A curious phenomenon is happening in many corners of Latin America: Countries are crumbling, yet some of their big cities are blooming.
Several major cities, including Bogotá, Lima, Quito and Guayaquil, are undergoing major renovations. Today, they have more public parks, tree-lined avenues, restored historical sites and better public transportation than at any time in recent memory.
Are they just making cosmetic changes in their most visible areas? Or are their mayors better administrators than their countries´ presidents?
During a visit to Guayaquil, a city I remembered as one of the ugliest in Latin America, I was surprised to see a brand new two-mile-long riverside promenade with museums, concert places, restaurants and shopping malls. The city is not Paris, Madrid or Buenos Aires, but it´s a far cry from what it was 10 years ago.
The $80 million riverside complex, known as the Malecón del Río Guayas, recently hosted an exhibit of Rembrandt prints, and is preparing for a show by famed Colombian painter Fernando Botero. It also hosts free jazz and classical music concerts every weekend.
In the nearby downtown area, construction crews are turning the main 9 de Octubre Street into a pedestrian walk that is expected to inject new blood into the long abandoned city center. The city´s renovation began about 10 years ago, when Guayaquil privatized most of its city services, reduced its bureaucracy and improved its tax collection methods, officials say.
´´There is an urban renaissance that has dramatically changed people´s attitude toward the city,´´ says Joseph Garzozi, Guayaquil´s tourism director. ``People now feel proud of their city. You don´t see them littering the streets anymore.´´
In Bogotá, the Colombian capital, recent mayors have turned the city into what international urban development experts cite as Latin America´s biggest success story over the past decade.
Bogotá´s new mass transportation system, made up of buses running in exclusive lanes, has cut the average commuting time for 750,000 people from 1 ½ hours to about 40 minutes. The city has also built dozens of miles of bicycle and running lanes, expanded major parks, and created four mega-libraries in poverty-stricken areas.
In addition, Bogotá´s homicide rate has been cut by half over the past seven years, while violent crime has soared in the rest of the country. And the city´s free elementary school graduation rate has increased from 72 percent to 98 percent over the past 10 years, according to United Nations estimates.
´´We´re using Bogotá as a model of local governance,´´ says Juan Manuel Salazar, a United Nations Development Program expert who is organizing a region-wide urban development conference in that city Dec. 4. ``Bogotá has made tremendous progress, thanks to a partnership of the past four mayors, business groups, universities and the media.´´
While most of Latin America´s biggest cities, including Sao Paulo, Mexico City and Buenos Aires, are plagued by record crime rates, many experts see encouraging trends in the region´s urban development.
First, the massive influx of people from the countryside to the cities in recent decades is slowing down, which is allowing some cities to focus their energies on building affordable homes and refurbishing public spaces.
While the population growth rate of Latin American cities was 3 percent annually in the ´60s, it has slowed down to about 1.6 percent, according to Inter-American Development Bank estimates.
Nowadays, about 70 percent of the region´s population lives in urban areas.
Second, Latin American cities are increasingly managing their own resources, and doing it much better than central states.
Provinces and cities in the region are managing about 15 percent of Latin America´s public spending, up from about 7 percent 15 years ago, according to IDB estimates.
In most rich countries, about 35 percent of public spending is managed at the local level, where managers are closer to their projects and are better scrutinized by their communities.
´´If a tourist returned after 10 years of absence to many Latin American cities, chances are he would find them with better public services, more green spaces and more amenities,´´ says Eduardo Rojas, the IDB´s top urban development expert. ``This trend is likely to continue, as successful experiences are spread to other cities.´´
It may be way too soon to proclaim a renaissance of Latin American cities, especially when poverty is growing in most places and street crime continues to be a big problem. But the fact that some cities are changing for the better is something to be celebrated, and emulated by those who still act as if nothing could be done.