The Renewed Right to the City in Latin America: Slum Upgrading and Placemaking, by Natalia Meléndez

La renovación del derecho a la ciudad en América Latina: mejoramiento de asentamientos informales y “creación de lugares”

Since the creation of UN-Habitat in 1978, development agendas have shown an increased global focus in cities. Fast-growing urbanization rates the world over, urban challenges, and in particular slums, critically hinder human progress. Despite the international recognition, conventional approaches to the slum question fail to accomplish solid results. Evidence has it that Latin America has become the world’s signpost in inclusive urban development. The few comprehensive, yet crucial, slum upgrading programs being implemented in the region attest to that.

The Latin American region is the world’s most urbanized, with almost 80% of its population living in cities [1]. This mainly results from the rapid urbanization of the region during the 20th century, outcome of the increased manufacturing industries that greatly diminished economic reliance on agriculture. The industrialization era heightened rural-urban migration flows, and authorities were unable to provide sufficient land to new residents. Invasion of the periphery was convenient to both invaders and industrial interests: it provided dwelling close to economic opportunities to the former, and adjacent cheap labor to the latter [2].

Turning to the positive wave of slum upgrading in the region, it has been influenced by the concept of the ‘right to the city’, with participatory budgeting and good governance really making urban progress [1]. In a few cases, the traditional model of planning has gradually evolved into a more collaborative and local planning strategy, including communities into decision-making [2]. Programs have been designed to redistribute wealth and make land more accessible [1]. Switching the focus from quantity to quality, some recent programs have also introduced social support to promote capacity building and integration. Furthermore, emphasis has been placed on improving public spaces as a means of tackling the ‘ghetto image’ of slums and of increasing squatters’ bond with their cities [3]. The aesthetic element of this new wave also finds explanation in attracting investment on the city, thus bolstering national economies. All the improvements notwithstanding, this new wave is still very limited in scope, and it rarely generates significant synergies at the city level [1].

On the whole, slum upgrading and placemaking are the answer to many of the urban and human challenges confronting Latin America’s present society. With bourgeoning rates of urbanization and 23.5% of its population living in informal settlements [4], the region requires a comprehensive transformation of its urban dynamics. Striving for a permanent fix to the slum question entails addressing its root causes and fulfilling present deficits. In doing this, Latin America should aim for a policy that not only upgrades but that includes placemaking in its true sense: physical, economic, social, political, cultural, psychological and emotional dimensions must be targeted.

A change of urban rhetoric is thus imperative. Cities, as history, have been erected by winners, leaving so many in exclusion. The future of slum upgrading must thus encompass a system that places slum residents at the core, in all possible senses and satisfying the whole range of human needs. This is the only way to give birth to inclusive cities: when all intersecting factors that affect how we relate to space (i.e., race, ethnicity, social status, socioeconomic background, and gender) become aligned. Nonetheless, the biggest hindrance to this new rhetoric is the lack of redistribution. Cities’ potential is nowadays insufficiently tapped. The tension between the formal and the informal city —which are inseparable according to economic logic— must be put to good use through a thorough slum upgrading. However, carrying this out runs into the problem of vested powerful interests: implementing such initiatives has thus remained elusive, not realizing how much is to gain from a change of approach.

Then, the best deal to aim for is a renewal of the social contract. This can be achieved by means of comprehensive slum upgrading, whose benefits reach deeply beyond slum limits. Here is where placemaking acquires real importance —because, ‘as people construct places, places construct people’[6]. Squatter settlements are one of the most visual outcomes of the wrongs of present economic, political and social systems. Since informal housing is the result of multi-dimensional marginalization, undertaking throughout slum upgrading will restore many of the ills of present systems. For the home is the locus for all development: the way architecture and urbanism work influences people’s lives to the deepest intimate degree. Thus, our most relevant recommendation is for Latin American cities to renew their ‘right to the city’, for the informal to be rethought, and for practices of comprehensive slum upgrading and placemaking to be carried out in the region’s peri-urbanity.

Cited work:

[1] Magalhães, F. (Ed.) (2016). Slum Upgrading and Housing in Latin America (Report No. IDB-CP-45). Washington D.C.: Inter-American Development Bank.

 [2] Irazábal, C. (2009) Revisiting Urban Planning in Latin America and the Caribbean: Global Report on Human Settlements 2009 for UN Habitat(Report prepared for UN-Habitat Global Report on Human Settlements) New York, NY: University of Columbia. Retrieved from

[3] Hernández, F., Kellet, P., & Allen, L. K. (Eds.) (2010). Rethinking the Informal City: Critical Perspectives from Latin America. New York, NY: Berghahn Books.

[4] UN Data (2014). Proportion of urban population living in slums. Retrieved from

[5] UN-Habitat. (2016). Slum Almanac 2015/2016. Tracking Improvement in the Lives of Slum Dwellers. Nairobi, Kenya: UNON Publishing Services Section.

[6] Holloway, L., & Hubbard, P. (2001). People and place: The extraordinary geographies of everyday life. Harlow: Pearson Education. p.1-81.

Natalia Meléndez es graduada por la Universidad Pontificia de Comillas en el doble grado en Relaciones Internacionales y Traducción e Interpretación. Estuvo de prácticas en la Secretaría General de Estados Iberoamericanos (SEGIB), donde consolidó su interés práctico y teórico por América Latina y el Caribe. En la actualidad está trabajando para el FIDA en Roma, en la Coalición Internacional para el Acceso a la Tierra, para el que el FIDA actúa como Secretaría.

Image:Outdoor escalator [the climb is about 1,260 feet or 28 stories high] in Comuna 13 (Nororiental zone). The picture also shows the result of the project Medellín se pinta de vida (‘Medellín is painted with life’), which echoes social improvement.

Image reprinted from Lafarge Holcim Foundation website, by Lafarge Holcim, 2014 from Copyright 2014 by Lafarge Holcim Foundation.

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