Urban Communities in Latin America

Category: Research

The 20th century is characterized by the unprecedented level of rapid urbanization conditioned by rural-urban migration and natural urban growth. Presently, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. In particular, Latin America witnesses the biggest impact of urbanization and its consequences. The shift from rural to urban concentration of population has defined new societal norms, forms of housing, and triggered the development of certain issues that many people have to face when they move to cities. The aim of this paper is to investigate the rates of urbanization in Latin America, its forms, consequences, and distribution among the countries of the region.

Urban Scale

Half a century ago, Latin America was evenly divided between urban and rural settlements. Nowadays, according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, it is the developing as the world’s most urbanized region, where 495,857 people live in cities. If the present tendency continues, by 2030, Latin America will be the most urbanized region in the world with approximately 595,134 million urban residents, four megacities of more than ten million people, which is almost 83 percent of its population. People tend to migrate from rural regions seeking economic opportunities, which are economic productivity and a better life in terms of health care access and educational prospects that are found in cities.

In terms of the country distribution, there are various urbanization processes. For instance, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile have already become predominantly urban by 1930 because of the high number of migrants from Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Urbanization growth in such countries as Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela began to increase after 1930. Although other countries of Latin America score lower than 70 percent, they still have high urbanization levels. On the contrary, only three countries, Haiti, Guatemala, and Guyana, have mainly been rural. In addition, Brazil’s total population remained the largest in the region, reaching 202 million people, and 85 percent lived in urban areas in 2014. The same year, Mexico’s population grew to 124 million and 79 percent resided in cities.

Historical Development

Colonial history defined contemporary patterns of urbanization in Latin America. The first fifty years of Spanish colonization established a widespread system of urban centers. The initial location of Spanish colonial cities in 16th and 17th centuries, which were mostly situated in areas of dense Indian communities, determined the present distribution of urban settlements. Spanish and Portuguese colonizers destroyed the existing indigenous urban centers and swiftly developed a network of new settlements, where they were able to impose their political and administrative control. The colonial economy prospered on a labor of the indigenous population that survived European-introduced diseases. Therefore, the centers of Mexico City and Lima, famous Spanish viceroyalties, were located near the former Aztec and Incan empires. Moreover, Panama City was established for transshipment of goods, whereas Santiago de Chile was used for frontier defense. Overall, the majority of early urban settlements was concentrated in the heart of Mexico, in the west and center of Andean regions. By contrast, the urban structure of Brazil and Argentina was not well defined until the 19th century.

The maintenance of the system of economic exchange of raw materials was objectified in a pattern of urbanization, which remained unchanged until the same century. The post-independence period stimulated the re-alignment of Latin American economies toward the industrial capitalist economies. As a result, investment of Western Europe and the United States marked the consolidation of dependency relationships. Such investment affected urbanization as it increased the marketization of local economies, which were centered around urban places, and enhanced the accumulation of resources in those regions. Nonetheless, until the beginning of the 20th century, rural areas were associated with the brutal violence of life, whereas urban regions nurtured law and order. In addition, the urban centers were considered as cities of hope and the land of the future, becoming the focal points for a burgeoning modernity.

Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay insisted on vast European immigration, which served as a source of tenant labor for the development of the Pampas. Consequently, it led to the higher levels of urbanization in these countries. Most immigrants came from impoverished areas of Europe, in particular from Italy and Spain. For example, even though in 1900, most Latin Americas lived in rural areas, and only three cities had more than half a million inhabitants, the population of Buenos Aires increased from a quarter of a million in 1869 to over two million in 1914 as a result of migration, and, in 1910, three out of four inhabitants had been born abroad. Thus, the introduction of capitalist methods of production influenced the process of concentrated urbanization starting from 1930s. In addition, the most rapid rate of urbanization that took place from 1925 to 1960 was associated with the industrialization of the region, the passing of import substitution policies, the implementation of advanced agricultural technologies, and the reformation of rural economies.

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Prevalence of Megacities

Primacy is defined as the disproportionality in shares of the total national population in the largest cities. It is measured by the four-city primacy index by calculating the ratio of the population of the largest city to the population of the next three largest places combined. Latin America is unique and famous in the entire world for the prevalence and intensity of urban primacy. The cities that double the population of the second largest city are called primate, and considered the centers of social, economic, and political life. In Latin America, Lima (Peru) can be an example of the primate city: in 2010, it was eleven times bigger than Arequipa, the next biggest city, and amounted to 8.9 million people in comparison to 789,000, respectively. In addition, in Santiago, there are about 35 percent of Chile’s total population, and only 30 percent of Paraguay’s residents live in Asuncion, its capital. The same is applicable to Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. Hence, it is more than three and a half times larger than the total of the next three cities. Likewise, Montevideo has a population of 1,269,552 compared to 255,743 in the next three agglomerations in Uruguay. However, there are some exceptions to the primacy in Latin America. For instance, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil as well as Santa Cruz and La Paz in Bolivia have almost the equal sizes.

Another important aspect of the primacy related to the slow growth in primate cities. Between 1970 and 2000, about a third of the major metropolitan regions, namely Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Caracas, and Mexico City decreased in their share of the total population. At the time, another two-thirds increased, albeit at different paces. 

Megacities are metropolitan areas with a population that amounts to at least ten million people. Latina America contains four of the world’s twenty-one megacities, which are Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, despite accommodating less than 15 percent of the world’s urban population. Overall, the growth has been rapid and remained high. However, it led to such urban-related issues as environmental degradation, poor infrastructure, and social problems.

Nevertheless, for the last ten years, there has been a reduction in the index of primacy and the percent of the population that reside in primate areas. Consequently, urban growth became less concentrated in the large cities, because Latin America experienced broadening of the urban hierarchy due to the proliferation of the cities with more than 50 thousand, but less than one million inhabitants. Such middle-sized cities have faced population growth as a result of the return migration due to economic turmoil in the large cities and reduced attraction of urban areas, which was influenced by environmental and social problems connected with urbanization. Furthermore, improved interurban communication and changes in the pattern of industrialization also encouraged the trend of returning back. Therefore, this shift has led to the growth of secondary cities in Brazil, Chile, and especially along the Mexico-USA border.

Patterns of Urbanization

Rural-urban migration flows were estimated to amount to almost half of all urban growth in the 1950s. However, by the 1990s, the proportion of such movements declined to over one-third, and did not display homogenous tendency throughout Latin America. For instance, Bolivia and Paraguay still had high levels of migration from the countryside to the city mainly because of the poor access to social services and insufficiency of job opportunities in the former. Consequently, such type of migration has become the major cause of the decline in rural populations. However, the majority of migrants that moved from countryside to city were represented by young men and a smaller part of women that were willing to work.

Nowadays, the predominant form of spatial movement is urban-urban migration. Relocation within cities as well as transference between the centers or to the outskirts has become the prevalent pattern of migration in the 21st century. Nevertheless, these tendencies are difficult to quantify due to the data insufficiency and complexity of the procedure. Furthermore, urban-urban type differs from rural-urban pattern of movement, as interstate migrants tend to be more educated that their counterparts that transfer from countryside to cities. In some cases, they demonstrate even better education than non-migrants. In Mexico, between 1987 and 1992, 50 percent of municipal movement had city areas as origin and destination, whereas in the last five years of the 20th century, 70 percent of all urban-urban transferences occurred between urban areas and only 14 percent were rural-urban. Moreover, rural to urban migration is the dominant pattern of the rates of urban population increase. Accordingly, urbanism has been influenced by architectural design and planning peculiarities from European countries, the United States, and the former Soviet Union.

All in all, recent patterns of urbanization may be characterized as diversifying. Thus, many major cities in Latin America have lower rates of population growth than other cities. Among the main reasons for this trend, USAID denotes the negative rate of immigration in these areas, advanced level of the demographic transition, and the decline in fertility rates.

Urban Forms

The rapid and profound transformations of the city regions triggered by urbanization generated new approaches that study the models of urban areas and city development. A city model describes urban forms, general zones and spatial patterns of land use, and helps outline urban processes and dynamics. Larry Ford presented the most accurate city model that depicts centripetal or centralizing tendencies, and includes peripheral development of mall and suburban sectors, separate industrial parks, and areas of historic preservation. However, newer data on cities tend to highlight extended metropolitan regions and denote new centrifugal or decentralizing trends. In brief, Ford’s model divides urban areas into a number of zones, starting with a powerful central business district (CBD) that includes various land uses and placed on the traditional plaza. In such cities as Buenos Aires and Santiago, the contemporary CBD covers modern offices, governmental institutions, and commercial districts as well as traditional areas, such as churches, historic and architectural buildings from the colonial times and the 19th century. An elite spine that is a modern corridor of upscale office and retail areas emanates outward from the CBD. This part includes residential housing with old mansions and condominium towers and offer easy access to many urban amenities such as restaurants and entertainment facilities. Farther from the CBD and the spine part, traditional housing and commercial districts are located in the concentric zones of declining status as being distant from the city center. With the bigger distance from the city core, the number of squatter settlements and self-built housing increases, what constitutes the main problem of urbanization in Latin America, since a low-income population is deprived of adequate housing.

In contrast to the traditional monocentric model of Ford, in recent years, larger urban areas have developed into sprawling polycentric areas. These new urban districts are created along transportation corridors connected with the city center. Therefore, they begin to develop new special forms that incorporate urban corridors and peripheral urban subcenters, which combine several smaller districts on the outskirts of larger cities. For example, Rio/Sao Paulo Extended Metropolitan Region consists of Brazil’s two largest cities and the middle-sized cities along the transportation corridor that connects them.

According to the city model presented by Bahr, Borsdorf, and Janoschka, city development in Latin America comprises of four phases that are the results of different degrees of state intervention in terms of urban planning. Structural principles and urban regulations determine each period. Thus, during the colonial times, the urban body was compact and the social status of the people diminished with the increase in distance from the central plaza. After independence, linear structures began to intersect, and the upper classes moved closer to a main street, whereas craftsmen and farmers resided along the main roads. With time, some industrial districts were established. Starting from 1930, the growing polarization between rich and poor became more evident. Thus, the upper classes settled in the suburban areas, and the rate of the poor districts enormously increased. Only with time, the cellular principle was established in the peripheries, as social housing communities and illegal marginal settlements were built in suburban areas.

The last two decades are characterized by the scheme that follows the modern urban forms. First, in the metropolitan area, gated communities have become prevalent in the upper and middle classes. They tend to grow and include more urban functions. Second, urban malls, shopping and entertainment centers can be found throughout the whole agglomeration. Third, transportation infrastructure plays a pivotal role in contemporary urban development. Last, walls and informal methods of separation restrict the access to poor and marginal communities. However, some peripheral areas have been upgraded and integrated into the urban forms.

Socioeconomic Polarization and Segregation

In recent years, the issues of socioeconomic segregation have become more evident and alarming. Although this problem has always existed in Latin America, it has deteriorated due to the advancing urbanization associated with the settlement of new immigrants in informal housing at the outskirts of cities. Moreover, the contemporary suburbanization of the middle and upper classes resulted in social polarization and exclusion. For example, in Lima, the district of Miraflores is referred to as a good and peaceful part of the city, while La Victoria is known as a disadvantaged region. Similarly, Jardims in Sao Paolo has favorable fame, whereas Diadema is regarded as dangerous neighborhood.

In such areas, large numbers of households live in slums, where there are no available municipal services, lack of access to formal housing, exposure to violence and crime. Moreover, infrastructure is either absent or overwhelmed, and levels of service quality are uneven. USAID states that the growth of residential communities can encourage people to take public actions to improve the quality of life because such communities are self-sufficient and have basic services and sources. Therefore, their inhabitants do not excessively depend on the city to maintain themselves. However, Rodgers, Beall, and Kanbur emphasize that such a shantytown is “a traditional throwback that could potentially impede the perceived forward march of modernization”. The concern can be justified because there is a sharp deficiency of jobs that the economically active populations require. This imbalance poses a threat to achieving a balanced development process in Latin America.

Moreover, social, spatial, economic, and political exclusions have led to a modern-day barbarism, a distinct characteristic of slum and shantytown life in the 21 century. Consequently, urban violence demonstrated by young groups is a constant feature of almost every large city. Moreover, such criminal activity has recently intensified, which attributes to the repressive policies adopted by state authorities in the attempt to counter urban violence in general, and such groups, in particular. The reason for such strict policy is obvious: to restrain criminal activity within the disadvantaged region, which is supposed to allow the elites live in comfortable and peaceful segregation. As a result, slums and shantytowns have become “precarious peripheries”.

Another factor of socioeconomic segregation is urban poverty. The urbanization of poverty is presented in the statistics that indicate that 60 percent of the region’s poor and 50 percent of extremely poor lived in cities in 2005. This tendency is also reflected in the shift in the proportion of the poor living in cities, which rose from 44 percent in 1959 to 78 percent in 2000. Nevertheless, the poverty rates in cities are lower than in rural areas due to the available employment opportunities in the informal sector. Nonetheless, even if poverty rates do not rapidly escalate, the phenomenon of growing urbanization will result in increases in the absolute number of the urban poor.

Environmental Impacts

The anthropogenic environmental impacts as a result of urban sprawl between 1950 and 2050 are supposed to be the most severe in human history. Like the other world regions, Latin America faces the problems of air and water pollution due to industrial growth, poor sanitation in segregated areas, solid waste management, and increased congestion. For example, at the beginning of the 21st century, air pollution caused ongoing health conditions for over 80 million of the region’s population and resulted in 65 million working days lost.

Moreover, many cities are exposed to natural disasters and extreme weather events. Some of the main reasons for recurring hurricanes and earthquakes are attributed to self-settlements on a fault line or in low lying regions near the cost. In particular, many urban poor live in areas of cities that are most affected by natural disasters. Furthermore, the urban and industrial infrastructures are vulnerable to natural catastrophes due to their fragility. The lack of land use planning systems also contributes to the increased environmental risks. For example, deforestation continues to be the leading environmental issue in Latin America. Consequently, the Amazon basin has lost the largest area to deforestation and experienced a considerable biodiversity and biomass loss.

To mitigate the negative environmental impact made by large and unbalanced urban growth, there are policies directed to promote the growth of intermediate-size cities. Their implementation will partially solve the problem of excessive concentration of population in certain urban agglomerations. It will also help address the issues connected with disproportional centralization of economic and administrative functions within one region.

Conclusion

In summary, for the last century, the internal structure of cities in Latin America has drastically changed. Nowadays, the urban communities have unique and separate structures with different underlying norms and control. Different countries across the region experience varying degrees of urbanization, which is conditioned by historical and socioeconomic factors. Despite the fact that the increase in territorial mobility entails wider segregation between the poor and the rich, as well as environmental implications, the prospects for further urban population growth are favorable.

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