In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Latin America’s Urbanization in the 20th Century

  • Introduction
  • Historical Overviews
  • Demographic Urbanization, Urban Growth, and Migration
  • Cultural Urbanization, Modernization, and Social Change
  • Territorial and Spatial Patterns
  • Planning and Policies of Urbanization and Services
  • Poverty Approaches and Human Development

Latin American Studies Latin America’s Urbanization in the 20th Century
Arturo Almandoz Marte
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0187


A demographic, economic, social, cultural, and territorial process, urbanization involves different dimensions, which in 20th-century Latin America have exhibited more dramatic patterns than in other underdeveloped regions of the world. Demographic urbanization—understood as the percentage of population living in urban centers, categorized according to national censuses—was a process initiated at the turn of the century by foreign immigration in the Southern Cone and southern Brazil, followed by rural-urban migration since the 1920s in Mexico and Andean countries. Unlike western Europe and North America, where industrialization attracted and absorbed immigrants, the expulsion from neglected agrarian sectors was the actual catalyst of Latin America’s migration and urban growth in the second third of the century. Relationship with the productive system was thus problematic from the beginning and therefore marked successive approaches to the economic bases of Latin America’s urbanization, from the model of import substituting industrialization (ISI)—adopted in largest economies during postwar desarrollismo (developmentalism)—to the liberal and globalizing reforms introduced in most of the region after the “lost decade” of the 1980s, when the ISI-based and state-led model was dismantled. The urbanization’s weak relationship with productive activities has also been blamed for Latin America’s failed modernization in the 1970s, which had been anticipated during the developmental era as a consequence of industrialization and urbanization. Instead, the region’s shanty towns were proof of the sobreurbanización, or urban inflation, and sobreterciariación, or excessive growth of the tertiary and informal sectors of the economy, the latter caused by the absorption of the metropolises’ unproductive masses. Regarding the territorial dimension, the highly concentrated pattern of dual metropolises lacking services and equipment in their informal sectors was for most of the century one of the features of Latin America’s Third World–like urbanization. However, the continent reached 75 percent urbanization by 2000, and through a demographic transition characterized by lower fertility and mortality and a rural–urban migration that gave way to interurban migration, Latin American cities and metropolises exhibited less contrastive yet still segregated structures. In addition to successful reforms in economic and political models of some countries since the 1990s, the improvements are due to a more social-oriented conception of human development by governments, alongside reorientating urban development in the era of globalization. This does not mean, however, that poverty, inequalities, and deficiencies of services have disappeared from Latin American metropolises and cities; they still exist, and many of them are still undermined by violence, crime, social, and political unrest.

Historical Overviews

The interaction between industrialization, urbanization, and modernization in Latin America was compared with other industrialized and developing regions of the world early on in Davis 1982. As the field of urban studies and historiography emerged in Latin America in the late 1960s, the first reviews of the process of 20th-century urbanization were set in perspective with pre-Columbian, Colonial, and early Republican eras in Hardoy 1975 and Hardoy, et al. 1978. Resulting from a more specialized agenda and a broader perspective, the social challenges inherited from the 19th century through the Great Depression were compiled in Pineo and Baer 1998, whereas Clichevsky 1990 distinguished economic and political periods and their relationship with urbanization stages, as Almandoz 2014 did later, including the paradigms of modernization and development. The demographic records for tracing Latin America’s 20th-century urbanization can be found in the landmark report United Nations Center for Human Settlements 1996, whereas comparisons between countries and cities according to different indicators are available at United Nations Habitat.

  • Almandoz, Arturo. Modernization, Urbanization and Development in Latin America, 1900s–2000s. London: Routledge, 2014.

    An overview of the relationship and imbalances between industrialization, urbanization, modernization development, globalization, and populism, with roots in 19th-century progress and civilization and emphasis on Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Venezuela. Appendices include tables on urban population, urbanization, growth, level of transition, and Human Development Index per country.

  • Clichevsky, Nora. Construcción y administración de la ciudad latinoamericana. Buenos Aires: IIED-América Latina, 1990.

    With the collaboration of nine specialists on urban aspects, the book’s coordinator reviews major trends of Latin America’s urbanization, especially after World War II. Effects of the debt crisis during the 1980s are thoroughly analyzed, mainly relying on data from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

  • Davis, Kingsley. “La urbanización de la población mundial.” In La ciudad. Edited by Scientific American, 11–36. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1982.

    The article compares urbanization and urban growth in countries industrialized since the 19th century and underdeveloped regions such as Latin America. Originally published in English in 1965, it became a classic through successive editions in Spanish and updates of the collective volume that includes diverse topics and case studies.

  • 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, 1975.

    The chapter summarizes, in seven “stages,” Latin American urbanization from the pre-Columbian era to the mid-20th century, which makes it valuable as an introduction to the field for undergraduates and nonspecialized readership. Interesting connections between the 19th century and the development of urban networks in the 20th across the region.

  • Hardoy, Jorge E., Richard Morse, and Richard Schaedel, eds. Ensayos histórico-sociales sobre la urbanización en América Latina. Buenos Aires: Clacso, Ediciones SIAP, 1978.

    Resulting from a symposium on Latin American urbanization held at the 42nd Congress of Americanists in Paris, 1976, the book belongs to a pioneering series produced at similar symposia. Historical approaches since the Indian and Colonial periods frame chapters on marginality, metropolises, and ideology in the 20th century.

  • Pineo, Ronn, and James A. Baer, eds. Cities of Hope. People, Protests and Progress in Urbanizing Latin America, 1870–1930. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998.

    The book shows how the impact of urbanization on the working class and the demands by that group in relation to hygiene, housing, and transport set the agenda for the 20th century. Case studies include Bogotá, Montevideo, Veracruz, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Valparaíso, Buenos Aires, Panama City, and Lima.

  • United Nations Center for Human Settlements. An Urbanizing World. Global Report on Human Settlements. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    The first part of the report compares Latin America’s general trends of urbanization, urban growth, and primacy with other regions, relying on tables and figures that span from the 1940s through the 1990s. Other parts deal with sectorial components—housing, environment, urban land, infrastructure, and services—completed with statistics.

  • United Nations Habitat.

    The United Nations website is an interactive platform for exploring, comparing, and downloading urban data of Latin American countries and cities, alongside other regions of the world. Publications available online provide historical approaches on indicators such as population, slum dwellers, infrastructure, and public services, among others.

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