Building Planned, Sustainable Cities: A Challenge for LatAm and the Caribbean

Improved planning of cities could make for a better standard of living, lower environmental impact and more security, according to Uruguayan architect Martín Gómez

Photo: Estudio Gómez Platero
December 30, 2021 | 02:19 PM

Bloomberg Línea — Latin America and the Caribbean is one of the world’s most urbanized regions, with 82% of its population living in cities and more than one-third in cities with more than one million inhabitants, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

Research by the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia reveals that the population concentration in Latin America’s largest cities has shown a sustained increase, from 56.7% in 1970 to 81.5% in 2020, and which has generated pressure for land occupation for housing.

In this context, according to the study, both the governmental and real estate sector reaction has shown signs of “an incapacity to respond to the sustained growth of the housing deficit”, and which has led to informal and unplanned urbanization, creating corporate-only or residential-only spaces that lead to insecurity or displacement.

According to ECLAC, cities with a high population density are the drivers of national economies, but they also generate 60% of a country’s greenhouse gas emissions, which deteriorates the social and environmental conditions of their inhabitants. That is why experts agree that the future for cities must be sustainability and planning, in a bid to order growth, reduce the negative effects on the environment and improve the living standards of citizens.


The most recent Sustainable Cities Index, published in 2018 by Netherlands-headquartered global consultancy firm Arcadis, and which analyzes which are the 100 most sustainable cities in the world, reveals that the largest percentage are located in Europe, North America and Asia, while the list only includes six cities in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The study takes 32 factors into account, among them transportation infrastructure, per capita income, connectivity, green areas, the cost of living and energy efficiency, with the aim of evaluating the environmental, economic and social sustainability of cities. In the region, Chile’s capital Santiago is in 71st place as the most sustainable city in Latin America, followed by São Paulo (in 79th place), Buenos Aires (80th), Rio de Janeiro (82nd), Lima (83rd) and Mexico City (84th).

The United Nations (UN) has affirmed that urban planning contributes to “high productivity, competitiveness, innovation, full and productive employment, disaster risk reduction and the sustainable use of the land and resources during urban development. Furthermore, it has pointed out that such planning helps to “impede land speculation, promote secure land ownership and manage the contraction of urban areas”.


Bloomberg Línea spoke to Uruguayan architect Martín Gómez, director of the firm Estudio Gómez Platero, which has a presence from Mexico to Argentina, to understand the concept of planned and sustainable cities, and the challenges Latin America faces in developing them.

Gómez is currently developing three planned cities in the region, in Colonia, Uruguay, another between the cities of Manta, Jaramijó and Montecristi, in Ecuador, and a third on the outskirts of Guatemala City.

This is what he told us:

‘15-minute Cities’

Martín Gómez: The cities of the 21st century should have the ‘15-minute’ concept, meaning polycentric cities where we are 15 minutes from all our needs; work, places of study, social activities and public spaces, among other amenities.


It is absolutely inconceivable from the point of view of sustainability what happens today in some Latin American cities, that people spend an hour and a half or more in public or private transport to reach their workplace. I think that, from the point of view of quality of life, and above all from the point of view of sustainability, it is exactly the opposite of where we need to be going.

The sustainable city is one that, as well as having everything to hand, should be entirely mixed-use. We don’t want homogeneous cities, but rather cities in which there are artificial ‘accents’ in architecture, but also natural ‘accents’, where nature takes a starring role. In those cases there is a synergy between the artificial and the natural, which at the end of the day is what we all look for, green public spaces to generate social relations that we have so missed during the pandemic.

Irregular spaces are important, and not square blocks, and any of which should be able to be crossed through parks, right across the neighborhood. They should be completely dynamic and mixed so that there are all kinds of uses, from multi-family residential complexes to some with greater density, such as 30-floor buildings, all of mixed-use, where we never have a purely residential or a purely corporate building, but rather where each building has commercial areas, and with hotels nearby, where all that diversity of uses creates synergies.


How Should Such Cities Be Developed?

Martín Gómez: Firstly, they should be polycentric cities, not with just one center, but in which each nucleus has a center where we can find everything we are looking for. Then we want the nature that we find in each of those spaces to be maintained and for people to respect it, so that we generate completely sustainable cities that are friendly to the environment.

The respective government support is always necessary. Although investment comes from the private sector, government support is key because it is the government that authorizes these actions, and it’s therefore very important that governments are completely in line with these new cities of the 21st century with those hyper-mixed characteristics so that they cover all kinds of uses.

Foto: Estudio Gómez Platerodfd

The Challenges for Latin America

Martín Gómez: The great challenge for Latin America is how to fix existing cities that today have centers that are suffering major degradation because people are leaving. They are centers that have been left to corporate offices, and after 6pm they empty, leaving room for all kinds of crime and insecurity.

Governments have to play a fundamental role to achieve mixed-use for those city centers. The only way is to impose an aggressive tax exemption plan so that developers will want to create mixed-use projects in those city centers.


The big challenge will be how we can regenerate cities and awaken the interest of developers and governments toward that goal.

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