Bogotá’s Bucolic Exodus: Aspirations of a Rural Life or Suburban Sprawl?

 Illustration of the migration pattern. Source: Author

Illustration of the migration pattern. Source: Author

Yearning for a rural lifestyle is a legitimate desire for all city dwellers. It is more than understandable to think about a nicer place if you can afford it, considering that “nicer” often means more greenery and nature. Nevertheless, countryside living is not only an aspiration for people in Bogotá who are planning a systematic exodus from the city’s current sense of collapse, but also for displaced rural people who try to make a living in the city. Sometimes there is a situation of urban dwellers colonizing farmers’ land, or the current national social illness of forced displacement.

In Bogotá, like in many cities, transportation deficiency, generalized security concerns in many areas and the increasing cost of living are negatively influencing the everyday experience of its citizens. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to consider moving to a place where the pace of daily activities is slower, groceries are cheaper and air is cleaner. Large cities and capitals offer job opportunities, cultural exchange and superior levels of health and education that do not exist in rural areas. In this sense, despite its utilitarian purposes, the city has become increasingly unaffordable, insecure and threatening, especially for rural migrants.

La Calera, for example, is one of the “rural” paradises desired by high-income people in Bogota, and utterly pursued as a pot of gold by real estate developers. However, this place is one of the city’s principal natural reservoirs, in terms of water supply and green areas. If Bogotans continue running away from the city to settle permanently in a place that is geographically guaranteeing our city subsistence, we are threatening urban collective survival. And on the other hand, people that are actually living in places like this cannot migrate to the city with no credit history or any urban expertise, because life in the Colombian countryside is just too different.

 Displaced communities in Downtown Bogota. Source: RCN La Radio

Displaced communities in Downtown Bogota. Source: RCN La Radio

How do we interpret the trend of urban dwellers dreaming of the countryside and rural dwellers being forced to move to cities? Will we see Colombian cities filled with “for rent” signs and rural parcels abandoned or used for suburban homes, violating not yet written environmental policies? For a poor peasant for example, starting from scratch in a city like Bogota can lead to a sense of not belonging. Working in minimum wage jobs, whether in the formal or informal sector sometimes results in resignation, resentment and even violence, as a consequence of being forced to obey a system that apparently has not been designed for equality. In this sense, the question would be if this two-way rural-urban migration corridor is leading to any collective improvement for any of the participants involved.

Maybe visualizing these possible outcomes of current mobility trends can help us achieve a balance. If there is no urban expansion, inner city land values will be increasingly raised to the point of absolute unaffordability, but at the same time, suburban sprawl has a huge impact on ecology and demand for infrastructure that is equally destructive.  On one hand, real estate speculation of suburban developments is supplying housing demand for high-income households only. And on the other hand, barely legal urbanization in risky areas of the city is only supplying housing lots for many of the low-income people that are coming into the city as cheap labor. This way, both the high-end suburban housing and the informal inner city housing seem like extreme responses to these recent moving trends.

 La Calera suburban housing. Source: SkyscraperCity.com

La Calera suburban housing. Source: SkyscraperCity.com

Maybe it is about public policies that ensure affordable housing for all citizens, regardless of their incomes. Or it might be about adaptability. Bogotá could (and should be) more inclusive for migrants by providing jobs and housing opportunities, whether they come from the countryside, from other cities, and even from other countries. Also, maybe the city can offer better conditions so its actual inhabitants don’t feel the urge to escape. Probably cities can be understood beyond the utilitarian aspects of just being destinations for concentrated job opportunities. In this manner, the urban experience could be positive for all. What if we bring more high quality services to the countryside and bring more environmental qualities to our cities? This way we might not be forced to endure this polarization of individual needs that are turning migration processes in Colombia into an evident symptom of inequality.

I envision a more inclusive Bogota indeed. And this probably demands a deeper understanding of the rural-urban mutual dependency, for both in citizens and policy makers. In this sense, some of the government’s efforts providing affordable housing for rural migrants are strategies of more equitable policies that somehow still seem insufficient. This raises the question about the causes of these inequity indicators in Colombia’s capital. Will affordable housing ever be enough and what will happen when the city runs out of land? Is increasing new housing supply the solution for a larger scale political conflict that is massively displacing people from our most forgotten rural areas? And on the other hand, how can policies also regulate this recent trend of suburban sprawl that is also taking over the countryside? Maybe this recent circular migration pattern is an opportunity to visualize how a city embodies the illnesses of a country. But also, an invitation to ask ourselves: Is moving the solution? Where will these exoduses lead us to?

Maria Luisa Vela is a first year graduate student at UC Berkeley, pursuing a Masters in Urban Design. She is a practicing architect from Bogota, Colombia and is currently interested in the relationships between public space and housing typologies for designing better neighborhoods in Latin American cities. She can be reached at marialuisavela@gmail.com