January 11, 2007 - From the Dec/Jan, 2006-07 issue

Buenos Aires Grapples with Creative Solutions to Congestion, Growth, and Land-Use Planning

While Los Angeles is trying to carve out distinctive places and walkable, attractive neighborhoods admidst its sprawl and overbearing infrastructure, Buenos Aires, Argentina, is experiencing the process in reverse. Long considered the jewel of South America, Buenos Aires' European character is giving way to sprawl. For perspective on how both cities can accommodate growth and make livable places, MIR spoke with Francisco Ortiz, an MIT-educated transportation planner with the city of Buenos Aires.


Francisco Ortiz

Many urban planners are looking at Latin America, whether to Jaime Lerner from Curitiba or Enrique Peñalosa in Bogotá, for inspiration regarding the relationship between transportation and land use. From whom to you take inspiration when you consider Buenos Aires?

Those are two of the most inspiring public leaders and visionaries. I've read and seen their work at MIT, especially Lerner's; Peñalosa is more recent.

Frankly, I wish they influenced my work more. Presently, I feel a bit of an institutional inertia pushing against policies that are human-centered and pedestrian-oriented. You need to think of the fact that when a car is moving, a human being is in there. The real objective is human livability and not auto-mobility, because the movement of some steel structure along a street is not a means to happiness.

How do you describe Buenos Aires, which is a European-style city set in Argentina, with a population of 12–13 million? How does it compare to Los Angeles?

I think it's almost the opposite of Los Angeles. Its roots were not so different, but they've developed differently. The influence of, perhaps, the car industry and the economic growth in the U.S. after World War II have made Los Angeles a paradigm like none other in the world, with a grid of highways and people believe it is their right to use land in a way that I think is absurd. It's unique to spend hours and hours in their cars and to break up neighborhoods.

Buenos Aires has traditionally developed around a city core. And perhaps because it has not had the economic growth that the U.S. has, it does not have the growth pattern and the laws that have allowed suburbanization at such a scale.

To what extent is Buenos Aires also experiencing suburbanization?

It is, but in a much smaller way than in Los Angeles. Sub-urbanization is circumscribed, as a result of a set of policies, to a certain geographic area in the Buenos Aires. Unquestionably, it's popular now. And that's one of the reasons I want to work here -- to find some balance. Growth outward from the city center is a given, because it is natural with income growth. The city needs to grow, and as people prosper they want more land and comfort.

But there are cities in Europe and the U.S. that are not like L.A. I think that we've accepted American development formulas in a very simplistic way and made deals that have been irresponsible with respect to the environment and that do not respect our habits and the way we, as Argentinians, want to live.

Elaborate on how Buenos Aires is planned, in terms of land use and transportation. What anchors growth?

That's a hard question. Land use is a bit unregulated. Growth has happened haphazardly. It's a compact city, centralized around downtown. It's grown around the train lines that go into downtown, and if you look at downtown Buenos Aires, zoom out to the surrounding areas, and then zoom out to Argentina, you get the same picture.

Everything flows into the core of Buenos Aires. We are a country that was built around the idea that we feed Europe. It's a very efficient system of trains that worked very well to get our produce out to Europe, but they are now abandoned. The imprint of that in the city remains very visible. There are three major trains stations that structure the city. That has shaped the city structure, both in the city and the suburbs.

Elaborate on the role of the Rio de la Plata in shaping Buenos Aires' urban fabric, economy, and activities.

That is a sad part of our history; we have always ignored the river. Part of it has to do with efficiency. We have put our priorities making it efficient to get everything out, so now all of our major transportation infrastructure hinders our access to our riverfront. The airport, the port, the rail lines, and the highways all hinder access.

This is a realization that is debated in the school of architecture over the last 20 years but has not made the headlines. We're starting to realize that this is a port city that has a riverfront that has always been neglected.

What should the city's planning and investment priorities be with respect to transportation and land use?

The 1990s saw tremendous growth in car ownership, and we have to address the fact that we've subsidized suburbanization and not priced it appropriately. We have to do something about the fact that people are getting free rides into downtown in terms of parking, tolls, and highway capacity that is given for free. We have to address that by improving our public transportation system in a systematic way.

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Most of the transit now occurs in buses that are privately owned while a huge amount of people are transported on the subway system, which is public. It's a hard combination to deal with.

We also have jurisdictional problems. The city has recently become semi-autonomous and elected a mayor for the first time only ten years ago. But it does not yet have full autonomy. It does not have its own police or system of justice.

I think we need to grow towards a consensus with our surrounding counties to create a metropolitan authority. It doesn't work now. We don't have any coordination on sewage, environmental, transportation issues-all those cross-jurisdictional issues are not integrated.

Tourists come to Buenos Aires expecting a beautiful, cosmopolitan city, with a quality of life unmatched in South America. They expect tree-lined streets and boulevards and parks, which are ubiquitous. Is this the city you know and live in?

Argentina is a country of unique centralization. Thirty to 40 percent of the population lives in the city. That's a lot. On top of that, the province on Buenos Aires holds another 30-40 percent. Basically, 60 percent of the people live close to the city. There are a lot of parts that tourists miss, and a lot of those parts are very close to the center, but they are not tree-lined.

What's right about the city?

What's right about the city is one of the reasons I'm here: it has a heritage of European, pedestrian ambiance. For good or for bad reasons, we haven't grown fast enough for suburbanization and mass sprawl to take hold. We've had crises before, but we did not have what you had in the U.S. in the 1970s. I attribute that more to our heritage of European, French, Spanish culture than to economic growth per se.

Mayor Villaraigosa of Los Angeles talks about promoting "elegant density" as the city expects to grow in population. Is "elegant" the way you would describe Buenos Aires' density?

"Elegant" is not a word I identify with density; usually you'd be talking about "adequate." Numbers are very tricky, but I think the level of density in Buenos Aires is manageable, and I think it's the type of density that should be fostered. I think density is an issue, but the other half of the issue is transportation and land use.

When you make major investments in transportation, you must accompany them with land use changes to profit from those investments. You must allow density to occur. The city has a proactive role to play in building density around corridors that are naturally bound to have density.

There's always a debate about whether executive power should follow the trends or set the trends. The real issue is to set the trend if you're going to invest in a subway. You have to do something to make those billions worthwhile. That's what European cities have done. You can't just build a subway; you have to control what happens.

What lessons should we in Los Angeles take from Jaime Lerner, Enrique Peñalosa, Buenos Aires and South American urban planning?

It may be naïve, but I think that Los Angeles is perhaps an extreme example of permissiveness towards the car and the suburban model of development. I'm not putting any judgment on that. People will say that it's good and people will say that it's bad. I do not particularly identify with it.

What can you learn from us? I don't know that we can have any particularly proactive example that I can call up and say that "this was the person to follow." I think one of my conclusions after my experience in the public sector is that one of the requirements for things to happen is that you need a mobilizer like Lerner or Peñalosa.

Those are cities that are not as rich as Buenos Aires, and I think that we definitely have the resources if we needed them. We just don't have the consensus-building capacity to do things. What you will see with Peñalosa, who is very inspiring, is someone who has the guts to go and do it and face of the powers-that-be.

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