Latin America struggles to cope with record urban growth
Written by Paulo Paranagua and published on The Guardian
Latin America is no longer a largely rural region. After 60 years of chaotic but rapid urban development, four-fifths of its population now live in towns or cities, a prey to all the ills of modernity and globalisation. Despite the fact that exports from these countries depend mainly on farming and mining, more than two-thirds of their gross national product comes from cities, home to services and industry. Although Latin America has huge expanses of territory, nowhere else has achieved this level of urbanisation.
In its most recent report on the state of the world’s cities, focusing on trends in Latin America and the Caribbean, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) casts new light on the contrasts. Urbanisation is a positive process, it concludes, despite the trauma, violence and environmental degradation sometimes involved. The rural exodus is irreversible and almost at an end in most countries. By 2050, 90% of Latin America’s population will be in towns and cities. Brazil and the southern cone may reach this level by 2020.
The cities are steadily expanding, sometimes outstripping the rise in population two or three-fold, due to urban sprawl. UN-Habitat’s experts oppose this trend and advocate taller buildings, to limit outward growth and boost population density. This, they believe, is the price to pay to manage urban areas efficiently and secure sustainable development, concentrating the infrastructure necessary for city dwellers.
Inequality and violence are the main problems cited. Latin American cities are the most unequal and often most dangerous places in the world, with social divisions hardwired into the urban fabric. The geographical segregation is visible to all. Rio de Janeiro, for instance, is a city divided between its residential districts and favelas.
Some 111 million Latin Americans (out of a total of 588 million) live in shanty towns. Improving such dwellings and their surroundings has contributed to their stability, all the more necessary given the housing shortage. About 50m new homes are needed. But the answer is not to move the slum population to the outskirts of cities, because it would take them away from their work and modern amenities.
Despite efforts in the past 10 years to redistribute riches, 122 million city residents still live in poverty. The informal economy, with the associated lack of welfare coverage, hits young people and women particularly hard.
The existence of urban territories controlled by, or at the mercy of, organised crime and drug dealers illustrates the complexity of the challenge posed by security. Insecurity is the prime concern for most people in Latin America, ahead of jobs. The poor are the first to suffer from the widespread violence, and their makeshift homes are the most exposed to extreme weather events and natural disasters.
The region’s 16,000 cities include eight megalopolises, each with more than 5 million people, and a growing number of medium conurbations, some just as innovative as their giant counterparts. The formation of these massive cities, home to 65 million, raises problems for regional cooperation. Half the urban population of Latin America is packed into medium-sized cities, but they find it hard to balance their budgets, often requiring the support of central government.
But the UN-Habitat report is resolutely upbeat, asserting that Latin America has reached a turning point and could be entering a “new cycle of urban transition”, heralding improved living conditions for city dwellers. Thanks to devolution, local government now has valuable experience which deserves to be better shared.
In addition to paying off national debt and making the economy less vulnerable to international crises, Latin American countries have another asset: a “demographic bonus”, with an active population exceeding the number of children and seniors, opening a window of opportunity forecast to last 30 years. The report says this period should be used to reclaim urban space, upgrade infrastructure and services, encourage local jobs, social and cultural diversity, and sustainable development, boost territorial cohesion and inclusiveness, and reduce inequality.