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Disamenity Zones

Disamenity Zones

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Latin America is the most urbanized region on Earth. Millions of urbanites occupy substandard housing, often illegally. Sometimes, dwellings consist of little more than scrounged materials like tin, woven mats, and cardboard, all that landless squatters from the countryside can lay their hands on. Few to no services exist in the most disadvantaged of these so-called disamenity zones. Nevertheless, the incredible growth of disamenity zones is testament to the universal human struggle for survival and improvement.

Definition of Disamenity Zones

The definition of "disamenity zones" comes from a 1980 classic article by geographers Griffin and Ford as part of their model of Latin American city structure.1

Disamenity Zones: Areas in Latin American cities comprising neighbourhoods characterized by informal housing (slums, squatter settlements) in precarious environmental and social conditions.

Disamenity Zones and Zones of Abandonment

The Griffin-Ford Model standardized the use of the term 'Disamenity zones and zones of abandonment' for a significant spatial component of the Latin American urban area. It is also a technical term for places often maligned as 'bad' slums, ghettos, favelas, and inner-city. Though such zones are found throughout the world, this article is limited to the specific conditions in Latin American cities.

Each country has a different name for disamenity zones. Lima, Peru, has its pueblos jovenes (young towns) while Tegucigalpa, Honduras, has barrios marginales (outer neighbourhoods).

Where Are They Located?

Most Latin American cities are surrounded by rings of squatter settlements comprising dwellings of rural-to-urban migrants. Griffin and Ford also pointed out that other parts of Latin American cities contain disamenity zones as well. Just like homeless people in the US and Europe create camps in an array of urban places, in Latin America, people may occupy anywhere that landowners are unwilling or unable to evict them.

Thus, you may find squatter settlements in places where cities will not give builders permits for. This includes floodplains, extremely steep slopes, the sides of highways, and even on municipal dumps. If you think this sounds precarious and dangerous, it is! These so-called Zones of Abandonment are, for good reason, the most environmentally marginal places in any urban area. And they often pay the price.

Disamenity zones Cerro el Berrinche StudySmarterFig. 1 - The hill is Cerro El Berrinche, containing some of Tegucigalpa's barrios marginales. The middle section, now green pasture, contains a mass grave where hundreds were buried alive in a landslide during Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

In 1998, the barrios marginales of Tegucigalpa suffered the full force of Hurricane Mitch. Days of heavy rain left steep slopes so saturated and unstable that many collapsed, burying entire neighbourhoods along with uncounted thousands. Squatter settlements along riverbanks were also swept away.

Growth of Disamenity Zones

If they are so dangerous to live in, why is the growth of disamenity zones seemingly never-ending? Several factors were at work in the acceleration of this process in the mid-20th century.

Push Factors

Several factors made the Latin American countryside an unfavourable location:

  1. The Demographic Transition meant more children survived to adulthood as modern medicine became widely accessible. Populations boomed as family planning methods were either not yet available or were prohibited.

  2. The Green Revolution brought mechanized agriculture, so less labour was needed.

  3. Land reform attempting to give more land to the poor had limited success and often led to unrest and even civil war. Living in the countryside became a dangerous proposition.

Pull Factors

Impoverished farmers aspired for more for themselves and their children, and uneven development meant that "more" was in urban areas. Rural areas had few amenities, often lacking basic services like electricity. Furthermore, even where some amenities were available, one had to move to the city for service-sector jobs and further education.

The city was where the action was. The same, of course, happens all over the world. However, the scale and speed at which this happened in Latin America was unrivalled elsewhere.

Lima went from around 600000 people in 1940 to over five million in the 1980s, and now has over 10 million, over a third of whom are migrants from the Peruvian Andes.

The number of new migrants simply overwhelmed urban capacities to provide for them. In many cases, migrants had little to no resources and few or nil marketable skills. But migrants, in Lima and across Latin America, just kept coming. Regardless of the problems, these were outweighed by the benefits. Wage income was actually available, whereas, in the countryside, many had lived only on subsistence.

Disamenity Zones Problems

Living in a disamenity zone is a necessity, not a choice. People who live in squatter settlements desire a better life and work continuously to move up and out. Eventually, many can, even if it takes a generation. While there, however, they must put up with a long list of disamenity zone problems. And in many cases, they implement solutions to the problems.

Environmental Risks

Latin American cities occupy a wide variety of climate zones ranging from wet tropical to desert. In Lima, rains are a once-in-a-lifetime event, whereas in Rio de Janeiro and Guatemala City, they are a regular occurrence. In cities that get torrential tropical rains, mudslides and raging rivers regularly sweep away dwellings.

Guatemala City, Mexico City, Managua: all have been heavily damaged by earthquakes. Seismicity is a major risk around the Ring of Fire, and disamenity zones are at the most risk because they contain the poorest-quality materials, have few or no building codes, and are often located in areas that can easily slide.

In the Caribbean, Central America, and coastal Mexico, hurricanes are another threat. Their rains, winds, and storm surges can do massive damage, and the worst have killed thousands in the region.

To address these risks, some cities have attempted to limit building in the most precarious locations, with some success. They are often stymied by the sheer amount of need and the limited amount of public funds available.

Mexico City implemented stricter building codes after the 1985 earthquake that killed thousands, many in sub-standard housing. In 2017, another strong earthquake hit, and hundreds died. Building collapses happened where construction firms had taken shortcuts and flaunted the strict earthquake-proof codes.

Lack of Amenities

When most people see squatter settlements, what immediately stands out are the physical characteristics that indicate poverty. These include unpaved and rutted streets, rubbish, feral animals, and few physically appealing landmarks. Electricity, running water, and sewerage may or may not be present; in the newest and most impoverished zones, none of these are provided, so neighbourhoods often devise their own solutions.

disamenity zones favela StudySmarterFig. 2 - Brazilian favela

Squatter settlements across Latin America undergo rapid change. People form numerous small businesses such as shops to make up for the lack of available shopping nearby (check out our explanation on Informal Economy). Individual families constantly purchase materials to upgrade their dwellings brick by brick. Community groups form to start schools, open health clinics, and bring amenities. Neighbourhood patrols, churches, childcare, group transportation to faraway work destinations: despite what you might think at first glance, squatter settlements, as they evolve, are filled with social structures and institutions like these, and they usually aspire to legality.


The shadow that looms over all disamenity zones is the fear of eviction. By definition, people who 'squat' do not have a title to the land. Though they may have paid someone for the right to live where they live, they do not possess a legal title or charter, and it may be nearly impossible, given their scant financial resources, to procure one.

'Invasions' are often planned and staged ahead of time. Organisations in many cities specialize in this. The idea is to find a patch of land with more than one existing owner (overlapping claims) in a zone of abandonment. Overnight, the land invasion happens.

In the morning, commuters on a nearby highway are treated to the site of dozens or hundreds of lean-tos or other simple dwellings filled with life and activity. It doesn't take long for an owner to show up and threaten to enlist the help of the government (police or military, in many cases) to bulldoze the encampment if the invaders don't leave peacefully. But later, as residents work feverishly to establish a more permanent neighbourhood, another owner, and even another, might show up. With such conflicting claims, it can take years to sort everything out. And each new neighbourhood has many potential voters, so local politicians may be unwilling to take the side of the owner(s).

Bigger threats come from highway building, shopping mall construction, and other large infrastructure projects. Typically, well-organized communities are able to get something in exchange even if they have no choice but to move out.

If the community survives eviction, it will eventually become a legal, chartered entity with some sort of governing structure, either as part of the city or an outlying jurisdiction. Once this happens, the new neighbourhood can more easily access city services such as an electric grid, public schools, piped water, paving of streets, and so forth.

Crime and Punishment

Disamenity Zones are often cast as 'bad' because it is perceived that they have high rates of crime. However, in many cities, crime rates are connected to the amount of social chaos or control that exists in a given location. The most dangerous locations are typically areas of conflicting criminal territories in zones of abandonment as well as areas such as crowded downtowns or middle-class neighbourhoods where there are many opportunities for theft and other lucrative activities.

The newest squatter settlements, comprised of people who have not yet begun to adjust to urban culture, may not be characterized by violent criminal activity (even if the government considers all squatters to be 'illegal' by nature). But as neighbourhoods age and people move up the socioeconomic hierarchy, various types of crime become more common. In addition, children raised in disamenity zones, particularly in cities where many parents have migrated abroad, often have to turn to street gangs for protection and/or because they are given no choice.

As with all of the do-it-yourself qualities of squatter settlements, people may form neighbourhood vigilante groups or otherwise handle serious crime issues themselves. Later, when these areas get legal charters, they have may have access to police patrols.

Disamenity Zone Example

Villa El Salvador is a classic example of a pueblo joven in Peru that has evolved rapidly since its founding in 1971.

Disamenity Zones Villa el Salvador StudySmarterFig. 3 - By the mid-1970s, the woven-mat walls of Villa El Salvador's homes were already being replaced by better material

In Lima, it essentially never rains. The desert in which Villa El Salvador was founded by squatters in 1971 has no water of any kind and no plants. A basic house is four woven mats for walls; no roof is needed.

At first, 25000 people arrived and settled down. The squatter settlement was so large it was impossible to evict people. By 2008, 350000 lived there, and it had become a satellite city of Lima.

In the interim, its residents gained international fame for their organizing skills. They established their own government and brought their new community electricity, sewage, and water. The Federación Popular de Mujeres de Villa El Salvador (People's Federation of Women of Villa el Salvador) focused on women's and children's health and education.

Disamenity Zones - Key takeaways

  • Disamenity Zones comprise Latin American urban neighbourhoods that are environmentally and socially marginal and typically contain squatter settlements.
  • They often begin as 'invasions' of zones of abandonment with conflicting ownership claims.
  • Squatter settlements evolve quickly into permanent neighbourhoods characterized by an absence of government-provided amenities such as electricity, water, and education.
  • Residents of disamenity zones are renowned for their organisational skills that permit them rapid progress in the establishment of services for their residents, but eviction is a constant threat until they can get legal charters.
  • A famous disamenity zone is Villa El Salvador in Lima, Peru, which was started in 1971.


  1. Griffin, E., and L. Ford. "A model of Latin American city structure." Geographical Review 397-422. 1980.
  2. Fig. 2: A favela (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:C%C3%B3rrego_em_favela_(17279725116).jpg) by Núcleo Editorial (https://www.flickr.com/people/132115055@N04) is licenced by CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
  3. Fig. 3: Villa El Salvador (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lima-barrios-El-Salvador-Peru-1975-05-Overview.jpeg) by Pál Baross and Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (https://www.ihs.nl/en) is licenced by CC BY-SA 3. 0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Disamenity Zones

Disamenity zones are socially and environmentally marginal parts of Latin American cities, typically characterized by squatter settlements.

Disamenity zones are caused by the scale of rural-to-urban migration overwhelming the capacity of urban areas to provide services for new urban residents.

An example of a disamenity sector is Villa El Salvador in Lima, Peru.

Zones of abandonment are urban areas that do not have residential or commercial structures. They have been abandoned due to environmental risks, absentee owners, or other forces.

Final Disamenity Zones Quiz

Disamenity Zones Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


Where are most Latin American squatters from?

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Rural areas.

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A term for squatter settlement in Peru is:

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Pueblo joven (young town).

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A term for squatter settlement in Tegucigalpa is:

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Barrio marginal.

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What do you call an overnight occupation to create a new squatter settlement?

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An invasion.

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What city was devastated by earthquakes in 1985 and 2017?

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Mexico City.

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What area is NOT characterized by frequent hurricanes and tropical storms?

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Why don't squatter dwellings in Lima have roofs?

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Because it doesn't rain.

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The following is NOT a push factor that sends Latin American farmers to cities.

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Better jobs and education.

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Brazilian disamenity zones are known as _______.

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The reason squatter settlements are so impoverished is _______.

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Their residents have few financial resources.

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