Latin America cities

Re-mid-sized cities (1) A sample

A mid-sized city can be such as a result of growth until reaching that status, or it can be the result of a certain downgrading from higher ranks. I am fully aware that some of the things I’m going to say could be unpleasant, but this is a long-term vision, and history is made every day, so nothing is unavoidable.

I’ve chosen four cities that, as in the first case, are seaports, but with quite different roles. They have been high places in the European colonial adventure (that could receive other names in different places). Seville as the main port in the first times of the Spanish empire, Marseilles as the French gate to the African and Asian empires, New Orleans as the gate to the Mississippi Valley, and Havana as the capital of the last jewel of the Spanish empire. These are by no means small cites, and they are rather relevant in their states, as to make many think that I’m not fair saying they are mid-sized cities; but they are no longer cities with a continental reach. They have sure gained population, but have lost rank.

Yet they are very interesting places. How does a city evolve when the technological- economical-social (you name the issue) wave that propelled it to its highest position disappears? The rise of these cities is linked to their network of relations in colonial worlds, and their evolution is related to the fact that new models appear that are more successful. There is a scent of Detroit here…

Mexico City (3) Historical core and housing

Programa Parcial de Desarrollo Urbano Centro Histórico del Programa Delegacional de Desarrollo Urbano para la Delegación Cuahtemoc. Zoning districts and minimal percentage of building area to be allocated to housing.

Programa Parcial de Desarrollo Urbano Centro Histórico del Programa Delegacional de Desarrollo Urbano para la Delegación Cuahtemoc. Zoning districts and minimal percentage of building area to be allocated to housing.

The 2010 Plan shows a will to maintain housing in the historical core. The 2010 census has shown that there is still a long way to get there.

Mexico City (2) A Young city?

When you look at Mexico from Europe there is an image of a young country, with high birth rates. But as in most countries in Latin America this is changing; a relevant economic growth (albeit not that well distributed) and the results of some policies have these countries in the midst of a demographic transition that can lead the in two decades to age pyramids much closer to the ones nowadays common in more northern countries. As of today, these are still rather young cities.

Share of households with a head 60 or over

Share of households with a head 60 or over

In central Mexico City the families in which the head (in the census sense) is 60 or over are clearly a minority (the orange grid is 2 km). The historical core around the Zócalo (A) has very few, just the opposite of most European historical cores. There are areas as colonia Jardín Balbuena (B) or Rincón del Bosque (D) which have high family incomes, where older family heads are more relevant. Colonia San Juan de Aragon (E) has also a relevant share, but their situation must be different, as this is not an affluent area. The Tlatelolco area (C), one of the high symbols of the Mexican social housing architecture, has a rather reduced presence of such aged family heads, even as its building years would be in many countries a pre-requisite for an aging population. Anyway, these results are limited to the age of the head of the family, so there can be more data to analyse.

It is striking to see the central areas as nearly the youngest ones.

Mexico City (1) No eyes on the street at megacity core?

Which is the biggest city in the world? Hard to tell; take a bunch of five geographers from different countries in front of the same territory, and chances are you will get five different limits maps for that same area. It is hard to know whether the largest city in the world is Tokyo, or Mexico, or Delhi, as you should begin by defining precisely what being a city means at such scales (UN criteria can be questioned). What seems clear is that the biggest city (in any sense) of the Spanish-speaking world is Mexico. As in other cases, again a city I have never set a foot on (so I thank any comment, especially from my Mexican readers). The country can be seen from Spain with mixed sensations: curiosity for such a culturally complex country, a degree of caution regarding an image of violence and inequality, astonishment due to the dimension of the problems, and interest for a society that seems to be evolving. This stroll will use as a guide a set of city block files from INEGI that have associated data and have led me to ask some questions.

Metropolitan area of the Mexico Valley

Mexico Valley metro area’s blocks

The first image shows most of the blocks of what can be defined as the (more or less) continuous city. Blue hues correspond to blocks in Mexico State, red being for those in the Federal District; color intensity increases with the population of each block. The graphical scale illustrates the spatial magnitudes of this, for a city that in 2010 had some 20 million residents according to INEGI.

Total population by city block in Mexico's urban core

Total population by city block in Mexico’s urban core

The second image shows the symbolic city core; blue crosses are separated 500 m in each direction. Here are the Zócalo square (1), the Cathedral (2), the Torre Latinoamericana (3), the Palacio de las Bellas Artes (4) and the Paseo de la Reforma (5). Red hues are proportional to the population of each block, written on each of them. It is surprising to see that this area, with 220 blocks, has a population of just 68.000 on 4,5 sq km, a density (150 per hectare) which seems rather reduced for an urban core; the figure seems justified by retail and office uses, but not due to an increasingly older population, as in other urban cores (see the following images). The midterm impact of recent measures as the conversion to a pedestrian configuration of calle Madero, which is positive for mobility and security, should be positive, but remains to be verified in terms of local demography.

Judging from these references, and taking Jane Jacobs as a reference, the question is whether there are any eyes at night over the core of the megacity…

Population up to 14 by block

Population up to 14 by block

Population over 60 by block

Population over 60 by block

Far away ports (9) The Plan Regulador Intercomunal at Puerto Montt- Puerto Varas

supramunicipal puerto montt

The plan – published draft

The plan (started in 2009, under environmental scrutiny as of 2013) defines a land use model for a 860 sq km zone including part of the territory of five municipalities. It encompasses two coastal areas (the southern shore of the Llanquihue lake and the seashore around Puerto Montt), as well as the main north-south Chilean throughfare, the Panamerican Highway, as it crosses the area. The aerial images show an interesting landscape in which this road, stretching along a plain, seems to attract varied uses.

The aim is to set a frame for urban growth, preventing sprawling growth around the lakeshore, conserving farmland and forests, and ensuring an urban model that respects the environmental assets of the region while providing services to citizens and prevention against natural risks. But maps seems to show a substantial growth area along the lakeshore, with some caution areas concerning natural risks. To be seen in the final plan… Anyway, the port is an economic asset, but what is transforming the land (as nearly everywhere) is the car…

Far away ports (5) Transit maps

Ports have a central meaning as nodes in a network of maritime transportation; a ship captain can only get to the right harbour if provided a good navigation chart. So it is interesting to see how the residents of these port cities are told how to go from one place to another by public transit (mainly bus in cities this size).

This somehow brings to the mind the work of Kevin Lynch on the image of the city, as well as how citizens perceive it. Sure, architects like global maps in which the whole network can be seen, but these are not always easy to understand for lay people, and besides their design is not always clear.

La Coruña has a lines map quite complex. It is a peninsula with a narrow isthmus which causes a heavy density of lines in certain areas, so it is not that easy for some to understand how to go from A to B. Bus stops have a simplified version of that network; some people complain that the map is hard to read in dense zones. The transit company’s website shows simply a list of stops along each line, and a link to google for maps showing which streets the bus takes.

Líneas transporte urbano puerto montt (

I have found no clear, structured website about urban transit in Puerto Montt, but rather (and it seems quite usual in Chile) a central Government site that explains, by province, the transit networks by classes, including the municipal scale.

parte bus

Brest has the most sophisticated public transit system of these four cities, with supra-municipal scale and a tram line. There is a real network map, quite clear, which reproduces the map of the territory without deformations; besides, line maps are also based on the geographical map. There is also an interactive map.

DTA Routes

Even if this may come as a surprise to many given its quite peripheral location in the US and its sprawl, Duluth also has a public transit system. There is a map of the whole network, and the line maps are, as many similar things in the US (just think of the zoning map in NYC) utterly simple, but efficient. The street grid is reproduced under the line layout without deformations, for each line.

Overall, despite the role of the ports in the economies of these cities, transit networks show overall that there is a more complex reality (being otherwise clear that this minute analysis is just considering line layouts, excluding such things as schedules or fares).

Far away ports (4) Histories. Towers, submarines, beavers, salmons…

La Coruña port existed in roman times. The Hercules Tower, a roman lighthouse which is thought to have been built during the first century AC, shows the relevance of the area during that time. The relevant port of the region was present Betanzos (Brigantium), as its ria was less silted and ships were smaller. During the Middle Ages the city becomes more relevant, and the opening of the American trade after the end of the monopoly of Seville and Cadix helps. Around the mid XXth century the port occupies most of the southern bay, protected by the peninsula; this is the last vision of Spain for thousands of Galicians migrating to America. During the 1960’s a large jetty is built to enlarge he port, and a new oil refining plant gives relevance to liquid bulks. This also leads to several tanker accidents that pollute the air and the ocean. The transition to democracy with the death of Franco brings regional devolution and the loss of the regional capital to Santiago, with the transfer of many public jobs. During the last decade a new port has been built, west of the historic bay, in part to reduce risks (oil wharfs are linked to the refining plant by a pipeline near homes), but the location is clearly into the metro area. The presence in that metro area of the headquarters of Inditex, the textile group owning Zara, helps to a certain degree to weather the current economic crisis.


Brest is first mentioned in history as a roman encampment at the end of the IIIrd century AC. The estuary of the river Penfeld made for a good natural harbour for the ships of the age. In 1593 Henri IV incorporates Brest as city, and in 1631 Richelieu establishes an arsenal on the Penfeld’s banks. The city plays a relevant role for the fleets helping the United States in their Independence War. The XIXth century starts under the British naval blockade, hurting the port; this changes under the second empire, with a wider sea trade, new rail lines and bridges over the Penfeld. Urban growth goes crosses the historic walls. Bigger ships make the need for a larger port, out of the Penfeld estuary, and new warfes are open on the large bay. During WW2 the port becomes a German Naval base and is bombed by the allies, which destroy a large portion of the city, later rebuilt. The creation of the Oceanic Strategic Force in 1972 leads to the creation of the new nuclear submarines base on Ile Longue, south of the bay. The reduction in military budgets hurts the city.


Duluth receives its name from the first European explorer of the area, a XVIIth century French soldier which was called “Sieur du Luth”. The first known residents were the Anishinaabe tribe, which played a mediating role between the French and other Indian nations. Fur trade (especially beaver) was a relevant part of that early trade. In the mid XIXth century cooper mines, new locks allowing the arrival of large ships to lake Superior and plans for new rail linking the city to the Pacific (creating so a inter-ocean port) helped fuel the inception of the city. The port and the city grew exporting ore (mainly iron) and cereals. The crisis of the traditional heavy industry at the end of the XXth century has touched the city, but it is to a certain degree compensated by tourism and services to the metro area.

Puerto Montt in 1861.

Puerto Montt had some population prior to the arrival of the Spanish (southern Chile was never really incorporated to the Empire). Around the mid XIXth century German colonists started arriving to the area, and the city is incorporated in 1853. The rail line to Osorno starts operation in 1912. During the 1930 there is a substantial transformation of the waterfront, with new embankments, rail lines, a wharf and the dredging of the Tenglo channel. The city becomes in 1974 the capital of the Xth region (Los Lagos). Since 1985 the salmon production becomes important (and the plague problems for the species test the local economy), with other more traditional activities as agriculture, cattle or wood being also relevant. Tourism has become a relevant asset too.

Ramona and Rafaela

A view of Rafaela from an airplane. Image by Martin Dario Herrera on Panoramio

Rafaela is a city with some 100.000 residents in the center-west of the province of Santa Fe, Argentina, with a certain structuring role over its territory. Ramona is a community slightly over 2.000 residents some 50 km west of Rafaela. Buenos Aires is faaaar awaaay… What is interesting here is how on a territory which is a perfect grid for the agrarian colonization of a Pampa that there surely seems infinite, there is a self-similarity worth a Mandelbrot explanation on the general layout…

Rafaela and Ramona at the same scale. Attention, Ramona is located northwest from Rafaela

Rafaela and Ramona at the same scale. Attention, Ramona is located northwest from Rafaela

Rua Gonçalo de Carvalho in Porto Alegre

And now for an internet finding, as I have never put foot in Porto Alegre (or anywhere in Brazil). Here is a rather local street, that has wonderful trees (Tipuana tipu, or rosewood) and an interesting space, with a regular paving for cars and sidewalks with irregular stone slabs which seem nice, at least seen from Google Street View’s car.

According to the blog poavive, these trees have been planted and maintained by the neighbors, and the street is now a listed space, with legal protection.

Conde de Cartagena street, in Madrid. Maples instead of tropical trees, altough also a good vegetal cover, and less stone on the surfaces

Conde de Cartagena street, in Madrid. Maples instead of tropical trees, altough also a good vegetal cover, and less stone on the surfaces

What surprises me, seen from Spain, is that planting and taking care of the trees is assumed by the neighbors. In many countries this is clearly a municipal affair. Looking at google maps I can see there are other streets in Porto Alegre which also have fine trees, as Marqués de Pombal (a little less dense, in fact), but I do not know if it is also due to the neighbors. Even here in Madrid, far from being a tropical city, we have some streets with good trees, albeit less exuberant. I reckon also that sometimes the relevant role of the neighbors is preventing the trees from being logged; after reading the post on the amics arbres- arbres amics blog, it seems this was also the case in Porto Alegre.