BUENOS AIRES -- A million people and several hundred thousand vehicles pass through the central business district of Buenos Aires -- the Microcentro -- on any given workday, and being one of the pedestrians is at once both terrifying and demoralizing. Surrounded by century-old buildings whose historic facades are falling on progressively harder times, teeming hordes of workers wend down razor-thin sidewalks as loose tiles spit up black muck and screeching buses careen through intersections. On a rainy day, it's downright post-apocalyptic.
This unpleasant experience may be coming to an end, however. The city government has recently begun work on Plan Microcentro, a four-year project designed to reclaim the downtown streets for pedestrians and bicyclists. "We are going to prioritize pedestrians over vehicles," says Patricio Di Stefano, Buenos Aires's sub-secretary of public space. Such "Copenhagenization" projects have revitalized cities across Europe and Asia. But can they tame this chaotic South American capital?
Based on ideas closely associated with Jan Gehl, the Danish architect who helped turn downtown Copenhagen into a pedestrian and bike paradise, the Buenos Aires plan aims to flip the 70/30 ratio of space devoted to cars and people in the downtown and in the process cut the number of private cars that pass through the area by over half during work hours.
"From the evolution of urban policy in Buenos Aires and other cities, it’s clear that civil and administrative centers can no longer tolerate the amount of cars that want to enter if you let them freely come in," says Pablo Güiraldes, a Buenos Aires architect and urban designer.
The 250 million peso project (about $50 million at the official exchange rate) uses techniques that will be familiar to those who follow urban design. On side streets, the pavement will be raised to sidewalk level and closed for much of the day to all traffic except for emergency vehicles, those making deliveries and those with a dedicated parking space on the block. Speed limits on these priority pedestrian streets will fall to less than 10 mph, and public buses will be moved to the avenues that surround and bisect the 100-square-block area. Some streets will alternate direction block to block, closing them to through traffic. Bicycle lanes will be expanded and unlicensed street vendors will be removed. Existing signage laws will be tightly enforced, forcing businesses to remove marquees and billboards, and the city will rehab 140 historic facades. And huge 5,000-liter underground dumpsters will be installed, in an attempt to clean up this chronically litter-blighted district.
The reasons for implementing such urban redesign schemes are both social and economic. High-density, walkable city centers are both more humane and use land more efficiently. That's because auto-dominated cities dedicate a disproportionate amount of space to roads, which are used by a minority of people, and parking lots and garages, dead spaces where commuters warehouse their cars for the workday before driving home.
"We allocate more precious public domain to people with cars than we do to people without, which has environmental consequences and also social equity consequences," says Peter Calthorpe, a Berkeley, Calif.-based architect and co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism. "If we just proportioned road space by vehicle miles travelled by different modes of transportation, we’d have much better cites. Let’s just say a third of streets go auto-free. All of a sudden you’ll see public transit functioning much better, the physical environment benefiting, low-income households benefitting, air quality benefitting, and economic vitality benefitting."
So far, the reception of Buenos Aires's downtown redesign has been largely positive. One of the first steps, taken in February 2012, required private car owners who wanted to cross through the Microcentro between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. to prove they had a parking lot spot in the area and purchase a special license; the number of vehicles quickly fell 60 percent. At the same time, the local police removed hundreds of unlicensed street vendors from Calle Florida, the largest pedestrian street in the Microcentro, a move that led to a hunger strike and protests by street vendors but in the end was supported by local shop-owners and pedestrians. And the leveling and imposition of strict traffic restrictions on a nearby street, Reconquista, revitalized local restaurants and Irish bars.
That said, the Buenos Aires city government plan faces obstacles. Argentina's ingrained car culture has received a boost from the country's recent economic boom, and the number of cars and trucks in Argentina soared from some 6 million in 2001 to almost 10 million in 2010, further crowding Buenos Aires streets. That's been exacerbated by the style of the metropolitan area's growth in the last 20 years, which has been concentrated in car-dependent suburban, gated communities. A big city program aimed at promoting bicycle use -- replete with free rental bikes and more than 60 miles of new dedicated bikes paths -- has made inroads, but Buenos Aires is still not bicycle-crazy Copenhagen.
"In Argentina, people are accustomed to cars. And it’s hard to move from them to bikes or walking," says Patricio Di Stefano, the city sub-secretary of public space. "'But this is going to make driving a car more difficult!' they say. Yes, it will. It will be much more difficult to drive in the center. And walking will be much easier."
For the city government, more tricky than getting locals to walk and bike may be figuring out how to communicate with them in the first place. The current city administration has regularly shown itself to be uninterested or unable to clearly explain its plans and achieve consensus with the famously disputatious local population, and this lack of openness has caused problems with its downtown plans. As part of the project, the city began building a dedicated bus lane (BRT) system down Buenos Aires's iconic Avenida 9 de Julio, which borders the Microcentro. Construction began this January, when many Porteños (Buenos Aires locals) were on summer vacation. Several weeks into the project, local residents began to notice that the city was removing some 300 trees along the avenue to make way for the bus. Although it turned out that most of the trees were being moved and not destroyed, many felt blindsided. Some protested and filed suit, paralyzing the 150 million peso ($30 million) project for almost a month and causing international repercussions.
"What you need is a lot of workshops, to launch a discussion with civil society and local residents. What often happens is a good idea is rejected because of poor communication issues and lack of citizen participation," says Pablo Güiraldes, the Buenos Aires urban designer.
If the government can improve its communication skills, Plan Microcentro is scheduled for completion in 2015. That, perhaps not coincidentally, is the year of the next presidential elections, in which Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri is expected to run.
Photos: Government of Buenos Aires