Established in 1994, Colombia’s class-based system of stratification has, more often than not, divided Colombians based on socio-economics. Bogotá, the capital, is the most obvious site of the system’s harsh divisions, which have rendered the city an exclusionary urban space. In what was intended as a move towards equitable taxation and subsidization has created a city that has become physically divided between the rich and the poor.

Most if not all societies have organic systems of stratification that create specific social hierarchies. The division of power, influence, or agency within this hierarchy may depend on factors like wealth, religion, class, and ethnicity. That is not, however, is to misconstrue the Colombian system as exceptional to other systems. Rather, by taking a closer look at Bogotá, what is clear is how deeply intertwined its system of social stratification has become with the development of physical space in the city.

Strata-Gizing The City: Origins Of The System

The system of stratification currently in place can be traced back to Bogotá in 1988 when the government divided the city into six strata based on socio-economic characteristics. The idea behind the system was to assess which strata needed subsidies the most, enabling the government to act accordingly. By 1994, this system was canonized in law and had spread to other parts of Colombia, hailed as driving the country towards social and economic equality. However, reality today in Bogotá, the birthplace of the system and where it was first implemented, is anything but equal.

Prior to the current system in place, a low-intensity war between armed militias and the Colombian government broke out across the country, which, under the ideological guise of communism, was geared toward achieving a degree of social and economic equality that did not exist in the 1960s when the conflict began. At the time that the system was established in Bogotá, the government began gaining ground vis-a-vis disbanding militia groups and regaining control in other Colombian cities. Coupled with the complexities of the enormous gap between the rich and the poor in Bogotá, the stratification system was supposed to bring the different socio-economic groups in the city closer. Today, Bogotá remains divided along the invisible borders between one stratum and the other, limiting social and physical mobility in the city.

The system is based on a number of characteristics that categorize individuals into strata ranked from stratum 1, which is the poorest strata, to stratum 6, which is the richest. The majority of Bogotános live in strata 2, 3, or 4; approximately 68 percent of Bogotános live in strata 2 and 3. These Bogotános live mostly in the South of the city in poorly-built or informal housing. Those in strata 5 or 6, however, live mostly in the North of the city in better equipped housing, and make up only four percent of Bogotános in the city. The system does not recognize homeless individuals and categorizes them as “sin estrato” or without stratum.

Housing and geographical positioning in Bogotá are symbiotic in the city’s social system. Since the system’s scale is based on income, people living in strata 5 and 6 pay more for services and infrastructure. This ideally balances the scale in so that subsidies for electricity, water, and sewage in the lower strata cost less. However, with how much money one makes as a precursor, the system has placed people accordingly into what have become geographical cantons. In mapping Bogotá, strata are easily delineated since individuals that make similar incomes cluster together, creating highly exclusionary “wealth zones.”

social stratification

Map of Bogota indicating the city’s social stratification. (CC: Geografía Urbana)

City Versus System

Bogotá’s system of stratification has created a system of urban socio-spatial segregation and a north-south divide. Since the strata system effectively creates spatially segregated zones based on wealth, lower-income individuals are often restricted to poorer areas and higher-income individuals to richer areas, with minimal physical mobility outside of their respective zones. Alejandro Rodríguez, project director of the urban consultancy firm Geografía Urbana, says that Bogotá “[has] a problem with social sustainability as the stratification system stigmatizes people and urban districts in the lower strata. Only people in the middle section of the strata will have a chance to move.”

Bogotá’s system has obvious ramifications on inter-strata interaction. Most notably, a “core-periphery” pattern of spatial segregation is a manifestation of the system’s divisiveness. The higher strata live or work near the urban core while the lower strata live and work on the periphery of the city, very rarely crossing paths. Aside from access to social services, the infrastructure and even retail stores surrounding these areas are reflective of the socio-economic dynamics of the area they are located in. In other words, schools, restaurants, or other facilities in the higher strata – and in the urban core – cater to the rich as opposed to those on the periphery.

Esteban Ceballos, a 22-year-old Colombian-born Argentinian-Venezuelan student and Bogotáno, tells progrss in an interview that the city’s stratification system has a great deal of influence over life in Bogotá. “It shapes how the city looks and where the greatest level of public investment is dedicated [in] the city,” he says. “People usually only move within their respective neighborhoods.” Given his mixed Latin American background, Ceballos says that he would be classified as a stratum 5 or 6 Bogotáno, but since he isn’t Colombian, he doesn’t consider himself a part of the “elite,” as he puts it.

Where Is The Lo(Public Space)ve?

In Bogotá, the disparity between governmental efforts put into urban development and the creation of restricted spaces among these multifarious wealth zones is obvious. Here lies a question of access – if any – to public spaces in the Colombian capital. In Juan Galvis’ article “Remaking Equality,” he presents a critical analysis of Bogotá’s notion of “socio-economic equality” by looking at public space in the city.

The city’s Public Space and Master Plan (PMEP) is a group of policies that were collected in 2005 with the aim of regulating the city’s public spaces; they were later grouped together by the government to form the PMEP. The PMEP mainly uses what Galvis calls “community participation” in its attempts to engage and include Bogotános across strata. This kind of rhetoric and the entire idea of class-less public space and non-exclusionary access to it is rooted in class difference.

Parque de la Calle 93 (93rd Park Street) is a park located in central Bogotá and a stellar example of how the social class system in Bogotá informs Bogotános’ access to public space. After private ownership of the park was transferred to a body under the PMEP, also known as the “Friends of 93rd St. Park Association,” the usage of the park as a public space became intensely regulated.

social stratification

Bogotá’s Parque de la Calle 93 (CC: Pedro Felipe)

In an interview with Galvis, the director of the “Friends,” distanced the body from the public offices it works with and instead drew it to be more of a private corporation. He also made clear that utilizing the public park as a space for protest or for commercial activities was strictly forbidden “like drinking alcohol” is. In addition to the fact that the park is policed by third party security despite it being public space, the director’s authoritarian approach to park policy suggests the body’s monopoly on dictating how people use the park. In lieu of making the space more accessible to people from different strata, the park has become an extension of class segregation and thwarts inclusive access to public spaces.

BRT And TransMilenio: Mobility And Accessibility In Bogotá

In the year 2000, Bogotá rolled out a Bus Rapid Transport system (BRT), dubbed TransMilenio, replacing the city’s previous uncoordinated and independently-operated transportation, which was heavily dependent on mini-buses. In 2006, the city extended the BRT network, adding a number of lines that expanded riders’ accessibility to other parts of the city. Bogotá’s BRT not only revolutionized urban transport within Bogotá, but also became a game changer for inter-strata mobility across the city.

On the one hand, TransMilenio formalized what was an informal transport system, and on the other, it extended the ‘motility’ of people from lower-ranking strata. (Motility being the potential mobility of an individual, meaning how feasible their movement in a city is). And with the introduction of Bogotá’s BRT in 2000 and its expansion in 2006, the TransMilenio made lower strata Bogotános increasingly mobile.

Enabling greater movement within the city warrants greater accessibility to a city and influences how people from different social segments interact with one another. Bogotá’s BRT system expanded what are called feeder lines, which connect the periphery with the urban core, and trunk corridors, which run throughout the urban core itself.

And although Bogotá’s BRT enabled mobility and accessibility for Bogotános, there remains a discrepancy in understanding how it impacted urban fragmentation in the city. According to an article written by Bocarejo, Portilla, and Melendez on the city’s BRT, accessibility in Bogotá via the TransMelenio does not necessarily mean increased access to jobs and services. They believe that, while Bogotános from different strata are riding the BRT to navigate the city, they are only shuttling between two strata – most likely where they work and where they live, limiting the amount of inter-class interactions.

social stratification

Map of the reach of Bogota’s BRT. (CC: Bocarejo, et al)

Spatial Exclusion In An Exclusionary City

In a 2002 study by McIlwaine and Moser, they found that poorer neighborhoods were highly stigmatized by what they called “area stigma.” This stigma, however, is not specific to geographical positioning in the city, meaning that, even those who live in a higher-ranking stratum can still potentially be excluded based on race, schooling, or your job.

When it was originally implemented, the categorization of Bogotános was supposed to be a strategic administrative function. But coupled with the spatial fragmentation of the strata into wealth zones, the system became a kind of state-sponsored caste system, as anthropologist Steven Bunce calls it. In addition to the “area stigma” that quickly became associated with different strata, the system began to mold how citizens perceived social mobility within a socio-economic hierarchy. Bogotános became constricted to their caste-stratum based on their positionality within this hierarchy. According to Bunce, some even began believing that stratum is inherited from one generation to the next.

Ceballos believes identity in regards to social class determines the position one occupies in Bogotáno society. “It’s like your passport [that allows you] to move around specific social circles,” he says in an interview with progrss. “Family name [also] carries huge weight for Colombians. If you’re from the “Carvajal” family from Cali or the “Santo Domingo” from Bogotá, people will surely treat you differently than if you have a common family name.”

Andrés Trujillo, Director of Operations at the accelerator Yunus, tells progrss that he identifies as a strata 6 Bogotáno. In comparison to his maid, who lives in strata 1, Trujillo is highly educated and receives a salary ten times his maid’s. “My gym mates all come from strata 6 as me,” he says. “They have studied abroad and are mainly white. My maid [however] is mulata.” Trujillo’s account touches upon the cross-sections of the social system in Bogotá, which cuts across race, socio-economic positioning, and education.

A Donde, Bogotá?

The system of social stratification that currently divides Bogotá, despite its numerous drawbacks, is not seen in a negative light by everyone in Bogotá. Former mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, thinks social stratification by law can bring Bogotáno society closer to social and economic equality. And although Peñalosa may be right in theory, the manifestation of the system in Bogotáno society has proven otherwise.

Between spatial fragmentation and social divisions, Bogotá remains split in two: the rich of the North and the poor of the South. The development of the BRT relieved some of the social pressures attached to mobility and accessibility for Bogotános. But coupled with access (or lack thereof) to public space and the formidability of one’s position in the caste-stratum, it seems that harboring a sense of social and economic equality in a city that is highly stratified is more complex than previously believed. As a consequence of an exacerbated social stratification and a lack of inclusion, Bogotános further tighten their grip on stratum identity and maintain Bogotá’s status as a fragmented city.

social stratification

(CC: Pedro Szekely)