The Bartlett School of Planning


Alejandro Rivero Villar

Research subject

Thesis title: The role of social capital in the resilience of self-help settlements: The case of Nezahualcóyotl in the metropolitan area of Mexico City

Primary supervisor: Dr Catalina Turcu
Secondary supervisor: Dr Nikos Karadimitriou
Sponsor: CONACYT UCL Graduate Fellowship
Starting date: September 2014
Completion date: September 2018 

This thesis investigates the contribution made by networks of social capital to the resilience of self-help settlements (settlements self-produced by low-income groups lacking adequate infrastructures and services, often occupying areas of high risk) at the municipal scale. Self-help settlements are considered intrinsically vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and are foreseen to be the predominant form of urbanisation in the Global South for the 21st century. The UN’s recent adoption of the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ placed the resilience (the continued adjustment in the face of environmental uncertainties) of self-help settlements at the top of the global development agenda. Central to urban resilience is the concept of social capital, which refers to the relations of trust and reciprocity embedded in social networks that enable them to act collectively. In the context of urban resilience, social capital can explain how social groups organise from the bottom to forward community development goals to overcome the sources of their vulnerability. This investigation takes as a case-study the social network involved in the achievement of the collective goals (municipal independence, land tenure rights, water supply, drainage, public transport, and paved streets ) that allowed Nezahualcóyotl, a self-help settlement in the metropolitan area of Mexico City, to overcome its vulnerabilities (the settlement is located on the drained bed of a salty lake, prone to flooding and sand storms, and lacked an adequate institutional framework). Nezahualcóyotl is considered as a successful example in which citizen participation was key in forwarding the development of the settlement. This thesis uses a mixed-method approach (Social Network Analysis and thematic analysis), and tracks longitudinally the evolution of the case-study (1953-1986). The main finding of this research is that networks of social capital contribute to the resilience of self-help settlements through the engagement of their members in monitoring the challenges faced by the settlement, and producing pertinent adjustments relying on collective action. This is made possible by the capacity of the members of networks of social capital to remain active for long periods of time, and to make productive use of different configurations of social capital within the network, in response to emerging threats and changing circumstances.


My research (funded by CONACyT) focuses on the role of social capital and social networks in the resilience of unplanned built environments.

I have a background in Urbanism at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), for which I received a Merit of Honour for the high quality of my undergraduate theses; I trained as a Sustainable Urbanist at UCL (funded by CONACyT).

My working experience started immediately after my undergraduate studies as research assistant at the UNAM, and then as urban planning and urban design consultant in the private sector. From 2007 to 2012 I was National Consultant for UN-Habitat based in Mexico, and prior starting my PhD studies, I worked as General Director of Land Policy in the Mexican State of Morelos (2012-2014).

I am interested in resilience, adaptation to climate change, and urban sustainability. I am interested in theoretical frameworks drawing on urban political ecology, social capital, social networks and collective action. 

Publications and other work


RIVERO VILLAR, M. A. 2009. Implicaciones de la Obsolescencia Inmobiliaria en la Conservación del Patrimonio Construido. In: QUIROZ ROTHE, H. (ed.) Rescate y Aprovechamiento Del Patrimonio Urbano. Algunas Experiencias En Ciudades Medias y Pequeñas. Mexico: UNAM.

Conference Papers

RIVERO VILLAR, M. A. 2013. Implementación de proyectos de transporte sustentable en la Ciudad de México: una experiencia de gobernanza multinivel. VII Congreso Internacional de Ordenamiento Territorial y Ecológico. Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico: Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Morelos.