Large Urban Projects

A Challenge for Latin American Cities
Mario Lungo, Octubre 1, 2002

As a part of the educational activities of the Lincoln Institute’s Latin America Program, a course on “Large Urban Projects,” held in Cambridge last June, focused on the most important and challenging aspects of this land planning issue. Academics, public officials and representatives from private enterprises in 17 cities participated in the presentations and discussions. This article presents a synthesis of the principal points, questions and challenges raised in carrying out these complex projects.

Large urban redevelopment projects have become an important issue in many Latin American countries recently, due in part to changes motivated by the processes of globalization, deregulation and the introduction of new approaches in urban planning. These projects include varied types of interventions, but they are characterized primarily by their large size and scale, which challenge traditional instruments of urban management and financing.

Urban projects on a grand scale are not considered a novelty in Latin America. The diverse elements of existing developments include the revitalization of historic centers; conversion of abandoned industrial facilities, military areas, airports or train stations; large slum rehabilitation projects; and construction of innovative public transportation models. However, at least four important features characterize this new type of intervention:

  • An urban management structure that implies the association of various public and private, national and international actors;
  • Significant financing needs that require complex forms of interconnections among these actors;
  • The conception and introduction of new urban processes that are intended to transform the city;
  • The questioning of traditional urban planning perspectives, since these projects tend to exceed the scope of prevailing norms and policies.

The last feature is reinforced by the influence of different planning strategies and the impacts of large urban projects in various cities around the world (Powell 2000). One project that has influenced many city planners and officials in Latin America was the transformation of Barcelona in preparation for the Olympic Games in 1992 (Borja 1995). Several projects in Latin America have been inspired by, if not directly emulated, this approach (Carmona and Burgess 2001), but it also has faced serious criticism (Arantes, Vainer and Maricato 2000). It has been seen as a convenient process through which a group of decision makers or private interest stakeholders manage to bypass official planning and policy channels that are seen to be too dependent on the public (democratic) debate. As a result most such projects tend to be either elitist, because they displace low-income neighborhoods with gentrified and segregated upper-class land uses, or are socially exclusionary, because they develop single-class projects, either low-income settlements or high-income enclaves, in peripheral locations.

Large-scale projects raise new questions, make inherent contradictions more transparent, and challenge those responsible for urban land analysis and policy formulation. Of special importance are the new forms of management, regulation, financing and taxation that are required for or result from the execution of these projects, and in general the consequences for the functioning of land markets.

Size, Scale and Timeframe

The first issue that emerges from a discussion of large-scale projects has to do with the ambiguity of the term and the necessity of defining its validity. Size is a quantitative dimension, but scale suggests complex interrelations involving socioeconomic and political impacts. The wide variety of feelings evoked by large projects shows the limitations in being able to restore a vision of the urban whole and at the same time its global character (Ingallina 2001). This issue has just begun to be discussed in Latin America, and it is framed in the transition to a new approach in urban planning, which is related to the possibility and even the necessity of constructing a typology and indicators for its analysis. Issues such as the emblematic character of these projects, their role in stimulating other urban processes, the involvement of many actors, and the significance of the impacts on the life and development of the city are all part of the discussions. Nevertheless, it is the scale, understood as being more than just simple physical dimensions, that is the central core of this theme.

Since the scale of these projects is associated with complex urban processes that combine continuity and changes over the medium and long terms, the timeframe of their execution must be conceived accordingly. Many of the failures in the implementation of such projects have to do with the lack of a managing authority that would be free or protected from the political volatility of local administrations over time.

The cases of Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires and Fenix in Montevideo, the first completed and the second in process, offer examples of the difficulties in managing the scale and timing of development in the context of economic situations and policies that can change drastically. Twelve years after its construction, Puerto Madero has not yet stimulated other large-scale projects, such as the renovation of nearby Avenida de Mayo, nor appreciable transformations in urban norms.

The scale and timeframe are particularly important for the project in Montevideo, raising doubts about the feasibility of executing a project of this scale in relation to the character of the city, its economy, and other priorities and policies of the country. Its goal was to generate a “work of urban impact,” in this case promotion of public, private and mixed investments in a neighborhood that lost 18.4 percent of its population between 1985 and 1996, and focusing on an emblematic building, the old General Artigas train station. Most of this work has been executed, with a loan of $28 million from the Inter-American Development Bank, however the percentage of public and private investments are minimal and the Fenix project is having to compete with another large-scale corporate-commercial development located east of the city that is already attracting important firms and enterprises.

Land Policy Issues

The issue of scale relates intrinsically to the role of urban land, which makes one ask if land (including its value, uses, ownership and other factors) should be considered a key variable in the design and management of large-scale urban operations, since the feasibility and success of these projects are often associated with the internalization of formidable externalities often reflected in the cost and management of the land.

Projects to restore historic centers offer important lessons to be considered here. We can compare the cases of Old Havana, where land ownership is completely in the hands of the state, which has permitted certain activities to expand, and Lima, where land ownership is divided among many private owners and public sector agencies, adding to the difficulties in completing an ongoing restoration project. Even though Old Havana has received important financial cooperation from Europe and Lima has a $37 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank, the main challenge is to promote private investment while also maintaining programs of social and economic assistance for the local residents. Both cities have created special units for the management of these projects, which constitutes an interesting commentary on institutional modernization.

The Role of the State

The scale, the time dimension and the role of land in large urban projects lead us to consider the role of the state and public investment. While urban operations on a large scale are not new in Latin American cities, their present conditions have been affected radically by economic changes, political crises and substantial modifications in the role of the state in general. These conditions make the execution of urban projects, as part of the process of long-term urban development, a source of contradictions with the generally short tenure of municipal governments and the limits of their territorial claims. We must also consider the differences in regulatory competencies between central governments and local municipalities, and the differences between public entities and private institutions or local community organizations, which often reflect conflicting interests due the decentralization and privatization processes being promoted simultaneously in many countries.

Two large projects related to transportation infrastructure are examples of local situations that led to very different results. One was the transformation of the old abandoned Cerrillos airport in Santiago, Chile, and the other was a project for a new airport for Mexico City in Texcoco, an area known as ejido land occupied by peasants and their descendants. In the first case, the active participation of interested groups is expanding the recuperation process of a zone of the city that does not have quality urban facilities. A total investment of $36 million from the public sector and $975 million from the private sector is supporting the construction of malls, facilities for education, health and recreation, and housing for the neighborhood. In Mexico serious conflicts between state interests and community rights to the land had caused social unrest and even the kidnapping of public officials. As a result, the federal government has recently withdrawn from the Texcoco project, assuming huge political and economic costs for this decision.

Segregation and Exclusion

Many planners and practitioners have doubts about the feasibility of large projects in poor countries and cities because of the distortions that their execution could cause on future development, in particular the reinforcing tendencies of segregation and social exclusiveness. The diminishing capacity of the state to look for new alternatives for financing socially beneficial projects through private capital, principally from international sources, adds to the doubts about their success. Many large-scale projects are seen as the only alternative or the unavoidable cost that the city or society has to pay to generate an attractive environment in a context of growing competition among cities for a limited number of external investors.

A key matter with respect to the use of public space generated by these projects is to avoid segregation of space and people. Special attention must be given to protect the inhabitants of the zones where the large urban projects are developed from the negative consequences of gentrification. This is without a doubt one of the most difficult aspects of large urban projects. Table 1 shows the most important aspects and the principal challenges that arise from an analysis of the large urban projects. Effectively, the integration of projects of this scope calls for a vision of the city that avoids the creation of islands of modernity isolated in the middle of poor areas, which would contribute to the process called the dualism of the city, or the generation of new exclusive urban centers.

Table 1: Aspects and Challenges of Large Urban Projects

Aspects Challenges
Urban grid Integrate the project into the existing city fabric
Planning process Design the project to be compatible with the established approach to city planning strategies
Urbanistic norms and regulations Avoid the creation of norms giving privileges of exclusiveness to the project
Stakeholders Incorporate all participants involved directly, in particular the not so easily identifiable groups indirectly affected by these projects
Financing Establish innovative public and private partnerships
Social, economic and urban impacts Develop effective ways to measure and assess various types of impacts and ways to mitigate the negative effects

Two cases in different political-economic contexts help us reflect about this matter. One is the El Recreo project, planned by Metrovivienda, in Bogotá. Although presenting innovative proposals about the use and management of the land in a large project for popular housing, the project has not been able to guarantee the integration of social groups with different income levels. In the Corredor Sur area of Panama City large zones are being planned for the construction of residences, but the result again serves primarily medium- and high-income sectors. Thus in both a decentralized and a centralized country the general norms that provoke residential segregation cannot seem to prevent negative consequences for the poorest sectors of society.

In view of all this, large urban projects should not be seen as an alternative approach to obsolete plans or rigid norms like zoning. They could instead be presented as a kind of intermediate-scale planning, as an integrated approach that addresses the needs of the whole city and avoids physical and social separations and the creation of norms that permit exclusive privileges. Only in this way can large-scale projects take their place as new instruments for urban planning. The positive effects of specific elements such as the quality of architecture and urban design are valuable in these projects if they operate as a benchmark and are distributed with equity throughout the city.

Public Benefits

Large-scale projects are public projects by the nature of their importance and impact, but that does not mean they are the total property of the state. Nevertheless, the complexity of the participant networks involved directly or indirectly, the variety of interests and the innumerable contradictions inherent in large projects require a leading management role by the public sector. The territorial scale of these operations especially depends on the support of the municipal governments, which in Latin America often lack the technical resources to manage such projects. Local support can guarantee a reduction of negative externalities and the involvement of weaker participants, generally local actors, through a more just distribution of the benefits, where the regulation of the use and taxation of the land is a key issue. Such is the intention of the Municipality of Santo Andre in Sao Paulo in the design of the extraordinarily complex Tamanduatehy project. It involves the reuse of an enormous tract of land previously occupied by railroad facilities and neighboring industrial plants that fled this once vigorous industrial belt of Sao Paulo to relocate in the hinterland. The project involves establishing a viable locus of new activities, mostly services and high-tech industries, capable of replacing the economic base of that region.

Beyond creating and marketing the image of the project, it is important to achieve social legitimacy through a combination of public and private partners engaged in joint ventures, the sale or renting of urban land, compensation for direct private investment, regulation, or even public recovery (or recapture) of costs and/or of unearned land value increments. Active public management is also necessary, since the development of the city implies common properties and benefits, not only economic interests. Analysis of economic and financial costs, and opportunity costs, are also important to avoid the failure of these projects.


The basic components in the pre-operational stage of executing large urban projects can be summarized as follows:

  • Establish a development/management company independent from the state and municipal administration
  • Formulate the comprehensive project plan
  • Elaborate on the marketing plan
  • Design the program of buildings and infrastructure
  • Define adequate fiscal and regulatory instruments
  • Formulate the financing plan (cash flow)
  • Design a monitoring system

An adequate analysis of the trade-offs (economic, political, social, environmental, and others) is indispensable, even if it is clear that the complex problems of the contemporary city cannot be solved with large interventions alone. It is important to reiterate that more importance must be given to the institutionalization and legitimacy of the final plans and agreements than simply the application of legal norms.

The presentations and discussions at the course on “Large Urban Projects” show that the matter of urban land strongly underlies all the aspects and challenges described above. Land in this type of project presents a huge complexity and offers a great opportunity; the challenge is how to navigate between the interests and conflicts when there are many owners and stakeholders of the land. It is necessary to combat the temptation to believe that modern urban planning is the sum of large projects. Nevertheless, these projects can contribute to building a shared image of the city between the inhabitants and the users. This topic clearly has facets that have not been completely explored yet and that need continued collaborative analysis and by academics, policy makers and citizens.

Mario Lungo is executive director of the Office of Planning of the Metropolitan Area of San Salvador (OPAMSS) in El Salvador. He is also a professor and researcher at the Central American University José Simeón Cañas.


Borja, Jordi. 1995. Un modelo de transformación urbana. Quito, Peru: Programa de Gestion Urbana.

Carmona, Marisa and Rod Burgess. 2001. Strategic Planning and Urban Projects. Delft: Delft University Press.

Ingallina, Patrizia. 2001. Le Projet Urbain. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Powell, Kenneth. 2000. La transformación de la ciudad. Barcelona: Ediciones Blume.

Arantes, Otilia, Carlos Vainer e Erminia Maricato. 2000. A cidade do pensamento unico. Petrópolis: Editora Vozes.