Latin American Studies Latin American Urbanism, 1850-1950
Arturo Almandoz Marte
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0008


After the colonial domination that in most of Latin America ended by the 1820s, the nascent republics and the Brazilian Empire adopted political and economic models from countries other than the Iberian metropolises. While international war and conflicts between Unitarianism and Federalism shook the continent, economic and political liberalism prevailed in bigger countries by the 1860s. Liberal reforms changed the profile of the up-to-then untouched postcolonial city, with an Europeanism manifest in the physical transformations and the cultural ethos. The worship of Second-Empire Paris was one of the features of the so-called “bourgeois city,” which bloomed in the second half of the 19th century, while regional networks of settlements were restructured with railways and other infrastructure required by external investments. As foreign immigration and rural-urban migration increased Latin America’s urbanization by the 1900s, especially in the Southern Cone, official and private responses to the demands of the growingly heterogeneous population shaped the urban agenda of the Belle Époque and the first centenary of Latin American republics. The most significant chapters of this pre-urbanism were hygiene and housing reforms of historic centers, where colonial dameros (checkerboards)—inherited from the 1573 Law of Indies—also underwent urban reconstruction for embellishment, alongside functional and communication improvements; these processes were accompanied by suburban expansion led by a bourgeoisie fleeing old-fashioned centers and seeking new styles and landscapes that mirrored their modernizing cosmopolitism. Between 1900 and 1940, Latin America’s population rose from 63 million to 130 million, making it the least rural among the world’s less developed blocks. Population growth evinced the state’s urgency for adopting urban reforms and plans, which were implemented, from the late 1920s, by local governments, foreign maestros, and native professionals. Early plans from local administrations, some of them framed within national legislations, jointly with the first courses and conferences about urbanismo (urban planning or urbanism) promoted by universities and professional associations, institutionalized the new discipline. It combined urban planning techniques arriving from North America with traditions of European urbanism, often involving the visit of famous urbanistas (urbanists) as advisers or coordinators for those first plans, from Jean-Claude Forestier and Le Corbusier to Werner Hegemann and Karl Brunner. As functional modernism prevailed as a trend from the 1940s, Latin America’s transit from local-based urbanism into a regional planificación and planejamento (planning) was to occur amid postwar urbanization, industrialization, and US-backed developmentalism, which represented a shift in the discipline’s scale and approach.

General Overviews

Echoing the misinterpretations of international planning historiography, the history of Latin America’s urbanism in the republican period tended to be regarded, until the 1960s, as an appendix of Spain’s and Portugal’s. Local historiography, though also including the colonial era, began to explore the distinctiveness of republican Latin America, initiated by Hardoy 1975 in relation to urbanization, Romero 2008 from a cultural perspective, and Gutiérrez 2006 through the relationship between architecture and urbanism. The celebration of the 500th anniversary of the A mericas’ discovery in 1992 was an opportunity to produce new multi-author books that set the republican era in perspective with the colonial legacy, as in Alomar 1987 and in Centro de Estudios Históricos de Obras Públicas y Urbanismo 1997, both with morphological emphasis. Later, Almandoz 2010 focused on the period between the postcolonial transformations and the arrival of modern urbanism before World War II, a cycle that has been profusely documented by the Centro de Documentación de Arquitectura Latinoamericana (CEDODAL). A pending task is to give Latin America’s planning history of the republican era its own place in the history of the industrial era worldwide, as Sánchez Ruiz 2008 has tried to do.

  • Almandoz, Arturo, ed. Planning Latin America’s Capital Cities, 1850–1950. London: Routledge, 2010.

    Originally published in 2002, this was the first book in English to focus on postcolonial transformations until the emergence of professional urbanism. It combines case studies of different sizes mostly written by local-based experts: Buenos Aires, Santiago, Rio–São Paulo, Mexico City, Lima, Havana, Caracas, and San José de Costa Rica.

  • Alomar, Gabriel, ed. De Teotihuacán a Brasilia: Estudios de historia urbana iberoamericana y filipina. Madrid: Instituto de Estudios de Administración Local (IEAL), 1987.

    Illustrated with plans, some of them from Seville’s Archive of Indies, the book catalogues Latin America’s new cities from the pre-Columbian era to the mid-20th century. Suitable for undergrads, the last two chapters catalogue the urban transformations since the 19th century and the emergence of modern urbanism.

  • Centro de Documentación de Arquitectura Latinoamericana (CEDODAL).

    Documentation center of Latin American architecture. Holding one of Latin America’s biggest archives of plans and primary sources on architecture, urbanism, and art history, CEDODAL organizes exhibitions and publishes books and the journal DANA: Documentos de Arquitectura Nacional y Americana. Urbanism of the republican period occupies much of the catalogues available at the CEDODAL website.

  • Centro de Estudios Históricos de Obras Públicas y Urbanismo. La ciudad hispanoamericana: El sueño de un orden. Madrid: Ministerio de Fomento, 1997.

    Published in 1989 as a catalogue of an exhibition, this second edition, with augmented texts, gathers seventeen contributions ranging from Spanish America’s colonial era to the 20th century. It includes maps and illustrations, completed by a chronological list of villages and towns founded by Spain across the Americas.

  • Gutiérrez, Ramón. Arquitectura y Urbanismo en Iberoamérica. Madrid: Cátedra, 2006.

    Even though the manual privileges architecture over urbanism for Latin America’s different blocks and countries, the dialogue between the two disciplines makes it didactic for undergraduates of all related fields, including art history. The book has had three editions and several reprints since its original publication in 1984.

  • Hardoy, Jorge E. “Two Thousand Years of Latin American Urbanization.” In Urbanization in Latin America: Approaches and Issues. Edited by Jorge E. Hardoy, 3–55. New York: Anchor Books, 1975.

    The chapter summarizes, in seven “stages,” Latin American urbanization from the pre-Columbian era to the mid-20th century, which makes it still valuable as an introduction to the field for all audiences. In the final stages there are geographical and demographic connections with the emerging urbanism since the late 19th century.

  • Romero, José L. Latinoamérica: Las ciudades y las ideas. Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno Editores Argentina, 2008.

    Since its original publication in 1976, Romero’s essay pioneered Latin America’s cultural urban history. The “bourgeois cities” and “mass metropolises” characterized in the last two chapters have become referential for the historiography of the republican period. This edition includes a prologue by the author’s son, also a historian.

  • Sánchez Ruiz, Gerardo. Planeación moderna de ciudades. Mexico City: Trillas, 2008.

    One of the few manuals on urban planning published in Spanish, it intertwines the European and Anglo-American traditions of the industrial era. The last two chapters are devoted to Latin America’s first experiences and the Mexican case, with a balance of primary and secondary sources suitable for undergraduates and graduates.

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