Irene Caselli is a multimedia journalist reporting for international outlets including the BBC, Deutsche Welle, The Washington Post, and The Guardian. After a decade in Latin America, working for the BBC in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Argentina, she is now based in her home country, Italy.
Argentina’s capital hopes to revitalize part of its riverfront, but critics say the plan is socially exclusive, too commercial, and environmentally risky.
“Buenos Aires gives its back to the Rio de la Plata. It never looks at it; it doesn’t know that it exists,” complained the architect Le Corbusier in 1929, when he proposed to relocate the core of Buenos Aires closer to the river.
Almost a century later, Buenos Aires is finally listening to his advice. But distrust and uncertainty surround a major new project that aims to integrate a long stretch of the riverfront into the city.
Last year, the Buenos Aires City Legislature approved a plan to create the Distrito Joven (“Youth District”), which will transform the northern part of the city’s riverfront into a recreation and nightlife area, with one-third of the land devoted to private bars, restaurants, and clubs.
“What we are looking for is for Buenos Aires to stop turning its back to the river, for it to be a coastal city,” Fabián Pereyra, the undersecretary of youth for Buenos Aires, told CityLab.
The new coastal district will occupy about 145 acres, including parts of the Ciudad Universitaria (the main campus of the state-run University of Buenos Aires, or UBA), the Aeroparque Jorge Newbery domestic airport, and the Costa Salguero exhibition center. The area is cut off from the Palermo neighborhood and the rest of the city by a highway and train tracks. It’s used mainly by students during the day and affluent young adults at night, and little public transportation serves it.
The timeline and the specifics of the first phase of the project depend on a public request for ideas issued by UBA’s Faculty of Architecture, Design, and Urbanism; the winners were due to be announced in December, but the announcement has been pushed to February 2019. The overall vision outlined by the city is to maintain a continuous 15 meters (about 50 feet) of public space along the coast—some of which would be reclaimed from the river—and to add new buildings, medical stations, public toilets, and parking.
Argentina is undergoing a financial crisis, and presidential and local elections will be held in late 2019, so the project’s funding and timeline are uncertain. But as of now, the plan is that ferry boats coming from farther north along the river will dock here, as they do in Puerto Madero, a recently developed waterfront district of Buenos Aires with sleek high-rise condos and refurbished warehouses.
Advocates say the Youth District will not look like Puerto Madero. “They are two different things,” said Agustín Forchieri, a member of the Buenos Aires City Legislature who voted in favor of the project. “One [Puerto Madero] is a predominantly residential neighborhood; the other will be a recreational area where public space is the undisputed leader, and commercial features will occupy a smaller part of the surface.”
Buenos Aires has had a love-hate relationship with the evocative “River of Silver” since the city’s founding in the 16th century. The river turned Buenos Aires into a strategic point for colonial powers who wanted to reach into the South American continent. But later on, it created infrastructure challenges: It was too shallow, so large cargo ships were moored away from the shore and passengers and merchandise were unloaded onto barges and ferries. Unlike in neighboring Montevideo, Uruguay, which has real beaches, the Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires is gray-brown and not particularly inviting.
Despite the interest in making the area more attractive, there has been plenty of pushback to the Youth District. One criticism is that the area is being planned for the wealthy.
The ombudsman for the city, Gabriel Fuks, believes the decision to create the Youth District is an attempt to exert more control over the city’s high-end nightlife, following a 2016 incident in which five young people died after taking drugs at the Time Warp electronic music festival in the Costa Salguero area.
“Time Warp had a big impact, because it affected the middle-upper classes,” Fuks said. “The Youth District is a response to the lack of control ... of this situation. It is aimed at the social sector that consumes designer drugs and is attracted to electronic parties.”
Those behind the plan say they consulted with UBA students to develop the initial concept, and that the focus will be not only on nightlife, but also on daytime recreation. They say improving transit access is one of the priorities.
“We want it to be a place where you can enjoy cultural events with emerging artists, where young people study or do sports; for those who want to go out at night, [and] for those who want to have a nice breakfast in the morning, looking at the river,” said Pereyra.
But critics contend that the law approved for the Youth District actually allows the government to give out more land in private concessions. In order to create the district, the city had to change the area’s zoning from 100-percent public park to up to 35 percent buildable area. Part of the area was already given out in private concessions, which were against the law, but with the new zoning, those concessions are now legal.
“From a certain perspective, the Youth District is a law to privatize the northern shore of the river. We see it as a huge step back,” said Jonatan Baldiviezo, a lawyer and president of the Observatory for the Right to the City, an independent organization that monitors urban policies. According to the Argentine constitution, the areas that access the waterfront have to be public. “It was not necessary to create a Youth District to recover that land that had been privatized,” said Baldiviezo, who added that all that was needed was to outlaw the existing businesses.
Environmental activists are also concerned. The project would reclaim land from the river to create parking spaces, something activists worry will make the area more prone to flooding. Flooding is a regular occurrence in Buenos Aires; last spring, flash floods caused the evacuation of hundreds of residents.
“Once more, the city is giving its back to the river, because the coastline is only seen by the Buenos Aires City Legislature as a tool to obtain more money,” said Ana Di Pangracio, deputy director of Foundation for the Environment and Natural Resources. “They are not securing a green corridor along the river.”
Andrés Borthagaray, an architect and urbanist at UBA, questions the share of commercial space. “If we really want to recover the coastline, we have to give more importance to the idea of public space. And there will be little of it once you take into account the clubs and the gastronomic venues,” Borthagaray said. “I believe that a city is friendly for young people if it has green, public spaces to do sports, and not such a large presence of commercial services.”