Random thoughts on the City

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    Emerging Urbanisms – Localised sustainability in cities of the global south.

    hassanykb Mar 11 '14 0

    Part 1  - Social Sustainability in Latin America.

    Most Latin American cities witnessed rapid urbanisation in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s as a result of high rates of urban growth by increasing populations and rural – urban migration. Between 1920 and 1970, the region had the second highest rates of population growth, Africa claiming the top position. For instance by 1990, the population doubled to 440 million from 1960(UN-HABITAT, 1996). Economically, the region experienced sustained growth rates. This resulted in the massive drifts to urban areas.  Cities were concentrations of industrial activity providing employment opportunities. Curitiba, in southern Brazil experienced a strong wave of rural migrants from Brazil and the whole continent during the 1940’s as a result of its thriving agro-industry. Medellin, a city in Columbia also experienced an increased urban growth from migrants who were attracted to its industrial activity and others who were fleeing violence in the countryside. Bogotá, also in Columbia experienced the same influx as a result of violence.


    This rapid urbanisation of cities without accompanying measures to cater for related issues like housing, transport and other services occasioned a number of problems.

    In the majority of cases as these migrants were peasant farmers from the hinterlands, they had no purchasing power to secure land for housing hence they resorted to the most cost effective way to satisfy their most basic need by squatting on land  - pirate urbanism. This led to the birth of informal settlements in a majority of these cities.

    To understand clearly the effect of a rapid urbanisation and pirate urbanism on the lives of people it is crucial to have a look at the typical spatial pattern of Latin American cities. Like most cities of the global south the influence of colonial urban policies and arrangements is quite clear. The cities are typically segregated between a new European service-rich quarter and a traditional core. Gilbert (1987) describes the morphology of the city as:

    “Most Latin American cities have a central core which developed during the colonial period sometimes on the site of an existing settlement in Mexico City and Cuzco, but most frequently in a new location…”

    As a result of this colonial legacy, the postcolonial morphology followed in the same lines of segregation further described by Gilbert (1987):

    “There are industrial zones which accommodate modern factories, well developed commercial and rental centres, high‐income residential areas, zones of government and private offices, and large swathes of low‐ income residential development. Some parts of the cities are well ordered and regulated, others lack services and appear to have developed spontaneously.” (Gilbert, 1987, page 181) as cited in (Barros, 2004).

    From this brief morphological history, the deep-rooted urban segregation can be understood. This urban segregation gave rise to the marginalisation of certain areas mostly the informal spontaneous formations, which were deemed to be illegal and thus had no right to the city by authorities.

    Being marginalised, these areas had no services and fell gradually into deep impoverishment without access to basic social amenities. Fending for themselves, these zones developed into hubs of violence and insecurity. Urban violence and insecurity became features of these settlements gaining worldwide notoriety.

    Urban segregation, insecurity and violence reigned in a majority of Latin American cities while these informal settlements continued to grow. City authorities came up with interesting ways of tackling the issue.

    Medellin, Columbia is an interesting case. It developed a name as the most violent city in the world in the 1980’s. The city is located in a low-lying valley surrounded by mountains. The informal settlements were situated on the slopes of these hills; hence there is a major challenge of mobility and access to these parts of the city. Visibly, the city is divided between a formal south and informal north. The city authorities developed a number of urban development strategies to reproject the city and above all integrate the informal parts of the city while providing for their infrastructural needs(Samper, 2012). Termed social urbanism, the approach was to transform the city through large-scale integrated urban projects. They thus developed an Integral Urban Project, which proposed specific plans like the Land Use Plan and Master Plan for Green Zones.

    The ultimate challenge for the intervention was the transport network in view of the topography. An innovative solution was designed which consisted of identifying what they term structuring axes that linked the informal and formal parts via no other than the Metrocable, a transport system, which is usually used in snow sporting areas. These axes were envisioned not only as transport axes but also as catalyst corridors for smaller infrastructure and public space projects. So for instance a transport axes will have the Metrocable above and on the ground facilities like cinema, public parks, schools etc. this innovative approach can be likened to identifying the “veins” and pumping “lifeblood” through them to reactivate the body.

        The Spain Library -Medellin[1]


    Metrocables linking the city.[2]


    Similar to the Medellin case is that of Curitiba where the approach was more in tune with Transit Oriented Development (TOD) as a catalyst to connect and develop the city.


    Today these cases are copied around the world and have won them an enviable place among cities aiming for sustainability. Medellin was named the most innovative city in the world in 2013.

    Now, to summarise all this, it is interesting to point out that, the sustainable city issue of Latin American cities especially with those cited above was largely social centred owing to their specific contexts. We had an issue were cities were largely divided along formal and informal lines. The informal settlements growing in numbers and being marginalised on all facets needed to breath and fend for themselves through all means necessary. Their notoriety thereof as bedrocks of violence and crime was mostly a response for survival.

    City authorities responded to this problematic state of affairs by identifying that to advance towards a just city they needed to rethink the status of informal settlements. Changing the lenses made them approach the informal question differently by seeking to integrate them into the city thus proffering innovative strategies to that end.

    In all, the case of these cities is that of social sustainability of the city. They have been able to show how we could look at the informal differently and advance an agenda towards a sustainable city. Through social sustainability they have been able to contextualise the sustainable city discourse and advanced equally in the economic and environmental fronts.


    Finally, the case of sustainable cities through the social dimension of sustainable development has been made in Latin American cities. In the next part of this series we will look at the particular case of African cities and what I think they should focus on to advance an agenda of sustainability in the city.




    Barros, J. X. (2004). Urban Growth in Latin American Cities Exploring urban dynamics through agent  based simulation.

    Samper, J. (2012). Urban Resilience in Situations of Chronic Violence Case Study of Medellín, Colombia (pp. 1–34).


    UN-HABITAT. (1996). An Urbanising World.




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i discuss issues affecting cities around the world with a specific interest on developing countries.

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