Sunday, April 29, 2007

fortunes & misfortunes of squatters in Buenos Aires

The Washington Post offers a take on the growth 'Neighborhoods of Misery' of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

A good factoid from reporter Monte Reel: "even in places where rural migration to urban areas has begun to level off -- such as Argentina -- slums within cities continue to grow at a fast pace, through good economic times and bad." Despite robust economic growth, the money is not trickling down to the poor. "Population growth in the capital," he reports, "is fastest in its shantytowns, which continue to pop up beside railroad tracks, appear under bridges and even expand across the grounds of an ecological reserve."

He makes a key point: that the local name for squatter communities--'villas miserias,' or "neighborhoods of misery"--is actually a misnomer, for these are "slums that -- with enough money and infrastructure improvements -- conceivably could be transformed into permanent neighborhoods with full services"


Anonymous said...

You have a fascinating blog. The last paragraph of your post is, indeed, very important.

"Villas miserias", or more commonly just "villas", is the expression used by most people in Buenos Aires to refer to the slums but the residents of those districts find the term "villa" to be pejorative. Locals refer to the areas by numbers, e.g., Villa 6, Villa 8, etc.

But, in actuality, each of those areas have names, e.g., Villa 6 is actually Cildañez, and the residents refer to their neighborhoods as Barrio Cildañez, for instance, rather than Villa Cildañez.

Many of these communities even have cultural liaisons with the city government, residents who work with the city to foster community building. It's going to be very interesting to see how these areas evolve into formally recognize barrios over time.

Another significant problem in Buenos Aires involves those who live in vastly substandard housing (often decaying buildings more than 100 years old) in areas that are rapidly being gentrified. Many are squatters but most actually pay rent to somebody who may or may not own the building.

rn said...


Thanks for your thoughts. Your point about the names of the communities is in accord with the thesis of my book: that squatter communities are normal neighborhoods, and if they are treated as such, they will grow and improve and knit themselves into the city.

I'm likely to be in the tri-border region (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay) early next year, working on a new book, and I hope I can add some extra time to my trip to get to Buenos Aires.

Anonymous said...

He makes a key point: that the local name for squatter communities--'villas miserias,' or "neighborhoods of misery"--is actually a misnomer, for these are "slums that -- with enough money and infrastructure improvements -- conceivably could be transformed into permanent neighborhoods with full services"

So who exactly will be paying for these?

rn said...


Good skeptical question. The easy answer is: part by the government and part by the squatters.

Money for infrastructure is always a matter of negotiation.

If I'm understanding the tone of your question correctly, it's this: why should squatters get government services for free while others have to pay taxes?

Squatters are not, in general, looking for something for nothing. They recognize that infrastructure projects require investment, much as they know that their own work building and rebuilding and building again to make spacious and structurally sound homes also required investment.

Full 'formalization of the informal' may simply bankrupt squatters and force them out of their homes. But there are lots of different ways of creating partnerships between squatters and government that can be mutually beneficial. Like all political action, it takes creativity and determination.

rebecca said...

I am so glad to have come across this informative and provoking blog. The statistics about the growth of unplanned urban settlements ("squatter settlements" or "slums") are compelling, but what I find most compelling is the debate about how to improve quality of life in these neighborhoods without sacrificing identity or freedom.

I am wondering if anyone can assist me -- I graduated from college with a degree in Urban Studies last year and am currently employed in the marketing department of a New York City architecture firm. I am looking into the possibility of traveling to Latin America to study the intersection of architecture and politics in growing squatter settlements in Latin America. As I conduct preliminary research, I am looking for possible collaborators, sources of funding, or anyone who can assist me in narrowing the scope of my project. Really, any thoughts at all would be much appreciated. Thanks!

rn said...


Thanks for your note (and sorry for my untimely reply).

I think engaging your focus is key.

First: have you spent time in squatter communities? Have you spent time in South or Central America? What do you think draws you to this idea.

Then, the question is: what is it in 'the intersection of architecture and politics in growing squatter settlements in Latin America' that you think will be notable?

For instance, you might want to look at how state-run interventions are working in Caracas, particularly now that Chavez is involved.

Or you might want to investigate whether the more urbanized favelas in Brazil are beginning to attract architect-designed buildings.

Or you could look at the architectural impact of programs such as Rio's favela/bairro or celula urbana (which is working with the Bauhaus to intervene in one section of Jacarezinho favela.) Have these 'designed' programs impacted design and politics in the favelas where they were implemented?

But these are my ideas. I'm not an architect, and I'm not even sure that architecture is a relevant subject. As John Turner said (I'm paraphrasing here): it's not what a house is but what it does that's important.

Let me know your thoughts.

rebecca said...

Thanks so much for your thoughts and ideas Robert. I appreciate your questions and will try to address them here.

First, I will say that I have not spent any significant time out of the US nor have I lived in a squatter settlement. Initially, I am engaging the issues of housing, property, architecture, people’s relationship with the state, etc. on a theoretical level. I acknowledge that this manner of engagement can not be entirely elucidating or productive, which spurs my desire to spend some time in Latin America. Before I can make this trip, I feel I must establish or collaborate on some type of project framework and simultaneously read as much as possible on the subject.

What drew my attention to the issue of squatters in rapidly urbanizing countries were the staggering statistics. The potential for 1/4 of the world’s population to live in an urban squatter settlement in less than 25 years begs global attention from all sectors. As the (often competing) values of states and civil society have crystallized in cities throughout history, this new urban condition must be examined not merely as a humanitarian issue but one of politics, culture, and identity (as you, and others, have notably begun to do).

I’m not an architect either (though I do work for an architecture firm). If architecture is not the most relevant issue, what do you think it might be? Land tenure? I am not sure architecture is the MOST relevant issue, but I do think it’s important. Your statement that “it’s not what a house is but what it does that’s important” struck me. I wonder how there can be such a distinction between what a house is and what it does? I am of the belief that architecture influences and reflects identity, with great bearing on how one relates to his/her community and in many cases to his/her government. Two houses made of different building materials can provide equal shelter, but differing conceptions of legitimacy and permanence. In relation to squatter settlements, my line of thinking here is tied to a wide definition of architecture, one that exists outside of the professional framework and acknowledges each who constructs shelter as an architect.

At the same time, however, I am interested in the participation of the professional design community in the study of squatter settlements and the process of slum upgrading (while recognizing the need for a reformulation of the formalized architect/client model). After reading Architecture for Humanity’s Design Like You Give a Damn, I was aware that there is significant (though perhaps not enough) interest amongst the elite design world in housing growing numbers of urban poor in “unplanned” or squatter settlements. Some questions of interest that emerged for me:

How do NGOs and design professionals work with states and does their participation increase benefit to squatters? And: How can you maximize the benefit from efforts of educated professionals who want to help? Should you? Do competitions help? Is this an efficient/beneficial use of talent and resources?

Obviously these actors will always remain outsiders, but their willingness to contribute and their skills can be accessed, helping provide tools for communities to improve independently. For example, certain technological advances in the design world – such as methods of water collection/purification and solar energy – have the potential to impact the slum upgrading process. The possibility of improving housing conditions without dependence on state-run services would allow for a renegotiation of the squatter’s relationship with the state. As you mentioned in your TED talk, a feeling of freedom is important to many squatters.

These are some of my thoughts, and I apologize for the lengthiness of this post. I am quite interested in the case studies you mentioned and am hoping you can suggest further reading for me. A book about the Favela-Bairro Project and Jorge Mario Jauregui Architects (published by Harvard Graduate School of Design) just arrived in the mail today and am looking forward to beginning it. (By the way, I am waiting for your recent book to arrive in the mail).

Thanks again.

remy monteko said...

check out

the urban think tank (based in caracas) and catalytic communities (based in rio de janeiro)

rn said...


Thanks for your note. I know both groups--and they do valuable work.

UTT, led by Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, is a heart-in-the-right-place architectural firm based in Caracas.

CATCOMM, in Rio de Janeiro, has been setting up an online squatter info service so they can compare notes.

I would argue, however, that offering advocacy and services to squatter communities is a hugely desirable but ultimately limited vision. More important is for squatters to start organizing themselves--creating real community power.

remy monteko said...

rn, agreed. as you offer, though, their limited vision is valuable, especially CATCOMM's, as it is intended to be an "self-help" information-sharing network.

separate question: i wonder how you think the private sector might best support creating real community power? is there some kind of social/physical/environmental (in the most general sense of the word) infrastructure that you think can be developed (for profit??) to propel such a "movement"?