Neighbourhood groups defend scarce public parks in Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires has one of the smallest rates of green space per capita, and what's left is under threat of commercial development. Neighbourhood groups are leading the fight to defend them, but with so many battles to wage, might the government's divide-and-conquer strategy be winning out?
Buenos Aires is one of the least green cities in the world, with only about 1.8 sq m of green space per capita compared to World Health Organization recommendations of a minimum of 10 sq m per capita. And yet even this much is still under threat. In 2014 the city government approved a law called the Ley de Bares (Bar Law) which permitted it to hand out licences to establish cafes in parks of 50,000 sq m or more. In Parque Chacabuco in the city's south, so much construction has resulted that "our park looks more like a city than a park with all this cement" according to local activist Paula Castelli, speaking to local radio station FM La Tribu.
Many large parks like Parque Chacabuco or Parque 3 de Febrero in the north date to the beginning of the 20th century and designed by well known landscape architect Carlos Theys. They have since lost more than half of their green space. According to biologist and activitist Matias Pandolfi the amount of green space started deccreasing in the 1970s when construction of large buildings and shopping malls took off. "This is very interesting", Pandolfo notes, "because the city has not really grown much since 1947." Public parks and plazas have been considered economic commodities instead of places of public value, with the government taking on the role of entrepreneur, a model Pandolfi calls "urban extractivism".
Saying no to bars!
Parque Chacabuco was the first park affected by the Ley de Bares. Residents, who had seen their park shrink due to a motorway cutting the park in two, and many public buildings being constructed within its boundaries, immediately formed an assembly and set up weekly protest marches. Their activities drew the attention of the media, which initiated wider public debate, not just about the loss of green space, but also about the close relations between the company that won the tender for the construction of the bar and the new mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta.
Neighbours got together with opposition legislator Adrian Camps of the Partido Socialista Autentica to propose a bill to stop the construction of the bar. Yet the bill only proposed to make an exception for Parque Chacabuco, not to get rid entirely of the Ley de Bares. According to Adrian Camps this seemed the most viable strategy for success: "We had momentum going with the involvement of neighbours and with the supposed link between the company that won the tender and the new mayor. We also had the media picking up on this case so we chose to concentrate on Parque Chacabuco hoping that the government would think twice before trying to implement this law in another place."
They won the battle, but not necessarily the war. The city council never cast a vote on the bill; it was not approved nor rejected. "It was put somewhere on cloud", as Camps put it. In the case of Parque Chacabuco the licence was withdrawn; there will not be a new bar. But the law remains valid and Camps' assessment that the government would not give it a second try did not come true. Currently the government has cast its eye on Parque Patricios elsewhere in the south.
A park instead of a music hall
In Balvanera, a middle- to lower-class neighbourhood in the city centre, there is almost no green space left to defend. With only 0.4 sq m per capita this area ranks lowest in Buenos Aires. Here neighbours want to create new green spaces. A neighbourhood group called Manzana 66 Verde y Pública claimed an unexpected victory in November 2016. After two and a half years their plan to turn an empty block, Manzana 66, into a public park instead of the intended music hall for an audience of 18,000 was accepted by the city legislature. Even the governing centre-right Republican Proposal party (PRO) voted in favour.
The battle started in 2011 when developer Micrisol bought the block and began evicting residents and tearing down houses. Yet it was only in 2014 that residents read in local newspapers about the plans to construct a music hall. In the already very densely populated area, choking with traffic, the impact of 18,000 visitors a night would be devastating according to residents. Manzana 66 came up with the alternative plan to make it a public park, gathering 4,500 signatures in support. They also found out that the owners of Micrisol, who they say are closely linked to then mayor Mauricio Macrí, lacked the necessary permit for construction. They succeeded in getting the plans postponed to work on presenting their own plan.
Alberto Aguilera, the driving force behind Manzana 66, explains that to present a plan and get it voted on takes about two years. A plan needs at least 40 legislators to support it. "The tricky thing is that every two years, half the city legislature gets newly elected", Aguilera complains, "and then you have to start all over again." Aguilera is still surprised by the sudden success. He thinks the press have played an important role. Even though they are in his estimation generally very pro-government, they have picked up on sentiment in the neighbourhood and the need for more green spaces.
However, there is a catch. In return for turning Manzana 66 into a public park, the owner has been granted a site in the Saavedra neighbourhood to pursue its real estate plans. PRO legislator Augustín Forchieri called this a "healthy equilibrium between public and private interests". Yet for opposition legislator Marcelo Ramal, who supports the neighbourhood movements in their battle for more public space, this is exactly the reason he abstained from voting. He states that the bill should have been a single-issue bill, not a hitching together of conflicting interests. "It is presented as if this public space costs nothing, but it is the resident of Saavedra that pays for it", he proclaimed.
Divide and rule
Neighbourhood assemblies to protect public spaces are popping up in various neighbourhoods. However this has not resulted in an urban civil movement making a strong case against the widespread privatisation of public land and the ongoing "extraction" of urban green space. Although some groups support each other "like brothers", there are also strong dividing lines. Some assemblies have a clear political orientation and are more activist, whereas others unite people of different political affinities. In their strategies some fight their battles by protesting on the streets, whereas others use legal tools to hinder the government in their privatisation efforts.
Another problem is the limited lifespan of most assemblies. The reality is that most of them depend upon the active involvement of only a very small group of people, who put all their time and energy into these local battles. People like Alberto Aguilera and Paula Castelli. To get neighbourhood support—even if it is only in the form of signing a petition—they have to address a cause that directly affects citizens. Residents are not usually engaged by big urban or political debates, but are by something local.
Assemblies like Manzana 66 and Parque Chacabuco have both reached a success within two or three years. Yet the success comes at a price. The assembly in Parque Chacabuco was satisfied when Parque Chacabuco was exempted from the Ley de Bares, leaving Parque Patricios and others to fight their own battles. Manzana 66 got their neighbourhood park at the expense of residents in another neighbourhood. Neighbourhood movements cannot be blamed for focusing on realistic targets. Still, in the meantime the government is very successfully playing out a divide-and-rule strategy. This allows them to continue focusing on profitable real estate deals and at the same time show the world through the media how they promote la ciudad verde (the green city). As Gabriele Massuh, author of El Robo de Buenos Aires (The Theft of Buenos Aires), states with some cynicism: "The only city budget that has been raised in the last couple of years is that of public relations. For the people it is very difficult to distinguish between politics and cosmetics."