Buenos Aires

Biblio (46) The precarious settlement planning handbook

Biblio 46 manual asentamientos precarios

The title is in itself a paradox, not unfit for G.K. Chesterton, and even more if you read a more clear title; this is a handbook for illegal subdivisions. Urban planning was born to make possible a living environment of quality for the whole of the population. And this is why this book is both an abomination and a much needed publication, depending on who judges.

The handbook appears in Argentina, a country which is not in the worse situation regarding that matter in Latin America; this is perhaps one of the reasons why a team at the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urban Planning of the University of Buenos Aires, lead by Viviana Asrilant,  gets to think that facing the problems to solve this situation for decades, such an initiative can be of help. There seems to have been a help by the Ministry for Public Education.

The handbook follows this table of contents, which seems to consider as a given fact the existence of an organized group of settlers:

1-        Who may use the handbook

2-        How to build your neighborhood

3-        How to legalize your neighborhood. Legal way to regularize domains.

4-        Ways to access housing

5-        The organization and the dynamics of groups

6-        Annexes

Apparently (I do not know the argentine law so I cannot judge in detail) there seems to be a serious approach to each item, including warnings against the illegality of some actions.

I do not believe this to be a solution for such problems. As a matter fact, I do not think illegal action and property conflicts to be a good way anywhere; facing the consequences of illegality for yourself or your family can be much worse than what can be thought of. This handbook is probably closer to the ideal of open-source urban planning (or more properly, a planning hacker’s cookbook)  than many European or North American; and this is a relevant question, as an open source manual gives you access to a knowledge, but by no means reduces it complexity or gives you the complete knowledge of a complex matter.

This publication also raises an additional question, even more after two weeks with posts about something as simple at first sight but as complex, as the handbook shows, as a street, its design and its building. Today there is a certain interest worldwide for this kind of settlement, mainly by urban planners and other experts, sometimes with a fascination that seems closer to aesthetics than to a real experience of a life there. And if it is interesting to know how neighborhood improvement projects work in cities that seem to have a certain success, as Medellin and Rio de Janeiro, it could be even more interesting to see what is waiting down the line by looking at how things have been done in countries that are thought to have solved the problem during the last decades. As for each favela or African slum there was probably a Spanish poblado chabolista after the civil war, a Hoovervile in the US during the Depression, a bidonville in France during the 1950s-1960s or other examples in more advanced countries.

Madrid-Buenos Aires (5)

Two urban projects with a story, which shows how complex it is for a city to go from ideas to action.


Secundino Zuazo and Herman Jansen win in 1929 the competition to extend the Castellana, the main north-south axis in Madrid. During the years up to the 1936-1939 civil war the project is not developed, and later the area is developed through partial approaches that no longer have the integral vision, form AZCA (already defined in the 1946 Plan Bidagor) to the leaning towers of Plaza de Castilla. There is a good article by Carlos Sambricio on the Zuazo- Jansen project.

Grain elevators in Puerto Madero

Grain elevators in Puerto Madero

Le Corbusier's project

Le Corbusier’s project

Le Corbusier's night view of Buenos Aires from the Rio de la Plata

Le Corbusier’s night view of Buenos Aires from the Rio de la Plata

Le Corbusier visits Buenos Aires in 1929 and draws the first sketches for an approximation of the city to the Rio de la Plata, transforming Puerto Madero, a string of docks in the central area, in a space marked by its “Cartesian” skyscrapers (reading Le Corbusier’s travels is like remembering Napoleon’s campaigns…). The project is detailed in Paris in 1937-1938, and is even subject to an aborted attempt to develop it by the city government in 1947-1949. The work with a group of Argentine architects (described in « La Red Austral, obras y proyectos de Le Corbusier y sus discípulos en Argentina », by Liernur and Pschepiurca) was essential to the project, even if it was finally not built. Under the presidency of Carlos Menem during the 1990s the idea is reactivated; Puerto Madero has become a new space of centrality, but it is legitimate to think that Le Corbusier would rant, as in New York, agains the small size (in plan ) of the towers. There is an interesting article by Juan Manuel Borthagaray, and the Corporación has a website.

Puerto Madero as built

Puerto Madero as built

Madrid, Buenos Aires (4)


An elegant neighborhood is a space in which architecture has been developed with a greater quality over time as, simply put, its neighbors have had the money to pay for better buildings and they have maintained them. It seems Gangnam-gu is one of the richest neighborhoods in Seoul, but as the city was almost razed during the Korean war, this probably will only translate into an elegant area in the classical sense with more time (at least they have a song…).

The Retiro area in Buenos Aires (some blocks north of Plaza de Mayo) and the Barrio de Salamanca in Madrid (north of the Retiro park) have been built mainly during the XIXth century.

In Madrid the Salamanca area, projected as an integral extension of the city, is, as the Barcelona ensanche (a contemporary project) a tentative to use the grid as a directive principle. It has finally become the most exclusive neighborhood as those that had less money found less expensive opportunities out of the regulated city. And it still is a highly valued area, albeit an extremely dense one; as in Barcelona the original building bylaws where changed allowing a more speculative development. Anyway, there are still two blocks east of plaza de Colón where you can still see the originally projected block model, with large central courtyards, usually “forgotten”.

In Buenos Aires the Retiro district had no special intention to become different by layout or project. How would you differentiate you as a grid in a city that is a whole grid? In fact, it is a less regular grid than that of Madrid (one also adapted to preexisting elements). The neighborhood appears when the then rich citizens look for a new space after the 1871 yellow fever epidemics; Paris is the model for the architecture in a moment in which Argentina, as an agrarian power, becomes an emergent power. From the 1930s it is an entry point for modern architecture.

Avenida Córdoba, Buenos Aires. Image on Panoramio by Franciscovies

Madrid, Buenos Aires (3)

Surface in sq m of the parcels in the historical core of Madrid (left) and in the San Telmo area in Buenos Aires

Surface in sq m of the parcels in the historical core of Madrid (left) and in the San Telmo area in Buenos Aires

What is an old city ? to begin with, an area in which the layout and the parcels are older; buildings are renovated and change much faster than usually thought, and but for some exceptions even the most medieval cities have a substantial share of their buildings with less than 200 years. Usually they are places with smaller parcels, as the technical and financial tools used to build housing were much more limited in precedent centuries.

You can note that the “grain” (relation of size among parcels) of historic Madrid and of San Telmo, the historic core of Buenos Aires, is similar. The layout is strictly different, as Madrid has a more organic system on which trials of a more regular city have been disposed, as the Plaza Mayor, built from 1576 (nearly the time of the second foundation of Buenos Aires).

Central Madrid has more ceremonial spaces than central Buenos Aires; the argentine capital compensates with an overwhelming array of wide boulevards (as the Avenida de Mayo, linking the hughe dome of the Congress to the Casa Rosada) and is position near the Rio de la Plata (which unfortunately cannot be seen from the urban core).

Plaza Mayor in Madrid

Plaza Mayor in Madrid

A detail of the Casa de la Panadería in Plaza Mayor in Madrid (on the right in the precedent image), after its restoration in the las decade

A detail of the Casa de la Panadería in Plaza Mayor in Madrid (on the right in the precedent image), after its restoration in the las decade

Espacio Artes y Oficios in the cloister of the San Francisco convent, San Telmo, Buenos Aires (image by gsonzogni in Panoramio)

Madrid, Buenos Aires (2)

plazas oriente-mayoFinding two spaces that can be compared directly in two different and distant cities is far from easy. This is quite clear for the sites of political power; I don’t know how the spaces around the 50 state capitols in the USA are, but I am sure that even when many of the buildings seem almost identical on photos, their urban position is different (wikipedia even says that 7 of them even have no dome…).

In Buenos Aires and Madrid, lets take two relevant spaces: Plaza de Mayo in the Argentine capital, Plaza de Oriente in the Iberian city.

The Plaza de Oriente is a space designed during the short reign of José I Bonaparte, creating an urban space subordinated to the Palacio Real, by Sabatini, a magnificent building. The architectures and the layout of the square are uniforme, but they do not reach the qualities of the palace. The Teatro Real is also a historical building with values, but again not reaching the level of the palace. Besides, the trees give a good visual barrrier, broken by calle Bailén to favor the Palacio Real, giving good views towards the surrounding areas. The differences of level are good for that.

plaza oriente

The Plaza de mayo is an evolution of the Plaza Mayor designed in 1580 by Juan de Garay, founder of  Buenos Aires, as a 100×100 m rectangle. What now is the Casa Rosada (the residence of the President of the Republic) was already the center of power in these first colonial times. The square evolved over time, becoming a park in the XIXth century. The Casa Rosada appeared as transformation of the original fort on Avenida Ribadavia, and the Casa de Correos appeared at its side in 1853. In 1886 architect Tamburini reunites both buildings in an eclectic compound, and since then there have been many alterations. The Metropolitan Cathedral, to the west, has a magnificent neoclasic façade with a large pediment, solving its integration in the square with a lateral smaller open space as to appear as an independent classical temple; the project dates from 1745, having been finished in 1836. Its current presence in the square is nearly as relevant as that of the Casa Rosada

Madrid, Buenos Aires (1)

The Retiro, as seen from Cerro del Tío Pio (Madrid)

The Retiro, as seen from Cerro del Tío Pio (Madrid)

Public green spaces as defined in urban planning documents in Madrid (left, M30 in black) and Buenos Aires (right)

Public green spaces as defined in urban planning documents in Madrid (left, M30 in black) and Buenos Aires (right)

data.buenosaires.gob.ar, PGOUM Madrid 1997

500 m around the public green spaces

500 m around the public green spaces

500 m around the green public spaces over 5000 sq m

500 m around the green public spaces over 5000 sq m

Biblio (28) A tale of two cities


I am fully aware that when in 1859 Charles Dickens published his “A tale of two cities” he was talking about the parallel evolution of London and Paris during the French revolution. But the title seems to good not to use it to talk about two cities that are nearly as different and distant as they are close in many aspects, Madrid and Buenos Aires.

I have lived in Madrid for more than a decade, but I have never been to Buenos Aires. Despite that, having lived in Galicia for 30 years, Buenos Aires has been a constant presence, probably as New York for an Irish.

It seems that Benjamin Disraeli, PM to Queen Vitoria, said that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. With this prevention, and taking into account that there are always alternative sources, the statistical yearbooks of both cities seem a way to approach the realities of both cities.

For Madrid, the Yearbook published by the City in December 2012 includes social, economic and environmental data.

For Buenos Aires, the 2011 Yearbook includes similar data families, making comparison easier.

On both cases, general statistics describe cities touched by the economic crisis, the one at the beginning of the past decade for Buenos Aires and the one that began in 2007 for Madrid.

Buenos Aires (2010)

2,89 million residents

13,2% non native

4,5 per thousand, yearly population increase

16% population over 65

24.354 informal dwellings

29,5% population with revenues under the basic purchase basket

Madrid (2010-2011)

3,23 million residents

15,4% foreigners

19,36% population over 65

12.109 Euros  of average per capita income

5% population that cannot keep their home warm enough

13,5% population at risk of poverty.

Urban planning and food (5). Buenos Aires

comida-bsas-1The article Agricultura familiar periurbana y ordenamiento territorial en el Área Metropolitana de Buenos Aires. Un análisis diacrónico, published in Geografía y sistemas de información geográfica (GEOSIG) at the Universidad Nacional de Luján, analyzes the dynamics of agriculture in the outskirts of the Argentine capital.

The last decades have been marked by the rising metropolitan population as well as by the gradual reduction in the share of small farmers to the benefit of large farms. The authors atribute that to the economic policies at the country level and to a planning law that is focused on urban tissue regulation (with a curious penchant for gated communities, of all things…), but that lacks an integral vision of the land according to its various values, among which agrarian production is clearly one.

Urban freeways (7). Buenos Aires

The Metropolitan Area of Buenos Aires, with over 13 million people, is the second largest metropolitan area in the Spanish-speaking world, and, despite the crisis, one of the main economic hubs in Latin America.

According to “Desarrollo urbano y movilidad en América Latina” (urban development and mobility in Latin America), published by the Corporación Andina de Fomento  in 2011, the mobility  in that metropolitan area can be described by:

–           Public transit have gone from 67% of total trips in 1972 to 40% in 2007

–           A lack of structural improvements in public transit system for the last decades.

–           Recent tender procedures for many projects that fail to materialize.

–           Low speed for buses.

–           A failure of the project to create dedicated bus lanes.

–           Bad state of public transit stations.

–           Inter administrative cooperation difficulties that prevent a unified planning of the transportation systems.

The idea of an urban highway network in Buenos Aires comes from the 1960s, as traffic congestion became a problem. In 1978 a call for proposals to build two toll urban highways was launched. They were opened in 1980 under a concession system, in a complex context with hiperinflation and political unstability (the end of dictature was near). So began a cycle of infrastructure creation that, due to economic hardship, was later passed from a private- public partnership to public ownership. Around 2000, the same history again, with the terrible 2001 crash of the national economy as a problem. The city has today 40 km of urban highways, some under toll systems.

THe social and economic dynamics of the country, that has seen its middle classes shrink dramatically in the last 40 years, shows to which extent public mobility policies of any kind require a certain stability to develop, as they depend on long-run credits.