Cities and Urbanization

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Cities and Urbanization

Cities occupy a central place in history, and have played a particularly important role in the Latin American experience. The cities of ancient Latin America, from Teotihuacán in Mexico to Cuzco in Perú, offered unique expressions of urban life. The conquering Spanish were quintessentially urban people, and the cities they built served as focal points for colonial exploitation. In the early twenty-first century Latin America has become the most urbanized of the less-developed regions of the world.

Defining what "urban" means has always been problematic. Certainly urban areas are places of more people and higher population density. Cities were the places where labor specialization developed and distinct social classes emerged. Cities are centers of commerce, crafts, and industry. Cities serve as administrative, ecclesiastical, intellectual, and cultural centers, and as seats of government. Some urbanization experts have insisted that a numerical threshold must be reached for a place to qualify as a city: the U.S. Bureau of the Census in 1920 defined "urban" as a location with a population of 2,500 or more. But urbanism is probably better defined not just by population size or density but by function as well. Most scholars hold that places should be regarded as cities if administrative, social, religious, trade, or economic activities are carried on in them that do not and cannot take place in rural zones. This more generous conception of what constitutes a city encompasses the variety of urban habitats in Latin America.


The emergence of the first cities in what is present-day Latin America depended upon the establishment of sedentary agriculture, a development that occurred in the New World around 4000 bce or perhaps earlier. The earliest urban settlements of Latin America, in the Norte Chico region of central coastal Perú, may date from as far back as 3500 bce. However, it was not until after about 1800 bce that steadily increasing clusters of villages emerged in which sedentary farming was a full-time occupation, especially in Mesoamerica and the Andean region of South America. The farming settlements of these regions—in Mexico, northern Central America, Perú, and Bolivia—provided the critical mass for the subsequent development of civilizations and cities. These were probably the only places in Latin America where cities emerged in the pre-Columbian period, although some have argued for urban developments in the ancient Amazon.

Urban complexes appeared in each of the major and many of the minor civilizations of ancient Latin America. Three cities stand out as most significant. One was Teotihuacán, located in central Mexico, the largest urban complex of Latin America in the pre-Columbian period. Teotihuacán reached its greatest efflorescence between 450 and 650 ce, sustaining a population of at least 200,000 people. The city served as an artisan production center (especially of obsidian), a religious center and place of pilgrimages, and a focal point for commerce. So important were the trade ties that Teotihuacán fostered that the decline and ultimate abandonment of the city after 650 may have contributed to the decline and abandonment of several leading cities of the Maya and other Mesoamerican civilizations.

Tenochtitlán, founded in 1325, was the leading city of the Aztec of Mexico. At its peak, during the reign of Moctezuma II (1502–1520), Tenochtitlán reached a population of at least 160,000. When the Spanish first arrived in the city in 1519 they marveled at Tenochtitlán's appearance: They had never seen a city so large, clean, orderly, and well-governed. In two years, however, the city lay in ruins, destroyed in the combat of the Spanish conquest. Hernán Cortés and the conquering Spanish built their capital, Mexico City, on the ruins of Tenochtitlán.

Cuzco, in southern highland Peru, grew in significance as the Inca empire expanded in the mid- to late-fifteenth century. At its peak Cuzco may have supported a population of 50,000. The city served as the Inca capital and focal point for tribute collection. Every year local lords (kurakas) from across the Inca empire were required to travel to Cuzco and deliver gold, silver, cloth, corn, coca, and young female virgins into the hands of the Inca hierarchy. The Inca built temples and sacred gardens in Cuzco decorated with the vast quantities of silver and gold taken in tribute. In 1533 the Spanish arrived and looted these treasures, establishing colonial control over the city and the empire.


Cites were central to the establishment of Spanish colonialism in the Americas. When Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519 one of his first acts was the founding of a city, Villa Rica de la Veracruz (modern day Veracruz), which gave him the legal legitimacy he needed to proceed with the conquest of Mexico. As Spanish conquistadores became settlers, they seldom chose to live in rural districts; they directed the colonial exploitation of Latin America from the cities they constructed. By 1580 nearly all the great Spanish American cities had been founded, the most notable exceptions being Medellín, Colombia (founded in 1616) and Montevideo, Uruguay (1726). The conquistador Francisco Pizarro himself founded twenty-two cities, including Lima, Perú, in 1535.

While it has often been asserted that the plaza-and-grid design of most colonial Spanish American cities grew out of a rigid set of royal orders pertaining to city construction, this is probably not the case. Town planning was seldom practiced in Spain in the late fifteenth century, even if it was in other parts of Europe. True, rules for the building of Spanish colonial cities were set down in the 1523 Laws of the Indies, and King Phillip II drew together the existing laws in one long decree in 1573, The Ordinances for the Discovery, New Settlement, and Pacification of the Indies. But as urban historian Jorge Hardoy noted in 1975, "legislation only formalized a situation already perfectly defined in practice" (p. 30).

City fathers in colonial Spanish America usually followed the successful example of Santo Domingo, in the modern-day Dominican Republic, an urban model that most Spanish were familiar with. Santo Domingo was settled in 1496 and formally founded in 1498, but the city was moved in 1502 to a better location on the other side of the Ozama River. The relocated Santo Domingo was laid it out in a grid, although not in conformity with any preexisting Spanish design. Santo Domingo was the leading Spanish American city until the completion of the conquest of Mexico in 1521, and until that date functioned as the center of trade, exploration, and conquest. Santo Domingo was therefore the place where Spanish American urban forms and political arrangements were pioneered; most cities subsequently erected by the conquering Spanish followed its model, whether founded by the conquistadores or by the clergy for purposes of conversion of the native peoples.

Still, some cities founded by the Spanish did not follow any plan. In these cases, as in for example in Asunción, Paraguay, the imposition of an orderly urban design often came long after the initial founding and a period of chaotic growth. Brazilian cities typically did not follow the grid design or any other plan, instead growing naturally without externally imposed order.

Latin American colonial cities were initially alien European enclaves focused on the consumption of the economic surplus created by the labor of indigenous or African slave workers. But in time these cities developed into more than the white exploiters' headquarters, becoming home to a growing population of mestizos (people of mixed race). Cities that began as military staging areas gradually became transformed into administrative centers, ecclesiastical seats, and, more gradually, commercial entrepôts. The Spanish and Portuguese naturally located their cities so to facilitate trade, and most were on the coast, although some were situated in the interior along navigable rivers, near exploitable indigenous populations, or by silver mines. Despite the catastrophic population loss in the Americas in the wake of the conquest (90 percent in 110 years), cities grew steadily, and Latin America became more urban.

The largest city in colonial Latin America was Potosí, in modern-day Bolivia, which by the sixteenth century had a population of more than 140,000. However, as production from the silver mines around Potosí declined during the seventeenth century, so too did the population of the city, which fell to about 30,000. Other large colonial-era cities included Mexico City, which by 1700 had a population of more than 100,000. Six others had populations of 50,000 or greater: Rio de Janeiro and Salvador (formerly called Bahia), Brazil; Puebla and Guanajuato, Mexico; Havana; and Lima. By the end of the colonial period other sizeable cites appeared, including Buenos Aires (42,000 in 1810), Santiago (40,000 in 1790), and Querétaro, Mexico (30,000 in 1790). Overall, late colonial Spanish America was more urban than the young United States. Mexico City was the largest city in the hemisphere, with a population in 1800 of 120,000, compared to 80,000 in New York City.


The post-independence period was a time of economic depression and political instability for much of Latin America. As a consequence, the early nineteenth century was the historical low point for the political and economic importance of Latin American cities. Political power tended to shift toward rural-based caudillos and away from the capitals. Economically the cities were in retreat as well. As exports languished, cities' population growth stagnated or in some cases even declined. Even by 1870 fewer Latin Americans lived in cities than had in 1800.

However, changes in the world economy by the late nineteenth century, especially the spread of industrialization in Western Europe and the United States, generated more demand for raw materials and food products from Latin America. The rise of the Latin American export economies of the late nineteenth century triggered a resurgence in urban growth. Urbanization progressed most rapidly in southern Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, places that attracted waves of immigration from Portugal, Spain, and Italy. Starting in the 1870s and ending with the Great Depression of the 1930s, the net influx of immigration to southern Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina reached some seven million. These zones, temperate regions of recent settlement—prime farmlands without large pre-existing labor forces—drew workers for the expanding export trade: the coffee industry in Brazil, sheep in Uruguay, and wheat and beef in the Argentine pampa. While many immigrants found work in these enterprises, many more took jobs in ancillary occupations in the booming cities of Santos, São Paulo, Montevideo, and Buenos Aires. Elsewhere in Latin America urban growth was directly associated with economic growth: Those nations with the strongest ties to the world economy grew the most rapidly, and those that remained more economically isolated grew the least.

In 1850 there were only four Latin American cities with populations of 100,000 or more: Rio de Janeiro, Salvador (Bahia), Mexico City, and Havana. By 1900 there were ten, led by Buenos Aires, 870,000; Rio de Janeiro, 690,000; Mexico City, 540,000; Montevideo, 309,000; Santiago, 287,000; and São Paulo, 239,000. By 1930 there were twenty-eight such cities. The growth of some cities in this period was especially rapid: Buenos Aires from 90,000 in the 1850s to more than 3 million by 1930; Rio de Janeiro from 186,000 in the 1850s to more than 1.5 million by 1930; Mexico City from 200,000 in the 1850s to 1.3 million by 1930; and São Paulo, from 26,000 in the 1850s to 1 million by 1930.

As cities grew the need for services—potable water, sewers, transportation, street paving, electricity, street lights, hospitals, schools, jails—became more urgent. It fell to the state to supply these necessities, and the role of government expanded accordingly. As export economies blossomed and urban areas grew, political power shifted back to the cities.

Latin American cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries showed considerable variability in the achievement of urban social reform. This wide range was reflected in urban death rates in this period. While not every city has been studied, some comparative numbers are available. Guayaquil was arguably the most unhealthy city in Latin America in this period: in 1879 and 1880 the death rate exceeded 100 per thousand in population, although it fell to 38 per thousand in the early 1920s. Other Latin America cities showed lower death rates. For example, Santiago had a death rate averaging 35 in the years 1920–1924; Valparaíso had death rates ranging from 33 to 26 in the early 1920s; and the average death rate in Río de Janeiro in the years from 1901 to 1920 was 23. Nevertheless, these numbers compare unfavorably to cities of the developed world in the period 1905 to 1908: New York City 17, Paris 17, Berlin 17, London 16, and Chicago 14.

Several factors explain the variability in Latin America urban death rates from 1870 to 1930. Certainly geography played a key role. Cities in tropical settings experienced continuing problems with malaria and yellow fever, although these diseases were of course not unknown in many temperate cities. However, highland cities, such as Mexico City, Bogotá, Quito, or La Paz, never suffered malaria or yellow fever epidemics: mosquitoes cannot live at the elevation of these cities.

More important than geography, however, were financial resources. The cities that had the best-performing export economies could best afford the cost of urban reform. Such cities were also more likely to develop the political circumstances that could lead to reform, for the achievement of urban social reform was principally a political matter. Clearly, being able to pay the costs of providing potable water and constructing modern sewers did not automatically assure that these developments would occur. Powerful groups or classes had to force government to take these actions. Historically, the broad array of urban reforms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including public health care reforms, went furthest in those places where labor was effectively organized and the middle class was the strongest. Whereas these conditions applied chiefly in the premier cities of the developed world, in Latin America they could be found, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent, in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. To the extent that other Latin American cities lagged behind in the achievement of urban social reform, the principal reason was that the formation of these key political actors was weaker.


The years from 1950 to 1980 were Latin America's period of most rapid urbanization to date. Many of Latin America's cities grew by more than 4 percent per year in these decades. Some grew even faster: Lima, Mexico City, and São Paulo grew at more than 5 percent, Caracas at greater than 6 percent, and Bogotá grew at the astonishing rate of more than 7 percent per year in this period. Urbanization, if defined as the percentage of population living in towns or cities of 20,000 or more, rose with each decade: in 1930, 17 percent of Latin Americans lived in urban areas; in 1940, 33 percent; in 1960, 44 percent; in 1970, 64 percent; and in 1990, 72 percent of Latin Americans lived in cities. At the beginning of the twentieth century Latin America had three cities with half a million or more; by 1950 there were six. By 1990 there were thirty-nine cities with a million and eleven with three million or more. And whereas the population of Latin America rose 33 percent from 1960 to 1970, the urban population rose 54 percent. Latin America became by the closing decades of the twentieth century the most urbanized region in the developing world. From the late nineteenth century to the closing decades of the twentieth, leading Latin American cities grew at roughly double the rate of most U.S. cities.

The main reason for the explosive growth of Latin America's cities in these decades was a basic demographic change. From the postwar period to the 1980s, births greatly exceeded deaths. Until the mid-1930s the Latin American death rate was about 20 per thousand while the birth rate was 30 per thousand, but by the 1970s the death rate had dropped below 10 and the birth rate had climbed to more than 40. Moreover, Latin American life expectancy, which had averaged 31 years in 1920, had risen to 56 by 1960. Infant mortality rates (the annual number of deaths, age 0-1, per 1,000 live births) fell too, dropping in Chile, for example, from 250 for the years 1920 to 1924 to 92 by 1967, and in Mexico from 178 in 1920–1924 to 63 in 1967. Latin America's population grew at 1.9 percent per year in the 1930s, but rose by 2.3 percent annually in the 1940s, 2.7 percent in the 1950s, and 2.8 percent in the 1960s, a rate at which the population would double every twenty-five years.

Part of this may be explained by the fact that more women were living into their childbearing years, and more were surviving through multiple pregnancies. Likewise, more pregnancies resulted in live births. Yet beyond these gains, the larger question remains of why the death rates fell so markedly. There are several probable causes. One certainly was the mass introduction of antibiotics, sharply reducing deaths from pneumonia, tuberculosis, and various bacterial enteric disorders. Another factor was the widespread, if controversial, application of the insecticide DDT, which killed anopheles mosquitoes, the malaria vector. The anti-malaria campaigns of the 1950s, led by the Pan American Sanitary Bureau (later called the Pan American Health Organization) were highly successful in this regard. DDT spraying, by the Pan American Sanitary Bureau, by Latin American governments, or just by individuals who purchased gallon jugs of the insecticide at hardware stores, killed many other disease-bearing insects, including flies that contributed to the spread of microbes that spread digestive illnesses.

Perhaps even more important in explaining the surge in Latin American population growth in the 1950s to the 1980s were the notable improvements in urban sanitation, the provisioning of potable water, and the digging of sewers. Nevertheless, the factor that was probably most responsible for the dramatic lowering of death rates was improvement in diet. The best defense against disease is not medicine or even public sanitation but one's own immune system, and the strength of this system depends on proper nutrition. Admittedly, it is all but impossible to prove that diets improved for ordinary Latin Americas in these years—it is always hard to know for certain what and how much people ate. But because the other factors alone or together cannot account for the dramatic drop in the Latin America death rates of the postwar years, improvement in diet must be the most likely explanation.

Rural-to-urban migration also underlies the expansion of urbanization in the postwar period and after. Indeed, two-thirds of Latin America's urban growth from 1940 to 1970 came from migration from the countryside. Peasants left the countryside for a variety of reasons, but foremost was increasing land scarcity due to rural population growth. Moreover, as agriculture became more mechanized fewer could find steady work. Young men migrated to cities looking to find jobs in the many new factories or in construction. Young women, who outnumbered male migrants, often found work as domestic servants. However, not all migrants to the cities found good jobs or improvement in their lives. The shantytowns of urban Latin America were a creation of the post-World War II population boom. By the 1960s a quarter to a third of urban Latin Americans lived in newly created slum areas.

Latin America's economic policies from the late 1940s through the 1970s also contributed strongly to rising urbanization. State-led import substitution industrialization (ISI) policies fostered economic growth and development across much of Latin America, especially in Brazil, the Southern Cone, and Mexico. Protected behind high tariffs, many new industries appeared in Latin America's leading cities. Although ISI policies had their critics, by one key measure, economic growth rates, they proved a remarkable success. For Latin America as a whole, the economy grew at an annual rate of 5.3 percent from 1950 to 1981, a rate even faster than that of the developed world. Many of the migrants to Latin American cities in this period could realistically hope to find jobs in industry and enjoy an improvement in their standard of living. Because ISI policies expanded the role of the state, there was also a significant increase in the number of white-collar employees working for government bureaucracies. These concentrated, like industry, in the primate cities (cities that had a quarter or more of the national population and which also served in most cases as the capital, leading port, and intellectual center). As industries multiplied and construction boomed, Latin American cities took on a more modern appearance. Some built subway systems. That of Buenos Aires had opened in 1913, but most were built later: Mexico City's opened in 1969, São Paulo's in 1974, Rio de Janeiro's in 1979, and Caracas's in 1983.


Populations everywhere have usually taken two or three generations to adjust their birth rates downward to match lower death rates, and Latin America has been no different. After 1960 birth rates began to fall, dropping from 42 births per thousand in the early 1960s to 27 by the early 1990s. This was due in part to the urbanization process itself, for urban women tend to have fewer children than do rural women, in Latin America typically two to three fewer per woman in a lifetime. Latin American population growth fell from an annual average of 2.8 percent in the years 1950 to 1980, to 1.8 percent per year from 1980 to 1995.As Latin American population growth slowed, urbanization slowed too.

The decrease in rural population growth put less pressure on landless poor to move to cities in search of work. Moreover, by the 1980s there were fewer employment opportunities in the cities. The 1980s were a "lost decade" for Latin America, its worst period economically ever. After the Mexican debt crises of 1982, foreign investors withdrew, domestic capital fled abroad, industries shut down, businesses closed, and new foreign loans, even to service existing debts, became all but unavailable. Although Latin American economic growth had been strong during the entire ISI period, in the 1980s the per capita GDP of Latin America fell by more than 8 percent. Everywhere factories closed down and governments laid off employees. The newly created middle class was dumped into the working class, and the number of urban poor doubled during the decade of the 1980s.

The economic free fall of the 1980s halted urbanization growth. Mexico City, for example, had had an annual population growth rate of 5 percent in the 1950s, 5.6 percent in the 1960s, and 4.2 percent in the 1970s, but the rate fell to just 0.9 percent per year in the 1980s, before climbing to 1.6 percent in the 1990s. While Mexico City had grown faster than Mexico as a whole in the 1950s and 1960s, it grew more slowly in the 1970s, and much more slowly in the 1980s. In Mexico and across Latin America cities were no longer homes to rural-to-urban migrants; they had become places where the children of these migrants lived.


With the end of ISI by the 1980s, Latin America shifted from inward-directed to externally directed economic development. The widespread adoption of "neoliberal" or "free-market" economic policies meant the abandonment of state-run industrialization and government programs designed to stimulate industrialization. Instead came policies designed to open Latin America's economies and encourage the development of raw material and industrial exports that could compete in global markets. The face of urban Latin America changed. Factories shut down and whole urban districts came to be abandoned, boarded over, and quiet.

With industrialization in retreat in many of the older primate cities, the pool of un- and underemployed workers rose markedly. Many former factory workers fell into the informal sector, that of the marginalized poor who seek to make a living any way they can, from buying a sewing machine and taking in piecework at home, to itinerant retail sales, garbage picking, prostitution, or petty crime. The size of the informal economy is countercyclical, declining as hiring rises during economic good times, expanding to take in newly unemployed during each economic downturn. In most Latin American countries at least 40 percent of the economically active urban population labors in the informal sector. In some nations, Perú and Ecuador for example, the informal sector encompasses the majority.

This large and growing informal sector raises some troubling urban issues. Informal sector workers are overwhelmingly poor. They earn far less than formal sector workers, have no benefits, no health plans, and are not covered by social security programs. Moreover, meager informal sector earnings are clearly on the decline. While during the 1990s real wages in the public sector fell 30 percent in Latin America, informal sector wages fell as much as 42 percent. The very presence of such a massive urban labor surplus serves to drive down wages for all.

Most Latin American cities have suffered under neoliberalism. The neoliberal agenda includes anti-union policies, undermining workers' collective bargaining strength. Neoliberal policies have brought sharp cuts in government social spending, hitting the urban poor hardest. Privatization of urban potable water and electricity services have brought steep rate hikes and popular protests, most spectacularly in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2000. Overall, under neoliberalism poverty in urban Latin America has grown at twice the rate of rural poverty. At least a third of the urban population of Latin America live in poverty. More than half of the urban dwellers in Latin America live in homes or shelters that they constructed themselves. In a historic shift, Latin American poverty is no longer concentrated in rural areas, and by the 1990s nearly two thirds of the poor people in Latin America lived in urban areas. Latin America's poor have become an urban population.

The impact of neoliberalism is not the same in all places, and in Latin America it has contributed to the growth of some nonprimate cities as production centers linked to the global economy. By the 1990s the fastest growing Latin American cities were Medellín and Tijuana, both of which were increasing in population at faster than 9 percent per year. Whereas secondary cities are increasing at a faster rate than the older primate cities, in Latin America as a whole urbanization continues to advance, in old cities and new, in small cities and large. Overall, about half of the Latin American population lives in one of the forty-one cities in Latin America with at least one million people.

While the growth of nonprimate cities has been noteworthy, the largest cities of Latin America remain the older urban centers. Indeed, of the fifteen largest cities in the world, four are older Latin American cities: Mexico City, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Buenos Aires. The emergence of these massive megacities of ten million or more raises new health concerns. As E. Fuller Torrey and Robert H. Yolken warn in their book Beasts of the Earth, "Such population concentrations are likely to create novel patterns of infectious disease transmission and also lead to the emergence of new microbes that require huge populations for their natural reservoirs" (p. 131).

See alsoTenochtitlán; Santo Domingo; Aztecs; Migration and Migrations; Buenos Aires; Cuzco; Economic Development; Incas, The; Industrialization; Maya, The; Mexico City; Neoliberalism; Rio de Janeiro: The City; São Paulo (City); Teotihuacán.


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Torrey, E. Fuller, and Robert H. Yolken. Beasts of the Earth: Animals, Humans, and Disease. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

                                               Ronn Pineo