Local Spaces, Global Ties: Urbanization in 20th-Century Latin America

AHA Session 220
Conference on Latin American History 53
Urban History Association 3
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Mile High Ballroom 4C (Colorado Convention Center, Ballroom Level)
Ernesto Capello, Macalester College
Brodwyn M. Fischer, University of Chicago

Session Abstract

Over the course of the twentieth century, Latin America experienced a profound transformation from agrarian to urban societies. An initial period of development at the turn of the century saw many Latin American cities take on their modern forms, and rapid mid-century industrialization sparked a second phase of intense growth. Contemporary observers and scholars since have tended to view these periods of urban growth with great alarm. Beginning in the 1920s and intensifying in the 1940s–1960s, Latin American urban experts condemned the apparent chaos that characterized these sprawling metropolises. Evidence of this supposed absence of planning seemed abundant: cities lacked the infrastructure and housing to deal with their growing populations, cars and buses threatened to paralyze urban transportation, and basic amenities like parks, schools, and hospitals were often missing. Since the mid-century, the informal city, in particular, has received a great deal of attention due to debates over the purported culture of poverty and threat of radicalism represented by the slums and shantytowns that plagued the formal city.

While these problems were experienced on a local level, officials increasingly looked abroad not only to compare Latin American cities to other world centers, but also to connect with trends and ideas that might help in the rehabilitation and uplift of their own urban spaces. This panel interrogates the multiple scales at which twentieth-century urban problems were conceptualized in Latin American cities. While much of the writing on Latin American urbanization focuses on informal settlements and other features that differed from North Atlantic urban forms, this panel challenges us to consider how Latin American cities confronted many of the same problems as global cities in Europe and North America, such as large-scale state housing projects, modern transportation systems, and the need for expansive greenspaces. These problems were shared by the cities examined in this panel—Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Santiago de Chile—and in each case, local experts in the postwar era turned to transnational tools, ideas, and material support in their struggle with rapid urbanization. Collectively, these papers show how Latin American urbanists located themselves in flows of international expertise and actively participated in disciplinary debates of the day.

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