An Urban Fringe in Central Lima

Matteo Stiglich (también en Español) Low-income people that built their own homes populate the peripheries of most Latin American cities. A large amount of the research on these urban areas focuses on how, amid the state’s neglect, these populations became the main agents of urbanization in their cities through collective organization and auto-construction. Not all of these neighborhoods, however, are geographically located in the peripheries. There are other kinds of urban fringes in which neglected populations in Latin American cities live.

Located just half a mile away from Lima's Historic Center, Margen Izquierda del Río Rímac is a group of low-income neighborhoods that started to grow in the late 1940s. Inhabited originally by working-class people employed in nearby factories, the decline of the industrial center in the area led residents to work in a nearby commercial hub, in services and in recycling. As happens with most of the older settlements in Lima, houses have grown and many of them are now three-stories high, hosting more than one family. Most basic services are covered by collective action, although this varies from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Street in Margen Izquierda del Río Rímac

Besides the economic disadvantages, there are other challenges faced by Margen Izquierda residents. Some houses are in risk of falling into the nearby Rímac River, and landslides occur. Furthermore, a local factory that utilizes asbestos is contaminating the air in the neighborhood. But an even more urgent challenge was posed by the local government when in 2009 it approved, without citizen consultation, a “megaproject” proposed by the Brazilian company Construtora OAS. The project would displace hundreds of families to make room for a privately-operated toll highway called “Línea Amarilla”, connecting the city center and middle-class suburbs to the city of Callao, where the airport and seaport are located, taking advantage of the strategic location of these neighborhoods between the two cities.

The process of decentralization carried out in Peru in the last decade gave local governments more responsibilities without increasing their budgets correspondingly. Instead, new laws made it easier for private corporations to propose specific plans called “private initiatives”. As a consequence, transportation planning in Lima is beginning to be dominated by private projects, of which “Línea Amarilla” will be only the first one. Even when less than 15% of the trips in the city are made by car, most of these projects are directed towards improving private mobility, given that collecting tolls is seen as a more profitable enterprise than building and charging for transit infrastructure.

In response to this threat, local organizations that had not been very active for decades began mobilizing against the project. In 2010, they deployed a variety of strategies: they marched to the city center, collected signatures against the project and, together with national congressmen, they tried to judicially overturn a zoning ordinance that allowed for the project to be carried out. Furthermore, a mayoral candidate for that year’s election visited them, offering to protect their interests.

House in Primero de Mayo neighborhood

In late 2010, a research assistant and I went to talk to local leaders about the project and their mobilization strategies. One of the things we heard was that they were paying taxes but “all the money goes to San Isidro and Miraflores”, the two stereotypical rich neighborhoods in Lima, showing a perception of state-mandated inequalities and the condition of neglect the neighborhoods are in. Furthermore, they regarded the highway not as an isolated project, but as a larger strategy to gentrify the whole area: “it's not only this highway, they want to take us all out of here”.

A few months later, the movement scored two small victories. On the one hand, while the Constitutional Court didn't overturn the ordinance, it mandated that an adequate relocation plan must be implemented. On the other, the candidate won the election and revised the project --renaming it Vía Parque Rímac-- in a way that will significantly reduce the number of families displaced while directing $4 million in investment to be decided by local residents through participatory budgeting. Furthermore, mobilization around environmental threats has continued with some response from the local government.

What does this story say about ongoing social issues in Latin American urban peripheries? Low-income neighborhoods were initially very actively engaged in collective action and mobilization in order to attain some rights, such as the right to a piece of land and the right to access basic services. That level of organization usually declined once those rights were guaranteed. In current contexts, however, when new policies seek to extract land values in strategic urban locations, low-income neighborhoods may begin facing new challenges that push them to organize again. In contrast to early mobilizations, however, the urgency that a threat like the one in this episode poses moves people to organize in order to retain rights, rather than to expand them. Nevertheless, these new mobilizations might led to reorganize around other issues, such as the environmental threats Margen Izquierda faces.

Matteo Stiglich graduated from UC Berkeley with a Master's degree in City Planning (2012). In his thesis, “Special Regulatory Zones and the Re-Configuration of Planning in Lima”, he studied planning paradigm shifts in light of special land use policies in his hometown. He tweets at @Matteo_S and blogs at Lugares Comunes. Matteo can be contacted at mstiglich [at]