Urbanism in Latin America

Urbanism in Latin America
Urbanism in Latin America

At independence in the 1820s, the vast majority of the inhabitants of Latin America and the Caribbean, probably more than 95 percent, lived in rural areas. From the early colonial period, cities, clustered mainly along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, had been considered by Spanish and Portuguese colonizers and the Creole (American-born) elite as the prime locus of civilization and culture.

As the crisis of political authority sparked by the 1807–08 Napoleonic invasion of Iberia intensified, the requirement of the liberal Spanish constitution of 1812 that concentrations of 1,000 persons or more establish town councils led to a dramatic rise in the number of officially incorporated towns and cities.

By fragmenting political authority, the process of independence augmented the political and economic power of urban centers. Subnational regions developed principally in relation to primary and secondary cities.

Examples can be seen in southeastern South America, with Buenos Aires and Montevideo dominating the coast, and Córdoba, Tucumán, and other cities dominating the interior. In 1820 Mexico City was Latin America’s largest city, with some 120,000 people, followed by Lima (Peru) at 53,000, Buenos Aires (Río de la Plata, later Argentina) at 40,000, and Bogotá (Colombia) at 30,000.

By mid-century, with populations rising and rural-urban migration intensifying, many large cities became increasingly unattractive, congested, and unhealthy. Sanitary conditions were often abysmal, with open sewers, lack of potable water, unpaved streets that often turned to muddy quagmires, chronic poverty, and disease emerging as major problems for both national and municipal governments.

Most urban cores, which were by colonial era design a central plaza surrounded by a church, government buildings, and elite residences, had become less livable and less desirable, prompting many wealthy residents to relocate to urban fringes.

The deteriorating material conditions of most cities conflicted with an increasingly influential elite discourse that portrayed cities as the seat of civilization, modernity, and national progress, as opposed to the barbarism and backwardness of the countryside. Such a situation is exemplified in the writings of the Argentine intellectual and statesman Domingo Faustino Sarmiento.

Especially from around 1870 this urban squalor and elite discourse on modernization and national progress combined with rising European immigration and expanding export production to prompt national and municipal governments to begin the process of urban renewal, setting in motion new programs to that effect.

As a result of these economic, political, demographic, and cultural pressures, in the late 19th century virtually every large city in Latin America underwent a major rebuilding effort. Emblematic were the urban revitalization programs in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, Valparaíso, Mexico City, and Bogotá.

Paris in particular became the model for what a city ought to be. In Buenos Aires, for instance, the city center was razed, and in its stead were built broad treelined boulevards, parks, plazas, stately buildings, and cultural centers like theaters and opera houses.

Electric streetlights replaced gas lamps; underground sewage and water systems were installed; paved avenues replaced dirt streets and alleys; automobiles and electric trolleys displaced horses and bullcarts. By the turn of the century, city boosters were touting Buenos Aires as the “Paris of South America.” Similar efforts were undertaken in cities across the continent.

These and other cities grew rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1880 Buenos Aires was home to around 300,000 people; on the eve of World War I, that figure reached 1.5 million. In 1890 the population of São Paulo stood at 64,000; a decade later it surpassed 240,000.

In 1880 Santiago was inhabited by around 160,000 people; by 1910 the number had increased to 400,000. Mexico City’s population rose from 200,000 in 1874 to nearly 500,000 in 1910.

By 1900 Montevideo housed around one-third of Uruguay’s population of 900,000, making it the world’s largest national capital city relative to population. Similarly rapid growth marked Rio de Janeiro, Valparaíso, Lima, Quito, Guayaquil, Caracas, Bogotá, Havana, and other national capitals and port cities. Notably, by 1900, all but a handful of Latin America’s largest urban centers lay on the coast, reflecting the region’s historic and growing reliance on export production.

The last decades of the 19th century also saw many smaller cities grow rapidly, from Monterrey (Mexico), Guatemala City (Guatemala), Managua (Nicaragua), Tegucigalpa (Honduras), Medellín, Barranquilla, and Cartagena (Colombia), to Córdoba, Mendoza, and Salta (Argentina).

By the dawn of the 20th century, between 10 and 20 percent of Latin America’s population of some 60 million resided in cities, a percentage that would grow dramatically in the coming decades; by the end of the century, around three-quarters of Latin America’s population of 520 million was urban.