City Spaces

by | Dec 30, 2003

The built environment throughout Latin America affects how people experience their cities. Photo by Luisa Molina.

​The built environment is important in shaping the quality of life in Latin America’s cities, as the following articles in the “City Spaces” section of this ReVista all stress. Most of us believe that a city’s development pattern and the quality of its infrastructure can influence its economic competitiveness.  A city will be more attractive to both firms and residents if it can support high concentrations of business activity while still offering employees accessible, attractive, and affordable housing.  But it is surprising how greatly the pattern of urban development seems to affect the social and physical health of the city as well.  The layout of residential districts are thought to influence levels of crime and social cohesion, for example, while the location of residences and industry affect pollution levels.  As Latin America grows richer and more democratic, moreover, the built environment is likely to loom larger both as a determinant of citizen satisfaction and as a source of political controversy.

Many ReVista readers will be familiar with Mexico City’s air pollution, and MIT professor and Nobel Laureate Mario Molina and his colleague and wife Luisa describe an interdisciplinary effort to understand the problem and potential solutions.  The metropolitan area suffers from its location in a valley where polluted air is often trapped by the prevailing winds.  The metropolitan area has grown rapidly over the last fifty years, bringing many more polluting businesses and residences into the valley.  Moreover, the development has been sprawling and low density, which has encouraged high levels of motor vehicle use and emissions.  So far Mexico has attacked the problem primarily by setting stricter standards for the emissions of motor vehicles and businesses, but the Molinas argue that it should also move some polluting activities, such as electric power plants, out of the valley.

Three other articles examine the effects of housing development patterns on social problems.  Mariela Marino, an architect at the University of Buenos Aires, recounts the evolution over the past several decades of two exclusive forms of residential communities in Buenos Aires: squatter settlements for the very poor and gated suburban communities for the rich.  Both contrast sharply with the traditional residential blocks formed by the street grids laid out by colonial planners in Buenos Aires and most other Latin cities.  The grid pattern allowed residential neighborhoods to develop with distinctive character even while making those neighborhoods permeable to outsiders.  The new squatter settlements and gated communities, in contrast, isolate the poor and the rich, reducing the interaction that is important to social understanding and to the richness and vitality of urban culture.

Even more troubling and less familiar is Graciela Fortin-Magaña’s account of how otherwise laudable housing reforms resulted in increased crime in El Salvador.  El Salvador achieved very high levels of home ownership by turning to private firms to build massive new housing developments on the outskirts of San Salvador.  The share of households that own their home or have a mortgage increased from 44 percent in 1971 to 69 percent in 1993, despite the destruction wrought by an intervening civil war, an earthquake, and a hurricane.  To save on land costs, however, most private developers built their new neighborhoods far from the city center where many residents work and with house lots that are too small to accommodate an extended family or a small store or other home-based business.  As a result, there are few adults living or working in the neighborhoods for much of the day which, in turn, has encouraged teenage gangs to flourish and terrorize the residents.  Fortin-Magaña favors developments that are closer in and have larger lots but with little or no structure on the lot.  Families who buy in these developments have a harder time getting credit and are forced to build their houses slowly.  But they have more flexibility to invite relatives to live with them, to start a home business, or generate other healthy activities in the neighborhood.

Liz Meléndez, an urban designer who works at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, tells a much more hopeful story about the replacement of the plaza as the traditional focus of social life and interaction in her native San Juan.  Plazas no longer play much of a social role because the new neighborhoods lack traditional plazas while the plazas in the older neighborhoods have been blighted by heavy auto traffic and parking.  Meléndez argues that the sanjuaneros have successfully converted suburban shopping malls into a new form of plaza where people of all classes go to relax and mingle.

Two other papers discuss the potential of major infrastructure projects to transform a city socially and politically as well as economically.  Arturo Ardila-Gómez explains how a series of mayors made Bogotá’s residents take pride in their city once again.  The mayors changed attitudes in part by improving the physical quality of the city.  They started small by keeping the streets clean and installing sidewalks where they were badly needed, and ultimately built a high-quality express busway system that is a model for other cities and a source of civic pride.

Pablo Allard describes how a major urban highway project ushered in a new era of citizen participation in the politics of metropolitan Santiago.  The Ministry of Public Works had long wanted to relieve traffic congestion by building a major expressway that would cut east-west across the metropolitan area.  The Ministry was unaccustomed to grassroots opposition to its projects, perhaps because many social organizations had been suppressed under the Pinochet regime.  But when the Ministry unveiled its plans in the mid 1990s, neighborhoods along the route and environmentalists rebelled.  By developing alternatives, filing lawsuits, and lobbying elected politicians, they managed to win major concessions in the design of the project.  Their success has transformed forever the politics of major infrastructure projects in Chile’s cities and encouraged citizen activism on other local issues as well.

Finally, many of these themes about the size and spatial organization of cities are brought together in a comprehensive study of Santiago led by Edward Glaeser, a professor in Harvard’s Economics Department, and John R. Meyer, who recently retired from the Kennedy School and the Economics Department.  Glaeser and Meyer and their collaborators organized their study loosely around the question of whether Santiago, which is home to more then one-third of all Chileans, is too big.  Being economists, their approach is to look at the incentives Chileans have to live in Santiago or elsewhere.  Does government policy distort the location choices of firms and households by, for example, providing higher levels of support for public services in Santiago than in other cities?  Their answer, in broad terms, is that the government policies seemed to favor Santiago unduly in the 1970s, but that government resources and services have been more evenly and equitably distributed across the country since the advent of democracy.  There are some exceptions, most notably in education.  Glaeser argues that the Chilean government spends too much on higher education relative to primary education, and that most of the higher education institutions are located in the capital, which helps make it a magnet for the middle class.  Education aside, government policy does not seem to significantly favor locations in Santiago over locations elsewhere.

Glaeser, Meyer and their colleagues also consider whether government policies toward Santiago’s transportation, housing, pollution, and other problems could be improved.  Some of their findings echo those of other authors in this issue of ReVista.  Santiago’s topography and air pollution problems are similar to those of Mexico City, for example, and will require tighter pollution emission standards similar to those recommended by Mario and Luisa Molina.  Santiago should consider building busways instead of costly subway extensions, which is consistent with Arturo Ardila-Gómez’s praise for Bogotá’s new busway system.  And the public housing projects for the poor in Santiago seem to exhibit some of the same problems that Graciela Fortin-Magaña found among the private housing projects for the poor in El Salvador.  Like their private counterparts in San Salvador, Santiago’s public housing authorities economize on land costs by picking sites that are so remote that residents have long commutes and spend many hours away from their homes and children.

Cities often seem to be neglected in discussions of Latin America.  Much of the attention is understandably focused on economic and political problems at the national scale—such as the strength and stability of the economy, the burden of government debt, or the gains in democracy.  But Latin America is highly urbanized, and ReVista‘s “City Spaces” articles suggest how much and in how many ways the skill with which cities are built and city services are delivered matters.

Winter 2003Volume II, Number 2

José A. Gómez-Ibáñez is the Derek C. Bok Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and Kennedy School of Government.

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