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Guillermo Tella

In focus

The first scenery of the urban zoning
Buenos Aires: the dawn of the modern city

El primer escenario de la zonificación urbana

Through the years, zoning has established itself as one of the most powerful urban planning instruments which, from the point of view of building regulation, has been able to operate over a precisely delimited territory –stemming from the concept of division into zones–, so as to strengthen the intrinsic characteristics of the different resulting fragments.

Nineteenth century city is the outcome of the Industrial Revolution. The effects of the abandonment of rural areas and the extreme overcrowding conditions were the key issues demanding an answer to be sought. The problem with this city was its concentration of population and its growth rate. Poverty has been an endemic problem historically, but it was re-dimensioned when thousands of the rich came into contact with millions of the poor.

By way of a change in the systems and ways of productions, a socio-philosophical movement emerged in England around the figure of Adam Smith, father of the laisse-faire and liberal capitalist economics, in which the industry was consecrated as the self-regulatory system of social and individual balance, based upon the division of labor and mass production. It was not long after praising its virtues that the negative effects of the model began to be noticeable, which had been already established in all over Central Europe.

Cities grew with such intensity as factories conducted their mass production. Looking for sources of work, rural population migrated massively to urban areas in a short period of time. Consequently, this brought about unplanned growth with high levels of urban overcrowding and unhealthiness, along with the spreading of contagious diseases and plot subdivision with neither infrastructure nor good conditions of sunny areas.

The awful conditions which industrialized Europe reached in less than fifty years gave birth to strong social conflicts. The proletariat rose as an organized force which the capital itself –which had created it– came to fear. That same fear triggered the reform of the old cities and the improvement the ‘infected’ suburbs.

By the mid nineteenth century, the signs of deterioration produced by the second phase of the Industrial Revolution began to be evident: social oppression and inequality as much as urban overcrowding and unhealthiness had become unforeseen situations already settled within the city itself.

In Buenos Aires, the ceaseless migrations from the countryside to the city looking for sources of work brought about a severe increase of densities in central areas, with the subsequent collapse of the sanitary systems. Likewise, the sale of plots in installments along with the expansion of the mass transport system (which had a lowered tariff) allowed the enclosure of increasingly broader strips of land to the traditional urban area, and led to the generation of the first metropolitan conurbation ring.

At the height of the industrial, unhealthy, and overcrowded city, utopian proposals emerged, articulating the relation between the country and the city in a self-sufficient way. In such framework, hygienists warned about the detriments arisen in the city and promoted the first sanitarian statutes upon which contemporary urban planning legislation would be built.

Escenario de zonificación urbana

From village to metropolis

Both hygienic preaching as well as the concepts of ‘order’, ‘accessibility’, and ‘sanitation’ turned out to be the constants in urban planning actions. The city before them was an act and a plan. In 1580, Juan de Garay, founder of Buenos Aires, traced a grid of 144 blocks by ruler and rope, and then proceeded to distribute lands and plots, so applying the Indian legislation.

The mode of conquest and colonization of the American territory acquired legal form in 1573, when king Phillip II enacted the Ordenanzas de Descubrimiento, Nueva Población y Pacificación (Ordinances of Discovery, New Settlement, and Pacification), which stood for an authentic legislation on urban and regional land ordinance. They were developed by the Council of the Indies –an organ meant for managing the issues related to America in Spain– and they contained the structural guidelines on how to carry on the ‘populating’ action.

Within a great rectangular enclosure, so as to facilitate the distribution of lands and plots to each settler, the city had to organize in relation to three essential elements: squares, plots and streets; so that public and private spaces were rapidly identified, within an orthogonal layout responding to the universal tradition of the urban grid. From that theoretical scheme a city was configured with a rigidly structured, monotonous and unsurprising pattern, but with a capacity of expanding the urban fabric without any greater conflicts.

The urban center and its rural surroundings constituted a juridical and essentially functional unity, since its population’s subsistence economy was sustained by it. Beside the city there was the ejido (common land) –pieces of land meant for absorbing future demographical growths– and, beyond these, there were lands with different areas and intensities of land use: dehesas (pastures) –for public recreation–, chacras (farms) –plantations for growing cereal crops– and estancias (cattle ranches) –fields for breeding livestock–.

Finally, the urban grid was employed by the conquistadores as the principal instrument of domination and of ‘domestication of the wild lands’, within a scheme articulated by a triggering element of strong centrality acting as nucleus of the layout: the plaza mayor (main square), which gave the city its form and character, while becoming the symbol of political and religious, civil and commercial powers at the same time.

Buenos Aires grew around this central core by expanding in successive rings. Later on, the linear trace of railways re-orientated its growth with axis linking to farming and livestock-breeding areas. The successive railway stations became centers of small urbanizations and then tramways were the ones in charge of connecting dispersed areas.

Between 1880 and 1930, foundational centers of towns were born and consolidated around those stations within the framework of an agro-export economic policy thanks to which an important European immigration entered the country. This population settled in extreme overcrowding conditions mainly around the center of the city and, in a fewer amount, around the incipient sub-central areas.

The passage from village to metropolis has meant the permanent replacement of rural land with urban one. This process was materialized by means of precise tendencies of expansion and consolidation. The city we travel today is, in fact, a conjunction of juxtaposed cities, reaching their height and development over time, which exacerbate the components of a mature, elegant and refined society.

Escenario de zonificación urbana 2

Urban zoning

As it has been highlighted, along with the division of labor the division of society began, arising from a grouping by common features of their components. Within this logic, zoning emerged from the first restriction on private land ownership for reasons of public good, through the determination of possible functions for the various parts of the city.

As one of the most powerful and effective urban planning instruments, zoning has a solid discipline structure giving it the necessary validity and hierarchy for the mediation of urban conflicts related to the nature of the destinations and practices in the city, subordinating to such ordinance the modalities of land transformation and use.

So, for instance, when at the end of the nineteenth century a central area was delimited in Buenos Aires so to prevent the construction of clay or wooden buildings, even though it contributed to certain general aesthetics, it really attacked the unhygienic conditions of daily life. In this way, before the growing epidemic eruptions, zoning appears to intercede in the urban health of the population.

It was then that the Building General Regulations initiated the body of modern urban planning laws as from 1887. It was then that the first zoning provisions appeared and introduced the concepts of control of construction safety, of building hygiene and of urban aesthetics with a restrictive and protective character.

The Building Aesthetics Commission was a municipal organ which formulated the Regulatory Plan of 1925. The results of its work also delved into the inclusion of zoning criteria, differential land occupation and building height, taking into account urban and demographic evolution, and tried to integrate the suburban neighborhoods to the metropolitan structure.

Parallel, a direct relation between zoning and traffic was begun to being established, in which volume and density of buildings held a correspondence with the capacity of streets. There was a tendency to coordinate the various functions of the city and to study the distribution of the different gradations of densities, of congestion and overcrowding of the zones.

From criticism of the legal framework enshrining private ownership as the main obstacle of an integral urban progress, the municipal government was authorized to establish restrictions to the private domain in 1944. It was the key to the enactment of the first code of the city.

From this perspective, the study of the zoning criteria in the urban planning legislation of Buenos Aires opens up many questions. Some of them spin around the city-production processes and the attempts to control and lead their social and physical occupation, and how to show the conflicts and contradictions conceived in the city itself in a more evident fashion.

A clearly defined zoning over a regulatory plan protects and enhances the socio-environmental quality of each one of its parts. And, in this sense, it could be translated into a device to retrieve the value of built-up area, minimizing the owner’s interests while favoring the destination of the zone.

Then, it is necessary to think openly about what the legislation allowing the realization of an integral project of the city should be. So far, zoning has been one of the most efficient tools to control such urban variables. But its conception should arise from the protection of the intrinsic characteristics of each zone, from available services and infrastructures, from daily habits and customs… and not from land market logics, which is so much installed in decision-making processes in the city.

Escenario de zonificación urbana 3

© Guillermo Tella