Space Programmes

By O'Toole, Gavin | Public Finance, October 2018 | Go to article overview

Space Programmes


O'Toole, Gavin, Public Finance


When Christopher Columbus led his conquistadors into the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, he marvelled at the scale of what was then one of the largest cities in the world.

Now engulfed by modern Mexico City, Tenochtitlán's grandeur provides a reminder of the role that cities have played in Latin American history and how they are signposting its future.

The region has had a formative influence over a new perspective spearheaded by the United Nations human settlements programme, UN-Habitat, which builds on a consensus that cities are now the most important tool available to states aiming to tackle inequality.

"In this perspective it is not the grandiose kind of interventions that have been really very innovative - the pyramids or Brasilia - it is the infrastructure that is there for people's use on a daily basis," says Elkin Velásquez, UN-Habitat's regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

"You name it - whether it is Curitiba, Rio de Janeiro, Quito, Aguascalientes, Zapopan, Mérida, Bucaramanga or Rosário - these cities are synthesising this new perspective."

Latin America is the world's second most urbanised region - 81% of people live in cities, and by 2050 that will rise to 90%.

While the region is known for its mega-cities - Sāo Paulo teems with 23 million people and Mexico City 21 million - recent growth has been concentrated in smaller urban areas.

But rapid expansion has created huge problems - infrastructure shortages, under-investment, insecurity, pollution - and poverty has become urbanised.

Historically, urbanisation has been associated with economic growth in a virtuous circle, but in Latin America it occurred later than in the developed world, creating what the Corporación Andina de Fomento bank calls "urbanisation without development". The most visible evidence of this is inequality, and while progressive governments have made impressive macro gains in reducing inequities since 2000, reductions have not been matched in cities.

Ricardo Jordán, chief of the human settlements unit at the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, says: "The challenge we face can be summed up in one word: inequality. We have grown a lot and are almost all middle-income countries now, but that growth has come with great inequality, and one of the main challenges will be to close the gap."

Large slums, where up to 30% of residents, often ethnic groups such as Afro-Brazilians, huddle in overcrowded informal housing are an obvious sign of inequality. Tatiana Gallego, division chief, housing and urban development, at the Inter-American Development Bank, says: "Social segregation has been a major problem in Latin America. Even though there are many efforts in different cities to try to integrate areas either through policy or by offering incentives to developers, the differences are still striking."

Large slums and poor access to public transport limit access to job opportunities, resulting in a "triple informality" in housing, transport and employment.

Slums are mainly a problem of inadequate infrastructure, on which Latin American countries spend a smaller share of GDP than almost any other region. Cities also struggle to attract private finance: 70% of infrastructure expenditure still comes from public sources.

Eduardo López Moreno, director of research and capacity development at UN-Habitat, says there is no joined-up approach to regional planning and infrastructure finance. "They are not converging, and often you will see planning in areas without real funding, and funding in [other] areas which are not fully planned."

A key obstacle to development in cities has been sprawl, which is at the heart of an unresolved policy debate about their optimal size.

Poor infrastructure has prevented cities from absorbing population influxes to expand in an orderly way, creating ungainly behemoths: Mexico City, for example, extends to 2,400km2. …

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