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Reframing indicators to render visible everyday experiences of urban risk

October 2019 was an agitated month in the Latin American region, with protests arising in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and, most notably, in Chile, where manifestations continue in a general outcry against the country’s perceived inequalities and a demand for structural changes to the governance system. In this context, the International Seminar “Urban inequalities - The right to the city and local governance in Latin American Cities” took place at the Universidad Autónoma de México in México City from 23rd – 25th October. The seminar’s inaugurating panel opened the event by expressing the urgent necessity for Latin American countries to promote solutions to reduce inequalities.

The three-day event consisted of over 50 presentations and brought together urban scholars, practitioners, and activists from across Latin America. KNOW Lima City Partners Belén Desmaison and Daniel Ramírez Corzo contributed with a presentation called “Spatial and urban inequality in Metropolitan Lima: a view from the collaborative reading of the territory and urban policies.

KNOW City Partners Belén Desmaison and Daniel Ramirez Corzo, presenting at the “Territorial transformations and inequalities” panel. Image by Manuel Dammert.


Their presentation investigated the relation between urban inequality as a whole, and complex systems and spatial inequalities in particular, understanding the territory as a subsystem that manifests and reproduces relations of inequality. Additionally, the presentation explored how these relations are understood and portrayed by traditional urban indicators and metrics, and how oversimplified representations of such a complex phenomenon help to sustain and legitimise urban policies that do not address urban inequalities.

The presentation revised the latest census statistics, which are the only official data available to approach the geographical distribution of urban poverty and inequality within the city. However, this data is based upon the “household” (for social indicators) and “dwelling” (for physical indicators) as their departing units. This way of building and representing data, while effective for general and abstract overviews, leaves out most of the spatial realities and daily experiences of the women and men within these households and their differentiated access to quality public spaces, accessible and convenient public transport, public services, and just livelihoods.

Maps produced by KNOW-Lima depicting census data at the district level. They show how data renders invisible inequalities experienced within each district, falsely portraying a homogeneous reality at the district level.


As part of the KNOW programme, the Lima City team explored other approaches to reveal and represent spatial inequality. One of them, developed in collaboration with students from PUCP’s Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism (FAU-PUCP), was to investigate a cross-section of the metropolitan area, which spans across wealthy areas as well as different vulnerable neighbourhoods. The analysis of this area was informed by third-party information and fieldwork. It helped to highlight and understand the deep inequalities concerning not only the residential dimension of urban inequality, but that of a multiplicity of urban systems as well. Additionally, this activity sought to shed light on how cartography and architectural representations of the territory can render invisible daily experiences of inequality, as well as social mobilisation efforts that seek to challenge it, as the ones produced by NGOs like CIDAP, CENCA, and Foro Ciudades para la Vida. This invisibility legitimises political discourses that emphasize the material manifestations of inequalities while failing to address the structural factors that cause them.

A cross-section of Lima, which shows water usage (liters per person) in different districts in Lima. Source: Students of FAU-PUCP, supervised by the Lima City Partner team


The produced cartography aims to provide alternative methods of representation to address this gap. For example, it expresses spatial inequality not only in the differentiated access to public transport, but also in the availability of alternative modes of public transportation in different areas of the city. Similarly, availability and quality of access to drinking water is also differently distributed across the cross-section of wealthy and poor neighbourhoods, and has great differences even within single districts.

One of the main advantages of this approach to understand and represent inequality is its emphasis on the relational nature of urban inequality. While most statistical descriptions, including those with geo-referenced outputs, tend to focus on vulnerable sectors of the city, this kind of cross-section helps to consider multiple realities and experiences of urban inequality in one snapshot. This reading of urban inequality and its representation pushes towards urban policies that go beyond the “fight against poverty” and render visible the need for policies that promote greater interaction and social diversity in areas of the city with better urban conditions and services.

Hence, the Lima team proposes that official statistical accounts, focused on measuring poverty and social gaps, need to be complemented with more spatial approaches, like the presented cross-sections, to better understand the factors that reproduce inequality. This allows for a richer, better informed, and more nuanced understanding of urban inequality, which will be complemented with the co-produced understanding developed in applied research in alliance with CENCA, CIDAP, and Foro Ciudades para la Vida, along with civil society, activist groups, and local governments in the upcoming years of KNOW.


The International seminar “Urban inequalities. Right to the city and local governance in Latin American Cities” was organised by the Sociological Research Institute (IIS) of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México - UNAM, the Pontifical Catholic University of Perú - PUCP, the Economic Commission for Latin America and The Caribbean - CEPAL, as well as the “Urban Inequalities” and “Poverty and Social Policies” working groups from the Latin American Social Sciences Confederation - CLACSO.


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