As the fifth week in Buenos Aires rolled around and we began to wrap up our end-of-semester lessons, our country coordinator led us through an activity that I found really helpful in "reading" the city. She split us into groups and asked that we each identify four elements of the city, its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Many people have probably heard of this activity as the SWOT exercise and may have used in professional or team-building situations. In our context of urban planning, the exercise helped us to review what we'd studied this semester, but also revealed some interesting quandaries in relation to the city.
Buenos Aires' strengths were obvious. The city has a strong downtown, cheap transportation, a highly educated population, and strong political involvement. We soon noticed, however, that many of these benefits also lead to some issues of their own. For one, the strong downtown that has grown up around the Plaza de Mayo means insane traffic congestion. It is not uncommon to sit on a bus for more than an hour when coming in from downtown. Furthermore, the city lacks a strong road network that runs along the outskirts of the city; most roads leading from North to South run straight through downtown, only adding to the congestion. This has led to a severe division between North and South halves of the city, which is not only a physical, but cultural.
Though few would claim that the portenos' strong political involvement is a weakness, or even a threat, the framework upon which this involvement stands is deteriorating and is prone to collapse. Of the many parties that comprise the political representation in the country, most of these consider themselves "Peronists." Peronism is a political movement that takes its underlying values from the Peron's, perhaps the most popular political figures in all of Argentine history. Juan Peron served as the country's first populist president, and his wife, Eva Peron, won the hearts of the masses. Today, however, Peronism is a blanket statement, that nearly every politician claims in order to gain popular support, though it doesn't necessarily mean that he carries popular sentiment. Many Argentinians claim that this label allows politicians to say they represent one thing, while their policies say another.
Another point of contention in our discussion was the villas, the infamous informal settlements that run along the outskirts of the city. Many have labeled these settlements as a threat to the city. They are known as hotbeds for crime, the black market, and illegal immigrants. Still, further investigations into the villas have revealed that property values are worth the same as some of the most posh neighborhoods in the city. Many legal immigrants as well as people moving in from the outer provinces of Argentina populate these areas because a municipal law requires people lacking strong familial connections in the city from renting their own property. Furthermore, the villas each support their own micro-economies, which subsist despite their lack of formal recognition. Under this light, the villas seem less like a threat and more like an opportunity for Buenos Aires to expand and integrate these densly urbanized areas.
It is discussions like these that have propelled my classes these past four months. Deciphering the strengths, weaknesses, threats, and opportunities in these cities has been incredibly informative and eye-opening. Nothing is ever as simple as it appears at face value, but that makes this field of study vibrant and interesting. I will carry this with me as I continue to "read" more cities.