Urban planning and floods in Buenos Aires – Press review


The Easter holidays were wet in Argentina. Torrential rain flooded some barrios of Buenos Aires and La Plata, causing several deaths and throwing many people on the street. To say that this event caused a trauma would be a euphemism. All levels of government responded to the wave of popular distress in their own way, as all wanted to show maximum presence and support. The ‘presidencia de la nacion’ raised the amount of social benefits for those worsely affected, for the ‘weakests’ as they like to refer to in the peronist doctrin of rather opportunistic social justice. They also launched an audit to uncover the causes of these tragic floods. The latter is more of my interest as far as this blog is concerned, and I am looking forward to its publication. Indeed, poor urban planning is said to be the major cause of these floods.
Now, at the city level, it was another more complicated story. The Mayor was highly criticised – above all because he was away on holidays in Brazil when it happened. I will not try and judge whether this particular criticism is valid or not, but the political context of positive hatred between the ‘presidencia de la nacion’ and the ‘gobierno de la ciudad de BsAs’ will give you a bit of background.

In any case, the criticism directed at the city level ended up creating quite an interesting debate on urban planning in Buenos Aires and La Plata, which is worth reporting here. It is not so often that urban planning is the number one news in both TV and written press.

I will start with the latest article, very straightforwardly entitled ‘Planificacion urbana’, published in this week-end’s supplement of Pagina 12. It is signed by Luciano Scatolini, director of Habitat at the National University of La Plata. He raises the issue of access to land (and not to property) in relation to laws of the market. He starts ‘it is now time to say out loud that when cities are ruled by the real-estate market, we lose the idea of generating public space that is planned, manageable and inclusive. It is high time to have a real debate in order to decide what type of cities we want to LIVE in‘. Indeed, the tension between public space and private property is intensified in cities, where land is scarce but where a lot of people live.

Private property is a fundamental right in a capitalist society, but it seems to me that it has not been very much put into question lately. I can only recall the following authors in order to think thoroughly on the right to property:

– John Locke, who advocates that property is the ultimate subject of politics as it responds to a natural need

– Rousseau, who rather thinks that property is the original cause of inequality

– Proudhon, whose ideas I will grossly sum up with his famous quote ‘property is robbery’

– and skipping a couple of centuries to get as close as possible to our political and social context: Henri Lefebvre, who put forward the idea of ‘the right to the city’ rather than the property right (although he doesn’t oppose them – I will draft a summary of his book later in this blog).

– and I also want to quote Elinor Ostrom ,who, more in the economics field, worked on common goods and land ownership (whose articles I shall also summarise here later)

Except for Lefebvre, it seems to me that private property has overwhelmingly been thought in a rural context.  Of course, 18th century philosophers could only think within their mostly agricultural society of the time. We now live in a mostly urbanised society, which gives another context to the relation between property rights and public space.

Back here and now, Luciano Scatolini continues and highlights the fact that local governments have a crucial role to play to regulate their local real-estate market and urban planning. He mentions two recent laws – local regulations from the province of Buenos Aires – which he thinks are positive signs.

– The ‘Ley de Justo Acceso al Habitat’ (N°14.449) – ‘Law of Fair Access to Habitats’, which was apparently thought to give their fair share of benefits to every protagonist, and also have the costs of urban development born by everyone.

– The rule N°14.461, which modifies the law-decree 9533/80 of the military dictatorship refering to the administrative management and ruling over State property. The author points out that the modification of this decree increases the State’s competences over land uses, channeling them towards public services.

He concludes by reiterating that positive changes towards more inclusive cities will only be achieved if local governments manage and plan their own territories outside the market’s logic.

In so far as my quest for defining European or Latin-american models for land-use and urban development is concerned, I think that this article shows quite a contrast between the two continents. It is my feeling (for the moment it is more a feeling than a well-grounded thought) that questioning private property is rather taboo in Europe. The political context in Latin America, as well as such tragedies as the recent floods, have fostered such thinking in Argentina. In Buenos Aires, there are numerous examples of sky-rocketting towers, quickly built by real-estate companies with little thought for the urban environment basics. These quick constructions are under the spotlight when it comes to finding the various reasons for the floods*. Such critical thinking might be transferable in Europe – I’m thinking of the November 2011 dramatic flooding of Genoa in Italy, for example – but that will be for another post.

* You can’t blame it all on bad weather, climate change and bad luck – because in the end, the pope is Argentinian and protects the country!

Read the article in Spanish at: http://www.pagina12.com.ar/diario/suplementos/cash/17-6750-2013-04-15.html


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