Reflections on Participatory Planning through the Barrio 31 Experience

Reflections on Participatory Planning through the Barrio 31 Experience


March 30, 2019


Contestation around participatory planning ranges from arguments of it being naïve, to ideas of it being counterproductive for systemic change. However, through analysis of the participatory planning approach by the Buenos Aires City Government for the Barrio 31 Social and Urban Integration Plan, this paper aims at shedding light on two issues that may help transcend these arguments, particularly in contexts of low institutionalization of participatory processes. The first issue is building and maintaining long-lasting relationships between government and communities, aimed at re-balancing power structures for greater equity. The second is a strong focus on institutional transformation towards cooperative forms of governance, and the significant role political will plays in them.


Contestation around participatory planning ranges from arguments around it being naïve, to ideas of it being functional to the interests of those in power, and even that it is counterproductive for systemic change. Unsurprisingly, much of it holds true when we look at participatory planning in practice over the past 50 years. However, this paper argues that, in contexts of low institutionalization of participatory practices, when designing participatory planning for systemic change, two issues are key. The first is the determination to build and maintain a long-lasting relationship with the communities at play, based on mutual respect and recognition. The aim of participation as a way of planning and managing development (1) processes is for communities to accrue more power as a collective, but also to address imbalances within, aiming at the empowerment of the most vulnerable among them. This (re)balancing of power structures towards social equity constitutes participatory planning’s nodal theory of practice. The second issue is a strong focus on political pedagogy in government structures to facilitate a process of transformation towards more open and cooperative forms of governance. This issue is heavily influenced, and sometimes determined, by the existence of political will. If not present, the concept and practice of participation is at risk of being co-opted by governing elites, reduced to its minimum technical expression, with heavier burdens placed in the communities’ role to challenge them.

As a practical lens to address these two elements, this paper uses the participatory planning (PP) experience of the Social and Urban Integration Plan (SUIP) at Barrio 31, by the Buenos Aires City Government (GCBA) in Argentina.

Slum 31: A Brief Overview

The issue of habitat and housing in the City of Buenos Aires is a central one. Alongside the 48 ‘barrios porteños’, the city also includes 15 informal settlements. Slum 31 is one of the oldest, largest slums, and also one of the most interesting and complicated. It came to existence in the beginning of the 1930s when the government allowed a group of eastern European immigrants to settle in those port lands, a mile north of the Casa Rosada. Back then, this territory received the name of Villa Desocupación.

This slum and its inhabitants have always been subject of debate and controversy. They have walked a path of disappointments, a seemingly endless history alternating bulldozing and eviction threats, and broken promises of urbanization. Among the rich history of this territory, it is worth noting that in the 2000s, a technical team from the Architecture, Design and Urbanism Faculty (FADU by its Spanish acronym) of the Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA) developed a series of participatory interventions spanning over almost a decade, that resulted in a comprehensive project for B31’s urbanization, with substantive support from neighbours. This process and demonstrations by slum dwellers created the conditions for law 3343/09 of regularization and urban integration of slum 31- 31bis to be sanctioned by unanimity by the end of 2009. Parallel to this process, the slum underwent a judicial intervention to formalize its representation system. It was established in three levels and provided a framework for participation: 1. Delegates by block (proportional to voting block population); 2. Sector Body (delegates of the blocks comprised in a sector); 3. Neighbourhood Council (ten members elected from Sector Bodies). Thus, by 2015, that which had started as a temporary settlement for a few immigrant families constituted a truly rooted neighbourhood, with impressive dimensions and a history spanning over 80 years of struggle, disappointment and arraigo (creation of social ties).

By 2015, the Barrio comprised 32 hectares and 61 blocks (manzanas), land tenure being held by the National State. With more than 40,000 inhabitants, this neighbourhood is bigger than most of Argentine municipalities. As of 2012, the densification process had begun to shift from horizontal to vertical, with a growth in the number of stories per building, and households per house, causing a spike in critical overcrowding and habitational precariousness. Understanding that spatial and symbolic segregation in slums act as barriers against access to opportunities, in December 2015, GCBA created the Secretariat for Social and Urban Integration (SISU) with the purpose of tackling these issues.

An aerial view of the homes of over 40,000 people in Barrio 31. Source: El País

Social and Urban Integration Plan Overview

SISU’s aim for Barrio 31 is to act against the segregation of this neighborhood and integrate it within the productive framework of the rest of Buenos Aires. The Secretariat secured funding from the World Bank (WB), and later the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) with a proposal to integrate the provision of infrastructure and housing with access to and quality of social services, health centers, green public spaces, cultural activities, education opportunities and formal employment. The Integral Plan considers all population of slum 31-31bis as its rightholders (2). Thus, SISU structured its Community Planning and Management Area in a multi-actor approach. As part of an initial diagnosis, an exercise of stakeholder analysis was conducted in the first half of 2016.


Table 1. Actors in Barrio 31 by type

Type Actor
Governmental Executive National Government and GCBA
Legislative Legislature of the City of Buenos Aires
Judiciary Federal and City level Justice
Autarchic People’s Defender
Non – Governmental Collective Barrio Council and Sectoral Bodies, Cooperatives, political organizations, CSO, cultural groups, mass media, community media, Urbanization Table, technical team from the Architecture Department (FADU) of the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), Social worker’s table, catholic church, other religious

bodies, charters (carreteros), construction material vendors, public service companies, contractor companies.

Individual Council people, delegates and referentes; territorial leaders; tenants; owners;

small business owners; fair vendors; recycling workers

Source: SISU 2016

Participatory Planning in Barrio 31

The theory behind the practice of participation is vast. Several authors have designed manuals and presented phases or guiding principles. Literature review suggests levels of involvement are always present, ranging from informative to decisional, sometimes including implementation and evaluation. In the case of Barrio 31, the selected theoretical framework combined three approaches:

  1. The Multi-Scale Participatory Planning approach by UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC, 2015), which presents six principles and four levels of involvement.
  2. Participatory Planning and Joint Management by the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), which presents a family of methodologies for decision-making (Poggiese, 2011).
  3. The Participatory Planning and Management approach, as presented in the subject of the same name under the Master’s in Urban and Regional Planning (PROPUR) of FADU-UBA.

Drawing from these, emphasis was placed on co-design, co-management, and co-evaluation, centering the approach on creating the conditions for real participation. This meant a conception of participation as an iterative process in collaborative networks – a non-linear process along the phases of lea

rning, engaging, planning and acting.









Figure 2: Participatory planning in Barrio 31. Iterative process in collaborative network


Source: Prepared by the author at SISU (2018)

Our working definition of participation was taken from the ECLAC (2015) Manual:

Participatory planning is a process that makes social dialogue viable and strengthens governance through quality public management that responds to the challenges of building more cooperative and relational governments. It aims at facilitating citizen participation that questions existing power and contributes to re-channeling them in favor of social equity.

This theoretical basis was the foundation for the internal institutional structure, as well as the relationship with the Barrio, this is, the internal and external ‘wheels’.

Figure 3. The internal and external wheels of participation in the Barrio 31 Plan

Source: Prepared by the author at SISU (2016)

The aim of the internal wheel is to create an institutional process of change through political pedagogy, centered on the recognition of otherness not as alien but as ally. The external wheel is concerned with the issue of power balancing for social equity. The words conflict, commitment and respect in the figure represent central values in the process.

Internal strategy: Political pedagogy for systemic change

As we have stated, in contexts of low institutionalization of participatory practices such as our present case, two matters are crucial when aiming at systemic change. The first is the pedagogic process to transform internal governmental structures towards more open and cooperative forms of governance. We argue that the presence of political will is paramount. If not present, participation is reduced to mere methods and techniques. Thus, participatory planning schemes must include a strong element of patient and committed political pedagogy. In the words of Backhaus and Wagachichi (1995, in Dalal-Clayton et al, 2002):

Government agencies cannot be expected to implement a participatory project successfully and instantly. An orientation or transition phase (which might require two to three years) is needed to enable staff to learn and to adjust, and for strategies to be developed and tested… It requires experienced and qualified people to facilitate the process of discovery and learning.

In this section, we concentrate on the internal efforts made by the Barrio 31 participatory planning team – which the author led from December 2015 to March 2018 –  to affect significant institutional change, and its shortcomings in light of the lack of political will.

Guided by the principle that participatory planning should be cross-cutting and intrinsic, the PP team set out to develop a series of workshops with all SISU teams. The objective was threefold. First, the short-term aim was for the entire staff at the Secretariat to become acquainted with PP’s theoretical base and present a series of case studies. At this point, it might be useful to clarify that, just as ‘the community’ is far from being a homogenous body, the “government institution” is also a significantly heterogeneous collective. While one team might be working within a political pedagogy framework, the next could be haphazardly applying the same techniques, albeit within a significantly different theory of practice. In some cases, it would resemble that of Peruvian scholar Hernando De Soto (2000), in terms of formalizing the activities of the poor to release their assets’ potential into the market. Other times, it would even present an anti-politics perspective, displaying some sort of “a neutral, technical mission to which no one can object” (Williams, 2004: 9). Furthermore, some actors would describe participation as a tool for themselves as the authority. In light of these variable conceptions of participation, one cross-cutting element in our threefold strategy was to put forward a distinct conceptualization of participation. We were not neutral, no one is. Yes, we called ourselves facilitators, but never denied our agency or positionality.

Second, we aimed to change the internal decision-making structure and for it to act as a guiding practice to start planning, not only for the Barrio, but with it. In March 2016 at a senior staff meeting and workshop, we proposed a number of internal working tables and a decision was made as regards their objectives and responsibilities. Their subjects included: Infrastructure; Public Space Improvement; Housing Upgrading; Housing and Habitat Programs; Re-settlements; Maintenance and Garbage Disposal; Local Economic Development; Human Development (Health, Education, Culture, Women, LGTBIQ); and Administrative Monitoring.

However, even while central elements of political pedagogy for internal transformation were diligently included, absence of transformative political will meant results were far from expected. This lack of political will was not explicit at first, since development discourse nowadays seems to always include some version of participation as a central element. But as months went by, interactions with senior team leaders and elected officials, themselves members of enduring governing elites, made it quite patent.

Third, the long-term normative horizon of institutional maturity was for PP to transition from a separate area to an intrinsic part of every team. We combined theoretical emphasis with a practical strategy; we hired people from the most diverse backgrounds and professions to build empathy with other teams; we offered training spaces for all teams on participatory and territorial development practice; we accompanied teams in their daily tasks and organized activities in the Barrio with people from every team to build interdisciplinary relationships based on practical experience.

Even though part of this ambitious objective was accomplished by the beginning of 2018, lack of political will to expand the room for participatory decision-making curtailed it. Practical evidence suggests elites are not prone to relinquish power by themselves; this has to be achieved by matching their position with balanced counterparts. This shows the importance of the locus of power in any transformative process. A PP team has little push for a transformative agenda if the institution it belongs to fails to reflect on its own positionality.

Balancing power for equity: the relationship with ‘The Community’ (External axis)

The counterpart to this internal struggle is the process by which communities strengthen their abilities to exercise influence as a collective and also redistribute power towards their most vulnerable corners. This two-fold (re)balancing of power structures towards social equity constitutes PP’s central core and, by not laudingthe Community as an abstract ideal (Levine, 2017), it may be the answer to claims of the de-politization of participation and masking of the power structure of communities (Williams, 2014).

As regards the relationship between the government and the Barrio, following the idea that PP can present a solid contribution to the expansion of civic imagination for empowerment, the external axis was designed by the PP Area as a two-level structure. The first, was intended to address social and urban integration in general, aiming at discussing more abstract and long-term issues, and it was based on the identification of two existing bodies and the creation of a third. The two existing spaces that constituted the main political arena of the Barrio and presented the conditions for working at this level were the Table for Urbanization and the Council of the Barrio. The proposed complementary structure was one of sectoral working tables. Unfortunately, this combined proposal did not go through. Arguing issues of party politics, participation in the Barrio’s main political arenas was strictly reserved for higher ranking officials, and reports on its development were unsystematic, scarce and opaque. When it came to the sectoral working tables proposal, its development was curtailed with little reason presented.

The second level presented less controversy since it was designed following internal programmatic differentiation, including six of the main programs: 1. Infrastructure (water and sanitation services, pavement, electricity and public lighting, and a sub-program for waste management); 2. Public Space (improvement of 26 existing public spaces, and co-creation of three new clusters of public space, two in the new housing sites and one as a new linear park in lieu of the Illia Highway); 3. Housing Upgrading Program; 4. Resettlements; 5. Local Economic Development; 6. Social Integration (Education, Health, Culture and other programs). In the following years, other programs would be added, such as Tenure Regularization, the Legislative Process (Dictámen), and several other projects.

A process was developed for all these programs and projects, constantly adapting the methodologies and overall practice according to varying contexts and communities within the Barrio. The following table describes the main objectives and methodologies for each one.


Table 2. Participatory planning objectives and methodologies for the main six programs.


Infrastructure and Public Space Habitat – Resettlements and Housing Upgrading Local Economic Development and Social Integration
  • Increase access + quality
  • Identify needs/wants
  • Engage in Co-design
  • Foster Co-Responsability
  • Enhance Public Identity
  • Increase Autonomy + Emancipation
  • Foster Rooted Development
  • Generate Co-Habitation Criteria
  • Engage in Habitat Co- Production
  • Respect Community Networks
  • Increase Program Participation
  • Provide Structure to Complexity
  • Promote Integrality
  • Create Space for Community
  • Articulate a Common Purpose
  • Generate Good Practice Refernce
  • Learn from Mistakes
  • Share Information
  • Co-decide Priorities
  • Observation
  • Surveys + Counts
  • APO walks
  • Collective mapping
  • ICC processes
  • Meetings
  • Events + gatherings
  • Monitoring + Reporting
  • Participatory evaluation
  • Observation
  • RPD + Surveys
  • APO walks
  • Introductory Meetings
  • Workshops Before-During-After
  • ‘Construction End’ Celebrations
  • Public Meetings
  • Monitoring and Reporting
  • Participatory Evaluation
  • Observation
  • RPD + Surveys
  • APO walks
  • Collaborative Networks
  • Co-Habitation Workshops
  • Working Tables
  • Monitoring and Reporting
  • Participatory Evaluation

Source: Prepared by the author at SISU (2018)


As stated, participation’s role in power redistribution is twofold. On the one hand, it aims at creating conditions for communities to accrue more power as a collective. On the other hand, when practiced reflectively, it allows government teams and community groups to address issues of power distribution within communities themselves. As regards Barrio 31, two processes present great case studies to illustrate how the program-level approach presented noteworthy results.

In the case of the latter, the process of formalizing the informal local street market (feria) serves as an excellent example for power redistribution within a community. Briefly described, the management of the feria up until 2017 was not only informal, but coercive and at times violent. Local vendors had to queue at 4 am to get a stand, and selection was usually based on proximity or favors to the organizer, rather than fair criteria. The first phase of the formalization process lasted almost two years and it was specifically designed to contest the power of the then organizers. The process was conducted in two levels. The first level dealt with the organizers, and it encompassed a series of meetings and compromises to work with the main leaders in order to re-channel their behavior and activity. The second layer of intervention was designed as a participatory planning process with the entirety of the feria community, to decide key issues of the feria re-development and hold elections for a group of delegates among peers. This process meant a combination daily visits to stands, bi-weekly group workshops, monthly massive meetings and a series of other consultative and decision-making spaces. After a two-year process, the feria received its new stands, and formally elected its first formal representatives in December 2017.

As regards the first level of power redistribution, Barrio 31’s resettlement program is a pertinent example to illustrate the attempt at creating conditions for communities to gain power in their stance relative, in this case, to the State. The resettlement program was one of the most controversial ones in terms of participatory planning due to its involuntary nature; resettlement was the result of the urbanization process, mandated by the laws of the formal city, and was therefore highly contested. Even when the government was presenting a housing option within 500 meters of existing homes, and with features at or above international habitat frameworks, people would distrust and reject the process. This can be easily explained by the trajectory of disappointment these communities have had to endure as a result of unkept promises and policies.

Thus, the participatory planning process in this component included key elements of legal instruction, for people to know and exercise their rights, and political pedagogy, to better equip the polity with tools to stand to any government trespass. Even though the efforts by the participatory planning team to open up this process were significant, the bottom line is that there was no possibility for a real shared decision-making space. The presence of the participatory planning workshops was key in incorporating people’s views to the extent possible. In terms of, for example, construction materials, complaints were received about the first group of 39 houses being built in dry construction, and this was incorporated in the remaining 1100 houses, finally built with brick and cement.

Even when most people professed being happy in their new homes, when conducting reflexive exercises within teams, the matter of involuntary resettlement was always a subject of extreme controversy. Perhaps the establishment of a space like the proposed sectoral working table would have given this community the opportunity to engage in the discussion of their destiny in a more substantive manner.

In contrast with the experience at the program level, the strategic or macro-politics level presented a hostile environment. The impediment to participateing and establishing relationships at the most significant power arenas in the Barrio seriously reduced capacity to contribute to creating favorable conditions for challenging power structures and contribute to rebalance them in favor of social equity. it. It was only in late 2017, with a change of institutional leadership, that those spaces opened up for this team. The construction and maintenance of long-lasting, respectful relationships with communities, is only possible when they constitute institutional values and are practiced as such.

Closing Remarks

Participatory Planning in development programs has become mainstream, as we have highlighted, perilously losing its subversive connotation. Its inclusion in a wide range of development plans, programs and projects has derived in its being fundamentally questioned in its ability to achieve real power redistribution.

Within this paper, we have argued that, when participatory planning is performed under an institutional context that lacks the will to increase the State’s ability to cooperate for alternative models of governance, it is at risk of becoming functional to the interests of those in power, and counterproductive for real systemic change. We have also argued that efforts to include a central element of political pedagogy to achieve internal institutional transformations are key to pushing the issue forward. We have emphasized that issues of power are central to the theory and practice of Participatory Planning, and that the presence of political will to carry these transformations out is nodal. Complementarily, we have stressed the importance of the process of creating conditions for communities to accrue more power as a collective while addressing issues of power distribution within themselves.

To elaborate on these ideas, we have analyzed the Barrio 31 case, looking at its participatory planning approach and its internal decision-making structure. In doing so, we have moved beyond individual instances of participation to look at the wider institutional transformations that would effectively challenge power status quo, and the important role political will played in the process to achieve them. On the whole, we believe this theoretical and practical analysis of participatory planning and its potential for systemic change and power balance might prove useful for teams dealing with these issues, in their quest to move towards a more explicitly political discussion of what enables or constrains participatory practice.

1. We acknowledge anti and post-developmentalists such as Sachs (1992), Rahmena (1992), Escobar (1995), or Wallerstein (2005) in their efforts to transcend the notion of development. We continue to use the term for lack of a suitable alternative signifier to describe the process by which individuals or communities strive to achieve a future that represents an equitable improvement from the past.

2.  We prefer the term rightholder as opposed to beneficiary, since the former is centered in rights as opposed to benefits.

Dani Cocco Beltrame is a candidate for the Master in City Planning at theMassachusetts Institute of Technology.


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