Urban Sprawl In South America

Visiting a number of major South American cities leaves you with the impression that like Topsy in the book ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘, they just grow’d. Lima, Cusco, Guayaquil, Quito all have the appearance that they just grow’d and they all have similar characteristics. They all have their origins in a central historic district that’s centuries old. They all seem to reflect substantial growth outwards from that core, usually in several phases or layers. In almost all of these it seems the largest outer layer is characterized by high density, unplanned, ramshackle construction.

The roots of this growth also have several layers. Beginning around the period between the “world wars” the spreading effects of the agricultural revolution began to devalue typical small rural farms. Add to that the effects of growing South American socialist revolutions in the 50’s and 60’s that greatly impacted and destabilized the populations outside the cities. This resulted in huge increases in the rate of immigration into urban centers.

The effect was the proliferation of low-income settlements well into the 70’s and 80’s. Because of the inability of governments to provide cheap public housing, the poor were forced to build their own. With no government alternative the new poor were permitted to occupy land and build their own shelters. Generally the government, along with the growing private sector sought to provide housing for the increasing middle classes that were focused on areas near the cities core.

What now characterizes these outer layers is the remnants of “necessity construction” focused on the need for shelter first with little care being given to aesthetics or community pride. In most cities community improvement seems to be originating near the city core and spreading out as the standard of living for the middle class improves. Only Quito is seeing a major change from this dynamic as the upper middle class and professionals are now moving into new enclaves farther outside the core city to escape traffic congestion and inner city crime.


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