Characteristics of the Latin American Urban Center

City centers, or urban centers, in Latin America share some common characteristics. They generally have low population density, a large floating population, underutilized buildings and infrastructure, and great physical, cultural, and social diversity. In many cases, they hold important historical and cultural value, and can be key factors for new, more efficient urban development citywide. We will analyze these elements in the following sections.

Historical Evolution of the City Center

National capitals and secondary cities in the region share certain characteristics that distinguish them from large urban centers in other parts of the world.1 For instance, most of these cities were founded by Spanish conquistadors during the sixteenth century, which imbued them with their distinctive urban characters.2 As former seats of viceroyalties and military commands that date back to the very origins of Latin American countries, the city centers contain important historical and cultural significance in terms of their national identity. The colonial cities eventually became home to republican governments, and even today many remain the seats of modern democratic national or subnational governments.3 Buildings and monuments, as well as history, local culture, and political symbolism, are singular and invaluable possessions of the city center.

The areas considered to be city centers or traditional centers today in fact constituted the entire city areas during the colonial era and the beginning of the republican era. The modern cities are a product of the economic urbanization process that gained momentum in the early twentieth century. Today, these cities are much larger in size and population than their traditional centers were. Along with the expansion of cities from the center outward, over the last century traditional centers were affected by an intraurban dynamic that resulted in the relocation of services, businesses, and industries to new centers or secondary centers.

The relocation of these economic centers and the subsequent disappearance of jobs or change in the types of employment available unleashed a process of population drift away from the city centers. Because the participants of this migration toward the suburbs were mainly from the middle and upper classes, it was the most disadvantaged population that stayed behind in the centers. As the population left, taking jobs along with it, the infrastructures and old buildings in the city centers, if they were not completely abandoned or subject to physical deterioration, began to be used for other functions. Therefore, in the most recent decades, the urban center was characterized by low population density and infrastructure, and an underutilization of land.

Still, as long as city centers manage to retain important political func- tions—as is the case with Santiago, Lima, Quito, Bogota, and Mexico City—their economies will follow the rhythm of urban social and physical transformations to adapt to the new environment. We will discuss this concept below.

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