Over-sized capitals (2008-2012)



Urban systems bear the imprint of their foundation and colonial past, but despite common beginnings, everything distinguishes the settlements of the continental mainland from those of the Archipelago. Across the vast expanses of Latin America, the chosen site of the capital city, often in close proximity to that of the ancient pre-Columbian towns, was the plateau, the limit of the terras calientes and terras frias. The ‘umbilical' port was always some distance away. Bogota is particularly centrally located in the interior at some 200 km from the sea, enclosed in a narrow valley. Identical situations are found in Mexico and all the capitals of the isthmus (except Panama). By contrast, the island capitals are ports, including those of the Greater Antilles: a relay or distribution point, organized around a fort, a citadel sited in the far reaches of the natural harbour, for example at San Juan de Puerto Rico or at Castries, Saint Lucia.

Because of their size and population, the islands of the north were able to structure their urban networks, of which the most complete is found in Cuba. Havana, multi-millionaire city, is surrounded by second-order urban centres like Santiago, totalling more than several hundred thousand inhabitants, followed further down the hierarchy by medium-sized and small local towns. Industrialized Puerto Rico demonstrates similarities with Cuba; however its network is more complex, linked as it is to economic development resulting from the protection of the United States. In other countries of the Greater Antilles, the capital city too is largely dominant.

Each of the islands of the Lesser Antilles possesses barely one agglomeration that can house up to 40% of the population as in Barbados. Not surprisingly, rapid outward sprawl has led to extensive satellite urban developments, sometimes surpassing in size the central capital. This is the case in Trinidad with the growth of outlying Chaguaramas today with over 75 000 inhabitants) in relation to Port of Spain. The rest of the territory has a scatter of small towns, each with its cluster of basic services, shops, schools, post office… Everywhere, concentration is the rule, with a macrocephalic pattern imposing itself: the main town absorbs between 25 and 60% of any island's population. Haiti and its capital Port-au-Prince, provides a dramatic example: out of 9.9 million inhabitants, 2.5 to 3 million are concentrated in the capital surrounded by shanty towns. Carrefour, so inaptly named, given that it extends over only two or three km, runs alongside the sea before widening out into a narrow coastal plain towards the west. It expanded in the 1970s since which it has not ceased growing.

Models from elsewhere have shaped the urban agglomerations and the islands. Central urban areas in some cases evoke the great North American metropolis, skyscrapers recalling the ‘Central Business District' (CBD), whilst the elites and middle classes organize their residential space around a multiplicity of villas, each with its ubiquitous swimming pool affirming their social status. In other cases, the central areas are a testament to their colonial past, an urban grid around a central square. Roads follow a simple ring pattern aligned along the coast, or more hierarchical networks which push urban development to the island limits. To varying degrees, port-industrial zones are found everywhere. The urban is inexorably all encroaching, but it is an urban without much urban sophistication.



Author: Monique Bégot
Translation:  : Louis Shurmer-Smith