thoughts on our urban future

Here’s one from Latin America

Latin America is a land of contrasts. The sub-continent is home to a myriad of cultures, incredibly rich in natural resources and biodiversity, but also home to some of the world’s greatest inequalities. Its cities, a reflection of this complex continent, often forgotten, misunderstood and idealised.

South of the Rio Grande lie some of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, cities bustling with activity, vibrant streets and plazas, but also hugely congested and polluted. Glass clad skyscrapers overlooking slums, beautiful colonial churches and amazing modernist architecture surrounded by street vendors selling everything from mangoes and papayas to Chinese-made mobile phones and shoes. It’s a region where Catholicism is intertwined with ancient beliefs, shaping an everyday culture where no-one can really tell the difference anymore between what was indigenous and what was imposed by the conquistadors.

Most Europeans seldom think of Latin America, probably with the notable exception of those in Spain and to some degree, Portugal, who are subject to significant migration from the region, clearly as a result of the history of colonisation by these two particular countries. Elsewhere in Europe Latin America is somewhat ‘off the radar’. Often, when I say I am from Bolivia, I get a sort of vacuous look meaning the other person has no idea what I am talking about. Some respond: ‘is that near Brazil?’ or even worse, ‘oh, sorry, I thought you were talking about Bulgaria’. The best one ever was when an Indian friend expressed his surprise to hear I needed a visa to go to the United States: ‘you need a visa??!! But I thought you were American!’ – I guess he could be forgiven for assuming that ‘American’ means anyone from said continent… it does make sense, does it?

North Americans, on the other hand, are forced to be a lot more aware of what happens with their southern neighbours. Massive influx of migrants have created the fastest-growing ethnic minority in the United States. There are now second and third generation ‘latinos’ everywhere in the American society, from government to science labs to the army. Yet, to many Americans it remains difficult to tell the difference between a Mexican and a Chilean. It’s a bit like confusing the Swedish with the Italian!

So there’s more to Latin America than tacos and carnival queens. In urbanism terms, it’s remarkable that most of the region’s cities were founded by the colonisers post 1500 AD. Renaissance Europe was beginning to flourish, and some of the most forward thinking ideas on city design were taken over as part of the colonisation efforts. Where relevant, existing cities and settlements where destroyed and replaced with new cities. Policy makers in Spain defined the principles of what these cities would be like:

“Before all else I ordain… that the layout of the roads running north, south, east and west be marked out. I also ordain that four adjoining lots on four streets in the middle of the plan be designated as the city square. I also ordain that two lots be reserved in the most appropriate place near the square for the building of the church, which should be dedicated to Santiago. We will choose Santiago as our patron saint and intercessor, and I vow that we shall celebrate his feast day by saying his vespers and his missa solemnis, in conformity with the land and its disposition… I also ordain that four lots be reserved near the square, one for the city hall, another for the public jail, and the others for city offices.” (Records of Foundation, 1527, Libro Viejo de la fundacion de Guatemala – Extracted from Cruelty and Utopia, Cities and Landscapes of Latin America, The International Centre for Urbanism, Architecture and Landscape, Brussels – 2003)

This pattern is recognisable in most Latin American cities today. If in doubt, look for the main square, and you will be in the centre of town. These were the first ‘modern’ cities, laid out symmetrically, where streets were wide and straight. They all had a clearly recognisable centre, nearby which was placed the city market. Yet of course they were places of oppression, where the indigenous peoples of the region had been made to slaves, often not allowed to enter the city’s main square.

Latin American cities are now large metropolis and these days democracy is fairly consolidated in the continent. There are numerous examples of successfully implemented urban infrastructures and regeneration frameworks. There’s even the most famous example of the 20th Century modernist city: Brasilia, built upon the principles of Le Corbusier’s urbanism, widely admired in its time, later criticised even more widely. The region’s main challenges remain in dealing with poverty and inequality, which drives more and more rural migrants to the urban fringes; the need to provide basic infrastructure at the same accelerated pace of that unmanageable urban sprawl; and doing it whilst encouraging sustainable growth and ways of living.

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  1. It’s been said that countries with strong planning policies better mitigate against economic inequalities in their cities. There may be some truth to this when one generally compares the planning systems in the US with the UK.

    How strong are the current planning policies in Latin America – which countries have stronger systems, and can inequity be seen to be minimised?

  2. That would be somthing really interesting to research in more detail! I have no idea about different countries’ planning systems – I would generally say most of them are probably not so strong.

    The one example I can think of now is Curitiba in Brazil (so not a countrywide case but city specific instead) where it seems they managed to have a long term vision and delivery mechanisms… it’s often hailed as an example on successful urban planning:

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