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Ideas for breaching the continental divide

In 1955, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held an exhibition titled Latin American Architecture Since 1945, marking a period when Latin America was viewed as having the most exciting architectural culture in the world. With its flair for reinforced concrete, the region was seen as embracing modernity with a zeal that MoMA’s visitors were expected to envy. In the spirit of the times, the curators celebrated individual genius and, above all, style.

Six decades later, Latin America has far more useful lessons to impart, but about strategy rather than style. No other region of the world has demonstrated the kind of collective effort and imagination that Latin America has in addressing the chronic symptoms of rapid unplanned urbanization. Whether it is in housing, crime, transportation, segregation, or the lack of political participation, this continent has set precedents that could have a transformative effect in other parts of the developing — and, indeed, the developed — world.

Having experienced mass urbanization from the mid-20th century — long before the current hot spots of China, India, and Africa — Latin America was forced to become a testing ground of radical urban strategies. This is a region that has been trying to deal with extreme urban inequality for decades, with some success.

In fact, some of the ideas developed in Latin America, both political and urbanistic, have already been adopted in the developed world. In 1989, for example, the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre began an experiment with participatory budgeting, which allows citizens to have a direct say in how public money is spent. It was designed to help tackle extreme social inequality by redirecting a portion of public finances toward social amenities in the slums. Today it is a feature of municipal governance from New York to Paris. Earlier this year, Boston became the first city in the United States to launch a youth participatory budgeting scheme, giving young people a chance to have a direct say in spending $1 million of the city’s capital budget to improve their communities.

One of the key lessons of Latin America is that divided cities need to be brought together. The distance between a slumdweller’s home perhaps two hours out on the city fringes and her job in the city center needs to be bridged by effective public transportation. And in economies where metro lines are simply too expensive, buses have proved transformative. Again it was a Brazilian city that led the way. In 1974, under mayor Jaime Lerner, Curitiba created the bus rapid transit (BRT) system, a metro-style network with dedicated lanes to bypass traffic. That idea has since spread across the world. It was introduced to particularly good effect in Bogota in 2000 by Enrique Peñalosa, a mayor who understood the social power of public transport. His TransMilenio BRT, combined with bike lanes and proper pedestrian pavements, became a global symbol of how public transportation can reduce the effects of social inequality. He is fond of saying, “An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars; rather, it’s where even the rich use public transportation.”

Pensar/Sentir (Think/Feel). A project at the Ciudad del Saber, Panama City, 2014, by the Spanish public art group Boa Mistura. Photo: Boa Mistura.

Subsequently, BRTs have been introduced not just in Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, and other developing world cities, but also in the North. Los Angeles, the quintessential case of car-led urban sprawl, now has 40 miles of dedicated bus lanes as part of its Metro Liner network. Given that LA has some of the worst air pollution in the United States, there are other incentives for extending the public transportation network aside from it being a social leveler, and the same goes for cities across the globe.


Pensar/Sentir (Think/Feel). A project at the Ciudad del Saber, Panama City, 2014, by the Spanish public art group Boa Mistura. Photos: Alegre Saporta

Colombia has other lessons for cities that face problems with severe poverty and crime. Its second city, Medellín, makes a fascinating case study. In the 1990s, the city was in the grip of warring drug cartels; it was the murder capital of the world. Beginning in the early 2000s, however, a major program of new public buildings and public spaces helped transform the city, returning a sense of normality and civic pride. These architectural treasures have been widely praised, but it would be a mistake to think that architecture alone was the solution. First came transportation links to hillside barrios in the form of a cable-car network. These coincided with major investment in education, and the seeding of those barrios with new schools, libraries, and parks. Architecture was only what made such social policies so visible.

Perhaps the key lesson of Medellín’s “social urbanism” was the way different stakeholders in the city collaborated. It was the concerted effort of politicians, a civic movement, architects, and the business community that brought about these changes. And one thing that proved instrumental is that Medellín has a municipally owned energy company, Empresas Publicas de Medellín (EPM). It was the $450 million fed into the city coffers every year by EPM that funded these improvements. If Medellín is not an object lesson in the reasons why natural resources should not be privatized, I’m not sure what is.

Not all Latin America’s innovations can or should be imported to other climes. With cable cars enjoying a modish moment, London’s mayor Boris Johnson commissioned one across the River Thames at Greenwich. Like many of Johnson’s urban gestures, it is fairly pointless, more of an excuse to advertise the sponsor, Emirates Airline, than anything else.

Finally, the “informal cities” of the south hold valuable lessons in how to extract the most social value out of urban land. San Diego architect Teddy Cruz has long been interested in how the productivity of Latin American barrios might be imported into the rigidly zoned neighborhoods of his own city. One of the defining features of the informal city is how it maximizes the use of tiny spaces, turning a front room into a shop or restaurant, or a narrow street into a marketplace. Cruz’s own strategy is to slice up a couple of San Diego city blocks into micro-zoning that accommodates housing, culture, and commerce all on the same plot. As Cruz often says in his lectures: “We need a new concept of density. Density is still measured as a number of things — units — per acre. Why not measure it as a number of social and economic exchanges per acre?”

This is a key lesson for US cities that have been zoned into a state of sterility, where the suburban house is several miles, by car, from the office. Take a place like Dharavi, Mumbai’s most famous slum, and you’ll find that the average resident is working as a craftsman downstairs and living upstairs in a two-story “tool-house.” Before industrialization, and the separation of living and working, that was the norm even in the United States or Europe. And in our postindustrial economies, it is easy to imagine such practices returning. Indeed, we may not even be aware of the ways in which our working lives are already taking on the traits of cities in the global South. The flex-time lifestyle of the post-industrial worker — with its irregular hours, often in multiple jobs simultaneously — is a common feature of the informal economy.

If Westerners can overcome their preconceptions of undeveloped “slums” (and if one can solve the obvious privations), it might be possible to recognize their certain merits. They are productive, sustainable neighborhoods with a strong sense of community. Embracing that may be too much to ask. But there is no denying that these Latin American strategies for bringing the slums into the fold of the city represent an important step in tackling urban inequality. And as Northern cities continue to polarize at an alarming rate, we might ask ourselves if there’s anything more we can learn from the South. ■