A Review of Beyond the City: Resource Extraction Urbanism in South America

Design and Natural Resource Extraction

by | Jan 10, 2017

Beyond the City: Resource Extraction Urbanism in South America by Felipe Correa (University of Texas Press, 2016, 166 pp.)

If I had to think of keywords for this intriguing book, they would be “passionate” and “meticulous,” with a third word bringing these two together: “design.”  I agreed to review this book as someone interested in the ways in which natural resource extraction has transformed much of Latin America in the last couple of decades; but by the end I realized I was reading it as an erstwhile young British undergraduate studying “Land Economy,” who had been brought up with the utopian aspirations of the United Kingdom’s “new town” movement in the background, and had become intrigued with the relationships between architecture and progressive urban social engineering.  In that sense, reading the book was an exercise in being reminded of things that I have come to forget to think about—and this because, I think, the book is also a letter to Latin America about things that too many working in regional development have also forgotten to think about.  Let me explain.

Felipe Correa sets this book up by introducing the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America, IIRSA.  He presents IIRSA as a project for the wholesale transformation of South America through a deepening of regional integration by means of large-scale road building, river-widening, electrification, port and airport construction and the like.  While IIRSA has its own sub-regions, or axes, it provides a larger vision for continental change that will facilitate expanded resource extraction—from the subsoil, the forest and agricultural estate.  Another of IIRSA’s effects, largely unintentional, is that it will catalyze new population movements and patterns of urbanization at and between these new frontiers that it opens up.  Much of this urbanization will be unplanned, and will go ahead in the absence of any notion of collective design or spatial integrity.

To this relative silence on urban design in IIRSA Correa brings a good dose of historical reflection.  Indeed, this book is an exercise in bringing lessons from Latin American urban history into conversation with the forces that drive—and are supposed to be unleashed by—IIRSA.  Not any old history however: Correa asks his readers to recognize that just as IIRSA is an exercise in opening up resource frontiers, much of Latin American urbanization has already been part of the expansion of a resource extraction frontier.  This is so both for the coastal cities founded during early periods of European colonization as powers arrived in search of resources, as much as it for the cities built during the expansion inwards from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts in pursuit of new lands, timber, minerals and more.  Settlement in Latin America has, he asks us to consider, been more than anything settlement for and catalyzed by resource extraction. And there are lessons to be learned from this history.

Correa argues—and helps the reader recognize—that the ways in which resource extraction and urbanism have been articulated have varied by historical period: or more exactly, by dominant modes of organizing resource extraction, which have changed over time as elements of broader political economic changes.  He organizes his book around five particular experiences of resource extraction urbanism taken from different periods running from the end of the 1800s through to the latter part of the 1900s: the planning of Belo Horizonte in Brazil the late 19th century; the urban settlement process associated with the nitrate industry in northern Chile in the late 19th and first part of the 20th century; the building of encampments and urban centers accompanying U.S. investment in oil extraction in Venezuela in the mid-20th century; the planning and building out of Ciudad Guyana, also in Venezuela, as part of an effort at organizing the population for resource-based industrialization; and finally, in the second half of the 20th century, the creation of settlements and urban centers associated with the building of a series of hydraulic works in the southern Paraná basin in Brazil.

None of these experiments is presented as a panacea—even when, often, there were utopian ideas that underlay elements of their design.  Some of these urban sites were bleak, or became bleak—as in Pinochet’s use of old nitrate towns as camps for political prisoners; many had clear inequalities built by design into their fabric, as in the explicit separation of classes by neighborhood in Venezuela’s oil towns.  But—and this but seems to me very important—they were designed, and in these designs were embedded ideas of modernity and aspirations to social progress (even when embodying inequalities at the same time).  Design was being deployed for some sort of modernizing social end.  This stands in sharp contrast to IIRSA, also an unrelentingly modern project, but one with an impoverished notion of modernity as little more than massive capital accumulation and the taming of landscapes through large-scale technologies.  IIRSA is categorically not development on a human scale, and the urbanizing processes that accompany it are not humanizing—or more precisely, IIRSA makes no conscious effort to manage and design urbanization as a vehicle of human flourishing.  Correa does not discuss in any detail these urban projects that accompany—or will accompany—IIRSA, but the stark contrast between the design principles for social progressivism present in the five historical experiences discussed in the book, and the chaotic urbanization linked to contemporary resource frontiers in South America comes through loud and clear.

One of the vehicles that Correa uses—I presume consciously—to convey this contrast is the inclusion of many of his own hand-drawn, detailed sketches of the urban forms and regional patterns elaborated in these 19th- and 20th-century experiments.  The sketches are where this book is most obviously “meticulous” and “passionate.”  They are a joy to look at—and also awe-inspiring when one considers the care and the time that went into them.  They appear to be a work of passion.  He also combines the sketches with archival photos to give a sense of what life was like in the cities and towns whose origins he describes.  The photos are also a joy.

This review has dwelt more on the experience of reading this book than on its arguments.  But there are also clear arguments here:  that urbanization and urban form in Latin America cannot be understood separately from histories of resource extraction; that these histories have, however, been managed and tamed in different ways, given that it is always a social decision as to the sorts of urbanization that will unfold and that in these processes of designing and taming, there has been clear interaction of ideas over time and across space.  Indeed, authors and institutions that are part of the canon of urban and regional development planning are also players in some of the design experiments discussed here: John Friedmann, MIT’s and Harvard’s Joint Center for Urban Studies, and so on. Another lesson is that design matters, not just for the quality of the urban experience, but also for the adaptability and survival of urban centers.  Indeed, the book combines examples of centers that are now dead or dying, and urban centers that have been able to adapt to changing political economy dynamics on the resource frontier.

The most passionate arguments of the book are that design is important, that it can absolutely be progressive, and that the design professions must—must—engage with IIRSA and seek to affect the urban and territorial dynamics that the initiative is catalyzing.  These were the book’s arguments that took me back to my student discussions of the merits and de-merits of the United Kingdom’s new towns, and of design experiments in social housing.  For me, at least they have served as a reminder that in these days of the disparaged “expert,” there can still be a place for utopian thinking: because in any case, other actors’ “utopias” will prevail, and in the absence of resistance, alternatives and difficult conversations, these other “utopias” will be imposed.  All organizations of space have utopian models built into them—and if we do not like them, the challenge thrown down by this book is to do the hard work of learning from history and imagining alternative designs for utopias otherwise.

Anthony Bebbington is Higgins Professor of Environment and Society and Director of the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University. He is also a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. Among his books are Subterranean Struggles: New Dynamics of Mining, Oil and Gas in Latin America, A. Bebbington and J. Bury (eds.) Austin: University of Texas Press (2013) and Social Conflict, Economic Development and Extractive Industry: Evidence from South America. (editor) London: Routledge, 2012, and Mineria, Movimentos Sociales y Respuestas Campesinas: Una Ecología Política de Transformaciones Territoriales, (editor) Lima: IEP/CEPES. 


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