Historians will tell you that any settlement must meet several core preconditions if it is to thrive. These include security in the broadest sense, and a population sufficient to maintain it. Panama’s population of around 4.2 million was roughly 70% urbanized by 2016 data, the highest print in Central America. Meanwhile, Panama City and the Colón Province are home to around 50% of the population.
The challenge is to emerge from a paradigm of urban growth by population alone, to one of productive engagement in the broader economy. Poverty remains high, and especially for impoverished indigenous peoples, regional development to share social, educational, and health facilities, as well as to boost financial participation, remains a pressing requirement. Historically speaking, another prerequisite for a settlement has always been a perceived sacred association. Today’s Panama is nothing if not an offshore temple to Mammon.
It’s All About Economics
Panama City is the beating heart of the region’s second-fastest growing economy despite being its smallest nation. It is undergoing the transformation into a smart conurbation where, ideally, the urban experience will ultimately rival the state-of-the-art efficiencies of its logistics and financial services sectors. Underpinning any such city is sustainability and the efficient distribution of renewable energy and environmentally sound urban planning.
Naturally enough, the population has swelled over the decades in step with economic evolution. Between 1960 and 1990, Panama transitioned from mostly rural to mostly urban. Immigration was also spurred by economic progress, largely from Central and South America, and in search of opportunities, real or perceived. Meanwhile, rising numbers of expatriates also presaged the development of infrastructure, and a diversity of facilities and amenities; the beneficiary being the construction sector.
A Strategic Partner
As well as its commercial role, Panama shares crucial initiatives with Washington that span security and the tackling of the drug trade and wider organized crime, plus illegal migration. Panama is a hub between north and south which is why the country’s relationship with the US and China will be decisive for the region’s future. A lot is at stake in terms of migration, inequality, and the state of trade treaties.
On the Right Track
In December of 2018 the tender for an urbanization scheme worth USD111 million was won by Ingeniería Rec. The scheme, the Altos de Los Lagos – Second Stage, involves the construction of 1,620 homes within the broader context of urban renewal, specifically in the Province of Colón. Connectivity, the lifeblood of any city, is being addressed, too, and in August of the same year the state signed an MoU with Hitachi, Ansaldo STS, and Mitsubishi for a 26.7-km monorail system for Line 3 of the Panama Metro to feature 14 stations and 28 six-car trains. Funding came from a Japan International Cooperation Agency loan agreement, dating back to 2016, to extend development assistance of up to USD266.2 million for the project.
Panama’s geographical location leaves its cities and villages prone to seismic activity; in May of 2019 a 6.1 magnitude earthquake hit southwest Panama by the border with Costa Rica. Yet the nation is spared the horrors of hurricanes visited elsewhere in the Americas. In late 2018, damage from Category 5 Hurricane Michael cost Central America a leaden USD25.1 billion.
As we see elsewhere in this book, Panama’s real seismic events could yet register in social policy. Laurentino Cortizo, victorious at the latest presidential election, now holds office at least until 2024. He is determined to restore Panama’s international standing, tarnished by the Panama Papers. Yet, his tenure will surely need to tackle regional and urban-rural disparities. He seems committed to better universal healthcare, especially where most needed, in its so-called interior.
Modern Panama may date back to November 1821, but its original discovery by Europeans in 1501—at the hand of Spanish explorer Rodrigo de Bastidas—was profound in setting the age of conquest in motion. Its cities of tomorrow, however smartly constructed, will ring hollow if urbanization continues at the expense of the overlooked interior.