A city of contrasts, Buenos Aires works to integrate informal settlements

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Buenos Aires is a city of contrasts . It ranks as one of the most livable cities in Latin America and is in the Top 25 World’s top-performing global cities as a result of the implementation of innovative public policies coupled with significant investments over the past decade. A city of rich cultural life, it is home to one of the best opera houses and one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. 

But there is another side to the city not so well-known to foreigners. The lack of affordable housing in Metropolitan Buenos Aires is critical and the proliferation of informal settlements has been increasing. The metropolis is home to about forty percent of the families in the country living in informal settlements. It is estimated that 25 % of the population lives in poverty. There are significant differences between the core of the metropolis, the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, and the municipalities in the province of Buenos Aires that surrounds it. For example, poverty rates are three times higher in the latter.

To address this challenge that limits the city’s quality of life and potential for sustainable growth, the City and Provincial governments of Buenos Aires, with strong support from the National Government, have embarked on ambitious programs for the upgrading of the largest slums. 

The World Bank has been supporting these efforts since 2017 through the Metropolitan Buenos Aires Urban Transformation Project, financing comprehensive urban interventions in the emblematic neighborhood of Barrio 31, in the city center, and in Barrio Carlos Gardel in the Municipality of Moron. 

Today the World Bank has expanded this support through an Additional Financing to the Province of Buenos Aires for the implementation of its Plan for the Social and Urban Integration of Informal and Precarious Settlements through an integrated and multi-jurisdictional approach. 

In a first phase, the Government is working to upgrade 20 vulnerable neighborhoods in nine municipalities, including Villa Itati and Villa Azul in the Municipality of Quilmes and Carlos Gardel with the World Bank’s support.

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Vecina del Barrio 31

In Barrio 31 implementation has advanced fast and after almost two and a half years we can draw some early lessons:

  1. Bring stronger social and economic benefits through an integrated approach. In addition to transformative investments in infrastructure, the City is bringing investments in human capital, local economic development and housing improvement to Barrio 31. This integrated approach will ensure that residents not only benefit from improved access to services, but reap social and economic benefits as well. 
  2. Put citizens at the center of the design. From its inception, the comprehensive redevelopment plan for Barrio 31 has included citizen participation as a centerpiece. In fact, the law governing the upgrading process requires citizen engagement in all phases of planning and implementation. 
  3. Balance planning and action on the ground to show early results. Urban upgrading investments can take many years to complete. To show early achievements and garner community support, the government implemented a series of early interventions including public space improvements, establishment of a one-stop-shop for community services, and creation of a job training center (the Centro de Desarrollo Emprendedor y Laboral - CeDEL) that helps residents and local business owners develop skills. 
  4. Establish the right institutional structure and provide a strong field presence. To guide the upgrading process, the City established the Secretariat of Social and Urban Integration. With over 500 staff, this dedicated unit has an on-going presence in the neighborhood with about 200 employees on the ground, which helps to ensure community participation and support, and reports directly to the Mayor’s office, which enables better coordination across actors in the local government. 
  5. Create opportunities for innovation. The transformation of Barrio 31 has presented various opportunities to test new approaches to development. For example, the CeDEL was Argentina’s first project to achieve EDGE certification, a certification system focused on making residential and commercial buildings in emerging market countries more resource-efficient. New resettlement housing being supported under the World Bank financed project has also receive EDGE certification. Barrio 31 was also selected as a global pilot by McKinsey.org for a new initiative to generate public awareness and improve waste management in the neighborhood. So far, the pilot has worked with roughly 500 households, achieving a 30 percent recycling rate for dry recyclables, such as plastics, paper, and glass.

These lessons - and the knowledge exchange activities between both government levels - have helped shape the provincial program the World Bank is supporting in Villa Itati, Villa Azul and Carlos Gardel, and can be of relevance to other countries facing similar challenges to building sustainable and inclusive cities

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