The Malecón of Havana

The Malecón of Havana

The urban geography of the Caribbean is marked by ongoing growth in the cities, in contrast to population loss in rural areas. More than 65% of the population in the region is classified as “urban.” There is considerable variation in terms of population and urban zones in the region. Countries such as Venezuela, Martinique and the Bahamas have more than 85% of their population living in urban zones while Costa Rica, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Grenada, Guadalupe, Haiti, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia and St. Vincent & the Grenadines still have more than 50% of their populations living in rural areas.

Unlike Europe and North America, the Caribbean and Latin American capitals are the main urban centers in the countries. The capital city’s role as the largest population center is particularly evident in Caracas, the Mexico City Federal District, Panama City, Santo Domingo, Port-au-Prince, the San Juan metropolitan area in Puerto Rico, Bogota C.D., Tegucigalpa, Georgetown, Paramaribo and San Jose. In addition to being the capitals of their respective countries, these cities are also the largest urban centers, making them the main cities.

The Caribbean and Latin American cities, including one of the largest cities in the world (Mexico City), display some specific urban geographic patterns: historic centers established by colonizers, broad avenues leading to the city center, inefficient urban mass transit systems, and greater population and industrial concentration than the rest of the country. The major Caribbean urban centers retain buildings that show British, French, Dutch and Spanish architecture, combined with local elements from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

In the Antilles, the major urban centers are located on large natural bays or the mouths of the major rivers on the islands. Havana, Santo Domingo, Port-au-Prince, Nassau, Kingston, and San Juan, the major Antillean cities, served as military ports that facilitated maritime traffic between Europe, Africa and the Americas. This route was based on the European mercantilist model adopted to move commodities, resources and labor between the three continents during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The Europeans obtained raw materials from the Americas, the African colonies received European products and the Caribbean received labor and European products.

The major cities in the Caribbean regions of Central America and the northern part of South America, such as Mexico City, Bogota and Caracas, are located on extensive agricultural plains within the mountainous regions of their respective countries. The other large urban zones in the Caribbean are located along the navigable coasts. This difference in the locations of urban areas is based on the heterogeneity and diversity of the large Caribbean urban centers.

Large marginal zones influence the urban morphology of the Caribbean and Latin American cities. These are known as colonias in México, asentamientos in Guatemala, barrios or ranchos in Venezuela, arrabales or barriadas in Puerto Rico, precarios or tugurios in Costa Rica, tugurios or invasiones in Colombia, invasiones in Honduras, barriada in Panama and barrios in the Dominican Republic. These are areas located on the periphery of the large cities where thousands of poor families have lived for decades. These neighborhoods are extensive, visible and located on land that is not appropriate for construction, such as flood zones or steep areas that are susceptible to landslides.

In sanitary terms, these areas are not appropriate for habitation, either, because they are often polluted, industrial zones or landfills. These areas have the greatest levels of violence and crime in the Caribbean cities. Many urban areas in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico have been able to eliminate much of these sectors, while other countries, such as Mexico, Venezuela and Panama, have been able to improve conditions by providing infrastructure and services within these areas.

Projections of urban expansion and land use throughout the Caribbean suggest that these marginal areas will continue to grow in the region. Caribbean cities will continue to expand, and many will become extensive metropolitan areas. These zones will, in turn become the geographic centers of the new national and regional economy.

Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: January 09, 2012.

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