Urban Planners Find Smart Design In Argentine Shantytowns

Planning experts from Denmark and the U.S. tasked with redesigning a Buenos Aires shantytown were surprised by some of its built-in people-friendly dynamics, which can be applied elsewhere — even in upscale projects

Villa 31 is a poor district of Buenos Aires
Villa 31 is a poor district of Buenos Aires
Miguel Jurado

BUENOS AIRES — International city planning experts invited to reform and rebuild Villa 31, a poor district of Buenos Aires, stumbled on a basic feature they didn't expect: cheerful living conditions despite the poverty. The panel of experts advised city authorities not to bulldoze away the conditions that make it possible. Moreover, there is an opportunity to replicate the dynamics of Villa 31 elsewhere.

The specialists from Denmark's Gehl Consulting were struck by the vitality on the streets of Villa 31 and its intensively sustainable mobility — mostly, lots of walking — compared to some of the city's well-to-do districts. It is "one of Buenos Aires's most interesting neighborhoods," says a Gehl report from January, with the "scale of medieval European settlements attracting thousands of tourists. It has the city life sought in cities like New York and Melbourne."

Mayra Madriz and Jeff Risom from Gehl's U.S. offices, were nevertheless careful not to idealize the neighborhood. Being strategically placed near the city's wealthiest neighborhood, Villa 31 "remains a painful reminder of the deep socio-economic differences in Argentina," the firm stated. While Buenos Aires is often cited as a sophisticated city, in Villa 31 some 8,000 homes have no kitchen and a quarter of them have no toilet. Certain residents, it states, keep spare shoes to put on after walking through its muddy streets.

For the past two years, Gehl has been advising the city's Social and Urban Integration office on how to redevelop this neighborhood. Gehl's speciality is urban design based on sustainable mobility and good use of public spaces. In Buenos Aires, the firm studied the life of streets and squares in eight districts displaying the capital's diversity. They have organized the information gathered by field teams working daily with Villa 31 residents.

A glance is enough to indicate many of the Villa's persistent urban problems. Ambulances and fire engines cannot pass through some of the streets, which means hundreds of families are beyond the reach of health or fire services. Most homes lack drinking water, sewerage and storm drainage, and their clandestine electricity connections are dangerous. To this one must add overcrowding, unsanitary households, crime and the absence of any bus service throughout the area. The priority for the experts was to assure immediate access to public transport.

But as the Gehl specialists delved deeper, they realized there was a trap in rebuilding a district without criteria. "In the Villa, meeting building regulations will mean widening streets, restricting residents' enterprising zeal and possibly, raising construction costs," state Madriz and Risom. "To meet regulations, the local community would have to renounce some of its most powerful attributes."

People prefer neighborhoods developed organically over those planned by a small group of experts.

The main surprise for the specialists was in noticing that on the streets of Villa 31, there were more people walking, cycling, chatting, playing and looking at other passers-by than in the rest of the six districts they studied. "We realized that most social housing projects the government has undertaken in the last half century have given worse results (in security and healthcare) than these informal districts built by residents themselves," they stated. Moreover, they observed that while enduring serious shortages, families living in this area enjoyed some of the conditions to which the world's wealthier cities aspire.

Gehl's work focused on developing strategies to connect the district to its surroundings. They state that making the neighborhood physically more accessible complements its integration in the city's social and economic fabric. "We have helped design streets and spaces to connect the micro-communities forming the Villa, and thus reinforce the notion that the public space really does constitute the district's essence and basis for sharing," they explained.

The experts noted Villa 31's paradox, which they have been finding in city planning more generally: "People prefer neighborhoods developed organically thanks to the contributions of many, to those planned by a small group of experts."

Plans presented in 2014 to enhance Villa 31 — Photo: Culture Ministry

Madriz and Risom state that in a city marked by skyscrapers and heavy car traffic on eight-lane avenues, the Villa's narrow streets and its compact form shield its residents from city noise and bustle. The consultants state that in spite of being one of the capital's densest districts, most buildings in Villa 31 "are less than five floors high. The width of streets ranges between three and 16 meters, generating a network of shared little alleys with an agreeable microclimate."

Its particular dynamics include density, which ensures the constant, watchful eye of neighbors on homes, and curving streets that create emerging vistas. "These passages vary in width, which allows the emergence of little squares and meeting places. The alleyways become paths linking parallel streets allowing pedestrians to take shorter, more direct routes than vehicles."

After years of neglect, the neighborhood needs changes, but the experts have said its current "values and strengths' must be recognized, and any redevelopment should not eliminate its existing qualities. The firm advised that spaces like Villa 31 need the state's support but not excessive regulation to stifle the community life that has emerged during its absence. "We have learned lessons there,"which we can use in other urban design projects," the designers conclude. "Still, it is essential not to idealize the conditions rooted in scarcity and need."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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