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On Defeats and Triumphs in Exercising the Right to the City: Reflections Based on Recent Experiences in Argentine Cities

Maria Carla RODRIGUEZ, María Laura Canestraro, Marianne von Lücken


This research paper (1) analyzes three experiences in Argentina’s largest cities (Buenos Aires, Córdoba and Mar del Plata) where the dispute over the right to the city is being carried out. Emphasis is placed on what Borja (2004) considers as one of the key dimensions of this process: the political-institutional structure, which provides the conditions towards the formalization, consolidation, and development of policies for their concretion. Temporary setbacks, defeats and triumphs demonstrate that the right to the city is essentially an arena of political conflict.

Urban Policies and Urban Exclusion

Since the beginning of the 1990s in Argentina, governments at various levels have played an important role in promoting the necessary conditions to implement changes on an urban scale as the first effort towards valuation processes (Herzer: 2008). With the rise of neoliberalism, the largest world cities have developed according to an urban policy model that Arantes (2003) calls the third urbanistic generation, which includes the art and science of management and a lexicon which is explicitly commercial, linked to a specific resurrection of urban planning which is strategic and flexible, conducted per fragment and per project. Thus, policy, government, and public capacities have been oriented towards making markets more dynamic, markets for which the city has provided raw material and support - starting with urban land - and now the city has itself also become an object of branding. This has been made possible by the adjustment, modification and even the transgression of various legal frameworks.

In Buenos Aires, for example, there have been major modifications to urban planning and building codes, the creation of national and municipal government corporations (Puerto Madero and Puerto del Sur), guidance on decisions regarding investment in infrastructure and revaluation of public space, and an urban environmental plan (Plan Urbano Ambiental) that legally supports the changes that preceded it (Rodríguez, Bañuelos and Mera: 2008).

In Córdoba, these efforts have included the creation of the Corporación Inmobiliaria Provincial (Provincial Real Estate Corporation), the transfer of public lands for “brand” projects, changes in building codes, a plan to recover the shoreline and areas near the Suquia River, interventions in the central core of the city and an emphasis on public-private cooperation.

In Mar del Plata, a strategic plan was advanced by a promotional group made up of business and professional interests, and the municipality was invited to participate only after the fact. That assessment led to the design of a land-use plan focused on the value of the coastal zone - made possible by the increasing privatization of public spaces such as the Bristol and del Sur beaches – and of commercial centres, in an effort to reposition the city as the main tourism destination in the country (the amardelplata (2) brand).

Amid the dynamics of restructuring urban centres, older villas (3) like Villa La Maternidad (Córdoba), Villa de Paso (Mar del Plata) and the Ex AU3 (Buenos Aires) have been the focus of policies that challenge the continued residence of their low-income inhabitants.

The Ex AU3, Villa La Maternidad and Villa de Paso: Amid Forced Displacement and Resistance

The Ex AU3 is a large area of buildings in Buenos Aires that was expropriated by the regional government during the latest military government (1976-1983) for a highway that was never built. The occupation began in the early 1980s. It involved fifteen city blocks (approximately 1,113 buildings) in a middle- and upper-middle-class residential area (Colegiales, Cohglan, VillaOrtuzar, Saavedra), where the price per square meter was around US$1,500 (4).

A 2000 census registered 942 households who had been living there since before 1996, but by 2003, the delegates’ committee estimated that there were a total of 1,500 households (5). In the 1980s, the local government allowed the occupation and began to sign gratuitous property loans that provided the appearance of legal occupation to residents but that did not allow the development of ownership expectations (Rodríguez: 2005).

In 1990, the highway project was reactivated (6) and in 1991 the Deliberative Council approved By-law No. 45520 which sought to achieve a comprehensive and collaborative project, however which did not succeed (7). In 1997, the equivalent of twenty blocks of expressway were built, while hundreds of eviction notices issued by the Attorney General’s office were defied through actions taken by organised occupants supported by grassroots resident associations. In 1998, within the framework of political autonomy, Law No. 8 was sanctioned, institutionalizing the participation of the delegates’ committee and resulting in the census that established a register of recognized beneficiaries. In 1999, the Programa de recuperación de la traza de la Ex-AU3 (Ex-AU3 Urban Structure Recovery Program) was created and charged with developing an urban recovery plan for the area, an asset recovery plan (which conceives of public property as a real estate asset to be used for self-financing the project) and a housing solutions plan for the occupants.

In relation to the housing issue, from 2002 to 2007, a flexible plan with four alternatives was designed: construction of low-income housing on unoccupied sites of the urban grid (self-construction); the sale to the occupants of those buildings which could be adapted for families; granting of individual or joint loans (moving them toward self-management housing Law No. 341  (8)); and theincorporation of subsidized projects for low-income families (including lifelong gratuitous loans for poor heads of households over 65 years of age). In six years, up until December 2007, only 27% of the population included in the census (259 households) had found some kind of solution. By that time, the conflict over the inclusion of public land in the real estate market had already begun in the Legislature.

The Macri government (current city administration) emphasized rezoning and urban renewal of these fifteen city blocks, valued at more than US$100 million (9). For the families residing there - estimated between 450 and 700, including both registered and non-registered — the local government violated the current legal framework and began arbitrary evictions and pressure tactics with ad hoc subsidies (10), given on a case-by-case basis. Those who resisted faced administrative eviction.

Towards the end of 2008, the wave of evictions slowed. The courts intervened and in April 2009, a ruling put a stop to the evictions and the delegates sought a legal injunction from the courts (11). The conflict continued from courtroom to courtroom throughout the territory.

Villa La Maternidad is one of the oldest villas in Córdoba, of about 70 years old (12). It grew alongside the expansion of the railroad and economic activities in the Barrio San Vicente13, where it is located. It is located ten blocks from the city centre and five blocks from the bus terminal. In mid-2004, when it was the subject of a violent eviction by the provincial government, it was inhabited by around 350 households who worked in activities related to the area’s accessibility: construction; domestic services; waste collection and storage; sidewalk vending; and work in nearby hospitals.

The ownership of the land is a point of conflict. On the one hand, the provincial government claims it owns the land, as part of a historic urban development project (14). On the other hand, there are survey maps from 1943 that show the villa’s current lots. Based on those maps, some residents claim ownership rights due to having lived on the site peacefully for more than ten years.

In 2001, as a result of the floods in March 2000, the provincial government declared a housing emergency, establishing the bases for the Mi Casa, Mi Vida (My House, My Life) program (15), the implementation of which implied a massive relocation of residents from central or semi-central areas to new housing complexes known as neighbourhoods or city-neighbourhoods (16), located on the periphery of the city. To do this, the city modified the zoning. Villa la Maternidad, along with others villas (17) was relocated to Ciudad de Mis Sueños (City of My Dreams), fourteen kilometers from downtown (next to the Ituzaingó Anexo neighbourhood, nationally known for conflicts over agricultural toxins and their carcinogenic effects). The complex, which opened in 2004, consists of 565 housing units.

The provincial government used persuasion and blackmail tactics to carry out this forced relocation, through a survey by social workers and the actions of punteros locales (18), in addition to a subsidy of 300 pesos per household to pay for moving costs.

Only 32 households resisted the move on the basis of their having been born there, health problems related to the new location, worsening of labour conditions, increase in transportation costs and the breaking down of subsistence strategies.

A forced relocation occurred by very violent means in June 2004. A bulldozer was used— which is similar to the eradication of villas which occurred during the last military government — and also mistakenly destroyed parts of housing belonging to families that had not agreed to move, causing panic. Some residents sought outside help and the resistance was accompanied by professionals, human rights organisations and other groups (19). Residents formed the Commission Against the Eviction of Villa La Maternidad, which implemented a defence strategy including raising awareness and filing a request for an injunction. The provincial government, for its part, filed lawsuits claiming usurpation of the land (20).

Tense and complex negotiations with those who resisted resulted in the signing of successive agreements regarding the urbanization of the area; however they did not produce any concrete results (21). The villa’s internal organisation progressed with the building of a community centre, designed to provide educational support, a soup kitchen, recreational activities and a community garden.

In 2008, the municipal government, along with the provincial government and private companies, released a management plan that includes the construction of a civic and convention centre adjacent to Villa La Maternidad, demonstrating the persistence of the conflict over appropriation of the land. Currently, the 32 households have obtained an injunction and are involved in usurpation trials. Other households have returned from Ciudad de Mis Sueños and new ones have joined. The provincial government has tried to negotiate with each household individually, case by case.

Villa de Paso was founded around 1940, and was one of the first villas in Mar del Plata, located on private land in one of the highest elevated areas in the city - the San Carlos neighbourhood — but lacking infrastructure. Due to its location, it had one of the highest growth rates (22), and currently occupies some of the highestvalued land, estimated to be worth US$200 per square meter in 2006.

In 2005, a population survey by the municipality identified 430 households (1,782 people) (23), of which around 70% lived below the poverty line. With respect to the issue of ownership, the first census conducted in 1998 identified diverse situations: owners (7.7%); concession-holders who had signed agreements with owners or third-parties (13.7%); renters (1.8%); de facto occupants (68.2%) and others (8.6%). But in 2005, these variables were omitted from the census.

In 1970, the first attempt at relocation was made, however it was unsuccessful. The issue arose again during the Aprile administration. In 1997, a city council member and former president of the neighbourhood Asociación Vecinal de Fomento (Residents’ Development Association or AVF), proposed a rezoning and recognition of ownership rights of some of the inhabitants, but this proposal was also not further pursued. In 1999, the Programa de Relocalización Asentamiento Precario Poblacional Paso (Villa de Paso Precarious Settlement Relocation Program) was approved, however did not include recognition of ownership rights and transferred the government’s responsibility along with the right to housing in peripheral areas, which lacked service infrastructure.

To do this, the municipality promoted expropriation for its own benefit, reversing the ownership regularization processes carried out in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area in the 1990s, which had resulted in the transfer of ownership and regularization for the benefit of occupants. Such projects were supported by the development of land-use organisations.

Originally, the excuse given was that the city needed to finance the relocation and cover the costs of compensation to owners. The time period was extended and housing financing came from the provincial government through the Programa Bonaerense IX – Dignidad (Buenos Aires IX - Dignity Program). However, the expropriation moved ahead, as very few original owners went to the municipality to agree with the terms of compensation for their land (24).

In 2003, residents near the villa formed the Comisión Administradora Mixta Municipalidad–Vecinos para la Erradicación del Asentamiento Paso (Municipal-Residents Mixed Administration Commission for the Eradication of the Paso Settlement), to pressure authorities to relocate them. However this relocation was resisted in the destination neighbourhoods through mobilization, presentations before the Deliberative Council, and lawsuits, usually led by their respective AVFs. When residents of the villa protested, seeking compensation for leaving their land and the ability to choose where to live, these AVF provided them with tactical support. However within the villa, resistance against the relocation was limited to the compensation-choice slogan.

The time periods of 240 days passed and this prolongation brought new conflicts. The first relocation of eighteen households occurred in November 2006 and subsequently activities occurring in the construction sites were stopped.

In early 2008, 145 houses under construction in the El Martillo neighbourhood (which were part of the relocation) were occupied by some 300 residents of the Pueyrredón neighbourhood who were also in critical need of housing. Due tocomplaints from the construction companies and the municipality’s intervention, the eviction was carried out in less than 24 hours.

The next twenty families were relocated in November 2008 and February 2009 in Barrio Las Heras, along with a bid to contract water and sewer works. In this context, 54 families from Pueyrredón reoccupied El Martillo in January 2009, using various self-management practices and supported by a network of organisations. On April 17, the local courts ordered their eviction, which resulted in severe repression by the police.

Currently, only about 60% of the population of the villa has been relocated, while those left homeless, evicted from El Martillo, have maintained a selfmanaged organising process to fight to guarantee their right to housing.

The Right to the City as an Area of Conflict

The comparative analysis shows how urban space is restructured dynamically, and acts as a medium for the deployment of social, economic, cultural and political processes (25). This conflictive dynamic around the use of urban centres is indicative of antagonisms which are characteristic of capitalist societies and have been developing in socio-political democratic contexts.

A central location becomes an increasingly exclusive and excluding good, undermining the possibility of constituting the right to the city as a universal integrator by replicating foreign models that repeatedly include the restructuring of centrally-located areas for the benefit of valuation dynamics.

Local governments - with differing levels of autonomy, considering that the city of Buenos Aires is a quasi-province - tend to act as facilitators of these processes, which highly benefit public and private actors. Likewise in democratic contexts, these same local governments and particularly legislative entities have created areas of negotiation/confrontation that made it possible to include the participation and strategies of low-income sectors. The judicial power has also played a role in the same sense, opening up spaces for the inclusion of more perspectives in the conflict.

Institutionally, the conflict unfolds between different rights as part of an antagonistic social dynamic: on the one hand, those that support the establishment of criteria linked to recognition of the historical and organisational process of settlement and use by inhabitants, independent of the relationship between their income and the value of the land they inhabit; and on the other hand, institutional frameworks which favour market interests supported by the unlimited right to private property, which tend to erase histories of arbitrary formation through expropriation.

In this context, policies of privatization of public land are naturalized based on social redistribution purposes, which could very well be achieved through other instruments, for example through the sale of Villa de Paso in order to build housing or infrastructure.

These conflicts of appropriation of central urban land involve networks of stakeholders which are evidence of the porous borders between the government and civil society: there are stakeholders and class interests on both sides of the dispute, and their rationales are made viable through the linking of networks whose privileged level of analysis is vague and diachronic. These networks channel conflict and shape the institutional framework depending on the correlations of strengths that regulate structural pressures.

Finally, the rights of low-income sectors are only defended when their organisation is established and political strategies are developed to transform social relations and bring such strategies to fruition.


1 The framework for this analysis is the objectives of the UBACYT S431 project “Social Production of Habitat and Public Policies in Argentina’s Main Cities,” 2008-2010 (Producción social del hábitat y políticas públicas en principales ciudades de Argentina, 2008-2010), led by María Carla Rodríguez. It describes the results of the authors’ master’s thesis, fellowships and research.
2 Amardelplata is a play on words: Amar, meaning ‘love’, plata, meaning ‘money’.
3 A villa may be defined as an occupation of vacant urban land that produces irregular urban plots through which vehicles can generally not pass through. Originally, occupants built single story dwellings with precarious material, making improvements of different sizes and quality over time. Later, with variations depending on the localization and urban integration, a process of densification began which included the occupation of vacant areas (in ditches, edges of railway tracks, etc.) as well as second-story additions to existing housing structures. 4 From 2001 to 2006 there was a 54% increase in land values in the northern area. Source: Geographic Information Systems Unit (Unidad de Sistemas de Información Geográfica), DGEyC. GCBA.
5 In socioeconomic terms, the population of this area is heterogeneous. It includes self-employed people with equipment (furniture restoration workshops, mechanics, bicycle repair shops); household services (gas technicians, plumbers, gardeners), municipal government workers, wage-earning employees in the private sector (construction, nearby foodstuffs factories), lowskilled or temporary workers (domestic workers, handymen) and the unemployed.
6 Business stakeholders involved in developing urban infrastructure sign agreements with national agencies, particularly the Ministry of Economy and Public Works (where the routes are predetermined).
7 This project included road-building companies, potential public housing construction on remaining land along the highway route, occupant organisations, other gratuitous property loan holders, grassroots resident organisations.
8 This law, in the same period, was the product of the struggle of cooperative self-managed urban movements (initially the MOI-CTA and the Mutual de Desalojados de la Boca and later dozens of social and political actors in the context of the 2001 crisis). In contrast with neoliberal urban policy, they gave rise to a form of operation that enabled the self-management of resources and set up a bank of 100 centrally located buildings owned by the cooperatives, some of which wereemblematic complexes in terms of quality and cost, and a group of 500 cooperatives that currently maintain this type of self-management as part of the struggle for the right to the city.
9 Real estate and construction businessmen are working on the future sale of the land (LPO on line).
10 $96,000 pesos for the beneficiaries of Law No. 324 and up to $25,000 pesos for other occupants.
11 Fifty-four people participated in the injunction action. Previously, another 30 families had presented a request for injunction which is currently in process in Courtroom II of the Administrative and Tax Dispute Tribunal.
12 The survey by Agencia Córdoba Ambiente states its age as 70 years; the article “Evolution of Emergency Villas in Córdoba 2001-2007: Location and population estimate” (“Evolución de Villas de Emergencias en Córdoba 2001-2007, localización y estimación de población”, SEHAS 2007), estimates its age at 65; and the web site states it is 100 years old.
13 The San Vicente neighbourhood, founded in 1870, is one of the more traditional neighbourhoods in Córdoba. Initially, it was an area of summer homes which later became the location of various production activities, such as mills, slaughterhouses, an ice factory, a brick factory and a brewery, attracting labour and becoming a working-class neighbourhood. Gradually it became more connected to the centre of the city through the development of urban infrastructure.
14 The Crisol Project, Law No. 1040/11886, by which the land was expropriated from a private owner (Garzón) for such purposes.
15 The original name is Emergency Project for the Rehabilitation of Vulnerable Groups Affected by Floods (Proyecto de Emergencia para la Rehabilitación de los Grupos Vulnerables afectados por las inundaciones (1287-OC-AR)), part of the Program for Government Modernization in the province of Córdoba financed with a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank.
16 City-neighbourhoods is the name given to housing complexes that have more than 250 housing units and community services such as a medical clinics, schools, and police stations.
17 Including Mandrake, Los 40 Guasos, Vagones de la Estación Mitre, Guiñazú, in addition to Villa La Maternidad.
18 Punteros locales are political party actors that establish customer relations as a structuring mechanism to build their political-territorial strategy.
19 These include CUBa Mbs (Coordinadora de Unidad Barrial), Agrupación Otro Cantar, MTR (Movimiento Teresa Rodríguez), La Comuna, Indymedia (Centro de Medios Independientes), CEPRODH (Centro de Profesionales por los Derechos Humanos), SERPAJ (Servicio de Paz y Justicia de Córdoba), independent professionals and students, contacts in the city of Buenos Aires, the MOI-CTA, the Movimiento por la Reforma Urbana, etc.
20 The government claims ownership of the land based on the cancellation of the Crisol Project (Law No. 1254).
21 The most recent agreement between the residents of the villa and the Ministry of Social Development was signed on January 2, 2009.
22 As in the case of La Maternidad, the land conflict is also linked to employment access (fishing, restaurants or construction) for residents who are mostly migrants from other provinces.
23 There is seasonal fluctuation, increasing during the summer and when summer ends, many workers return to the cities where they live permanently. As a result, the number of jobs also varies, and only 9% had formal employment.
24 This included about fifteen lots; the rest were declared as unclaimed inheritances. Without a doubt, the conditions existed for an alternative solution, such as the urbanization of the villa.
25 Following the type of orientation proposed by Henry Lefevbre in “The Urban Revolution” 1970.


droit au logement, ville, conflit urbain, politique de la ville, politique de l’habitat, habitat spontané, exclusion urbaine, organisation populaire

, Argentine


Droit à la Ville


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