Conscientizaçao of the Landscape: Urban Development as Educational Project

This is the second in a two part post on the Matanza Riachuelo Project in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  The project first caught our attention back in September.  You can also read DRDLM’s first post here which discusses the La Salada informal market located on the banks of the river on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
Down along the southern edge of Buenos Aires runs the disgusting Matanza-Riachuelo River.  To deal with the 200 year long legacy of unregulated dumping and polluting, a new agency has been created with the mandate to clean up the river and manage urban development (industry, housing, environmental ecology) at the scale of the watershed with the ability to cross municipal and provincial boundaries and cut through the myopic self-interest that often handicaps such efforts.  This is significant.
We’ve previously mentioned the work that pioneer-adventurer John Wesley Powell did in the 19th century when he explored the American West and came back recommending that the territory be settled and managed according to watersheds.  This sage geopolitical advice was soundly defeated by corporate railroad interests and he was relegated to founding the USGS (for more on this story check Jason King’s recent post over on Landscape+Urbanism and this post over on the excellent Strange Maps). 
[Powell’s map of the watershed of the arid American West]
But now Powell is having his revenge and scientists/planners/engineers/designers are all colluding, making the case for managing regions based on the watershed (Richard Forman and Kristina Hill’s work immediately comes to mind) and this is resulting in exciting work including Cap-Net and some aspects of water resource policy in Brazil (laid out here clearly in English by Monica Porto).
And so we come to the Matanza-Riachuelo project.  Here, not only has a new authority been created to advise on policy efforts, but the agency has capital- the ability to design and implement projects.  They have the money to build dams and dikes, to install new sewer systems and monitoring stations, and to work with communities on relocation or rebuilding strategies in addition to advising on policy or enforcing regulations and other initiatives that are necessary in urbanized flood-prone areas.  This is extremely rare (unless it’s not, we would love to learn of more examples)- most organizations that have the ability to implement capital projects such as the Army Corp of Engineers, the New Orleans Sewage and Water Board, or the NYC Department of Transportation, are not at all based on the watershed but rather various strategic economic and geo-political territories.
 [the Buenos Aires conurbation on the banks of the Rio de la Plata; the hastily drawn red line approximates the course of the Matanza Riachuelo; though it’s at the southern edge of the city proper of Buenos Aires, it is surrounding by urbanization on all sides in the lower part of the basin]
[information on specific projects is published using google earth, increasing the accessibility of the information]
But that is not what truly fascinates us about the Matanza Riachuelo project.  For us, the most significant aspect of the effort is that it can be characterized as urban development as an education project.  The project goes beyond the technocratic intervention and management of a complex system with a focus on scientific monitoring and publication of results paired with community engagement, exploration, and production.  This entails many interesting initiatives that are experimental and educational, themes with a special place in our heart here at FASLANYC.  However, the initiative that most captures our attention are two related efforts:  Aguas + Trabajo (Water + Work) and Aguas + Cloaca (Water + Sewers).
These projects are a joint initiative of AySA (Argentina Water and Sewer), ACUMAR (the river basin authority), and some of the cooperativas of the municipalities and neighborhoods in the basin.  The project is an effort to bring water and sewer to 100% of the households of the Matanza-Riachuelo basin, a major effort:  within the basin 35% of the population does not have access to drinking water and 65% is not connected to the sewer system.  However, instead of AySA (a massive technocratic bureaucracy) designing, implementing, and maintaining a solution, they instead work with ACUMAR (who has the power to span municipal boundaries regarding water issues in the basin) and local cooperativas to implement a solution- AySA provides the funds and technical training, ACUMAR provides the coordination between municipalities and oversees the environmental development, and the cooperativas get job training, employment, and are agents in the production of space in their barrio.
[here a rather rudimentary temporary station is set up on the grounds of a local school in the Matanza Riachuelo basin; a volunteer from the school is helping to record air quality data with the oversight of a technician from ACUMAR] 
This type of lo-fi, educational approach is worth considering for landscape and infrastructural projects in the future.  Our current technophilic ideal and its concomitant complexity rhetoric is interesting but limiting.  It seems we adamantly refuse to recognize the truth in Paul Virilio’s theory of the Integral Accident in the military-scientific complex and to consider the conscientizaçao of the landscape– landscape intervention as educational project.  In the case of A+T this means employment and skills training for underemployed populations while they work on building their own barrio.  But one can imagine scenarios where future landscape projects include extensions of CLUI’s excellent adventures, widespread DIY aerial mapping of your own little slice of the world, proliferating urban agriculture, or creating your own flupsy for oyster farming in the New York Harbor
[DIY aerial photography of the Louisiana coast line, post oil spill; courtesy of grassroots mapping]
The educational project as opposed to the production and consumption of the commoditized environment- the Conscientizaçao of the Landscape.

4 thoughts on “Conscientizaçao of the Landscape: Urban Development as Educational Project

  1. According to Wikipedia, the river is 40 miles long, the drainage basin is 865 sq. mi., and the population within the basin is 3.5 million. That’s a lot of households without connections to potable water and sewerage. I wonder what the general condition of the housing is for those without connections to water or sewer. Will the project include removing and replacing difficult-to-work-with slum housing? The planned duration of this project must be 10-20 years. It’s nice to read about a very big environmental / pro-poor development project. Small projects can be groundbreakers and lead to replication, but often they just fade away without any recognizable, long-term benefit.I like your bit on lo-fi landscape opportunities at the end. I’ve had a little bit of exposure to lo-fi housing development here in Namibia working as an engineering consultant for an NGO that helps shack dwellers to save money, and construct their own tiny brick houses and sewer & water lines. It seems the keys to this NGO’s lo-fi success is that they know exactly when a professional designer, contractor or surveyor is needed and when they’re not. The same goes for the different components of the housing structures and supporting infrastructure. I guess the project designers and institutions behind the Matanza-Riachuelo project must be a progressive and informed bunch. Although it may not be relevant to your post and the project, there’s good paper by Peter Evans called, “Development as Institutional Change: The Pitfalls of Monocropping and the Potentials of Deliberation”. I believe he talks about the need for deeper levels of democracy and community participation, as well as greater collaboration and communication amongst government institutions. Porto Alegre, Brazil is mentioned as an example for its participatory budgeting process.I know you’re a landscape architect (and I suppose DRDLM too), but if you should know of any good books on technical / design approaches to replacing or retrofitting shack housing settlements in developing countries for improved structures and infrastructure, I would really appreciate finding out those titles or authors. Thanks

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comments and sorry for the delay in getting to read them. The holiday season…Falbulous- thanks for the link to your work. I would love to know more about it but didn't see an email address or place to leave comments. Please shoot me an email when you get a chance- faslanyc(at) We'll continue working on and following this project for a while in various capacities; perhaps there will be some opportunity for exchange and criticism of ideas and info…Carter- thanks for your thoughtful comments. You are correct- right now the Agua + Trabajo project is slated to take 10 years. In certain zones, such as the Villa Inflammable (perhaps a forthcoming post) a parallel project will be run that looks to relocate existing slum housing because of different issues (environmental and economic). I hope to dive in to that project a bit more and be able to share what I find…Regarding specific technical manuals, i don't have a great handle on what technical manuals might exist (this is a great question). However, three architectural practitioners jump out at me that might be of use to you- Francis Kere, Jorge Mario Juaregui, and Anselmo Canfora. You might also look around on the <a href=">open architecture network</a>. I think that is potentially a great, and free resource for what your trying to find. Unfortunately, i don't know it well myself and so can't point you in a certain direction at the moment…

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