Meeting at the Municipal Palace, Lima. Photo: T. Hilde
Latin American cities are famous for their “urban diseases”, such as mass unemployment, overcrowding, water and power shortages, and slums. Does Lima, the capital of Peru, have these problems, too? How is the city government dealing with poverty reduction and infrastructure building? Will the expansion of the metropolitan area put too much pressure on the environment? With these questions in mind, we stepped into the Municipal Palace of Lima and had a discussion with two city officials – one in charge of the BarrioMio Program, whose aim is to improve conditions in Lima’s surrounding shantytowns, and the other in charge of urban planning in Lima.
The two officials first gave a brief introduction of Lima’s population growth: in 1931, Lima had approximately only 450,000 residents – this number grew to 1,800,000 in 1959 and 6,500,000 in 1995. Now, the population is almost 9 million, among whom one million live in shanty towns on the surrounding hills.
The rapid population growth in the city has posed serious problems to the city government. For example, after 2004, building shanties on the hillsides was no longer legal. However, new immigrants have never stopped such activities. These shanties usually do not have access to power or running water and are mostly far away from the center of the city.
According to the officials, one of the reasons why population growth in this city has been so rapid is that migrants have nowhere to go but Lima. Unlike other Latin American countries, which have at least one more large city in addition to their capitals, Peru has only one city whose population exceeds one million – that is Lima (together with the seaport of Callao, it forms a contiguous urban area known as the Lima Metropolitan Area). In fact, Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru, has a population that is only about one tenth of that of Lima. As a result, when rural residents decide to move into an urban area seeking more opportunities, they come to Lima without considering moving to other cities. As more and more migrants continue to arrive, the city government finds it more and more difficult to tackle the problems caused by population growth.
In addition, the city faces transportation challenges. As the city “had no plan at all in history” (as one of the officials said), the road system of Lima still has a long way to go to be fully effective. For example, as there is no road directly connecting the northeast region of Lima and the north region, people living in the northeast have to travel to the center of Lima first and then go to the north, which is a waste of money and time (think the Metro system of Washington D.C. – if you want to take a train from Silver Spring to Rockville, it will take you almost an hour because the train has to go to downtown DC first, while a bus running directly to Rockville will only take you about 30 minutes).
As introduced by the officials, the Lima city government has already taken some measures to solve these problems. For example, the program of BarrioMio has been set up to provide public services in shantytowns and thus improve the living conditions of new residents. However, the city has neither adequate resources nor the capacity to do a lot of things it intends to do, and “we cannot do that” was the phrase that these two officials reiterated most frequently during our discussion.
To a large extent, this lack of resources and capacity is due to a fragmented government system. The city is roughly equivalent to the Province of Lima, which is subdivided into 43 districts. The Metropolitan Municipality of Lima is the utmost authority of the entire city while each district has its own local government and local political leaders. What makes things worse is that, since Lima is the capital of the country, its urban planning is often contravened by the central government. For example, if the central government wants to build a metro line in Lima, it can do so without coordinating with the city government. This three-tier government system creates high negotiation costs in infrastructure-building programs in Lima and lowers the efficiency of government bureaucracy. Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that one of the officials said that “the most serious problem is that the population in Lima is fragmented and disorganized, and so is the government.”
– Yuanxin Liao