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The changing shape of the city

The polynuclear city

As they have grown, most large Latin American cities have incorporated nearby villages and towns. Caracas grew along the Guaire val fey, gradually absorbing Sabana Grande, Chacao, Catia, Los Chorros, and Petare (Morris, 1978: 306). Bogotá grew northwards, absorbing Chapinero; Lima swallowed small centres such as Miraflores, Magdalena Vieja, Barranco, Chorrillos, and eventually Callao (Kross, 1992: 116). Mexico City took in Coyoacán, Mixcoac, and Tacacuya (Ward, 1990). Only Santiago seems to have grown without absorbing many neighbouring villages and towns.

In the process, each city developed sub-centres whose functions complemented those of the central city. Nevertheless, until recently, most cities were still highly focused on the original central area. Indeed, a high proportion of urban employment still remains in the central business district.

During the past twenty or thirty years, however, the dominance of the central area has declined sharply. In Bogotá, employment in the city as a whole increased by 46 per cent between 1972 and 1978 but only by 19 per cent in the central six comunas (Pineda and Jiménez, 1990). In the traditional centre, employment actually declined by 17 per cent. Employment of various kinds has moved out. Industrial activity has shifted to more peripheral locations, a move strongly encouraged by government planners. Tertiary activities have also decentralized as governments have built new office complexes, professionals have decamped to the more afffluent suburbs, and shopping precincts have emerged throughout the city. Shops in the central area now compete with rivals in the suburbs.

Decline in the central area

Decentralization has now reached such a point that the central city is arguably in decline. Fewer businesses are prepared to locate in the traditional centre. Increasing pollution and congestion in the central areas have convinced many companies to locate elsewhere. There has been little recent sign either of gentrification or commercialization of the central area. Indeed, as Ward (1993: 1148-9) points out, huge empty areas remain undeveloped close to the central districts of most cities. The La Merced area in Mexico City, Bras in São Paulo, and the docklands in Rio de Janeiro all appear ripe for redevelopment, but little or nothing has actually happened.

The trend is reflected clearly in current patterns of land prices in Bogotá (figure 4.3), where values in the traditional downtown have "slipped to sixth place among the key office and retail areas of the city" (Dowall and Treffeisen, 1990: 73). Land values at the intersection of Carrera Séptima and Avenida Jiménez, the real centre of the city in the 1950s and even the 1970s, "are in real terms at only one-sixth the level of twenty years ago" (ibid.).

Figure 4.3 Bogotá: Areas of peak land value

Population densities in most central areas are also in decline (table 4.13). During the 1980s, central populations declined in each of the four cities for which there are data. In Lima, this was a new development, but in the other cities the process had been under way for some time. The centre of Mexico City has been in decline since 1950, those of Bogotá and Santiago since at least 1960. Large numbers of people have moved their homes out of the central city. In Lima, six central city districts together lost 150,000 people between 1981 and 1993, approximately 14 per cent of the original population. The population living in the district of Cuauhtémoc in central Mexico City fell by about half in forty years, declining from 1,049,000 inhabitants in 1950 to only 596,000 in 1990.

Table 4.13 also shows that the areas losing people have increased in areal extent. In the 1960s, only the innermost parts of the central area were in decline but, during the 1970s, much wider areas of Bogotá and Mexico City were affected, and in the 1980s extensive zones in Lima and Santiago also lost people.

Depopulation was caused initially by the expansion of commercial activity in the central area. Indeed, it was the arrival of new commercial and business activities which led to major declines in the housing stock, a tendency accentuated by "physical decay, urban redevelopment, and occasionally because of slum-eradication programs" (Ward, 1993: 1145). In places, urban renewal projects decimated low-income rental accommodation. In Mexico City, several major road schemes destroyed some 48,000 housing units during the 1960s, and construction of the major public housing complex in Tlatelolco destroyed a lot more (Coulomb and Sanchez, 1991). During the 1970s, 50,000 homes were destroyed by official efforts to remove the "lost cities" and decaying vecindades (rental tenements), and through the ejes viales road-widening programme of the Echeverría administration (Ward, 1990). In Caracas, urban renewal began in the 1940s with the El Silencio project and accelerated in the 1950s with the construction of the Centro Simon Bolívar, the Helicoide, the Avenida Bolívar, and the infamous superblocks. During the late 1960s, the Parque Central complex began, followed by construction of the metro in the 1970s. There has been so much urban renewal in central Caracas that very little of the original housing is left. In São Paulo, there has been less destruction of homes in the central area (Violich and Daughters, 1987), but certain public works schemes, such as construction of the metro, have certainly affected areas such as Bras (Batley, 1982).

In places, too, earthquakes have hastened the process of urban renewal. The central areas of both Mexico City and Santiago were badly hit by serious tremors in 1985. Although the authorities replaced much of the damaged housing in Mexico City, a lot of housing was lost.

What is the future of the central city?

Central city areas are not likely to prosper in the next few years, but neither are they likely to change markedly. They will continue to lose people and jobs to the suburbs. However, they are unlikely to deteriorate as totally as the typical inner city of the United States (Dowall and Treffeisen, 1990: 25).

Neither is there much possibility that central city areas will be redeveloped even in those cities where economic recession is a problem of the past. There is too little interest from the private sector in investing in central city redevelopment, and, with conventional wisdom dictating that governments should intervene much less (Gilbert, 1992; World Bank, 1993), few governments will be inclined to launch massive programmes in the urban centre. Consequently there will be few grandiose schemes to transform central areas, either the construction of metros or major housing renewal projects. As Ward (1993: 1155) puts it: "one can identify circumstances where the private sector may be disposed to become involved, but neither the political nor the local government structure is conducive to the promotion of large-scale, downtown, Baltimore-harbor-type projects led by a dirigiste politician, or from consortia of global entrepreneurs."

Neither is there much chance of a widespread process of gentrification "improving" the urban centre, even though certain governments would like to encourage it. Most elite groups are now resigned to suburban living and in any case the level of crime, pollution, and traffic congestion in the central city discourages a recolonization.

Again, of course, there will be differences. The centres of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo declined much less than those of most major Spanish American cities because there was much less flight to the suburbs (Violich and Daughters, 1987: 326). As Taschner and Bruna (1994: 96) point out: "In São Paulo the tendency was to shift from the central area quarters to the internal areas of the city ... With few exceptions. these quarters gradually became more dense. and today constitute an extensive verticalized area where high luxury apartments and hotels and small flats co-exist with commerce and retail sales activities."

Similarly, Buenos Aires suffered relatively little deterioration in the central areas. "Unlike the process undergone by other metropolises, Buenos Aires has not seen the expulsion of older residents out of privileged areas claimed by more affluent groups ... The areas with views of parks and the river have been saturated. The old residences ... have been replaced by towers in which apartments of 300 to 400m² occupy each floor" (Borthagaray and Igarzabal, 1994: 68).


Latin America's major cities survived remarkably well given the pace of population growth between 1950 and 1980. There was little sign of deterioration in housing conditions and even a general improvement in servicing conditions. Of course, huge problems remained and were accentuated by the economic recession of the 1980s. Today, far too many people are living in poor-quality shelter and far too many peripheral settlements lack adequate infrastructure and services.

Better-quality administration and planning is needed to confront many of these issues and it is time that many local government agencies improved the level of their performance (Bolaffi, 1992). More investment is needed to maintain improvements in service levels. More sensible transport policies are required if the private car is not to suffocate the metropolitan area. More sensible land policies are also needed, policies that will both discourage the excessive holding of building land and reduce tendencies towards urban sprawl.

I do not intend to elaborate on these policies because most are addressed in other chapters of this book. I am also reluctant to produce a long list of recommendations that may never be acted upon. For, despite their manifest ability to cope, few Latin American cities can be said to be well-planned. Indeed, as Violich and Daughters (1987: 378) put it: "in the unregulated form that it has taken, urbanization has become a major new source of national consternation." I am not sure that the quality of planning will improve in the future; indeed, good planning may be impossible given the unequal social and economic structures of Latin America. Perhaps the current belief in the effectiveness of market forces will prove correct and we can all celebrate the demise of incompetent government bureaucracies. Somehow, alas, I doubt it.


1. Self-help housing is not easy to define. Most planners, however, would probably agree that the distinctive characteristic of self-help housing is that it always begins as a flimsy form of shelter lacking all kinds of service and is developed on land which either lacks planning permission or has been invaded. The adjective "self-help" stems from the fact that the occupier has built some or all of the accommodation, even if some form of professional help has almost always been involved. The typical architect is the local jobbing builder or bricklayer; the building manual is the advice received from family and friends.

2. Of course, two of the eight cities under discussion here, Bogotá and Santiago, largely escaped recession during the 1980s.

3. The ejido is a form of community landholding established in Mexico as a result of the Revolution. In law, the land cannot be sold, although in practice much of the land occupied by housing in many Mexican cities belongs to ejidos.

4. Trivelli (1987: 105) claims that "vacant lots represent one-third of the building space of Brazilian cities."

5. Based on a sample of 446 plots in the three years, drawn primarily from the western, higher-income areas of the city. Not surprisingly, land prices within a given settlement increased more rapidly; lower prices were found in more peripheral locations.

6. In any case, it is uncertain whether prices continue to rise in low-income settlements once they have begun to develop. Indeed, data from Bogotá and Mexico City suggest that plot prices in low-income settlements often fall over time (Gilbert and Ward, 1985). They do not rise partly because the best plots are sold first and partly because it is so difficult to sell such plots.

7. Of course, Brazilian experience during much of that period as hardly typical. The economy was growing rapidly but the poor suffered the consequences of a deliberate attack by the government on their living standards. Under these circumstances, the purchase of land was almost bound to become more difficult over time.

8. For low-income groups the average fell from 132 square metres to 68 over the same period.

9. The latter observation is more true of the eastern US cities. The problem with Ingram and Carroll's argument is that they use figures which record population over a rather wide central area. They also include some figures of dubious value.

10. Table 4.13 presents data on gross population densities over time. While such figures are never totally reliable, they do make sense. The figures have the advantage that they record the urbanized area rather than the administrative area of the city. As such, they record real changes in density over time. The figures contradict the findings of both Portes (1990: 17), who claims that "with the exception of Buenos Aires, densities have continued to increase in urban centers, regardless of their legal boundaries," and Ingram and Carroll (1981), who show that densities increased between 1950 and 1970 in Mexico City, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Bogotá, Recife, Belo Honzonte, Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Cali. Lee (1985) shows the same tendency occurring in Brazil's eight largest cities. Ingram and Carroll's figures also show dramatic increases in density in some cities. The problem with all these sets of calculations is that they have used a constant administrative area of the city over time. Since much of this area was empty at the beginning of the period, any expansion of the city outwards into this empty area is almost bound to increase the population density. All the authors admit the problems with calculating figures in this way but none have modified their figures to take account of them.


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