Everyone is trying to survive as they can. It is understandable when a person chooses what they consider best for themselves and their family. But to what extent? In an increasingly individualistic and hostile environment, it is not a surprise that gated communities are becoming a common element in the urban landscape of many megacities around the world. From Sao Paulo to Mexico City, from Chongqing to Johannesburg, this type of real estate product has become the answer of the wealthy to problems such as violence and insecurity.
The success of these walled communities in Latin America is partly due to the fear of crime and conflict, but also because of the sense of exclusivity that they confer to those who fence themselves off from the rest of the city. These types of enclaves offer amenities that are only to be shared with those who can afford the costs of running a private miniature city: swimming pools, parks, golf courses, tennis courts, gyms, and the list goes on. Meanwhile, the rest of the population live in low-income neighbourhoods in makeshift homes and work mostly in the informal sector, have limited or no access to basic services such as running water and electricity, and live in areas where the lack of education and poor health are endemic. As it might be expected, some people turn to crime in order to fight for the rights that the state has denied them. It is a never-ending cycle of inequality.
Latin America is the world’s most urbanised continent, with more than 80 percent of the population living in cities and the number expected to rise in the future. Will the trend of divided cities continue? Or are societies willing to consider urban planning as a way to tackle inequality? As the debate about the US-Mexico wall continues, and people all over the continent join the cause of the Mexican people, it is time to reflect about what is happening on the continent as well. It seems ironic that a wall dividing Mexico and the US causes more anger than walls dividing Latin American cities.
A good example of social integration through innovative urban planning is the Colombian city Medellin, Latin America’s new superstar. From murder capital of the world to being shortlisted as one of the most innovative and resilient cities in the world, Medellin has experienced a dramatic transformation in the past decades. Among the clever solutions proposed by mayors are a cable car system connecting the hillside slums with the city centre in the valley bellow; an escalator that makes it easier for these formerly abandoned communities to be connected with the rest of the city; as well as the construction of libraries and schools in the underprivileged communities. The city is a laboratory where violence is still a major problem, but the first steps towards its transformation have been made.
Social inequality has for a long time ruled the way in which cities in the developing world grow and develop, so it is time to think outside the box. Innovative architecture, transportation enhancement, and the creation of spaces in strategic areas encouraging social mixing are needed if we are to stop social disparity and spatial fragmentation. Our lives are inescapably bound together, so what a better way to start than by leaving our comfort zone and exploring the city, observing while taking notes, and then assume leadership and try to drive change.
As new islands of wealth emerge in a sea of inequality and poverty, we have to question ourselves about what type of city we want to call our home. Perhaps the first frontier we have to eliminate is the one in our minds.
Words: Astrid Scheuermann
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu