Global Cities: Radical Cities in Latin America

My Global Cities class at Temple is running the second time around this term and I am fine-tuning my approach. The class on Latin America has been mentioned by a few students as their favorite so far. In it, we read select chapters out of Justin McGuirk’s Radical Cities.

San Isidro – Buenos Aires

With these posts, I want to introduce the course’s focus topics on this blog, and have already done so for sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The ones still remaining are Latin America (this post) as well as the US (gentrification), Europe (migration), Middle East (place-making and authenticity) as well as East Asia (China’s new urbanization strategy).

McGuirk’s Radical Cities takes us across the continent in search of new solutions and interventions to address urban problems from a planning and architecture perspective. Among the recurring themes are how politics and architecture often clash, bottom-up vs. top-down solutions, how to involve the urban poor in planning and design decisions, informality vs. planning as well as incremental development.

The various chapters visit individual cities. I gave students free rein which one to choose. Besides locating the city and understanding its geography, I wanted them to be able to describe the intervention(s) introduced in the chapter as well as understand why they can be considered “radical”. A clear understanding of the word thus shows why something as “small-scale” as mimes to prevent traffic accidents in Bogota may be considered just that: radical.

Staying in the Colombian capital, the city’s pioneering bus rapid transit (BRT) system may be considered radical because urban transport infrastructure usually tends to be much more invasive, expensive, and often not targeted at the poor. Smaller, cheaper and more pragmatic can thus turn into something radical depending on the context. I think this came across nicely, also with the other examples (Tupac Amaru, PREVI, etc.). Torre David, Caracas’s famous vertical slum (since vacated) was another obvious example. I showed this Newsnight video.

With these examples in mind, we also wondered whether Latin America may not have more in store to teach other developing cities around the world than European cities — a kind of overarching research question of the course. Put differently, and as in McGuirk’s words, “no other region of the world has demonstrated the kind of collective effort and imagination that Latin America has in addressing the chronic symptoms of rapid, unplanned urbanization.”

For the purpose of my syllabus, it therefore makes sense to put Latin America ahead of the lectures on sub-Saharan Africa (where informality is the focus topic) and South Asia (where we discuss slums once again). “Urban acupuncture” is often preferable to “cutting out the cancer” of informality and substandard housing districts. For this we really need to get to know the cities we’re dealing with. Seeing Koolhaas defend his work on Lagos or listening to Niklas Fanelsa and his colleagues’ work on Ahmedabad in Gujarat becomes a lot more contextual.

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