Locating displacement in Latin American urbanism


Georgia Alexandri*, Sara González** and Stuart Hodkinson***


* Spain. Juan de la Cierva Post-doctoral researcher, departamento de Ciencia Política y Relaciones Internacionales, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Contested Cities node Madrid.

** England. Associate Professor, School of Geography, University of Leeds, Contested Cities node Leeds.

*** England. Associate Professor, School of Geography, University of Leeds, Contested Cities node Leeds.


The global political economy of the twenty-first century is everywhere confronted with "the emergence of new logics of expulsion"1. These logics range from the expulsion of low-income or unemployed workers from secure jobs and collectivist welfare support in the West2; the displacement of farming communities in the global south through land grabs by foreign governments and corporations seeking to speculatively profit from industrial crop production3; and the forcible eviction of people from their homes –whether rented, owned or occupied– which is on the rise across the world4. Latin America is, of course, no stranger to the logics of expulsion, its history replete with episodes of violent dislocation and dispossession of indigenous populations that were the sine qua non of European colonisation and post-colonial capitalist development5.Over the past three decades, however, Latin American cities have experienced their own new logics of expulsion imbricated in the restructuring of urban space. In contrast to previous eras when urban transformation in Latin America mainly took the form of expansion or urban sprawl to the suburban periphery in a centrifugal fashion6, a series of urban political and economic processes associated with gentrification have reasserted the role of historic centres amid a wider socio-spatial re-articulation across central, semi-peripheral or peri-central areas7.

While acknowledging the contested nature of gentrification both as a concept and empirical reality in Latin American debates, we follow Clark’s8 broad definition of a class-based process of "change in the population of land-users such that the new users are of a higher socio-economic status than the previous users, together with an associated change in the built environment through a reinvestment in fixed capital". Or, to put it another way, in the words of the late Neil Smith, gentrification is "a vehicle for transforming whole areas into new landscape complexes that pioneer a comprehensive class-inflected urban remake (…) whole new complexes of recreation, consumption, production, and pleasure, as well as residence(…) [that] weaves global financial markets together with large- and medium-sized real-estate developers, local merchants, and property agents with brand-name retailers, all lubricated by city and local governments for whom beneficent social outcomes are now assumed to derive from the market rather than from its regulation"9.Gentrification can therefore also involve vacant as well as occupied land –because these processes often take place over a long period– but always involves displacement and dispossession in some shape or form10.

Understanding the rise of gentrification and displacement in Latin American cities is impossible without an appreciation of how ‘planetary neoliberalism’11 has taken hold here. Over time, and notwithstanding more recent leftward shifts, Latin American governments have rolled back citizen’s protections from market forces and rolled out privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation reforms, often imposed under the wider architecture of IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs that tied aid and debt deals to the globalisation project12. At the urban scale, neoliberalism has unfurled a ‘creative destructive’ process to reclaim cities as central sites for financial capital accumulation and elite consumption through promoting privatisation and marketisation of public services and infrastructure, gated mega-development projects and the deliberate urban peripheralisation of public housing schemes and the destructive race-to-the-bottom dynamics of global inter-urban competition for jobs and investment13. These "new urban enclosures"14 are orchestrated by a variety of neoliberal urban policy recipes, travelling around the world through different means of policy mobility15. In this context, gentrification-led restructuring of Latin American cities has to be seen as part of planetary neoliberalism’s urban endgame – to build the city of monopoly rent capture for an increasingly global landlord class16. The result is the ongoing commodification of public space and the creation of new, exclusive urban spaces of elite consumption in which those surplus populations with insufficient market value – either as workers or consumers – are to be expelled by stealth or force. Gentrification thus generates new patterns of socio-spatial segregation in already highly unequal societies, as groups re-cluster based on their income, as well as social identity17.

Displacement in cities of can be initiated in various ways and take varying forms. It may be direct, i.e. imposed on households through violent means of evictions and foreclosures; or indirect, linked to broader economic and social forces that cause displacement such as neighbourhood change18. It may take an exclusionary form, i.e.by preventing poorer households to move into homes in areas promoted to gentrifiers or made empty for speculative abandonment from last-resident or chain displacement within the area19. Displacement may be driven by mega-development projects promoting gentrification in erasing whole towns and villages from the world map20 or by military projects to serve place pacification also in the interests of gentrification21. Displacement can also be the outcome of global urban actors, such as hedge funds that buy distressed assets, repossess homes and displace households while driving up rents and local house prices22; or global cultural actors (e.g. UNESCO, United Nations) that in collaboration with national and supranational governments (e.g. the EU) list city centres or urban cultures as architecturally valuable or international heritage sites, creating rent gaps that in turn displace the local population. In each case, the violent logic of dispossession seeks to further reassert space and impose a better off subject23. The act of displacement equates to a social injustice that encumbers certain groups from the right to stay put, from the actual right to the city24, while at the same time re-writes the history of place, eradicating the voices of economic and political vulnerability, imposing the spatial order of the capital and the ruling classes.

In important respects, therefore, these logics of displacement under the neoliberalisation of Latin American cities are nothing new – they are in fact immanent to capitalist urbanism and the periodic restructuring of cities so lucidly narrated by Engels in his polemic on The Housing Question more than 140 years ago25.But just as gentrification has been theoretically developed26 epistemologically questioned27 and geographically nuanced over time28, so too must our understanding of displacement when utilized in the Latin American context. This special issue responds to this agenda by specifically focusing on the relationship between urban transformation, gentrification and displacement in different cities of Latin America. By attending to Latin American spatialities, the authors help shed light on the new processes of spatial and social expulsion which arise in the current phase of neoliberalism.

The contributors of this special issue are all members of the Contested_cities network, a collective project of researchers across Latin America and Europe funded by the European Union between 2012 and 2016 whose work has focused on processes of dispossession and displacement, expulsion and gentrification. Our work within this network has aimed at extending and deepening our understanding of gentrification beyond its effects on housing, expanding to also cover other land uses (eg retail, public space) and broader scales (from the street, to the neighbourhood, to the city district and to the whole town), changing social relations; and actually transforming urban living by imposing the capital interests and the aesthetics -shaped by capital- of the upper classes. Our collective research has pushed for a research agenda to specify and politicize the variegation of displacement (expulsion, dispossession, removal, loss of centrality; physical, symbolic, cultural, economic, psychological) and emphasise its interconnection to gentrification. If displacement is conceptualised as a focal point of analysis, then it serves as a chief analytical tool to further politicise anti-gentrification gestures in Latin American cities. In fact in our work we have stressed the importance of paying more attention to the variety of forms of resistance to gentrification and displacement that take place every day in Latin American cities29.

Adhering to this call, this special issue aims to bring together the knowledge, concepts, theories, and evidence on displacement that already exists in various disciplines, places and languages. The first two papers by Janoschka, Blanco and Apaolaza offer theoretical conceptualisations over the violence of displacement and the various, often hidden, forms it takes in Latin American cities. We can distinguish at least four analytical threads here: the symbolic violence related to the re-appropriation of the cultural and architectural heritage; violence in the expulsion of informal activities that serve to ‘clean and sanitize’ the city and formalize control over the new forms of urbanity that emerge; the violence of the role of different forms of capital (real estate, commercial, symbolic) in urban reconfiguration, an active and decisive role played by investment processes of real estate assets; and the role of government in preparing the ground for and execute the movement, especially when it comes to violence arising from the re-structuring of the housing market. This theoretical approach is further supported by empirical evidence on dispossession, offered by the following two case-study papers on displacement in Mexico City and gentrification in Quito. The third part of the special issue links to the ideological realm – how policy discourses (speeches, materials, laws, tools) are constructed and mobilised, including from elsewhere through policy mobilities, to legitimize practices of displacement by various stakeholders (State, social organizations, private actors) and also the legitimacy of people’s right to stay put.

As Michael Janoschka indicates in the first chapter of this issue, displacement is linked to state policies or strategic disregards that emphasise spatial dispossession. Gentrification implications of cultural, symbolic, economic, psychological and political displacement pinpoint to the major challenges posed for future spatial configuration and social justice in Latin American cities. His pioneering conceptualisation of displacement through the lenses of cultural, symbolic, economic and political and psychological sphere requires a broader encompassing of the political economy of gentrification and displacement, as well as the reference to pronounced interconnectedness of the various forms of displacements.

The second paper of this special issue offers a comprehensive survey of the way in which the concept of displacement is used across the human geography discipline. The work of Jorge Blanco and Ricardo Apaolaza shows the broad meaning that the term displacement can take in Spanish speaking research from voluntary migration and transport mobility to forceful displacement in urban and rural settings. Their aim is to situate the concept of gentrification within this broad research field and show how gentrification creates new forms of displacement triggered by what they call "unjust usurpation of urban centralities".

In the third paper, Victor Delgadillo, elaborates with the various processes of gentrification, critically reflecting on the policies that produced exclusive zones for the middle and the upper classes in the city of Mexico. Interestingly he shows how sustainable state urban policies such as densification and re-urbanisation to curb decades of urban sprawl have led to profound residential changes in central areas, which are becoming unaffordable for many residents. State policies therefore, implemented strategically through time, had multiple rationales: the satisfaction the elites’ interests; the creation of space for real estate profits; the expansion of gentrification frontier through sustainable policies of the compact city; and the expulsion of the vulnerable population towards the periphery.

In the fourth paper of this special issue, Marc Martí, Gustavo Durán and Alejandra Marulanda present an innovative method to study urban transformation processes in Quito (Ecuador) through the construction of a gentrification index. An important finding is how processes of new peripheral area colonisation are leading to the displacement of previous rural uses and users.

Shifting our attention to the mechanisms of housing privatisation, Walter Imilan, Patricia Olivera and Joe Beswick present a comparative study of neoliberalising housing policies on both sides of the Atlantic (Santiago de Chile, Mexico City and London). Neoliberal deregulation eventually reshaped housing policies, providing incentives for homeownership. This long-term housing strategy, evolved into expulsion of the vulnerable populations from the city centre, and recreation of centrality for the affluent classes.

The following paper elaborates with an in depth historiography of the variegated forms of displacement of the urban poor in the last 40 years Buenos Aires. Felipe Ignacio Ochsenius Recabarren, Maria Carman, Vanina Lekerman and Marina Wertheimer give a detailed account of policies ranging from direct expulsion of thousands of villeros (informal urban dwellers), to "pedagogical" and symbolic evictions to tolerance towards informal housing and incremental erosion of social housing.

The last contribution of this special issue calls for a planetary conceptualisation of gentrification linking the various geographies of displacement and gentrification. Ernesto López, building on the argument of Brenner and Schmid30 on planetary urbanism, claims that the theory of gentrification is a useful tool to understand unevenness at a planetary level. Planetary gentrification exposes the increased aggressiveness of the political and financial power of neoliberalism.

The papers in this special issue make fundamental analytical and methodological innovations towards the study of urban transformation processes in Latin American cities but they also raise questions about limitations and point towards future research agendas. Conceptually, authors in this special issue use different conceptions of the term displacement and its relationship to gentrification. Martí et al, for example, identify gentrification without displacement in Quito while Janoschka understands displacement as inherent to gentrification. Methodologically, there is also tension between case study-led research and contributions that aim to have global reach. City specific studies such as those on Quito, Mexico City and Buenos Aires present difficulties when it comes to generate theoretical learnings. More work could be done, for example, to understand whether events such as the "pedagogical evictions" in Buenos Aires are taking place in other cities or whether the gentrification index for Quito is applicable elsewhere. At the other extreme, concepts such as "planetary gentrifications" advanced by López-Morales can obfuscate the specific historical, political, economic, social and urban context of the variegated nature of gentrification. Within the Contested Cities network we have tried to balance these tensions by developing a comparativist agenda such as that advanced in this special issue by Janoschka and Imilan et al, which is still emerging.

Gentrification is an unjust social praxis that imposes the interests of capital, the elites and the ruling classes in space. In the case of Latin America, the different temporalities and velocities of gentrification indicate the various rhythms of dispossession. The end result is the creation of homogenous and hygienic gentrified spaces, cleansed from any kind of diversity that does not collide with the middle classes dispositions. The other side of the story again remains the dispossession of the poor and the vulnerable population and its expulsion to the periphery of the city. This kind of dynamic segregation and the practice of making invisible of the vulnerable social classes does not necessarily make space a better place. On the contrary, the encouragement of unjust spatial practices creates new dynamics of implosion or explosion to be confronted by the gentrified city.



1Sassen, 2014, p. 1.

2 Andreß and Lohmann, 2008.

3 Hall, 2013.

4 Kothari, 2015.

5 For example, see Cabrera Pacheco, in press.

6 Herzog, 2015.

7 Hidalgo and Janoschka, 2014.

8 Clark, 2005, p. 258.

9 Smith, 2002, p. 443.

10 Slater, 2009.

11 Drainville, 2004, p. 6.

12 Perreault and Martin, 2005.

13 See Janoschka, Sequera and Salinas, 2014.

14 Hodkinson, 2012.

15 González, 2010.

16 Charnock, Purcell and Ribera-Fumaz, 2014.

17 Atkinson, 2006.

18 Ibíd.

19 For a detailed elaboration see Marcuse, 1985; Slater 2009.

20 Lees, Shin y López, 2016.

21 Janoschka, Sequera and Salinas, 2014.

22 Beswick, Alexandri, Byrne, Vives-Miró, Fields, Hodkinson and Janoschka, 2016; Hyra, 2015.

23 Butler and Athanasiou, 2013.

24 Janoschka and Sequera, 2016.

25 Engels, 1997.

26 Smith, 2002.

27 See Sabatini, Sarella and Vásquez, 2008.

28 Lees, Shin y López, 2016.

29 González, 2016.

30 Brenner and Schmid, 2015.



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