• Opinion
  • January 3, 2019
  • 9 minutes
  • 1

Why Buenos Aires has put residents at the heart of slum upgrading

Opinion: A community participation approach has created more sustainable results

slum upgrading

This piece was written by Juan Maquieyra, President of the Housing Institute of the City of Buenos Aires. He was one of Apolitical’s 100 Most Influential Young People in Government for 2018. For more like this, see our cities newsfeed.


In recent years, Buenos Aires’ city government has set out to make the city more inclusive and sustainable — with a priority of serving its most vulnerable populations.

Understanding that the conditions in which people are housed — as well as their access to schools, transport, jobs and nature — are critical factors that affect quality of life, the government has become more active in large-scale slum upgrading and integrating slum communities into the wider city.

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There are many global examples of slum upgrading. However, this case offers an unusual opportunity to learn about how important the design of policy processes is in improving the prospects of program success and sustainability.

Instead of a top-down approach to policy implementation, Buenos Aires’ government has concentrated on building local capacity so that residents are able to actively involve themselves. The government has established clear channels for community participation in decision making, ultimately giving people the opportunity to influence the actions that shape their lives.

Social process over project  

One of the main challenges of designing a successful participatory project is the need to match two very different things: an upgrading slum project and a social process.

There are few examples where process has been given such a priority in design and implementation

The Ministry of Housing has designed an innovative participatory process which seeks to involve the relevant actors in the decision making of the slum upgrading intervention. Many project designers would agree that “process matters”, but there are few examples where process has been given such a priority in design and implementation.

This slum upgrading project includes three main integration objectives to foster equitable development.

First, housing integration, which means providing adequate housing for families and security of tenure. The rehousing aspect of this project includes the construction of a new neighbourhood of 1,700 houses, named Pope Francis.

Second, urban integration. This means connecting the settlement with the rest of the city by installing basic infrastructure such as water, access roads and footpaths, electricity, public lighting, access to public spaces and transportation expansion.

Third, socio-economic integration: improving access to education, health, childcare and employment opportunities.

These pillars are connected by a cross-cutting participatory and cultural perspective. The project supports cultural diversity and identity by recognising that each neighbourhood has a particular identity and sense of place.

The entire process is supplemented by the implementation of various participation instruments at different levels. Ultimately, these efforts aim to create a community with a sense of ownership and entitlement.

How does this participatory approach work?

The process started in the Villa 20 Buenos Aires city slum two years ago. Some 20,000 residents lived in precarious housing in an area that had never had access to water, gas mains or electricity. Social issues and lack of access to public transportation were equally concerning.

The first phase of the program involved building community capacity. The Ministry of Housing helped the community to organise by providing the place and tools to form a “participatory roundtable” attended by key stakeholders: resident representatives, neighbourhood social organisations, the city ombudsman and the ministry itself.

From the beginning, this board worked through weekly meetings to generate consensus in defining a common objective: the re-urbanisation of the neighbourhood and its socio-urban integration.

slum upgrading

A community participation approach has created more sustainable results

The end product of this stage was the preparation, approval and regulation of the re-urbanisation bill that legitimised the process and laid the foundation for the social and urban integration project.

Participation allows citizens to better plan their neighbourhoods and live better lives in their cities

The urbanisation intervention strategy involves working at four levels: district, neighbourhood, blocks and houses. Each of the 30 blocks of Villa 20 where the government is working is represented by one “participatory roundtable”  that meets twice a week, in addition to a roundtable meeting of the entire neighbourhood every 15 days.

In those roundtables the plans presented by the Ministry of Housing are shaped, and the residents that will be relocated to the nearby constructed houses are informed of what the moving procedure will be like and the loans they will have to assume to pay for the new housing. Extended special credit lines, with affordable means-tested quotes for each family, help first-time buyers meet a difficult repayment process.

The community also decides, through their votes, which houses to demolish to make way for the area’s new road that will enable the paving of new urban roads, drains, water supply facilities, electricity and public transport.

This process started two years ago, and slum upgrading is already bringing affordable housing, green spaces and better public transportation. The first 500 families — out of the 1,700 that will be moving into Barrio Pope Francis, one of the new areas created for housing — are already living in adequate houses with security of tenure.

The results not only show improved access to essential infrastructure, housing, social services and loans for housing repayments. They also show the importance of process in making slum upgrading sustainable.

The importance of community participation 

Here are a few lessons learned from this project on the importance of this participatory approach.

  • It improves design and quality of the program. If stakeholders help make decisions at all stages of the program, problems are more likely to be understood and solutions are more effective.
  • It enhances the impact and sustainability through local ownership of projects and a sense of responsibility on the part of the community. This helps to overcomes the paternalism in the relationship with public institutions in favour of a culture of rights and responsibilities — on both sides.
  • It contributes to overarching goals of good governance, democratisation and poverty reduction. It favours people’s empowerment, and helps to foster informed and responsible citizens.

Some policy designers believe participation creates risks, makes implementation slower or generates expectations that are difficult to meet. But this Villa 20 experience shows that, in fact, participation creates an opportunity for success, allowing citizens to better plan their neighbourhoods and live better lives in their cities.

As governments redefine their role in this way, a greater sharing of responsibilities and access to rights are giving shape to a true urban governance. — Juan Maquieyra 

(Picture credit: Flickr/Eric Wienke)

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