Photos: Paula Alvarado.
Illegally located between major tourist hubs and one of the most upscale neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, the shanty town Villa 31 has been a source of controversy in the capital of Argentina for over eight decades.
Now, with the support of some neighbors and strong disagreement of others, the government is heading an urbanization plan of the area which makes use of discarded materials and cooperative work to build new public spaces that play a key role in making the area safe and changing its inhabitant's perceptions.
Background: A Shanty Town In BA's Most Coveted Area
The capital of Argentina has been dealing with a very particular housing situation for more than eight decades now: Villa 31 is a shanty town that is 'practically' located next to a set of railways in Retiro, two steps from Alvear Avenue in Recoleta, one of the most upscale neighborhoods in the city.
As the first stop for hundreds of new immigrants from neighboring countries that arrive to the city each year (according to government figures, 70% of inhabitants of the villa are foreigners) and because it's located in public lands both belonging to the city and the country, the town's growth is impossible to stop.
Map showing the location of the town. Image: Google Maps & Paula Alvarado.
Precarious homes two and even three stories high continue to arise without any control from construction entities or professionals and sitting on uneven dirt ground, which makes them prone to falling at any time.
Given the fact that it's impossible to stop its advance and that the area is a rich tourism hub (with the largest domestic and international bus station, three different train stations and many shopping and strolling areas a few blocks away), at the end of 2009 the local government approved a law to urbanize the place and try to incorporate it to the city as a new neighborhood.
Illegal Homes, Recycled Materials
With Buenos Aires dealing with major budget problems, the drifting of funds from tax payers to improve the living environment of illegal occupants of public lands is -at least- controversial.
So in order to move on with the plan involving the least amount of investment possible, the local government is working with salvaged materials from the city's deposits and with cooperatives of Villa 31 residents to take care of the jobs.
This writer had the opportunity to visit the area (in a tour organized by the government) and check out some of the works that have been done over the past two years.
As seen in Medellin, the main focus of the makeover is public space: to keep locals from moving on to taking new areas and expanding construction, the government built new soccer fields and squares with playgrounds for kids which are now places of encounter and sharing for neighbors. These also play a role in organizing the space and making locals respect rules and authorities.
Fronts of houses were covered with isolating paint to improve the aesthetics and duration of materials, giving the place a more colorful appearance (similar to La Boca, another famous area of Buenos Aires) and a better 'face' to look at from the neighboring highways.
Dirt streets were covered with cobble stones coming from roads that were updated to concrete (not without controversy as some neighbors are proud of the romantic cobbled streets) and light poles whose base had to be cut off (spoiled by dogs 'needs') that are no longer suitable for the city's codes (but completely safe to use) were added to light public spaces.
Other elements such as discarded public equipment and fences were also rescued and put to use in different spots.
In the two photos below, there's a good before/after comparison, with a hall that has been intervened and one that still looks like most of the shanty town.
A controversial project, without a doubt, but that is seeing the birth of a new neighborhood in the city, showing the enormous benefits and roles green and public space can have. The project also is a good destination for tons of valuable material resources that are sitting in warehouses around the city.
Still to be discussed is how all the people living at Villa 31 will be incorporated to the rest of the city in terms of tax paying and property ownership.
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