Metropolitan Governance in Latin America

Metropolitan Governance in Latin America


Reviewed by Sören Scholvin

First Published:

22 Apr 2022, 9:50 am


Metropolitan Governance in Latin America

Alejandra Trejo Nieto and Jose L Niño Amézquita , Metropolitan Governance in Latin America, Abingdon: Routledge, 2021; 208 pp.: ISBN 97803676156972022, £120 (hbk)


About 80% of Latin America’s population now lives in cities. This share has increased rapidly since the 1950s. It will further rise in the coming years. In mega-cities such as Lima and Mexico City, urban growth has outpaced the capacity of public institutions to fulfil their purpose. To outsiders, metropolitan governance across the continent looks like pure chaos. Challenges such as informal economies, precarious housing, decaying and insufficient infrastructure, horrendous poverty, irregular settlements and – related to all of them – inadequate public services seem unsurmountable.

Metropolitan Governance in Latin America, edited by Alejandra Trejo Nieto and Jose Niño Amézquita, examines the realities and practices of metropolitan governance in Latin America, and uncovers how this influences the availability and quality of public services. Case studies of Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Lima, Mexico City and Santiago de Chile answer the following guiding questions: What governance structures exist in the city under investigation? How do they work in terms of horizontal cooperation between municipalities and vertical coordination across different scales of governance? How do the resulting multi-jurisdictional dynamics shape the delivery of public services?

Complementing the vast literature on urban growth and the problems associated with it, the book hence focuses on the institutional arrangements that mark metropolitan governance. It consists of two sections. The first comprises the introduction, which explains how important metropolitan governance has become all over the world, and a chapter that introduces readers to metropolitan governance – and its flaws – in Latin America. The impressive absolute and relative increase of the continent’s urban population is shown. The chapter’s author, Alejandra Trejo Nieto, points at socio-economic inequalities. She then stresses that municipal authorities do not, usually, have sufficient capacities to fully use the powers that have been granted to them since decentralisation began in the 1980s. Further to that, she emphasises the lack of government institutions at the appropriate scale. There are many functional metropolitan areas in Latin America, but hardly any corresponding governance structures. The metropolitan district of Quito – established in 1993 – is a noteworthy exception.

The second section comprises the above-mentioned case studies. Chapter 2 by Jose Niño Amézquita presents the administrative organisation and re-organisation of Bogotá since the 1950s. The author finds that there are major insufficiencies regarding public transport, waste collection and water provision. The quality of these services varies considerably from one part of Bogotá to another. Chapter 3 – written by Matteo Stiglich and María Vásquez – deals with corresponding shortcomings in Lima. Transport-related responsibilities are divided between municipal and national authorities there. The buses and vans that carry most commuters are privately operated and loosely regulated, if at all. The overall quality of this service is low, with road safety and travel time being the most important downsides. The authors then describe how the state-owned water provider fails to coordinate the expansion of water and sewage networks with municipalities. Waste management is a municipal task; it depends on local taxes. These taxes are much lower in poor neighbourhoods, causing vast disparities in terms of service delivery.

Trejo Nieto makes the same argument with regard to Mexico City (Chapter 4): severe problems are due to the insufficient technical capacities and financial resources of most municipalities. These result in informal waste collection, water losses because of poorly maintained pipelines and the like. Further to that, the lack of institutions at the metropolitan level hampers efficient service delivery, which becomes most apparent in the disintegrated public transport system. Chapter 5 by Gabriel Lanfranchi presents organisations that have been established in Buenos Aires to coordinate public services across administrative borders. This is an important contribution to the book, although Buenos Aires is not, certainly, a role model of metropolitan governance. The federal district, ruled by a centrist coalition, is surrounded by suburbs that belong to a separate province and are the stronghold of populist, left-wing movements. Esteban Valenzuela, Claudia Toledo and Osvaldo Henríquez stress difficulties of inter-municipal coordination in Santiago de Chile (Chapter 6). They summarise recent reforms that will strengthen the regional level of governance, which, in the case of Santiago, overlaps with the functional urban area. Chapter 7 by Trejo Nieto brings the findings of the case studies together. Differences in governance structures become clear. Distinct ways of financing public services as well as disparities regarding their coverage and quality are summarised.

The editors deserve praise for organising a coherent volume. Each case study begins with background information that introduces readers to urbanisation, governance and service delivery in the city under investigation. Afterwards, structures of metropolitan governance are assessed with regard to their impact on public services. In other words, the guiding questions from the book’s introduction are answered. Figures, maps and tables help to present empirical information. The expertise of the authors becomes apparent. This is a book written by scholars who have worked on metropolitan governance and public services for many years.

It is unfortunate that there is no chapter on Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo. Having a case study on Brazil would have shed light on the social policies implemented during the presidencies of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. These policies can, indeed, be seen as a role model for how to address the challenges that Latin American metropoles face. Since Trejo Nieto underlines that Quito is one of the few cities with an apparently adequate governance structure, there should have been a chapter on this case.

Metropolitan Governance in Latin America also has weaknesses and blind spots, which should encourage follow-up studies to further develop its insights. To begin with, the case studies do not feature innovative methodologies. They lack primary-source data, relying on desk studies instead. The book would have benefitted from a unifying theoretical approach, but neither the framework chapters nor the case studies delve into theories. This means that there is still a need to think about conditions and outcomes (or independent and dependent variables). We learn that Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Lima, Mexico City and Santiago de Chile share common features in terms of metropolitan governance and public services but are also very different in some ways. The book does not advance our general knowledge of the topic though. Case-specific explanations are not generalised systematically. A theory-based comparative approach – backed by a goal-oriented case selection – could provide robust insights on intriguing causal mechanisms and show how they change from one case to another.

In Metropolitan Governance in Latin America, the reasoning on causal mechanisms is, unfortunately, reduced to the somewhat bureaucratic belief that resolving problems with public services is a mere question of having appropriate structures of metropolitan governance in place. Political cleavages and conflicting interests are not assessed as potential causes of dysfunctional metropoles. The term ‘dual city’ is mentioned (p. 149), but none of the case studies explores whether the integration of the city under investigation into the world economy accounts for inequalities that become visible in service delivery. Even if one concentrates on institutions, their poor functionality should be related to issues such as corruption – not only to insufficient technical capacities, a shortage of financial resources and overlapping or unclear territorial responsibilities.

The last two paragraphs imply that there is much potential to further develop the inroads built by Metropolitan Governance in Latin America. I learnt a lot about Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Lima, Mexico City and Santiago de Chile from the book. Each chapter presents important empirical facts that should inspire future research aiming to understand Latin American metropoles through generalisation of what we can learn from individual cases.


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