Growth of urban areas strains infrastructure budgets in Latin America; new mass transit projects are one answer

Apr 6, 2014

Latin American cities may be diverse but they hold one similarity: the speed and scale of urbanization they are facing.

chl tram otorongoDistinct from developed countries, where urbanization has historically occurred gradually, major cities in this region have experienced explosive growth in recent decades. The rate of urbanization is worrying in itself, but added to growing inequality and the need to build more environmentally friendly cities, the challenge is even greater. As a result, urbanisation is being discussed this week at the World Economic Forum on Latin America.

Along with the opening of the event, the forum yesterday released a report on strategic infrastructure, a crucial part of planning the future of a country and its cities. According to the report, today’s global infrastructure demand is estimated at roughly $4 trillion in annual expenditure with a gap of at least $1 trillion every year. What this essentially means is that the growth of infrastructural assets is failing to keep up with society’s needs, especially in developing countries. And Latin America is no exception.

The report also highlights some good examples of specific projects in the region, such as the toll lanes in Puerto Rico that allow access for the local Bus Rapid Transit system, assuring transport for all social classes, as well as car drivers at certain times if they pay a toll. This project overcomes infrastructure issues, and reduces traffic and greenhouse gas emissions.

Another example are new subway and light rail systems under cosntruction in Ecuador’s second and third largest cities, Quito and Cuenca, which will reduce commute times as well as the number of diesel-powered buses that current cause traffic confestion and pollution.

Transport is a major issue in Latin American cities and seeking improvements is one of civil societies main asks. Public transport networks are, however, only part of what is needed to build a more sustainable city. According to Argentinian professor Pablo Benetti, director of the faculty of architecture and urbanism at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro: “There are some interesting experiences of sustainable public transport in Latin America such as in Bogotá, Colombia. But to make real changes it would need to be disbursed more equitably across the city. There are many Latin American cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, in which public investments are distributed very unevenly. To build a healthy city, we need to invest in mobility for all, education, health care. These services need to be guaranteed for each person close to their place of residence. These are big challenges in Latin America.”

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Bogotá is an interesting example because of the changes it has experienced over the past two decades. It has the world’s first large-scale BRT system and a 400km network of cycle lanes, as a succession of mayors in the late 1990s and early 2000s sought to ease the city’s transport woes. But another strong example is Medellin, also in Colombia. In 2013, Medellin was voted as city of the year by the Urban Land Institute.

Once know as the capital of narcoterror, the city has turned itself around, starting with improvements in mobility and social inclusion. As Elizabeth França, expert in urban management for Latin America, explains: “The city of Medellin has been redesigned to allow its citizens to actively participate in its management, so that dialogue with the government doesn’t just include the private sector. It is a really interesting concept for a city. But, unfortunately, it is still very rare in the region.”

There are other projects in Latin America that are not so well known, but offer important lessons. In Tlatelolco, a city in Mexico, there is a project based on well planned social – and affordable – housing, which was conceived as a space to accommodate a large urban population in a total of over 90 different building structures. The most innovative aspect of Tlatelolco is that the construction took place in the city centre, unlike many recent projects that locate this type of housing in outlying areas. “Most of the people were able to be close to their places of work and now don’t have to move a lot, which is good for everyone”, says Analí Perez Ramirez, Mexican expert in international co-operation.

So as leaders gather at the World Economic Forum in Latin America to debate the region’s future progress, it is apparent that despite soaring urbanisation, there are examples of local policymakers who are thinking not just about addressing the problems but doing so in a way that is sustainable and equitable.

Credit: www.theguardian.com; Photo caption: Cuenca’s light rail system, currently under construction, is an example of Latin American progress.

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