Looking for Territorial Order

Luis Fernando Alvarez and William J. Siembieda, Septiembre 1, 1997

Most countries in Latin America today have become more urban than rural, and they are trying to develop their economies as integral parts of the global marketplace. This process introduces profound cultural and spatial changes, such as increased segregation and conflicts over the use of urban land.

There is a recognized need to strengthen citizen consciousness regarding the liberalization of markets and the withdrawal of state involvement in economic and planning schemes. This changing role of the state from “provider” to “enabler” creates a gap in addressing urban social needs. Participants suggested three approaches to simultaneously improve urban land management and provide for social equity.

First, basic tools to establish and support urban information systems. These include a monitoring mechanism capable of identifying agent and transaction data, including land prices; knowledge of the ‘life cycles’ of urban zones; and utilization of forecasting models capable of establishing the relationships of the local and national economies to the real estate market.

Second, urban policies to balance existing, often inconsistent, market mechanisms. For example, it is difficult to liberalize markets and at the same time impose limits on urban expansion, while trying to provide adequate land supplies to meet the needs of the working poor.

Third, recognition and support of positive actions by community groups and nongovernmental organizations to break patterns of class segregation, as well as efforts by municipalities to utilize instruments such as territorial reserves, progressive financing mechanisms, and improvements in administrative and fiscal procedures.

A major territorial planning problem in Latin America is locating the “edge” of the city, especially when land tenure and occupation respond on the basis of social need rather than legal procedure. Among the forms of urban property outside the rules of commercial law, the most important is corporately held land (ejido), which in Mexico occupies more than 50 percent of the national territory and forms part of all major metropolitan areas. The ejido impedes the natural growth of the real estate market and allows for the expansion of uncontrolled secondary (informal) markets.

To address these and related issues, leading academics and practitioners from the region met in Mexico in April to share their insights into the processes that influence urban territorial order and the instruments available and needed for effective public intervention to achieve social equity and territorial planning objectives. While the seminar participants remain uneasy about the long-term impacts of globalization on Latin America, they agreed that the arena for action, in the next few years at least, will be at the local rather than the national level.

Luis Fernando Alvarez is senior researcher at the Center for Metropolitan Studies, College of Architecture, Art and Design, University of Guadalajara, Mexico.

William J. Siembieda is professor of planning, School of Architecture and Planning, University of New Mexico. The seminar on urban land and territorial reserve issues was cosponsored by the Lincoln Institute and the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the University of Guadalajara.