Preservation and revitalization in Latin America

Latin American cities feature a rich mix of buildings, streets, and monuments dating from the pre-Columbian era through the present. Urban cores fell out of fashion as cities sprawled outward in the late twentieth century, however, leading to disinvestment and decay.

Today, many governments in the region are once again investing heavily in their city centers. I spoke with Pablo Lazo, who leads Arup’s Latin American masterplanning and urban design practice, to learn more.

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How prevalent is this kind of activity?

Many cities in Latin America have a city center that has been in decay for years, for many different reasons. And often when there’s a change in government there’s suddenly the appetite to do something about it. In Barranquilla, Colombia, the city government, with the support of the federal government, has put a plan together. This follows the path of other cities in the region such as Mexico City and Lima, Peru.

Colonial street in Lima, Peru

Colonial street in Lima, Peru

Do you see a lot of commonalities in these efforts?

The first piece of the city where they typically focus is the historic core, which has great cultural value and existing infrastructure that the up-front investment can leverage. Governments also often see these areas as having a huge potential to bring external investment and new jobs.

These urban revitalization plans are becoming more and more economically driven, in fact. And I think that is a big challenge. We need to be aware that there is always a tension between inserting a new economy into a particular piece of the city and preserving the activity — and residents — that are already there. Sometimes there is a perception that these areas have no economic structure to start out with, when in reality the existing system is working quite well, and only needs specific adjustments to make it better.

Another commonality is that the buildings’ external appearance is usually what first captures the attention of policymakers, politicians, and investors. They typically say, “We must do something about these beautiful buildings that have been abandoned and will be lost forever if we don’t save them.”

Façade in San Jose, Costa Rica

Façade in San Jose, Costa Rica

But beneath the surface of every historic center you have very ancient urban infrastructure that has also not received maintenance and upgrades. So now this problem is receiving more attention; it’s very common that all these plans to revitalize historic cores in Latin America do also look at infrastructure — especially if the plans aim to bring in new economies that need state-of-the-art infrastructure. But governments don’t really know how to address these issues. Everyone can look at an old building and have some idea of how to fix it, but with infrastructure the problems are often not visible. Upgrading infrastructure requires a cross-disciplinary approach.

So governments ask firms like us to put a proposal together. At a very early stage of these projects, we look at what the client wants to do with these districts — putting in a new tourism node in the form of a series of hotel buildings, turning existing buildings into a media center for start-ups, whatever their objectives are — and see if this could be done with the infrastructure already in place.

Another commonality is that when you do elaborate a plan for these historic cores, you of course need to take into consideration the need to protect cultural and heritage resources. But more and more we’re finding that because the public sector does not have the money to upgrade all these buildings, they need to accept that the area’s appearance will change somewhat. There’s often a tension between the need to adapt to new uses, new companies, and the fear of compromising the historic value.

There’s often a tension between the need to adapt to new uses, new companies, and the fear of compromising the historic value

So more and more, government planners have to decide what is the right level of heritage protection for the situation and what is just going to destroy your economic case for revitalization.

Those are a few commonalities I see permeating every project around these regions. In terms of differences, every country has a different understanding of what it means to revitalize a historic core. If this part of the city is protected by the UN under the World Heritage program, there will be very strict rules and steps that you need to follow. But if it’s not, the expectations for revitalization or renovation plans are very different. There’s a huge range of diversity in understanding of what these plans should do, and that is probably the main challenge.

Ouro Preto, Brazil

Ouro Preto, Brazil

Could you give examples of cities that have handled the issue in different ways?

In Brazil, for example, you have cities such as Paraty in the state of Rio and Ouro Preto in the state of Minas Gerais that are protected by the World Heritage program. The revitalization plans in these cities have a lot of very similar concerns. But in Santos, where the historic center is not part of the UN program, the revitalization plan (which we actually contributed to) had more freedom to debate things like economic benefits and incentives, changes in land use, increases in building density. The process and the strategic plan allowed for greater flexibility, and we had more possibilities to bring in innovative components.

Waterfront in Santos, Brazil

Waterfront in Santos, Brazil

The other example I could give is in Barranquilla, in Colombia, which we also worked on. The city isn’t part of the UN program, but national standards are quite strict. Colombia has a very long history of planning frameworks at different government levels. The historic preservation plan for the center had to be put in a very precise urban framework document in order to establish the definitions, the objectives, the outcomes. The process and the strategic plan there were very, very rigid in many ways.

Barranquilla, Colombia masterplan

Are the outcomes of the various processes noticeably different?

For sure they are. In Paraty, all the programs for the revitalization of the historic center and projects have been of a small scale. The strategies are very localized and not very inspirational in terms of changing the whole image of the historic center. And that happened because the city’s historic image is already pretty powerful.

Then you have the historic center in Recife in the northeast of Brazil. It’s not part of the UN program, but it has a lot of policies protecting the building heritage, because it is a very important city in terms of Brazil’s history. But when the government started drafting the revitalization program, it was very clear that in order to bring new economic benefits and new activities to the center, which had been completely abandoned, the only way to do it was to completely ignore, to a certain point, these protection and building conservation rules. And they have done it successfully in a way, but they probably will also go beyond the point at which you would recognize that it was once a historic piece of the city. The spatial perception has changed dramatically.

In Panama City, which is not in the UN program, the historic core transformation started with a joint venture with the private sector aiming to put new infrastructure in place before any project came up in the buildings themselves. So they invested in a lot first in the infrastructure, put all new lights in the underground, new telecommunications and fiber optics. This state-of-the-art urban infrastructure has now created a huge economic positive impact. As you can imagine, many businesses, companies, hotels want to relocate to the historic center of Panama, because the infrastructure is ready and the streetscape has a new image.

Panama City, Republic of Panama

Panama City, Republic of Panama

In the US there’s a great deal of talk about the growing preference for dense urban areas, particularly among millenials. Is the same thing happening in Latin American cities? Is that one of the drivers for upgrading these historic cores, or do you think the situation is significantly different from the North American context?

It is true to a certain extent that younger generations are interested in moving into city cores because they offer conditions that are more attractive than those on the periphery. One is the close interaction with other people; all these historic areas are in the center of cities, and the urban structure is very closely knit together. You have, you know, the small streets, squares, that promote close interactions with people. These are places for people and not for cars. And many researchers have said that that improves quality of life.

The other advantage these areas offer is transportation. That’s a no-brainer; these historic cores have been integrated into the larger city for so many years that they have connections to different modes of transport, which is very attractive.

San Jose, Costa Rica, has a lively historic core, but many of the foreign companies that operate in the city are based in a new suburb that offers high-end stores and restaurants and additional security. Given the dramatic social stratification found in much of Latin America, is this a common situation? Is it difficult to attract new businesses to downtown cores due to concerns over safety and related issues?

Socioeconomic factors are among the top two or three challenges that these type of design exercises have.

Obviously, when you bring new infrastructure, new land uses, and new relations to these parts of cities that have been derelict and abandoned, you encounter the fact of gentrification, right? You often have to move people that have been living there for years, that generally are at the very low end of the social spectrum.

Paraty, Brazil

When developing a plan, you have to think hard about whether you need to displace people because of a particular reason. If you don’t want to displace people, you need to develop a strategy for better integrating them into the new economy that is going to come to these areas because you are going to create employment opportunities, new jobs, for these communities.

If you don’t want to displace people, you need to develop a strategy for better integrating them into the new economy

As you said, the people that cities are often trying to attract to historic centers, people of a higher socioeconomic status, want to feel safe. But as part of the plan, you have to do a lot of stakeholder engagement to define the level of diversity that you want. The ideal is to make that piece of city really diverse, rather than a very closed campus kind of environment. This eventually improves the security in these areas.

At the same time as cities regenerate historic cores, some also create clusters in other parts of the city for industries and companies that do prefer an isolated, closed community. Generally these are industries or companies that, apart from the need to have a secure environment, need large areas and buildings that urban historic cores cannot offer.

Are there any projects that you think have done a particularly good job of paying attention to socioeconomic diversity?

Mexico City is a successful case, because they have managed to maintain a lot of the existing population that used to be living in very derelict situations and conditions. Their plan has tried to integrate these individuals into the new employment structure and to a certain extent, after 15 years, the existing population has not left this part of the city.

Mexico City, Mexico

Mexico City, Mexico

It is also a success because the plan had a vision to change the way people move inside the historic core. Now there are more pedestrian-friendly areas and streets. This has recovered spaces for people — and that’s what urban historic cores are for.

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