Housing Issues in Mega-Cities

Megacity Defined

Location of Latin American Mega-Cities

A megacity is defined as a metropolitan area with a total population in excess of 10million people.1 As of January 1st, 2010 there were four megacities in Latin America. Mexico City, Mexico ranks fourth in the world with an agglomeration population total of 23,400,000 (including municipalities of Nezahualcoyotl, Ecatepec, and Naucalpan), Sao Paulo, Brazil ranks eighth with a total of 20,900,000 people (including the municipality of Guarulhos), Buenos Aires, Argentina is 20th with 13,300,000 (including San Justo and La Plata), and finally Rio de Janeiro, Brazil ranks 23rd in the world with an agglomeration population total of 12,600,000 (including Nova Iguaco and Sao Goncalo). 2

Sao Paulo, Brazil
Sao Paulo, Brazil

Formation of Latin American Megacities
Mexico City, Mexico
Mexico City, Mexico

During the 1940s and 1950s, urban migration from rural settlements exploded as new job opportunities arose.3 Import Substituting Industrialization (ISI) during this time caused channeling of investments into cities while starving rural areas of resources.3 As well, the introduction of agricultural technologies discouraged traditional forms of rural life which lead to the longer lifespan of the rural population causing more people to require jobs that were only available in the city.3 This chain of events lead to a flood of migrants toward urban centers.3 Urban centers were unable to keep up with this increase in population so people started settling on the undeveloped land on the periphery of the cities.3 The new migrants lived in “self-help” homes in which the materials are flimsy and there is a lack of services available to the owners.3 The houses are built by the owner with the structural design based on advice from friends and family.3 At this time, these “self-help” settlements did not lead to social revolutions. In fact, they improved the housing stock as the owners developed the structure into a consolidated house with services (electricity and water) gradually becoming available.3 Roads became paved, schools were built, and bus services began operating.3 A vast majority of the population had access to potable water and was connected to a sewage system.3

The 1980s saw a major recession which meant job losses and a subsequent decline in the quality of living.3 A decrease in social expenditures and an increase in taxes by the government greatly reduced the standard of living.3 Longer working hours and a lack of disposable income meant a cut to time and money previously spent on personal housing improvements as this money had to now be used to purchase food.3 Utility companies were badly affected by the recession leading to the reduction in services provided to self-help settlements.3 The government of some megacities began giving out land titles to owners of self-help homes.3 This encouraged middle class families who could not afford to pay rent to consider self-help settlements thus further increasing the population in these areas.3 For example in Lima, Peru two in five families live in self-help housing.3


Many people in Latin America live in conditions much worse than any of us can imagine. Living conditions are overcrowded, have low or no security, and are constructed of unreliable material 1. It is estimated that one third of all people in Latin America live in slum neighbourhoods 2. Still to this day there are homes without sewage, electricty, or water 1. As one would guess all of these factors lead to problems with pollution, and overcrowded conditions. Another major problem in the daily lives of people living in these slums is being caught in the cross fire of drug lords, gangs, and the police 3.

Slum in Brazil
The trend of movment is for people to leave the rural areas and head to the urban centers 2. This move happened so quickly and onsuch a large scale that the cities were not able to keep up with the demanding needs of the people or to provide them with adequate living conditions 2. At various times in history governements have tried to force people out of their squatter homes or evict them, this only added to the high level of violence in the area 2. People now have taken it upon themselves to upgrade their homes and work with private and governement organizations to help improve the conditions in which they live 2. As time goes by more and more people are moving to these cities and out of rural areas. As one area is settled by a group of people gradually more families will settle in the area. For example in Lima Peru a group of 600 people set up home on a garbage dump and now there are over 10000 people residing at this site 4. In the past ten years there have been large numbers of people moving out of the slums, but these numbers fail in comparison to the huge numbers of people moving into them every year 5. The world population of people living in slums is 827.6 million 5 compared to the over one million living in Rio alone1.


Hillside Favela

According to Mangin (1967) a favela is a make shift squatter home where in the people occupying it have just set up and are now taking up residence. There are multiple names for them including barriadas, ranchos, barrios, and favelas 1. People moving from rural areas perhaps enticed by better work or wages are settling in these urban centers 2. Regardless of whether they find better work or wages the peole have stayed and began to settle into thier new life at the favela 2. These residences are built on unoccupied and unpurchased land usually built on a hillside, resulting in the home occupants to neither own their home or the land on which they reside 3.
Click on the link below to hear first hand how residents of Latin American define favelas.

Residential Segregation

Favelas, Sao Paulo
Favelas, Sao Paulo

In the 19th century, most people lived in close proximity to one another as motorized transport was absent but by the turn of the century, the rich started to move out of the urban centers and into the suburbs.1 At this time, the poor also began to move out of central accommodations and into the self-help settlements.1 The rich moved in one direction towards the more environmentally attractive areas (beaches, lakes etc) and the poor moved in the opposite direction.1

Latin America remains highly divided and few locals will have difficulty listing the names of the richest and poorest areas in the city just as in any American or Canadian city.1 Examples in Latin America would be in Rio de Janeiro where the rich live in Leblon and Ipanema by the ocean and the poor live in Baixada Fluminense in the hilly region of the city.1

Varied topography has helped blur this pattern of segregation to a degree. An example would be Caracas and Rio de Janeiro where sharp slopes, swamps, and riverbeds were considered inappropriate for development and had little commercial value so was given to low-income groups during a period of rapid urban growth.1 This has lead to the development of favelas and barrios close to high-income areas.1 The urbanization of the high and middle-income areas requires cheap labour for jobs such as shoe mender, launder, maids etc and the favelas and barrios provide this cheap labour.1

Gated communities, Sao Paulo
Gated communities, Sao Paulo
As crime rates rise in some self-help settlements, fear of kidnapping, burglary, and other crimes has caused many rich families to seek habitation elsewhere.1 They move into what are essentially armed camps where the community is surrounded by high walls and entrances are controlled by security guards.1 These are comparable to the gated communities of Orange County, California.

Urban planning by the government has not helped urban segregation. Priority is given to those communities that can afford to pay for them.1 Service companies have not ignored the low-income communities, it is simply harder to install infrastructure in settlements where houses have already been built.1 Some governments have taken to “social cleansing” in which military is sent into low-income areas in an attempt to remove poor people from the “slums” in high-income residential areas to “proper homes” in the outskirts of the city.1 Examples of this occurring are Caracas in the 1950s, Rio de Janeiro between 1967 and 1973, and Buenos Aires between 1976 and 1981.1

The People

The stereotype of people living in the squatter settlements is that they are all migrants from the countryside who are not adjustable to city life therefore are responsible for their own poverty.1 The settlements were seen to be high in crime, violence, prostitution, and at any time, the habitants could turn into angry revolutionaries.1 This stereotype was used by the government for the eradication of favelas even though the favelas were a practical solution to its numerous problems by providing free housing and access to jobs and services.1

Racial discrimination is a huge factor dividing squatter settlements from the rest of the city however, simply living in a favela is equally as stigmatizing.1 Many people are reluctant to give their actual address during job interviews as they know the interview will immediately terminated if this were known.1 A benefit arose when people of squatter settlements were relocated into public housing in the 1970s and 1980s as they were able to get jobs they previously could not.1

There have been many fims, documentaries and news reprorts done on this ever increasing problem. One example of a movie featuring the geographical layout of these areas, showing the various groups that are settled in each area and the issues they face on a regualr basis is the movie "City of Men". Below is the trailer for the film.


Megacities Defined and Formation of Latin American Megacities
1- Coltheart, M. (2006). How big can a city get? New Scientist Magazine June 2006, p. 41
2- United Nations Department of Economic Affairs Population Division (2010). World urbanization prospects. Retrieved March 28, 2010 from http://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/index.htm
3- Gilbert, A. (1996). The mega-city in Latin America A. Gilbert, (Ed.). New York: United Nations University Press.

1 - Gilbert, A. (1996). The Mega-City in Latin America. The Latin American Mega-city: An Introduction. (pp. 2-80). Michigan, USA: Edwards Brothers.
2 - Understanding Contemporary Latin American pp 221-232
3 - The Mega-Cities Project. (2007). The Mega-Cities Project - Innovations for Urban Life. Retrieved on March 29, 2010 from http://www.megacitiesproject​s.org/projects.asp
4 - The New York Times. (2010). Squalid Slums Grow as People Flood Latin Americas Cities. Retrieved on March 29, 2010 from http://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/11/world/squalid-slums-grow-as-people-flood-latin-america-s-cities.html?pagewanted=1
5 - The New York Times. (2010). World's Slums Grow Despite Rapid Ecomony Growth. Retrieved on March 29, 2010 from http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2010/03/19/world/international-us-un-cities.html?scp=1& sq=slum%20populations&st=cse

1 - Mangin, W. (1967). Latin American Squatter Settlements: A problem and a Solution (pp 65-68). The Latin American Studies Association.
2 - Hillman, R.S. (2005). Understanding Contemporary Latin American (3rd ed.). The Environment, Population, and Urbanization (pp 221-232). Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.
3 - ar2com. (2008). Radio Favela. Retrieved on March 29, 2010 from http://www.ar2com.de/radiofavela-blog/favela/

Residential Segregation
1- Gilbert, A. (1996). The mega-city in Latin America A. Gilbert, (Ed.). New York: United Nations University Press.

The People
1- The Mega-Cities Project. (2007). The Mega-Cities Project - Innovations for Urban Life. Retrieved on March 29, 2010 from http://www.megacitiesproject​s.org/projects.asp