Urban sprawl and housing failure in Nicaragua

By: Noel Sampson, AHI Intern, Nicaragua.


The expansion of urban areas is a common and historical phenomenon in Latin American cities. Nowadays, poorly planned urban expansion has led to marginalization of city inhabitants. In the case of Nicaraguan cities, housing projects and urban sprawl are clearly promoted by policy makers. In this publication I will present two cases, including both low and middle income housing developments that are clear examples of urban sprawl and failures in housing delivery.


The Urban Expansion Plan of the city of León known as León Sur-Este had as its general objective “to develop a model of urban expansion with spatial and socioeconomic sustainability” (City of León, 2000) intended to reduce the housing deficit and prevent illegal occupations. The plan León Sur-Este was conceived as a sustainable development, including adequate infrastructure and services provision according to population needs and facilitating the conditions for economic development. León Sur-Este nowadays has failed in archiving these objectives.


Urban sprawl. Private development in León Sur-Este, León, Nicaragua.


The project strategically oriented urban expansion to the South-East area of the city of León and involved the community in planning processes and in the provision of land which was bought at preferential prices. The sale of housing units was subsidized by the government. Sister-cities programs such Utrecht-León and international agencies also played an important role in the early steps of the project.


Sketch of the Plan of urban expansion León Sur-Este, León, Nicaragua.


However land speculation led to the increase of prices in neighboring land, blocking the future expansion of the project. The sale of land for private developments strained the already insufficient urban infrastructure and potentiated a gentrification process, disadvantaging the low income inhabitants of the original project.


“Se vende casa” (House on sale). LIH unit in Leon Sur-Este.


The development now has a very poor connection to the main urban infrastructure networks, including water, sanitation and transport. The creation of socioeconomically homogeneous neighborhoods in city outskirts, such as Leon Sur-Este and many other cases in Managua, creates poverty islands where urban problems are exacerbated and presented all at the same time. In the case of León Sur-Este housing abandonment, housing resale, illegal land occupation, lack of basic services, unhealthy conditions, lack of access to education and strong social exclusion are clear symptoms of the project failure.


Street in Leon Sur-Este lacking urban infrastructure and services.


Similar phenomena are evident in private developments for middle income families in the outskirts of Managua.  Housing projects outside the city are a fashionable investment for  developers and it is no surprise that they are appealing for many home buyers as well. Middle income gated communities include features such as internal security guards to increase sales, adding value to the life in the “new city”, while making profit from social disintegration and marginalization.


This consumption of land, lack of access to resources and services, new patterns of social exclusion, increase in the demand of infrastructure and transport, losses in the ecosystem, disrespect of urban development plans and land use lead to a very expensive failure, with social, ecological and economic implications.

Examples of this are the developments in the periphery of Managua, in the Pan-American Highway, where houses in private developments are seen as a single product, not as the basic unit for a community and city. Nor do they include the physical, social and environmental elements where the essentials of life, including social relationship and community sense of living develop.


Vistas de Momotombo. Gated community in the periphery far from the city of Managua, Nicaragua.


Heinrichs (2008) put forward two theories to explain the popularity of housing projects outside the city. The first supposes a preference of families to live in the periphery. In this case suburban development and urban sprawl are largely a consequence of private investors trying to satisfy that demand. The second argument states that urban sprawl is a result of poor governance and public policies. In the case of Nicaragua both arguments are applicable, which could be seen as a voluntarily and intentional attempt to exclude and be excluded from the city. All this is influenced by media, weak governance and the lack of sustainable habitat alternatives.

To prevent the disintegration of society and improve the way in which municipalities govern cities we need to modify the concept of city radically, since it is misunderstood by many municipalities and local governments. At the same time there is an inconsistency in housing policy and the mechanisms by which these projects are implemented.


However, there are promising alternatives for reducing the deficit of 900,000 houses that exists in the country. More important than numbers, these alternatives might prevent social segregation, urban sprawl and marginalization. In the country the demand is for both home improvement and new housing. In this case, new houses should be built as intentional and sustainable communities. INURBA is one company which has taken on the challenge of providing housing for the middle class in emerging and developing economies, promising to create well-designed urban communities supplied with infrastructure that includes clean water, sanitation, and power to provide the conditions for an integrated social community and might become a good practice model that can influence the housing ecosystem.


Existing infrastructure and close proximity to urban economy activities must be seriously considered as an opportunity for housing delivery in the inner city. Community organization in popular neighborhoods, land tenancy and access to services set the conditions for a massive program oriented to home improvement and neighborhood upgrading. It is time to think creatively, and promote sustainable housing solutions to stop the proliferation of poverty islands and set the conditions for long term social integration and sustainability.




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