The area of Abasto in the city of Buenos Aires has historically developed within an open urban fabric in which streets, corners and the square have been civic instruments of social cohesion. However, in recent decades, there have appeared processes that break those patterns of growth through fortified enclaves that encapsulate activities, fragment territories and expel population, as in any other city.
Within this framework, we have developed a proposal for intervention based on a collective process that tends to give a new meaning to public spaces for solidarity practices. It is the implementation of a ‘Social Park’, a network of urban nodes of inclusion establishing containment relationships, strengthening neighborhood relations, offering new opportunities to the community and seeking to recover competing societal values.
The recent processes of segregation
In the last two decades, an acute polarization process of the urban fabric has been installed in the city of Buenos Aires. The emergence of large-scale real estate investments combined with the stimulus to the assemblage and formation of large plots, among other provisions promoted by the urban regulations in force, subverted the traditional patterns of growth with the creation of fortified enclaves that encapsulate activities, fragment territories and segregate population. This is how the ‘enclosed parks’ came to existence.
So we observe the emergence of a ‘new poverty’ that was added to the traditional poverty of degraded areas of the periphery and the inner consolidated city. Also, the upper classes sought ‘refuge’ in suburban walled fortifications -‘gated communities’, country clubs, farm-clubs, or in vertical urban developments, the ‘high-rise country-buildings’- in the traditional areas of the consolidated city.
Indeed, while the bunkerization of territories, with high security and isolation, is observed, also the open fabric of the city dismantles, fades and breaks the criteria that have historically consecrated as such. These new logics generate the breaking of socio-urban structures sedimented over time, the qualitative degradation of the preexisting items and increasing demands for mobility by private means.
The crisis in Argentina in late 2001 was a sharp change in the status and the sense of the different forms of popular demonstration and appropriation of public spaces. The city of Buenos Aires became the epicenter of the nationwide social unrest. The citizenry took the streets as a redefined space for deliberative and solidarity practices, as well as for vandalism and urban disobedience. In this context of social boiling a new scenario for the public space emerged.
Since 2003 the city of Buenos Aires has started off a road of progressive deactivation of such practices, which has been replicated in the rest of the country. The actions and social movements grew less and less effective. Thus, some stabilization of the local economic variables, among other factors, contributed to the partial decline of the activity of the cardboard-collectors, the de-articulation of barter clubs -along with other reasons of internal performance-, the deactivation of neighborhood assemblies – since the beginning of various levels of negotiation with the affected depositors- and the ousting of the streets of the so-called ‘piqueteros’ groups –to the extent that some groups were added to the traditional political forces.
After five years of that institutional crisis, there arises in the Argentine cultural field new interpretations related to how much up-to-date is the concept of public space. This happens in the midst of its recurring appearance in close-up as much for the effects of dissemination of the actions of sidewalks renewal, beautification and fencing of green areas -the rise of the concept to the status of ministry in the local government is another relevant data-as for the numerous schedules of outdoor cultural activities.
difficulties and opportunities
Defined as a ‘container concept’ because of its ability to connect different areas such as the city, politics or society, the category of public space comes out to be in these years –‘between the crisis and the tourism and real estate boom’— the depository of a varied number of discourses from very diverse origins and fields of interest. However, and going beyond the possible definitions of the concept, the public space remains the site for the expression of social conflicts and disputes, against all the attempts of representation of urban transformation.
The issue of historic centers as Abasto has become a central topic of debate in urban policies of Latin American cities. Some of the components of degradation and deterioration that they have are: the increasing impoverishment of disadvantaged social strata, the economic adjustment that reduces social policies, the privatization of services that retracts the presence of the National State, the tension established between the historical-cultural wealth and socio-economic poverty. This accentuates the contradictory nature displayed by the historic centers: the polar pair of opposites established between preservation and development.
Consequently, some questions emerge as major problems to be solved in Abasto: (a) how to channel the synergies of the place towards a common, desired and legitimized horizon, by defining a strategy for action that provides a model of land management, (b) how ensure the viability of the proposals, identifying the resources for its implementation and involving those responsible for decision making, and (c) how to develop participatory and meaningful public-private partnerships, involving all social agents in the local community.
The area of Abasto in Buenos Aires must be interpreted as a historic district, after the loss of centrality functions which originated it. The area began a few years ago a series of revitalization with the recycling operation of the old marketplace. It has undergone a path that goes from a state of absolute abandonment to an incipient transformation into tourist attraction. However, there are still serious conflicts of insecurity, marginalization, clandestinity and degradation which require the input of ideas and management strategies to boost its complex conversion.
In the progress made by the various processes of recovery and revitalization of historic centers, it is found that for their environmental, social, cultural and economic sustainability, it is necessary to develop plans, programs and projects with a comprehensive and participatory character, with which common principles and guidelines for action start being generated. Whereupon, in the particular case of Abasto, there arose different fields to work upon:
● Appreciation strategies: recognizing the cultural heritage of the area as a source of development and potential asset of the collective identity of the city. Thus, structural problems must be addressed, such as degradation of heritage, depopulation and unemployment, privatization of public spaces, dilapidation, slumming and extreme poverty, loss and/or relegation of its centrality, absence of rescue policies, deficits in governance processes, lack of reconciliation of interests between residents and the ‘floating’ population.
● Intervention strategies: developing new methods of intervention and comprehensive treatment of the area so as to support it as a ‘living’ center of the city, as an inductor of the concerted action of public and private agents to achieve the sustainability of its rehabilitation and appreciation. This involves policies of ‘relief’ and overcoming poverty, improving living conditions, environmental preservation, democratization of public management, respect and tolerance for ethnic and cultural identities, and recovery of centrality.
● Management strategies: the preservation and revitalization of the area due to the complexity of its problems, with a comprehensive vision that can interpret and insert them as part of the urban system as a whole. This involves the creation of a legal framework that assigns responsibilities and powers of action, and ensures the implementation of efficient management mechanisms which include citizen participation and compromise. It also involves the development of mechanisms for financing and promotion of public, private and mixed investment.
● Recovery strategies: the area of historic centers is going through a crisis that compromises the quality of habitat. Therefore, policies and programs are required to promote urban renewal, anti-dilapidation and de-slumming, environmental restoration, public security, the generation of employment opportunities, neighborhood and citizen participation, the fostering of bonds of solidarity and reciprocity among various agents, and the consolidation of the multiethnic and multicultural spaces that make centers living areas open to creativity and diversity.
Undoubtedly, these strategies install local government as a strong agent, to coordinate and implement development policies. And depending on the possibilities and feasibilities of operation of this project amid the political situation described, we have considered the possibility of a proposal to build a citizen network identified with Abasto, which will of execution will not be subject to nor depend on the political alternation or departmental management, either. On that basis, we have attempted to articulate the various agents of the local population, who are often confronting or not necessarily cohesive among them.
On the one hand, one of the main problems of physical order of the area is the lack of public spaces and green areas. On the other hand, the neighborhood, gifted with largest traditional independent theater circuit of Buenos Aires (which, a couple of years ago, numbered twenty-two), has begun to decrease in number due to the closure of facilities that could not be adapted to the security measures required after the catastrophe of Cromañón. If public space is a ‘container concept’ as it has been defined, it also represents by such means and by that figure, the area where the necessary points of rendezvous can be found, for the benefit of
coexistence and mutual enhancement of actions.
The building of ‘Social Park’
In order to provide a response for this multiplicity of factors at play, an action plan was begun to be developed which aims, firstly, to create a permanent territorial management unit and, secondly, to build a system of social containment nodes for the families of the neighborhood and for a cultural promotion to make it an alternative to traditional circuits. Thus, ‘Abasto Social Park’ takes shape, which retrieves the pre-existing identity and installs the local community as the protagonist of local transformation.
The first concrete experience meant to generate nodes for inclusion in areas of segregation have been recently developed in the neighborhood La Estrella, in the municipality of San Miguel, in the second metropolitan belt ring of Buenos Aires, and was called ‘Social Park’. Its aim was to organize the local community to enable it to recover for itself social values in conflict, such as: competitiveness and cooperation, solidarity and commitment, safety and recreation, training and labor, future and present.
To revert the plight of the neighborhood the recovery of a vacant lot adjacent was proposed in order to undertake various containment activities there so as to allow the reintegration of young people in the educational system, the generation of tools for access to employment and microenterprise development to enhance local capacities. In this way the local people built a desirable direction and tested management skills acquired by the neighbors.
After a couple of years working in the area of Abasto through instances of effective participation in social and cultural networks in the area, and of academic contribution obtained via the formation of groups of students and representative local community members, working both within the structure of Architecture degree and the university extension through a research program, the ‘Abasto Social Park’ has begun to be implemented as the centerpiece of the implementation phase of the ongoing investigation.
Then, the project Social Park becomes a device which articulates the various scattered initiatives from the use of existing resources in Abasto in order to multiply the areas for public use among the diverse offer of institutions and private spaces and centers. In all cases, the aim is to encourage a sense of unity to the process, linking the set of tasks from the fulfillment of a central objective taken as common denominator:
the physical expansion and qualitative improvement of the use of public space and the conformation of an open system of social cohesion by these means.
The logics of the implementation
From the point of view of the implementation of the project, a series of interlinked stages have been undertaken. The first is the presence of the various groups, institutions and individuals involved through meetings scheduled. In such meetings, each network member expresses its current ongoing projects, ideas and new proposals to contribute to the project as well as concrete availability and possibilities so as to facilitate building facilities, land, time, and other resources of physical order, to be included in the new map of the neighborhood and/or turn them into resources for projects of new members of the network.
Thereafter, they work on those initiatives that do not yet have a financing for certain in order to evaluate their degree of feasibility. This is happening specifically with the project of a theater circuit. It is a street theater experience across the neighborhood, developed jointly by an independent theater company and businessmen of the tourism sector, which is in the search for grants from the culture area of the City Government. However, the majority of the ongoing projects provides for their self-financing.
Subsequent phases are related to the preparation of the environment and the tools that support the process. This entails the making of a map to visualize all network components and their offers. A complementary tool is the preparation of a website to facilitate joint work with the map as a sort of local agenda of public space, a timeline dealing with degrees of flexibility to handle month-to-month performance of the respective schedules. They can then expose the different events in different areas of interest, while the variation of the dynamic figure that the Social Park will take over time may be identified in the map.
So, events of the civil associations, the theaters and cultural centers, the network of social institutions, the neighborhood groups, artists and universities are all linked, so as to form a larger network that allows the multiplicity of actors, while articulating the activities and agendas within a single display space, as well as those of other initiatives that promote the best use of public space in the city.
The activities started are: football school for children, school support, opening and visiting artists’ studios in the area, the tourist theater circuit, the summit of street games, popular music festivals, workshops,
discussion forums, seminars on the social Park, psychological care, among others.
From social-urban survey tasks it was achieved to develop a diagnostic look of the site in the first instance. Then, a theoretical modeling was built and it was aimed to generate social containment networks, from the problems identified. Thereafter, using participatory discussion workshops, the initiative was validated with the local community, and presently, such a proposal is in the process of implementation.
From this point of view, the Park project is installed as a tool capable of making a real possibility of social articulation and urban reconfiguration. Since this is an open and inclusive system, it represents as horizontal as possible the relations between different social actors outside the hierarchical structures and that explains its confidence in civil society.
In conclusion, in the traditional consolidated areas that go through acute fragmentation processes, that accentuate the problems of social exclusion and segregation, have begun to emerge including urban nodes by so isolated and small local initiatives. Thus, compared to a differential growth of the city, it is important to sustain, consolidate and reproduce this incipient experience of social parks, which lay containment networks, which strengthen neighborly relations, which offer new opportunities to the people, and which allow recovering societal values in conflict.
© Guillermo Tella y Gustavo Diéguez