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Guillermo Tella

In focus

The effects of a late modernization
The case of metropolitan region of Buenos Aires

Efectos de una modernización tardía

This work is centered on the study of the territorial structure of the metropolitan region of Buenos Aires (Argentina) in order to examine the dramatic urban changes associated with the transformations in the global economy and, in general, with the “post-modernization” of urban life and society. From a theoretical perspective, its final aim is to contribute to the analysis of the existing interrelations between the spatial structures and the social processes from a case study that involves a metropolis belonging to world spaces of a semi-peripheral type.

the up-coming of the post-metropolis

It has been conventionally accepted that the 1973 Oil Crisis constitutes the wrench with which a particular urban age ends -that of the “modern metropolis”- and as from which the era of the so-called “Post-Metropolis” begins. It was precisely at the time when the territorial effects of the great cities began to be noticeable that the discussion about this subject began to be more acute due to the complexity and the
celerity of the urbanization processes as well as to the inefficiency of the traditional tools for action.

From this perspective, the term Post-Metropolis allows the highlighting of the differences between the present urban regions and those which have consolidated in the mid-century, thus, the prefix post marks the transition towards new postmodern forms. (E. SOJA 1996). It is not as much about the vanishing of the former structure as about its co-living and articulation with new and complex forms of urbanization. The industrial geography of the Fordist metropolis underwent a strong process of retraction before an increasing economy of services, with a densification of information fluxes and within a framework characterized by a tendency towards more flexible modes of production.

In a recent work, M. CASTELLS (1997) asserts that on this “shore of eternity… space organizes time in the network society”, in which not only the new information technologies dispersed globally at a great speed but also that “the speed of such technological diffusion has been as much socially as functionally selective”. Such arguments -from this point of view- show the limitations of the present epistemological structures to interpret the recent processes of territorial transformation.

In the recent literature an issue of renewed importance appears with insistence: the role assigned to the metropolis and their changing functions in the new economic spaces of regional and world scope. After the hypothesis of “global city”, which caused such a great impact in the academic world (FRIEDMAN 1986, 1995; SASSEN 1991, 1996), defining the structure and the behavior of cities constitutes a true theoretical and methodological problem in which financial centrality, technological flexibility, and productive capacity are presented as unprecedented structural variables of the urbanization process.

Within the framework of one of the most widespread classificatory schemes, then, it is possible to assert that if in the central countries the primary cities are headed by New York, London, Paris and Tokyo, and the secondary ones by cities such as Milan, Toronto and Sidney; in the semi-peripheral countries the primary cities would be centers such as Saõ Paulo or Singapore, and the secondary ones cities such as Caracas, Seoul and Manila. Following this scheme, therefore, Buenos Aires would be a secondary metropolis of a semi-peripheral economic space, whereas an important quantity of urban agglomerations of the Third World -constituted by millions of inhabitants- would be excluded.

Thus, the case of Buenos Aires displays the interest of showing how an urban agglomeration which exceeds thirteen million inhabitants, but which belongs to non-central economic spaces, has adopted patterns observed in the global cities of the central countries at an increasing rate, but conditioned by the semi-peripheral location and by particular processes developed for several decades.

Modernización Tardía 1

On the post-urban question

Buenos Aires shows a strong contrast between center and periphery, which made evident the presence of determined patterns that are characteristic of an acute insertion into a global system of cities, such as: the destruction of factory and industrial fabrics, the building of environments meant for the expansion of the financial economy, the development of new residential building typologies, new ways of commercial distribution sustained by the use of the individual automobile, the appearance of new modes of “leisure commercialization” in the peripheries, the investment in road structures in order to dynamize movements and, in contrast, the increase of precarious settlements and the levels of urban violence.

Also, a dichotomic growth has been made evident in the last decade as a result of the accelerated “modernization”, which is late as regards its central models of reference: on one hand, an accentuated concentration of wealth in determined social sectors and, on the other hand, an extreme impoverishment, under the incapacity of absorption of manpower by the urban industry (SCHNEIER – MADANES 1998).

From this differential process it can be noticed that: while a part of the metropolitan territory is an object for the investment in equipment and infrastructure of any kind -showing ostentatiously the effects of an urban economy integrated to the global system-, the other part is not summoned to it. Spatially, it is made evident in the rise of re-structured strategic spaces, because of a strong concentration of capital investments, as well as of wide residual areas of the model, environments in which abandonment shows due to the lack of interest in them (TELLA 1998).

This situation, therefore, translates into the formation of true urban enclaves, with more acute aspects and of more critical nature than those attributed to the metropolis in central countries (BORJA AND CASTELLS 1998). Indeed, the changes in the world economy and their installation in the local context are in the basis of the recent evolution of the metropolitan region of Buenos Aires and are translated into the rise of new residential forms, of new patterns of consumption as well as of new developments of advanced retail land use.

The generation of strategic spaces is produced in Buenos Aires in a differentiated way and with specific characteristics, through a selective equipment of the territory and the increase of its inequalities.
The territorial transformations shown as from the 1980s have common aspects with those observed in cities of the same magnitude, nevertheless, its own characteristics of socio-spatial evolution make their impact different, and the cuts within the wide scope of traditional classes more acute.

So, on the one hand, residential processes which settle high class enclaves in the extreme periphery, together with the also peripheral expansion of advanced retail land use and, on the other hand, processes of central deterioration leading to the formation of ghettos take place very recently. As an answer to that the concept of “enclosed urbanization” arises, therefore, in order to conciliate: cheap land (which takes advantage of terrains of large dimensions), accessibility (because of the proximity to highways), landscape values (through an evocation of nature) and security (through the usage of walls and private surveillance).

Buenos Aires is submerged in a process of territorial reconfiguration characterized by: (a) the diffusion of an extended and non-hierarchical, fragmented and discontinuous urban environment, which leads to the deconstruction of the classical concepts of “center” and “suburb” before the emergence of centralities of a new type; (b) the tendency towards a service economy which induce a great spatial dispersion of activities, boosted by the technological innovations that displace the employment sources from the central areas to the metropolitan skirts.

Modernización Tardía 2

the process of late modernization

Buenos Aires has been characterized historically by its strong mono-centric structure, so that its downtown has had an irrefutable supremacy over the second level centers of the agglomeration. Also, the residential settlements rose and consolidated in the course of time in a close articulation with the railway layout.

Even though the main responsibility for the urban logics of city development must be assigned to the economic dimension, there have been processes and resistances of its own which gave it a differential feature to the local spatialization of the planetary globalization policies. So that, in the last decade, Buenos Aires was subject to strong processes of economic reconversion and accelerated hiperurbanization which produced socioterritorial expansion and requalification, simultaneously. From the set of visible effects, it is necessary to underline two as those of major predominance:

(a) the generation of new peripheral centralities which have had an impact against the skirts of the built city and which have materialized from: 1) a commercial decentralization, mainly on the interstitial vacancies in the second ring of conurbation, made possible due to the great industrial withdrawal, and 2) a residential deconcentration, located in the outermost periphery and driven by the development of highways (which conceals unthinkable projections in the future).

(b) a process of recentralization of peripheral centralities, to allow the expansion of administrative and financial activities from an increasing contribution of transnational capital which “modernized” the image of the ancient center with emblematic architectural buildings of strongly visual and economic impact (which kickoff was done by the reconversion of Puerto Madero).

Both processes were undertaken spontaneously, by private initiative, responding to no kind of regional strategy and within the framework an absolute territorial laissez-faire. The first one, on the outermost periphery in collision with the urban skirts consolidated as popular suburbanization; the second one, filling the interstitial vacancies left by the former city sprawl among the axis of urban expansion. Their dosage resulted in a new urban physiognomy characterized by: (a) peripheral dispersion, (b) diffusion of sub-centralities, (c) territorial fragmentation, (d) discontinuation of urban fabrics, as the main factors of motorization of the recent
territorial transformations (TELLA 2007).

It must be underlined, finally, that it is about unprecedented situations which affect nowadays this semi-peripheral metropolis as the result of a sudden and accelerated process of modernization, in which actions are undertaken in an extreme and late fashion, which in the central countries unfolded gradually and moderately in the course of several decades. In only ten years, this dichotomic situation of the peripherization of central areas and the centralization of peripheral areas has materialized as a result of an acute process which concealed industrial vanishing, commercial decentralization together with spontaneous residential deconcentrations -following the logics of high class enclaves, which began evidencing conflicts stemming from the dispersion of urbanization.

Since this process has not reached its inflection point yet, on the one hand, the situation set forth opens numerous and important questions in relation to the future evolution of Buenos Aires, on the other hand, it clearly shows the presence of an expanding urban phenomenon with transcendental and irreversible consequences on the metropolitan structure. Within this framework and in an ineluctable way, the Administration will have to start to assume the conducting role historically relegated.

Modernización Tardía


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–TELLA, GUILLERMO. (1998), “Modalidades de apropiación del espacio metropolitano”. Memorias del Seminario sobre Barrios Cerrados: Nuevas formas de urbanización del Gran Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires: Municipalidad de Malvinas Argentinas, 13-25.

–TELLA, GUILLERMO. (2007), Un crack en la ciudad: Rupturas y continuidades en la trama urbana de Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires: Nobuko.

© Guillermo Tella