North America is such an amazing continent. I just came back from Mexico, which is always an wonderful experience, and it always amazes me how much variety there is on one continent. Mega cities, ancient ruins, some of the most beautiful rolling hillside towns filled with Spanish architecture. You can go from tundra to tropics. Most of it is just half a day of traveling away, and very affordable compared to Europe. We are on a lucky continent. You’re forbidden from generalizing North American urbanism without visiting a least a few of the places on the Pueblo Mágico list.
When I first visited Mexico, it shocked me how much inequality there was between the rich and the poor. Mexico City is up there among the most beautiful cities in the world…
..while just half an hour away you find the sides of mountains covered in shanties.
This shocked me at first, because coming from a wealthy country, it's unfathomable to us that there are people living in one room shacks often without running water or power. It also shocked me at first how beautiful and well kept their cities cores were, especially those from the Spanish colonial era.
Because there is such a huge visible difference, it makes it easy to see where the wealth is. You can see the productivity of cities at play, both as a means to create and attract wealth, but also as a means to enjoy the collective wealth of a community, which is especially important in a poorer country.
I cannot help but theorize how these places were built over time. In countries like United States, Canada, and Australia, historically, when we built a city, we purchased the land first, laid out a master street plan which subdivided the land into blocks and lots, and sold off each lot to individuals to develop. In the modern day, we have developers building entire subdivisions all at once complete with paved streets and utilities.
But, in Mexico, as well as much of the world in less regulated times, many of these places grew much more organically. I have had multiple people tell me that out on the edges of town or in the poor rural villages of Mexico, people that could not afford to live in the cities would come out here, find a vacant parcel of land, and build a house.
Perhaps they do not legally own the land, I don't know the specifics of land tenure in Mexico. But, in any case, this seems like the most common living arrangement outside and on the edge of cities that even if it were illegal, the government leaves them alone. After all, you must live somewhere, and where do you go if you can't afford to buy or rent? I even saw many of these homes grow their own food, so you could be pretty self sustainable if you wanted.
I think a lot of us would consider these 'slums' that needed to be demolished. But if you were to demolish these, where would these people go? Crammed into community suppressing towers-in-a-park? Even a ridiculously cheap trailer park is unaffordable if you have absolutely nothing. If we want to get rid of these ‘slums’ (I really hate to use that world, because these are people's homes), we should focus on labor laws and economic opportunities to reduce poverty, rather than outlawing anything that the elite find undesirable.
When you drive through these communities, which you will likely do as a tourist in Mexico on the way from A to B, you will notice that many of these communities will have the odd nice house. Instead of bare cement, it will be stucco with glass windows and a tile court yard. It seems as if when these villages grow, so do the economic opportunities that come when labor and wealth gets concentrated together.
With this collective wealth and the gains that come from concentrating it comes the ability to afford things that they previously couldn't, like paved streets.
Where the wealth is more concentrated, the nicer the amenities become, because the community can afford better streets, shops, schools, parks, police protection, etc. I think most people will want to live in the nicest area that they can afford, and so the areas of town where the wealth is concentrated and can afford the best amenities will be the most desirable area and where land is the most expensive. That attracts wealthier citizens, and the wealthier citizens build nicer stuff.
This is just a theory and I am not claiming that it is right, but it explains to me why there is such a huge contrast between the beautiful city centers and the very poor areas along the outskirts of towns that you see in Mexico. Especially in poor countries, it is easy to see that cities are productive platforms for generating wealth. There are so many productive gains that come from concentrating our wealth rather than spreading it thin.
There were also some American style suburbs complete with American chain stores, Starbucks drive throughs, and Home Depots. It will be interesting to see how these hold up in a century or so when the wealthy move to the next shiny and new project and several generations of maintenance bills on all of the infrastructure holding the place together come due. Meanwhile, these incrementally built cities will continue to grow and thrive, and will stand for the next 500 years as they were for the last 500.
If you have not been to Mexico yet, I really encourage you to go, because it is such a fascinating country.