Civic participation not only matters, but is essential for a vibrant and inclusive city infrastructure. This is especially evident in places like Buenos Aires, Argentina. Although Buenos Aires is synonymous with tango dancing, steak, and fine wine, local leaders are positioning the city to be a global model of innovation in citizen participation. They will have the opportunity to showcase this in 2018 when Buenos Aires will be on the world’s stage as they host the G20 Summit and the Special Olympics later this year.
The promise and challenges of this work are evident in the way that citizens and government are working together in the poorer areas of the city. Far from the city’s trendy neighborhoods or barrios, are underserved neighborhoods called villas. Often known as pockets of poverty, violence and inequality, these informal settlements of mainly immigrants from Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru, are home to over a quarter million residents and make up approximately 10 percent of the Buenos Aires population.
I had the opportunity to witness these contrasts during a trip to Argentina, where I was invited by the office of the Undersecretariat of Strategic Government and Institutional Quality of the City of Buenos Aires to present at the Governing With Neighbours convening. The convening helped government officials from Buenos Aires and other cities around the country to reflect on different strategies to develop and strengthen civic engagement initiatives. Experts from around the world spoke about their expertise and insights on civic engagement and open government. I shared examples from my work at Public Agenda on strategies that I have found to be effective in building engaged and inclusive communities.
While there, I met with Maria Castaños of the office of the Secretary of Social and Urban Integration in Villa 31 – the oldest and largest villa in the city. We spent several hours walking through the neighborhood, which is located next to the central bus station and in between the business district and the affluent Recoleta district. We met with residents and Maria shared with me the city’s efforts to socially and economically invest in villas. The office of the Secretary of Social and Urban Integration, which is headquartered in Villa 31, is working on a number of initiatives, including a complex relocation project to move residents who have constructed their homes under a major highway by using the infrastructure of the highway overpass as the frame of their homes. Maria organizes the consultation process for the community members to decide how they want to redevelop the overpass once the residents are relocated. It was amazing to see a community that had been historically neglected and ignored by the government shape the design of capital improvements to their neighborhood.
Maria showed me renderings of the redesign of the highway created by the kids in the community that participated in a series of consultation processes. The kids envision turning the highway into a community space similar to the High Line elevated park and trail in New York City. They would like to see a school, library, community center, senior center, culture center and soccer fields — all institutions and amenities currently unavailable to them. In the renderings you can see the participants grappling with what to name the new park and in so grappling with their identity. Should it remain Villa 31 or should it be renamed as a barrio and be integrated more fully into Buenos Aires society?
As the city leaders continue to integrate the residents of Villa 31 into the development process, I would love to see them included equally as co-governing partners. If this happens, when I visit the office of the Secretary of Social and Urban Integration in the near future, there will be residents of the community working in a variety of capacities, as well as in leadership positions working alongside Maria and her colleagues. That is a model of innovative citizen participation.