Real estate developers in Guatemala City have recognized a demand for residential neighborhoods with all the perks of a traditional city center – a place where shopping, cafés, and restaurants are within walking distance, where people meet their neighbors while strolling along boulevards lined with human-scale architecture. It’s an old-city vision.
But it is not in the old city.
The Associated Press reported the other day on the development of Paseo Cayalá, a high-end gated community seven miles from the chaotic center of the old Guatemala City. This enclave has been designed in accordance with New Urbanist principles, providing a haven from the flagrant crime and disarray of the nation's capital, which has a population of more than a million (the surrounding metro area is closer to 3 million) and is growing rapidly, with many new residents living in slums or on the street.
Paseo Cayalá, like many gated communities around the developing world, promises discreet safety (the guards carry weapons, but they’re concealed), order, and a pleasant lifestyle that harks back to the days when cities were smaller and more manageable.
But according to critics quoted in the AP piece, the creation of this high-end urban refuge threatens efforts to improve the true historic capital city down the road:
Cayala "is a place that tries to imitate a historic center, the way people move around an urban city, but it fails because it is not a city," said architect Carlos Mendizabal, who worked to rebuild the turn-of-the-century Cinelux movie theater, one of Guatemala City's first cinemas.
Mendizabal said the private-sector segregates the country's wealthiest from the urban poor.
"Cayala creates a world for those who can afford it. Cayala sells an illusion that everything is OK, but it is not open to all people," he said.
Of course, that lack of openness is precisely what the creators of such developments are selling. And the cost of living in Paseo Cayalá is itself as effective as gates and guns at cocooning its population from urban ills. A residence within the walls of the project starts at about $260,000 and will go up to more than $1 million, in a nation where the average monthly salary is $300. The units are so far selling briskly.
Municipal officials, led by long-time mayor and former Guatemalan president Álvaro Arzú, have been trying to improve admittedly difficult conditions within the capital for years. In 2005 the city adopted a plan, Guatemala 2020, intended to deal with critical issues such as crime, pollution, transportation, and economic development. "Social solidarity" is a stated component of the plan, as the City Mayors Foundation explains:
Without this solidarity, Guatemala will not be able to grow into a modern and efficient city. Guatemala is composed of a multicultural and multilingual culture, which makes its society are very complex one. With its social solidarity programme, the city hopes to create a more tolerable and respectful society.
A New Urbanist haven like Paseo Cayalá is in effect a rejection of that vision of “social solidarity,” although not of the ideal of the “liveable city.” Residents who can afford a safer, cleaner life for themselves and their families can buy out of urban chaos while still enjoying sidewalk cafés and the like.
Critics say that the project is essentially anti-urban. From the AP story:
"We can't fool ourselves into believing that a rigid, controlled and elitist project is public space and giving something to the city when it clearly isn't the case," said Alejandro Biguria, an architect who has worked on the largely successful rehabilitation of Guatemala City's historic downtown. "A city must have socioeconomic and cultural diversity."
That may be so. But as the commercial success of gated communities on every continent has demonstrated, many consumers with money to spend are perfectly happy to buy a sanitized version of city life.
Top image: Visitors walk in Paseo Cayalá, a nearly independent city on the edges of Guatemala City. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)