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Cities in Flux: Latino New Urbanism

Paradigmatic surburbia: Santa Ana of Orange County, California. Photo by

Paradigmatic surburbia: Santa Ana of Orange County, California. Photo by John Lobel.

This is part of TheCityFix’s series, “Cities in Flux,” about demographic shifts as a result of development, immigration, migration, politics and the environment. We look at how city planning and transportation policies respond to this movement.

Much of the American Southwest, from Southern California to Arizona, is characterized by urban sprawl, cookie-cutter neighborhoods and endless suburbs in part fueled by a population boom across the Sunbelt, as more people, especially Latinos, migrate to the area. Much of the this region is looking at improving mobility, sustainability and quality of life through the lens of “new urbanism,” an approach to urban planning that favors transit-oriented development that might include small lots, houses located close to main roads, front porches, compact neighborhoods, public spaces and parks that focus on building the unique character of a place.  Many of these principles have long been evident in Latino-dominant neighborhoods in the U.S., without the top-down knowledge of planners.

The concept of Latino New Urbanism, pioneered by James Rojas, is a way of understanding community, public spaces and neighborhoods by acknowledging the preferences and culture of Latino immigrants, which, in many cases, are the majority. Latinos have been transforming U.S. communities for decades. Now their impact on planning and transportation in the country is being more formally acknowledged. In other words, Latinos assimilate to typical U.S. constructions of urban development by transforming and adapting often overlooked neighborhoods.

The built environment is also linked to public health issues in Latino communities, giving more reason to examine and respond to the shaping and re-shaping of neighborhoods by Latinos. In the U.S., Latinos over age 20 are 1.7 times as likely to have diabetes as non-Hispanic whites; 6.5 percent more Latino children between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight, compared to all other children of those ages; and Latino children are 34 percent more likely than white children to experience hospitalization due to asthma.  Issues like safety, lack of good transportation options and few opportunities for physical activity contribute to some of these trends.

As the Latino population grows in the U.S., Latino-rich communities will continue to construct how we utilize and envision public space, use public transit, and design neighborhoods.

Bright signage in the Pico Union neighborhood of Los Angeles. Photo by Waltarrrr.

Bright signage in the Pico Union neighborhood of Los Angeles. Photo by Waltarrrr.

Latino Sprawl

Trends such as “Latino sprawl,” the process of more established Latinos moving to suburban and exurban communities to find affordable housing, is deepening disparities along class and race lines. According to the book, “Urban Sprawl and Public Health,” sprawl more negatively impacts poor people and people of color. The Brookings Institute characterizes some of the key disadvantages of the movement of low-income communities outward to “jobs-poor suburbs” as causing “an overreliance on public transportation, which often provides inferior access to and within suburban areas; and spatial mismatch between where the suburban poor live and the locations of important social services.”  (Recently, we wrote about a study that highlighted how the lowest-paid workers in New York City have the longest commutes to work, which limits the geographic range of job opportunities.)

Katherine Perez of the now-defunct organization, Active Living Network, describes Latino sprawl as a trend that requires “people to have a car they can barely afford, spread[s] people out and pull[s] people away from each other.” She says many communities with affordable housing send the wrong message  by making use of public transit in dense settings difficult, harming the health and livelihood of Hispanic communities. Since sprawl often negatively affects Latino communities, it is increasingly important to look at New Urbanism models.

Wide Streets and Low Density

James Rojas, founder of the Latino Urban Forum, in an essay published by the Center for the New Urbanism describes how Latinos experience the built environment in Los Angeles. These are some of the failures related to mobility and access in Latino-specific neighborhoods:

  • Rates of pedestrian fatalities in Los Angeles County are highest among Latinos. In suburban Orange County, for example, Latinos comprise 28 percent of the population but account for 43 percent of pedestrian fatalities. In the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., Hispanics are 8 percent of the population but make up 21 percent of pedestrian deaths (source: “Urban Sprawl and Public Health.”)
  • Rates of public transit usage are highest among Latinos in Los Angeles County.
  • Rates of bicycle fatalities are highest among Latino males between the ages of 30 and 40.

Cultural Solutions in an Auto-Oriented Place

Some of the informal solutions to space in Los Angeles that Rojas notes are indicative of the kind of blurred usage of neighborhoods in the Southwest.  An article by Michael Mendez explains how recent Latino immigrants have brought new life into “derelict inner cities and suburbs in the metropolitan areas of California” to create vibrant communities.

There are many examples of this revitalization. Day laborers use wide streets and parking lots to sell services; vendors use sidewalks and the backs of cars for sales, promoting walking and a sense of community. Multi-use parking lots are common in the Southwest. Mobile stores, food carts and even vibrant paint defines space in urban settings dominated by Latinos.

A view of LA's streetscape in 1990 and today, showing the use of sidewalks for vending.

A view of L.A.'s streetscape in 1990 and today, showing the use of sidewalks for vending. Image by James Rojas.

A Planetizen article by Josh Stephens interviews James Rojas, who describes the Latino urban environment as an enacted landscape that derives its character from “the way Latino residents have forged a syncretic vernacular and open-air culture out of streetscapes, buildings, and public facilities that were not intended for them.”

In Latino neighborhoods outside the U.S., space is fluid and the common boundaries between public and private realms that typify U.S. communities are different. Front yards are intermediary zones; courtyards and residential spaces don’t separate neighbors but encourage meeting spaces and conversation. Stephens also notes that “many Latinos occupy multigenerational or multifamily units” and “their surrounding neighborhoods are often more dense, and full of more formal and informal uses, than the built environment would suggest or zoning codes would dictate,” leading to a lot activity in one place.

Latinos come from cultures already comfortable riding buses and trains, as we see through the success of bus rapid transit (BRT) and integrated transport systems in Latin American cities. This may be one reason Latino communities use public transit in greater numbers. Beyond public transit, the Latino community uses parks more frequently and for different reasons. Large group and social activities are common.

Policy and Structures

Some policies have encouraged communities, developers and transit providers to take more notice of the high number of Latinos and their approach to work, space, school, safety and communities.  A few cities, architects, planners and community-based programs have taken on the issue, which we will discuss in future blog posts. This holds great potential for more sustainable urban transportation in a region of the country notorious for air pollution and the high rates of usage of personal vehicles.

Ground-up solutions might include supermarkets that provide free shuttle service in certain neighborhoods. Urban developments that acknowledge Latino cultural preferences are also emerging, such as denser zoning codes. A USA Today article says, “Latino new urbanism has gotten the attention of Henry Cisneros, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and now the chairman of American CityVista in San Antonio.”  The company develops moderately priced homes that fit the needs of Hispanic families in neighborhoods that sorely in need of new housing.

“From big kitchens with gas stoves for grilling tortillas to courtyards for social gatherings, multiple bedrooms for large and extended families, and driveways that accommodate numerous cars,” the development Cisneros supports is inclusive and responsive to future and existing needs. Cisneros says, “new urbanism has chiefly targeted white and higher-income populations in suburbs,” but “Latinos can be the ideal audience for a new urbanist conversation.”

The challenge is to enact policy that brings walkability, a sense of place, social interaction and communities together but that also responds to the residents who live in a community. It’s true that in California many residents want single family homes with large yards and others want mixed-used, smaller homes with shorter commutes. A Public Policy Institute study from 2002 shows the conflict in preference.

Still, strong policy is needed to address the multiculturalism of this region in the U.S. that includes informal economies, high percentages of people living adjacent to or working in industrial zones, the need for more open space, evolving neighborhoods in the suburbs and the high (and potential for higher) usage of city and suburban bus systems. The cultural diversity and influx of immigrants should leave an enduring imprint on how we experience mobility and urban planning in this country. Good policy responds to present and future generations and the changes and new approaches to development and community in the Southwest are a resource for sustainable development.

Look for more case studies on Latino New Urbanism in our future coverage.


The U.S.-Mexico border crossing from Tijuana to San Ysidro, illustrating the different use of streetscapes in Mexico. Photo by richardmasoner.

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  • It’s amazing how the Latino culture is creating such a large shift towards new urbanism in the U.S. It will be interesting to see how popular new urbanism gets over the next decade.

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  • Jake Wegmann

    Very cool piece on a very understudied topic. Thanks for all of the links to other pieces, those were very helpful. Let’s have more, more, more on Latino New Urbanism!

  • Ben Patience

    I noticed when travelling from Douglas AZ into Agua Prieta MX, there is a profound difference between the streetscapes of the 2 cities. The US side is full of the usual sprawl, parking lots, big Box stores, etc. Interestingly though for such an environment there’s à surprising number of pedestrians. Almost all of the pedestrians are Mexicans walking across the border from Agua Prieta. The city of Agua Prieta versus neighboring Douglas, AZ is compact and walkable. The Southwestern US with its large Mexican population and shared cultural history with Mexico, could potenially adapt several intelligent Urban Design ideas from Latin America that could be well integrated into existing low density Southwestern cities.

  • karen

    Jonna, you deliver an iformation-packed article on how Latinos are quickly transforming our urban landscape through the force of their growing population and culture. The thesis that Latinos are reinventing U.S. cities–for better or worse–needs to be explored in all its dimensions. thank you Jonna.

  • James Rojas

    Nice article! For almost 20 years I have been lecturing on how Latinos use public/private space to create a sense of place. Unlike new urbanism Latino urbanism is not about a form or development. When I was writing my thesis at MIT my roommate was writing his on New Urbanism. The new urbanist were advocating for fences, porches, and walkable streets through design. While I was writing how Latinos through there behavior patterns were creating fences, porches and walkable streets.

    Latino urbanism is about how Latinos retrofit public space to promote social interaction which is a the fundamental of life in Latino communities. Public space is one of the hardest landscapes to develop, improve, design, or control, therefore Latino urbanism remains at the fridges in urban development.

    I try through my former job as transportation planner to improve public space in Latino communities but is a very difficult task because it involves so many players.

    Currently I am facilitating interactive workshops in conjuction with my lectures with Latinos and non-Latinos on designing their idea Latino community. These workshops have been extremely successful because it allows everyone experience, learn and build. Participants e-construct the community through the built form and self discover it’s essences. Participants create walkable streets, plazas, parks, porches, street vending areas, murals, bus stops, and other public space interventions.

    As Latinos move all over the country it is important for everyone to understand this new urban pattern that is retrofitting the American suburbs.

  • Once again, Jonna hits the mark. Latino cultural preferences will change the cities where immigrants settle. There’s definitely a split, even among the Latino population, as to whether people want to aspire to “the American dream” of a big house in the suburbs, or whether the multi-generational house, perhaps with a number of bedrooms and large driveways but otherwise imitating new urbanism, would be preferable.

    (We do have to caution here, as on our website, that trying to follow only some parts of the new urbanist prescription can be quite hazardous to urban design. So the concern here is how to absorb the need for lots of parking behind the house.)

    The blurring of public and private space has long seemed to me to be a mark of new urbanist thinking and also of the very best small towns. That mode seems very comfortable for the Latino population, and the ability to make the most of streets that are too wide by enlivening them as space for socializing seems wonderful to me.

    Is America still a melting pot, or is it more of a stew where separate ingredients maintain their integrity and only flavor one another? Either way, the Latino habits of large family gatherings and multi-generation households are healthy new additions to the American diet.