Urbanisation in Latin America: setting the context

History helps understand present trends

Today’s typical Latin American city is the result of European colonisation; almost nothing remains from earlier settlement. The European colonisation of Latin America was mainly undertaken by two nations – Spain and Portugal. They followed two different sets of rules in their colonisation process. These rules also applied to territorial and urban development, and they led to two different types of cities (in broad outline).

The Spanish settlements all followed the Rules of India, which dictated that a city plan had to be established before all construction would start. At the very heart of Spanish colonial cities planning, one would find the Plaza Mayor: political, military, social, and commercial centre of the Spanish colonial city. The rest of the streets plan would follow a geometrical pattern starting from the 4 cardinal points of the Plaza Mayor. It was a very strict setting indeed.


Although Portuguese settlements also followed a set of urban planning rules (systematised from the reign of Manuel the Ist: 1495-1521), they were in general more spontaneous and more adapted to the landscape than those of their neighbours. It remains that colonial cities were set up by marine and military officers: each block or urban unit being actually thought as a military unit.


The first Spanish and Portuguese cities in Latin America were both initially built to be the relays of the gold or silver expeditions, which were going deeper in the continent. Nonetheless, the growth of these initial cities was also forseen. Should it happen, it would follow the same pattern as initially planned. In the case of Spanish settlements, it is particular striking that the expansion should follow the never-ending parallel streets, endlessly, in a gigantic continent.

Present trends help imagine future development

Like any urbanisation process, the growth of Latin American cities starts with migration. External migration to start with: European settlers, but also enslaved Africans started the process of demographic growth in Latin American cities. More recently, internal migration, or rural migration, has exceeded the external migration; and both go on fattening up Latin American cities together.

Comparing urbanisation in Latin America and Europe – mission: impossible?

In terms of figures*, the two main Latin American cities, which are of my interest in this blog are :

Buenos Aires : about 12,8 million inhabitants, on a territory of 4758 km2

Rio de Janeiro : about 12,4 million inhabitants, on a territory of 4557 km2

These figures are comparable to the 2 biggest European metropolises :

London : about 11,9 million inhabitants, on a territory of 1579 km2, and a population density of 5200/km2

Paris : about 10 million inhabitants, on a territory of 2844 km2, and a population density of 21 000/km2


Of course, in terms of history, these 4 cities did not follow the same pattern. European cities are much older settlements. Nevertheless, in terms of urban planning histories, the rules that were applied in South America at the time of the early colonisation did come from Europe; and later, urban planning followed the same trends on both continents: for instance the hygienist trend of the 19th century.

However today, urbanisation in Latin America follows an accelerated and mostly unplanned pattern, which is common in the developing world. At the same time, its urbanisation process started much earlier than in other developing regions. America was the colonised continent which gained its independence earliest. Following their independence, the new states were very influenced by European urban planning trends. Thus it could be seen as an inbetween in the New World, easier to compare with European trends.

In conclusion to this comparison attempt, I must draw its primary limit: it will be difficult to identify fixed comparable urban development models in Europe and in Latin America. Trends and common features can certainly be identified in terms of geography, demography, history… But so far, the sole aggregation of different features cannot be called a coherent model.


*  These figures are those of the urban zones: although it is not an administrative definition, it is more adequate than the metropolitan area, which also covers some rural and semi-rural territories, and more relevant than the core city itself, which is only a small part of the actual urban reality of those territories. The sources are from wikipedia and Eurostat.

Shannon Murray, Urban and peri-urban forestry in Quito, Equador: Case study,  FAO, 1998: http://www.fao.org/docrep/W7445S/w7445s02.htm#1.1.%20la%20urbanizaci%C3%B3n%20en%20el%20contexto%20regional

Laurent Vidal, La ville au Brésil, Naissances, renaissances, Editions des Indes savantes, 2008

2013 class on Buenos Aires urban history – from Maria Marta Lupano

L’atelier de cartographie de Sciences Po Paris: http://cartographie.sciences-po.fr/sites/default/files/maps/080_evol_pop_villes_1990-2010-02_0.jpg


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