Latin America

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 (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.

Borders (5) Copacabana

The view of the Bolvia- Peru Border from Peru, an image by Hans Eickerman on Panoramio

You probably have heard about Copacabana beach, in Rio (Brazil). Well, this spot is just some thousands of km to the west. There is indeed also a Copacabana beach here, but it is on the shores of Titicaca Lake. For Spanish observers, a border between south american countries that speak on both sides Spanish seems intuitively like an oddity, but this only comes from the fact that a country is much more than a language, especially when you have different cultural roots on each side of the line (and creating a different culture is just a matter of time, just take a look at north and south Koreans, or east and west Germans, just to name a few countries that indeed had a common cultural basis).

This is just one of these moments in which zooming out on the google maps window can be of interest…

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.

Tourism spaces (4a) Cidade do Samba

2013 parade in the Sambodromo. Image by Fora do Eixo,

2013 parade in the Sambodromo. Image by Fora do Eixo,

As experiences go, the Rio de Janeiro Carnival seems a good example, but ¿what does it mean in urban terms?

Leila María da Silva Blass describes in her article “Rompendo as Fronteiras: a cidade do Samba no Río de Janeiro”, published in 2008 in the Revista Brasileira de Ciencias Sociais, a space where the big paraphernalia of the Escolas de Samba is built. It is a kind of industrial compound to produce ephemeral elements, but also a kind of theme park (tourism cruises stop nearby).

About a kilometer south (crossing the railway and the Avenida Presidente Vargas) is the Passarela Professor Darcy Ribeiro (named honoring the ethnologue who promoted the project), best known as the Sambódromo Marqués de Sapucai, built during the 1980s according to Oscar Niemeyer’s project. Along this 550 m space the parade on the central corridor (12 m wide between stands down to the south square) takes two hours on two nights (up to the building of the sambodromo there was just a one night parade). In 2012 the capacity was increased from 60.000 to 72.500. It is a space marked by advertisement, marketing and television, and it will be a venue for the 2016 Olympics.

cidade samba1


This is the typical issue: has the Sambodromo created a new monofunctional space in the city, or is the Brazilian pop culture strong enough to trhive even more in this area?. I do not pretend to know the answer (unfortunately, I have never been to Rio), but it is worth seeing again the film “Black Orpheus” (just to mention again greek heros, albeit indirectly…)

Urban sprawl (4) Latin America


Latin America suffers from a severe housing shortage, that governments try to tackle by providing housing neighborhoods (often under the “progressive housing” model), with projects that try to use the resources in a rational way, often based in a cost analysis that covers the project stage (and not the operational costs).

So, often the least costly land is acquired, without regard to its location. The resulting new neighborhood is far away from the city in which there are jobs and services. The recent economic growth has led to increased car ownership rates by families, so in the end you either have an increased car use or longer commute times in underperforming transit systems, or even an outright project failure (recent CEPAL reports document cases in which the housing has been outright abandoned).

Housing (2) Progressive housing in Chile

A project by Elemental in Chile. On the upper image, the housing units as delivered to dwellers; for each "L" there is a ground floor home and a two storey home on top. The lower image shows the buildings after some time.

A project by Elemental in Chile. On the upper image, the housing units as delivered to dwellers; for each “L” there is a ground floor home and a two storey home on top. The lower image shows the buildings after some time.

Up until the arrival of the XXth century and the housing policies, it was common to see people build their own homes, especially in villages and urban areas in which individual housing was common; homes were extended according to the household economy.

Even if this is still possible in some areas, in Europe now the usual is to see housing as a finished product to which you come to live without having been involved in the works, and without plans for a future extension, and that includes social housing (even if in somehow recent moments there were still in parts of Spain experiences of social housing involving work by future dwellers). In fact, building codes and quality demands make quite difficult the option.

How to organize a housing policy in countries with scarce public resources, low income populations and pressing needs? In Latin America it is common to see “progressive housing” programs and the Chilean has a 50 years experience. The public administration (or the future dwellers in some cases) builds a reduced part of the building, with the load bearing main elements and the most complex systems (water, sewage, energy), and later each family extends the building according to its economic capacity. It is a far cry from the idea of complete formal control of the urban image, there are many issues that are far from well solved, but this has allowed a sizeable group of households to own a place to call their own. The programs have been linked in many countries to the large land property regularization programs.

The practice Elemental (, led by Alejandro Aravena, has recent works that illustrate well this principle.

Barcelona- Bogotá (6)


The old core of Barcelona results from the evolution of the primitive roman colony, even if it is difficult to believe by looking at the urban fabric (the large straight streets come from the Cerdá plan in the XIXth century). In Bogota the traces of the Laws of the Indies, with their grid, is clearer.

In Barcelona the Cathedral (red) and the City Hall (blue) are on different squares, while in Bogotá a single space is shared, with a clear symbolism as it also concentrates the headquarters of the judiciary and the Parliament.

Urban growth shows that the aim to regularity always finds unexpected conditions… a regular fabric is almost impossible.