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Alfredo E. Lattes*, Jorge Rodríguez** and Miguel Villa** 1
This chapter analyzes and discusses the urbanization process in Latin America and the
Caribbean countries within the framework of development and population dynamics. It points
to a number of deficiencies in our current knowledge regarding the evolvement of the
settlement systems there. It goes on to suggest that this situation is highly related to the use of
inadequate concepts and to limitations in the available population data collection systems. The
chapter is organized in three parts. The first one comprises a historical overview of population
dynamics and urbanization trends in Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole. To set the
Latin American experience in perspective, the observed and expected trends will be compared
to those of other world regions. Then, in the second part, the different experiences of the 22
Latin American and Caribbean countries (see Figure 1) with at least 2 million inhabitants in
2000 will be analyzed. This part is organized in two sections: A) the dynamics of the
settlement, as far as can be seen from available statistics, and B) a review and critique of
current rural-urban classification schemes, with selected examples from national case studies.
Finally, the third part of the chapter presents suggestions for the improvement of the
production and dissemination of data for settlement analysis, including recent developments of
countries of the region.
* Centro de Estudios de Población (CENEP), Buenos Aires.
* *Area Población y Desarrollo del Centro Latinoamericano y Caribeño de Demografía (CELADE)
División de Población, Santiago de Chile.
1 The authors wish to acknowledge the assistance of Pablo Comelatto, CENEP, Buenos Aires.
Human development is a complex and heterogeneous social process among different
societies and within them. Population dynamics and settlements are components of the
development process. The settlement process includes not only population but also the
changing infrastructure that supports the population as well as the economic, political and
cultural activities of the society. The different territorial areas interact through the movement
of goods, capital, information and population. In other words, the study of the settlement
process and, particularly, the urban system contributes to a better understanding of the social
change (Bourne, 1992).
Most of the major cities of the Latin American region were built within the 16th
century (Eisenstadt and Shachar, 1987). The traditional colonial capitals of Mexico City and
Lima reached maturity in the 16th and 17th centuries and Buenos Aires, Caracas, Santiago de
Chile and Montevideo in the 18th century (Socolow and Johnson, 1981). More recent
developments, such as the large-scale international migration during the 19th and early 20th
centuries, shaped the settlement system and the urbanization process of the eight more
urbanized countries of the region. However, the most direct causes of the rapid urbanization
and the concentration of population in a few cities of Latin America are more recent, and are
linked to the two most important structural transformations undergone by societies in the
region as a result of severe international crises.
The first one coincided with the prevalence of a development model based on
government support for industrialization which rested on the imports substitution policy that
took place in the region during the 1930-1970 period and was responsible for, among other
things, the rapid modernization of most Latin American countries and, also, for extraordinary
rural-urban population shifts. During that period the region experienced its highest urban
growth and high rates of industrialization which, combined with the increase in economic and
territorial integration, led to the introduction of capitalist modes of production in the rural
The Keynesian model began to show signs of exhaustion and in the 1970s the collapse
of the economy became evident. Latin America experienced a serious and prolonged
economic recession during the 1980s, which was named “the lost decade”. The Economic
Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC, 1990) estimates that at the end of
1980 decade the GNP per capita in the region was the same as 13 years earlier.
The second and present phase of urbanization is associated with the new development
model directed at opening the national economies and promoting structural adjustment. The
changes include de-industrialization, growth of informal sectors, increases in urban poverty,
and a decline in the attraction of people to large metropolitan areas of the region. However, we
must emphasize that these trends do not necessarily indicate a reversal of urban concentration
as De Mattos (1998) pointed out.
Given these social and economic changes, the main trends in population distribution in
Latin America will be analyzed below2. One key issue will be addressed: the fact that our
analyses and discussions on the settlement system in Latin America are affected by the use of
inadequate concepts and by the limitations of the current population data collection systems.
By the first quarter of the twentieth century the level of urbanization of Latin America
was halfway between that of the developed world and that of the rest of the developing regions
(Table 1). Yet, since 1925, Latin America has been urbanized at a considerably more rapid
pace than Northern America and Europe, though somewhat less rapidly than Africa and Asia.
Thus, it would have taken 75 years (from 1925 to 2000) for the level of urbanization in
Northern America to rise from 53.8 to 77.2 percent, while Latin America covered the same
ground in only half the time. Projections of the levels of urbanization indicate that towards
2025, 81 to 83 percent of the population of the three regions (Europe, Latin America and
North America) will live in urban areas, whereas only 50 to 51 percent will do so in Africa
and Asia.
The chapter includes an update of Lattes (1998) with the new estimations and projections of the 1999
Revision of World Urbanization (United Nations, 2001a).
SELECTED MAJOR WORLD REGIONS, 1925-2025 (percentage)
Region* Year
1925 1950 1975 2000 2025
World 20.5 29.7 37.9 47.0 58.0
More developed regions 40.1 54.9 70.0 76.0 82.3
Less developed regions 9.3 17.8 26.8 39.9 53.5
North America 53.8 63.9 73.8 77.2 83.3
Latin America 25.0 41.4 61.2 75.3 82.2
Europe 37.9 52.4 67.3 74.8 81.3
Oceania 48.5 61.6 71.8 70.2 73.3
Africa 8.0 14.7 25.2 37.9 51.8
Asia 9.5 17.4 24.7 36.7 50.6
* Regions are ordered by level of urbanization in 2000.
Sources: year 1925: estimated from Hauser and Gardner (1982); 1950 to 2025: United Nations
Note: Data for Latin America include both the 22 countries selected and smaller countries whose
inclusion does not significantly change the level of urbanization of the whole region.
Table 2 shows that the rapid urbanization of Latin America took place in a context of
very high demographic growth to which it was necessarily related. Analyzing the rates
presented we can highlight two characteristics of the Latin American case for the fifty years
analyzed (1925-1975): i) the total population rate of growth was the highest of all regions and,
ii) the urban population also grew more rapidly than that of almost every region except Africa.
SELECTED PERIODS, 1925-2025 (percentage)
Region* Period
1925-1950 1950-1975 1975-2000 2000-2025
Total growth rate 1.0 1.9 1.6 1.0
Urban growth rate 2.5 2.9 2.4 1.9
Urbanization rate 1.5 1.0 0.9 0.8
North America
Total growth rate 1.3 1.4 1.0 0.6
Urban growth rate 2.0 2.0 1.1 0.9
Urbanization rate 0.7 0.6 0.2 0.3
Latin America
Total growth rate 2.1 2.6 1.9 1.2
Urban growth rate 4.1 4.2 2.7 1.5
Urbanization rate 2.0 1.6 0.8 0.4
Total growth rate 0.3 0.8 0.3 -0.1
Urban growth rate 1.6 1.8 0.7 0.2
Urbanization rate 1.3 1.0 0.4 0.3
Total growth rate 1.3 2.1 1.4 1.1
Urban growth rate 2.2 2.7 1.3 1.2
Urbanization rate 1.0 0.6 -0.1 0.2
Total growth rate 1.5 2.4 2.6 2.0
Urban growth rate 3.9 4.6 4.3 3.3
Urbanization rate 2.4 2.2 1.6 1.3
Total growth rate 1.1 2.2 1.7 1.0
Urban growth rate 3.5 3.6 3.3 2.3
Urbanization rate 2.4 1.4 1.6 1.3
* Regions are ordered by level of urbanization in 2000.
Sources: year 1925: estimated from Hauser and Gardner (1982); 1950
to 2025: United Nations (2001a).
Note: Data for Latin America include both the 22 countries selected
and smaller countries whose inclusion does not significantly change
the level of urbanization of the whole region.
A remarkable change occurred in Latin America between the first (1925-1950) and the
second quarter (1950-1975): urban growth shows a very slight increase whereas the
urbanization tempo undergoes an important decrease. Clearly enough, these changes are the
result of the higher total growth increase as compared to urban growth –a possible explanation
being that urban growth offsets the lesser incorporation of in-migrants from rural areas with
international immigration and with a higher natural growth. Both factors also contribute to a
total population higher growth.
On the other hand, the similarity of Latin America’s level of urbanization with that of the
most developed regions does not imply that other social and economic changes have also been
achieved. Although urbanization and the concentration of population in large cities may be a
prerequisite of development, it is not a sufficient condition. A recent report (ECLAC, 2000)
shows that the number of poor people continues growing, particularly in the urban areas of the
region, rising from 122 million in 1990 to 130 million in 1999. While in 1970 only 37 percent of
the poor people were urban residents, in 1999 that proportion increased to 62 percent.
1. The dynamics of the settlement
Observing the 22 selected countries of the region many diverse situations appear. A
remarkable variety of urbanization levels and trends among the countries of the region is not
only a peculiarity: it also shows an unequal degree of development. The situation in 1950
(Table 3) showed that only three countries (Uruguay, Argentina and Chile) had more than 50
percent of the total population residing in urban areas whereas in 2000, eighteen countries
reached the same condition.
LATIN AMERICA. SELECTED YEARS, 1950-2030 (percentage)
Country* Year
1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 2020 2030
Uruguay 78.0 80.1 82.1 85.2 88.7 91.2 93.0 94.1 94.7
Argentina 65.3 73.6 78.4 82.9 86.5 89.9 92.0 93.1 93.9
Venezuela 46.8 61.2 71.6 79.4 84.0 86.9 89.1 90.7 91.8
Chile 58.4 67.8 75.2 81.2 83.3 85.7 87.8 89.5 90.7
Brazil 36.0 44.9 55.8 66.2 74.7 81.3 85.2 87.3 88.9
Cuba 49.4 54.9 60.2 68.1 73.6 75.3 77.3 79.7 82.3
Puerto Rico 40.6 44.5 58.3 66.9 71.3 75.2 78.5 81.3 83.6
Mexico 42.7 50.8 59.0 66.3 72.5 74.4 76.7 79.3 81.9
Colombia 37.1 48.2 57.2 63.9 69.5 73.9 77.6 80.5 83.0
Peru 35.5 46.3 57.4 64.6 68.9 72.8 76.3 79.3 81.9
Ecuador 28.3 34.4 39.5 47.0 55.1 65.3 73.1 77.8 80.6
Dominican R. 23.8 30.2 40.3 50.5 58.3 65.1 70.5 74.5 77.7
Bolivia 37.8 39.3 40.7 45.5 55.6 62.5 67.8 72.1 75.7
Panama 35.8 41.3 47.7 50.5 53.7 56.2 59.6 64.0 68.6
Nicaragua 34.9 39.6 47.0 50.3 53.1 56.1 60.3 65.1 69.5
Jamaica 26.7 33.8 41.5 46.8 51.5 56.1 61.0 65.9 70.3
Paraguay 34.5 35.6 37.1 41.7 48.7 56.0 62.3 67.3 71.5
Honduras 17.6 22.8 28.9 34.9 41.8 52.7 61.2 66.7 71.0
Costa Rica 33.5 36.6 39.7 43.1 45.8 47.8 51.2 56.0 61.4
El Salvador 36.5 38.4 39.4 41.6 43.9 46.6 51.0 56.6 62.0
Guatemala 29.5 32.5 35.5 37.4 38.1 39.7 43.5 49.4 55.4
Haiti 12.2 15.6 19.8 23.7 29.5 35.7 42.3 48.8 54.9
TOTAL 41.4 49.3 57.5 65.0 71.1 75.4 78.6 81.1 83.3
* Countries are ordered by level of urbanization in 2000.
Source: United Nations (2001a).
The high concentration of population in a reduced number of countries and the positive
association between population size and urbanization level indicates that the trends of the
region have been, to a great extent, the trends of a group of countries: in 2000 more than 80
percent of total population and more than 85 percent of urban population of Latin America is
contained in eight large-sized countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico,
Peru and Venezuela); these, together with Uruguay and Puerto Rico, are the ten most
urbanized countries of the region.
If we regard the 22 countries as pertaining to five groups of homogeneous urbanization
level in 2000, we obtain the groups shown in Figure 2. Besides, this figure clearly exposes a
double convergence, both among the groups of countries as within each of them. It is also
observed that such convergence will continue in the next three decades.
1950 1970 1990 2010 2030
Middle low
1950 1970 1990 2010 2030
1950 1970 1990 2010 2030
Costa Rica
El Salvador
Middle high
1950 1970 1990 2010 2030
P. Rico
1950 1970 1990 2010 2030
Note: The vertical line represents year 2000 and the horizontal bar represents the urbanization level of the region at that year.
Source: Table 3.
While the urban transition and the demographic transition processes are closely
interrelated, the linkage net is complex (Lattes, 1995; Martinez, 1999; Villa, 1992). Among
the 22 countries analyzed it can be seen that those with an earlier urbanization also
underwent earlier demographic transition processes –an association that supports the
hypothesis that urban transition “facilitates” the decrease of natural growth. On the
contrary, those with low urbanization levels are at the beginning of their demographic
transitions –a fact related to the hypothesis that the rural condition of the population
“hinders” their demographic transition.
Urbanization and natural growth
Figure 3 shows an image of the relationship between the urbanization levels reached
in 2000 and the natural growth rate between 1995 and 2000 for the 22 countries. The
diagram shows two countries which, being far from the straight line, are worth commenting
on. One of them is Venezuela, a country that underwent a very rapid urbanization and today
is one of the most urbanized of the region –yet it would show a very high natural growth
rate as compared to the urbanization level reached. Another one is Haiti, the most rural
country of the region, which, opposite to Venezuela, shows a natural growth rate minor
than expected for such a low urbanization level.
LATIN AMERICA, 1995-2000.
Natural growth rate (percentage)
Urbanizaion level* (percentage)
*In 2000.
Source: Table 3 and United Nations (2001b).
We observed 22 countries along half a century with urbanization and demographic
stages very different from those shown at the beginning of the study (1950). They
underwent urbanization and demographic transition processes (from 1950 to 2000) of very
different sequence and intensity, and with such a wide variety of combination levels and
resulting processes, that their analysis exceeds the purpose of this work. Despite that, it
seems important to highlight the example of two countries, Venezuela and Uruguay which,
in 2000, shared a very high urbanization level and the same urbanization rate (0.3 percent
from 1990 to 2000) yet with very different paces of total and urban growth.
The different demographic histories of Venezuela and Uruguay prior to 1950 not
only marked the onset of their respective curves of urbanization level (Figure 4). While
Uruguay, from an urbanization level of 78 percent in 1950, only increased 13 points (91
percent in 2000), Venezuela, in the same 50 years period, underwent an urbanization
process that increased its level from 47 to 87 percent.
Part A
1950-1960 1960-1970 1970-1980 1980-1990 1990-2000
Growth rate (percentag e)
Venezuela total Venezuela urban
Uruguay total Uruguay urban
Part B
40 45 50 55 60 65 70 75 80 85 90
Urbanization level (percentage)
Venezuela total Venezuela urban
Uruguay total Uruguay urban
Source: United Nations (2001a).
Urbanization and urban growth: the role of migration
With the differences inherent to the urbanization stage and the level of natural
growth, internal and international migration has played different and changing roles as a
demographic component of urban growth, of city growth and of urbanization.
Urban increase due to rural-urban
net transference (percentage)
Relationship between rural-urban net
transference and urbanization (percentage)
Uruguay 27.8 9.0 -42.2 25.9 24.2 155.1 46.1 -84.0 67.3 85.4
Argentina 51.0 37.9 31.1 30.2 27.6 128.8 128.1 119.7 132.6 120.0
Venezuela 56.9 39.4 43.2 22.1 13.7 136.4 124.0 182.0 122.4 98.1
Chile 41.3 33.6 30.2 11.8 16.3 102.0 104.6 92.8 88.6 101.9
Brazil 49.7 51.6 49.9 42.8 34.5 113.7 115.3 117.3 111.3 91.2
Cuba 39.2 16.7 43.9 45.7 -5.4 104.6 52.0 89.9 98.3 -18.2
Puerto Rico -85.1 52.2 47.6 21.2 36.3 -141.6 78.3 103.4 53.8 99.1
Mexico 40.9 36.1 32.1 21.6 -7.9 106.4 109.4 109.9 72.2 -59.9
Colombia 50.5 37.6 36.6 33.0 30.8 104.5 99.7 111.8 114.1 125.1
Peru 56.8 50.9 37.6 26.2 14.8 110.6 115.7 123.3 114.1 61.5
Ecuador 48.2 39.0 46.7 48.3 50.5 112.1 120.8 122.5 123.5 111.0
Dominican R. 50.2 53.3 51.5 41.9 35.3 113.3 108.5 106.9 105.6 91.7
Bolivia 8.2 11.1 34.7 48.3 36.2 52.5 79.6 109.6 96.3 108.3
Panama 36.6 36.6 23.0 25.3 20.4 104.4 109.0 126.8 108.6 97.8
Nicaragua 31.5 39.8 17.7 1.0 10.3 107.4 111.3 100.9 5.6 61.6
Jamaica 35.4 19.1 15.8 15.1 12.0 57.3 31.5 33.0 31.7 24.0
Paraguay -62.2 -14.4 37.0 45.7 42.2 -517.2 -98.6 124.1 132.7 120.4
Honduras 53.3 48.3 44.1 45.5 51.7 115.9 109.0 116.7 121.2 112.6
Costa Rica 23.3 26.1 35.1 35.8 42.9 118.0 131.5 150.6 208.7 305.9
El Salvador 10.2 13.0 1.2 -52.2 16.0 66.8 172.2 6.5 -156.1 69.6
Guatemala 28.5 26.1 5.9 -10.9 8.8 113.8 105.4 35.8 -157.6 65.8
Haiti 62.6 58.5 52.6 61.1 50.1 100.2 99.7 105.6 125.6 94.3
Total 46.4 45.8 42.3 41.6 38.4 115.3 123.8 123.5 133.6 145.9
* Countries are ordered by level of urbanization in 2000.
Source: United Nations (2001ª).
Based on the estimations of Table 4 we can conclude that, in general, the net rural-
urban transference of population3 has been diminishing their contribution to the urban
growth of the region. During the 50s accounted for 46.4 percent of the urban growth of the
region whereas at present (1990-2000) it has diminished to 38.4 percent4. Very different
values are observed among the countries during the 1990s. They would vary from 8.8
percent in Guatemala and 51.7 percent in Honduras. The cases of Mexico (-7.9) and Cuba
3 It is the rural-urban net migration plus the re-classification of localities as well as the differential
international migration occurred in rural and urban places.
4 Based on a reduced number of countries and with a more refined calculation procedure, United
Nations (1981) estimated that in the 50s and 60s the contributions of rural-urban migration to the
urban growth of the region would be 39 and 35 percent respectively.
(-5.4) are explained by the fact that the urban migration balance is affected by an important
international migration.
The direct contribution of the net transference of rural-urban population to
urbanization has been so important that fully accounts for the tempo of the urbanization of
the region and of most of the countries. The right part of Table 4 very clearly shows that
from the 50s to 90s decades, the rural-urban net transference reached, in the region as a
whole, values that explain more than the one hundred percent of the urbanization rate5. In
1990-2000 the variation among the countries is very wide. The extreme cases (-59.9 in
Mexico to more than 305 in Costa Rica) are explained by the importance of the
international migration: negative balance in the first case and positive balance in the
There is considerable evidence regarding the growing weight of urban to urban
migration among the different internal territorial movements of the population that occur in
most of the countries of the region. The trend was already observed in the 70s and became
much more patent in the 80s and 90s. For instance, in 1987-92, almost half of the
movements of residents among the states of Mexico had urban origins and destinations6. A
similar case was verified in Brazil, where it is estimated that more than 60 percent of the
26.9 million inter-municipal migrants moved among cities during the 1981-1991 period
(Baeninger, 1997). The phenomenon has not been well understood by politicians and
technicians who still regard rural-urban migration as the main cause of “urban problems”. It
is fair to say that it has neither been incorporated as a central issue in migration analyses
(CONAPO, 1998; Martinez, 1999; Tuiran, 2000).
The increasing predominance of the urban - urban migration has relevant
consequences for the urban areas involved as well as for the migrants and their perception
by the recipient society. In fact there are many similarities between the characteristics of
the localities of origin and destination, opposite to what happened in the rural - urban
migration. Today it is thought that there is much more inter-urban population interchange
5 The net rural-urban transference rate surpasses the urbanization rate due to the fact that the
urban-rural differential of natural growth does not contribute, or negatively contributes, to the
advance of urbanization.
6 These data only refer to people moving to localities of 20 thousand or more inhabitants excluding
the intra-metropolitan movements (CONAPO, 2001).
(streams and counter-streams), though it is very difficult to quantify it. Migrants are not so
different from non-migrants, as they were in the past, with the exception of cities in total
splendor or decadence. Analysis for the Great Santiago (Chile) show that non-migrant
heads of families had 8.8 years of education in average during the period 1987-1992,
whereas the in-migrants from other localities had 10.7 years and out-migrants from the
Great Santiago 10.6 years (ECLAC/ILPES, 2000). The data for Mexico City are more clear
and indicate a trend: in the five year period 1965-70, when the rural migration to Mexico
City was very intense, the migrants had less level of education than the non-migrants. The
information for 1992-97 indicates the opposite: the education level of the migrants is higher
than the level of the non-migrants (Conapo, 1999 p. 69).
On the other hand, many jobs originated in the “new rural economy” do not
generate permanent settlements of workers but rather attracts them with the seasonal or
daily movement of those residing in the cities (as is the case of the floriculture in the
savanna of Bogota, Colombia)7. In turn, many residential movements from the cities to the
rural surroundings constitute, rather than a return to the country, a new form of mobility
among urban units.
International migration, often forgotten in the analyses of the spatial distribution of
population, gained great importance during the last decades. Particularly in Central
America, where international migration mixed with the traditional internal migration and
produced important effects on the urban as well as on the rural communities (Lungo, 1993).
Until the mid 70s, Central American migration was almost exclusively limited to intra-
national or intra-regional movements. These were caused by localized and temporary labor
demands that, with the mechanization of agriculture and the creation of an incipient
industry in the urban zones, stimulated some economic sectors (Castillo and Palma, 1999).
Given this scenario, many of the migrants were peasants with poor training. Since the mid-
70s this pattern underwent a profound change: while the pendulous movements related to
the frontier labor markets still persist, the movements outside of the region (specially to the
United States) gained more importance.
7 Besides, this “new rural economy” demands a type of qualification usually lacking for country
people, as illustrated by the forestry expansion in Chile (Carrasco et al., 1997).
In the English and French speaking Caribbean countries international migration is
often the most relevant component of the demographic dynamics, with remarkable effects
on the social and demographic urban structure. Recent studies indicate that a very high
proportion of Caribbean people have relatives and friends that emigrated (preferably to the
United States or to the metropolis of the former colonies) which facilitates the development
of support networks as well as the promotion of migratory expectations (Thomas-Hope,
1999). The fluctuations of the urbanization level in some countries of the Caribbean mainly
reflect the effect of international emigration.
In South America, three international migration dynamics have affected the patterns
of the population settlement. Firstly, the massive European immigration which, with
national fluctuations and differences, contributed to populating different zones of some
countries (principally Argentina and Uruguay, but also Brazil and Chile) and promoted the
consolidation and growth of most urban centers. Secondly, the migratory exchange among
the countries of the region that impacted on the urban system. This exchange, of cultural
and historical roots, is explained by the unequal levels of development of the countries and
is very sensitive to economic and political conditions. The seasonal agricultural labors, the
occupation of the internal frontiers, the expansion of some economic activities (as tourism,
commerce, transportation and services), the development of large infrastructure projects,
are some of the most important stimuli of trans-frontier migration. Finally, the emigration
outside the region, initially propelled by political upheavals (such as those occurring in the
Southern Cone in the 1970 decade) gained great importance in the last years. In general,
this emigration goes to the developed countries and originates in the cities, abounding in
qualified personnel.
The changing structure of the urban population
The urban systems of Latin America stand out for their huge cities: in 2000, with
only 8.5 percent of total world population and 13.7 percent of total urban population, the
region had four of the fifteen most populated cities of the world (Sao Paulo, Mexico,
Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro). If our indicator of the concentration of the urban
population in a regional level is the proportion of urban population residing in five sub-
groups of larger size, we can see that the higher concentration would have been reached
about 1960 (Table 5). Since then, the weight of each one of these sub-groups of cities on
the urban population has gradually diminished.
Number of
1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000
5 21.4 22.5 22.0 21.3 18.4 17.2
10 28.2 29.0 28.7 27.7 24.5 23.4
15 31.8 33.4 33.0 32.1 28.7 27.7
20 34.6 36.4 36.1 35.2 32.1 31.4
25 36.7 38.7 38.5 37.6 34.5 34.1
Source: United Nations (2001a).
If we now observe the countries, and our indicator of the concentration of urban
population of the region is the proportion of urban population residing in the larger cities of
the 22 selected countries (Table 6), we can observe that the regional total has been
continuously diminishing since 1950 to the present: it has decreased from 28.7 to 24.6
percent. Continuing with the urban proportion represented by the larger city of each of the
22 countries studied (Table 6), the above decrease has been very heterogeneous among
their countries. In only four countries (Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay and Venezuela), the
concentration of urban population has diminished (as well as in the region) since, at least,
1950; other five countries (Puerto Rico, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Costa Rica) have
diminished their concentration from 1970 whereas other four (Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador
and Mexico) since, at least, a decade before. Among the eight remaining countries (Chile,
Guatemala, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Peru and Dominican Republic) the
weight of the larger city on the urban total would still be growing while at very different
paces. Among them, four countries (Panama, Guatemala, Dominican Republic and Haiti)
stand out for their extraordinary urban concentration. From the above set of figures it may
be said that, since 1970 to the present, in most of the countries of the region, the urban
concentration of the large city has diminished.
Country** Proportion of urban population Proportion of total population
1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000
Uruguay 65.3 56.8 50.7 48.8 45.3 40.6 50.9 45.5 41.7 41.6 40.1 37.0
Argentina 45.0 44.6 44.8 42.6 39.7 37.7 29.4 32.8 35.1 35.3 34.4 33.9
Venezuela 28.3 27.6 26.8 21.5 17.5 15.0 13.3 16.9 19.2 17.1 14.7 13.0
Chile 37.5 39.4 39.7 41.0 41.9 42.5 21.9 26.7 29.9 33.3 34.9 36.4
Brazil 14.8 15.0 15.0 15.5 13.6 12.8 5.3 6.8 8.4 10.3 10.2 10.4
Cuba 39.7 36.9 34.0 28.9 26.9 26.7 19.6 20.3 20.5 19.7 19.8 20.1
Puerto Rico 44.2 52.1 52.1 50.7 48.7 47.5 17.9 23.2 30.4 33.9 34.8 35.7
Mexico 24.4 28.9 30.4 31.0 25.1 24.7 10.4 14.7 17.9 20.6 18.2 18.3
Colombia 14.5 16.0 18.4 20.0 20.5 20.1 5.4 7.7 10.5 12.8 14.2 14.9
Peru 35.9 36.7 38.7 39.3 39.2 39.9 12.7 17.0 22.2 25.4 27.0 29.0
Ecuador 26.4 29.4 29.7 28.8 26.4 27.8 7.5 10.1 11.8 13.5 14.5 18.1
Dominican R. 39.2 45.6 47.1 49.6 58.6 65.1 9.3 13.8 19.0 25.0 34.1 42.4
Bolivia 25.9 28.1 30.1 29.9 28.6 28.4 9.8 11.0 12.3 13.6 15.9 17.8
Panama 55.5 60.9 63.4 62.3 65.8 73.0 19.9 25.1 30.2 31.4 35.4 41.1
Nicaragua 27.8 32.6 37.9 35.8 35.0 33.7 9.7 12.9 17.8 18.0 18.6 18.9
Jamaica - - - - - - - - - - - -
Paraguay 43.4 47.2 51.9 51.7 45.2 41.0 15.0 16.8 19.2 21.5 22.0 23.0
Honduras 30.5 29.7 29.8 32.8 34.9 27.8 5.4 6.8 8.6 11.4 14.6 14.6
Costa Rica 63.3 62.6 63.8 61.0 55.6 51.3 21.2 22.9 25.3 26.3 25.4 24.6
El Salvador 22.8 25.0 36.9 39.5 46.2 48.1 8.3 9.6 14.5 16.4 20.3 22.4
Guatemala 48.9 41.4 35.4 29.4 50.3 71.8 14.4 13.4 12.6 11.0 19.2 28.5
Haiti 36.3 43.3 51.6 54.2 55.6 60.3 4.4 6.8 10.2 12.9 16.4 21.5
Total regional 28.7 28.5 28.1 27.3 25.0 24.6 11.9 14.1 16.2 17.8 17.8 18.6
* Biggest city of Jamaica, Kingston, is not included since we consider only the cities with more than 750,000
inhabitants in 1995.
** Countries are ordered by level of urbanization in 2000.
Source: United Nations (2001a).
The fact that some large cities of the region have decreased their urban
predominance is not a novelty for the region: it has been pointed out by many authors
towards the late 70s and the early 80s (Alberts, 1977; Landstreet and Mundigo, 1981;
Urzúa et al., 1981; Lattes, 1984; Gatica, 1980). At present we verify, however, that this
phenomenon has reached a higher number of countries and, also, that the above decrease
has become more noticeable. The decrease of the weight of the city of larger size on the
total population of the countries (right part of Table 6) is not prevalent in the region yet,
and only some countries as Argentina, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Venezuela show a pattern
in this respect. In other cases (Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico) this
proportion has become stable. Another remarkable fact is the sharp decrease of the
demographic growth in most of the metropolitan areas with 5 million or more inhabitants
(United Nations, 2001c). This decrease is partly explained by the important fall of fertility
but also by the remarkable decrease of the migration (internal and international) component
(ECLAC/HABITAT, 2001; CONAPO, 1997; Baeninger, 1997).
The above changes have deserved different interpretations, for example: a) they are
a consequence of changes in the development pattern (opening to global economic and
socio-cultural exchange, State reduction, etc.), that value primary activities yet impair those
prevailing in the cities; b) they are a consequence of the economic crisis of the 80s (the
“lost decade”) which affected large cities with higher intensity due to the fiscal restrictions
that limited the action of the State, traditionally concentrated on them; c) it is a long term
response to the “urban problems”, quite evident before the economic crisis of the 80s
(ECLAC, 2001a; Chant, 1999; Rodríguez and Villa, 1997); d) the loss of attraction of the
large cities is a temporary situation that, in the longer term and due to the “new economy”,
will regain strength and be again a concentrating pole (ECLAC/ILPES, 2000).
Another factor that has contributed to lessen the attraction of large cities was the
"connectivity explosion" that has developed in the last two decades: the enlargement of
communication ways and transportation means. With the construction of large highways
connecting big metropolitan areas and main cities the access to the downtown areas of large
cities was facilitated and the transfer time between nodes of the urban system was reduced.
There was also an important expansion of transportation of medium and long distance, most
notable the domestic air transportation. Towards the end of the 1980s, the
telecommunications revolution significantly reduced the distance cost, in some cases
making it practically disappear. The sum of both transformations has allowed that many
activities that used to require residence in the largest cities can now be done in their
outskirts. In some cases this has implied a deconcentration of both activities and
population, while in others it solely resulted in a bigger dispersion around a center that
continues maintaining its predominance. The available evidences refer to the impact of the
road and transportation infrastructure. Several authors underline the role of interconnection
corridors of Mexico city with Toluca-Lerma, Puebla-Tlaxcala, Cuernavaca, Pachuca-
Tizayuca, Querétaro-San Juan that bind these localities in productive and demographic
terms (Hiernaux, 1998; Asuad, 2000). In Santiago (Chile) the construction of new roads has
opened traditionally agricultural valleys to residential occupation by wealthy population
groups, some times as weekend houses but also as permanent residences of people whose
jobs are in Santiago. Something similar has occurred in Buenos Aires where many "close
urbanizations" and "countries" built close to the main highways, have left aside the
previous pattern of sub-urbanization developing exclusively within the reach of suburban
trains (Torres, 2001, p. 47).
Another factor that may contribute to reduce the concentrating impetus of the large
cities is the progressive consolidation of a group of intermediate cities that recover an
important part of the traditional attraction of the former (CELADE, 2001;
ECLAC/HABITAT, 2001; Chant, 1999; Jordan and Simioni, 1998). The segment of
intermediate cities, namely those with 50 thousand to 1 million inhabitants, retained a high
demographic dynamism in the 80s and 90s, though somewhat lower than that registered in
prior decades. Consequently, their proportion within the national urban systems increased.
But it should be also remarked that several of those cities have tended to reproduce the
problems of the large cities. This permits inferring that the condition of the intermediate
city does not assure a promising future. Their viability depends on the economic grounds
that support them –including their degree of integration to the global scenario–, on the type
of articulation that keeps the national and regional urban system, and on the utilization of
the comparative advantages regarding production, supply of services, availability of
infrastructure, generation of knowledge and information, and living conditions (CELADE,
2001; ECLAC/ILPES, 2000; Martinez, 1999; Jordán and Simioni, 1998).
The expansions of the metropolitan areas
The metropolitan areas of the region are distinguished by a much higher increase in
the peripheries than in the central nucleus. That results in a great expansion of the area of
the metropolis and demands substantial efforts of infrastructure. Moreover, the territorial
expansion of such metropolis implies the movement of poor people that, when faced to the
lack of housing and lands in central zones, progressively occupy the external rings of the
cities –which are later integrated to the agglomeration when the people themselves build
their new houses, as well as other actions of the State.
Contrary to what happened in the past, in the 80s and the 90s the occupation of
lands in the periphery was State-promoted. Several studies on the peripheral expansion
related to the movements of poor people remark that these generated many disadvantages
for them: a) the high cost of daily movements, both in terms of money and time; b) the
great physical and social distance from the nucleus of power and of higher socio-economic
dynamism; c) the difficulties to obtain services, due either to their remoteness or to the
scant resources of the peripheral local administrations; d) a higher environmental
vulnerability (ECLAC/HABITAT, 2001).
A second force underlying the expansion to the metropolitan periphery is the sub-
urbanization of high economic groups –a long-standing phenomenon that only became
visible in the 90s. Such groups move their residences to rural environments with urban
facilities, self-sufficient and exclusive. While the origin of this sub-urbanization was the
will to avoid “urban problems”, it is also explained by the emergence of a young and
“winning” segment, socio-economically speaking, that looked for spacious and safe
housing alternatives. The car and the development of new vial axes strongly increased the
connection of sub-urbanization with the center of the city. Argentina is one of the countries
where this phenomenon is largely evident. In other countries, the spatial redistribution of
people adopted a “spreading” characteristic towards semi-rural zones close to their
traditional areas of residence. Such is the case of several condominiums in Chile.
The ever-widening peripheral spaces are another propelling force of physical
metropolitan expansion; it is generated by the (social and economic) integration of the
urban nucleus with those to which the large city has geographical continuity (Aguilar,
2000; Rodríguez and Villa, 1997). De Mattos (2001) and other researchers estimate that
this is a distinctive “feature of post-industrial” cities that may imply the gradual adoption of
a spatial model (“urban archipelago”) similar to that of Los Angeles, United States. This
new configuration of extended metropolitan areas is neither limited to the incorporation of
new territories nor to the urban area nor to the enlargement of the vial netting: it also
implies moving industry and other activities to the periphery. Thus, in the surroundings of
the central city, a number of sub-centers with relatively autonomous social dynamics are
generated, receiving the daily flow of workers from the central city. This phenomenon
combines the effects of the operations of the market agents to those related to the processes
of unregulated settlement. The ‘concentrated deconcentration’ expression refers to the shift
of growth to towns and secondary cities within the wider metropolitan region, but at some
distance from the main urban center (Champion, 1997). Villa and Rodríguez (1997) carried
out a rough exercise that provides an image on how the temporal-spatial dynamics of the
populations of the three largest metropolitan areas of Latin America have developed. From
Table 7 we can synthesize that:
a) In Mexico and in Buenos Aires the peripheral areas are more dynamic than the
agglomerated areas, though still represent a lesser proportion (19.3 and 14.8 percent)
than the expanded metropolitan area. In Sao Paulo the periphery, while less dynamic,
represents a higher proportion (27.6 percent).
b) In the three metropolitan areas the agglomerated municipalities are, by far, the most
dynamic part. In fact, this means that the center of the metropolitan areas diminish their
importance, as expected. The Federal Capital of Argentina (Buenos Aires Autonomous
City) shows the highest percentage fall (55.8 to 23.1 from 1950 to 1991).
Mexico City
Components Millions Percentage
1950 1970 1990 1950 1970 1990
Metropolitan Area 3.4 9.0 15.0 83.8 86.6 80.7
Federal District 3.1 6.9 8.2 76.0 66.0 44.2
Agglomerated municipalities 0.3 2.1 6.8 7.8 20.6 36.5
Metropolitan Area Periphery 0.6 1.4 3.6 16.2 13.4 19.3
Adjacent to metro area 0.2 0.5 1.5 5.6 4.8 7.9
Non adjacent 0.4 0.9 2.1 10.6 8.6 11.4
Extended Metropolitan Area 4.0 10.4 18.7 100.0 100.0 100.0
Sao Paulo
Components Millions Percentage
1950 1970 1991 1950 1970 1991
Greater Sao Paulo 2.6 8.1 15.2 70.5 76.2 72.4
Sao Paulo Municipality 2.1 5.9 9.5 58.3 55.6 45.1
Agglomerated municipalities 0.4 2.2 5.7 12.2 20.6 27.2
Metropolitan Area Periphery 1.0 2.5 5.8 29.5 23.8 27.6
Adjacent to metro area 0.4 1.0 2.0 12.2 9.7 9.6
Non adjacent 0.6 1.5 3.8 17.3 14.0 18.0
Extended Metropolitan Area 3.6 10.6 21.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Buenos Aires
Components Millions Percentage
1950 1970 1991 1950 1970 1991
Greater Buenos Aires 4.7 8.4 11.0 88.3 87.1 85.2
Buenos Aires Autonomous City 3.0 3.0 3.0 55.8 31.0 23.1
Agglomerated municipalities 1.7 5.4 8.0 32.6 56.1 62.1
Metropolitan Area Periphery 0.6 1.3 1.9 11.7 12.9 14.8
Adjacent to metro area 0.4 0.9 1.4 7.8 9.1 10.8
Non adjacent 0.2 0.4 0.5 3.9 3.8 4.0
Extended Metropolitan Area 5.3 9.6 12.9 100.0 100.0 100.0
Source: Villa and Rodríguez (1997).
A type of population mobility that has gained great importance in recent decades
within the very metropolitan areas (Katzman, 2001), are generated by the expulsion of poor
people from residential “exclusive” zones or by public action that builds social housing in
the least expensive lands of the urban periphery –although the evidence of different
countries and cities are hardly consistent.
While there are studies remarking that residential segregation can be attenuated
(Sabatini, 1999; Godard, 1994), other recent studies show that intra-urban movements
worsen this phenomenon. Despite the lack of appropriate data to determine a predominant
trend, it is very clear that residential segregation in large cities is a disturbing issue
(Clichevsky, 2000). Further to the tension originated by such contrasting usage of the land,
it increases the vulnerability of the settlements when faced to natural disasters or to
infectious diseases.
Expansion of demographic frontiers and rural dispersion
Further to urbanization, there are other forces that make people occupy less
populated spaces. This expansion of the demographic frontier is very clear in the Amazon
and Orinoco basin, in zones of the Argentinean and Chilean Patagonia, in the North of
Mexico and in Central America coasts. This occupation, which continues after the
reduction or disappearance of official colonization programs, responds to the attraction of
abundant renewable and non renewable resources in those spaces –both for individuals and
enterprises (ECLAC/HABITAT, 2001). Moreover, the increasing exchange of goods and
services among countries has contributed to value frontier zones. Thanks to mechanisms
fostering market integration, some of these frontier zones became active bi-national spaces
where economic complementation generates employment and labor movements (CELADE,
2002; ECLAC, 2001a; ECLAC/ILPES, 2000)
The vigorous demographic increase of the Paraguayan East –which center is Alto
Parana, a department that doubled the relative weight of its national population from 1950
to 1990– illustrates the attraction of the international frontier which exploits natural sources
of energy. Throughout the extended frontier between the United States and Mexico, Baja
California stand out due to an urban sub-system –articulated by Tijuana, Mexicali and
Ensenada– structurally linked to the United States economy and with different types of
stimuli that attracted huge migrant flows from the rest of the Mexican territory (CONAPO,
1997; Cosio-Zabala, 1998). In the case of Quintana Roo, that registers higher immigration
rates than Baja California, the tourism is the cause of the spectacular growth of the City of
Cancun, an international seaside resort8.
From the rural demographic predominance of the 50s to the high urban level of the
2000s, Latin America is a clear example of a deep and rapid process of rural-urban
redistribution. Although in many countries of the region the recent transformation
associated to the external opening of national economies bring about the revalorization of
primary production for export, their effects do not seem to diminish rural-urban
transference. On the contrary, there are clear indications that the productive specialization,
the incorporation of technology intensive in capital, and the expansion of agricultural-
industrial centers, deepen the segmentation of the economic units and generate population
movements towards the urban environment. Furthermore, the seasonal hiring of labor and
the qualification profile demanded by new agricultural occupations increase the mobility of
workers (even daily) from urban localities, or force them to maintain double residence: both
in the country and in the city (Ortega, 1998, 1992; Ramirez, 1998).
Nevertheless, about 130 million Latin American and the Caribbean population live
in rural areas, approximately a third of them settled in zones close to urban localities
therefore maintaining intense interaction. A lower proportion is disseminated in vast
“peripheral” territories, and most part of the rural population of the region is disseminated
in a multiplicity of small places, with relatively low density and at a considerable distance
from the populated areas. The dispersion is aggravated by lack of roads, of transportation
and of communications. It is not surprising that, in these contexts of great dispersion, the
social interaction is minimum, and there is an acute dissatisfaction of the population basic
needs9. Therefore, the proportion of poor people are remarkably higher in rural than in
urban areas (ECLAC, 2001a, 2001b). Although, as mentioned above, quantitatively, the
urban areas of the region contain 62 percent of the total poor people.
8 Cancun, a fishermen village with a few inhabitants in 1950, at present has a population of more
than 300 thousand inhabitants (CELADE, 2001).
9 A study on Mexico (CONAPO, 2001) reports that a third of the populated localities of the
country, in 2000 were in an isolation status. These 65 thousand rural localities hardly had an
average of 70 inhabitants.
2. Definitions of urban population in Latin America countries
Since United Nations (1950) the first set of recommendations to define “urban”
population, the criteria for the classification was left to the individual countries. That
publication also recommended not to confuse localities (understood per a physical
agglomeration criterion) with small administrative areas (territorial units established per a
political criterion). The concept of locality, as indicated a few years later by the United
Nations (1958) should be understood for census purposes as “any agglomeration of
population (inhabited place, population nucleus, settlement, etc.) which inhabitants live in
nearby housing units, having a recognized name, etc.”. Therefore, the basic concept of
“locality” may include fishermen villages, miners towns, agricultural exploitations or large
cities. It bears no relation either with the economic activity of its inhabitants or with the
availability of certain public services. Nor with the population size or the political-
administrative status of that territory10.
The censuses of the Latin American countries largely differ in their definitions of
urban population at least in two basic elements: a) the kind of spatial unit in which the
population reside (mainly, agglomerations or localities and minor political-administrative
areas), and b) the criterion/criteria used to classify the population of a particular spatial unit
as urban, rural, etc. Other important elements of incomparability are related with the
collection and tabulation of data on urban (and non-urban) areas and also with the metrics,
which will allow observation, quantification and assessment of the process across space and
In Table 8 we present a gross classification of the countries of the region according to
the criterion/criteria used for the definition of urban population, including the changes of
criterion introduced during the period studied. Countries that have used a sole criterion are
in the diagonal of Table 8, whereas the countries that combine two or more criteria are
outside de diagonal. No date following the name of the country means that the criterion has
not changed through time. Those cases with changes of criteria may result in a country to
be repeated. That Table 8 shows that:
10 Nevertheless, in some countries the agglomeration delimitation might determine the limits of a political
and administrative unit (Lattes et al., 1996).
at least five criteria to define the urban population were identified (population size,
presence of particular services, proportion of non-agricultural activities, landscape
and political status);
two criteria prevail: population size and political status of the territorial unit;
two or more criteria are combined in several countries;
in some countries the criterion/criteria utilized for censuses carried out at different
times have been modified thus affecting the comparison of results from one to
The above observations confirm the need to be very prudent in the comparative analysis
of the urbanization processes among the Latin American countries and, also, when
comparing countries of other regions of the world.
A simple exercise present the urbanization level of a sub-group of 17 countries of the
region around 1990 applying three common criteria regarding population size, so as to
obtain their alternative urban populations. It is of course impossible to control the territorial
unit used in each case, so the comparability of the three criteria is only apparent.
If a size of 2 thousand is adopted as a threshold for defining the urban condition of the
localities, the resulting picture is very similar to that derived from the census definitions. The
correlation between both distributions is 0.9925 for 1990. An evidence of the synchrony
between both distributions is that the hierarchy order of the countries practically coincides.
When 20 thousand is taken as threshold, the urbanization level diminishes in every
country, as expected. A remarkable case of this reduction is Guatemala –as well as other
countries with small areas-, but Mexico, a very vast country, also significantly diminishes its
urbanization level. Bolivia shows the least decrease –meaning that its urban centers have a
large size. The simple correlation index between both distribution is also very high, 0.9842
and the variation range among the urbanization levels of the whole is almost the same;
however, the mean as well as the median are smaller, as expected.
Presence of particular
Proportion of non-
agricultural activities Landscape Political status
Population size
Puerto Rico
Chile (1970)
Cuba (1970, 1981)
Guatemala (1950)
Honduras (1961, 1974, 1988)
Nicaragua (1963, 1971, 1995)
Chile (1992)
Nicaragua (1963, 1971)
Colombia (1964, 1973)
Nicaragua (1995)
Peru (1972, 1981, 1993)
Presence of particular
Cuba (1953)
Proportion of non-
agricultural activities
Chile (1982) Chile (1960)
Political status
Peru (1940) Costa Rica
Paraguay (1962)
Peru (1961)
Chile (1952) Brazil
Colombia (1951, 1985, 1993)
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Guatemala (1964, 1973, 1981, 1994)
Honduras (1950)
Nicaragua (1950)
Paraguay (1950, 1972, 1982, 1992)
Source: CELADE (2001).
Given the threshold of 100 thousand inhabitants, it shows an order very similar to the
former thresholds and to the very definition of the countries. In this version of Latin America
urbanization, the levels of the smallest and least populated countries significantly decrease.
The simple correlation index between the distribution of the census definition and that
resulting from localities with 100 thousand and more inhabitants is also very high, 0.9367.
The values of range, mean and median fairly diminish, as expected.
Urbanization level
according to national
definitions (1990)
Population in cities of
2,000 and more 20,000 and more 100,000 and more
Percentage Rank Percentage Rank Percentage Rank Percentage Rank
Uruguay 88.7 (1) 84.7 (3) 74.3 (2) 50.3 (4)
Argentina 86.5 (2) 86.5 (1) 74.7 (1) 61.7 (1)
Venezuela 84.0 (3) 85.7 (2) 71.3 (4) 59.5 (3)
Chile 83.3 (4) 84.6 (4) 72.3 (3) 60.7 (2)
Brazil 74.7 (5) 75.9 (5) 61.7 (5) 47.6 (6)
Mexico 72.5 (6) 74.4 (6) 56.4 (7) 46.5 (7)
Colombia 69.5 (7) 69.9 (7) 59.2 (6) 49.3 (5)
Peru 68.9 (8) 66.0 (8) 55.2 (8) 45.9 (8)
Dominican Republic 58.3 (9) 55.9 (10) 45.2 (12) 32.2 (12)
Bolivia 55.6 (10) 57.5 (9) 49.6 (9) 41.3 (9)
Ecuador 55.1 (11) 55.3 (11) 48.0 (10) 36.4 (10)
Panama 53.7 (12) 53.5 (12) 46.8 (11) 36.3 (11)
Nicaragua 53.1 (13) 53.4 (13) 41.0 (13) 22.7 (15)
Paraguay 48.7 (14) 48.5 (14) 39.0 (14) 31.6 (13)
El Salvador 43.9 (15) 47.6 (15) 35.9 (15) 28.0 (14)
Honduras 41.8 (16) 39.1 (16) 28.0 (16) 19.1 (17)
Guatemala 38.1 (17) 38.1 (17) 24.3 (17) 19.6 (16)
Range 50.6 48.8 50.4 42.6
Mean 63.3 63.3 51.9 40.5
Median 58.3 57.5 49.6 41.3
Correlation coefficient - 0.9925 0.9842 0.9367
* Countries are ordered by their level of urbanization in 1990
Source: United Nations (2001a) and CELADE (2001).
This simple exercise allows showing that controlling the differences in size of urban
areas; the different country definitions do not modify greatly the urbanization level of the
aggregate distribution in a given date. From another perspective one can say that the
urbanization level is a very general measure, not sensible to different definitions as long as
population size of areas classified as urban is controlled. But something very different
would result if the matter under analysis and comparison were the changes in the urban
structure of countries through a period.
For example, let's see, in more detail, the definitions of urban (and rural) population
of three countries of the region: Argentina, Chile and Ecuador. They are very different from
each other and with important limitations to describe the urbanization process in each case
as well as the differences from one case to another.
From the first national population census of Argentina, the definition of locality is
based on a physical criterion. In the first two national censuses (1869 and 1895) the
criterion was implicit and the locality was named populated center. In those censuses, all
the population residing in a populated center (regardless of its size) was considered urban.
In 1914 the threshold of two thousand and more inhabitants to classify a populated center
as urban was introduced. The population residing outside those centers was classified in a
residual category: rural population.
Since the 1960 census the name “populated center” was replaced by that of
“locality”. This change, exclusively terminological, persisted in the 1970, 1980 and 1991
censuses although the concept of “locality” is fully and operationally complete only in the
1991 census, which says: locality is a portion or several interrelated portions of the
surface of the earth delimited by a surrounding line and formed as a mosaic of built and
non built areas – which is specified, (INDEC, 1998).
In order to apply the prior definition and identify the localities by proper names, it is
also necessary to take into account the territorial boundaries stipulated by the law.
Argentina has: jurisdictions of first order (provinces and the Federal District) and
jurisdictions of second order (departments). Local governments, namely the jurisdictions of
third order (municipalities, communes, etc.) do not constitute a mosaic without residue nor
coincide with the whole national territory –although they do so in several provinces. The
first order jurisdiction (provinces) and the second order jurisdiction (departments) are also
statistical territorial units. These territorial units respond to statistical and political-
administrative criteria, and cover the entirety of the country. All of them are divided into
territorial units: the fractions, radios and segments. These last three orders are exclusively
delineated for census purposes. In short, the Argentine territory is divided without residue
and in a mutually excluding way in two orders of political-administrative jurisdictions
(provinces and departments) which are also statistical units, and in three additional orders
of statistical areas (for census purposes).
On the other hand, the localities are spatially delimited (Table 10) as well as the
disperse population. The urban population is the agglomerated population in localities with
two thousand and more inhabitants; the residue (localities with less than two thousand
inhabitants and the disperse population) is the total rural population (grey area of Table 10).
Agglomerated population by size
and disperse population
Number of
Agglomerated population 2,871 29,564 90.6
Buenos Aires Agglomeration 1 11,298 34.6
From 1,000,000 to 1,999,999 2 2,327 7.1
From 500,000 to 999,999 4 2,551 7.8
From 250,000 to 499,999 7 2,204 6.8
From 100,000 to 249,999 12 1,839 5.6
From 50,000 to 99,999 29 2,007 6.2
From 20,000 to 49,999 74 2,221 6.8
From 10,000 to 19,999 110 1,574 4.8
From 5,000 to 9,999 181 1,255 3.8
From 2,000 to 4,999 365 1,162 3.6
From 1,000 to 1,999 354 507 1.6
From 500 to 999 471 338 1.0
From 50 to 499 1,261 281 0.9
Disperse population - 3,052 9.4
TOTAL 2,871 32,616 100.0
Locality as agglomeration, following the census definition. From the 3,058
localities included in the census publication, those with less than 50
inhabitants have been included with the disperse population.
Source: Vapñarsky (1999).
It is worth mentioning that there are two types of localities: the simple locality,
which is fully extended over a unique political jurisdiction and, the integrated locality
which extends over two or more political-administrative areas, either jurisdictions of first or
second order, or areas of the local government.
The case of the Buenos Aires Agglomeration (with more than 11 million people in
the 1991 census) comprises, either totally or partially, twenty-seven different political
jurisdictions. It includes the Federal District or Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, a
jurisdiction of first order, and twenty-six jurisdictions of second order of the homonymous
province, (the Province of Buenos Aires). Out of them, nine have all their census radios
within the Agglomeration; other nine have either integrated and non integrated radios and,
finally, the remaining eight have either totally comprised radios, partially comprised radios
as well as radios not integrated in the Agglomeration.
In Argentina, the post census evaluations show important discrepancies in the
assignment of population figures to agglomerations. In general those discrepancies,
although very important at the individual locality level, were small for the total urban
population. For instance, according to the 1960 census, the total country reached an
urbanization level of 73.8 percent while the evaluation and adjustment carried out by
Vapñarsky (1968) afterwards, shows a 72 percent level. However, when analyzed by
province, very great differences are observed and, in some extreme cases, the urbanization
level is even underestimated or overestimated in about 25 percent. In some specific
localities the differences found surpassed 50 percent. These kinds of problems were solved,
to a large extent, as of the 1991 census. For the analysis of the urbanization process in
Argentina an additional limitation is the lack of correspondence between the locality (the
census urban unit) and those spatial units utilized for the production of other basic
demographic data (vital, health, education, change of address statistics, etc.).
The urban definition applied in the last five censuses in Chile has significantly
changed. In the 1952 and 1960 censuses, the definition used the presence of particular
services and the political-administrative status. In 1970 it combined those criteria as well as
a peculiarly low threshold of 40 grouped houses. In 1982 the threshold was raised to 60
grouped houses and a demographic variable was added: not less than 301 persons. The
presence of “urban characteristics” included a series of exceptional cases and sui generis
situations which had to be evaluated by the local people in charge of the census, though
lacking the specific criteria to do so. In 1992 the threshold of number of houses was only
left for exceptional situations and the demographic threshold was highly raised (2001 or
more inhabitants) or from 1001 to 2000 inhabitants, should an economic function criterion
be complied with: 50 percent or more of the labor force devoted to secondary or tertiary
activities and excluding the presence of services criterion. Consequently, the rural
definition also changed given that, basically, it had been an exclusion definition. The
landscape criterion (places where the natural landscapes prevail) of the 1982 census is
worth mentioning since it was the unique case in the region.
The importance of the definition modification introduced from 1982 to 1992 is
logically reflected in the data: the modest increase of the urbanization level –contrasting
with the important increase registered from 1970 to 1982. But as important as that was the
fact that after 40 years, the rural population increased in numbers –a phenomenon verified
in the 13 regions of the country– thus indicating the effect of the definition change.
Since 1950 the definition of the urban population in Ecuador follows a political-
administrative criterion although its application has varied in the course of time. In 1950,
the urban population was that inhabiting the urban and suburban zones of each canton. It
was established as urban zone “the area within the capital city or within the perimeter of the
canton”, and as suburban zone “the area that, outside the urban perimeter, pertains to the
jurisdictional territory of the urban parishes”. In 1962 the urban population was registered
in a census of the cities –provincial capitals or heads of the cantons, distinguishing urban
from peripheral population, the latter being that contained within the cities boundaries yet
in non-urbanized conglomerates. In the following censuses (1974, 1982 and 1990) the
urban population is considered “as living in the provincial and the capitals of the cantons
previously defined as urban areas for census purposes”. Thus excluding the “peripheral”
population (population spread within the legal limits of provinces and capitals of the
We can conclude that the sole existence of a canton involves the existence of an
urban area, which is its political capital. The changes successively introduced in the
intermediate (and inferior) ranges of the political-administrative division of the country
resulted in the emergence of new urban centers. From 1950 to 1992 the number of cantons
raised from 86 to 173 –indicating that the “reclassification” of places that were rural in
1950 and urban in 1992 involved 87 entities. In view of the above, the creation of new
cantons (reclassification) constitutes a key component of the urban population growth of
Ecuador. The political-administrative criterion used by Ecuador generates diverse
“distortions” when determining the urban places given that, among the latter, nucleus of
less than a thousand inhabitants are included whereas cities that surpass twenty thousand
inhabitants are excluded.
A basic question, among others, for this meeting is if we correctly comprehend the
new ways and nature of the recent territorial redistribution processes of the population. As
shown by the preceding pages, our state-of-the-art regarding these processes in Latin
America is insufficient and very aggregated; and as it has been expressed prevent us from
understanding the new reality in its multiple dimensions (Hugo et al., 2001).
We have an acceptable knowledge about the levels and trends of the urbanization
process in Latin America in the second half of the XX Century and of its context of very
high demographic growth. We also know how Latin America behaved in relation with all
regions of the world and we have a clear picture of the variety of urbanization levels and
trends among the countries of the region. We also have at our disposal an image fairly solid
that this process involved the arising of very large cities concentrating a high proportion of
the urban population for the region as a whole and very high for some countries. But when
we try to penetrate in the analysis of the dynamics of the metropolitan areas, large or
intermediate cities and we ask ourselves, for example, about the role played by the different
demographic components or when we try to inquire about the changes in the population
composition of those areas, on the new forms of social segregation, on the rise of poverty,
etc., the answers are rougher, partial and conditioned. In other words, in these aspects of the
urbanization process, our knowledge is weaker and provisional. In many instances we only
succeed to gather a few useful indicators for the formulation of some middle range
The previous analysis has also made clear that a great number of deficiencies in our
current knowledge regarding the evolvement of the settlement of population are highly
related to the use of inadequate concepts and to limitations in the available population data
collection systems. But research is also scanty and there are not many efforts to integrate its
Underneath our limited knowledge, we have serious problems in a way prior to
the classifications themselves. We specifically refer to the basic element of our
classifications, namely: points of concentration (Eldridge, 1942), nodes, cities, towns,
metropolitan areas and so one; in other words, human groups territorially localized.
We have problems with the identification and the delimitation of the "areas" and,
later on, to assign them their correspondent population. The delimitation and consequent
data collection of the territorial units adopted are done with great error margins, as shown
above. Therefore, any attempt at suggesting how to improve data production for the study
of the settlement process should begin from the very beginning: by promoting the
production of basic data of quality, in time and accessible to every user.
In some countries of the region, innovative policies have been adopted in relation to
the possibility of having more and better information for the development of local
communities. We would like to mention a recent development that are related to this line of
thought which, in our opinion, should be promoted so as to face some of the above
mentioned problems: institutional developments, on the one hand, and the use of new
technologies to foster important achievements, on the other. The example is from Chile, but
there are also other initiatives in the region.
One of the achievements of the population and housing censuses carried out in Chile
has been the gradual and significant shortening of the time required to process and
disseminate the final data. However, the most important achievement is the combination of
the use of new technologies with new political decisions. The objective is that all interested
parties may use the micro-data, especially at local scale, with the restrictions of the
statistical secret.
While the utilization of new technologies for processing census information is prior
to 1992, the technology to generate micro-data bases capable of being processed in personal
computers only existed in the last census. This being the result of the application of
REDATAM11 software which made the micro-data of population by political-administrative
areas available to municipal officers, researchers, businessmen, neighbors, etc. and
permitted processing of very small units. Such access and usage was made possible by the
political decisions to: a) distribute to municipalities, free of charge, the communal
databases and, b) massively train municipal officers in the use and application of the
software to such information. Albeit an extensive utilization of the census micro-data bases
at local level has not been achieved yet, the open door policies further to the specific
training applied in Chile are an important precedent for the future use of census information
by eliminating a restrictive and centralized handling.
Lastly, we know something about the process of concentration of the population and
its correspondent physical infrastructure. We know less about the population dynamics and
the compositional changes of the concentration areas. We are just starting the study of
urban systems, very conditioned for the shortcomings mentioned above.
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(or aggregated information) with millions of records of people, housing, blocks of cities or any administrative
division of a given country. It is also feasible to process a database in association with external information in
common formats such as dBASE. With the program and from any database, any geographical area of interest
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... A estas diferencias se agregan los efectos de los distintos tipos de errores que suelen cometerse a lo largo del proceso de realización de los censos de vivienda y población. A continuación se presenta una clasificación gruesa de los 22 países seleccionados, según el criterio general que utilizaron, alrededor de los años 90 (Lattes, Rodríguez y Villa, 2004 ) para distinguir a sus poblaciones urbanas: ...
... Ésta es la clase de interrelaciones que se analizan cuando se trata de conocer, por ejemplo, los efectos que genera el arribo de inmigrantes a una comunidad determinada. La inmigración, además de producir una serie de transformaciones demográficas directas e indirectas, 1 El presente artículo continúa una línea de trabajo del autor que ha sido expuesta en publicaciones anteriores, entre otras: Lattes (1995, 1998 y 2001), Hugo, Champion y Lattes (2001 y 2003) y, particularmente, Lattes, Rodríguez y Villa (2004). * Investigador emérito del Centro de Estudios de Población-CENEP, <> ...
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The article analyzes the urbanization process in Latin American countries pointing to a number of deficiencies in the knowledge regarding the evolution of the settlement systems there. It suggests that this situation is highly related to the use of inadequate concepts and to the limitations in the population data collection systems. The article includes a historical overview of the Latin American urbanization trends in comparison with those of other world regions. Then, it presents and analyses the experiences of 22 Latin American countries for the period 1950- 2000. After a critical review of the current urban-rural definitions in the region, the article provides suggestions to improve the knowledge in this matter. Analizando el proceso de urbanización en los países de América Latina, el artículo señala una serie de deficiencias del conocimiento sobre la evolución de los sistemas de asentamiento. Sugiere que tal situación estaría altamente relacionada con el uso de conceptos inadecuados y con las limitaciones de los actuales sistemas estadísticos de recolección de datos. En una perspectiva histórica compara el proceso de urbanización de América Latina como una totalidad con el de otras grandes regiones del mundo y analiza las diversas tendencias de urbanización que ocurrieron, en 22 países seleccionados de América Latina, entre 1950 y 2000. Tras una revisión crítica de las definiciones urbano-rural actualmente usadas en la región, el artículo presenta sugerencias para el mejoramiento del conocimiento en esta materia.
... Between the 1930s and 1970s, rural-tourban migration dominated national migration patterns, spurring significant population redistribution ( Firebaugh 1979). Fostered by the introduction of import substitution policies after the Second World War ( Brea 2003;Rowe 2013a), net rural-to-urban migration accelerated the urbanization process in LA countries, accounting for over 45 per cent of urban growth between 1950 and 1970 ( Lattes 1995;Lattes et al. 2004). Urban growth was concentrated in a few urban centres, particularly in the largest cities, resulting in a pronounced population imbalance between the primate city and the rest of each country. ...
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Internal migration is a key driver of patterns of human settlement and socio-economic development, but little is known about its compositional impacts. Exploiting the wide availability of census data, we propose a method to quantify the internal migration impacts on local population structures, and estimate these impacts for eight large Latin American cities. We show that internal migration generally had small feminizing, downgrading educational, and demographic window effects: reducing the local sex ratio, lowering the average years of schooling, and raising the share of working-age population due to an increased young adult population. Over time, a rise in the proportion of males and a drop in the share of the young adult population moving into cities reduced the feminizing and demographic window effects. Concurrently, a rise in the average years of schooling associated with people moving into cities attenuated the downgrading impact of internal migration on local education levels.
... Fostered by the introduction of import-substitution policies after WWII (Brea 2003;Rowe 2013a), net rural-to-urban migration accelerated the urbanisation process in LA countries, accounting for over 45 percent of urban growth (Lattes 1995;Lattes et al. 2004). Urban growth was concentrated in few urban centres, particularly in large cities, resulting in a pronounced population imbalance between the primate city and the rest of the country. ...
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Internal migration is a key driver of the patterns of human settlement and socio-economic development, but little is known about its spatial impacts. Exploiting the availability of census data, we propose a methodology to quantify the internal migration impacts on the population structure of places and estimate these impacts for eight large Latin American cities. Despite city-level variations, we showed that internal migration had feminising, downgrading educational and demographic window effects by reducing the local male-to-female population ratio, lowering the average years of schooling and rising the share of working-age population due to an increased young adult (aged 15-29) population. However, these effects were small and diminished over time. A rise in the proportion of males and a reduction in the share of young adult population moving into cities led to a reduction in the feminising and demographic window effects. Concurrently, a rise in the average years of schooling associated to people moving into cities attenuated the downgrading impact of internal migration local education levels.
... 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. ...
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This article argues for a more systemic engagement with Latin American cities, contending that it is necessary to reconsider their unity in order to nuance the ‘fractured cities’ perspective that has widely come to epitomize the contemporary urban moment in the region. It begins by offering an overview of regional urban development trends, before exploring how the underlying imaginary of the city has critically shifted over the past half century. Focusing in particular on the way that slums and shantytowns have been conceived, it traces how the predominant conception of the Latin American city moved from a notion of unity to a perception of fragmentation, highlighting how this had critically negative ramifications for urban development agendas, and concludes with a call for a renewed vision of Latin American urban life.Cet article plaide pour un engagement plus systématique avec les villes d′Amérique Latine, en faisant valoir qu′il est nécessaire de nuancer les visions de « villes fracturées » qui sont actuellement largement prédominantes, et reconsidérer les contextes urbains du point de vue de leur unité. Il commence par offrir un aperçu des tendances régionales en matière de développement urbain, avant d′explorer la façon dont l′imaginaire sous-jacent de la ville a évolué au fil du dernier demi-siècle, en se focalisant particulièrement sur la manière dont le phénomène des bidonvilles a été conçu. Plus particulièrement, il retrace la façon dont la conception dominante de la ville latino-américaine est passé d′une notion d’unité à une perception de fragmentation, tout en soulignant que ceci a eu des conséquences critiques et négatives pour la notion du développement urbain dans la région. L’article conclut en conséquence avec un appel à une vision renouvelée de la vie urbaine latinoaméricaine.
This exploratory comparative case study examines three schools in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires that have a considerable number of recent immigrant students. The article illustrates how these schools advance ideas of inclusiveness and pluralism through the curriculum and educational opportunities, as mandated by the national education law of 2006 and current core curricular standards. The study draws on data from participant observations and semi-structured interviews with administrators and teachers, gathered between 2009 and 2010. Preliminary results show inconsistent practices across schools, leaving many immigrant students ill-prepared and unsupported to become acculturated into Argentine society. This inconsistency appears to stem, at least in part, from two factors: the schools’ missions and organizational practices; and lack of teacher in-service training and sufficient support from the city’s central administration.
At low levels of economic development there are substantial gaps favoring urban over rural areas in income, education, and occupational structure, and consequently a large excess of urban over rural life satisfaction, despite important urban problems of pollution, congestion, and the like. At more advanced development levels, these economic differentials tend to disappear, and rural areas approach or exceed urban in life satisfaction. Both across-country and within-country regression analyses of 2005–08 data from the Gallup World Poll support these conclusions.
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Since the mid 20th century, large urban areas in advanced economies have experienced a fundamental transformation from relatively compact monocentric cities towards more extended polycentric metropolitan areas. By now, it is being commented repeatedly, but not investigated systematically that the concept of polycentricity is also adequate to characterise recent metropolitan dynamics in Latin-America. This paper aims to present a few key-issues for a future research agenda into polycentricty in Latin-American metropolitan areas. These elements are identified from a review of existing literature. Since no clear-cut definition and operationalisation of polycentricity exist yet, we distinguish some key-elements of this phenomenon in North America as a frame of reference for this review. It reveals that 'polycentricity U.S. style' is at best dawning in Latin-America. In order to achieve a more appropriate picture of polycentricity of Latin American metropolitan areas, our ideas for a research agenda take into account these areas typical economic, social and spatial conditions.
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When the city disintegrates into an archipelago of fragments a new role is imposed on the landscape as a carrier of topographical characterizations, cohesion and continuity. Patterns such as transportation corridors, settlement areas and landscape voids can be regarded as latent macro-landscape forms of the metropolitan territory. In the staging of the metropolis these forms need to be embedded in a compositional structure that addresses fragmentation and disorientation, without relapsing into utopian forms of the traditional city that have proven inadequate for the metropolitan condition. The potential basis to inform this structure is the landscape itself: permanent, neutral and ubiquitous. The underlying landscape also contains an annotated catalogue of situations, in which the genius loci is recorded and secured. These latent compositional elements are transformed into landscape architectural 'narratives' within the topography of the emerging metropolis. The enlargement and distortion of specific topographies result in a field of new topologies, drawn from the genius loci and from local cultures and customs. The question is not so much if metropolitan form is determined by landscape, but how we can use it to structure and give meaning to dispersed territories. This involves a delicate choreography of macro-landscape forms and the micro-topography of landscape places.
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