Community participation in local government initiatives has become an imperative globally, including the UK, since it lies at the core of democratic values. Nonetheless, it continues to be a challenge, and it is often implemented in very limited ways, both in terms of timing and scope (see Till 2005). Enhancing participatory practices could not only lead to more even empowerment amongst communities but also to better planning outcomes and subsequent management (Worthington 2017). In other words, the benefits of civil society-local government collaboration could still be maximised.
Participatory practices affect all types of urban processes. However, their dynamics can be seen particularly clearly in shantytown interventions given the vulnerability of the residents involved and their long-term experience of self-organisation. Shantytowns in Buenos Aires emerged gradually from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, since the 1950s, they have become home to an increasing proportion of the urban population. As the capital of Argentina, Greater Buenos Aires is home to around 13 million people. Of the 3 million inhabitants of the capital city district, 5 per cent lived in shantytowns (according to the 2010 census). Between 2001 and 2010, the shantytown population in this district grew by 56 per cent.
After six decades of demands and negotiations by shantytown collectives in Buenos Aires, the local government is developing a series of much-needed upgrades in selected locations. These upgrading programmes promised to improve the living conditions of the affected households, without displacing them from access to job opportunities and urban services. Some key questions remain however: who makes the relevant decisions? On what basis do they make these decisions? And who will benefit from the process?
Currently the responsibility for dealing with shantytowns belongs with local government, and is regulated by specific laws. The first local piece of legislation regarding shantytown upgrade was approved in 1991, following a national decree which appointed the City’s Housing Institute as the institution in charge of transferring land ownership from national state departments to residents. Additionally, the right to housing (with priority given to those who are economically disadvantaged) is reiterated in existing City’s Constitution, National Argentine Constitution and the Human Rights treaties to which the country adheres.
The shantytown upgrade programmes referred to are participatory in nature, as required by Buenos Aires legislation. This means that they are implemented through boards that include residents, public officials and representatives from utilities companies. The idea of participation as a key element of shantytown upgrade is not new. It gained increasing acceptance in international debates throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and was simultaneously embraced by grassroots collectives in Latin America during those decades. Upgrade in this sense referred to the provision of basic infrastructure (such as sewerage, piped water and electricity), which is different from a former approach of ‘slum clearance’ involving demolition and relocation. Clearance presented some major problems, including further pushing marginalised groups away from key amenities and employment; and the dismantling of existing social networks.
The processes, however, take quite different forms across different shantytowns. The upgrading of some shantytowns seems to be implemented directly by the local executive through the Social and Urban Integration Secretariat while others were not. The reasons behind these different processes of intervention and related institutional arrangements were not made clear by the local government. This lack of communication not only hinders the general public’s understanding of the process, but also forms a barrier to effective community participation.
This lack of clear communication is also detrimental to building trust in the long-term, which is critical to maximising the benefits of civil society-local government collaboration. Different stakeholders should always ensure that ‘participation’ goes beyond being a simple buzzword used in every meeting; instead, communities should feel that they can influence any initiatives in a meaningful way and that their voices make it into the decision-making process.