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Urban administration

The institutional framework

Argentina is a federal republic. The government is democratically elected and has three tiers of administration: national, provincial, and municipal. The federal government is by far the dominant force in the country, controlling the public finance system and exercising the key executive functions. Provincial government is responsible for anything that is not reserved for the federal administration. It also controls the activities of the municipalities.

Administrative responsibility for Greater Buenos Aires is divided between a large number of different bodies. The key distinction is between the Federal District and the municipalities which belong to the Province of Buenos Aires. In the Federal Capital, the federal government controls every important administrative matter and the president appoints the district's highest officer, the Intendent of the Municipality of the City of Buenos Aires. Although the municipal council is elected, its decisions are largely controlled by the national parliament.

Beyond the Federal Capital, administrative responsibility rests with the Province of Buenos Aires and the 19 municipalities which make up the remainder of the metropolitan area. The provincial government negotiates its duties with the federal authorities. Administration is complicated by the fact that the headquarters of the provincial government is based in the city of La Plata, 35 miles south-east of Buenos Aires.

Each of the nineteen municipal districts is governed by an intendent and a council. Since both are popularly elected, political conflicts with the provincial authorities not infrequently occur, especially when the political complexions of the two sets of administrations differ.

Attempting to prevent anarchy is the function of two bodies with responsibility for administrative coordination: the Metropolitan Area of Buenos Aires (AMBA) and the National Commission for the Metropolitan Area of Buenos Aires (CONAMBA). AMBA is responsible for coordinating links between the federal government, the municipality of the City of Buenos Aires and the province of Buenos Aires. CONAMBA is exclusively concerned with overseeing national concerns within Greater Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, neither body has much power and, since 1984, neither has managed to integrate government policy in the metropolitan area.

Figure 6.2 Residential segregation in Buenos Aires, 1991

Independent public agencies carry out certain specialized functions in the city. One agency is responsible for solid waste disposal and land recovery, another for managing the city's waterways. A number of public bodies are also responsible for regulating and supervising the newly privatized service companies. Since these regulatory agencies have responsibility only for parts of the city, there is no way of preventing highly varied standards of service delivery and the consequent exacerbation of social inequalities.

Public finance

Each level of government has an independent income. Federal revenues come mainly from income and company taxes, municipal revenues principally from a progressive property tax. Provincial governments obtain their revenues from a variety of sources. Common funds at the municipal and provincial levels are intended to even out financial inequalities between various areas in the country. Given that Buenos Aires is the richest province in the country, it loses out from this system. Similarly, the Federal Capital has received practically nothing from national funds intended for new road construction.

Each level of government is responsible for providing a range of public services within its jurisdiction. Given the wide variation in service provision in the different parts of the city, however, the population tends to use services in the best-serviced area, the Federal Capital. Given the lack of a satisfactory charging mechanism between authorities, this means that the centre is effectively subsidizing the periphery.

Changing administrative systems

The Menem administration has attempted a fundamental restructuring of government in Argentina. The key changes include a move towards functional decentralization, privatization of public services, and deregulation of the private sector. These reforms have had important repercussions within the Buenos Aires urban area, few of which are likely to have helped the poor.

"Decentralization" involves the delegation of national and provincial government functions to the municipal level. Decentralization is also occurring at the municipal level, where subdivisions are being created in each of the metropolitan municipalities. Official rhetoric has justified these changes in terms of the need to reduce bureaucracy and to increase the level of public participation. Unfortunately, the changes have been made with insufficient funding. A further problem is that there has been little attempt to improve coordination between the different levels of government in the metropolitan area. For the poorest areas, however, the major problem is that the reforms have cut the transfer of funds from more prosperous parts of the city. This means that existing inequalities in public service provision are likely to increase further.

Privatization has had a number of rather harmful effects. First, the transfer of service and infrastructure provision to private companies has led to steep price increases, a tendency accentuated by the removal of government subsidies. This has cut use by very poor groups, particularly now that illegal users are regularly disconnected. Second, privatization has reduced the supply of housing, education, and recreational facilities, at a time when demand has risen owing to the needs of an increasingly impoverished middle class.

Finally, deregulation of the private sector has led to important changes in operating hours and, most importantly, in the relative prices of goods and services. Rents, fares, the cost of leisure facilities, and charges for health care have all risen in real terms. Deregulation has had a harmful impact on the poorest people in the city.

Service provision


The metropolitan area receives its electricity from the national distribution network. Two thermal power stations operate within the Federal Capital and a nuclear station just outside it. Among the main utilities, electricity offers the widest spatial and social coverage. Practically every home in the city is linked to the electricity network, helped in some poor neighbourhoods by illegal connections (although, as a result of recent privatization, this situation is now being regularized).

Buenos Aires has a very well-developed gas system. In 1990, some 20,000 industrial companies and some 2.6 million homes, three-quarters of the city's total, were connected to the network.

Water and sanitation

Between 1980 and 1991, the proportion of homes connected to the mains water system increased despite a severe reduction in the level of investment (Novaro and Perelman, 1994). The proportion of households in Greater Buenos Aires with a link to the mains water supply increased from 44 per cent to 50 per cent. The authorities achieved this feat by giving high priority to the connection of new households in the periphery. The problem was that they were unable to maintain the quality of the water supply. Regular maintenance procedures were cut, the rate of water loss rose, and there were frequent interruptions to the household water supply (Novaro and Perelman, 1994).

The organization of water and sanitation services has been modified in recent years. Until 1992, both water and sanitation were provided by the staterun Obras Sanitarias de la Nación (OSN).2 In most of the metropolitan area, water is now provided by a private company, Aguas Argentinas, which supplies the Federal Capital and thirteen municipalities in the Province of Buenos Aires. In four outer municipalities water is supplied by the Province of Buenos Aires' water company, and in two others, Quilmes and Berazategui, by the respective municipalities.

Administration of the drainage system has also been restructured. Until 1992, it was operated by the OSN but it is now the responsibility of each municipality. The drainage system is seriously deficient and, with rainfall heavily concentrated between October and March, Buenos Aires regularly suffers from floods.3 Occasionally, there have been major disasters, the most serious occurring at the end of May 1985, when 300 millimetres of rain fell in 30 hours. Fifteen people were killed and 120,000 people had to be evacuated. The danger of floods has been worsened by the way in which the city has expanded. Too many poor neighbourhoods are located on low-lying land in areas where few attempts have been made to improve the drainage system.

The sewerage system is also deficient and untreated sewage is regularly discharged into the ground. With one-half of all homes in the metropolitan area lacking connection to the mains water system, many low-income neighbourhoods face serious health problems. This is a particular problem in the Province of Buenos Aires, where only 25 per cent of homes are connected to the mains.4 In the worst-served municipality, Merlo, only 4 per cent of homes have either mains water or sewerage provision.

Rubbish collection in most of the metropolitan area is the responsibility of a mixed enterprise which is also in charge of its treatment and final disposal. In practice, large areas of the city are excluded from this service, and in the peripheral neighbourhoods rubbish is simply dumped onto open sites. This creates major environmental and health problems.

This combination of sanitary problems has led to serious outbreaks of cholera, hepatitis, and meningitis in recent years. There was a particularly serious outbreak of hepatitis in 1988 and 1989.5 Poor diet and limited access to health facilities for the groups most at risk have increased the dangers of epidemics breaking out in Buenos Aires.


Close to 12 million trips are made every day in Buenos Aires, an average of about 1.1 trips per person. This figure represents a significant decrease since 1970, when the average was 1.9 trips per person.

Table 6.8 shows that use of the private car has increased markedly since 1970 and now accounts for one-quarter of all journeys. Government policy implicitly supports use of the private car, with few restrictions on movement and an abundance of parking spaces. Since there were approximately 2.4 million cars in the metropolitan area in 1992, one for every 4.5 people, the city suffers from chronic road congestion.

Table 6.8 Major modes of transport in Buenos Aires, 1970 and 1992 (percentage of journeys)

Mode 1970 1992
Car 15.4 24.3
Taxi 6.7 1.4
Bus 54.3 49.8
Rail 7.0 6.4
Underground 5.4 3.6
Other 11.2 14.5

Sources: Arcusin et al., 1992; MOSP, 1972.

Unfortunately, the road system is not well adapted to the growing use of private cars. Buenos Aires has too few motorways and roads capable of handling the large volume of traffic. The best-developed part of the road system leads to the historic centre and roads deteriorate in quality closer to the edge of the city. Outside the Federal Capital, only the main roads are paved.

The way in which the road network developed aggravates traffic congestion. The city grew on the basis of a grid system, with 100-metresquare blocks divided into lots with a frontage of ten metres. Most streets are narrow, less than 18 metres wide, although avenues more than double the width of the ordinary streets run along every fourth block. Although this road system was more or less adequate for the time when it was designed, and is still suitable for areas with a low residential density, it is not appropriate for a city where land-use densities and rates of car ownership have been growing so rapidly.

Traffic congestion has been aggravated by a relative decline in the use of public transport and by the shape of the road and railway systems. Most journeys starting in the First Ring, and a considerable proportion of those beginning in the Second and Third Ring districts, involve travelling to, or through, the Federal Capital. Overall, one-fifth of journeys in the metropolitan area begin or end in the Federal Capital (Arcusin et al., 1992).

There are six railway lines, five of which terminate at three central stations. The lines fan out from the city centre and disrupt road traffic because there are few bridges or tunnels. Buenos Aires has also had an underground railway since 1913. Today, the network is consists of five lines with a total length of 28 miles. The lines form a radial pattern and complement the surface rail system in so far as they link up with the main rail termini.

Coordination of transport services in the city is poor and is currently subject to major policy changes. Both the underground and the train companies are being privatized, although they continue to receive subsidies. Bus services are already managed privately and no longer receive a subsidy. The benefits of bus privatization are widely questioned both in terms of the excessively high profits earned by the companies and by the limited service that local monopolies provide to poorer settlements (Zajac, n.d.). With the exception of the underground, the city lacks a coordinated fare structure, and, with subsidies in decline, the cost of public transport is rising in real terms. This is clearly a serious problem for low-income groups living in the periphery of the city. Higher fares and a deteriorating system help to explain why use of the public transport system fell relatively between 1970 and 1992 (table 6.8). It also suggests why journeys on foot and by bicycle increased in importance.

Population density and land-use structure

Land use in Buenos Aires takes the form of a series of concentric rings spreading outwards from the historic centre. Most government offices, many commercial and financial services, and the headquarters of the larger manufacturing companies are concentrated in the centre. The dominance of this area in terms of producer services seems to have increased over time; new service companies are moving into the area as manufacturing activity moves out.

Of course, commercial activity has also developed in the suburbs. A major commercial sub-centre has been developed in the Belgrano area, eight miles north-west of the central area (figure 6.3), and many smaller centres, and increasingly shopping malls, have appeared in more distant suburbs. These commercial centres have catered mainly for families with their own car; few have been well located for families dependent upon public transport.

Land use in Buenos Aires has developed a strong radial pattern beyond the historic centre. This results from the flatness of the terrain and the way that the original road network was laid out. This pattern was reinforced over time, first by the layout of the rail network and later by that of the tram and underground systems. Not surprisingly, a classic population density gradient has developed. Population densities in the city decrease sharply from the centre to the periphery. In 1991,15,000 people per square kilometre lived in the Federal Capital, 5,419 in the First Ring, 2,820 in the Second Ring, and 774 in the Third Ring. (The average density of the metropolitan area was 2,800 persons per square kilometre.)

Social segregation in the city is acute and leaves an indelible mark on the pattern of land use. High-quality shopping and personal services are concentrated in the northern and western neighbourhoods of the Federal Capital, where most of the affluent live (figure 6.2). In the rest of the area, there has been an unprecedented decline in the physical fabric, including the growth of large areas of slums. Low-income settlements have developed in all parts of the periphery, but particularly in the south and west.

Figure 6.3 Buenos Aires: Administrative divisions and railway lines

The environment

Despite the strong winds, which quickly disperse most contaminants, levels of air pollution in the central area regularly exceed World Health Organization norms. Since the burning of solid waste and liquid fuels was prohibited in 1977, road vehicles have been the principal source of air pollution in the city.

It is water pollution, however, which represents the most serious environmental problem. The Reconquista and Matanza-Riachuelo rivers are so polluted that they have become virtually open sewers, and the central drainage system discharges around one million cubic metres of untreated sewage directly into the River Plate. Close to the city, the river's oxygenation level has fallen to 40 per cent. Illegal dumping of industrial toxins into the water system has been a recurrent problem and there have been numerous episodes of mass poisoning.

A final source of pollution comes from domestic and industrial rubbish, which is dumped on over a hundred open sites in populated areas. More than two million tons of waste have been left on 600 hectares of dumps in the metropolitan periphery.

Although environmental regulations are far from adequate, the critical problem is the failure to implement those that do exist. A combination of political pressure from powerful economic interests and the inefficiency of the state agencies which are meant to regulate them has meant that controls have been far too lax.


During the 1980s, Argentina suffered from a combination of debt, economic recession, and growing poverty. Like most major cities in the region, Buenos Aires suffered badly from the "debt crisis" and its aftermath. Fortunately, the national economic growth record has improved during the 1990s, even if the future is anything but certain. As a consequence, it is difficult to predict how the national capital will fare. Clearly, its prospects are integrally linked to Argentina's ability both to generate new export products and to increase sales of its traditional products.

Poverty and inequality in Buenos Aires have increased markedly in recent years. Housing conditions have deteriorated and the failure to improve the quality of the water and sewerage systems has rebounded on the poor living in the urban periphery. Incomes have fallen, levels of unemployment have risen, more people are employed in casual forms of work, and labour conditions in the "formal" sector have been badly affected by deregulation. In the process, the distribution of income has deteriorated: the very rich have prospered, and everyone else has got much poorer.

Given current circumstances, it would be unwise to expect much improvement in the next few years. Adjustment policies are likely to reduce incomes further and to increase levels of unemployment. Subsidies are being phased out and the privatization of transport and public utilities may well hurt the poor. It is less than certain that the quality of urban management will improve. Decentralization of administration is leading to a fragmentation of responsibility. While rich neigbourhoods can cope with the new responsibilities they are being given, poorer districts are being forced to take on new tasks with few additional resources. For the rich, a high-quality lifestyle is assured; for the poor, living conditions may well get even worse.


1. These districts were Almirante Brown, Berazategui, Esteban Echeverría, General Sar rniento, Florencio Varela, La Matanza, Merlo, Moreno, San Fernando, and Tigre.

2. In 1981 OSN had delegated its functions to each province (Novaro and Perelman, 1994: 4).

3. Between 1981 and 1990,72 per cent of rainfall fell in this period. The driest months are June to September.
4. In the Federal Capital virtually every home is connected.

5. Its incidence increased by 140 per cent in the Federal Capital and by 386 per cent in Buenos Aires Province; the rest of the country was less badly affected (INDEC, 1992).


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