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Latin American urban development into the 21st
Towards a renewed perspective on the city
Dennis Rodgers, Jo Beall, Ravi Kanbur1
“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears.”
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (1972).
According to UN-Habitat (2007: 337), Latin America is the most urbanized region in the world.
Over three quarters of its population resided in cities at the turn of the 21st century, a proportion
that is estimated will rise to almost 85 percent by 2030. By comparison, just over 36 and 37
percent of the populations of Africa and Asia were urban dwellers in 2000. In many ways, this
state of affairs is not surprising. Urbanization and urban culture have long been features of the
Latin American panorama, with the Mayas, Incas, and Aztec – to name but the best-known Pre-
Columbian societies – all associated with the construction of large urban centres (see Hardoy,
1973),2 while Iberian colonialism – which held sway over the region for over three hundred years
– was administered by means of a widespread network of cities from which power and control
were projected, both materially and symbolically (see Hoberman and Socolow, 1986). At the
same time, however, the region’s contemporary urban condition is very much a consequence of
20th century developments: “in 1900, most Latin Americans lived in the countryside and only
three cities had more than half a million inhabitants” (Gilbert, 1994: 25). Industrialization and the
introduction of capitalist modes of production in rural areas from the 1930s onwards triggered a
process of concentrated urbanization that seventy years later had led to a majority of the societies
in the region crossing the urban threshold (Valladares and Prates Coelho, 1995
), as well as the
emergence of over forty cities with more than one million inhabitants (Angotti, 1995: 14).
As Alan Gilbert (1994: 21) has pointed out, this rapid urbanization – which has “no parallel in the
history of the world” (Kemper, 2002: 91) – fostered a particular “quality and distinctiveness
about the Latin American city”. Until the beginning of the 20th
1 Respectively Senior Research Fellow, Brooks World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester, UK; Deputy
Vice-Chancellor, University of Cape Town, South Africa & Professor of Development Studies, London School of
Economics and Political Science, UK; and T. H. Lee Professor of World Affairs, International Professor of Applied
Economics and Management, and Professor of Economics, Cornell University, USA. This is a contribution to a
forthcoming UNU-WIDER volume on Urbanization and Development in Latin America, which is part of a larger
UNU-WIDER Project on Urbanization and Development. It will also appear as a UNU-WIDER working paper.
century, the region’s urban
imaginary largely reflected the ideas expounded upon in Domingo Sarmiento’s celebrated work
Civilizacíon y Barbarie: Vida de Don Facundo Quiroga, first published in 1845. This famously
contended that the central tension of Latin American society was “the dialectic between
civilization and barbarism” (González Echevarría, 2003: 2), and posited that the latter was
inherently associated with the unbridled violence of life in the countryside, while the former was
linked to the law and order of urban life (see Sarmiento, 2003). Latin American urban centres
were consequently widely seen as “cities of hope” (see Pineo and Baer, 1998), and were
considered the focal points for a burgeoning modernity that led many during the latter half of the
2 Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, was with an estimated population of 300,000 very likely the largest city in the
world around 1400 (Low, 1995: 756).
century to see the region as “the land of the future” (Dunkerley, 2000: 142). The
unprecedented urban growth that characterised Latin America from the 1930s onwards gradually
transformed this utopian urban imaginary, however, and promoted a much more negative
conception of cities, which manifested itself in a variety of guises over the years, from the
popular theory of “over-urbanization” in the 1940s and 1950s (see Germani, 1973), to the
currently predominant vision of the Latin American city as a “city of walls” (Caldeira, 2000).
As Gianpaolo Baiocchi (2001) has remarked, the problem with such utopian and dystopian
representations of cities is that they both tend to obscure the fact that urban contexts are
multifaceted spaces, simultaneously integrating both positive and negative tendencies. Indeed,
Lewis Mumford (1996 : 185) famously observed that “the city in its complete sense …is a
…collective unity”, and argued that it could only be understood through a consideration of the
ways in which opposing aspects of urban life articulated together, rather than by simply
emphasizing one or the other. This is especially important if we are to conceive of cities as part of
the solution rather than part of the problem, something that is clearly critical in a world that has
inexorably moved beyond its urban “tipping point” (see Beall et al., 2010). Contrarily to the
overwhelming majority of past characterisations of urban contexts in the region, this article
argues for a more systemic engagement with Latin American cities, contending that the time has
come to re-consider their unity in order to nuance the “fractured cities” perspective that has
widely come to epitomise the contemporary urban moment in the region (see Koonings and
Kruijt, 2007), and which has led to something of a Latin American urban “impasse”. It begins by
offering a broad-brush overview of regional urban development trends, before exploring
changing concerns and predominant issues in order to illustrate how the underlying imaginary of
the city has critically shifted over the past half century. Focusing particularly on the way that
slums and shantytowns have been conceived in the Latin American urban imagination, it
highlights how thinking about cities in the region has been subject to a pendulum movement that
has seen them become increasingly considered as fundamentally fragmented spaces rather than
unitary systems within which the majority of the region’s population now resides. This particular
vision of this has critically negative ramifications for urban development agendas, and the article
thus concludes with a call for a renewed vision of Latin American urban life.
2.0 Patterns of Latin American urban development
Although cities were an important feature of pre-Columbian societies in Latin America, the shape
of contemporary regional urbanization owes more to the “common history and the strong cultural
roots that were laid during almost three hundred years of Iberian rule” (Gilbert, 1994: 21).
Spanish – and to a much lesser extent, Portuguese – colonizers either destroyed or superimposed
their own settlements over existing indigenous urban centers, and rapidly built a network of new
ones through which they imposed their political control and administered their conquered
territories. As Daniel Goldstein (2004: 6-8) summarizes, “colonial cities were planned and
constructed to reflect …the hierarchical racial and political-economic organization of [colonial]
society itself. These cities were to be highly ordered, regular, and governable, their streets
uniform, and the functions assigned to particular areas of the city (e.g., housing, commerce,
government) predetermined and restricted to those areas. Thus emerged the famous grid pattern
of the Latin American city, which persists to this day: the ideal of rationality, of order reflected in
the physical layout of the city …in symmetrical fashion with a series of straight streets emanating
from a central plaza or square endowed with a church, a town hall, a prison, and the picota”.
The post-colonial period saw an intensification of efforts to rationalize and order Latin American
urban landscapes. Cities were consolidated and to a certain extent reorganized as the region
moved from a quasi-self-sufficient settler economy to gradual integration into the world market
as a producer of primary goods. Urban development during this period was consequently
principally connected to the changing commercial functions of cities. Towards the latter half of
century, large scale international migration also began to play a prominent role in shaping
patterns of urbanization in the region, as the region saw significant human inflows from all over
the world. Most immigrants, however, came from impoverished areas of Europe – in particular
Italy and Spain – and were seeking to start afresh in a Latin America that was very much viewed
as a virgin land of opportunity. The population of Buenos Aires, for example, grew from just
under a quarter of a million in 1869 to over two million in 1914, and this mainly a result of
migration, as is well evidenced by the fact that three out of four inhabitants of the city in 1910
had been born abroad (Gilbert, 1994: 39).
This international migratory flow tapered off following the First World War, but internal rural-
urban migratory flows soon took over as a new and even more consequent source of urban
growth (Kemper, 1971). The broader impulse for this development was the implementation of
import substitution industrialization (ISI) policies in most of Latin America from the 1930s
onwards. Industrial clustering generated significant labour opportunities in cities, which together
with the transformation of traditional modes of production in the countryside, fuelled massive
population movement from the countryside to urban settlements, to the extent that the region
became demographically urban within less than two generations (Lattes, Rodríguez and Villa,
2003). Due to industrial clustering,3 urban growth initially tended to be concentrated in one or
two cities per country, and led to a “primacy” effect, whereby the populations of these principal
urban centres far exceeded those of secondary urban centres.4
Writing in 1980, Peter Lloyd
(1980: 4) for example noted how “at the end of the eighteenth century, Arequipa, Peru’s second
city, was two-thirds the size of Lima (and in fact had a larger ‘Spanish colonist’ population).
Today Lima is fifteen times the size of its nearest rival. The capital contains almost a quarter of
the country’s population, compared with only 5 per cent at the earlier period”.
Urban primacy is a feature of most developing countries, but as table 1 below highlights well,
when compared to other regions of the world, Latin America very clearly stands out, with several
of its countries displaying the highest primacy indices in the world. Perhaps not surprisingly,
Latin America currently has two of the five largest “mega-cities” worldwide, despite
concentrating less than 15 percent of the planet’s urban population (Kruijt and Koonings, 2000:
10). At the same time, however, urban growth began to be less concentrated in large cities from
the end of the 1970s onwards, as Latin America witnessed a “broadening of the urban hierarchy”
(Roberts, 1989: 673) due to the proliferation of middle sized
3 Government policies also led to the creation of new urban centres in previously marginal regions, either explicitly
to stimulate regional economic development or else to serve as administrative capitals. Examples include Brasilia in
Brazil (see Holston, 1989), as well as Ciudad Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico or Ciudad Guayana in Venezuela.
cities with more than 50,000 but less
than one million inhabitants (Cerrutti and Bertoncello, 2003). This new trend was partly linked to
the end of ISI policies and the widespread introduction of a new free-market model throughout
4 Colombia is a partial exception, and had a more balanced urban network, at least during the 1960s (see Valladares
and Prates Coelho, 1995)
the region that emphasized deregulation and decentralization, including the end of industrial
policy and other forms of state-sponsored macro-economic management. As Alejandro Portes
and Bryan Roberts (2005: 76) describe: “Traditional urban primacy …declined almost
everywhere, giving rise to the rapid growth of secondary centers and to more complex urban
systems whose future evolution remains uncertain. The relative decline of traditional primate
cities has been due, among other factors, to their loss of attraction as a magnet for internal or
international migrants, lower levels of fertility, and the economic attraction of new growth poles
created by local or regional export booms promoted by the new model. Internal migration flows
…responded rapidly to these developments, leading to the growth of secondary cities in Brazil,
Chile, and, in particular, along the Mexico-U.S. border”.
Table 1: Primacy Index: Latin America and the World (circa 1995)
Latin America and the Caribbean
Source: Adapted from Cerrutti and Bertoncello (2003: 14).
The rise of middle sized cities also coincided with a decline in rural-urban migration flows.
While rural-urban transferences were estimated to make up almost half of all urban growth in the
1950s, this proportion was thought to have declined to just over a third by the 1990s (Lattes,
Rodriguez and Villa, 2003). The process was not experienced homogeneously throughout Latin
America, however, with some countries such as Bolivia and Paraguay still displaying high levels
of movement from the countryside to the city. Indeed, the phenomenon clearly remains
significant, although arguably now mainly due to push rather than pull factors, insofar as access
to social services and labour opportunities in rural areas continue to be much worse than in urban
areas. At the same time, the predominant form of spatial movement within contemporary Latin
America is undoubtedly urban-urban migration.5
“In Mexico, for example, between 1987 and
1992, 50 percent of interstate movements (excluding intra-metropolitan movements) had urban
areas as origin and destination…; and between 1995 and 2000, 70 percent of all municipal
movements took place between urban areas and only 14 percent were rural-city movements”
(Cerrutti and Bertoncello, 2003: 11). Urban-urban migration moreover displays very different
characteristics to rural-urban movement, in that urban-urban migrants tend to be more educated
than their rural-urban counterparts (and even, in some cases, than non-migrants).
This latter trend is by no means surprising in view of the evolution of urban labour markets in
post-ISI Latin American cities, which have more often than not seen significantly increasing rates
of unemployment and informal employment due to the demise of old industries and the
contraction of public employment, particularly from the 1980s onwards. This has had clear
repercussions on the evolution of urban poverty and inequality trends in the region’s cities. As
Alejandro Portes and Bryan Roberts (2005: 77) remark, “the trend common to all countries was
the persistence of or rise in levels of inequality prompted by the appropriation of larger income
shares by the dominant classes, and the stagnation or at least lower growth in the slice of the
economic pie going to the working classes. In most countries, the informal proletariat is the
largest class of the population, exceeding by several multiples the combined size of the dominant
classes. The informal proletariat bore the brunt of economic adjustment both through its
numerical growth, due to the contraction of the formal sector, and the stagnation or decline in real
average wages, which, in most cases, failed to lift working-class families out of poverty”.
Perhaps not surprisingly in view of the widely noted relationship between crime and inequality
(Fajnzylber et al., 2002), Latin American cities generally experienced a sustained rise in violence
and insecurity during the 1990s and beyond (Moser and McIlwaine, 2006). This increasing
insecurity of urban life has had a critical impact on cities, in particular generated a “new urban
segregation”, most evident in the proliferation of “fortified enclaves”, that is to say “privatized,
enclosed, and monitored spaces of residence, consumption, leisure, and work” (Caldeira, 1999:
114), designed to isolate their occupants from criminality and therefore minimize their insecurity.
These typically take the form of self-sufficient gated communities and closed condominiums,
characterised by high walls, sophisticated surveillance technology, and round-the-clock private
5 International migration, particularly to the USA and, to a lesser extent, Western Europe, has been an ever growing
phenomenon since the 1980s (see Castles and Miller, 2009). Although tangential to the remit of this article, it is
interesting to note that the overwhelming majority of this migration is ultimately urban-urban migration, since most
immigrants come from cities in Latin America, and end up in cities abroad.
security that in addition to making residences secure, also protect on-site amenities such as shops,
sports clubs, restaurants, or bars.6
Fortified enclaves can vary considerably, however. In Buenos
Aires, for example, the “countries” – from the English term “country club” – are purpose-built on
the northern periphery of the city, and spread over very large areas, often including polo grounds
and football pitches within their boundaries (Svampa, 2001). By contrast, in Santiago de Chile
fortified enclaves tend to be concentrated in the north-east of the city, and involve the piecemeal
“closing off” of areas through the privatisation of streets and squares in order to constitute
“closed communities” (Fischer et al., 2003; and Sabatini and Arenas, 2000).
In some Latin American cities, such as Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, the phenomenon
has gone even further than enclaves, with urban segregation developing through an active process
of “disembedding” rather than fragmentation (Rodgers, 2004). Partly because of the small size of
the Managua urban elite, what has emerged instead of gated communities and closed
condominiums is a “fortified network”, which has been constituted through the selective and
purposeful construction of high speed roads connecting the spaces of the elites within the city:
their homes, offices, clubs, bars, restaurants, shopping malls, and the international airport. The
poor are excluded from these locations by private security, but also from the connecting roads,
which are cruised at breakneck speeds by expensive 4x4 cars, and have no traffic lights but only
roundabouts, meaning that those in cars avoid having to stop – and risk being carjacked – but
those on foot risk their lives when they try to cross a road. The general picture, in other words, is
one whereby a whole “layer” of Managua’s urban fabric has been “ripped out” of the fabric of the
metropolis for the exclusive use of the city elites, thereby profoundly altering the cityscape and
the relations between social groups within it by exacerbating socio-spatial polarization,
dismantling previous forms of community cohesion, and effectively disrupting the unity of the
3.0 Key issues in Latin American urban development
Surprisingly few comprehensive overviews of the key issues have emerged from scholarly
research on Latin America’s particular pattern of urban development, and none very recently.
Following Philip Hauser (1961) and Richard Morse’s (1965, 1974) pioneering surveys, the most
extensive reviews have undoubtedly been those produced by Jorge Hardoy and Alan Gilbert, both
individually (Hardoy, 1975; Gilbert, 1994) and in collaboration (Gilbert, Hardoy and Ramirez,
1982; see also Morse and Hardoy, 1992), as well as Wayne Cornelius and Robert Kemper (1978).
Otherwise, there have been a handful of small number of isolated – and generally short – stand-
alone papers (e.g. Walton, 1979; Valladares and Prates Coelho, 1995; Kemper, 2002).8
6 An often overlooked but very much related and extremely significant urban development that has proliferated
concurrently with gated communities and closed condominiums in Latin American cities are the numerous semi-
private malls and other “mega-projects” catering exclusively for the rich (see Jones and Moreno, 2007).
To a large
7 Such urban developments are often linked to broader processes of globalization (see Sassen, 1991), although as
Laurence Crot (2006), has pointed out, it is important to realise that the territorial impact of globalizing forces will
inevitably be mediated by the city system. In particular, she shows how territorial transformations that have taken
place in Buenos Aires over the past two decades cannot be simplistically related to – or blamed on – global
pressures, but rather are the result of their specific articulation with local urban configurations, and in particular the
local Buenos Aires planning process. The same is arguably true of the “disembedding” of Managua, although the
planning process here has clearly been much more exclusive than its Buenos Aires equivalent (see Rodgers, 2008).
8 A partial exception is the joint Princeton-University of Texas-Austin research programme on “Latin American
Urbanization at the end of the Twentieth Century” that has (so far) produced a collection of six individual city case
extent, the dearth of general synoptic literature is clearly due to the fact that the overwhelming
majority of the research that has been conducted on Latin American cities has tended to be quite
specialised, and has not really attempted to get to grips with the dynamics of urbanization per se,
at best considering these epiphenomenally (Leeds, 1994: 235). Certainly, Robert Kemper (2002:
96) even goes so far as to suggest that “most of our knowledge about Latin American
urbanization has been pieced together from case studies of a variety of analytical units examined
in a wide range of urban (and non-urban) contexts”, and that “rarely have comparative data been
gathered”, with “relatively little attention given to the longitudinal dimensions of urban
Certain basic trends can nevertheless be identified. In particular, as Licia Valladares and Magda
Prates Coelho (1995) have noted, there has been a clear evolution in the overall thematic focus of
research on Latin American urban contexts. The first major wave of studies in the 1950s and
1960s was very much focused on the general demographic dynamics of cities, including in
particular rural-urban migratory flows. Studies focused principally on migrants’ relation with the
city, and the emergent ways of life in the “marginal settlements” they rapidly became associated
with (see Roberts, 1978; Lloyd, 1979). This led during the 1970s to a more specific focus on
the economic aspects of urban life, including in particular an emphasis on the study of
employment and labour market dynamics, partly consequent to the worldwide economic crisis
brought on by the oil shock of 1973. By the 1980s, however, politics – and in particular those
associated with the mobilisation of the poorer strata of urban society – became the predominant
theme of a majority of studies (see Kowarick, 1994), before finally giving way from the 1990s
onwards to a hegemonic concern with the social dynamics of city life, most evident in the
proliferation of investigations into the dynamics of urban violence and insecurity (see Rotker,
It is obviously beyond the scope of this article to attempt to systematically map all the different
iterations of this particular intellectual evolution, and we will limit the scope of discussion to the
way that it unfolded in relation to one specific but arguably very important aspect of Latin
American urban development over the past 70 years or so, namely the phenomenon that is
variably called slums, shantytowns, squatter settlements or, in the Latin American vernacular,
asentamientos, favelas, barriadas, poblaciones, and villas miserias.9
Not only has this topic
recently been very much in vogue globally (see UN-Habitat, 2003; Davis, 2006), but as Auyero
et al. (forthcoming) point out, it also arguably offers an “x-ray” of Latin America’s urban
development in a way that few other issues can, as shantytowns and slums have been either the
focus or the site for a significant proportion of scholarly studies of urban contexts in the region.
As such, the key themes and issues that have emerged from shantytown research over the years
offer us a critical window onto the general trajectory of predominant thinking about Latin
American urban development, and in particular the way that this have moved from considering
cities from a utopian to a dystopian perspective.
studies (Portes et al., 2005), as well as two articles that focus on the specific consequences respectively of neo-
liberalism and political mobilisation for Latin American urban contexts (Portes and Roberts, 2005; Roberts and
9 For convenience’s sake, we will use these terms interchangeably in this paper, although we realize that they do not
necessarily all refer to equivalent phenomena under all circumstances, and moreover that they are often highly
charged labels (see Gilbert, 2007).
Indeed, the initial concern with slums can in many ways be seen as the beginning of this critical
shift in the Latin American urban imaginary. As Robert Kemper (2002: 95) points out, early
studies of slums and shantytowns in the 1940s and 1950s tended to see such aggregations as
“festering sores” or “cancers” within otherwise booming Latin American cities. Although they
were understood as a “natural” consequence of the influx of migrants from the countryside
seeking opportunities in cities along the lines generally theorized by W. Arthur Lewis (1954),
they were also effectively seen as a traditional throwback that could potentially detain the march
of modernization. This concern became all the more acute when studies increasingly reported that
far fewer jobs were being created in urban centres than were necessary to accommodate the
migrant-fuelled growth of their economically active populations.10
This imbalance came to be
referred to as a problem of “over-urbanization” (Germani, 1973), and was widely considered a
key threat to potentially achieving a balanced development process in Latin America during the
1950s (Gugler, 1982). Following major critique, in particular by N. V Sovani (1964), the notion
of “over-urbanization” was subsequently refined, and the issue became less that there were too
many people and not enough jobs in cities, but rather too many people involved in the wrong
kinds of economic activity, as migrants from low-productivity rural agricultural employment took
up low-productivity urban employment or were underemployed. This came to be known as the
“tertiarisation” phenomenon (Gilbert, 1994: 60).
By the end of the 1960s, however, the problematic nature of slums was seen to be less that their
populations were ill-adapted to urban labour markets, and more that as a result of their inferior –
but ultimately necessary – jobs, shantytown dwellers could not participate “properly” in the
working of the city, or in other words, they were “marginal” to mainstream urban development
(see Kowarick, 1980). The concept of marginality quickly extended from an economic notion to a
sociological and psychological one, which explained the difficulties displayed by the hordes of
rural migrants in adjusting to city life as being related to their “incapability” to adopt an urban
way of life. This idea especially gained traction in the wake of the work of Oscar Lewis (1959;
1961; 1966), and more specifically his notion of the “culture of poverty”, which suggested that
the material circumstances of impoverishment characteristic of the slums and shantytowns of
Latin American cities inevitably generated a series of cultural adaptations that led to the
constraints of poverty being internalized by those caught up in its vicissitudes, in order to make
them ontologically more acceptable. The inhabitants of marginal squatter settlements thus
displayed “helplessness”, and rarely engaged in long-term strategising, preferring to pursue
“instant gratification” instead, something that effectively kept them in a “vicious cycle” of
impoverishment (Lewis, 1966: 53).
The “culture of poverty” cemented a particular perception of Latin America cities, which came to
be widely seen as constituted on the one hand of bustling, modernizing, progressive areas –
generally in the centre – and problematic, unproductive, and backwards areas – generally on the
periphery – on the other (Kruijt and Koonings, 2009). The notion of the “culture of poverty”
provoked enormous debate (see Valentine, 1968; Hannerz, 1969; Leacock, 1971), however, and
was derided as “a ‘blame the victim’ strategy” (Lancaster, 1988: 75). The idea that poor people
passively accepted their fate and could not become active participants in urban life was
10 As Alejandro Portes and Laura Benton (1984: 593) note, “between 1950 and 1980, the total Latin American
economically active population grew at an annual rate of 2.5 percent, but the urban labour force increased at a rate of
4.1 percent per year”.
particularly criticised, including by Janice Perlman (1976: 242-43, emphasis in original), who on
the basis of extensive ethnographic research in Rio de Janeiro favelas argued that the prevailing
wisdom about those living in contexts of marginality was completely wrong: “Socially, they are
well organized and cohesive and make wide use of the urban milieu and its institutions.
Culturally, they are highly optimistic and aspire to better education for their children and to
improving the condition of their houses. The small piles of bricks purchased one by one and
stored in backyards for the day they can be used is eloquent testimony to how favelados strive to
fulfill their goals. Economically, they work hard, they consume their share of the products of
others (often paying more since they have to buy where they can get credit), and they build - not
only their own houses but also much of the overall community and urban infrastructure. They
also place a high value on hard work, and take great pride in a job well done. Politically, they are
...aware of and keenly involved in those aspects of politics that most directly affect their lives,
both within and outside the favela. ...In short, they have the aspirations of the bourgeoisie, the
perseverance of pioneers, and the values of patriots”.
Many studies reported similar findings in other major Latin American cities, including Mexico
City (Lomnitz, 1977) or Lima (Lobo, 1982), for instance, and contributed to the emergence of a
new debate concerning slum life, in particular related to the nature of poor people’s involvement
in urban economic development (see Butterworth and Chance, 1981). This issue crystallized
around the notion of the “informal economy” (see Thomas, 1995), and in particular the question
whether such forms of economic enterprise simply constituted a form of survival, prone to
exploitation or enabling minimal capital accumulation (see Moser, 1978), or else something that
had the potential to be “a dramatic ‘bootstrap’ operation, lifting the underdeveloped economies
through their own indigenous enterprise” (Hart, 1973: 89). A clear consensus concerning the
fundamental nature of the informal economy has yet to emerge (see Guha-Khasnobis et al., 2006),
although it should be noted that the notion that informal economic activities can potentially be
developmentally positive has been more influential in Latin America than anywhere else in the
world as a result of the work of Hernando de Soto (1989), which has been strongly championed by
the World Bank (see e.g. Maloney, 2001).
The economic potential of slum-dwellers continues to be a major bone of policy contention, but the
situation is very different with regards to what might be termed the “politics of poverty”. Perlman’s
research was particularly critical within the context of the intellectual trajectory of thinking about
Latin American cities because it blew apart the widespread notion that shantytown dwellers were
politically apathetic and unengaged, bringing politics centre-stage to the study of urban poverty,
something that had not been the case previously, except to a certain extent in relation to eviction
processes (e.g. Peattie, 1970). Perlman (1976: 243) particularly noted how favelados were
“responsive to the …parameters in which they operate[d]”, often bargaining astutely with
politicians, exchanging their votes for services, and very much participating in what were usually
patron-client forms of politics (see also Auyero, 2000), and a number of scholars subsequently
began to explore grassroots political mobilisation in the slums and shantytowns of the region (e.g.
Eckstein, 1977; Velez-Ibañez, 1983; Smith, 1989). This became a veritable flood in the wake of
the wave of democratisation that swept Latin America during the 1980s, as the region’s slums
and shantytowns increasingly came to be seen as privileged spaces for the emergence of radical
forms of political action (see Stokes, 1991; Jones, 1994).11
11 There had been some earlier interest in slum-dweller politics, of course, including in particular by left-leaning
The new political turn in Latin American slum studies drew largely on Manuel Castells’ (1983)
ground-breaking theories that turned the classic Marxist notion of class on its head and offered
consumption and life – rather than work – experiences as the basis for collective consciousness
and therefore action. Most studies focused their attention on what came to be known as “social
movements” (see Cardoso, 1987; Eckstein, 1989; Escobar and Alvarez, 1992). These were
conceived less as directed forms of protest than broader instances of political “being that had
more indistinct consequences than traditional class-based movements. As Nancy Whittier (2002:
289) summarizes: “social movements are neither fixed nor narrowly bounded in space, time, or
membership. Instead, they are made up of shifting clusters of organizations, networks,
communities, and activist individuals, connected by participation in challenges and collective
identities through which participants define the boundaries and significance of their groups”. The
social movement literature was extremely prolific, and inspired a whole generation of urban
scholars to focus their attention of a range of different identity-based social movements
emanating from slums, including religious (e.g. Burdick, 1992), racial (e.g. Gomes da Cunha,
1998), gendered (e.g. Jelin, 1990), and sexual (e.g. Wright, 2000), amongst others. Such
movements were widely portrayed potentially key political players in the new post-authoritarian
democratic Latin America, insofar as it was argued that they would inherently transcend the
region’s traditionally patronage-based and corporatist politics.
An issue that however rapidly emerged as critical with regard to the politics of slum-based social
movements was the way that they interfaced with the state, whether in its local urban
manifestation or its national incarnation, since this indisputably remained the single most
important social actor in Latin American society (Lehmann, 1991). Although social movements
were widely theorised as being a potential means for involving the poor in decision-making
processes, as well as holding states to account (see Avritzer, 2002), numerous studies in fact
reported that if they failed to interface meaningfully with the state, they tended to have little in
the way of long-term constructive impacts on the lives of their participants and wider society (e.g.
Auyero, 2000; Goldstein, 2004; Gutmann, 2002; Melucci, 1996). This concern led to debates
around slum and shantytown dweller politics to engage with the issue of citizenship, and more
specifically the relationship that social movements could have with what was generally
considered to be the basic building block of post-authoritarian Latin American urban political
society (see Holston and Appadurai, 1999). In particular, within a broader Latin American
context where it was becoming increasingly common to talk of the existence of a “crisis of
governance” (see e.g. de Rivero, 1998; Galeano, 1998; Gledhill, 1996; O’Donnell, 1999), it was
widely speculated that slum-based social movements might have the potential to take on some of
the institutional functions of retreating states (see Earle, 2009).12
academics during the 1960s and 1970s. This, however, was not sustained, partly because, as Alejandro Portes (1972:
282) noted, while “few theories have been more widely held than that of slum radicalism[,] few have met with more
consistent rejection from empirical research. Studies in almost every Latin American capital have found leftist
extremism to be weak, or even nonexistent, in peripheral slums”.
12 An opposite but related debate that emerged from the late 1980s onwards concerned the possibility of developing
alternative forms of democratic governance that linked grassroots social movements more meaningfully with the
state, including in particular more participatory forms of politics that could include spatially and economically
excluded shantytown dwellers (Fung and Wright, 2003; Chavez and Goldfrank, 2004). The ubiquitous example of
such democratic innovation was participatory budgeting, and more specifically its implementation in Porto Alegre,
Brazil, which was widely held up as an empirical example that “another world is possible” (Abers, 2000; Baiocchi,
The main focus of this line of thinking concerned slum-based forms of “insurgent citizenship”
(Holston, 1999, 2008), or in other words, bottom-up initiatives that “offer proposals and conceive
concrete alternatives – and …realize them despite the state apparatus and …against the state”
(Lopes de Souza, 2006: 329). There have been studies of such practices all over Latin America
during the past decade and a half, but a veritable (cottage) industry developed in relation to the
2001 crisis in Argentina, which as Marcela López Levy (2004: 10) remarked, was widely seen as
“a heady time steeped in a sense of shared destiny when people bypassed politics as usual”, and
engaged in a range of innovative forms of collective action, including piqueteros (organised
groups of unemployed workers), asambleas barriales (spontaneous neighbourhood assemblies),
clubes de trueque (barter clubs), and empresas recuperadas (“recovered” – i.e. worker-occupied
– enterprises). At the same time, however, although such forms of collective action are
undoubtedly frequently a significant feature of slums and shantytowns throughout contemporary
urban Latin America, there study has also more often than not been pervaded by a significant
element of romanticism, to the extent that they are generally perceived as “a social miracle”
(Wolff, 2007: 6). This has obscured the critical fact that contrarily to the social movements of the
1980s, their contemporary successors tend to operate in the absence of, rather than opposition to,
Dirk Kruijt and Kees Koonings (1999: 11) have described such circumstances as “local
governance voids”, and contend that far from generating new forms of political participation and
inclusion, they more often than not lead to a “democratisation” of violence, whereby brutality
“ceases to be the resource of only the traditionally powerful or of the grim uniformed guardians
of the nation... [but] increasingly appears as an option for a multitude of actors in pursuit of all
kinds of goals” (see also Koonings and Kruijt, 2004; Méndez et al., 1999). Certainly, it has been
widely reported that post-Cold War Latin America has seen a sharp rise in levels of violence (see
Londoño et al., 2000; Pearce, 1998), and the overwhelming majority of this brutality is clearly
concentrated in urban slums and shantytowns (Moser and McIlwaine, 2004). Indeed, it has
arguably become the defining feature of life in such settlements at the beginning of the 21st
century. As Janice Perlman (2010) for example dramatically documents in her landmark re-study
of her original Rio de Janeiro favela fieldwork sites from the late 1960s, contemporary violence
turned the “myth of marginality” into a “reality of insecurity and violence”, thereby
fundamentally undermining the possibilities for social mobilization and the political
empowerment that she had famously observed previously. Similarly, Robert Gay (2009)
describes how the “favelas of hope” he studied in Rio, which had been characterised by vibrant
grassroots organizations in the past, become “favelas of despair”, dominated by extralegal armed
actors spreading terror and mistrust. An equivalent picture emerges from other contemporary
studies of Rio de Janeiro’s slums (e.g. Arias, 2006; Goldstein, 2003; McCann, 2006; Penglase,
2005), as well as studies of slums and shantytowns in other Latin American cities (e.g. Goldstein,
2004; Hume, 2009; Moser, 2009; Rodgers, forthcoming).
The most prominent actors within this new panorama of urban violence are the youth gangs that
are a ubiquitous feature of almost every major city in Latin America (Rodgers, 1999; Jones and
2005). Interest in such processes has however begun to wane as numerous instances of practice either failed to work
or else failed to institutionalise over the long term, including the paradigmatic Porto Alegre case (see Koonings,
2009; Rodgers, 2010).
Rodgers, 2009), including especially in contemporary Central America (Arana 2005; Liebel
2004; Rodgers, 2006a; Rodgers and Muggah, 2009). Often portrayed as a form of modern-day
barbarism, they are a particularly visible element of slum and shantytown life in the region’s
cities, with many studies in fact explicitly linking the phenomenon’s emergence to the social,
spatial, economic, and political exclusion that characterize such urban areas (Rodgers, 2009). At
the same time, however, it is also increasingly noted that youth gangs are being superseded or
subsumed into more organized forms of crime including drug dealing that are much more violent
(see e.g. Leeds, 1996; Rodgers, 2007; Zaluar, 2004). This intensification of brutality is primarily
attributed to the particular repressive policies enacted by state authorities to counter urban
violence in generally – and gangs in particular (see Jütersonke et al., 2009) – that clearly aim
more than anything else to contain it in the slums and shantytowns of Latin American cities in
order to allow urban elites to live in comfortable and “splendid segregation” (Rodgers, 2006b;
Davis, 2009, 2010). This has helped cement a contemporary vision of slums and shantytowns as
“precarious peripheries” (Rolnik, 2001), ever more cut off from the rest of the metropolis,
something that is starkly symptomatic of the fact that Latin American cities are “splitting …into
divergent economic and cultural universes” (Bayat and Bierkart, 2009: 817).
4.0 Beyond Pendulums Swings
The above overview of the key trends and issues that have emerged concerning the role played by
slums in relation to urban development in Latin America reveals a distinct pendulum movement
between utopian and dystopian conceptions of shantytowns, sometimes seeing them as drivers of
progress, while at other times more as obstacles. Economically, for example, slums went from
being initially seen as reserve armies of labour to zones of exclusion and abandonment.
Politically, they moved from being considered marginal and apathetic to sources of alternative
collective action. Socially, shantytowns were seen to have evolved from integrating demographic
melting pots to nests of crime and violence that threaten to spill over to the rest of the city.13
the same time, however, a common point to all these different conceptualisations of slum
dynamics is an underlying dualism, insofar as they are predicated on a basic understanding of the
Latin American city as a fundamentally dichotomous entity – slums vs. the rest. To a certain
extent, this is by no means a new observation. John Walton (1978) for example famously
qualified the Latin American city as a “divided city”, focusing on the way that urban services in
Guadalajara, Mexico, were distributed in a way that favoured the elite and “forgot” slum
dwellers. This has however, clearly become increasingly marked over time, with slums now seen
as almost pathological social formations that are implicitly not considered properly part of the
city per se.
This has clearly promoted a vision of urban development promoting very piecemeal, and often
reactive policy initiatives that fail to take into account the unity of the cities and only consider
one aspect of the urban equation, so to speak. At best this has led to narrowly targeted urban
development programmes that focus either on one issue or else on a limited geographical area. At
worse, it has encouraged the proliferation of small-scale, bottom-up, local initiatives that take no
account of the broader urban context. Certainly, the above overview also clearly highlights how
slum life is part and parcel of Latin American modernity, and that shantytowns are not an
13 See Roberts (2010) for an exemplification of all these trends in relation to low-income neighbourhoods in
accidental offshoot of political and economic development, nor external phenomena, but rather
critical elements of the urban development of cities, albeit clearly within a broader dynamic of
ever-growing inequality and exclusion (Davis, 2006). Even the currently dominant Latin
American “city of walls” vision can be said to be based on an imaginary that inherently brings
together both those inside and outside the walls into a conceptually symbiotic relationship, albeit
a rather tense one. This tension notwithstanding, this does highlight the fundamental fact that
cities are collective sociological units, and this needs to be made much more explicit in
contemporary thinking about Latin American urban development.
Without wanting to come across as calling for a renewed optimism about the city – the empirical
evidence with regard to the purposeful nature and extent of urban exclusion in contemporary
Latin America unambiguously militates against such naivety (see Roberts and Wilson, 2009) – it
can nevertheless be contended that it is critical that the underlying epistemology of the
contemporary Latin American urban imaginary swing back towards a more holistic notion of the
city. Certainly, the current vision of “fractured cities” obscures the fact that cities are social,
economic, political, and cultural systems that bring together different and often contradictory
processes together, and unless we focus our attention more on the interrelatedness of these
different processes within cities, our analyses – and concomitant policy initiatives – will
unavoidably remain inadequate. As Arnold Toynbee (1970: vii) presciently pointed out in a now-
forgotten but highly original study of global urban history, the “urban explosion” calls for “the
unified study of human settlements”, because piecemeal analysis will inevitably miss the “big
picture” of things to come (which he speculated was the rise of a World-City, or
“Ecumenopolis”). When seen from this perspective, it becomes clear that we must adopt a
renewed perspective on cities to truly understand the underlying nature and challenges of Latin
American urban development in the 21st
century, especially if we are to see them as part of the
solution rather than part of the problem of contemporary development in an world that is
inexorably increasingly urban.
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