The Rise of Latin America’s 6 Largest Cities
Latin America is one of the most built-up and urbanized regions in the world. The expansion of large cities in Latin America is closely tied to the growth and size of the population—leading to incredibly dynamic, competitive, and complex urban hubs.
Why are Large Cities in Latin America Important?
Large cities concentrate wealth, income, and business opportunities. They’re the building blocks of the national economy. If cities grow, a nation moves towards better quality of life for its citizens, and with more activity and urbanization there’s a bigger contribution for future generations. Being aware of the growth of a city makes us realize what’s working and what’s not, and allows us to make better steps to build resilience as well as a better society.
More People, More Impact
Simply put, larger cities mean more people. And the more humans a city has, the more resources it needs like food, water, and land.
What’s more, a large city means there’s more waste being produced, which forces nations to seek sustainable alternatives that use resources responsibly.
An unfortunate consequence of impressive population growth is an increase in gentrification, crime, and the overall lack of security, making fast-growing cities susceptible to significant risks.
Fortunately, many cities in Latin America are rising and progressing towards an urban revolution that aims to reduce this fragility in innovative ways.
Let’s take a look at the 6 largest cities in Latin America that are on the rise.
1. São Paulo, Brazil
São Paulo is not only the largest city of Brazil, but also of South America. The population is close to 22 million and its surface extends to 1,522 square kilometers. The city was founded in 1554 by Portuguese settlers and Jesuit missionaries, whose mission was to convert the indigenous Guainás to catholicism. The location of São Paulo was ideal because of its proximity to the ocean and fertile land.
It became an offical city in 1711, but its unfortunate inception morphed it into a hub of slavery and exploitation of indigenous populations. Gold, sugarcane, and coffee were incredibly important to São Paulo’s economy, which attracted a huge wave of Portuguese, German, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Arab and Chinese immigrants.
It was in São Paulo in 1889 that Brazil was finally declared independent of Portugal.
By the turn of the century, São Paulo became the richest city in the nation thanks to the railroad system and the benefits it received from different industries. Once again, it attracted another wave of immigrants from other parts of the country who were looking for work.
In the 1950s, the city became a leader in the automotive industry, while today it’s the home of influential banks, multinational corporations, and prestigious law firms.
Thanks to its diverse ancestries, São Paulo matured to be one of the most multicultural cities in Latin America. Its importance took to the world stage when the city hosted part of the soccer world cup in 2014, which required a large workforce that attracted approximately 3 million working immigrants in 2010.
Today, the majority of the population is a blend of different ethnicities who are part of the working class. In recent years, São Paulo continues to rise in population thanks to a booming arts culture and an iconic fashion industry.
2. Mexico City, Mexico
The capital of Mexico, whose surface area is 1,495 square kilometers, is the most populous metropolitan area in all of Latin America. The population is close to 23 million people who live in 300 different neighborhoods throughout 16 municipalities.
Mexico City is located in the valley of Tenochtitlan, which was once home to several indigenous groups from the years 100 to 900 A.D.
A mind-blowing fact about Mexico City is that it was initially built over the lake of Texcoco by the Aztecs. They created an artificial island by dumping soil in the lagoon, which is why some present-day neighborhoods of the city are sinking 15 to 20 inches every year!
After the long period of Spanish colonization, Mexico finally gained its independence from Spain in 1821. Meanwhile, American, French, and British forces had their eye on Mexico City but failed to occupy it. Things were looking promising, until the city fell under the control of dictator Porfirio Díaz, who remained in power for 36 years.
After much political turmoil, Mexico City finally achieved stability as the most important financial center that’s essential to the country’s economy.
In 2005, it became the 2nd most populated city in the world. In fact, it’s so large that a 229.4 kilometer-long metro system moves over 1.7 million people around on a daily basis.
In consequence of its massive growth, the city constantly struggles to provide necessary services for citizens. In addition to water shortages and high levels of pollution, approximately 15% of the population lives in poverty. In order to tackle this issue, the city established a no circula (no circulation) program, which regulates the amount of cars allowed to move around every day according to their license plate.
Despite these setbacks, Mexico City holds a great future ahead. It’s one of the cities in Latin America known for its focus on arts and culture and is home to 4 UNESCO world heritage sites like Xochimilco and el Zocalo.
3. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Argentina’s capital was founded in 1536 by Spanish settler Pedro de Mendoza who named the city after the patron saint of sailors—a man said to be responsible for buenos aires (good winds).
During the 17th and 18th century, Buenos Aires grew rapidly because of the amount of trade coming in from the port. The British attempted to invade it in the 1900s but failed. Finally, in 1816, Argentinians who had been campaigning in Buenos Aires achieved their goal of independence from Spain.
In terms of the population’s origins, most can be traced to displaced Italian and Spanish immigrants that arrived in the 19th century after World War I and II. In light of the devastation suffered in Europe, these immigrants fled only to be forced to reside in shanty neighborhoods in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, known as villas.
A prominent event in Buenos Aires was the election of Juan Perón as president in 1946. His strong socialist roots hoisted him and his wife Evita into popularity among society. 30 years later, in 1976, Perón was removed from power and Argentina entered a long-lasting period of military dictatorship. It wasn’t until after the Falklands war that the country returned to a democratic government.
In 2001, Argentina suffered a terrible economic crash that paralysed Buenos Aires, leaving it desperate and plagued with riots and violent protests.
While the effects of the recession are still visible in indicators of poverty, violence, and drug trade, Buenos Aires is finally enjoying some stability. At present-day, the city has a population of 15 million people, divided into 48 neighborhoods in 24 districts. In terms of distribution of the population, 3 million live in the core of the city, but the villas are where the majority of the population lives and continues to grow.
4. Río de Janeiro, Brazil
This former capital of Brazil is also the second largest city in the country and home to 13.5 million people. The first people established in the city were Portuguese rulers in 1502, when the city acquired its name due to the river-like formation in its bay (hence the name “River of January”). French settlers also tried to establish a community in the city but were not successful, to prevent further invasions, the city was moved to a safer location on the hills. At the time, the area was known as “Castle Hill”.
Industry growth related to sugar cane and the discovery of gold and diamonds was the initial reason why Río de Janeiro developed. In 1763, it was declared the capital of Brazil but its economic boom didn’t last too long, as there was huge competition in sugar cane production from other South American countries.
Ultimately, Portuguese rulers made Río de Janeiro their home, which allowed it to thrive under their rule. In 1889, Brazil became independent from Portugal, but it continued to prosper as it became the economic, political, and cultural center of Brazil. The ingredients for Río de Janeiro’s subsequent success included a combination of productive railroads and majestic infrastructure. This allowed Río de Janeiro to grow, northern parts of the city became working-class industrial zones, and the southern outskirts became the home of the city’s elite society.
In 1960, the capital was changed to Brasilia, but Río de Janeiro kept growing with massive skyscrapers, bridges, and highways. As a result of this uncontrolled urbanization, many people—the majority of whom were descendents of African slaves—were forced to live along the slopes around the city where the living conditions are not ideal. Most brazilians who live in favelas have low access to basic services and are overcrowded.
These neighborhoods known as favelas (slums), are a symbol of life in Río, there’s about 1,000 of these and they’re home to 1.5 million people. Favelas are located in the periphery of the city, with hundreds of makeshift houses clumped together. These favelas have rudimentary infrastructure and inadequate sewage systems, acting as hotbed for crime and drug trading.
Ironically, some of these neighborhoods are boosting tourism. It’s no longer only the colorful and vivid Carnaval that attracts travelers, but also the favelas have begun providing local tours of the slums.
Río’s continual rise can be attributed to a decrease in population growth, which has allowed it to restructure several areas.
5. Lima, Perú
Many historians claim that Lima was founded in 1535 by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, but Pre-Inca and Inca civilizations thrived in the area for a thousand years before.
Lima, the capital of Perú, is home to ancient cities and remnants of the Inca period. The city became an essential part of the Spanish empire after they discovered silver in the region, driving them to build colonial mansions and baroque churches within the city. Lima’s industrial utility made it the capital of Spanish-occupied South America.
Later, in 1821, Perú gained its independence and Lima became the country’s capital.
Fast forward to the 1900s, and Lima’s population grew unexpectedly, leading to a rise of bohemian neighborhoods and districts.
Almost a 100 years later, in the 1990s, the people of the city were subject to severe human rights’ violations under the rule of dictator Alberto Fujimori. In 2001 he was convicted of war crimes and imprisoned.
Despite its political instability over the years, Lima’s economic growth is steady enough to make it a financial center of South America.
What’s more, poverty and crime have diminished, opening the city to become a UNESCO world heritage site well-known for its captivating gastronomy.
The city expands 2,672 square kilometers and is home to 10 million Peruvians, making Lima the 3rd most populated city in the Spanish-speaking world.
6. Bogotá, Colombia
Some of the biggest improvements we’ve seen in cities in Latin America is the case of Bogotá. This metropolis, home to 9 million people with a surface of 1,775 square kilometers, is located in central Colombia.
Bogotá’s history dates back to pre-Columbian times, when the indigenous Muisca inhabited its fertile highland basin. In 1538, the Spanish conquered the area, naming it Santa Fé de Bogotá.
The invaders destroyed most Muisca heritage sites and erected Catholic temples in their place.
Initially the city was ruled from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and in 1550 the city’s control passed to Lima, Peru.
In this period, Santa Fe de Bogotá became a prominent city of the Kingdom of Spain, while suffering the effects of severe typhoid and smallpox epidemics. Finally, in 1810, Colombia was declared independent and the city’s name was changed to Bogotá.
In the late 1800s, the first railroads became operational, which granted the city access to ports and led to a century-long expansion that finally came to a halt in the 1940s.
Sadly, in 1948, the assasination of a popular leader led to an uprising known as el Bogotazo’. The city was partially destroyed and 2,500 people died.
Peace was once again disturbed in the 1980s during the guerrilla’s invasion of the palace of justice.
In recent years, Bogotá has recovered stability and provides a favorable climate for business and industry, promoting a large percentage of foreign investments. The city is a contemporary art and cultural center that works hard to improve its economy. We can say that great things lie ahead for the people of Bogotá.
Share Your Thoughts!
I hope this blog post inspires you to view and value mega-cities in a different way. Did you enjoy the list? Don’t forget to leave me a comment about other large cities in Latin America that are also on the rise!
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