The intensive exploitation of low-occupancy urban areas is a vector that allows to enquire the logics that works in the construction of the city. Many of the real new estate products, such as ‘high-rising buildings’,
are born within the context of a process of market demands targeting medium-high sectors who seek ‘shelter’ in the consolidated city.
The impact of these buildings is not minor because they bring about the breakdown of urban structures sedimented over the time and the qualitative degradation of the pre-existing features. In addition, neighbours make their voices of rejection be heard in relation to this phenomenon. Even though in Buenos Aires the intensive substitution processes have begun to be re-interpreted in the last decade, the high-rising building
is not a recent phenomenon either.
Why are they built? Who is in favour, who is against? What is its impact on the built city? These are some of the questions to be answered. From this perspective, the work focuses on the transformation processes
of the consolidated city and the identification of urban policies operating behind them.
So this paper tries to characterise recent urban changes, examine the processes of deciding -as regards public and private agents, institutional frameworks and instruments- around the construction of high-rising buildings. Since the look into a leading case, it is aimed to contribute to the understanding of the mechanisms for urban production and management, the interests involved and the network of agents that enables intensive densification.
The evaluation of the development model
The process began in 2003 with the construction boom and was positioned in considerable debate three years later when residents of the neighbourhoods of Caballito, Palermo, Núñez, Villa Urquiza, Villa Pueyrredón and Vicente López raised their voices against the territorial changes they were suffering with the irruption of high-rising building on residential urban fabric
of low and/or medium density.
Consequently, beyond the particularities of each case, in these processes it is possible to observe how the State has abandoned its role as a direct agent for channelling unmet social demands so as to become a facilitator of market activities, providing the tools necessary for private investment to flourish. Within this context, there appears the case of the municipality of San Miguel, which is located in the conurbation of Buenos Aires.
The city of San Miguel is the namesake municipality seat, and is defined as regional sub-centre in the crown of cities defined by the Reconquista River. The study area is located in this municipality, forming a polygon of 16 blocks and a catchment area of four blocks around.
It is an urban fabric almost completely occupied, consisting of an orthogonal grid -alternating square and rectangular blocks- and buildings of predominantly residential use with low population density and commercial corridors on major roads.
The motivations that led to the selection of this area of study meet several criteria: high concentration of high-rising buildings, high urban indicators set in the legislation in force, predominance of a low-density residential fabric, connectivity with major centres in the metropolitan area, articulation with the main structural mobility axis, proximity to commercial and services centres, and unhindered ‘balconying’ of
high-rising buildings acting as a landscape capital.
Evaluation of building construction types
Regulations in force in the study area emerge from Decree-Law 8912 of 1977 on ‘Territorial Planning and Land Use’ of the Province of Buenos Aires. Within this context, municipal legislation determines high urban indicators for the area and it is named “Downtown”. The high-rising buildings in the area, with heights surpassing 20 floors, are characterized by the definition of a typology of their own, with free perimeter constructions and their ground floors entirely allocated for usage as common spaces.
The landscaping of the entrance is an especially marked feature and the provision of garages at ground floor level is mostly welcomed where possible. The transfer of part of the front side of the plot for public space does not recognize a common pattern in all cases, because it varies greatly according to the high-rising building and its location.
The area shows dominant volumes on the urban low density residential urban fabric. Whereupon, as a consequence arising from the height the high-rising buildings reach, a shadow is cast significantly affecting the solar radiation received by the surrounding fabric.
In addition, the higher density implies a higher actual and potential demand for services, transport and public spaces, and it triggers off the expansion of commercial development. The impact of new buildings on the provision of social services and infrastructure supplying the area is high (water and effluent treatment, education and health services, and public transportation).
The quality of services in the area conformed to the actual density that existed until the enactment of the aforesaid legislation, but they were never updated according to the potential growth that the new regulations stimulated, which determined a terminal pressure on the quality of basic services provision.
The process of land management
The real estate market of San Miguel has changed its dynamics since 2004, as a result of this phenomenon of ‘city verticalization’. This process drove many traditional local families out of the zone because of the
pressure exerted on land values. In short time, the price per square meter shot over 30%.
Within an urban scope, territorial planning and land use in the municipality of San Miguel is governed by Decree-Law 8912 of the Province of Buenos Aires, as it was mentioned before. But it was by Ordinance 448 of 1979 that the Preventive Zoning Code was passed, which is a legal instrument defined by the aforesaid provincial Law.
It is a preliminary stage before providing the municipality with a Municipal Land Use Plan, which has not been developed so far, therefore all municipal urban development still refers to the Preventive Zoning Code from the late seventies as the main instrument of urban planning, which, according to the legislation itself, is meant to deal with the minimum needs of land planning.
The inadequacy of the instrument for new situations generated in the urban development was partly solved by various ordinances validated by the Province, such as, for instance, the extension of the Downtown area and the option of authorizing special projects, as set by law.
Therefore, the provincial legal framework regulates the faculties of its municipalities within a system of autarchy; in other words, they are able to administrate themselves, but within the scope of rules that are imposed from the superior level.
Evaluation of the model implemented
The territorial model to which the provincial law responded matches the paradigm of technocratic central planning of that time, based on the ideas of a scientific urbanism that facilitated the diagnosis and laid down the grounds for actions on the city.
The municipal government had the task of planning its territory on the basis of control over the actions of private agents through land use zoning, along the same directions set forth in provincial regulations. The rest of the investments in urban development, transport, road system, infrastructure and equipment, given the budgetary constraints on them, was basically in hands of the provincial and/or national governments’ investment.
The ways of addressing urban development, the instruments and ways of managing the territory changed in order to give a response to the old deficits inherited and to the new environmental and economic challenges (reducing inequalities, austerity of resources, productivity and innovation in the new economic contexts), while incorporating new themes (such as participation, or the new role of local governments).
The linkages between planning and management, on the one hand, and between the city as a whole and its parts, on the other hand, have begun to be assessed, as well. Thus, there is the idea that urban planning should have flexible instruments to guide actions in the medium and long term and address the present situation.
Within this context of changes in the orientation of urban planning, the municipality of San Miguel continued with the same legal scheme regulated by the Province of Buenos Aires, but still unfulfilled, although reality imposed new pressures on land, economic and social development.
During these years of rapid expansion of real estate market -expressed in the ‘high-rising building’ product-, neighbours’ concerns led to the formation of commissions and different social expressions and claims that showed to the local government its concern about the carrying capacity of service infrastructure due to the increased density and the resulting urban morphology arising from the inorganic implantation of high-rising buildings.
This prompted the municipal government to pass Ordinance 3 in 2008. It suspended the procedures for the approval of plans, expansions, urban projects or permits for the construction of buildings that exceeded the ground floor and five floors in plots located in the Downtown area and created a Municipal Advisory Committee for urban planning in the district. These provisions were in force for a consecutive 180-days term.
Somehow, it was a good initiative to start discussions between local authorities and those of different scopes with intervention in the territory. The concept behind was rather including some views and guidelines for drafting a Code of Urban Planning, that is, an operational instrument that would replace the Preventing Zoning Code. Thus, no progress was made as regards the two remaining stages established by provincial Decree-Law 8912: the Urban Planning Plan and Particularized Plans.
The necessary formulation of an urban plan
The process for the design and enactment of an Urban Plan currently calls for the definition of a global direction in which actions will conform, both public and private, that is, the definition of the basic
guidelines that aim to achieve objectives that will impact in the future and will also be the reference framework for resolving current problems.
This means that it is necessary to develop a planning process that will end up in a strategy open to change (for it is not a closed prediction about ‘definite’ scenarios of the evolution of the city) and accompanied
by urban projects that synthesize this strategy.
Urban plans, then, embody the general guidelines of the urban pact, which is the product of the consensus among different agents (both public and private). These features make the Urban Plan an instrument of management and negotiation, and the Code is one of the regulating instruments that is a part of it.
Therefore, in order to make a diagnosis and propose a strategy, it is necessary to carry out a process allowing the reconstruction of the partial views, so as to account for a holistic view of the city and its problems, and, at the same time, an interpretation of behaviours and relationships among different social agents involved and the conflicts that may arise.
The local government’s role in this process is to encourage the action of the diverse social agents in the construction of the city. Its role is to ensure that intervention strategies express the highest levels of consensus, without delegation of its leading responsibility in the definition of urban policies.
As it can be seen, it is a much more complex and comprehensive process than it is thought of. So, from an academic discourse, there arises the idea of a physically and socially integrated city based on planning which articulates public and private agents, so that densification responds to an idea of a more equitable and more efficient city for everyone.
© Guillermo Tella (dir.) Estela Cañellas | Martín Muñoz | Daniela Natale