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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