Transforming City: The Challenge of Developing the Centre of Managua

Managua – a city without a true urban centre or urbanity– is transforming rapidly. The government and municipality carry out numerous new urban projects, mostly in public spaces. The city is changing, mostly in its historic centre, but this leaves uncertain the future of approximately 64,000 inhabitants from about 11,000 households, most of them with unresolved property title issues, living in very low urban density and under poor conditions. This multi-sector phenomenon not only requires new and innovative planning tools, but also skilled urban planning professionals who are capable of understanding the complexity of sustainable urban transformation.


Figure 1: The centre of Managua, newly renovated but without people.

In this light, the Urban_Managua project started a process of discussion of and reflection upon the past (Managua’s planning history, starting from 1954), the present (the actual status of informal settlements) and the future (how to deal with such informality) of the urban core of Managua. Our hypothesis was that the city should include the informal settlements and their inhabitants in a broader, integral development strategy that included cultural, social, economic and ecological dimensions. Efforts to create urbanity, proximity, cost-efficient urban development and at least a sense of being a city, are supported by existing urban projects in public spaces, but other interventions are also needed, such as social housing, rehabilitation of traditional quarters like La Candelaria, inclusionary public space, local economic development, cultural activities that foster social cohesion and good governance and management.


Figure 2: El Barrio La Candelaria, our main research focus.


Figure 3: El Barrio La Candelaria is located in Managua’s historic centre.

During the two years of the project, we developed, tested and investigated various urban models and typologies for inclusionary human development of the central informal areas, such as incremental housing models, cultural activities as catalyst for urban development and participatory planning techniques, among others. We invited numerous urban experts from Colombia, Argentina, Brazil and Guatemala to share experiences and solutions to problems from their cities and also  sent seven Nicaraguan researchers to Chile, Argentina and Colombia to investigate specific research topics in the context of the situation in Managua.

The discourse started at just the right time, because the historic centre is becoming an observatory or living laboratory of urban transformation. The experience, know-how and know-why gained during Urban_Managua has helped to develop new strategies for urban development. This was without a doubt an excellent opportunity for the city, the academic sector and urban professionals alike.

Accelerated Urban Growth
The Municipality of Managua is the leading city, regionally and nationally, in Nicaragua, and is part of the so-called Metropolitan Area of Managua, consisting of nine municipalities with a population of approximately one million inhabitants, equivalent to 29% of the national population. However, the structure of the metropolitan area is characterized by its remarkably accelerated pace of spatial urban growth, with dramatically negative economic and social consequences. Among these negative effects are the institutional and administrative challenges of managing urban mobility and the use of territory. The city is growing at its fringes rather than within its existing urban fabric. It has a population density of 38.51 people per hectare, which is a relatively low figure compared to other Central and South American capital cities. The regional average is 70 inhabitants per hectare, but in the city centre, the Centro Histórico, this figure is even lower, with only about 30 inhabitants or fewer per hectare. It is estimated that 40% of all settlements in the city centre of Managua are informal.


Figure 4: Managua’s leading urban planner Leonardo Icaza analyzes the La Candelaria sector and it’s problems.

Managua as a Highly Vulnerable City
In December 1972 the city centre was devastated by an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.2 on the Richter scale, which left approximately 20,000 people dead and most of the centre destroyed. As a result of the earthquake, whose epicentre in Lake Managua was only about 28 km from the capital city, the area of Laguna Tiscapa deepened. Most of the residential and office buildings in downtown Managua collapsed and were cleared by the then Somoza government. The central area was nationalized (in other words expropriated) which meant construction in the downtown area was discontinued. The reconstruction of Old Managua was made impossible. These measures resulted in the decentralization and fragmentation of the city’s spatial development, encouraging the sprawl of informal residential structures.

A further phenomenon is the growth of the Mercado Oriental, which was just one single city block in size before the earthquake. Today the market is uncontrolled, a site of urban anarchy stretching about 200 hectares. Urban growth, mostly residential, has taken place around the destroyed area, on the outskirts of the city. As a result of the centre’s extinction, its central urban functions were dispersed and disrupted. Due to a lack of control over construction projects, the condition of the built environment is very poor. Should an earthquake, storm surge, flood or such occur, severe damage will ensue.


Figure 5: The condition of the housing stock in Candelaria.


Figure 6: Analysis of the public space in four dimensions: public, semi-public, semi-private, private. Source: Urban_Managua

The Urban Fabric of the Old Managua and the New Centralities
Many people, especially researchers and visitors, might ask: Is Managua an urban place? It at least used to be. Until the earthquake in 1972, the central square, the Plaza de Revolución and the adjoining Central Park were the most meaningful and important places in a then densely residential urban fabric. The design outline of the old Managua is a rigid orthogonal, a classic Spanish system, with the main square as the most iconic and important place in the city. Today we would not call it urban. Due to its low population density, the area looks empty except for the occasional tourist inspecting the national monuments. Nowadays, roundabouts and shopping malls shape new centralities in the city. These are Managua’s real everyday meeting places. Roundabouts are, however, rapid transit spaces and therefore provoke social exclusion. Malls are places of commerce, where people must buy and consume. But although these places are not truly public spaces, people use them as meeting places nonetheless.


Figure 7: Shopping as a new centrality in Managua. The Plaza Inter, the only shopping centre close to the historic city centre.


Figure 8: Roundabouts as urban centralities in Managua.

Unexploited Opportunities and Investments
After more than forty years of decay and deterioration, the municipality of Managua and the Sandinista Government have, in the last ten years, taken serious steps to renew the historical city centre. Several initiatives in the centre, mostly in public spaces, are being developed: a) the articulation of ‘Avenida Bolívar’ as an urban boulevard, b) the rehabilitation of urban parks such as ‘Luis Fernando Velázquez’, c) the construction of the waterfront and boardwalk and d) the renewal of two parks, the Puerto Allende and the Paseo Xolotlán, with a very nice city model of the Old Managua. However, these investments have occurred in a highly arbitrary manner, following neither an overarching master plan nor an investment plan, and seeming to pop up at random as foreign investment or donations become available.


Figure 9: Shaping public space with political messages.

The Challenges of Making City
In Managua and other Latin American cities, the most important challenges for urban development are rapid population growth and its management in the context of urban planning. In the context of Managua, the main question is how to manage the city’s spatial growth along with the formation of informal settlements. The city has planning instruments in place such as the Land Use Plan, but  these legal instruments are not adequate to combat severe poverty and urban informality.

It is very clear that the existing urban planning tool-kit, which was invented around the beginning of the last century, no longer serves to regulate and guide accelerated urban growth. The city is too dynamic and complex to be dominated by a mono-dimensional regulation plan, for example a zoning plan. What is now required is a programme of integral short-, mid- and long-term activities that allow a dialogue between the people who are affected and the ones who plan, meaning the administration. The main issue is that projects need to be based on a clear vision for transforming the city. This vision must be multi-dimensional in order to tackle other pending problems of urban development, including poverty, inequality, mobility and the growth of the urban footprint with all its environmental and social consequences.


Figure 10: The development of experimental housing typologies. Source: Urban_Managua, 2014.


Figure 11: Proposals for dense residential developments in the city centre of Managua. Source: Urban_Managua, 2014.

The Role of the Urban_Managua Project in Discourse
With the aim of reflecting upon and contextualizing these urban development challenges, we organized two urban forums: the International Symposium in 2013 and the Urban Forum in 2014. The main goal was to establish a network of actors concerned with urbanism, planning and architecture in Latin American countries, to exchange experiences and good practices regarding the treatment of informal settlements in other countries and compare it to the situation in Nicaragua. In turn, this would help establish creative local strategies to combat urban poverty, informality and the risk of disaster. The specific objectives of the symposia were to:

  • Strengthen relationships and cooperation between academics and professionals in the field of planning and urban studies.
  • Create a network of actors concerned with urban design, planning and architecture in the countries of Central and South America, to promote future knowledge exchange and creativity to combat urban poverty, informality and natural disasters.
  • Determine the characteristics and conditions of informal settlements in Central and South America to compare with those in Nicaragua, especially Managua.
  • Update knowledge on experiences and best practices in the upgrading of informal settlements in the countries of Central and South America, which would form the basis for generating proposals for the treatment of informal settlements in Managua.
  • Establish a platform for the dissemination of research results from Urban_Managua or other such initiatives, giving exposure to student’s urban proposals.
  • Create a forum for local researchers and improve the quality of research practice.
  • Create an annual forum for architects and urbanists dealing with urban studies.


Figure 12: The international participants of the workshop at the International Symposium 2013: Academics, planning professionals, and members of the urban planning office in Managua.

The Charta of Managua: A Manifesto for the Integrated Development of Informal Settlements
At the Central American Forum on Integrated Urban Studies organized by Urban_Managua from 24th to 26th September 2014, we held an intensive urban workshop with approximately 60 students, urban development professionals and architects from the city administration. This activity was accompanied by an excursion to downtown Managua and the site of a comprehensive urban development project undertaken in the former informal settlement of La Chureca. This excursion helped participants contextualize potential projects for redevelopment in the central area of the city. We discussed this successful project, its comprehensive and multi-disciplinary urban strategy and analyzed the lessons learned. We concluded that urban strategies need to include all urban actors in the design process and that an interdisciplinary development focus is required when intervening.


Figure 13: The participants of the 2014 Urban Workshop.

In this context we created the Charter of Managua, a manifesto of principles and commitments for the integral development of the slums in the historic centre of Managua. The focus of the charter is the preservation of the historic centre as a whole by including the informal settlements and their inhabitants, particularly in the traditional neighbourhoods of La Candelaria, Santo Domingo, San Antonio and San Sebastian. The charter promotes a comprehensive and integrated approach to the development of urban projects, with a thoughtful and autonomous organizational structure and private sector participation. At the same time, the social inclusion of the population in the development and implementation of projects is an indisputable precondition for redevelopment programmes in historical city centres, for example through the elaboration of the new Master Plan for the Central Area (PMAC).

In the medium and long term, the administration has to start to plan and manage the city in a pro-active manner in order to avoid further urban sprawl. The creation of a holistic vision of an urban Managua and the activation of centralities like the one at the historical centre is only possible with well-educated planning professionals and an energetic academic sector that are capable of reflecting upon and contextualizing the built and social environment. The project Urban_Managua came at the right time and initiated an important and overdue discussion about sustainable urban development. We should continue this dialogue and so energize the spirit of an urban Managua.