Spaces and Flows’s Updates

Growing Pains: Urbanization and Governance in Peru

World Politics Review | Article Link | by Bruno Binetti and Ben Raderstorf

Image courtesy of MorgueFile

The glittering Real Plaza shopping center in the Comas district north of Lima buzzes with middle-class energy, featuring franchises like Popeye’s and KFC, DirecTV and RadioShack, McDonald’s, China Wok and even a multi-screen “Cineplanet” movie theater. Like similar shopping malls across the sprawling Lima metropolitan area, the Comas Real Plaza is visibly aspirational; the economic prosperity and upward mobility that it represents to many Peruvians is hard to miss. Polished glass, spotless common areas, air-conditioned stores, plush cinema seats and American fast food all tell the story of a new, rising middle class.

This particular mall is almost an hour by car from the skyscrapers and manicured streets of San Isidro and Miraflores—Lima’s more posh, moneyed districts. It also stands somewhat in contrast to other areas nearby. Not much farther north, many roads are unpaved and neighborhoods less developed. Even immediately outside the gates of the mall, Peru’s colossal informal economy still flourishes, as vendors hawk street food, fruits and vegetables. 

In Peru, one of Latin America’s strongest-performing economies, scenes like Real Plaza are the visible trappings of the country’s economic success story. They are also part of the allure that has over the past several decades drawn millions of Peruvians from towns and villages farther inland to the sprawling urban area around the capital.

Since 1980, the population of metropolitan Lima has doubled, going from 4.8 million to almost 10 million in 2015. Many of the new arrivals settled in sprawling informal settlements, known locally as “pueblos jovenes,” or young towns. As a result, greater Lima—confined by the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west—has stretched and contorted along almost 125 miles of coastline. Lima is now the sixth-largest metropolitan area in Latin America, just behind Rio de Janeiro. However, unlike Rio’s favelas, not all pueblos jovenes are slums or shantytowns; in Lima, the divide between formal and informal urban development has begun to blur. Many pueblos jovenes are now serviced by running water, electricity, paved roads, schools and other public goods. While most are still underserviced by global standards, many have also started to resemble middle-class neighborhoods.