Research Presentations

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Irazabal, Clara
Sohn, Heidi
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Latin American Urbanism Symposium

Liminality in Latin America’s Global Cities: constructed and imagined borderlands of the formal and the informal

This Symposium focuses on multidisciplinary approaches to urban studies in Latin America, with an emphasis on the dynamics of contemporary urban-rural environments. This year the symposium focuses on the space "in-between" and transitions between formal and informal systems. Rapid development, rural-urban migration, and urban growth during recent decades have created conflicts between formal and informal economic and political systems, social structures, and built environments in Latin America's "global cities." Through a series of lectures during the semester and a summary panel discussion, the symposium will explore multiple aspects of: economic and environmental justice; race, ethnicity, and class; citizenship, the state, transnationalism, and rural-urban transformations, among other topics.

This Symposium is organized by the Department of Architecture and the Department of Anthropology at Iowa State University.

Contact Silvina Lopez Barrera at


"The Work of Columbia University's Latin Lab, with Emphasis on Medellin's Borderlands" , Clara Irazabal


In recent years the renaissance of the city of Medellin has achieved great recognition. Just weeks ago, Medellin hosted the United Nations' World Urban Forum 7, which celebrated its urban planning transformation. According to most architectural and urban planning debates, this Colombian city has successfully been investing in infrastructural and social projects to improve the conditions in blighted neighborhoods as well as in the city as a whole. At the same time, some of the issues derived from the design of the new urban environment and the management of planning processes remain both unattended and understudied.

This presentation will introduce the experience that Columbia University’s Latin Lab had in Medellin. In Spring 2013, graduate planning students examined Medellin's urban-rural borders and critically assessed ongoing neighborhood upgrading projects, by assuming a local community (Comuna 8) as their “client” and co-constructing planning alternative solutions with it. The lecture will present how the Lab's experience critically engaged collaborative urban planning, design, risk management, and food security issues, bringing together research and proposal-making into a comprehensive project that aims to expand sustainability and justice.

"Contesting Neoliberal Urbanization: The Mexican Case", Heidi Sohn


The advance and encroachment of neoliberal ideologies in all realms of our contemporary world have had significant impact upon the built environment. Although almost no aspect of the urbanization process has been exempt of the effects of urban policies implemented under the guise of liberalization and deregulation operating in the interest of private capital, it has been the social housing sector, which has arguably been the one where some the most important transformations have been registered, and which without a doubt will have long-termed effects upon cities. The neoliberal urban model follows quite similar formulas throughout the globe: the privatization of public interest being one common denominator that deeply affects the understanding and implementation of schemes aimed at providing the lower-income population and urban poor with viable alternatives for housing. Particularly interesting in this case are the elevated failure rates that are becoming patent in most of these schemes, and the problems that this phenomenon represents for the city.

Within this framework, the present paper will briefly introduce the background to the contemporary Mexican case, presenting an explanation of the forces at work in the dissolution of public agendas within the social housing sector and its absorption into the private sector of construction developers. Furthermore, it will investigate the culprits that render this process as corrupt and failed, highlighting the possible consequences and challenges that lay ahead. Two specific cases will be introduced and discussed as examples of this process: the housing development known as Las Américas, in Ecatepec de Morelos, State of México, and that of Riberas del Bravo, Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua.

The main aim of this paper, however, is to reveal some of the possibilities of intervention for spatial planners and designers, and their role in the processes of re-conception, re-composition and recovery of housing developments erected under the neoliberal precepts that have become untenable today.