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5.4: Urban Development in South America

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    South America is a highly urbanized region, with over 80 percent of people living in cities. Central America and the Caribbean are slightly less urbanized at around 70 percent. Development and human settlement are not spread evenly across the region. Several countries in Middle and South America have a primate city. (Primate cities are those which are the largest city in a country, are more than twice as large as the next largest city, and are representative of the national culture.) For example, of Uruguay’s 3.4 million people, over half live in its capital and primate city of Montevideo. Not all countries of the world have a primate city. Germany’s largest city is Berlin, which is roughly twice as large as Hamburg and Munich and was once the country’s primate city. In recent years, however, Munich has increasingly become Germany’s cultural center.

    The region is also home to several megacities, a metropolitan area with over 10 million people. Mexico City, the capital and primate city of Mexico, has a population of 22 million people. São Paulo, Brazil has 21.5 million. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Buenos Aires, Argentina are also megacities. With over 10 million people comes a significant need for affordable housing and employment. Megacities often have large populations of homeless people and, particularly in Middle and South America, sprawling slums. This immense population also needs a carefully managed infrastructure, everything from sanitation to transportation, and the developing countries of this region have historically had difficulty meeting the demand.

    Despite the challenges faced by large urban populations, rural to urban migration continues in the region. As in many parts of the world, poor rural farmers migrated to the cities where industrial development was clustered in search of work.

    In general, the cities of Middle and South America follow a similar model of urban development (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). The central business district, or CBD, is located in the center of the city often alongside a central market. While some colonial buildings were demolished following independence, cities in this region still typically have a large plaza area in the CBD. As industrialization occurred, additional industrial and commercial development extended along the spine, which might be a major boulevard. The spine is often connected to a major retail area or mall.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Model of the Latin American City (Figure by author)

    Surrounding the commercial area of the spine is the elite residential sector consisting of housing for the wealthiest residents of the city often in high-rise condominiums. Around the CBD is the zone of maturity, an area of middle-class housing. The zone of in situ accretion is a transitional area from the modest middle-class housing of the zone of maturity to the slums of the city’s poorest residents.

    The outermost ring in a typical Latin American city is the zone of peripheral squatter settlements. In this zone, residents do not own or pay rent and instead occupy unused land, known as “squatting.” In some cases, residents earn money by participating in the informal sector where goods and services are bought and sold without being taxed or monitored by the government.

    Disamenity sectors arise along highways, rail lines, or other small tracts of unoccupied land where the city’s poor often live out in the open. Residents often build housing out of whatever materials they can find such as cardboard or tin. What is perhaps most striking about the Latin American city is that in some areas, the city’s poorest residents live in an area adjacent to the wealthiest residents, magnifying the income inequality that is present in the region.

    Globally, around one-third of people in developing countries live in slums, characterized by locations with substandard housing and infrastructure. The exact number of people living in slums is not known, but most likely falls at or just below 1 billion people. In Brazil, sprawling slums are known as favelas and over 11 million people live there. Located in Rio de Janeiro, Rochina is Brazil’s largest favela and is home to almost 70,000 people (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). It has transitioned from a squatter area with temporary housing to more permanent structures with basic sanitation, electricity, and plumbing.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Rocinha Favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (© Chensiyuan, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

    In some cases, those who live in the slums of Middle and South America are not unemployed but simply cannot find affordable housing in the cities. Rural to urban migration has outpaced housing construction, as in other parts of the world. Even some lower and middle managers are unable to find housing and thus end up living in the slums.

    Primate city:

    a city that is the largest city in a country, is more than twice as large as the next largest city, and is representative of the national culture


    a metropolitan area with over 10 million people

    Squatter settlements:

    a housing area where residents do not own or pay rent and instead occupy otherwise unused land

    Informal sector:

    refers to the part of the economy where goods and services are bought and sold without being taxed or monitored by the government

    5.4: Urban Development in South America is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.