Land Use Expansion in Bogota

Can It Be Controlled?
Carolina Barco de Botero and Ralph Gakenheimer, March 1, 1999

The complex demographic, geographic and economic pressures on land use patterns make managing urban growth a difficult challenge throughout the world. This is especially evident in rapidly developing Latin American cities that are outgrowing their boundaries and must work collaboratively with surrounding towns in a political climate that is not generally conducive to metropolitan government.

Urban researchers at the Center for Economic Development Studies (CEDE) of the University of the Andes have been studying changing land uses in Bogota’s metropolitan area in order to document current trends and develop a regional plan. In October at a Lincoln Institute-sponsored conference, participants from various cities-Sao Paulo, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Medellin, Cali and others-compared their recent experiences with regional planning and development programs. This information will help officials in Bogota better understand existing land use problems and opportunities and begin to define policies and management strategies to control haphazard growth.

Factors Defining Land Uses

Bogota is situated on a plateau (sabana) surrounded by mountains. The sabana is roughly divided by the Bogota River, with the city of Bogota on the eastern bank and eighteen small municipalities to the West. This well-defined geographic region is home to more than six million people; more than 90 percent are highly concentrated in Bogota and only 5 percent reside in the surrounding towns. Service, industrial and commercial employment is highly concentrated in the city, while flower farms are the most important economic activity in the flatlands.

Bogota is densely developed with only a few large tracts of underdeveloped land inside the city boundary and a trend toward increasing density over the past 50 years. Its land use pattern is monocentric: a central business district now expanding northward contains over 42 percent of the city’s employment. There are a few minor commercial centers in the far northern and western sections of the city, and an increasing amount of land is being used for low-density development in the outlying municipalities.

Throughout the conference the impact of globalization on local spatial structure was a common theme. One symptom is the appearance of companies and organizations that seek independent locations rather than integration within the established economic fabric of the metropolitan area. New communications technology has made physical proximity less necessary than in the past, reinforcing other socio-economic trends toward decentralization.

The agricultural value of Bogota’s sabana has played an important role in controlling decentralization, and there is still remarkably little traffic between the city and the sabana. However, the conference participants were ambivalent over whether this was good or bad. On one hand, this pattern isolates the outlying populations of the valley from the advantages of urbanization, but on the other it limits uncontrolled growth and protects agricultural land.

Concern about the ad hoc urbanization of the sabana along the arbitrary paths of numerous highways radiating from the city raises the question: Would systematic, planned guidance of decentralization around existing towns be better than more limited but unplanned expansion? There is no simple answer to the ambivalence inherent in guiding urban growth into the agricultural countryside.

Development Patterns

Residential development in Bogota is highly segregated by income, and unfettered market mechanisms reinforce this social dynamic. Lower-income groups are concentrated in the southern and western sections of the city and the higher-income groups tend to live in an enclave north of the city center, leaving middle- and lower-middle income people in the central sector.

This segregated growth pattern is also reflected in regional growth trends. While suburban development is a relatively limited characteristic of the past decade, the higher-income groups are moving north into the sabana. Many of these low-density, North American-style developments are gated communities in former villages such as Cota, Chia, Cajica and Sopo.

Soacha, south of Bogota, has experienced a high growth rate of informally built low-income housing, and lower- and middle-income housing development is also occurring within the boundaries of the western municipalities. These residential market forces, in turn, are pushing the lowest-income squatter settlements to the fringes of the metropolitan area, or even further into the generally poor hillside areas, which do not receive urban infrastructure and services and are unable to provide them privately.

The most dramatic change in Bogota’s spatial structure has been the gradual but definite shift of the central business area toward the high-income settlements north of the city. Other activities requiring large tracts of land, such as new schools, recreational facilities and cemeteries, are geared to the higher-income groups in that sector. This tendency is visible in large cities throughout Latin America. Usually beginning as regional shopping centers or other types of high-income, central district functions, commercial development tends to cluster with high-income residential development and infrastructure investment.

New industrial developments reflect a different logic. They are appearing near Bogota’s city center and along a western corridor through Madrid that links the most important highways to the coast and other regions of the country. There is also an expanding industrial cluster around an important highway intersection near the northern town of Zipaquira.

Challenges of Planned Growth

As the conference participants searched for feasible instruments to implement land use policies in Bogota, the use of urban growth boundaries was often raised as a solution. However, many speakers expressed doubt that this mechanism or any traditional land use planning tool would be effective in the long run, since the boundaries would have to be enforced by the individual municipalities scattered throughout the region.

Colombia has a strong political decentralization policy that encourages municipal autonomy, even in small towns with little technical or political ability to deal with large development projects. Each town makes independent decisions about land use and economic development based on its immediate needs and prevailing market forces. As a result, there is no tradition of coordinated policymaking between Bogota and the other municipalities regarding the most appropriate locations for new industrial or residential areas anywhere in the region.

Participants from Cali, Medellin and Buenos Aires discussed their cities’ plans to guide growth through the creation of clustered, decentralized centers. This approach is widely debated and is often used in academic planning exercises, but questions remain as to whether it can operate in the current fiscal and regulatory context. Some commentators asserted that cluster development could be accomplished through public leadership, with private developers reimbursing the cost of infrastructure, thus making the process self-financing.

Public/private cooperation in sectors such as highway transportation has also received considerable attention in many cities, but inducing private developers to accommodate public goals for infrastructure location and development is another obstacle to comprehensive planning.

Bogota, then, like so many cities, is faced with conflicting trends such as high-income self-segregation in gated communities, low-income needs for serviced land, market pressures on agricultural and urban land uses, and municipal autonomy, all of which create perverse cross currents and ambivalent policy options. The state government, the environmental agency (CAR), Bogota and the towns must work together toward regional consensus on a wide range of services, including transportation, water, sewage, and recreational and educational facilities. A mix of creative and flexible approaches is needed for sustainable and equitable development.

Carolina Barco de Botero was recently named planning director of Bogota. She is also a managing consultant with Ciudades, Ltda., in Bogota and a member of the Lincoln Institute Board of Directors. She was the project director for the Bogota-Sabana Regional Study at the University of the Andes. Ralph Gakenheimer, professor of urban studies and planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, participated in the study and the conference.