A state of suspended animation: Urban sanitation and water access in Nogales, Sonora

Sarah H. Kelly-Richards, Jeffrey M. Banister

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


With its hilly terrain and fast-paced growth, Nogales, Sonora, located on the US-Mexico border, is an extremely challenging place for sanitation and potable water provision wherein access to basic services is highly uneven. The labor demands of maquiladoras (typically, foreign-owned assembly plants) draw a steady influx of newcomers to the city, many of whom must turn to land “invasion” to create spaces for affordable housing. With tacit government approval, invasions occur on inexpensive, often topographically precarious land. Officials tend to frame these spaces as “illegal,” and, by extension, those who inhabit them, as existing outside the realm of formal governance. Despite such views, in this paper we understand the distinctions drawn between so-called formal and informal urban governance to unfold along two key axes: regularization of informal land titles and piped water and sanitation. We show how colonia residents feel caught in a state of suspended animation between hope for full urban service provision and trepidation that it will ever reach them. This ambiguity is visible in residents' and government officials' interactions with each other and the public services landscape, and in the unevenness of services provision. We critique the claim that such ambiguousness reflects an instrumental approach within official planning. Instead, we draw from state theory within political geography and political ecology to show how ‘the state’ is an emergent effect of the processes of inclusion and exclusion, an effect constantly destabilized by Nogales's precarious physical geography and uneven urban services grid. Reconceptualizing authority and ambiguity holds quite different implications for the struggle for urban services provision.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)104-113
Number of pages10
JournalPolitical Geography
StatePublished - May 1 2017


  • Informality
  • Infrastructure
  • Mexico
  • Sanitation and water access
  • State theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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