Colorful buildings in Iztapalapa, Mexico

Exploring Sustainable Development in Latin America

By Carina Arvizu Machado, Maio 14, 2024

Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is the most urbanized region in the developing world, with 81 percent of its population—539 million people—living in cities, according to UN-Habitat. While there are differences in urbanization patterns across the region—for example, countries in Central America are less urbanized, but experiencing one of the fastest urbanization rates in the world, while South America is already home to major cities—poverty and inequality have characterized this growth regionwide, leading to the creation of precarious settlements whose populations face multiple vulnerabilities. These settlements are the result of insufficient access to adequate housing and unjust distribution of wealth and opportunities. The resulting vulnerabilities get reinforced and magnified by external factors such as migration and climate change.

To reflect on and tackle these related challenges, the Lincoln Institute’s Program on Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) and the Special Program for Urban and Regional Studies (SPURS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) co-organized a one-day workshop in early 2024. This event was part of an emerging initiative led by the Lincoln Institute and MIT that seeks to foster a call to action and build a regional vision that addresses critical challenges and advocates for systemic change.

Rooted in the experiences of team members from both institutions who have worked on these issues in their respective countries—Lincoln Institute LAC Program Director Anaclaudia Rossbach (Brazil), SPURS fellow Agustina Rodriguez Biasone (Argentina), and SPURS fellow Carina Arvizu Machado (México)—the workshop was designed to bridge the gap between academia and practical experience. It was an opportunity, said SPURS program director Bish Sanyal, to “theorize from practice.”

The workshop explored the multifaceted challenges facing vulnerable territories in Latin America and the Caribbean. One in five individuals in the region (110 million people) live in informal settlements. These areas face conditions of poverty and social exclusion, marked by inadequate housing, poor public services, and limited access to urban infrastructure and green spaces. In addition, the region is particularly vulnerable to climate change and has experienced significant migration flows in the past decades. LAC hosts approximately 3 million migrants from other areas and about 11 million internal migrants. Drawing inspiration from four case studies, the workshop explored innovative and integrated approaches that are paving the way for sustainable development and systemic change.

The workshop brought together over 50 individuals from diverse backgrounds, spanning academia, government, nonprofit organizations, and more, with a slate of speakers that included over 20 experts from Latin America and the Caribbean. Among them were former government ministers, executive directors, and professors from institutions such as Oxfam Mexico, the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Yale University, The New School, Columbia University, and more.

The real-world cases showcased innovative approaches to addressing urban challenges. From the Neighborhood Integration program in Buenos Aires led by María Migliore (former Buenos Aires minister of Human and Housing Development), to México’s Urban Improvement Program spearheaded by Martha Peña Ordóñez (current head of the planning unit of the Secretariat of Agrarian, Land, and Urban Development, SEDATU), passing by the Utopias project for rehabilitation of public spaces in Iztapalapa, Mexico City, implemented by Raúl Basulto (current head of Urban Development of Iztapalapa), and the Manzanas del Cuidado, or care blocks, championed by Maria-Mercedes Jaramillo (former Bogotá secretary of Planning). After participating in discussions about the challenges in the region and exploring the four case studies, attendees imagined and discussed integrated strategies for effective solutions. Participants engaged in lively debates, shared best practices, and explored ways to leverage interdisciplinary approaches for positive impact.

Basketball court at Utopía Aculco, a fitness facility, cultural venue, and social services center in Iztapalapa, Mexico. Credit: Government of Mexico City.

Participants also explored the relationships among interventions in informal settlements, city planning, and the broader urban system, reimagining the relationship between nature and cities. Rethinking planning scales and alternative territorial governance, such as through elements like water supply and management, was at the forefront of the discussions, especially on the panel about climate change, moderated by Amy Cotter, director of climate strategies at the Lincoln Institute. Looking back to move forward, the panelists and participants drew inspiration from the historical constitution of cities through migration, and past interventions in informal settlements.

The resounding commitment echoed among participants was a determination to forge a more equitable and sustainable future for urban communities in Latin America and the Caribbean. As Enrique Silva, chief program officer at the Lincoln Institute, mentioned, this workshop was a great opportunity to build upon similar events in the past, such as the 2018 symposium “Slums: New Visions for an Enduring Global Phenomenon,” held at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and consolidate a more robust community of practice. The group agreed to continue this journey together, building bridges and creating lasting impact for the vulnerable territories of the region, forging new paths toward systemic change.

Key themes for future discussion based on the reflections at the workshop include:

  1. Exploring further the links and interdependencies of informality and informal settlements with migration, climate change and inequality, and the implications and complication of political polarization in the region.
  2. Connecting interventions in informal settlements to city planning, and the broader urban system.
  3. Reimagining the relationship between nature and cities, considering and integrating indigenous communities and their concepts and practices.
  4. Rethinking the scales of planning and alternative territorialities of governances, through alternative elements such as water.
  5. Looking back to better move forward, including looking at indigenous knowledge, how migration has affected the growth and development of cities, and previous interventions around informal settlements.

This initiative was made possible thanks in part to a grant from MIT’s Office of Experiential Learning.

Carina Arvizu Machado is a 2024 SPURS fellow at MIT and former Cities Director for Mexico and Colombia at the World Resources Institute, Mexico. She is the former national deputy secretary of Urban Development and Housing for Mexico, sustainable urban mobility consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank, and chief of urban projects for Mexico City.

Lead image: Utopía Aculco, part of the Utopía series of 12 parks and public cultural and sports facilities in Mexico City’s Iztapalapa neighborhood. The name doubles as an acronym for Unidades de Transformación y Organización Para la Inclusión y la Armonía Social (Units of Transformation and Organization for Inclusion and Social Harmony). Credit: Government of Mexico City.