Economic Inclusion In The News

Also Migrating From Latin America: A Wave of Urban Innovation

The tree-lined Avenida Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City — a city whose scale and environmental precarity have made it a rich source of urban solutions. Photographer: Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group Editorial via Getty Images

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For US cities, grassroots solutions from metros south of the border can be more useful than better-known urban practices from Europe.

Over the last few years, a first-of-its-kind sanctuary neighborhood for migrants opened in a canyon next to the San Diego-Tijuana border wall. The UCSD-Alacrán Community Station, created through a partnership with the University of California San Diego Center on Global Justice, houses around 1,800 people; the three-acre site also features a health care clinic, food hub, school and outdoor plaza. More than an emergency shelter, Alacrán is designed to help those fleeing violence in their countries of origin participate actively in shaping the social, cultural and economic life of the ad-hoc city that they now call home.

UCSD-Alacrán is one of four cross-border community stations — two in Tijuana, two in San Diego — that the Center on Global Justice launched with local nonprofits and school districts. But their inspiration comes from the Colombian cities of Bogotá and Medellín, says Teddy Cruz, the center’s director of urban research. As they emerged from years of drug cartel violence in the 1990s and early 2000s, those cities implemented a variety of experimental social policies to improve urban life, from hiring mimes to direct traffic to building a network of library parks in high-poverty neighborhoods.

The idea, according to Cruz and center founding director Fonna Forman, was to rebuild patterns of trust and social cooperation from the ground up.

In November 2023, the UCSD-Alacrán Community Station welcomed an appearance by Little Amal, a 12-foot-tall puppet depicting a 10-year-old Syrian refugee girl. Photo: Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman

UCSD’s community stations seek to apply similar ideas about the value of such social infrastructure to the conflicted US-Mexico border zone and ultimately help reshape the political dialogue nationwide. “We have been convinced,” Cruz and Forman said in an email, “that it is in Latin American cities where we can find the DNA for reclaiming a new public imagination in the US.”

Importing urban innovations from Latin America is hardly new — a host of cities in the US and elsewhere have borrowed another concept from Bogotá, the car-free Ciclovía, for example. But for decades, the gold standard for enlightened city-making has tended to focus on central and northern Europe. It’s the bike lanes of Amsterdam, the superblocks of Barcelona or the “15-minute city” model of Paris that get so many US planners fired up.

But as migration strains city coffers and climate change fuels population shifts, Latin American cities are attracting fresh interest from practitioners and academics seeking solutions to the most pressing urban challenges in the US.

According to Juan Miró, a professor of architecture at the University of Texas, Austin, European best practices have proven ill-equipped to address many urban challenges. “People go to Paris, and say: ‘It’s so beautiful, a model high-density city,’” he said. “But go to the outskirts where immigrants are and they are terrible places to live.”

A 2014 Ciclovía in Bogotá, where the weekly car-free event was created in 1974. Photographer: Eitan Abramovich/AFP via Getty Images

The features that define US urban life — extreme income inequality, sprawling 20th-century development patterns — are also seen throughout Latin America, and the two regions share the same “arc of history,” Miró said: colonization, Indigenous decimation, slavery and independence.

“Despite all their problems,” Miró said, “the Americas are way ahead of Europe on issues of coexistence.”

Community-Based Fixes

Latin America’s robust tradition of developing grassroots solutions partly reflects the region’s history of government instability and dysfunction, said Lucia Nogales, a Madrid-based architect and urban planner and former director of Ocupa tu Calle, an activist public space organization in Lima. That bottom-up approach can be a model both for the US and Europe, where many policymakers now fret about flagging faith in public institutions and growing polarization.

“What I discovered in Latin America and what is missing here is the sense of community,” said Nogales, now a research fellow for the NetZeroCities project. “Community is not a romantic idea,” she added, but a concept necessary for “rethinking how democracy works.”

Mexico City’s huge scale and environmental precarity have made it a particularly rich source of creative interventions. Miró takes his students there both to study modern housing typologies as well as those in Teotihuacan, the pre-Hispanic city nearby. One of the largest cities in the world in the 5th century, Teotihuacan offers lessons on how cities can adapt equitably to climate change, said Miró, explaining that modest residences as well as palaces were designed with the same solar orientation. “High or low, the common principle was integration with nature.”

In today’s Mexico City, policymakers are pondering ways to make the megacity more equitable for those on its margins. Since 2019, it has opened a series of 13 parks and community centers across its most populous borough, Iztapalapa, known for its high crime and poverty rates. The evocatively named Utopias provide a wide range of public services, including digital design and animation classes, job assistance and entrepreneurship workshops, Olympic-size swimming pools, movie theaters and safe spaces for victims of domestic violence.

“We are trying to create a playful city,” said Daniel Escotto, director of the postgraduate program of public space and urban mobility at the School of Architecture at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “We dedicate everything to that concept. Because city culture is not maintained by the enforcement of the law but by playing.”

A young girl plays in a boat simulator during the inauguration of Mexico City’s Barco Utopia in 2023.Photographer: Gerardo Vieyra/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Accordingly, many of the facilities assume a decidedly whimsical aesthetic. Utopia Meyehualco features a life-size dinosaur sculpture park; Barco Utopia opened last year in ship-shaped building. A similar initiative is bringing 287 small community hubs known as Pilares— an acronym, in Spanish, for “Points of Innovation, Freedom, Art, Education and Knowledge.” These library-like spaces, designed by local architects, offer a range of public services, such as meeting rooms to job assistance, to largely low-income neighborhoods.

“Mexico City is a polycentric city that is sectorized, ghettoized — we cannot recompact the city,” said Escotto, who previously served as the director and coordinator of public space for the federal government and Mexico City. Instead, the Pilares and Utopias bring the city’s social infrastructure in line with its geographical sprawl. “We are trying to equalize the quality of life for people in the poorest belts of the city,” he said.

A Culture of Adaptation

In part, the growing interest in Latin American urbanism among US planners is simply a reflection of migration trends and population shifts. In six of the 10 most populous US cities, Latinos are the single biggest demographic group. In Los Angeles County, just under half of residents are now Hispanic or Latino. Elsewhere, new immigrants from Latin America are reviving economies and refilling cities that had been losing population, including Detroit and Minneapolis, said Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, director of Latino Studies at Penn State University.

But they are restoring the social fabric in their own way, Sandoval-Strausz emphasized. “Migrants are not building new structures or street grids. The key observation is these things are enacted, not designed.”

James Rojas, a community activist and urban planner from East LA who founded the Latino Urban Forum, points to the recent legalization of informal sidewalk street vendors across the city — long a source of local conflict — as a sign of the influence that Latino urbanism now has on LA’s policy landscape.

“American planning is based on transactions and businesses, law and order,” he said. “Whereas Latinos are always looking for the social space. They buy a house and turn the front yard into a plaza.”

Customers wait in line at a sidewalk street vendor in Santa Ana, California, in 2022.Photographer: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

That informal social dynamic is at the heart of Latino urbanism, the understanding that goals like walkability and small-scale economic development have long occurred organically across Latin America. And planners like Rojas and Nogales say that harnessing this approach as urban policy can help address the fraying civic ties and “epidemic” of loneliness often said to afflict US cities.

In the recently published book Citizen-Led Urbanism in Latin America, Nogales and several co-authors assemble a compendium of examples of livability, transportation and public space initiatives led by residents of cities across the region, often spawned in response to political and environmental crises.

“This is the century of migration, and we view that as a problem,” said Nogales. But city leaders can learn much from migrant communities, where the self-organizing traditions of the urban and rural poor have spawned microeconomy networks and political actions. She pointed to Peru’s ollas comunes or “common pots” — traditional soup kitchens that kept hundreds of thousands of people from going hungry during the Covid shutdowns and other national crises. This informal network of providers has since gained government recognition, with more than 3,000 registered in the Lima metro, and has been hailed by the World Bank as a means of helping migrant women from Venezuela integrate into Peruvian society.

A woman and child pick up food at a soup kitchen in Villa Maria del Triunfo district in the southern outskirts of Lima in 2023.Photographer: Ernesto Benavides/AFP via Getty Images.

Another celebrated example is Bogotá’s Manzanas del Cuidado, or Care Blocks, which reorient the 15-minute-city concept around women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities. These 30-plus neighborhood blocks provide free education, wellness and job assistance services to the 1.2 million women who serve as unpaid caregivers for their family, 70% of whom have not graduated from high school. The blocks are located within a short walk of caregivers’ homes. About 12,000 women have received diplomas since the program launched in 2020, enabling them to join the paid workforce and better provide for their families.

Echoes of that initiative can be found in the Alacrán community station, which builds on the work of the Tijuana church Templo de Embajadores de Jesus, to support new housing, job creation and economic development.

In addition to the school, there’s a clinic that’s jointly managed with Baja California’s public university system and a food hall, funded in part by the Hands of Hope and Light Church, that accommodates 600 people. The community is planning a hydroponic farm, orchards and a habitat initiative to restore a canyon landscape damaged by trash and erosion. Migrants help build the infrastructure, and the site has become a hub for UCSD researchers investigating a range of issues tied to precarious migrant settlements.

For Cruz and Forman, the vision is that this still-evolving sanctuary neighborhood can be more than a temporary refuge — it is, they said, “the site to build a new citizenship culture on the border.”


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