The urbanization of Villa 31, an informal settlement in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires (Ciudad), Argentina

The Barrio (neighborhood) 31 initiative aims to transform Villa 31, an informal settlement of over 40,000 people, and remove the physical, social, cultural and economic barriers that separate it from the rest of the city.

Villa 31 is one of the largest and most visible slums in Argentina with the population growing significantly in recent decades. The Barrio 31 initiative developed by the Buenos Aires city government uses an integrated approach that seeks to reduce poverty, improve quality of life for residents and simultaneously lead the way for housing and urban change throughout Argentina. The strategy includes structural and impact measures to guarantee social, educational, health, economic and cultural rights of the population through participative and social work support strategies. Specifically, this includes the creation and improvement of infrastructure and equipment to expand the availability, access and quality of education and health benefits, guaranteeing equitable access to social services, and promoting the sustainable economic development of the area. 


City information
Buenos Aires (Ciudad)

Size and population development
2011: 13,528,000; 1990: 10,513,000; 2025: 15,524,000; 2010-2015: +1,14%/year

Population composition
88.9% White, 7% Mestizo, 2% Asian 1% Black

Main functions
Capital City

Main industries / business
Tourism, finance, port city, manufacturing

Sources for city budget
local income and capitol gains taxes provide funding for the city's budget

Political structure
Mayor "Chief of Government" and 60 member city legislature

Administrative structure
Buenos Aires is an autonomous city divided into 15 administrative communes

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Background and objectives
Villa 31, one of the oldest informal settlements in Argentina, was established by the Buenos Aires city government as a consequence of the housing problems that resulted from the 1929 Great Depression. The population is primarily made of up of migrants and now numbers over 40,000 people who live in some 10,000 poorly constructed buildings. The settlement is located in close proximity to the main railway station and port of Buenos Aires and borders some of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city. Villa 31 is separated from the formal city by architecture and infrastructure barriers and historically not received basic municipal services such as sanitation, water, public transportation or street lighting. The quality of housing varies greatly from concrete multi-story buildings to tin shacks with dirt floors.
The objectives of the Barrio 31 Initiative are:
  • Habitat and improvement of living conditions; improve the living environment of all residents by developing adequate and safe housing. 
  • Social integration and human capital; promote the exercise of rights for all residents and their inclusion in social activities. 
  • Sustainable economic development; formalize and empower all businesses in Villa 31.
  • Urban integration, mobility and public space; guarantee access to all basic services and connectivity through infrastructure and environment-friendly public spaces.
The implementation plan is guided by the project objectives and the city government's development pillars.
Habitat and Improvement of Living Conditions
An ambitious housing improvement program is being developed; a census and technical survey combined with a household vulnerability index will determine the type of intervention needed for the different blocks and functional units of the area. This includes homes for family use and mixed-use functional units and spaces where social organizations operate.
The Illia Highway currently acts as an urban barrier dividing two different zones of the informal settlement, Villas 31 and 31 bis. A resettlement plan is being carried out to resettle households, social organizations and economic activities that are currently located below the Illia Highway ), as well as the social units of the "Cristo Obrero" sectors that are also affected by the modification of the highway.
Social Integration and Human Capital
The project seeks to facilitate access to social services, strengthen community care circuits and ensure that residents can exercise their civil rights. To this end, teams of social workers that liaise with the community can be found in all sectors of the neighborhood. 
As part of this strategy, the activities of the Galpón facility, a community center, have been strengthened and expanded. Residents can approach "El Galpón" services on weekdays to receive advice on housing, health, education, justice, work, income and social policies. The process begins with interviews, home visits, coordination with other organizations. 
In addition, Galpón partners with a Health and Community Action Center to provide educational, cultural and sports activity workshops..
Another fundamental milestone of the project is the establishment of the María Elena Walsh Integral Education Pole that will house the Ministry of Education and three educational institutions; a pre-primary centre  for children aged between 45 days and 5 years, a primary school and an adult education center generating 1927 new formal education vacancies.
Finally, the Secretariat of Urban and Social Integration (SECISYU) is working on the creation of a Health and Community Action Center (CESAC N° 47) and the relocation of the Health and Community Action Centers 21 and 25 inside the neighborhood. This will bring services closer to residents, improve the quality of equipment, and expand access to medical services and health professionals. A center for the treatment of addiction to psychoactive substances will be opened where individual treatments, group activities, family counseling, referral for hospitalization and community prevention activities will be offered. A series of health campaigns and actions that seek to improve health education, strengthen prevention methods and promote healthy living habits will be implemented.
Sustainable Economic Development
The Entrepreneurial and Labor Development Center (CeDEL) was created as a support service for economic development activities. A strategy of sustainable economic development in response to the socio-economic challenges of the population has been developed with four specific objectives.
  • To improve the employability of the population and formal employment opportunities
  • To enhance the economic activities of the neighborhood
  • To promote the formalization of the neighborhood's economic activities
  • To favor the financial inclusion of the neighbors and their economic activities
Financial inclusion workshops are being held to assist residents with opening bank accounts, accessing credit, make payments and purchasing processes more simple and provide information on long-term financial savings and planning.
Urban Integration, Mobility and Public Space
This objective refers to the connection of the infrastructure of the area with the networks of the city,  to improve access and optimize its operation. 
To achieve this, several actions are being carried out and linked with the following expectations:
  • paving will bring decisive changes for the mobility of residents. 
  • storm water drains will prevent flooding, mud and waterlogging of stagnant water, thus improving health conditions. 
  • The sewer network will connect to the formal network and prevent diseases and contamination. 
  • The water supply will provide the entire area with drinking water, improving hygiene, personal grooming and prevention of diseases. 
  • power lines will provide stability in electricity supply which will prevent the loss of food and power cuts. 
  • The reordering of the electrical wiring will provide greater security by reducing the risks of electrical accidents. 
  • public lighting will provide more security in the streets and open spaces, allowing more hours of recreation.
At the same time, access roads will be upgraded and the public transport offer will be increased to improve internal and external connectivity. 
In addition, to improve the quality of life and contribute to the sustainability of the neighborhood, the strategy proposes financing the improvement of 10 squares and 16 existing soccer fields and the creation of new green and recreational spaces, including four parks. This will help reduce environmental pollution and encourage the practice of leisure and recreational activities that have a positive impact on residents' health.

The most significant change will be the creation of a park transforming the current Illia Highway into a public space. The new park will include cycle paths, an aerobic circuit, green spaces, public transport and recreational facilities. Its construction is expected to be completed by the end of 2018 when the new highway is finished. The Highway will be moved towards the south of the neighborhood, by means of the construction of a viaduct complementing the current strip of transport infrastructure, grouping different means of transport (trains, cars, etc.) in a space that does not adversely affect the conditions of habitability of the population. In this way, the mobility and circulation of traffic in the North - South direction and vice versa of the city will be respected.
Financing and resources

The lead agency for the project is the city government of Buenos Aries with the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank providing funding for specific projects and  technical support. Specifically, the Inter-American Development Bank provides funding for programs such as improvement of public spaces, improvement of existing households, the new headquarters of the Ministry of Education and community engagement programs. The World Bank provides funding for programs on public service infrastructure; fulfilment of thin network, re-adaptation of existing sewers and storm water networks; new housing and basic services infrastructure; medium and high-voltage electricity and community engagement programs.

Total project budget from 2016 to 2019 is $8,279,026,652. 44.43% comes from the Buenos Aires city budget, 42.35% from the World Bank and 13.22% from the Inter-American Development Bank.
Results and impacts
  • 17 infrastructure projects completed with a further 43 in progress
  • 4,000 residents' claims resolved. 
  • Digital mapping of the settlement using Google Street View.
  • 1,100 people enrolled in 27 courses of economic development.
  • 400 people pre-selected for labor insertion opportunities.
  • Development of urban-architectonic proposals with high-level role models (Harvard University, Gehl Studio). 
  • Broad involvement of local academic institutions: University of Buenos Aires, Torcuato di Tella University, Technological Institute of Buenos Aires (Instituto Tecnológico de Buenos Aires).
Barriers and challenges
  • 68% of residents do not have a secondary education, therefore it is difficult for them, and the economic team, to help them find formal employment that will provide health, maternity and pension benefits.  Discrimination is also a major issue residents face when it comes to finding a formal job.
  • The proportion of informal renters is approximately 30-40% and subsequently makes the improvement of housing and land regularization a challenge.
  • The lack on ventilation in houses provides a challenge for landlords to guarantee basic housing standards to residents.
  • The housing structures, size and division of land make it difficult to provide property titles to residents according to the urban planning code.
  • The layout of streets and urban space make accessibility for construction companies to use the required machinery for infrastructure upgrades and housing works complex.
  • The risk of gentrification needs to be managed to prevent existing resident from being displaced, however, at the same time ensure that moving forward Villa 31 has a social makeup similar to formal neighborhoods.
Lessons learned and transferability
  • Gender and minorities: the first participatory activities showed that the approach of some issues did not consider the different needs of women and minority groups. For this reason, a strategy of gender mainstreaming was implemented during the entire process of work, participation, response to claims,  and throughout the 4 areas of intervention (Habitat, Social Capital, Infrastructure and Economic Development.) 

  • Promotion of economic development due to the location of Villa 31 and the experiences in similar contexts: economic development is promoted as a means of empowerment and to avoid possible gentrification effects. For this purpose, a Centre for Entrepreneurial and Labor Development was established in a building which previously operated as a drugs and crime hub. It offers training courses for the formalization of existing economic activities and for building entrepreneurial skills. Other initiatives for the construction of Centers of Professional Training are in progress and a national and local tax agencies office in Barrio 31 was established. 

  • Local cooperatives working together: This is a crucial component which establishes the creation of trust in an environment that was previously characterized by the absence of the State