Liberal economic reform, an increase in per capita income and the cultural transformation of Western society are producing some shared socio-spatial elements in several Latin American cities, despite the overall historical and cultural diversity.
Over the next few decades, we will encounter cities that are more complex, diverse and ultimately more interesting to explore and discover, which is great news for those of us who cherish urban life. Contrary to the predictions of academics and city planners, urban centers are not only growing but are also increasingly fashionable. For years, we were told that the future of the Latin American city was in the suburbs, where a segregated and modern remoteness would hide the deficiencies of the States and the decadent urban centers. Today, suburbanites are interested in returning to the central areas – to enjoy their advantages in terms of entertainment, shopping and transportation – and they appear to be in the majority.
But the city that is now so fashionable is very different from the one that for a while seemed on the brink of collapse. While crime is still a concern for authorities, in general Latin American cities have seen an increase in safety, but without sacrificing public liberties. It’s this sensation of informality and disorder that differentiates them from the impeccable cities of northern Europe.
At the same time, the growth of national economies and peoples’ increased geographic mobility have created economically and ethnically diverse cities. As was the case in Chile during the 1990s, poverty is being reduced in a number of countries, giving way to an economic mosaic no longer comprised of a small elite and large working-class masses, but rather various social groups with their own interests, tastes and values. This greater heterogeneity is also due to an increase in immigration, which not only produces a more varied landscape, but also cities in which the cultural, culinary and artistic heritage has multiplied exponentially.
This socio-economic diversity can certainly be seen in spatial expressions. Modernity is no longer restricted to districts, neighborhoods and communities like Miraflores (Lima), Las Condes-Vitacura (Santiago), Urdesa (Guayaquil) and Barrio Norte (Buenos Aires). Instead, it has gradually begun to spread throughout the city as a whole. Shopping centers, supermarkets, restaurants, movie theaters and other cultural arenas – along with certain members of the elite – have come to the urban peripheries traditionally populated by the relatively dispossessed. Segregation is being reduced through spaces that differ from those traditionally reserved for high-income groups. As a result, cities like Bogotá, Santiago and Buenos Aires are seeing condos and apartment buildings for the upper-middle classes spring up in unexpected places, adding value and cultural density to these new areas.
In any case, this phenomenon of dispersion – both of the elite and the “artifacts of modernity” – implies both positive and negative social consequences. Greater proximity among social groups contributes to the integration of more marginal sectors, creating jobs and ensuring better services on the part of the State. Unfortunately, as the cost of living increases in more areas of the city, young, poor families are forced to live in even more peripheral neighborhoods.
Finally, the Latin American city that is beginning to emerge is a place in which entertainment, culture and areas dedicated to these activities will be more and more prevalent. Given the changes in the world economy and the fact that our countries are less competitive in terms of industrial production, the sectors of culture and entertainment appear to be obvious choices for economic development. As such, our culture, national identities, celebrations and local and ethnic distinctions will become a market commodity. The product? A unique urban experience-safe, authentic and ready to be enjoyed in places as diverse as a cebichería in Lima, a beach bar in Copacabana or an independent design shop in Buenos Aires’ Palermo Soho.
Dr. Rodrigo Salcedo is a scholar at the Instituto de Estudios Urbanos y Territoriales of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.