Urbanization has become the most important demographic process at a global scale. Since the eighteenth century, until a couple of decades ago, the fundamental concern of demographic topics focused on the supposed dilemma between the growth of the world`s population and the food resources to sustain it. However, while the confines of the growth of the world`s population were discussed at the end of the nineteenth century, the first millionaire cities arose and the urban populations in industrialized countries multiplied vertiginously. Some decades later, in the twentieth century, the same thing began to happen worldwide. Therefore, cities historically imagined in their cartographic representation as small dispersed dots, were becoming complex urban regions that gradually covered more and more territories in the expansion of their horizontal confines.
The growth of the world`s urban population quickly attracted general attention. If we consider that in 1800 only 2% of the world`s population lived in cities, it is overwhelming that today, according to statistics of the United Nations, the urban population constitutes 50%. The world`s urban population is expected to surpass 5,000 million people in the year 2030. The vertiginous growth of the world`s urban population proposes new challenges for organizing territories occupied by humans.
To understand the global dimension of urbanization, it is necessary to know that the pattern of urban growth in industrialized countries differs from most other countries. Industrialization and modernization in industrialized countries have reduced— and in many cases eliminated— the territorial differences between country and city; while, in spite of the growing integration of many poor countries into the new global economy, territorial differences there remain and, in many cases, increase. The result is that in industrialized countries, urbanization can no longer be explained from the high rates of population growth or by country-to-city migration. On the other hand, in poor countries, permanent migratory waves from rural areas, stressed by a quick growth in population, continue to be the fundamental cause for the growth of cities, especially large ones.
A rapid country-to-city migration began on the island in the 1940s, under the influence of the emerging urbanization process. In 1930, only 27% of the population on the island was urban and no more than 200,000 people lived in cities of 10,000 or more inhabitants. In 1950, the urban population in Puerto Rico totaled 566,357 inhabitants, 40% of the total population. In the most recent census in the year 2000, the urban population of the country ascended to 3, 595,521 inhabitants, a surprising rate of urbanization of 94%. With such numbers, one can affirm that the urbanization process has been completed.
In 1950, the quota for the category of settlements between 100,000 to 250,000 inhabitants was 16.2%. At the time, the only city that belonged to that group was San Juan. That reality shows that the country`s population was mostly rural and that the urban population was dispersed in medium and small urban settlements.
Concentrating the population in big cities is usually characteristic of the first phase in the urbanization process, parallel to modernization processes beginning with the transition of agricultural economies, generally primary, toward diversified economies of secondary and tertiary activities.
The 1960 census sustains that the higher percentage values of urban population belong to the most populated cities. Back then, relatively high rates of population growth still prevailed on the island, as well as an intense country-to city migration accompanied by a significant emigration to the U.S., product of the gradual decadence of agricultural production, especially sugarcane, while the economic strategy of industrialization of the Operation Bootstrap program consolidated.
In subsequent decades we notice a clear decline in the demography of large settlements. Medium settlements begin to be noticed when their presence increases gradually in the urban system.
The situation of Trujillo Alto is particularly surprising. During the 1960s and the 1970s, it had no urban population. Thirty years later, it became 100% urbanized, despite the widespread perception that it continued to be a rural area. That transformation is even more remarkable when we examine the rates of urban growth of the municipalities that compose San Juan”s metropolitan nucleus. Although San Juan`s growth was still vertiginous in the 1950s, a marked decline is noticed in its urban growth during subsequent decades, registering an unexpected decrease of -4.16% and -0.1% in the decades of 1970-1980 and 1990-2000, respectively.
The municipality of Trujillo Alto had the highest rate of urban growth in San Juan`s metropolitan nucleus in 2000, at 2.2%, which is far from the colossal growth of previous decades. It is important to highlight that during the decade of 1990-2000, San Juan`s urban growth was -0.1% and this tendency appears to be irreversible. The explanation is that San Juan loses population, while adjacent municipalities keep growing, although they now seem to be coming to a standstill.
The general improvement of the material conditions of existence and the proliferation and coordination of infrastructure, such as road networks, may help explain the sub-urbanization and de-urbanization on the island. These tendencies show the urban population`s growing dispersion consuming more territory with fewer residents per unit area. What has happened is typical of urban regions in the United States, differing only in the territorial scale in which both societies are framed.
The urban growth in Puerto Rico now responds to movements from large cities to medium and smaller ones, meaning that it is an intra- and intercity migration, heading mainly toward the center-periphery. On the other hand, a parallel tendency exists toward de-urbanization, characterized by a city-to-country migration in settlements in which the road network allows such displacements. According to the Planning Board, the municipalities that had the highest population/urban growth rates in the decade of 1990-2000 were: Florida (3.6%), Gurabo (2.5%), Trujillo Alto (2.2%), Las Piedras (2.1%), Cabo Rojo (2.0%), Juncos (1.8%), Morovis and Hatillo (1.7%). This overwhelming data breaks historical patterns (in almost 100 years) regarding Puerto Rico`s population behavior. Interestingly, of the seven municipalities with the highest growth rates, five are settlements in the interior of the island. This represents an unprecedented tendency (in more than fifty years) in which the island`s population stressed its growth character in the urban-coastal dimension. It is also interesting that none of these settlements with high rates of population growth are functionally important in the island`s urban system.
In Rincón and Cabo Rojo the growth rates may be partially distored by second homes or beach houses. In the census of 2000, Cabo Rojo is in fourth places in the amount of empty houses, with 6,068 empty units of a total of 157,151. Only in San Juan, Carolina, Ponce surpassed Cabo Rojo with 18,639, 7,801 and 6, 864 empty houses respectively.
San Juan continues to show the population supremacy in Puerto Rico`s urban system since it continues to almost double the population rate of the second most populated city on the island, Bayamón, with its 224,044 inhabitants.
The 1950 urbanization quota was 39.9%, that is to say, four out of ten people lived in cities. In the 1960s, the capital reaches an urbanization quota of 41.6%. Starting in 1970 it is remarkable that the capital suddenly entered a process of absolute population decentralization. During that decade, the city experiences its first population decrease. It is also the beginning of a decline in demographic supremacy in comparison to its own metropolitan nucleus, and in the island`s urban system.
The tendency toward suburban dispersion has affected the nuclear structure of San Juan`s metropolitan environment. It seems as though San Juan`s supremacy as a city and as a metropolitan mass in Puerto Rico`s urban system will continue to decrease noticeably. According to the data on the most recent census, San Juan`s population in the year 2000 was 434,374, 12% of the county`s urban population. That low proportion makes us conclude that the capital has lost its demographic supremacy in Puerto Rico`s urban system.
The metropolis is, in urban and regional geography, the dominant settlement in an urban system. In most Third World countries, urban systems are usually characterized by capital cities with a high rate of primacy, along with a great functional control of almost all social factors.
The tendencies toward Puerto Rico`s sub and de-urbanization have significantly affected the structure of the island`s urban system; of San Juan`s metropolitan nucleus in particular. Although there has been a strong decentralization and dispersion of the urban population, San Juan`s functional domination as a metropolitan entity continues to be very strong. Suffice it to say that according to the current classification of metropolitan areas of the U.S. Census Bureau, San Juan`s metropolitan area covers a total of 29 municipalities. This implies that 29 municipality have significant financial ties to the capital, since at least 25 % of their work force commutes daily to work in the capital.
When superficially examing recent data on the other two metropolitan area, we discover very similar and complementary patterns. Ponce and Mayaguez are also experiencing a decrease in population and importance in the urban system. Both cities have historically been significant metropolitan areas and the most important after San Juan. Both cities also had population decrease in the 2000, with -0.1% and -0.2% respectivaly, contrary to the constituent municipalities of their metropolitan areas. In the metropolitan area of Ponce the municipalities of Juana Díaz and Villalba had population growth rate of 1.1% and 1.7% respectivaly. In the Mayaguez metropolitan area, Aguada had growth rate 1.6% and Cabo Rojo had one of 2.0%. It is indicative that both cities have a very large amount of empty houses, a typical consequence of the sub-urbanization process.
Sub-urbanization and de-urbanization characterize the current process of urbanization in Puerto Rico. The tendency toward concentrating in large cities, typical of the first phase of urbanization, has had a very short duration on the island. We can calculate the duration of that tendency, in its most intense form, between 1940 and 1970. Undoubtedly, emigration and a general improvement in the existing physical conditions contributed to consolidate some middle layers that began to move toward the suburban periphery in the 1960s, but more intensely in the 1970s, when the capital showed its first decrease. Just as in the United States and Europe, the urban population in Puerto Rico disperses toward medium or small urban settlements, but also toward rural areas.
An enormous double-negative pressure appears in such tendencies. First, it complicates basic services provided by the State and makes new infrastructure elements more expensive. Second, this type of dispersion represents a serious threat to the environmental integrity of the country.
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: January 16, 2008.
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