Gentrification-Displacement-Dispossession: Key Urban Processes in Latin American Cities*


Michael Janoschka**

** United Kingdom. School of Geography, University of Leeds.


Abstract: This article offers a detailed analysis of key urban processes that have been consolidated in different Latin American cities over the XXI century; they fundamentally consist of a reconquest of central and peri-central areas by real estate capital. The metamorphosis of the consolidated city has become apparent thanks to the regular use of three central terms: gentrification, displacement and dispossession. Through the conceptualization of the notion of displacement as a material, political, symbolic and psychological process, this paper builds a theoretical understanding of the phenomena that lead to the displacement of popular subjectivities from the central and peri-central areas of Latin American cities. Such a premise is used to comparatively analyze the situation of five cities –Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago and Quito– and categorize the different displacement and dispossession processes. This discussion also analyzes the meaning of territorial reconfiguration in relation to spatial injustice and the discourses on the "Right to the City", thus providing a political understanding of the 21st century key urban processes.




One of the main characteristics of the social, political and spatial dynamics that have been consolidated in Latin American cities over the XXI century refers to the recovery of central and peri-central areas. The comparison between this and the previous period –which witnessed an increase in the implementation of neoliberal policies and the transformation of the urban structure as the result of centrifugal expansion in the peripheral areas of the city1– shows that there is a predominance of different material and symbolic features. As in all urban structural processes, the current phenomenon is marked by the modification of accumulation mechanisms. This goes hand-in-hand with the implementation of urban policies intended to attract investment and generate new benefit opportunities through the increase in the value of land –which is usually owned by private real estate agents2.

The metamorphosis of the consolidated city –which has become apparent thanks to real estate activity, the arrival of new groups and their iconography in public space– has winners and losers. This sometimes visible and significant phenomenon implies the displacement, eviction and exclusion of dwellers with low purchasing power since they –and their daily activities– suppose a barrier to the extraction of ground rents. While in this context the terms "gentrification", "displacement" and "dispossession" are increasingly used to refer to these changes3, there are still some important gaps. Such is the case of the conceptual and theoretical understanding of displacement dynamics. It is worth mentioning that despite displacement is inherent to capitalist cities and determines the lives of lower-income people, this structural process has received only limited attention by urban researchers4.

This is why this research aims at providing a detailed understanding of the relationship among gentrification, displacement and dispossession. Such an analysis is divided into three steps; firstly, this paper identifies different conceptual perspectives about displacement that include the symbolic dimensions, the discursive practices and the material-economic and psychological consequences of the (physical and symbolic) violence inflicted during gentrification processes. Then, the article offers a comparativist analysis of five cities –Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago and Quito– in order to categorize the different displacement processes. Finally, there is an analysis of the meaning of territorial reconfiguration within the context of spatial injustice and the discourses on the "Right to the City", thus providing a political understanding of current key urban processes.

The analysis is based on empirical research conducted in the above mentioned cities between 2012 and 2016. Field work involved the implementation of different qualitative methods, interviews with experts, participant observation, thematic derivation, narrative interviews and participatory research-action. Since the cities analyzed are paradigmatic, iconic and divergent examples, it is argued that there is some –incipient– progress in the elaboration of a comparativist understanding of current urban tendencies in Latin America5. This implies an understanding of the comparative empirical experiences as a starting point to elaborate theoretical abstractions and conceptual reflections.


Gentrification, Displacement, Dispossession: An Analytical and Conceptual Framework

Given the availability of empirical evidence, academic debates have confirmed the relevance of using the concept of gentrification to refer to the social, political, economic and territorial reconfiguration of the central and peri-central areas in large Latin American cities. There are a number of case studies that contributed to the development of a "collective" and comprehensive analysis of gentrifying mechanisms6. It has also been acknowledged that gentrification processes may change from one geographic context to another. This is also valid for the aspects that distinguish the ‘Latin American’ gentrification from the that of the Anglophone world. While there were some important debates on the territorial scope of this phenomenon, it is still lacking a systematic conceptual discussion about the displacement and dispossession that gentrification implies for the popular classes.

Gentrification is a process resulting from specific economic and political assemblages that provoke accumulation by dispossession and operates through the displacement and eviction of lower-income families. Regarded as an example of the reconfiguration of class relationship within cities, the displacement occurs by a series of mechanisms and coercive forms of material, political, symbolic or psychological violence. In abstract terms, displacement can be defined as an operation that prevents lower-income groups from finding an adequate place to live, especially when there are groups with higher economic, social and cultural status who are seeking to inhabit in the same space7. This phenomenon explains what happens when external forces, for a variety of reasons8, prevent certain groups from living in a given place. However, what are these forces? How do they operate? How can they be conceptualized in order to explain the relationship between displacement, dispossession and gentrification?

To address these questions, it is worth making a distinction between two notions. On the one hand, there is the proposal developed by Peter Marcuse9, which is based on a statistical analysis of the situation of the real estate market in New York three decades ago. This work defined four analytical categories that explained different displacement mechanisms: (i) direct last-resident displacement; (ii) chain displacement; (iii) exclusionary displacement; and (iv) displacement pressure. While these categories help us to reflect on the displacement of popular classes in Latin American cities, careful attention should be given to some specific aspects: what is being imported is a concept that has only little relationship with local realities and overshadows the changes undergone by public policies since the beginning of the neoliberal experiment. As Marcuse10 pointed out, these changes were difficult to predict back in the early 1980s. Likewise, given the specific nature of gentrification processes in Latin America, it would be incautious to think about displacement by focusing exclusively on the statistical analysis of residential change.

On the other hand, the displacement phenomenon should be addressed in terms of the power relations that define and articulate official discourses; this leads us to think of the role of public policies11. According to García-Herrera et. al.12 "as the state at various scales adopts gentrification as a housing policy […] it has little self-interest in collecting the kind of data that documents the level of displacement", especially because this information may reveal the failure of political discourses. This implies that attention should be given to the methodological limitations of the debates on displacement13. For instance, most of quantitative data is rudimentary in nature and does not allow analysis of concrete neighborhoods or comparisons across time. Some critical reflections may associate this lack of information with a specific type of administrative power that seems to be strategic within the context of urban policies: this may be a specific "governmental technique"14 that is based on omission and transforms the concerns about displacement into a political question.

These two arguments indicate that displacement does not only refer to the involuntary movement of people –which is recorded through statistical methods (direct displacement). It also refers to the social and spatial injustice that impinges the legitimate right of people to the city; especially when it comes to their right to the enjoyment of the benefits of centrality. In this sense displacement is not only inherent to urban capitalist production but also reflects an analytical and political perspective15. The latter can be observed in the discourses of the Latin American academy. In etymological terms, and within the Latin American context16, the term displacement may be referred to as:

(i) a change of place that occurs as the result of greater or lesser external forces such as migration, natural disasters, political or military conflicts, infrastructure and territorial development projects;

(ii) a type of territorial mobility that is mainly associated with transport and daily urban mobility;

(iii) a dispossession process that is caused by abandonment, eradication of informal settlements, "negotiated" eviction or expulsion due to teaching, civilizing or moral purposes.

The analytical framework designed for the study of displacement is mainly associated with the third argument as it seeks to understand the reconfiguration of urban space as "a process of accumulation by dispossession". This concept, developed by David Harvey17 to update the Marxist theory of primitive accumulation, can be considered as a permanent extractive process. If primitive accumulation referred to the reorganization of the capitalist society through the right to private property and the commodification of common goods, natural resources and the workforce, "accumulation by dispossession" is associated with the commodification of the commons –especially those developed and created by popular classes to limit the entrepreneurial attempts to valorize urban space18. According to Sassen19, accumulation by dispossession operates through the expulsion of those who are not required by the market, at the same time as it seeks including the symbolic values and material resources of every space considered as "desired" to the circuits of capital accumulation. Unlike primitive accumulation –which was intended to incorporate the dispossessed into the capitalist relationships of the labor market– the current goal is to expulse deprived individuals from the central areas of the city as their presence may endanger the proper "functioning" of revaluation strategies. For clarity, it is worth mentioning that social cleansing and the "selective modernization"20 of Latin American cities are based on mechanisms associated with a phenomenon regarded as "accumulation by habitat dispossession". This phenomenon is directly related to the five essential dimensions of social reproduction: housing, land, common (such as public space), mobility and the constitution and autonomy of subjects. This perspective allows us to conduct a more detailed analysis of public policies since there is a reduction of Harvey’s excessive focus on capital reproduction. In this sense, it is worth noting that while the State is not a monolithic agent, its actions or omissions contribute to the promotion of capital accumulation and reproduction processes, thus ignoring the legitimate interests of lower-income groups –such a situation should be reflected in the displacement. Likewise, the incorporation of the concept of ‘habitat’ into the accumulation and dispossession dynamics allows us to further explore the spatial (re)appropriation led by low-income people and the subsequent construction of "territories in resistance"21.

The following is a proposal intended to understand displacement as a complex process –attention is also given to its applicability for empirical purposes– and identify four dimensions that may compose this phenomenon:

Displacement as an economic-financial material process: This the most visible kind of displacement as it involves direct expulsion. While determined by a series of factors such as (micro) credits, the financialization of housing or redlining22, this process is based on the application of the traditional economic rationale of real estate markets –investment, purchasing, selling and renting. These are highly segregating, dividing and expulsing factors. The subsequent material displacement can be observed in the (few) statistics available; this kind of displacement also receives the most media and research attention.

Displacement as a political process: Despite its visibility, material displacement would not occur without a political process. This second type of displacement implies providing material, economic and financial urban reconfiguration processes with legal authority, political-administrative procedures, judicial protection and the cooperation of law enforcement agencies to operate properly. In this sense, this process may be regarded as an essential State-led activity since this actor regulates, supervises and steers territorial development. There is also a wide array of interventions, such as the elaboration of specific public policies, tendering procedures for Major Urban Projects, redevelopment programmes, the implementation of planning legislations, policies focused on control, surveillance and securitization, as well as the commodification of public space. However, this includes simultaneously a tolerance for legal violations related to corruption, nepotism and other relations not foreseen in planning laws.

Displacement as a symbolic process: The success of material displacement throughout the history of cities is not only associated with power relations between economic and political actors –either within public or private spheres–, but also with the symbolic aspects that rule the constitution of societies. These processes may resemble the composition of an iceberg as what can be observed is just a small fraction "… of the reality which, although mainly invisible, is composed of a pre-discursive distribution of symbolic structures and configurations. This distribution is essential for the reconfiguration of cities, as it comprises an understanding of the formation and recreation of the society as a holistic process. In this regard, there are micro-politics that are constantly applied, both conscious and unconsciously from different subjective positions that each of the actors occupies. Some parts of the constitution of the symbolic field is related to the major social and political institutions, the State and the media. The rest of this dimension is embedded in the daily lives of people, whether they are entrepreneurs, professionals, consumers, neighbors or inhabitants of a neighborhood. Symbolic processes are closely related to underlying practices of power, which have been denominated by some authors as "coloniality of knowledge"23. This concept addresses that certain practices remain ‘invisible’ within our society, while others get defined as ‘criminal’. At the same time, it canalizes the social admiration towards other practices. As a result, lower-class subjectivities are discursively stigmatized, thus determining the symbolic construction of society and leading to the emergence of a homogeneous urban space that is tailored to the preferences of middle-class individuals –who have the final say on the definition of contemporary spatiality. In other words, the symbolic constitution of society implies that dispossession is related to the dispute over cultural hegemony24, affecting all aspects of daily life.

Displacement as a psychological process: Given the psychological deepness and obscurity in which symbolic displacement operates, it is essential to further address it for empirical exploration. This would help to better address the successful mechanisms that guide displacement as a material and political process. However, such task has only just begun to be developed. Additionally, the process of deciphering the symbolic constitution of society may become increasingly important if it related to the psychological process that displacement implies. Displacement as a psychological process refers to an individual perspective that problematizes the effects that it has on the psychological constitution of individuals. It is closely related to different types of symbolic violence that affect daily life. Considering displacement as a psychological process means also addressing the dislocation and social isolation that take place in a neighborhood because of material, social and political changes, prior to and independently from the material displacement25. Such changes provoke a sense of ‘loss of place’26 and generate multiple alienation amongst inhabitants, stress and serious psychological consequences. The presence of new symbolic markers perpetuate symbolic violence, which is associated to the construction of discursive hegemony by higher-income groups. Each type of neighborhood transformation that cannot be influenced by active or passive methods generates negative feelings, resentment, anger and a sense of injustice, thus damaging the emotional bonds that make up the "spatial capital"27 of individuals or households within a given space. In other words, capital investments and the subsequent material, aesthetic or commercial transformation of neighborhoods generate psychological displacement, even if the households physically stay put.

This categorization allows us to observe the multiple characteristics of displacement. While it is well understood that these notions are practically indissoluble and closely related to each other, this theoretical disaggregation exercise aims at providing providing through a dialectic simulation a much deeper analytical comprehension. Therefore, there is a need to reveal those apparently hidden aspects. They are usually found in political, symbolic and psychological processes and disguise different types of violence of crucial importance for the understanding of the displacement of popular classes from the central and peri-central areas of Latin American cities.


Displacement and Dispossession in Five Latin American Cities; a Tipification

This section aims at exploring empirically the processes of accumulation by habitat dispossession, which have been discussed theoretically thus far. This will take place by applying the previous systematization of displacement in five Latin American cities: Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago de Chile and Quito. This analytical procedure consists in understanding the logics of five types of displacement that generate dispossession. The following process –which highlights, outlines and classifies specific elements– involves a didactic exercise that reduces complexities in order to better understand displacement as a material, political, symbolic and psychological process. However, this section begins with a brief introduction to the spaces on which this empirical analysis is based.


The sites of displacement | Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Quito

The sites of displacement that inspire the subsequent tipification differ in size, location, housing density and social complexity. However, they have experienced widespread territorial reconfigurations, as well as and the resulting displacement of subjectivities associated to popular classes over the last 15 years. In the case of Mexico City, attention is given to the "rescue" of the historic city center –perhaps the most important heritage site in Latin America– and its neighboring market "La Merced", one of the largest markets in Latin America. The analysis of Buenos Aires is focused on three different areas that converge on the valorization of urban space related to the cultural heritage embodied by Tango. These areas are located near the former central market (Abasto) and some areas of San Telmo and La Boca, located in the southern parts of the city. As for Rio de Janeiro, this research analyzed the case of Vila Autódromo –which is a self-constructed community located near the Olympic park. This space can be found in a peri-urban area that is currently being re-developed to attract upper-middle and upper classes; this example provides clues on the logics that operate when the city is transformed as the result of the organization of major sports events. In the case of the metropolitan region of Santiago, Chile, a generic analysis of the spatial reconfiguration processes in central and peri-central areas is offered, with a focus on the situation of the Municipality of Peñalolén. Finally, the case of Quito is focused on Cumbayá and Calderón, two rural counties located in the outskirts of the city that are being transformed as the result of suburbanization. While the first place is characterized for becoming a real estate enclave for higher-income groups; the second area is a popular and informally constructed space that has been drawing the attention of both public and private actors.


Displacement by Dispossession of Architectural Heritage | Mexico City

In Mexico City, displacement can be defined as the "dispossession of architectural heritage". Its key element consists of the valorization of the heritage of the historic city center, which consists of more than 9,000 buildings -1,500 of them listed as historic or artistic heritage28. This implies the intent of displacing low-income households from the area. However, as it is an ongoing process, popular classes still coexist in the area. From a material perspective, this process is associated with the plans of Mexican investor Carlos Slim, who purchased and remodeled a series of hhistorically and symbolically important buildings to serve as educational and cultural institutions, museums, hotels, cafes, restaurants or provide accommodation to students, artists or even politicians, thus displacing previous dwellers29. The second consequence has been the displacement of users from public space; particularly important is the case of street vendors, whose number was estimated at 30,000 at the beginning of the century.30 This phenomenon is currently being reproduced in the neighboring district of La Merced and its market. In this case, informal vendors who operated in adjacent public space have been materially evicted and there have also been attempts to evacuate traders from different areas of the market.

Such a material displacement is closely related to the implementation of policies intended to transform public spaces through security and sanitation measures and the eviction of uses that may hinder the capital return of investment. In this context, the consulting firm owned by former NY Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was commissioned to develop a strategic security plan for the historical center. This initiative involves tight control of public space through (video) surveillance and permanent police presence. Likewise, a series of public policies have been implemented to prevent street vendors from operating in these spaces. This activity was first declared as illegal and then materially evicted through a military-like police operation in October, 200731. It is worth mentioning the role played by the "Historical City Center Trust", which contributed to the reorganization of vehicular traffic, investment in public spaces and the refurbishment of buildings. Then there is the recent situation of the ‘La Merced’ market, which, after decades of neglect and disinvestment is currently undergoing an opaque process of renovation, rehabilitation and investment.

While the material displacement process has been hindered and challenged by the specific reality of neighborhood organization and the historic occupation of space, the dispositive of accumulation by dispossession of architectural heritage has generated some important disputes and uneven spaces. When understood as a symbolic process, displacement implies the necessity of capital to apply subtle and indirect eviction of popular subjectivities from the historic center. This is especially true when there is a potential for the development of tourism and recreational activities for non-resident individuals since they implicate diametrically opposite ways to appropriate space. Therefore, it is possible to identify three types of symbolic violence: (i) violence of hyper-security, which is associated with the control of public spaces; (ii) ethnic and racial violence, which is imposed by the esthetically "superior" preferences of middle and upper classes; and (iii) violence of tourism, which is a highly dispossessing and intangible force –in symbolic and material terms– that has psychological effects as the result of the usurpation of space for tourist purposes at the expense of local residents.


Displacement by Dispossession of Cultural Heritage | Buenos Aires

In Buenos Aires, the observed displacement may be characterized as the dispossession of cultural heritage. Unlike the previous case, this refers to an immaterial heritage, which is the origin of the material process of displacement: Tango, which was inscribed to the list of intangible heritage of the UNESCO in 2009. Although the related dispossession occurs in different spaces and in different moments of the recent urban history, it has in common the expulsion of the most vulnerable dwellers, for instance occupiers of previously abandoned buildings. It is worth noting that the Abasto area was already being promoted back in the 1990s; such an initiative included the renovation of the market, thus becoming the largest shopping center in the city. Additionally, investment in the construction of a hotel, a huge supermarket and apartment blocks with approximately 1,100 flats took place. In parallel to this, tenants of adjacent properties were displaced to peripheral urban areas32. In San Telmo, the process is of a later date and included a commercial reorientation of the neighbourhood, through the mushrooming of cultural institutions, theatres, libraries, restaurants and concert-cafés, all closely related to Tango culture. This process also involved the transformation of the real estate market. Today, San Telmo is the ideal place for the provision of short or mid-term tourism accommodation. Finally, La Boca witnessed the construction of a series of loft apartment buildings in an attempt to attract artists. Likewise, there has been some kind of material violence in the form of forced eviction, such as fire (caused by "officially" unknown and ignored reasons) and other forced relocation33.

The experimented displacement has been orchestrated in a very subtle way as a political process. To some degree, traditional planning methods were applied to guarantee the profit of investments. This is the case in the Abasto area, where legislative changes enabled the new use for the abandoned market, as well as higher buildings in the surrounding area. In San Telmo, this political process focused on municipal renovation plans; as for La Boca, the stimulus came in the form of tax exemptions for cultural-oriented real estate investment in order to attract designers, artists and other processes of gentrification34. These three cases share the valuation of Tango and its intangible heritage. In the case of Abasto there is the economic appropriation of a brand through the marketing of items associated with Tango legend Carlos Gardel35. The strategies designed in the cases of San Telmo and La Boca are directly related to Tango routes such as Caminito (La Boca), which is a focal point for tourist activity. Likewise, it is possible to observe the creation of State-owned cultural institutions intended to promote this emerging transformation and place these disputed spaces on the cultural agenda.

In material terms, there is an ongoing change in the social composition of these three neighborhoods which, though slow, is constantly progressing and permanently displacing dwellers. In symbolic terms, these strategies modified the use of space and contributed to the predominance of tourist-related activities. This process can be referred to as a dispossession of popular culture that involves different displacement processes that are closely related to the capital circuits of valuation and the regulation of subliminal conflicts, thus generating two types of symbolic violence, (i) tourist violence and (ii) cultural violence. The implementation of new aesthetics associated with the external appropriation of cultural heritage can be perceived as a strategy that generates a sense of otherness and symbolic violence as the result of the commodification of (hypothetical) cultural assets of a given population. Such a strategy has reconfigured the public space in material and symbolic terms, thus forcing the partial displacement of popular subjectivities and generating a series of disputes ranging from a psychological and social field to the material and legal terrain.


Displacement by Dispossession of Citizenship Rights | Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro is a unique case where long-term urban reconfiguration is promoted through the expansion of the capitalist markets into spaces of social, economic and territorial organization which were previously structured by alternative accumulative processes. This is also an example of a type of displacement triggered by the dispossession of citizenship rights. In order to better understand the material processes, particular attention should be given to the morphology and social geography of the city, as well as the extraordinarily high income disparity between the rich and the poor. As a material expression of this segregation, it should be taken into account that many favelas are located close to the places with the highest land values of the city, such as some of the "morros" (hills) with beach view36. In central areas, more than 40 percent of the population lives in favelas; this implies that popular culture is a common feature of daily urban life37, which is in contrast with the situation of other cities with different segregation patterns.

The relation between the formal and the informal city is at the very heart of the displacement as a material process. However, it requires a considerable support by public policies which, in the case of Rio de Janeiro, consist in the implementation of major urban renovation projects, extreme security strategies and the organization of international (sports) events; the idea here is to create mechanisms and mitigate a permanent "state of exception"38. These mechanisms involve new models of citizenship and an authoritarian, business-oriented planning regime that deprives favela inhabitants from their citizenship rights and dispossesses in some cases from their right to property. In this context, four interrelated strategies have been implemented: (1) municipal programs for the "regeneration" of favelas (Favela Bairro, Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento and Morar Carioca); (2) selective eviction of favela inhabitants and even entire communities in case that they stand in the way of mega events –as in the case of Aldeia Maracanã and Vila Autódromo; (3) the relocation of dwellers to social housing located in the periphery area of the city (Minha Casa, Minha Vida federal program); and (4) the role of the Pacifying Police Unit, a paramilitary force whose aim is to "eradicate" drug trafficking from favelas –such a task has been carried out since 2008 through the use of extreme violence and the military-like occupation of territory. The establishment of control goes hand in hand with exceptional citizenship regimes, and it has involved serious restrictions to civil rights39. It is worth pointing out that police forces have been repeatedly accused of using severe violence and killing about 1,000 favela dwellers every year40.

All of the above strategies are not exclusively related to political processes but also to symbolic displacement processes since, apart from being subject to material violence, favela dwellers are victims of symbolic and psychological violence. These major social, material and political changes aim at regulating the behavior of the undesired population and relocating them to a materially and symbolically distant space, away from middle and upper classes. In the case of Vila Autódromo, local dwellers –who were legally authorized to use this land– have been accused by authorities of inflicting "visual and esthetic harm"41 to the area, an accusation that symbolically devaluates in public discourse the self-construction as a legitimate way of producing habitat. These arguments are intended to create a symbolically legitimate reason to materially eradicate these groups. This case also reveals the different psychological harassment strategies used by the State to divide families, generate disputes among neighbors and, ultimately, destroy a community that defended its right to inhabit this area. However, there may be some racial motivations behind the implementation of these measures, especially as the application of exceptional regimes of citizenship targets in practical, symbolic and psychological terms the expulsion of inhabitants of only very specific spaces and local communities.


Displacement by Ground Rent Dispossession | Santiago

Santiago de Chile can be defined as a specific example of the return of capital to the central areas of a city, whose dispossession processes may be referred to as displacement of ground rent42. Santiago is an interesting case for a variety of reasons: within only one decade (2002-2012), the city experienced a dramatic transformation of its growth model –from a centrifugal model to an approach that concentrated on the restructuring of the consolidated areas of the city. For instance, the Municipality of Santiago doubled its real estate stock within a ten-year period43 and, since 2006, the 11 central and peri-central municipalities have accounted for three-fifths of construction permits44. A part of this residential development stems from private universities, which have been important actors on the real estate market45. Regarding the mechanisms of displacement, a growing accumulation of the potential ground rent by a small group of large investors has been documented46. In other words, land is monopolized by these investors, thus dispossessing small proprietors –most of them lacking investment capital– of the potential increase in land values. Likewise, a considerable number of tenants have been displaced from central areas as the result of the exponential increase in housing prices.

This process is closely related to public policies, especially when it comes to social housing programs that grant public subsidies for the purchase of land and dwellings. These measures laid the foundations for the commodification of social housing, which is strictly based on the use of economic criteria to determine the place of residence. This model involves the social and spatial reorganization of the metropolitan area and the subsequent displacement of lower-income families to housing developments located in peri-urban areas. The "back-to-the-center" trend is thus an example of how a business-oriented urban planning favors private investment within a liberal economy. The allocation of public subsidies to buy apartments aimed at attracting dwellers with a purchase power that corresponds, amongst others, to new middle-classes or young professional. It contributes to the emancipation of households by creating a specific residential market that is very prominent for the typology of newly constructed apartments47. Likewise, the liberalization of planning procedures and especially the permissive legislation on the maximum altitude of buildings , has been promoting the vast densification of the central areas, with apartment tower rising up to 35 floors. However, the State remains silent when it comes to the suitability of these dwellings in terms of urbanity.

When understood as a symbolic process, displacement depends on the deterioration and abandonment of existent dwellings resulting from the "creative destruction" described above. Capitalist reproduction generates new goods that facilitate efficiently accumulation processes. Likewise, with the support of a State that paradoxically "regulates" the absence of legislative frameworks, densification evolves into an irregular territorial occupation, thus generating symbolic architectural violence. By combining the principle of maximum benefit with minimum investment as an exercise of ultra-neoliberal economies, it is possible to observe the emergence of severe symbolic violence of a kind of urbanism that psychologically affects the population, provoking the displacement of popular subjectivities.


Displacement by the Dispossession of Benefits Obtained from Public Interventions | Quito

Quito is associated with a type of displacement related to the social and organizational changes generated by the adoption of a new Constitution that clearly modified the relationships between capital and society. However, the emergence of new political subjectivities and the expansion of public policies over the last decade do not mean that there has been no displacement process. In this sense, Quito can be classified as an exemplary case of displacement by the dispossession of benefits obtained from public interventions. As for material displacement, the experience of Cumbayá is closely related to suburban expansion through real estate projects that expanded since the country adopted the US dollar as its currency48. These projects are located in former industrial but especially rural areas, provoking a structural territorial reorganization. As a result, new real estate projects mushroomed, mainly in the form of heavily securitized gated communities that do not permit any meaningful social interactions across fences. Additionally, also the commercial infrastructure has undergone a major transformation, with the proliferation of large shopping centers. Both processes involved the material displacement of everyday-life activities in a county previously characterized indigenous and agrarian practices. Therefore, it is possible to observe a direct confrontation between two distinctly different forms of life and subjectivities that have little interaction with each other.

This transformation is the direct consequence of public action; in this sense there are two overlapping phenomena that are essential to understand material displacement. On the one hand there is the agrarian reform, which involved the expropriation of land and the subsequent establishment and formalization of "huasipungos" (an original indigenous land tenure system.) On the other hand, attention should be given to public investment in road infrastructure as part of the construction of a new international airport in the area –which opened in 201249. This scenario generated added value and increased the value of land; however, these benefits are currently being exploited by private real estate companies as the result of the development of private real estate development in the area.

As in previous cases, the situation of Cumbayá also reveals a form of displacement that goes beyond material and political processes and involves symbolic aspects. For instance, there is the confrontation between opposite lifestyles represented by a traditional indigenous community and upper-middle/upper class households who live in gated communities; such a dispute is related also to the symbolic appropriation of space. While the practice of agriculture has reduced drastically in the area, the structural reorientation of the land tenure and use has also political consequences. For instance, the local government, increasingly dominated by the new dwellers, has been successively applying restrictions to traditional uses of both public and private space, prohibiting some substantial ‘ingredients’ of the traditional community celebrations, and drastically reducing permits to grow animals in the municipality. Such a strategy symbolically recomposes the possibility of spatial practices, following clearly the subjectivities of the new upper-class dwellers. Likewise, different initiatives favor the use of private transport, thus affecting the access needs of original dwellers of public transport50. This situation activates a dispositive of dispossession that withdraws the benefits generated by public investment from the original inhabitants to the new investors and dwellers. Additionally, traditional and territorially rooted cultural practices become symbolically ‘devaluated ‘. In other words, the normalizing processes which are generated by this introduction of "modernity" result both into territorial transformation and symbolic violence.


Displacement as Accumulation of Habitat Dispossession – Critical Reflections on the Right to the City

This article has provided thus far a deeper insights into the underlying mechanisms for displacement and the process of accumulation of habitat dispossession by revealing their multifaceted nature according to the paradigmatic experiences of five Latin American cities. It has been possible to corroborate the guiding forces behind displacement processes and understand how they operate in each of the cases under review. For the purposes of this analysis, the differentiation of displacement as material, political, symbolic and psychological processes has proved being useful since it allow us to identify new mechanisms of dispossession that share the intention of extracting those aspects that used to be at the margins of capitalist markets. By understanding the urban accumulation of capital as a spatial form of capitalism intended to discover new spaces and places that still remain free from commodification, the transformation of popular environments and their particular urban morphology is a key objective that should be accomplished. According to the different concepts exposed through this research, the introduction of new market-oriented relationships produces displacement; however, this does not necessarily mean the immediate material eviction from specific places.

Therefore, the analytic lens of accumulation by habitat dispossession allows us to understand the restructuration principles of Latin American cities from a holistic perspective. In this sense, displacement emerges as a central mechanism of dispossession in the course of recent urban reconfiguration through four different dimensions: material, political, symbolic and psychological. Therefore, it is worth stressing that symbolic exclusion and the displacement of popular classes are basic requirements for the achievement of material expulsion. This is closely related to current social hierarchies and ethnic and racial stereotypes and stigmas. Finally, displacement restores and reinforces these hierarchies, as well as thus countering social policies that supposedly intended to reduce the invisible boundaries of class structuration and racism. These operations may be consciously or unconsciously implemented and involve different types of violence. However, they always generate symbolic benefits derived from the accumulation of different forms of capital (symbolic, cultural and economic) by those who are able to define, control and dominate spaces and places51. This argument is directly related to the social reproduction of dominant classes and the discourses that structure possible practices, habitus dispositions and positions within the social sphere. Invisible power relations define the different ways of how displacement is enacted by hiding certain social and cultural practices and criminalizing others. These strategies use symbolic and physical violence to displace undesired individuals and users of specific urban spaces that are essential for the revaluation of space.

However, the informal nature of Latin American cities has also given rise to the emergence of specific terrains for individual and collective support, self-organization and political processes that go beyond the State, thus constructing a type of counter-hegemonic power positions. This led to the internalization of conscious and unconscious practices that may prevent capitalist micro-policies from penetrating all spheres of society, generating alternative and counter-hegemonic ways of producing, living and appropriating the city52. Such a collective organization of solidarity networks has hampered the rapid and easy implementation of displacement policies and enabled the elaboration of alternatives that based on popular organization challenge the key mechanisms of the neoliberal city. While the right to housing has been increasingly satisfied in Latin American cities, displacement and the accumulation by habitat dispossession have seriously compromised the chances of popular classes to appropriate the centrality of cities. The nuanced understanding provided in this article about the interrelationship of the different dimensions of this phenomenon may be considered as the key contribution, chiefly by developing analytical and conceptual perspectives about factors that prevent the Right to the City be transformed from a political discourse into a social practice on the ground.



* This research has been developed in the framework of the project "CONTESTED_CITIES: Contested Spatialities of Urban Neoliberalism", funded by the European Commission (Grant Agreement: FP7-PEOPLE-PIRSES-GA-2012-318944).

1 Mattos, 2001; Janoschka, 2002.

2 Cócola, Durán and Janoschka, 2016.

3 Casgrain and Janoschka, 2013; Inzulza, 2014; Janoschka, Sequera and Salinas, 2014.

4 Desmond, 2012.

5 For further information regarding the contemporary debate on the comparative understanding of urban studies, please refer to McFarlane, 2010; Peck, 2015; Robinson, 2016; Waley, 2016.

6 For further details, please refer to the collective work edited by Hidalgo and Janoschka, 2014; Delgadillo,Díaz and Salinas, 2015; the special issues of Revista Geografía Norte Grande (2014) and Urban Geography (2016); a comprehensive literature review conducted by Janoschka, Sequera and Salinas, 2014 and Janoschka and Sequera, 2016; and research conducted by Betancur, 2014; Blanco, Bosoer and Apaolaza, 2014; Inzulza, 2014; Herzer, Di Virgilio and Rodríguez, 2015.

7 Slater, 2009.

8 Hartmann, Keating and LeGates, 1982.

9 Marcuse, 1985.

10 Marcuse, 2015.

11 Lees, 2012.

12 García, Smith and Mejías, 2007, p. 280.

13 Slater, 2009.

14 Sequera and Janoschka, 2015.

15 Slater, 2009.

16 This classification is based on a literature review conducted by Blanco and Apaolaza, 2016.

17 Harvey, 2004.

18 Gillespie, 2016.

19 Sassen, 2014.

20 Delgadillo, 2016.

21 Zibechi, 2008.

22 This term refers to the statistical geo-referenced mechanisms that influence the granting of loans, regardless of the creditworthiness of borrowing households. For further details see Aalbers, 2013.

23 Santos, 2010.

24 Paton, 2014.

25 Atkinson, 2015.

26 Shaw and Hagemans, 2015; Hodkinson and Essen, 2015.

27 Apaolaza, Blanco, Lerena, López, Lukas y Rivera, 2016.

28 Delgadillo, 2008.

29 Betancur, 2014.

30 Crossa, 2009.

31 Becker and Müller, 2013; Davis, 2013.

32 Carman, 2011; Centner, 2012.

33 Herzer, Di Virgilio and Rodríguez, 2015.

34 Herzer y Gil and de Anso, 2012.

35 Carman, 2006.

36 Godfrey and Arguinzoni, 2012.

37 Vargas, 2013.

38 Sánchez and Broudehoux, 2013.

39 Freeman, 2014.

40 Comitê Popular da Copa e das Olimpíadas do Rio de Janeiro, 2014.

41 Quote taken from a personal interview; EU FICO, available at

42 Term adapted from López Morales, 2001.

43 From 76,000 to 148,850 units; Figueroa, 2013.

44 López, Gasic and Corvalán, 2012.

45 Borsdorf and Hidalgo, 2013.

46 López, 2011.

47 López, 2013.

48 Durán, Martí and Mérida, 2016.

49 Bayón, 2016.

50 Durán, Martí and Mérida, 2016.

51 Janoschka and Sequera, 2016.

52 Zibechi, 2008.



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Received: 08-03-2016
Accepted: 30-09-2016