. Through the construction of small structures in community works, which eventually become stable and even sophisticated structures (Tokeshi & Takano, 2007), the growth of the house is gradual and accompanies the building of community ties, the establishment of social organisation systems and the rapidly growing urban life (Hordijk, 2015).

This offers solutions that the formal city, with its own processes and already established bureaucracies, cannot provide. Informal or kinetic city (Mehrotra, 2012 [2010]) offers quick, flexible and low-cost solutions to emergent situations that are not being listened by central governments. This easy response offers to the professional practice of architecture a range of possibilities and processes from which to learn. Finally, there is a dialogue in which the establishment eventually yields to some informal logics, with hybrid dialogue spaces or, even, formal governments originated from informal or illegal occupation and self-regulated growth.

Architecture becomes the companion of a sort of grassroots organisation, in which bottom-up policies could provide better solutions to some of the issues official architecture has not been able to solve. Instead of a static building which appears as an isolated object in the territory, habitability is built, based on a set of non-permanent, everyday choices, which are a direct answer to the will of the people and, finally, and exercise of their power to make decisions on their own dwelling.


Allen, E. (1978 [1972]). La casa "otra". La autoconstrucción según el M.I.T. Barcelona: Gustavo Gili.

De Soto, H. (1986). El otro sendero. Lima: El barranco.

Friedman, Y. (2010 [2003]). L'architettura di sopravvivenza. Una filosofia della povertà. Torino : Bollati Boringhieri.

Hordijk, M. (2015). Debe Ser Esfuerzo Propio: Aspirations and Belongings of the Young Generation in the Old Barriadas of Southern Lima, Peru. In C. Klaufus, & A. Ouweneel, Housing and Belonging in Latin America (pp. 81-103). New York: Berghahn.

Mehrotra, R. (2012 [2010]). Foreword. In F. Hernández, P. Kellet, & L. Allen, Rethinking the Informal City. Critical Perspectives from Latin America. (pp. xi-xiv). Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Tokeshi, J., & Takano, G. (2007). Espacios públicos en la ciudad popular: reflexiones y experiencias desde el sur. Lima: DESCO, Centro de Estudios y Promoción del Desarrollo.

Urban-Think Tank. (2013). Torre David. Informal Vertical Communities. Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers.

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