Vaughn Robert Pickell and Dr. Samuel M. Otterstrom, Geography
When the European explorers came to America they brought with them their pattern of city design. Jorge Hardoy (1982) asserts that the Spanish “built cities that in layout, architectural styles, technology, land-use patterns and even in criteria used to select the location of the new settlements” was just as they had done in Europe (24). As part of their European tradition, the conquistadors believed that God should be the focus of all good society, and therefore built the local Catholic church in the center of the newly established city. Regardless of the size of the local population, a church would always be constructed at the center of town. Directly in front of the edifice a park would be established for recreational use. Usually at the other end of the park, away from the church and across the street, the local government buildings would be erected. Today the palacio municipal usually houses such things as the local governor, city engineers, and public utilities.
Despite Spain’s best efforts to superimpose the grid system of cities upon the existing landscape, certain locations did not allow for that kind of structure. Naranjo, Costa Rica is one such case. Located in the mountain peaks north of the Central Valley, it is bound by the physical geography at hand. Different sectors of the town are located on nearby peaks with valleys separating each; it is almost as if they are separate towns, but these barrios are too closely situated to be considered thus. Also, there is but one church for the whole area and one park (with amazing trimmed shrubs), directly in front, which is consistent with the traditional model.
Similarly, the city of Puntarenas on the Atlantic coast does not fit the traditional model precisely. Located on a peninsula, the city is bound by water on three sides. The local Catholic church does lie at the heart of the city, but the usual park that would normally occupy the space directly in front of the church is not there. I hypothesize that the abundant beaches fulfill the recreational requirement and a central park is not needed. An efficient and accurate test of this hypothesis is still lacking.
Cities are complex; they consist of many systems and subsystems. Oscar Yujnovsky (1975) pointed out that “when they maintain a certain constancy of their components and interrelationships over time, they are defined as structures.” While the urban system may change quantitatively over a certain period of time, structural change implies qualitative transformation of the system and its basic characteristics (193).” That is, although cities may grow or dwindle over time, a structural change would require a shift in the dominant activity of a certain sector. For example, an area of the city traditionally classified as residential may change to a more commercial use in a booming economy, replacing houses and apartments with shops and delicatessens.
With the vast majority of Latin Americans now living in cities (usually75-95% of the national population), many of the larger cities have undergone this kind of structural change to varying degrees. Still present are the once dominant large Catholic churches at the center of the city, juxtaposed with a arboreal city park. In the capital city of San José, Costa Rica, however, the much larger buildings nearby have dwarfed the church. The larger buildings are occupied by banking companies and other businesses. The main gubernatorial buildings are not located near the church or park, but are near a freeway interchange at the edge of the city.
Until 22 August 1972 there was no official general plan for development or zoning ordinance in Costa Rica. Today in San José, new development must meet certain standards of development. For example, new projects should follow the guidelines set forth in the city’s general plan and zoning ordinance. In this way, designating commercial areas away from the already congested traditional center is effecting a qualitative change in the city’s structure.
The traditional model of Latin American city structure is very useful and applicable. However, there are two major cases in which the model inadequately describes the overall structure: 1) when the cities are bound by physical characteristics of the area, and 2) when the advent of general plans for development and zoning ordinances have begun to designate other areas of the urban environment for specific land uses. I concede a weakness (there are probably many more) to my research: analysis of the cities of one country (Costa Rica) may not be sufficient to generalize about Latin American city structure as a whole. For example, the Portuguese may have had different methods for laying out their cities in Brazil.
- Hardoy, Jorge E. 1982. The building of Latin American cities. In Urbanization in contemporary Latin America: Critical approaches to the analysis of urban issues, eds. Alan Gilbert, Jorge E. Hardoy, and Ronaldo Ramírez, 19-33. Chichester, New York: J. Wiley.
- Yujnovsky, Oscar. 1975. Urban spatial structure in Latin America. In Urbanization in Latin America: Approaches and issues, ed. Jorge E. Hardoy, 191-219. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press.