Land Value and Large Urban Projects

The Latin American Experience
Mario Lungo and Martim O. Smolka, Enero 1, 2005

Land value is determined primarily by external factors, mainly changes that occur in the neighborhood or other parts of the city rather than by direct actions of the landowner. This observation is especially valid for small lots whose form or type of occupancy do not generate sufficiently strong externalities to increase their own value retroactively; that is, a small lot generally does not have a significant impact on those very external factors that could affect its own value. However, large urban projects (grandes proyectos urbanos or GPUs) do influence those factors, and also the value of the land that supports them. Herein lies the essence the Lincoln Institute’s interest in such projects.

We propose two perspectives for analyzing GPUs that complement and contrast with others that formerly predominated in this debate. First, these projects can be a stimulating force for immediate urban change that is capable of affecting land values, and therefore land use, for large areas if not an entire city region. This view is focused more on urban design or urbanism and stresses the study of the physical, esthetic and symbolic dimensions of large urban projects. A second approach, covering the field of regulation, attempts to understand the land value appreciation generated by the implementation and operation of these projects as a potential means for self-support and economic feasibility. It analyzes the role of GPUs in providing a new function for certain areas of the city. Both perspectives require a more holistic understanding that includes the diversity and levels of complexity of the projects, their relation to the city plan, the type of regulatory framework they require, the role of the public and private sectors in managing and financing them, land taxation and fiscal policies, and other factors.

These large projects are not new to Latin America. In the early twentieth century, many cities were impacted by programs that used public-private management arrangements, including outside players (national and international) and complex financial structures. Some projects had the potential to trigger urban processes capable of transforming their surroundings or even the city as a whole, as well as accentuating the preexisting socio-spatial polarization. Often the projects were layered over existing regulations, contributing to questions about the urban planning strategies in force at the time. Large urban developers and utility companies (English, Canadian, French and others) coordinated the provision of services with complex real estate development operations in almost all the major cities of Latin America.

Today large projects attempt to intervene in especially sensitive places to reorient urban processes and create new urban identities on a symbolic level. They also aim to create new economic areas (sometimes territorial enclaves) able to foster an environment protected from urban poverty and violence, and more favorable to domestic or international private investment. When describing the motives that justify these programs, the rhetoric focuses on their instrumental role in strategic planning, their alleged contribution to urban productivity, and their effectiveness in boosting their intercity competitive position.

In a context marked by transformations due to globalization, economic reforms, deregulation and the introduction of a new focus on urban management, it is not surprising that these programs have been the subject of much controversy. Their scale and complexity often spur new social movements; redefine economic opportunities; put into question urban development regulatory frameworks and land use rules; strain local finances; and expand political arenas, thus altering the roles of urban stakeholders. An additional complication is the long time frame for executing large urban projects, which usually exceeds the terms of municipal governments and the limits of their territorial authority. This reality presents additional management challenges and formidable dilemmas within the public and academic debate.

The Lincoln Institute’s contribution to this debate is to underscore the land component in the structure of these large projects, specifically the processes associated with urban land management and the mechanisms for land value capture or the mobilization of land value increments for the benefit of the community. This article is part of a broader, ongoing effort to systematize recent Latin American experience with GPUs and to discuss the relevant aspects.

A Wide Range of Projects

As in other parts of the world, large urban projects in Latin America comprise a wide range of activities: restoration of historic downtown areas (Old Havana or Lima); renovation of neglected downtown areas (São Paulo or Montevideo); redevelopment of ports and waterfronts (Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires or Ribera Norte in Concepción, Chile); reuse of old airports or industrial zones (the Tamanduatehy artery in Santo Andre, Brazil, or the Cerrillos airport in Santiago, Chile); expansion zones (Santa Fé, Mexico, or the former Panama Canal zone); residential or neighborhood improvement projects (Nuevo Usme in Bogotá or Favela Bairro in Rio de Janeiro); and so on.

Land management is a key component in all of these projects, and it presents diverse sets of conditions (Lungo 2004; forthcoming). One common trait is that the projects are managed by a government authority as part of a city project or plan, even though they enjoy private participation in several respects. Thus exclusively private programs, such as shopping centers and gated communities, are a different category of development project not included in this discussion.

Scale and Complexity

The minimum threshold of scale, in terms of surface area or amount of financial investment, for a project to meet the GPU criteria depends on the size of the city, its economy, social structure and other factors, all of which help define the complexity of the project. In Latin America projects often combine large scale and a complex set of players associated with key roles in land policy and management, including various levels of government (national, provincial and municipal), private entities and community leaders from the affected area. Even relatively small upgrading projects are often formidably complex with regard to the land readjustment component.

There is obviously a huge difference between a project proposed by one or a few owners over a large area (such as ParLatino, an abandoned industrial site in São Paulo) and a project involving the cooperation of many owners of small areas. The latter requires a complex series of actions capable of generating synergies or sufficient external economies to make each action economically viable. Most projects fall between the two extremes. They often involve the prior acquisition of rights over smaller parcels by a few agents in order to centralize control over the type and management of the development.

The key to analysis and design of GPUs in Latin America lies in the ability of the institutional organization in charge of project management to incorporate and coordinate scale and complexity appropriately. Governmental corporations have been created in some cases, but they operate autonomously (as in Puerto Madero) or as special public agencies attached to the central or municipal governments (as in the housing program being developed in the city of Rosario, Argentina, or the Nuevo Usme program in Bogotá). The case of the failed project to build the new Mexico City airport demonstrates the negative consequences of not correctly defining this fundamental aspect of GPUs.

Relationship of GPUs to the City Plan

What is the point of developing GPUs when the city has no comprehensive urban development plan or socially shared vision? It is possible to find situations where execution of GPUs may stimulate, enhance or strengthen the city plan, but in practice many such projects are established without any plan. One of the main criticisms aimed at GPUs is that they become instruments for excluding citizen participation in decision making about individual elements of what is expected or supposed to be part of an integrated urban project, as is normally provided for in a city’s master plan or land use plan.

This is an interesting debate within the framework of urban policies in Latin America, since urban planning itself has been criticized as being elitist and exclusionary. Some authors have concluded that urban planning has been one if not the main cause of the excesses of social segregation typical of cities in the region. In this context the recent popularity of GPUs can be seen as a reaction of the elite to redemocratization and participatory urban planning. Others may view GPUs as an advanced (and perverse) form of traditional urban planning; a yielding to the failures or ineffectiveness of urban planning; or even a lesser evil because at least they ensure that something is done in some part of the city.

There are many challenges for GPUs regarding their relationship to a city plan. They can help build a city plan where none exists, alter traditional plans, or do what we might call “navigating through the urban fog” if the former paths are not viable. In any case, land management proves to be a critical factor, both for the plan and for the projects, because it refers to the fundamental role of the regulatory framework covering urban land use and expansion.

Regulatory Framework

The preferred regulatory solution would be a two-part intervention: on one hand, maintaining general regulations for the whole city but changing the conventional criteria to be more flexible in absorbing the constant change taking place in urban environments; and on the other, allowing specific regulations for certain projects but avoiding regulatory frameworks that may contradict the stated goals of the city plan. Urban Operations, a specific and ingenious instrument devised under the Brazilian urban development legislation (Statute of the City Act of 2001), has been used widely to accommodate these dual needs. The city of São Paulo alone has 16 such operations in effect. Another version of this instrument is the so-called “partial planning” provision to readjust large tracts of land, which is included in Colombia’s equally innovative Law 388 of 1997.

Again in practice we see that exceptions are often granted in an apparently arbitrary manner, and regulatory restrictions are frequently ignored. The point is that neither type of regulation is submitted to any assessment of its socioeconomic and environmental value, thus losing a significant portion of its justification. Given the financial and fiscal fragility of cities in Latin America, what prevails is an extremely low capacity for public discussion of the requests made by the proponents of GPUs. The absence of institutional mechanisms that would make these negotiations transparent makes them more venal, insofar as they expose the capacity to discuss other, less prosaic legal challenges.

Public or Private Management and Financing

What is the desirable combination of public and private management of these projects? To guarantee that public management of a large urban project fulfills its function, land use must be monitored and regulated, although the degree to which the control should be exercised, and on which specific components of land ownership rights, is unresolved. Ambiguity in the courts and the uncertainties associated with the development of GPUs often result in public frustration over unanticipated outcomes favoring private interests. The proper balance between effective ex ante (GPU formulation, negotiation and design) and ex post (GPU implementation, management, operation and impacts) controls over land uses and rights is at the heart of the problem. Typically in the Latin American experience with GPUs there is a huge gap between original promises and actual outcomes.

In recent years the management of GPUs has been confused with the utility and feasibility of public-private partnerships, such as those set up in many countries to carry out specific projects or programs. Some stakeholders even propose the possibility of privatizing urban development management in general. If the private sector has complete control over the land, however, GPUs are severely limited in their ability to contribute to socially sustainable urban development, despite the fact that in many cases the projects contribute significant taxes to the city (Polese and Stren 2000).

The preferred public management system should call on the greatest social participation possible and include the private sector in the financing and implementation of these projects. The large urban programs that seem to contribute the most to the development of a city are those based on public management of the land.

Land Value Appreciation

There is consensus around the fact that GPUs generate an appreciation in land value. Differences emerge when we try to assess the real amount of this appreciation, if it is to be redistributed and, if so, how it should be shared and whom it should benefit, both in social and territorial terms. Again we have the public-private conundrum, wherein this redistribution formula often leads to the appropriation of public resources by the private sector.

The appreciation of land value as a resource that can be mobilized for self-financing the GPU or transferred to other areas of the city could be a way to measure whether or not public management of these projects is a success. However, we rarely have an acceptable estimate of this land value increment. Even in the Puerto Madero project in Buenos Aires, which is considered to be a success, to date there is no evaluation of the land value increment associated with either the properties within the project itself or those in neighboring areas. As a result, the discussion of possible redistribution has not gone beyond a few educated guesses.

GPUs conceived as instruments for achieving certain strategic urban goals are generally registered as successes when they are executed according to plan. The question regarding to what extent these goals were actually reached is not fully answered, and it is often conveniently forgotten. The hypothesis that best seems to fit Latin American experiences with GPUs is that the apparent lack of interest in goals has little to do with any technical inability to make the source of the increased value transparent. Rather, this inattention comes from the need to hide the role of public management in facilitating the private sector’s capture of the land value increment in general, if not its capture of public resources used to develop the construction project itself.

We are not feigning ignorance of or trying to minimize the difficulties in advancing knowledge about how land value appreciation is formed and in measuring its size and circulation. Indeed, there are many technical obstacles to overcome when faced with complicated land rights, the vicissitudes or permanent flaws in cadastres and property registers, and the lack of an historical series of geo-referenced real estate values. Even the smallest plan must distinguish between the appreciation generated by the project itself and that generated by urban externalities that almost always exist despite the scale of the project, the different sources and rates of appreciation, and so forth. Some encouraging work has been done on measuring and evaluating the land value increment associated with development, but technical obstacles seem to be less relevant than the lack of political interest in knowing how these projects are being managed.

When land value increments are created, they are usually distributed in the immediate project area or nearby. This principle is based on the need to finance a specific project within the area, to offset certain negative impacts, or to implement actions such as relocating precarious housing sited on the land or its surroundings that may detract from the image of the new project. Given the socioeconomic conditions found in the typical Latin American city, it is not hard to see that the preferred use of the captured value is to earmark it for projects of a social nature in other parts of the city, such as housing complexes. In fact a significant part of the generated land value increment results exactly from the removal of negative externalities produced by the presence of low-income families in the area. Needless to say, this strategy raises conflicting opinions.

There is certainly a need to devise better legislation and instruments to overcome the trade-off between socially mobilized land value increment and gentrification through displacement. Despite the lack of hard empirical studies, there are reasons to believe that a broader understanding of the impacts of these projects will show that some of the compensatory intracity transfers may actually prove to be counterproductive. For example, the resulting higher land price differences and social residential segregation may involve higher social costs that will need to be addressed by additional public resources in the future (Smolka and Furtado 2001).

Positive and Negative Impacts

On the other hand, the negative impacts caused by GPUs often obscure the varied positive impacts. The challenge is how to reduce the negative impacts produced by this type of urban intervention. It soon becomes clear, whether directly or indirectly, that the role of land management is critical to understanding the effects of large interventions in urban development, planning, regulation, socio-spatial segregation, and the urban environment and culture. Scale and complexity have a role as well, depending on the type of impact. For example, scale is more relevant to environmental and urban development impacts, while complexity is more critical in terms of social impact and urban policy.

As already mentioned, the gentrification that these projects generally produce encourages the displacement of the existing, usually poor, inhabitants from the new project area. However, gentrification is a complex phenomenon that requires further analysis of its own negative aspects, as well as how it could help to raise living standards. It could be more useful to move on from simple mitigation of unwanted negative impacts to better management of the processes that create these risks.

Any GPU can have positive or negative effects, depending on the way urban development is managed, the role of the public sector, and the existing level of citizen participation. We have emphasized that one of the central issues is management of the land and of the land value increment associated with these projects. Large urban projects can not be analyzed in isolation from the entire development of the city. Likewise, the land component must be evaluated with respect to the combination of scale and complexity that is appropriate for each project.

Mario Lungo is a professor and researcher at the Central American University (UCA José Simeón Cañas) in San Salvador, El Salvador. He formerly served as executive director of the Office of Planning for the Metropolitan Area of San Salvador.

Martim O. Smolka is senior fellow of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, cochairman of the Department of International Studies and director of the Program on Latin America and the Caribbean.


Lungo, Mario, ed. 2004. Grandes proyectos urbanos (Large urban projects). San Salvador: Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas.

Lungo, Mario (forthcoming). Grandes proyectos urbanos. Una revisión de casos latinoamericanos (Large urban projects: A review of Latin American cases). San Salvador: Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas.

Smolka, Martim and Fernanda Furtado. 2001. Recuperación de plusvalías en América Latina (Value capture in Latin America). Santiago, Chile: EURE Libros.

Polese, Mario and Richard Stren. 2000. The social sustainability of cities. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.