The Folly Of Urban Planning In Guatemala City

Guatemala City's “Opportunity District” plan shows the flaws of trying to predict where growth happens

Who should plan how cities grow? This has been a long-time debate among urbanists. One strategy is to have market forces dictate growth; people gravitate to and build cities based on economic need, meaning millions of individuals add in their own way to the city’s organic, bottom-up evolution. The alternative – more popular today – is that governments plan cities from the top down, laying infrastructure, zoning land, and even dictating an economic vision. I recently debated the merits of each model and how they should apply to Guatemala City. 

While visiting there – stop 2 on my 1.5-year, 40-city Global South tour – I was invited to speak at Universidad Francisco Marroquin. The rare university worldwide dedicated to classical liberal studies, UFM had its architecture school students attend a discussion between me and Silvia Garcia, a planner helping with the city’s “Opportunity District” plan. It was fitting given that Guatemala City mirrors larger planning challenges across Latin America, a region better known for emergent rather than planned urbanism. 

Guatemala City, like many other Latin American metros, has grown fast. Because rural living’s so hard there – full of disease and poor water access – the urban share of the population increases, now rising to 52%. This has led planners to manage growth in ways that avoid congestion and sprawl. 

The city’s plan, as explained to the audience by Garcia, a planner for Urbanistica, will be to direct growth in certain areas and keep it from others. City planners aim to establish “opportunity districts” throughout the urban core where development is to be concentrated, creating a “polycentric regional model.” Garcia notes most employers are now concentrated in a “central corridor.” 

“If we review the real estate of the last 10 years…the real estate has been concentrated in traditional areas,” said Garcia, “leaving aside territories with opportunities for transformation” that developers have passed by.

According to Neighbourhood Index, the city’s 35-year master plan, led by the Department of Urban Planning, includes increased mass transit capacity through an aerial tramway (an increasingly common transit method in Latin America) and a rail line. The goal is “to bring people closer to their jobs, leisure and daily services.”

To U.S. urbanists, these changes may sound positive. Density’s often forbidden here and it’s good that LatAm metros like Guatemala City would encourage it. Already, the Opportunity District policy has turned Zona 4 into a vibrant mixed-use area. But this mindset necessarily involves micromanaging where development can go, by centering it around specific nodes. 

The plan’s second angle is to restrict it elsewhere; 40% of the city’s land area will be set aside for preservation as the “Great Green District.” Certain areas that have previously been popular for migrant settlement, such as its many ravines, will be off-limits.

This preservation policy is problematic, as it mirrors “urban containment” regulations broadly used throughout the Western world.

In the U.S. we have “urban growth boundaries” that contain sprawl and its attendant negative externalities, such as congestion and pollution. Along with weakening property rights, they’ve increased housing costs. A 2018 overview found that the Portland, OR, regional boundary “raises house prices somewhat,” noting a 69% land cost increase between 1991 and 1996. In Melbourne, Australia, researchers found the UGB drove up home prices in the urbanized area while decreasing it outside of the boundary – an intuitive outcome of limiting development rights in outer areas. 

The United Kingdom has established such boundaries in England, called “greenbelts,” which cordon off 15% of land area.  The University of Birmingham concludes that while “the evidence is complicated,” greenbelt policy arguably contributes to England’s home shortage. Centre for Cities determined that partially lifting these restrictions would enable construction of more than 2 million units.

Furthermore, these restrictions often increase sprawl, because absent the moderating effects of supply on prices, individuals seeking cheaper prices must move further and further from the core. As I noted when covering the Portland UGB, “rather than foregoing Portland’s job market altogether,” individuals priced out of the metro are “just leapfrogging to even more remote areas,” with some 31,000 people commuting from one far flung suburb to Portland, and trip times to Portland from a city across the state line in Washington growing 300%. It’s easy to envision this happening in Guatemala City: already much of the working class has one-way commute times of 2-4 hours, which would only worsen following plans to cordon off 40% of the city from development.

Growth containment may, in fact, be even worse for Guatemala City than Western ones, because their “sprawl” is different. It often occurs as informal settlements, known through LatAm as barrios populares, wherein poor rural migrants “invade” areas to build semi-stable encampments. While illegal, it’s often done on public preserve and is a way for the poor to have housing near jobs. Guatemala City planners will have a tough time arguing why that land should stay preserved when it can be used for these makeshift but upwardly-mobile communities. 

Relatedly, this arbitrary cordoning of growth stifles a common strength of LatAm cities. Some of the most vibrant communities I’ve seen while touring reflect these barrio populares that emerge without regulation. I warned UFM students that a new general plan with U.S.-style regulations might kill this needed style. Paola Constaninopla, a UFM architecture professor, echoed my point, noting that many of Guatemala City’s most vibrant areas, such as a fruit market just outside Zona 4, grew informally; while some of its most sterile areas, such as Centro Civico, were government-planned. 

This is why Guatemala City should reconsider the very idea of master planning. The argument for a pro-market rather than pro-planning paradigm is that a few dozen people working in a government department can’t know where growth will happen, much less where it should. They don’t have insight into how millions of people want to live, and there’s danger in trying to guess and regulate accordingly. The best way to know these things is allowing an open market for land use and seeing what the people actually do.

Scott Beyer owns Market Urbanism Report and is currently on a 1.5 year research project through the Global South.