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Should anything be done to slow down the growth of Latin America's big cities?

Whatever we conclude about the quality of life in giant cities, many observers argue that their growth should be slowed (see Gilbert and Gugler (1992: chap. 8) for a more detailed summary). First, they are draining resources from the rest of the country. As Sachs (1988: 340) puts it: "Large cities absorb above all the young and enterprising labor force. The distribution of costs and gains between the hinterland and the large city is thus once more biased in favor of the city: the countryside bears the social cost of bringing up this labor force. The benefit of their work accrues to the cities, except for the remittances of part of their meager pay to families left behind." Second, whether or not they are too large, the major cities are growing too rapidly. As Teune (1988: 373) puts it: "It may be that most pathologies of large cities are short-term effects of growth rather than inherent in them as a particular form of human organization." Finally, "because of their complexity, the life-supporting systems of large cities are highly vulnerable" (Sachs, 1988: 345). The danger is that this vulnerability may be "transformed into catastrophic realities" (ibid.: 347).

To many writers, the answer to these problems is to stem the tide of growth. According to Max-Neef (1992: 97) "the sensible move would be to revitalize the small cities - victims of a mistaken idea of progress - that are struggling to survive." Similarly, Wilhelm (1992: 199) asserts that "Latin American countries should encourage stronger networks of cities in order to arrest the intense concentration of urban life in one or two megacities. This requires the growth and development of middle-sized cities."

This kind of view dominated thinking in Latin America for many years and was the basic premise on which many regional development programmes were built. The construction of new cities, such as Brasilia and Ciudad Guayana, the establishment of regional development agencies and infrastructure programmes, as in Amazonia, and the popularity of industrial decentralization programmes throughout the region, all reflected both a real and a rhetorical desire to slow metropolitan expansion. Large cities were seemingly both inefficient and inequitable; they were draining the lifeblood of the nation; they were likely to lead to a social explosion; they demonstrated every conceivable form of social pathology. Their growth should be slowed.

Unfortunately, regional planning in Latin America has not been a huge success. With the exception of Cuba, government action has never managed to stem the tide of migrants to the major cities, to stimulate growth in most poor regions, or to help the poor, even in regions where economic growth occurred (Aguilar-Barajas, 1990; Auty, 1990; Boisier, 1987; Gilbert and Goodman, 1976; Goldsmith and Wilson, 1991). As de Mattos (1990: 26) puts it: "after three decades of effort ... the experience of regional planning ... has led to results which, in the best of cases, can only be called modest."

Perhaps the most damning indictment of regional planning and deliberate efforts to slow metropolitan expansion in Latin America is that the pace of metropolitan growth slowed during the 1980s, precisely the time when regional planning and deliberate government intervention was at its weakest (Gilbert, 1993). Chapter 2 shows that there was little growth in any of Latin America's mega-cities during the 1980s. Among the largest seven cities only Bogotá and Lima grew by more than 2 per cent per annum and Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Mexico City grew annually by only 1 per cent.

The pace of growth of the major cities slowed because of changes in the wider economic and social environment. As the basis for development changed during the 1980s, the major cities were disadvantaged. The manufacturing plants that were so favoured by the import-substituting industrialization model and which clustered in the major cities in the 1960s and 1970s suffered badly during the 1980s. Structural adjustment and the new export-oriented model of development decimated much of Latin America's domestic industry. Recession and the removal of urban subsidies hit producers and consumers hard. Trade liberalization allowed foreign manufacturers to compete in Latin America's previously protected markets. The result was sometimes terrible for the major cities. Mexico City lost one quarter of its manufacturing jobs between 1980 and 1988, and, in Argentina, Córdoba and Rosario lost large numbers of manufacturing jobs during the early 1990s.

In the past, "many government policies [had] unintended spatial impacts distorting the spatial allocation of resources and in general unnecessarily increasing the degree of urban concentration" (Henderson, 1991: 223). Today, the situation has changed and many major cities find themselves in a far less favourable position as a result of international competition. Some Latin American mega-cities will prosper but others will not. Inefficient companies in the giant cities are in no position to sell goods abroad, and many have already gone out of business.

A second change that has slowed the growth of the major cities is the movement of industrial companies out of the metropolitan areas into smaller cities nearby. This process has been under way around Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and Mexico City for some years but the pace of change accelerated during the 1970s and 1980s (Rofman, 1974; Gilbert, 1974). There are now clear signs of an emerging polycentric urban form (Richardson, 1989). This process is very marked in the vicinity of São Paulo, where "many branch and assembly plants are locating in industrial towns within a 200-km radius of the city of São Paulo such as São José dos Campos, Piraciciba, Americana, Limeira, Rio Claro, and Campinas ... In other words, we are witnessing the extension of the localization economies of existing industrial complexes from a strictly 'urban' to a somewhat broader 'regional' scale" (Storper, 1991: 61-2).

The final change to have affected the mega-cities is the slowing of migration as a result of economic decline. During the 1980s, people stopped moving to Latin America's mega-cities in such massive numbers. Chapter 2 shows that, during the 1980s, more people moved out of Caracas, Santiago, and Mexico City than moved in. This change in the normal pattern may well continue.

Under these circumstances, the argument that Latin America's largest cities are too large is irrelevant. In any case, since government efforts to slow urban growth in the past were unsuccessful, the reintroduction of similar programmes is hardly to be recommended. Even if it were recommended, few governments would accept such advice. The world has changed and most Latin American governments seem determined to reduce the level of state intervention. They believe that the market should determine the location of economic activity, not the state. Even if some governments are still tempted to intervene, savage cuts in their budgets make that difficult. Decentralization was always conducted in a rather expensive way; incentives were always preferred to prohibition. Now that governments have fewer resources they cannot build new cities, industrial estates, or major infrastructural projects without major private-sector backing. As such, explicit spatial policies are no longer in favour. Few attempts will be made to build grandiose new capital cities in Latin America in the near future (Gilbert, 1989).

The future for Latin America's cities

World roles

Latin America's largest cities prospered during the era of import substitution. They gained because they attracted most of the new manufacturing plants. Capital cities also benefited from huge expansions in the government bureaucracy required to operate that developmental model. The 1980s saw a break in that approach and the onset of a regime more committed to free trade and market forces. Over the last twenty years, Latin America has become more integrated into the world economy. The conventional wisdom has been that Latin America should seek to develop more exports. To do this, governments should devalue the national currency, make their exports more competitive, and encourage local companies to seek out foreign markets. Most Latin American governments have encouraged this trend and have been strongly supported from Washington.

A second element in Latin America's integration into the world economy is the opening of its markets to imports. Country after country has cut its previous levels of protection. With the signing of GATT, with the various integration schemes within the Americas (NAFTA, Mercosur and the Group of Three), and with reductions in import tariffs and constraints on overseas capital, Latin America's major cities are functioning in a very different economic environment. How they will cope cannot be answered simply because they vary so much. For a start, each of their national economies is very different. Some have undoubtedly recovered from the impact of the 1980s and have restructured their economies in ways which will make them more competitive internationally. Chile, Colombia, and Mexico have entered the new liberalization phase enthusiastically; Brazil and Peru much less whole-heartedly. Certainly recent records of economic growth show considerable differences. Table 1.4 reveals that some Latin American economies have been expanding, while others have stood still. Clearly, the prospects for each of the major cities depend critically on the state of their respective national economies.

Table 1.4 Economic growth in selected Latin American countries, 1980-1993 (annual growth in GDP)

Country 1980-84 1985-89 1990 93
Argentina - 3.0 - 2.3 5.9
Brazil - 0.5 2.5 0.0
Chile - 0.1 4.8 6.0
Colombia - 1.5 3.0 3.5
Mexico - 0.6 - 1.2 2.9
Peru - 2.4 - 2.5 0.1
Venezuela - 3.5 - 0.9 5.7

Source: ECLAC, 1992 and 1993.

Even where liberalization is leading to faster economic growth, it cannot be assumed that every urban area will benefit: the local impact of liberalization is likely to differ considerably between areas. Mexico already provides a good illustration of the variable impact of this process. From the late 1980s, Mexico shifted from being one of Latin America's most protected countries to one of its most open. It continues to follow this strategy because it has the advantage of sharing a three-thousand-kilometre border with the world's largest market. During the 1980s, integration led to a huge expansion in manufacturing employment along the northern frontier. The number of workers in the maquiladoras (export processing plants) increased from 75,000 in 1976 to 470,000 in 1993 (INEGI, 1993). At the same time, Mexico City and the other major industrial cities lost out as manufactured imports helped put uncompetitive plants out of business.

The future of the giant cities depends, therefore, upon their ability to adapt to the new competitive environment. They need to maintain their share of national production, competing successfully with foreign imports, and they need to participate more actively in export production. Some major cities in Latin America look well placed to do this. There is little doubt that São Paulo will thrive because it contains Brazil's most efficient industries and most of its research and information technology capacity. Similarly, Bogotá seems to be flourishing despite trade liberalization, whereas Colombia's traditional industrial centre, Medellín, is doing less well. But the futures of Caracas, Lima, and Rio de Janeiro seem much less assured. Rio might be able to take on some of the dimensions of a "world city," particularly in terms of media, communications, and tourist functions, but it is much less likely that Lima ever will (Friedmann, 1986; Chase-Dunn, 1985). The ability of each of the largest cities to prosper in the future is explored in some detail in chapters 6 to 11.

Coping with urban problems

Competent urban management is vital in mega-cities. However, it is extremely difficult to maintain even existing levels of competence in economies which are in decline. Any city which is suffering from an economic recession will have difficulty in providing enough jobs and decent housing for its inhabitants. It will also have problems in providing adequate infrastructure and services. Economic growth is a necessary, if hardly a sufficient, basis for raising the quality of urban life. As a result, many of the improvements that were made in Latin America during the 1970s were undone by the stringencies of the debt crisis.

In so far as good governance clearly requires both political stability and democratic participation, Latin America's potential has improved greatly in recent years. First, few countries in the region are suffering from political instability and, for good or ill, there is little possibility of a social revolution in most parts of the region. Second, there has been a strong trend towards democratic government in recent years. The military regimes that dominated in most countries in the 1970s gave way to civilian regimes during the 1980s. While there are hints of a shift backwards in a few places, it is a long time since democratic government was quite so well established in the region. Third, there are incipient signs of greater participation in government decision-making. More power is being given to local government, more ordinary people are being consulted about their needs and desires. Of course, there is little sign that sufficient financial resources are being allocated to these local governments. The danger is that responsibility is being given to local authorities without the means to resolve the serious difficulties that they face.

There are also signs that some Latin American governments are managing to rectify a few of the problems that have faced urban areas for decades. Mexico City, for example, is beginning to control its air pollution and to curb use of its excessive numbers of cars. Despite the recession, its government has managed to increase water and electricity provision.

Unfortunately, these examples of good urban government are still the exceptions. Competent administration is anything but obvious in most cities of Latin America. It is certainly lacking in Buenos Aires, where industrial and domestic waste is pouring into the River Plate (chapter 6). It is less than evident in São Paulo, where increasing levels of crime in the streets and a generalized lack of confidence in the justice and police systems lead Kowarick (1991) to call Brazil's largest city the "metropolis of industrial underdevelopment." It is far from obvious in Peru as the state of public services deteriorates in the nation's capital (Riofrío, 1991).

There is another respect in which we cannot be wholly optimistic. This concerns the distribution of income and social segregation. The recession made urban Latin America more unequal. The gap between the top 10 per cent of the population and the rest increased during the "lost" decade. Those who could put their money in dollars, or who could invest abroad, did very well from the recession. They were protected from devaluation, rapid inflation, and smaller government subsidies in ways unavailable to the ordinary citizen. The testimony given in the chapters on Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo is particularly strong in this respect. During the 1980s, highly unequal cities became even more unequal.

In the near future, a resumption of economic growth will improve living conditions for the poor and the middle classes. However, the overall result of liberalization and the rolling back of the "welfare" state is likely to accentuate existing income inequalities. Unless social welfare policies are well targeted, the situation for the poor may well deteriorate even if there is economic growth. The jobs open to the poor in an increasingly casualized labour force promise neither security nor decent incomes. In this sense, the future of the giant cities is problematic.

Structure of the book

Since I have argued that there is no consensus as to what a mega-city is, the choice of which cities to include in this book was not an easy one to make. Clearly, the real monsters had to be included, but it was less evident where the threshold into mega-city status should be drawn. Certainly, I believe that the threshold should be lower than eight or ten million people because the broad view of this volume is that although the largest cities do have special problems, they are clearly not very different from other major cities. Thus, the volume discusses all Latin American cities which have more than four million people, and many chapters also include major cities, such as Caracas, which have fewer than that. However, those cities with more than six million people have a chapter each. A case could clearly have been made for including chapters on the next largest cities, Santiago and Belo Horizonte (table 1.1), but in the end limited space led to their exclusion.

In addition to the six chapters on individual cities, there are four systematic chapters. The first discusses the demography of urban growth in the region and the other three focus on what are particularly sensitive issues in very large cities: public administration; transport; and land, housing, and infrastructure. Chapters on other major problems in mega-cities, such as employment and pollution, were not included because those variables are less susceptible to size than to other intervening variables; there is no apparent link between unemployment levels or levels of pollution and city size.

The brief that was given to every writer was to consider as many as possible of the following questions:

- Are mega-cities different from smaller cities?

- In so far as they are different how are they different?

- Are mega-cities worse or better places to live than smaller cities?

- Is the growth of mega-cities financially sustainable?

- Is the growth of mega-cities economically sustainable in a changing world economy?

- Can mega-cities be administered competently in a world of growing "democracy" and "decentralization" ?

- Are the populations of mega-cities likely to continue to grow rapidly or will the current pattern of deceleration continue?

- Are mega-cities developing a form that is rather akin to a series of cities within a region: a polycentric pattern that is not a single city at all?

- If the growth of mega-cities is more problematic than that of smaller cities, what should be done to slow the former's growth and what should be done to slow the growth of smaller cities so as to prevent them becoming megacities?

Several clear conclusions emerge from these chapters. First, the largest cities of Latin America are highly variable both in terms of their present socioeconomic characteristics and their future prospects. The individual authors in this volume differ considerably in their judgement of the future. This reflects both their own interpretation of the world and where they live in Latin America. It is far easier to be optimistic in Bogotá than in Lima. Second, whether urban problems improve or deteriorate has rather little to do with size of city and a great deal to do with trends in the wider economy and society. Increasingly, of course, those trends are determined not just by local decisions but by decisions made in the headquarters of transnational corporations and in Washington, London, Brussels, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo. Third, Latin America's mega-cities are not going to grow to unmanageable proportions because their growth rates have generally slowed right down. There is no reason to believe that they will grow as rapidly as in the 1960s. Fourth, management is a critical issue for the future but it is difficult to know whether the quality of management will improve or deteriorate through time. Again, variation is more important than similarity; there are no simple answers to the question of urban management.


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