Argentinian architect and urban planner Alfredo Garay speaks to Marcelo Corti and Demian Rotbart on the role of these torsional forces and the on-going challenges of urbanisation in contemporary Latin America

Words by Marcelo Corti and Demian Rotbart | 20 Sep, 2015

Alfredo Garay is one of the Latin America’s most influential urbanists. Politically active since his youth in the Peronist political movement, Garay joined Comunidad Tierra (Community Earth, a rare mix between a grassroots Christian group and utopian 60s commune) with maverick fellow Argentinian architect Claudio Caveri in the outskirts of metropolitan Buenos Aires. This experience left a profound mark on him, personally as much as professionally. Exiled by the military regime between 1976 and 1983, Garay lived in Belgium and Mexico where he started working with neighbourhood associations, immigrant communities, retirees and the unemployed. His time in downtown Brussels led to his ability to reconcile and articulate political and professional activity. “Before then the word urbanism didn’t exist for me,” says Garay. “I signed up to study planning for the chance to get a scholarship in order to be able to live in exile.”

The advent of democracy in Argentina prompted Garay to return home, where he resumed working with Caveri, this time in the municipality of Moreno, a city in the Province of Buenos Aires, and then in other municipal and provincial governments. In 1989, aged 36, he was appointed head of planning for the city of Buenos Aires. The most enduring mark of this period of governance in the city has been the urban renewal of Puerto Madero, the city’s original harbour that became obsolete soon after its construction in 1882. Since the 1920s, there had been no consensus on the renewal of the old port area as an expansion of the city centre; a complex web of administrative jurisdictions and bureaucratic constraints had prevented the undertaking of any initiatives. Garay’s main contribution was to formulate a project management model—heavily based on the French zones d’amenagement concerte (ZAC) procedure—and to create a bipartisan development authority called the Corporación Antiguo Puerto Madero.

Since 2000, he has held a chair in urban planning at the University of Buenos Aires. Between 2004 and 2008, Garay was in charge of the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the Province of Buenos Aires, which was responsible for the strategic guidelines in the Metropolitan Region of Buenos Aires. His work here presents a significant variation to previous proposals in metropolitan planning: it recognises uncertainty and takes into account the multiplicity of actors involved on a metropolitan scale. Despite the guidelines requiring strong political and technical flexibility for implementation, Garay’s approach has been effective on two issues: the strength of the plan as a generator of intellectual hegemony (even if not carried out, plans leave their mark on the institutional culture), and the need for state intervention in planning, without which a crisis is inevitable in metropolitan governance, resulting in a more unfair society. He is currently an advisor to the national government on the next five-year plan and various other urban renewal initiatives.

Marcelo Corti and Demian Rotbart of Café de las Ciudades (The Cities Cafe, or TCC), an online publication about cities, spoke to Garay about his thoughts on urban renewal, his having “reconciled with Le Corbusier” and what he refers to as the hypocrisy and sterility of “political correctness” in the evolution of planning as a discipline.

The Cities Cafe: How do you see the current agenda for the Latin American city, and how do you analyse the current agenda of Latin American urban planning? Both are concurrent, obviously, but unfold in different political situations that are closely linked to broader agendas, with structural ideological currents that characterise many countries in the region.

Alfredo Garay: The first issue is that, for several reasons, Latin American cities continue to grow. Demographic growth in Latin America is still higher than in other parts of the world and rural-to-city migration remains high in some countries. Some countries have demonstrated atypical dimensions of this process, such as Colombia with its “displaced people”, and those regions that have historically delayed processes of urban migration and suddenly faced new forms of farming and technologies that have massively displaced the workforce to cities.

Migration between Latin American countries has been incentivised. With the softening of borders, and as a result of greater communication between communities, there is a larger tendency of displacement, and even acceptance of immigrants. The case of Argentina is specific: our constitution welcomes immigrants. We could also add here a side chapter on the phenomenon of immigration to core countries, such as from El Salvador and Mexico to the USA. Almost the only atypical point to understand is the relationship between Brazil and other Latin American countries, in which the linguistic and cultural differences seem to define a certain distance. There is, however, significant Peruvian immigration to Brazil. However, it appears that the population growth in Brazil itself and migration from the northeast to urban centres indicates a distinct growth pattern.

Secondly, just as there is growth, there are phenomena of concentration in both large and intermediate cities. I think the central issue here has to do with the ability of our societies to create jobs, to absorb—in urban terms—expelled labour from rural production. In Argentina this is severe. The agro-export model could work well with only a third of the current population, about 13 million of 40 million people. It is clear that this is a project that a portion of society believes in and defends. Throughout history we have seen the challenges faced by the state in job creation for urban realities. There is this need for industrialisation, so the need for suitable jobs to support growing migratory flows into the cities.

The state’s inability to create jobs or expand infrastructure at the same rate of growth gives rise to two phenomena: underemployment, and the growth of the “informal” economy. That word doesn’t quite fit. I am referring to an economy that works in ways distinct to capitalism: it is pre-capitalist and sponsors various forms of self-production by artisans and manufacturers. At the same time, there are precarious forms of urbanisation that are incapable—even considering the regulatory framework or the informal rules of the game—of containing the urban phenomenon on the current scale. Informality and precariousness become hallmarks of most immigrants’ experiences. This is a structural problem of our societies, and of growth in our cities.

Connected to this, the urban discipline is unable to effectively accompany these processes. Generally, what we see is the definition of normative frameworks, concepts and patterns of development. We then have a contradiction between a formal order—an ideal, taken from ‘desired models’—and the inability of a society to fit into the framework of these models. Therefore, this society is condemned to illegality, and public policy to frustration, in the sense that the governance tools in place do not respond to these issues. This may be exemplified through the urban fringe problem: parameters are defined regarding how to formally guide urban expansion, but the multitudes of people who cannot access a portion of land in the formal market not only occupy land informally but occupy land unfit for urbanisation: areas that are flood-prone, subject to landslides, at the rear of lakes and so on. Not only is the fringe informal, it is also highly vulnerable. And the inability to respond to the needs of people who experience these levels of vulnerability produce cyclical crises in cities, affecting the poorest and requiring an unreasonable expenditure structure (because ultimately the emergency that must be addressed could already be foreseen). Almost all cities in the region are confronted by this; it is one of their key problems.

The third issue that I think exists relates to the emerging middle classes. My colleague Eduardo Rojas pointed this out to me. In Latin America the middle class has grown significantly, which has led to increased consumption capacity, access to cars, to appliances, to land, and, ultimately, to the development of new behavioural patterns by these groups, who have clearly been co-opted (or “formatted”) by the market. Their cultural dependency leads them to run after objects of desire and uphold paradigms that pose serious problems for cities. These paradigms are diverse and include: the house with a garden in a society of equals; the segregated neighbourhood; the concept of security, which hides parameters of exclusion; motorisation and freedom linked to individual mobility; forms of commercialisation (supermarkets, shopping malls) and the packaging mechanisms they engender and associated increase in waste.

This idea of quick consumption and waste-producing patterns of social behaviour applies to the city. It is a search for housing or a neighbourhood as the latest product of real estate development that presents new objects of desire, leaving behind what we might call a “used goods market” and the aspirations of different social strata to access these offerings, as well as generating successive rotations that leave behind parts of the city as missing links, as residual areas, as left-overs. It would seem that this behavioural pattern propels urban expansion to where the “new” can be produced and leaves behind remnants of the “used” city: old city centres and industrial neighbourhoods that are treated as waste and made accessible to more unprotected sectors of the population. In many cities, the highest levels of poverty are found in the dilapidated old centres, not on the periphery.

There are thus two trends—or dynamics—of change. There are those who are unable to address their problems within market parameters, and those who must respond to the parameters imposed by the market, which doesn’t contemplate an inclusive city for all. These contradictory premises of modernity leave behind divided cities. I don’t know if the right word to describe this kind of city is “dual” because it is not that stratification is actually making one thing fit two processes; instead it leaves behind separate city fractions that operate in isolation from each other and obey different rules. Within the tremendous stillness that generally characterises the city, it is possible to find transformative dynamics: valuation and depreciation. There are parts of the population who influence these transformative dynamic, and those who are harmed by it.

TCC: In recent decades, Latin America has produced very interesting examples of urban planning recognised around the world, such as in Medellín, Favela Barrio in Rio de Janeiro, the bus rapid transit (BRT) system implemented in Curitiba, and Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires. How do you view the role of Latin American planners in this context?

AG: We could categorise practicing planners into three or four different groups. There are planners who are working very close with the people, who are closely linked to social networks, and respond to the demands of social groups. Their practices are generally very positive and occur on a very local scale. Sometimes, however, they have difficulty in perceiving the city as a whole, and are in explicit denial of state power as a tool that might be useful to their practices.

TCC: They would be upholding an anarchic tradition?

AG: I’m not sure if it is anarchic exactly, but there is definitely a coherency regarding their autonomy from the state. This is a position that generally enters into difficulty once a local leader wins an election to become mayor of a locality. This can lead to a commitment to place grassroots planners in dialogue with the municipal structure.

A second group of people work for the state: they do what they can within the constraints of bureaucracy, budgetary limitations and subordination to politics. In general, it would seem that people who work for the state maintain a certain disciplinary autonomy, a kind of technocratic vocation. These are people who work and affect reality, and who experience the friction between technical knowledge and political rationality. Within our professional formation, however, there are major constraints to build the necessary bridge between technical and political rationalities. For a long time this contradiction was brutal, however, today I see many teams working in municipalities who are able to more adequately articulate this relationship with politics. Here an interesting triangulation appears, involving grassroots organisations, the political system and disciplinary thinking, trying to rebuild a common view.

There is a third group, which in Argentina is comprised not so much of planners but rather of architects, who are more functional to capitalist development and act as advisors and project managers to economic groups. The more concentrated these groups are, the more complex the teams they rely upon are. These are the groups generally responsible for designing real estate products. In this regard, I think there are some who believe in what they do, who believe in the principles that are raised by this approach, and others that do so with certain cynicism, knowing that from a disciplinary point of view they should not be doing some things—like finding ways to cheat development rules—and they develop a profession around this.

The fourth grouping must be the largest and most important in the development of urban thought: they are people who dedicate themselves exclusively to research, who work in academic settings and in general audit local government politics, demonise capitalist development and, in general, idealise social movements and their forms of expression.

This way of thinking builds a common sense from which to understand the totality of production, and I think that there are many things to be debated about such a view. Personally, I think that the path we should be searching for is an applied science: a discipline that seeks its technological development and at the same time produces outcomes based on the conceptual developments of people who have concrete professional experience, with municipalities, with social organisations, and even with private developers. This is to say, writing an article about a case that they were involved in because it is the development of ideas based on real case studies that will lead us with higher precision to find adequate practical tools. Surgeons understand this dynamic—although I’m not saying that urbanism is like surgery. For example, a doctor who discovers a way to do a bypass differently will write an article, and another surgeon who reads it might test this know-how on another case, or in the treatment of another organ. And it is here that an interesting interaction arises.

A second element that seems important to me in relation to theory is that today we are seeing a trend of increasing complexity and—as was common in the French schools of urbanism—a need to view in a multidisciplinary and complex way the differentiation between the symptoms of a problem and the nature of a problem in urban processes. On the other hand, there is also a widespread trend towards simplification. Today I see this tendency of fast-tracked analysis in international organisations, involving a limited number of indicators and the formulation of standard programmes that provide quick responses to indicate change. This provides a weak perspective in solving problems facing cities, for example, climate change.

TCC: How do you view the Latin American political agenda?

Obviously the reality is a lot more complex than can be summarised, but there are a number of countries with governments from the same ideological family. They fall into two dominant groupings: one is located somewhere between classic populism and the many different faces of the left, and the other group has more of a neoliberal imprint. How do these governments approach cities in their policy agendas?

AG: In the political agenda of almost all Latin American countries, popular or working-class people’s basic needs are priority—wages, employment, living conditions and so on. They are the bedrock of basic governance criteria. In some countries that have experienced or are experiencing social upheaval this agenda is expanding, at least through an increase in spending on public works. This can be seen, for example, in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia.

TCC: So this phenomenon is independent of ideological positions?

AG: Exactly, and one must ask to what extent this is related to addressing people’s basic needs, or those of the city. Or is it representative of the capacity of lobby groups, such as from the construction or transport industry, who promote these kinds of investments. The characteristics of the import substitution industrial development, which characterised the 1950s through to the 1970s, with the projects of Latin American modernity, seem to come under conceptual questioning today. In general, the discourse of the city is one of growth in service industries, with a kind of resigned abandonment to the idea of industrial production in East Asian countries. Along with this there seems to be an implicit will to abandon technological and productive development across both areas in order to have parasite cities and administrative cities.

In this regard, the presence of local governments has taken on a new role as protagonists, especially when viewed in relation to how they historically functioned in our countries. In 1970s Argentina, for example, the predominant figures were union leaders; mayors were second- or third-level political figures. Today, there is a preponderance of mayors, who in some countries transition into presidential candidates with relative ease. Their demands for improved competency, higher budgets, better decision-making, etc., are always underpinned by the importance of popular needs as support for their claim to more power. Moreover, it seems to me that the local agendas in Latin America include the popular world of the working class.

This has not stopped the frivolity of some groups of the middle and upper classes. Their ability to construct imaginaries—above all through this issue of tourism, of imported models, of going to Miami—lead to attempts to reproduce models in cities and simulations of development scenarios as “a cover letter” to the world. Perhaps this is just an expression, an aspect of the general political process. In some cases it seems to me that policy content is however framed around this. Local mayors frequently participate in competitions between cities, aligning their strategies based on shared indicators, promoting that their city is famous for some small intervention or act of political correctness. This kind of banality, to exist in the world as an anecdote, seems to legitimise their time in power.

TCC: All of this seems quite generalisable and possible to encounter in all countries. Do you think that leftist or populist governments have a differentiated agenda for cities?

AG: What I see as different, looking at the case of Argentina and perhaps Brazil, is an association of public investment with employment generation and an increase in public investment oriented towards satisfying basic popular needs, such as the expansion of infrastructure networks, addressing the energy problem, improving mobility and so on. It is notable that public works as a percentage of general spending has increased. In Argentina, for example, it has gone from 0.8% to 2.6%, with a goal to reach 4% of GDP.

This is interesting as often times the application of Keynesianism in Argentina is associated with the arrival of the Peronist political movement. However, those who actually began to understand the role of public works in employment generation—that it was required to absorb a rural population expelled from the land as a result of agricultural modernisation—were in fact the governments of the 1930s and 1940s. It was a period characterised by enormous state wealth and public works expansion, notably of road networks. The interesting paradox that emerged during the 1950s was how to transform public works investments into productive projects, how to bolster industrial development that not only generated spending and materialised in public works, but that also generated employment and productivity growth at the same time.

One might also ask to what extent the increase in public works spending generates productive business and technological developments today. In the case of Brazil, it is clear that the increase in public works has been accompanied by an immense level of concentration in the construction industry. This is also true in Chile and Colombia. In Argentina, the construction industry suffered severe setbacks in the 1990s, which motivated a trend for construction companies to build simple projects, like roads and dams. This led to significant resistance to taking on high-level complexity, such as housing or urban projects. In my opinion, there has been little development in the business sector regarding these challenges.

TCC: We would like to ask you about the future of the Latin American city. On the one hand, there is a trend of increasing development, albeit for different motives. Also, families are having fewer children. There is more public investment leading to the consolidation of the city, although it is hard to tell if this consolidation matches the pace of development. Apparently there is also a trend towards the formalisation of the city, towards greater inclusion. On the other hand, there are theories (such as those by Mike Davis) about the widespread expansion of slums and that this is an irreversible trend.

AG: This is an interesting question. One could say that demographic growth and migration processes have a threshold and that the population curve is changing, meaning that the ability to absorb this process is more accessible. But there is another side to this reality. If over a long period of time investment was made in expanding the city, and if at the same time the maintenance of the city was neglected, the result is a deteriorated city. This is particularly true where the dominant trend is of expansion, as efforts made on producing the city can leave behind a city that is difficult to take care of. Moreover, the built area that you have to maintain is much larger and this becomes difficult to manage with the same resources.

What emerges is no longer a problem of the periphery, but a problem of the evolution of the used city market, which we discussed earlier. For parts of decapitalised cities, where the impoverished populations live, the issue is one of not knowing how to generate employment for the totality of the population; at the same time while formal industries seek out other intermediate cities, there is an emergence of decapitalised and impoverished cities, of dense and battered cities.

The first perspective is optimistic: it seems the problem is solved automatically. The second view considers the threat of places that are today somewhat neglected. There is a danger, too, in emphasising the second city, which for example was the strategy of the French-owned water and sanitation company Aguas Argentinas when they had the concession for the Buenos Aires water infrastructure. Their excuse not to expand the network to the poor was that they had to spend the income to maintain the existing network, and therefore to reproduce the conditions of life of those already living in adequate parts of the city. Personally, I think the city is being rebuilt inside the existing urban fabric with sector plans, including urban renewal, and I think that is a practice that should be contemporaneous with expansion. In some cases it would be interesting to link these two processes. For example, there has been discussion about charging those who expand the city an equivalent rate to what the interventions required in the city to support the expansion would cost. These economies would have to be balanced in a way so that increasing land costs contributed to the maintenance of the city.

TCC: Here the problem of administrative divisions also emerges, given that all compensatory mechanisms in fragmented cities are an issue, except when the operators are centralised.

AG: It is important to consider which issue, as there are some that can be fragmented due to municipal jurisdictions and others that are very integrated, for example the transportation structure, the location of large-scale soft infrastructure, industrial areas, river basin management and so on. Such issues obey parameters that escape local government control. Therefore, it is clear that if urban expansion is a problem in some municipalities and density in others, the city is lost. The conformation of authorities, pacts and metropolitan agendas should address this compensation. The question is where to find cities where this is adequately being done. I must say that in Latin America these examples do not abound.

TCC: We’re not sure that they abound elsewhere in the world either.

AG: In those cities one considers paradigmatic, like Berlin, it is possible to observe that the expansion of the periphery is characterised by the form of houses with gardens. In Europe there is another interesting phenomenon: the suburbanisation and recuperation of old villages that were being depopulated. Today, what was a small rural community in the 12th century becomes a sort of country club for the people living there, for example, in Gerona, Spain. This phenomenon of suburbanisation is not explained as such, but is present.

TCC: When you speak of urban planning work opportunities, you have mentioned the public function, academia and private practice, as well as the urban planners and architects who work for capital, for the big developers. Also, within this private world, there are urban planners who work for the state with an external perspective, as consultants or via international organisations. It is another form of practice that isn’t so tied to the whims of politics.

AG: I have worked for the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). I must confess that where I feel most comfortable is in the IDB because it coincided with an exploratory area. This had a lot to do with the leadership of Enrique Iglesias, who was quite an innovative person. He always developed an exploratory aspect regarding the formulation of new urban operations, such as neighbourhood improvement programmes, historical centre and urban renewal projects. There is a line of work that is opened in these entities that promote funding, and usually this is paralleled by a focus in certain dimensions of the projects. Oftentimes they require the development of project dimensions that are not typically contemplated on the local government level, such as the requirement of public participation and economic feasibility studies. These things were introduced over time with a certain notion of urban economics, and led to appearance of new tools.

There are two networks that were important for me: one is Society and Land, which originated in Spain and developed numerous networks in Latin America, and the other was the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, where I also worked for many years as a course professor. The latter played a significant role in raising issues of urban economics in the debate about the evolution of the city.

Regarding the creation of an urban planning studio, this is something that I have thought about throughout my life. It is notable that for some reason in Argentina there are large-scale consultant companies that undertake large projects for private enterprises and hydraulic systems, but there has been enormous difficulty creating professional studios dedicated to urban planning. In general, architects tend to take over this area, often with an architectonic conception, as if the city was an architectural issue on a grand scale. In general, the outcomes have not been very successful and haven’t been able to install urbanism as a relevant issue on the agenda of mayors and governments. In this regard, the specific work of planners who formulate urban plans has faced many difficulties across two dimensions: guaranteeing a continuation of work and that the work has a logical remuneration for the development of a professional team, as can be seen in other countries like Australia, which has large planning offices that charge sound fees for undertaking this kind of work. This has also appeared in Spain.

In Argentina, where I have worked, municipal governments have a lot of difficulty paying right after the work is complete due to the traditional delay in government payments. There is also the problem of competing for tenders against university groups who are not affected by the same tax burden and can resolve logistical issues differently. It is for these reasons that the people who do this kind of work professionally are few and far between. Most of us who did this kind of work have basically closed our offices.

I think that the challenge to insert the discipline as an applied profession also explains the lack of presence of urbanism on the agenda of local governments. Governors don’t believe it is something useful they have to pay for, nor does it exist for professionals as something that proposes a clear mechanism to deal with urban planning, how much it costs, what works, and so on. Perhaps this has a bit to do with the profile of the architects responsible for this issue. In countries where our work is better anchored I see that there is a greater presence of economists developing these practices.

TCC: I would like to ask you about your evaluation of the Puerto Madero urban renewal project in Buenos Aires, which has renovated the old port since the late 1980s.

AG: I think what happened at that time, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was the advent of the possibility to implement new planning tools that were not beholden to the passivity of classical tools of public works and regulations. Puerto Madero embodies the notion of an urban project: it is an articulation between larger than usual scale intervention and the use of more sophisticated economic tools to study the feasibility, cash flow and investment sequence that permitted us to intervene on a larger scale, to have greater impact, and make plans that can effectively transform the city—not books that tire on a library shelf.

Interestingly, the state was open to interacting with the real estate market. This is an important decision. The real estate market, left to its own devices, or even leading the whole urban development, produces unknown effects for which the state then has to subsidise solutions. In other words, if the state wants to drive urban policy it must have active tools that boost the proposed transformations. And I think the experience of Puerto Madero, in this sense, clearly met its objective.

It is possible to make a number of observations about the participatory processes that accompany these initiatives. I think there is a tension in this issue: the city should discuss these things, but assume that resistance to change tends to homogenise and, in that regard, governments have to invest a significant share of their credibility to carry out policies that sometimes do not have consensus. I think it is a challenge for political leaders to confront the conflicts required to transform reality. Objectively you see that in terms of participation: those most involved in these discussions are the ones who are impacted by a project, while the other actors weakly participate or do not participate at all. In these instances, the state has a delegated responsibility to stand up for its initiatives.

This applies to Puerto Madero and other experiences. There are many projects undertaken without fear of confronting the conflict required to change reality. There are some questions regarding governance mechanisms, the most appropriate figures, and ways to work the relationship between economic, political and social interests. This is not just a question of intent, but of governance mechanisms and forms for stakeholder representation. Therefore, the ways of managing a project of this type—improving the mechanisms of transparency, improving the participation of social interests in the development of the project—are topics that have to be elaborated further, that need to be thought about. The demonisation of certain experiences worries me. I fear that it might frustrate the possibility of bringing about true teachings and generating second and third generations of projects that are able to correct possible distortions experienced in the first generation of projects.

Perhaps what is most discussed has to do with the formal expression of these projects. In my opinion this goes beyond the dimensions of urbanism and penetrates the world of architecture. When a field is opened up for urban expansion, the existing city expands onto it. The buildings that appear are those produced by that society—the architects that dominate are those who dominate society. And I don’t think it is an issue that is reversed through design competitions, almost the opposite occurs. There are value paradigms that one might not share, but that exist in a society. One cannot avoid a certain image frivolity, or fashion, or ephemerality in some parts of a city.

Just like every phenomena of building urban areas, when projects are presented they are done so with all the contradictions and debates of a time. The society tends to care for them as representative pieces of the cultural world and social relations of the era. A question always appears when architects want to control this space, when they want to add their own paradigms and impose them on society. The more open and participatory the proposal is, the more transparently it will reflect the social imaginary. I might be accused of being a populist, but I am not one who is quick to judge how people change their houses and how the whole thing becomes deformed and converted into a suburb, or if monuments to firefighters are erected in the plazas of poor municipalities. All of these issues that one social sector considers distasteful are actually expressions of an entire society

Marcelo Corti is an architect, urban planner and editor of The Cities Cafe

Demian Rotbart is an architect, urban planner, and assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Buenos Aires