Ahead of Habitat III, Argentina wrestles with its past

A mayor has taken over as president and the country is trying take a leadership role on regional urban issues. But a decade and a half after a devastating economic crisis, Argentine urban strategy is up in the air.

Supporters of Argentina's newly elected president, Mauricio Macri, wave flags on inauguration day outside of the country's Congress, 10 December 2015. (Manvmedia/Shutterstock)

This report is part of an ongoing series looking at the issues and actions that characterize select countries’ engagement in the Habitat III process; read more in this series here. See also Citiscope’s explainer “Who are the Habitat III major players?

BUENOS AIRES — With the Habitat III conference taking place this month in Ecuador, cities have risen to the top of the global agenda in a way they haven’t since the last time the U. N.’s key urbanization summit took place, in 1996.

During those two decades, few major countries in the region have seen changes like Argentina, which underwent a major meltdown in 2002 that led to extensive social, economic and political impacts. That crisis also ushered in two consecutive administrations that vastly increased the state’s role in urban development policy.

In December, Argentina saw another major political turnover. The regime that had held power throughout the post-2002 recovery — the husband and wife Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — ceded control to a new face: former Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri.

There has been much interest in how Argentina’s urban policies would be affected by having a mayor in power. That interest has been redoubled by the Habitat III conference, the high-level political negotiations that have marked this process’s latter phases, and the fact that the conference is being hosted by a Latin American country.

Argentina also has been moving to take a broader leadership role on urban issues in the region. The country recently assumed the presidency of the Regional Meeting of Ministers and High-level Authorities of the Housing and Urban Development Sector in Latin America and the Caribbean (MINURVI).

[See: Habitat III host region takes stock of its urbanization process — warts and all]

“The commitment is to bring the region’s voices to the third Habitat conference and to take on a leadership role,” said Mariana Barrera, the country’s new director of habitat studies. (Macri will not attend Habitat III. The Argentine delegation will be headed by the country’s vice-president, Gabriela Michetti.)

And indeed, Argentina does have urban experiences that are relevant to the rest of the world — experiences with which Macri was intimately familiar in his former job. But there is growing disagreement over whether the president can offer a transformative urban vision.

Dense partidos

Buenos Aires is the country’s urban core, with the city and its metropolitan area forming a megalopolis of some 13 million people. Made up of layers that fan out from the port, Greater Buenos Aires comprises 26 municipal jurisdictions, called “partidos”, covering almost 2,600 sq km. Nearly a third of Argentina lives in this area, resulting in one of the highest population densities in the world.

“The commitment is to bring the region’s voices to the third Habitat conference and to take on a leadership role.”

Mariana Barrera
Director of Habitat Studies, Argentina

Living in Buenos Aires is no automatic indicator of good living conditions, however. Overall, the country’s poverty level stands at nearly 32 percent, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Census. Almost 10 percent of the capital’s residents live in slums, tenements and informal settlements. Some 800 people sleep on the city’s streets each night, according to a census carried out in April.

[See: Homelessness is not just about housing — it’s a human rights failure]

Meanwhile, many informal settlements sit side by side with areas of extreme wealth. As in many major cities, this contradiction poses a series of challenges: of redesigning the places where we live, of making our activities sustainable, and of creating new organizations to help reduce poverty.

Such conundrums are currently before the international community, which at Habitat III will agree on a new 20-year vision on sustainable urbanization known the New Urban Agenda. The details of that agenda have been the result of several months of political deliberation, which followed a year of input from local authorities and civil society groups across the globe. What role has Argentina played in this process? And what changes have been seen following the country’s recent shift in political power?

One dramatic policy reversal took place around the role that mayors and other “sub-national” authorities would play in deciding on the details of the New Urban Agenda. The Kirchner government had opposed a formal role for mayors in these discussions, based on concerns regarding the conflict with the United Kingdom over the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands. According to multiple sources, that opposition gummed up the Habitat III process for months.

[See: U. N. General Assembly approves Habitat III rules, ending 8 months of limbo]

However, this stance changed almost immediately when Macri took over as president. The new approach paved the way for more robust participation on the part of mayors and local governments, as enshrined in a U. N. General Assembly resolution adopted in December. But other policy changes under the Macri government have been more contentious.

New housing focus

In order to understand Argentina’s urbanization experience, including where the country’s government and civil society find themselves, one must go back a few decades. Since 1996, for instance, when Habitat II took place in Istanbul, Argentina has seen a series of major shifts.

“Although the previous government had supported the ‘right to the city’, the Macri administration refused to support the term. The government expressed concern that the concept’s meaning is so broad that it would be impossible to back up with a budget and actual policies.”

The first stage of this process was characterized by economic deregulation and the privatization of urban services. That was accompanied by a significant deterioration in the living conditions of the poor and middle class. Together, these phenomena led to the massive economic and political crisis of 2002, which had followed four years of recession.

When the crisis hit, more than half of Argentines were living in poverty, nearly a quarter in extreme poverty. The country’s unemployment rate stood at 27 percent.

[See: The challenges of land and inclusion for the New Urban Agenda]

The following year, a series of radical changes began to take place. The administration of Néstor Kirchner took over, followed by that of his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Social democrats, the Kirchners moved to give the national government a prominent role in development policy over the following decade.

Nestor’s actions spurred the creation of 6 million new jobs. In the social sphere, his administration enacted laws ensuring a monthly allowance per child and recognizing same-sex marriage and gender identity. More than 4 million people were newly able to obtain pensions, including domestic workers and homemakers, who had not previously been entitled to this benefit.

Both Nestor administrations also placed major new attention on housing, a priority that in turn was taken up by an increasingly active civil society. From 2003 to 2014, the Argentine government provided nearly 1.1 million new housing units and created two key governments institutions were also created: the National Secretariat for Access to Habitat and a major housing programme called Procrear. Since it began operating in 2012, Procrear has provided 125,000 houses; this year alone, another 25,000 families will receive homes through this programme.

[See: Habitat III must rethink the role of housing in sustainable urbanization]

Access to housing is now a major priority for Argentine NGOs at Habitat III. Virginia Romanutti, a representative of the Our Córdoba Citizen Network and the Argentine Network for Fair, Democratic and Sustainable Cities, says the central focus in Quito needs to be on the social production of habitat, ensuring that access to housing isn’t dictated by market forces.

Ana Pastor with the organization Madre Tierra (Mother Earth) likewise calls for the need to ensure the right to adequate and inclusive territory, ensuring access to decent housing.

‘Pendulum-like’ stances

In the Habitat III process, such issues have been particularly subsumed under debate around what’s known as the “right to the city”. This concept, an umbrella of urban rights aimed at encouraging governments to prioritize vulnerable communities rather than the private sector in rapidly urbanizing areas, has gained significant support particularly in Latin America. Habitat III host country Ecuador, for instance, is one of several nations in the region to have incorporated parts of this idea into national law. City governments, too, have taken similar steps.

“We are clearly sliding backwards, taking one step forward and two steps back. Pendulum-like movements already form part of the country’s history, and we are now going through dramatic moments.”

Eduardo Reese
Centre for Legal and Social Studies

In September, proponents of the right to the city scored what they saw as a significant victory when the final draft of the New Urban Agenda included reference to the term. The compromise brought to a close one of the most contentious chapters of the Habitat III negotiations.

[See: Historic consensus reached on ‘right to the city’ in New Urban Agenda]

Yet even as this debate raged during the Habitat III talks, the Argentine government changed course dramatically on the issue. Although the previous government had supported the “right to the city”, the Macri administration refused to support the term. The government expressed concern that the concept’s meaning is so broad that it would be impossible to back up with a budget and actual policies.

Instead, the administration supports an alternative concept called “cities for all”. The United States and other countries support this formulation, saying that Habitat III is the wrong venue for establishing new rights. (Proponents say this is not the intent of acknowledging a right to the city.) Yet critics say the “cities for all” formulation carries a weaker set of commitments for national governments.

In the end, both “cities for all” and “right to the city” made their way into the final text of the New Urban Agenda. As agreed in September, that text states that national governments “share a vision of cities for all” while noting “the efforts of some national and local governments to enshrine this vision, referred to as right to the city, in their legislations, political declarations and charters”.

[See: A needed cornerstone for Habitat III: The Right to the City]

Some Argentine urbanists have expressed frustration with the new government’s stance on the issue, saying the right to the city should not be taken merely as a legal matter but as an important aspirational goal.

“We are clearly sliding backwards, taking one step forward and two steps back,” said Eduardo Reese, director of economic, social and cultural rights in the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), an expert on urban and regional planning. “Pendulum-like movements already form part of the country’s history, and we are now going through dramatic moments.”

Urban agenda ‘missing’

Barrera, the director of habitat studies, said the government will use Habitat III as an opportunity to move beyond rhetoric. “In Quito we will propose going beyond making assessments and undertaking concrete actions centred on urban development,” she said.

Yet many are suspicious of whether the Macri administration will take steps they see as necessary. The aims of those supporting the concept of a right to the city offer a key example. Many advocates say that Argentina must prioritize democratizing access to urban land, ensuring that city housing is not governed solely by the demands of the market.

[See: Buenos Aires embraces “cartoneros” in push for zero waste]

Macri did not develop any such policies when he was mayor of Buenos Aires, said Reese. “In his eight years in government, urban policies were never discussed,” he said. “The city in terms of habitat and housing was governed by the real-estate market.”

Despite the progress of the past decade and a half in Argentina, today there remains a housing deficit of 3.5 million units. In addition, some 45 percent of the population still lacks sanitation and sewage, and 16 percent lacks drinking-water connections.

Macri’s administration now has a four-year plan to construct 120,000 new housing units, offer loans to build to improve 460,000 more homes, and upgrade 500 of the country’s neediest communities. A national initiative seeks to ensure 100 percent coverage for drinking water and 75 percent for sewage in urban areas.

The new administration’s most ambitious proposal is known as the Belgrano Plan, which will focus on the most disadvantaged provinces in the country’s north. These areas will see new investment in infrastructure, including new roads, railways, air transportation, drinking water and sewerage. The plan also has a major housing component, seeking to provide housing for 250,000 families, immediate assistance for people living in extreme poverty, subsidies for regional economies and work incentives, among other benefits.

[See: How Buenos Aires unclogged its most iconic street]

Still, some criticize the president as having failed to bring urban issues into the core of his national focus. In Argentina, “the urban agenda still does not have a central political importance. People see it as a services agenda,” said Fabio Quetglas, an independent consultant on development strategies.

Quetglas says this is not a break from Macri’s time as mayor but rather an extension of it. “When Macri was mayor of Buenos Aires, he didn’t offer a political discourse on urban development,” he said. “These [new programmes] are ‘modernizing’ governments bureaucratically, but the agenda of urban transformations is missing.”

Translated from Spanish by Stephanie Wildes.

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Sergio Elguezábal

Sergio Elguezábal is a journalist based in Buenos Aires. For 19 years he produced and hosted TN Ecología, a TV show on environmental issues. Currently he is environment and sustainability editor on Buenos Aires public radio, and teaches in CELAP, the Latin American Center for Journalists based in Panama.