The role of institutional entrepreneurs and informal land transactions in Mexico City's urban expansion

Beth Tellman, Hallie Eakin, Marco A. Janssen, Felipe de Alba, B. L. Turner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Informal urban expansion, or conversion of land to urban land uses, outpaces formal urbanization in the developing world. Understanding why this informality exists and persists is essential to counteract characterizations that it is chaotic and ungovernable. This research examines who shapes the informal arrangements developed to meet unmet housing needs that expand the urban footprint, from social housing projects to concentrated squatting in Mexico City metropolis from 2000 to 2016. Institutional analysis elucidates the distribution of payoffs in the “action situation” where decisions about urban land are made, and among “institutional entrepreneurs”, actors that repeatedly evade or alter formal rules or create new rules of urban land regulation. We use interview data regarding the distribution of costs and benefits among 54 actors involved in recent informal urban expansion to provide low- and middle-income housing (2000–2016) to identify potential leverage points for institutional change. We describe four types of informal urban land transactions: i) urbanizing individual plots of land, ii) flipping or subdividing land into multiple parcels, iii) invading land, and iv) manipulating social and public housing developments. We find institutional entrepreneurs—intermediaries, developers, and politicians—disproportionately benefit from and reinforce unplanned urban expansion. These entrepreneurs provide housing for the urban poor, but with social and environmental costs, including exploitation of informal settlers and urbanization of conservation land and loss of environmental services. Disaggregating informality into its component pervasive institutions and analyzing the distribution of payoffs in and beyond Mexico City provides insights about governance for urban sustainability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number105374
JournalWorld Development
StatePublished - Apr 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Corruption
  • Informality
  • Institutional analysis
  • Mexico City
  • Regularization
  • Urbanization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Economics and Econometrics


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