polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Buenos Aires: Boom After the Crisis

by Natalia Echeverri

Buenos Aires new skyline, Puerto Madero.

Buenos Aires is considered to be the best planned city in Latin America. Modeled after Haussmann's Paris, the city is composed of large boulevards and monuments enclosed by roundabouts. The building structures were homogeneous and were occupied by a large and powerful middle class.

In the last three decades this urban configuration has changed dramatically. This was due to drastic changes that began in the 1970's, when the nationaist-populist model was dismantled and replaced by a model of exclusion--an outcome of the implementation of economical and political neoliberal practices. This period was marked by two economic crises, each followed by a boom, making polarization and fragmentation more visible and reconfiguring the city and its society.

Carlos Menem became the president of Argentina in 1989 in a moment of hyperinflation. He implemented structural reforms strengthening the neoliberal tendencies. These changes improved Argentina’s image among international investors and led to an economic boom.

Buenos Aires suburbanized during this boom. Luxury suburbs like Nordelta sprouted along the new highway systems that connected the wealthier population of commuters to the city center. A new, gated, green lifestyle was promoted with amenities such as school, sports facilities and shopping malls. With the boom came the desire to transform Buenos Aires into a global city. In the heart of the city, Puerto Madero, became the postcard symbol for this transformation, renewing the blighted dock area for a new skyline for the city.

Puerto Madero symbol of the "new global city."

A small elite profited from the privatization of Buenos Aires. The middle class--which had constituted about 70% of the population--disintegrated and polarized, punished by a new crisis of hyperinflation, which climaxed in December 2001, during the biggest financial crisis in the country in recent years. The peso depreciated as much as 400% against the dollar. Banks were closed to prevent people from withdrawing their savings, which plummeted in value.

Some time after this incident, farmers made fortunes with soaring international soy-bean prices. Mistrusting the banks, they preferred to invest their surplus cash in real estate, judging it a safer haven. Another construction boom followed.

Due to higher gasoline prices, however, the new constructions were closer to the center of the city. A new typology, called the “country-club tower” (torre country), also seen in China, Sao Paulo and Mexico City, was introduced by the developers. It razed entire city blocks in old traditional neighborhoods to construct high-rise apartments with country-club amenities, like swimming pools, tennis court, gardens and playgrounds--all surrounded by gates. These offered the same services of the suburbs of the previous boom but in center of the city.

New Country Towers, the new typology for the current boom.

Among other things, the walls around these country-club towers have meant the “death of the street” as an urban landscape. These country-club towers are spreading around the city but are mostly concentrated in Palermo, a neighborhood that use to be of large middle-class houses and active street life. Now, as a marketing strategy these sectors are called Palermo Soho, Palermo Hollywood and Nuevo Palermo.

Typical Palermo street vs "New" Palermo street with the gated "Coutry Towers."

Additionally, in a classic case of polarization, property prices have skyrocketed in these neighborhoods while the slums (called Villa Miserias) which had grown during the first construction boom, have kept increasing in size and height.

Villa Miseria 31.

Credits: Image of Buenos Aires Skyline from Ivan Valin. Image of Buenos Aires Boulevard from Juan Pablo Gutierrez. Image of Puerto Madero, "Country Towers" and Palermo streets from Natalia Echeverri. Image of Villa Miseria 31 from prensamercosur.com.ar.