Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Confronting Urban Challenges in Latin America

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With all the recent news on the conflict with indigenous groups in the Peruvian Amazon and the concerns over deforestation in Brazil, we forget that Latin America is an overwhelmingly urban region. It is estimated that by 2025, over 82 percent of the region’s population will live in urban areas. With these numbers it’s clear, it is cities—and cityscapes—that most affect the quality of life, economic and social mobility, health, and politics of citizens in our hemisphere.

Many of these urban areas are being stretched to their infrastructural limits by rapid growth. To look at how to best address these issues, the Urban Age project, a joint initiative by the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Alfred Herrhausen Society, is asking the question: How do we tackle modern urban challenges and imagine the cities of the future?

Professionals from a variety of disciplines, from sociologists, architects and planners to engineers, policymakers and political scientists have come together in a series of ongoing conferences throughout cities in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe. The project also has an advisory group that includes architect Enrique Norten, former mayor of Bogota Enrique Peñalosa and sociologist Saskia Sassen of Columbia University, among many others.

The project aims to identify the trends and policies that are failing to respond to local needs and, through a comparative approach, identify alternatives. It originally based its investigation around four core themes: labor market and the work place, public life and urban space, mobility and transport, and housing and neighborhoods. As the project evolved, the focus shifted to climate change and the role of cities in the global economy. Of the seven cities being researched, Mexico D.F. and São Paulo are the two featured from Latin America.

Although the characteristics of the two cities cannot be wholly expanded to represent the entire region, there are some particularities that can serve to understand the urban challenges in Latin America. As Mexican architect and Urban Age advisory board member José Castillo explains, in Latin America, “the metropolis is extending beyond the supposed ‘city limits,’ and this extension is mainly in the form of informal development. This brings to light issues of mobility, transportation, public space, security, and how to best address the intense social polarization that exists.”

Such issues are explored in The Endless City, a 510-page book detailing the results of the investigations thus far. In it, we see a Mexico City that has transformed itself in the last few decades, with an urbanized area that grew from 120 sq. km in 1940 to 1,700 sq. km today and where there exists “a duality between the global city and the insecure local city at the margins, which breeds a persistent culture of fear and insecurity pushes social life into interior spaces, private homes or secure malls.” In contrast to these gated communities, nearly 60 percent of the city’s 20 million inhabitants live in informal housing.

São Paulo offers a similar example. Exploding in size from just 240,000 in the beginning of the 20th century to over ten million today, São Paulo is a very large part of the Brazilian economy, accounting for nearly 34 percent of Brazil’s GDP. Despite this demographic and economic boom, many security and public safety challenges remain. Giving a few facts about the city, Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London, comments, “It has more private helicopters registered to its citizens than any other city in the world. Its prison system is in a permanent state of insurgency. Its tribes of street children are brutalized both by crime and the police. What [were once] once marginal area[s] inhabited by slums [are now] a series of so-called ‘intelligent’ high-rise buildings that shut out the city. In some cases, it is difficult to find an entrance other than the car park or garage. Blocks are over-sized; there are no trees or public spaces.”

How a city is developed, including even an iconic public space or building, can define a city for itself and its residents. In an interview with Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogota is clear about the importance of using urban space to construct different values. “Clearly a great library in a very poor neighborhood is a symbol that shows confidence in the residents’ intelligence…If the library is more impressive, more beautiful and better designed than the shopping mall, then we create different values,” he says.

Castillo points out, in addition, that what Latin American cities do have in comparison to other major cities around the world is a demographic surplus. By 2025, the population of the region is estimated to be 687 million (it is currently 577 million). “We are growing, and there is a certain enthusiasm and willingness to work toward something more inclusive and sustainable,” he says, “it is the perfect time to attack the issues that are presenting themselves as we enter the urban age.” And it seems like an important issue to tackle as the bicentennials approach.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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