The first Contested Cities international seminar took place in Buenos Aires last week, from 20 to 23 May. Contested Cities is a project funded by the European Union (FP7 – People Pirses), which networks researchers between Europe and Latin America. They work in their respective cities on issues such as understanding the urban space with audiovisual resources, the impact of gentrification on the social fabric, and social movements to reclaim urban space.
For my own record and for your perusal, here is a summary this three-day conference.
Monday 20 May: Opening Conference by Dr. Stavros Stavrides
Stavros Stavrides presented the idea of urban commoning. He defines it as practices of sharing and cooperation in an urban context. Commoning practices examples range from open community gardens, to neighburhood parties, collective kitchens, and collective urban equipment building. The commoning practice does not only imply sharing the commons, but producing them. It is a proactive move that goes against the “cities of enclaves”(Peter Marcuse), opening up districts and linking citizens together.
Tuesday 21 May: Visual arts to approach social sciences and urban issues
The day started with the captivating presentation of a project by Javier Garcìa (architect) and Pablo Vitale (political sciences). They worked out a map of the Villa 31 (most central slum in Retiro, Buenos Aires) with teenagers from the neighbourhood. The project has had positive impacts on the teens, making them understand the basics of urban planning and feeling a sense of pride for their neighbourhood.
I should mention that slums generally do not appear on maps. If you googlemap the Retiro neighbourhood, the Villa 31 area will appear in grey, like green spaces and other non-built plots of land. The ongoing project shows that there are streets, squares, and different blocks belonging to Buenos Aires as much as those of any other neighbourhood.
Two sisters, one sociologist (Debora Swistun) and the other photographer (Divina Swistun), developed a project with a school from their neighbourhood: the Villa Inflamable, situated next to a Shell oil-refining plant, at the very South of Buenos Aires. They gave cameras to pupils and specific tasks: taking photos of what they liked and what they disliked in their neighbourhood. They used a qualitative analysis technique called reflexive photography to determine to what extent these children perceived the damages in their environment. Through the pictures, one could read a kind of opinion poll.
Wednesday 22 May: Social impacts of gentrification in cities
The “gentrification team” of the Contested Cities presented the main issues at stake. What struck me most is the difficulty to define and even assess gentrification. What is it? There are at least 10 different definitions of gentrification by a variety of authors. Is it good or is it bad? Is it a new form of segregation? Can there be urban regeneration without gentrification? Is it first a social or an economic process (rentabilisation of urban land on the real estate market)? Although gentrification is a very informal urban production process, it was always underlined that public authorities play a big role in its development.
Buenos Aires was the case study of that day. Three speakers presented different angles of research and action in Buenos Aires to fight the negative impact of gentrification (e.g. rents multiplied by 3 in one year). Two main points were underlined: the fact that gentrification is an issue of centrality in cities, and the uselessness of the city’s constitution and protection of habitat rights. Which brings us nicely to the last day on social movements.
Thursday 23 May: Social movements in cities
Brazilian geograph Marcelo Lopes de Souza opened the day by clarifying the terms of the issue at stake. He underlined the difference between social movements and civil society, which lies in the degree of ambition and organisation that they develop. He presented his work as trying to understand social movements in their territories. He made a reference to the participative budget that has been institutionalised in Porto Alegre for several years now. He presented it as the outcome of a social movement that had become more consistent, but also more passive. As a result the participative process tends to be monopolised by a few delegates, rather than genuinely shared among the population.
Leonor Rojas then presented the MOI – Movimiento de Ocupantes e Inquilinos, in which she has been active for a number of years. Unlike the other panel members, she wasn’t from the academic world but part of a social movement herself. She gave a very good analysis of her work, namely by underlining that issues should be tackled in an integrated way to bring actual and lasting change: lodging, education, health and other issues together.
Professor Raul Zibecchi from Uruguay followed and gave a rather philosophical presentation. He made a series of important remarks such as the fact that slums, although situated in the city centre, are peripheral. He also emphasised the feminine nature of habtat social movements, where women lead struggles for their homes and are the engines of social change. Last but not least he recalled that every social progress approved by the State has been fought for at one point or another, through social movements.
I won’t make an extensive summary of the very last part, which dealt with the particular case of the Rodrigo Bueno settlement – or slum – situated by Buenos Aires’ natural reserve and its most expensive district Puerto Madero. I wrote a full article about it, which is to be published in the Urban Times soon. You should be able to read about it in my next post.