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Gated Communities in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Gated Communities in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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From the "Country Club" to the "Private Town".
From the "Country Club" to the "Private Town".

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Published by: Thomas Matthew Murdoch Duncan on Jan 18, 2013
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Thomas Murdoch Duncan


Gated Communities in Buenos Aires, Argentina: From the “Country Club” to the “Private Town”.

From an urban point of view, one of the deepest transformations in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Region (RMBA1) since the 1990s has been a change in the patterns of urban expansion operated through private initiative. The massive growth of gated communities over the past decades raises a lot of problems with socioeconomic, political, and cultural implications. A striking contrast appears at the outskirts of the metropolitan area between the luxury gated community and the poorly urbanized vicinity, made of crowded self-built homes and plots of rural land. The municipalities of the second and third rings of the periphery, with high population growth rates and the poorest inhabitants of the metropolis, have often limited resources and great difficulties guiding their own urbanization, especially when dealing with the phenomenon of gated communities, and their integration into the existing urban environment. The increasing self-sufficiency of gated communities is an important factor of disarticulation and fragmentation; and the lack of legal framework in which to place these new urban developments raise issues of governability. This transformation directly questions the basic concept of “city”, not only in its formal definition, but also in its everyday consciousness. To try to explore all of these issues, I will first expose some facts about gated urbanization in Buenos Aires, its history, and the contextual circumstances that allowed for its escalation. Then I will focus on the municipality of Pilar, aproximately 50 km


The Buenos Aires Metropolitan Region (RMBA) is constituted by the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires (CABA) and 30 municipalities, of which 24 integrate fully and 6 only partially the urban sprawl. Globalization Space

Thomas Murdoch Duncan


northwest of Buenos Aires, the historic epicentre for the gated community boom. This municipality now contains the largest number of gated communities in the area. I will discuss the physical, economic and social impact of those private urbanizations and examine the ways in which local government has struggled to incorporate them into their urban fabric.

The Rise of Gated Communities. Gated communities in Buenos Aires have a long history that goes back to the nineteenth century, when wealthy porteños (port-city dwellers) used to spend the summer at their rural domains, called quintas, away from the crowded and polluted city. Sport Clubs appeared at the end of the century, as an imitation of the English way of life, and outdoor sports like football, polo, golf, cricket and rowing became increasingly popular amongst the Argentine elite.2 At the start of the twentieth century, railroad, and later the automobile, contributed to democratize the access to a secondary home. Chalets and bungalows multiplied on the outskirts of the city, and they were often still called quintas, even though they had little to do with the original great rural domains of the wealthiest. The first gated development ever established in Argentina was the Tortugas Country Club, founded in 1932 in the municipality of Pilar, 38 km northwest of Buenos Aires. Originally, country clubs were leisure-oriented compounds, built along great sport facilities, such as golf and polo courses (see Fig. #1), or marinas, and would be inhabited only for weekends or holidays.


Troncoso, “Las formas del ocio”, pp. 93-102. Globalization Space

Thomas Murdoch Duncan


Figure #1. Site plan of Tortugas Country Club, in the municipality of Pilar.3

The seventies were in Argentina a decade of social unrest, with state-sponsored violence against Argentine citizenry. Jorge Rafael Videla’s military government was responsible for the illegal arrest, torture, killing or forced disappearance of thousands of people believed to be left-wing subversives (trade-unionists, students, activists, etc.). Political murders, kidnappings, and brutal military repression created a growing feeling

www.tortugascountryclub.com.ar Globalization Space

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of insecurity and danger, which led the upper class to settle permanently in their country houses. Most of these gated developments were situated 25 to 70 km from the city centre, a distance that allowed for daily commuting. But the real boom of gated communities as we know them today took place during the second half of the 1990s. During the 1990s in Argentina, the real estate market prevailed over any effort of urban planning. More than four hundred gated communities of different typologies were built within a radius of 30 to 70 km of the city centre. Around 75% were set up after 1991, most of them concentrated along the north and northwest corridors of the region, in close proximity to the motorway “Accesso Norte – Autopista Panamericana”.

# GATED MOTORWAY Acceso Norte/Panamericana Ramal Pilar/Escobar Acceso Oeste/ Ruta #7 Autopista BsAs-La Plata South Autopista Ezeiza/Cañuelas Table #1. Gated Communities and Motorways.4 71 West 54 North/Northwest 344 REGION COMMUNITIES






Elaborated based on information from www.verdecountry.com Globalization Space

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Figure #2. Map of RMBA showing gated communities (green), motorways (red), and railways (black).5

Notwithstanding, the boom of gated urbanization came late to Argentina when compared to other Latin-American countries (like Brazil, Venezuela, or Mexico). In Argentina’s case, after 1989 (first presidency of Carlos Menem) a neoliberal model became consolidated, which promoted deregulations and privatization of public enterprises and services. Menem’s government led a vast program of privatization of old and inefficient state-run industries and services (including telecommunications, airlines, gas, water, energy, social security providers, and railway transportation), attracting


Centro de Información Metropolitana (FADU/UBA), 2008. Globalization Space

Thomas Murdoch Duncan important foreign investments.6 This period marked the end of the welfare state, and a


big part of the population became unemployed (over 20% according to the INDEC7), was left out of social plans, and in the worst of cases, homeless. It is worthwhile pointing out that the historic housing deficit as well as the impoverishment of the middle class had started years before with the advent of the military dictatorship (1976-1983). The absence of social policies resulted in the paradoxical situation of economic growth without social development. The years following 1990 were marked by the arrival of foreign investments, attracted by a favourable and receptive business environment, most of which were directed to the real estate business, particularly to private urban developments. By the year 2000, U$S 4,881 million dollars were invested in projects of gated communities, shopping malls, and movie complexes in municipalities located in the second and third rings of the RMBA.8 The breach between the rich and the poor determined the growing phenomenon of polarization that found its territorial expression in the gated community. The middle class became fragmented, and in this new urban system the enclaves of the wealthy and the poor shared the same territory. To the new emerging middle class, a marketing campaign was launched in 1995 promoting “a new way of life – the country life”, copied from the North-American suburban model. The format of the gated community offered a house in a secure environment, with lawn in the front and backyards, and maybe, for the wealthiest of them, a golf course, an artificial lake, or polo court nearby. The new urban
6 7

Svampa, Los que ganaron. La vida en los countries y barrios privados, p. 282. Statistics published by the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos de la República Argentina (INDEC). 8 www.reporteinmobiliario.com Globalization Space

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archipelagos scattered around the periphery provided direct contact with nature (ensured by low population densities, generous plots of land, and a constant presence of green areas), and every other service and infrastructure found in the city. Maybe more valuable than nature, gated community residents could be sure that their neighbours were from the same socio-economic level as them. Social homogeneity is probably, with security and the lust for nature, one of the strongest appeals of gated communities. The gated community was not the palliative for the deficit in housing availability, but the offer of a different lifestyle for those sectors that were able to escape the economic crisis that hit Argentina by the end of the decade. A systemic banking crisis reached its peak in 2001 when the government enacted a set of measures (informally known as the “corralito”) that effectively froze all bank accounts for twelve months, allowing for only minor sums of cash to be withdrawn. This meant that the lucky few who were able to withdraw their money were now investing it in what seemed a safer bet: real estate. The offer of housing in gated communities with private services and infrastructure transformed the landscape of the metropolitan area, and was able to expand unchecked by the lack of urban regulations in the affected municipalities. The boom generated so much optimism, profits and speculation, that a new form of gated settlement was introduced: the megaemprendimientos or “mega-developments”. These are great master-planed communities including various central and semi-public spaces and amenities (shopping centres, schools, hospitals and healthcare centres, universities, etc.), surrounded by various residential gated neighbourhoods, each designed to target a specific social and economic profile. Currently nine of these “private towns”

Globalization Space

Thomas Murdoch Duncan or “private cities” have been completed. Nordelta, the biggest of such projects, in the


municipality of Tigre, is 1600 hectares broad, and is designed to house 100,000 people.

Figure #3. Masterplan of Nordelta, in the municipality of Tigre.9

These patterns of urbanisation are not exclusive of the Argentine suburbia. In 1987, the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) also produced a

www.nordelta.com Globalization Space

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grandiose vision of a ‘multifunctional polis’, a ‘high-tech’ city of 100,000 people, with carefully customised infrastructure, which was proposed for a site to the north of Adelaide, South Australia.10 The pattern of infrastructure in many other “megacities” in the developing world shows a notable lack of horizontal coordination, either within or between networks. All efforts to use infrastructure to integrate the city in a comprehensive manner have been abandoned. Instead, concessions are being offered for private developers to put in highways, metros and telecommunication lines connecting the places they most want to serve without real efforts to coordinate or integrate the resulting networks. Massive new private toll roads and expressways complement those operated by the state. These are oriented to the business enclaves and affluent residential spaces. In this new system, the private sector has become the only force in the process of territorial ordering. Its magnitude is of superlative proportions, since the collection of gated communities represents a territory of approximately 400 km2, or twice the surface area of the city of Buenos Aires.

Case Study: The Example of Pilar. Pilar proves an interesting example when trying to analyze the consequences that gated communities have on their host environment. Pilar has been somewhat of an epicentre for the gated urbanization boom in the RMBA (see Appendix). This city of 233,000 residents in 2001 is situated in the third ring of suburbs, around 50 km northwest of Buenos Aires. Pilar presents many advantages for real estate developments: its size, access and location. Firstly, Pilar is a huge municipality, with a territory of 352 km2, in

Graham, Marvin, Splinting Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and Urban Condition, p. 337. Globalization Space

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contrast to the whole city of Buenos Aires, which extends for 200 km2. Secondly, the municipality is reached by the “Panamerican” or “Northern Access” motorway, which crosses the municipality between km 38 and 67. This proves to be the perfect distance from the city centre for gated communities: far enough to offer cheap plots of land to developers, and close enough to allow daily commuting to the city through the Panamerican motorway. To these benefits we must add the cultural factor of it being situated in the northern sector of the metropolis, which has historically been the favourite direction for the extension of upper-class residence. All these factors explain why Pilar was at the heart of the gated community boom and is today the municipality with the highest number of fenced developments. The city hosts 114 of them, equal to one third of all gated communities in the RMBA. These developments account for 53 km2, or 14% of the municipal territory. Pilar also holds the record for the municipality with the greatest population growth during the 90s, rising from 144,000 residents in 1991 to 233,000 in 2001, which is equivalent to a 61.8% growth.11 But the residents of gated communities themselves account for little of this growth, since the municipality hosts 15,000 residents in fenced developments, representing only 6% of its total population. The explanation is that gated communities generated an economic boost for the area, attracting many workers. In the year 2000, there were 8,300 houses in gated communities in Pilar. It is estimated that the construction of each of them provides 60 jobs for 90 days, and that every inhabited house creates 1.8 additional permanent job (security, maintenance, cleaning, gardening, babysitting, etc.). The municipality of Pilar estimates that gated communities give direct


INDEC Globalization Space

Thomas Murdoch Duncan employment to 30,000 persons, and to that we must add the creation of many indirect


jobs, resulting from the economic development generated.12 This begins to elucidate the total population growth exhibited over this decade. Commerce and services followed the wealthy to the gated suburbia. Shopping centres and leisure malls are popping up along the northern motorway, as can be seen in the intersection of km 50 in Pilar. In 1991, a developer, anticipating the gated community boom in Pilar, created a shopping centre at km 50, named Torres del Sol (Sun Towers), containing 152 boutique shops. In 1997 a Village Movie Multiplex with eight theatres, an arcade, a bookshop and a few restaurants opened right across the Sun Towers. And in 1998, on the other side of the motorway was built another mall with 150 shops, a Jumbo hypermarked, and an Easy Homecenter. A new commercial cluster was born in Pilar, competing with the traditional Pilar central business district, but clearly oriented to the new suburbanites of the gated communities. But retail commerce is not the only change brought to Pilar, at km 48, a five star Sheraton Hotel & Convention Centre of 141 rooms was built. Pilar also saw a strong change in the educational institutions that settled in the area: dozen of private schools opened, all bilingual in English and offering courses in computer science. Two private universities have now campuses in Pilar, the Universidad del Salvador (USAL), and the Universidad Austral, with a campus of 70 hectares where in 2000 was inaugurated the university hospital, counting with 150 beds and the most modern medical facilities.


www.webpilar.com Globalization Space

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Figure #4. Map of Pilar municipality showing land uses. (light green=gated communities, blue=education, bright green=agricultural, purple=industrial, yellows=residential, brownish green=rural).13


C.I.M (FADU/UBA), 2008. Globalization Space

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In fact, Pilar like many other districts of the region is undergoing a transformation of its territorial configuration in which “the private” is gaining grounds over “the public”. Gated communities carry the risk of polarizing the city, opposing the enclaves of the wealthy few, to the precarious settlements found in the periphery of Buenos Aires. But they are also a source of opportunities for the municipalities, generating an arrival of high-income residents and a potential for economic development. Local governments struggle to control the implementation of gated communities in their territories. There is no national legislation that directs town planning, and there is not even juridical recognition of gated communities as a form of urban development. This forces municipalities to exempt developers from certain local rules (ordenanzas) in order to accommodate and approve gated community proposals. Plans and regulations are poorly enforced, by both a lack of political will and also a lack of concrete means to ensure their application.14 Local taxes for gated community residents are also kept quite low (between 10% and 15% of what they pay in service charges to the private administration of the development), as part of the competition between municipalities to attract these high-income residents. This might explain why Pilar, the municipality with the greatest number of gated communities in all of the RMBA, was close to bankruptcy in the year 2000.

Final reflections about private urbanisations. We saw along this paper that gated community developments in the Metropolitan Area of Buenos Aires were a massive phenomenon during the last decades, modifying


Dubois-Maury, “Les villes argentines”, pp. 695-714. Globalization Space

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strongly the face of the metropolis. We also noticed the inherent risk of building a more dual city, where gated communities exacerbate social contrasts in a moment of unbalanced economic growth, creating deepened socio-economic inequalities. This provides a real challenge for town planning and urban governance, for state and private actors together. Because of the structural lack of real powers and resources of the municipalities, it is clear that local authorities have the greatest difficulty controlling these urbanizations, and following the dynamism of the private sector, boosted by a speculative market. Paradoxically, the poor neighbourhoods surrounding gated communities, as well as local governments, draw uncertain benefits from the installation of wealthy people in the area. Local political leaders hesitate between the desire to try to get more economic benefits from the fenced developments, and on the other hand, reduce even more the local urban rules and taxes, in a context of territorial competition between municipalities to attract the developers and residents of these gated communities. Likewise, the expansion of “private towns” with their own system of services and infrastructure, rules of coexistence, codes of edification, and disciplinary comities in charge of administering neighbour relations, puts into question some unresolved issues of governability. There has been no in depth study of the different forms of administration for “private towns” with capacities of over 100,000 residents. To the lack of legal frame in which to place these new forms of urbanization, we can add other issues such as unregistered labour within said developments; the withholding of land for speculation; or the evasion of fiscal fees. Yet the biggest transformation in the real estate business was the proposal by entrepreneurs to “generate city”. The leading real estate companies are developing

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commercial and service areas to supply the private urban developments close to them. But the lack of coordination between these networks, combined with the pattern of largescale packaged developments results in oversupply in some areas and lack of services in others. We have to question the extent to which the word “city” applies to these developments, since they have consistently failed to address issues such as integration with the immediate surrounding urban texture, physically, culturally and economically. To Rem Koolhaas these startling new urban spaces mean that:

we are confronted with a new urban system. It will never become a city in the recognizable sense of the word: each part is both competitive with and has a relationship to each other part. Now these parts are being stitched together by infrastructures, so that every part is connected, but not into a whole… In this model, infrastructures which were originally reinforcing and totalizing are becoming more and more competitive and local. They no longer pretend to create functioning wholes, but now spin off functional entities. Instead of network of organism, the new infrastructure creates enclave, separation, and impasse. 15 Paradoxically, gated communities create a strange mix of social distance – symbolized by walls and fences – and physical proximity between the richest and the poorest dwellers of the Metropolitan Area of Buenos Aires. The gate itself summarizes this double meaning, for it can be welcoming as well as exclusive. The presence of these islands of wealth amongst a sea of popular neighbourhoods creates frustration and envy, and finally generates insecurity and violence, those things that gated communities were supposed to protect their residents from.


Quoted in Splintering Urbanism, p. 350. Globalization Space

Thomas Murdoch Duncan The spatial fragmentation of the land is nothing more than the physical


representation of the growing polarization of social classes, and the ongoing expansion of “private towns” continues with no clear political or administrative solution within the municipalities that contain them. The result of these actions have generated an enlarged and hybrid periphery, where islands of urbanisation with very low densities have consumed more surface area than the entire city of Buenos Aires, yet less than 1% of the metropolitan population lives there.

Globalization Space

Thomas Murdoch Duncan Bibliography CENTRO DE INFORMACION METROPOLITANA. Facultad de Arquitectura y Diseño Urbanístico – Universidad de Buenos Aires. October, 2008 <http://www.fadu.uba.ar/sitios/cim>


DUBOIS-MAURY, Jocelyne. “Les villes argentines: une urbanisation sans urbanisme?”. Annales de Géographie, #556, 1990. GRAHAM, Steve and MARVIN, Simon. Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and Urban Condition. London: Routledge, 2001. INDEC. “¿Qué es el Gran Buenos Aires?”. República Argentina: Ministerio de Economía y Producción, 2003. October, 2008 <http://www.indec.mecon.gov.ar> TRONCOSO, Oscar A. “Las formas del ocio”. Buenos Aires. Historias de cuatro siglos. Vol. II. Romero, José Luis; Romero, Luis Alberto (dir.). Buenos Aires: Altamira, 2000. SVAMPA, Maristella. Los que ganaron. La vida en los countries y barrios privados. Buenos Aires: Biblos, 2001. Online sites and publications consulted: http://www.tortugascountryclub.com.ar http://www.verdecountry.com http://www.reporteinmobiliario.com http://www.nordelta.com http://www.pilardetodos.com http://www.webpilar.com

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Thomas Murdoch Duncan Appendix16 DISTRICT % POPULATION GROWTH CABA -7.6 st 1 ring Avellaneda -4.45 Gral. San Martín -0.41 Hurlingham 2.87 Ituzaingó 10.86 La Matanza 11.94 Lanús -3.43 Lomas de Zamora 2.85 Morón -7.54 San Fernando 4.5 San Isidro -1.94 Tres de Febrero -3.95 Vicente López -5.42 2nd ring Almirante Brown 14.42 Berazategui 17.85 Esteban Echeverría 23.79 Ezeiza 59.26 Florencio Varela 37.5 José C. Paz 23.08 Malvinas Argentinas 21.5 Merlo 20.17 Moreno 32.96 Presidente Perón 47.03 Quilmes 1.46 San Miguel 19.01 Tigre 16.03 3rd ring Cañuelas 33.26 Escobar 41.58 Gral. Rodríguez 52.79 Marcos Paz 56.76 Pilar 61.8 San Vicente 31.25


PRIVATE URBANIZATIONS 0 0 0 1 5 1 0 0 0 10 24 0 0 0 8 (2 “private towns”) 15 (1 “private town”) 14 0 2 5 1 11 3 1 15 57 (2 “private towns”) 8 41 10 (1 “private town”) 1 114 (3 “private towns”) 3


From www.verdecountry.com Globalization Space

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