Voice and visibility for residents of informal settlements

More than a Place on the Map

10 min read
Photo credit: DFLC Prints /

Buenos Aires, Argentina

The Action

The city launched a co-creation planning process—billed as “participatory reurbanization”—which is aimed at ensuring that residents of these underserved neighborhoods are invested in the collective effort to reintegrate these communities into the social fabric of the city.  

Outside groups such as Wingu, a civic tech firm, and the Civil Association for Equality and Justice, a nonprofit, have provided tools and technical assistance through a project called Caminos de la Villa. Wingu’s technology helped to map these settlements for the first time in their history, creating a sense of ownership and belonging within the community and allowing the government to better envision ways to service the communities. Subsequently, these partners worked with residents to request information on budgets, public services, and public works; monitor public works; and file claims. In addition to collaboration with residents and partners, another core ingredient in this model is the city’s constant physical presence and accessibility throughout the ongoing reurbanization process. From the beginning of the mapping process to each successive planning decision, the city’s representatives have “essentially lived in the neighborhood,” speaking with every resident and working diligently to overcome a massive initial trust deficit. By maintaining visibility and access within the community, the government demonstrated that it was invested in getting the process right and helped to bring credibility and legitimacy to the participatory planning process.

Democracy Challenge

Millions of people live in informal settlements that have been excluded from official maps of cities—making these neighborhoods effectively invisible and unnavigable for utility providers, ambulances, and GPS-driven tools like Google Maps. The desire of city governments not to “condone” or “encourage” improvised settlements has led to a lack of communication and engagement with the residents of these settlements, which in turn has contributed to an inability of government to properly assess these residents’ needs, deliver essential resources and services, and engage these citizens in democratic processes.

The high concentration of extreme poverty in las villas has led to myriad challenges that have compounded over decades, leaving these communities with limited access to public services.  A lack of communication and engagement channels has contributed to an inability of government to properly assess these residents’ needs, deliver essential resources, and engage these citizens in democratic processes. In large cities throughout the world, slum environments are common, and in many cases, the challenges facing these communities trace familiar patterns. Pervasive cycles of poverty and crime inhibit social and economic opportunity and contribute to these communities’ sense of isolation and mistrust. Lacking social connectivity and empowerment, these populations’ political influence is diminished as their need for representation and public services is elevated. Stigma and negative perceptions among the greater population further contribute to the detachment of these neighborhoods from the fabric of their city.

We want to place these neighborhoods on maps for a symbolic purpose, but above all so that neighbors are encouraged to give visibility to their problems, to claim, to assume that they have the same rights, we want to end segregation.

Cumulatively, the environmental and social challenges in these environments contribute to a deficit of engagement and trust that severely undermines these residents’ ability to exercise their rights within the political and governance processes. Scenes of stark inequality are not at all uncommon in Buenos Aires, but the situation has taken on a particular sense of urgency in Villa Lugano and other southern neighborhoods, where many of the city’s poorest residents are concentrated. The undeveloped lands in this area were slowly converted into humble dwellings, or villas, by the city’s underprivileged—many of them immigrants. As elsewhere, immigrants face legal and social barriers to integration including a lack of proper documentation, language barriers, and discrimination.

How It Works & How They Did It

Buenos Aires is bringing the residents of las villas out of the shadows through a coordinated strategy that combines presence, participatory planning, targeted city services, and civic technology interventions. “We started out by approaching this as a process, not a project,” explained Martin Motta, who leads this initiative on behalf of the city’s Housing Department. Through consultations, residents have been provided an opportunity to voice opinions on the location of streets and sidewalks, as well as the introduction of other public services. Motta insists that consultation has been a guiding principle at every major decision point, and that this has helped contribute to a growing sense of trust between the residents and the government.

City of Buenos Aires, More Than a Place on the Map

The process began in 2013 with the intention of increasing the visibility and empowerment of low-income people by visualizing data about their neighborhoods and helping residents exercise their citizenship rights. The project began by mapping unmapped neighborhoods, which was considered a preliminary step but emerged as a major achievement—most villas are now clearly marked, the data has been incorporated into official maps, and city authorities have committed to charting the remaining streets and public spaces not covered by the project.  This part of the process was developed by the Civic Innovation Fund, and was a partnership between the government’s Instituto de Vivienda de la CABA (Buenos Aires Department of Housing), and two external groups: Civil Association for Equality and Justice (ACIJ), an NGO that defends the rights of disadvantaged groups and works towards strengthening democracy in Argentina, and Wingu, an NGO that seeks to optimize the work of Latin American NGOs through the use of technology and innovative methodologies. While the Civil Association for Equality and Justice provided subject matter knowledge on social problems, Wingu provided the technical expertise.

The NGOs sought to build on the mapping visibility by working with residents to request information on budgets, public services, and public works; monitor public works; and file claims. Meanwhile, the city built on the participatory process by engaging in a more ambitious multiyear effort to “reurbanize” Villa 20 and integrate the neighborhood into the social fabric of Buenos Aires.

The city has worked diligently to maximize participation and build consensus around a sustainable and fair process for creating space for roadways, improving the structural safety of housing in the area, and preventing overcrowding, without displacing people from their community.  Among other steps, the project required a change in housing and zoning laws as applied to the neighborhood, and the city was careful to consult extensively with residents about the policy language—drafting section by section with neighbors—and ultimately worked with ACIJ and residents to develop ten principles that could guide the reurbanization process at each stage.  

Importantly, the city worked with residents from the outset to ensure that everyone agreed on steps like majority voting, and the need for compromise.  Trust has been an essential ingredient of the effort, particularly given the isolation these residents have experienced for decades. “In terms of trust, we started at minus ten to get to zero,” says Motto.  “Only then were we able to move forward to discussing a process and ultimately specific projects.”

From the beginning of the mapping process to each successive planning decision, the city’s representatives have “essentially lived in the neighborhood,” speaking with every resident, and working diligently to overcome suspicion and mistrust.

By maintaining visibility and access within the community, the government demonstrated that it was invested in getting the process right and helped to bring credibility and legitimacy to the participatory planning process. “There is no fixed formula,” Motta explained. “Each unique effort requires a specific process to succeed . . . adaptation and flexibility are imperative.”

The hope is that the reurbanization process in Villa 20 can serve as an instance that can be replicated elsewhere throughout the city to promote better integration.  According to Fernando Straface, the Secretary General of Buenos Aires, this is reflective of the city’s identity. “Social integration is a component of Buenos Aires that has always shone through,” he noted. “Traditionally and historically, we have been known for diverse cultures and for being integrated religiously, socially, and socioeconomically—we are very proud to be building on that.”

How’s It Going?

Since last year’s passage of the law governing the reurbanization process, the city has continued to work block by block to make the community more livable and connected.  In consultation with the residents, they have prioritized the following housing action:

  • Relocating houses that obstruct roadways,
  • Mitigating safety concerns and structures at risk of collapse,
  • Sponging, or removing density to create space for courtyards, walking, and public activity, and
  • Addressing overcrowding.

Establishing community buy in for a majority-driven voting approach at the outset has paid dividends as the project has progressed. Out of 300 families impacted by decisions, only four of the cases have been contested.

All these efforts remain underway, but portions of the community are beginning to look and feel more like a neighborhood.  Following the mapping of each section of the area, residents were provided an illustration of their villas for the first time.  “It is a very empowering moment,” says Motta. “There is a recognition, ‘I am here, and I have a situation, a location.’”

The mere existence of these areas on digital maps has been an important development.  For example, it has been reported that the appearance of these neighborhoods in Google’s Street View can help to expose the dramatic inequalities facing the residents.  One of the residents who is participating in the process recently stated, “we believe that this is a first great step to achieve those rights and be true citizens.”

City of Buenos Aires, More Than a Place on the Map

Meanwhile, Motta and his team have been documenting the development of processes and success of their approach through written papers and a video project, which the city hopes to make available to interested parties.


Skeptics express concern that providing services and infrastructure to informal settlements could encourage unsustainable expansion of these settlements or spawn the creation of new informal settlements that do not provide a safe environment for residents.  Cities should be attentive to the balance between addressing immediate needs and advancing long-term policy objectives with respect to the establishment of informal settlements.

To the extent that technology is a component of reintegration strategies, consideration must be given to the disparities in access to, and understanding of, these applications.  

While these processes can create infrastructure that better connects these settlements with the broader city, external perceptions of these neighborhoods can be hard to dislodge.  Therefore, it is important to also consider opportunities to connect outside residents to these newly reintegrated communities. In Buenos Aires, the government hopes that relocating offices to these areas—and therefore bringing commuters into the settlements—will help expose a subset of the city’s professionals to the improvements within these communities.   

In many cases, the absence of a government presence in these communities may have led to the development of informal governance structures within them. Cities should be careful to balance collaboration and integration interests without compromising or undermining the legitimacy of the city’s democratic institutions.

Point of Contact

Martin Motta, Ph.D. 

Instituto de Vivienda de la CABA 

[email protected] 

Who Else Is Trying This?

  • Cape Town, South Africa: On the southeast side of Cape Town’s biggest township, there are over 6,000 households living in the informal settlement Monwabisi Park without basic services. The organization Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) researched this settlement’s provision challenges in a participatory geographic information systems project. The mapping process involved an initial questionnaire with 100 percent of residents, which pulled local knowledge of exposure to fire and flooding hazards. This questionnaire helped integrate residents’ familiarity of the region while simultaneously empowering this community. Researchers at VPUU then followed up with a more comprehensive spatial data analysis, which consisted of digitizing and numbering outlines of households. Naturally, this level of technical expertise prevented the community from engaging in the latter half of the mapping process; however, this method allowed for an increased capability in upgrading community welfare. Within just a span of five months, visits to the Monwabisi registration office increased dramatically from 35 to 1,144 visits.
  • Nairobi, Kenya: Kibera, Nairobi, is one of the largest informal urban settlements in Africa. However, before 2009, this zone was just a “blank spot” on Kenya’s map, making thousands of inhabitants invisible. To amend this situation, two enterprising mappers enlisted thirteen youth in a mapping effort that would be both data-driven and community-centered. For three weeks, this team carried around handheld GPS devices and marked 5,000 points of interests which included, but were not limited to, water sources, toilets, and community centers. These spatial arrangements were then uploaded to OpenStreetMap, which was a free and easily accessible tool that all residents of Kibera could then edit to highlight their own personal concerns. The community was encouraged to tell their stories with videos, blogs, and social media to complement the previously collected data. For the first time, the urgency of each settlement’s need was being directly portrayed and addressed. For example, with this information, public officials were able to pinpoint the exact location of 350 informal schools, and in response to this data, form policy to improve government schools and allocate additional student resources. The content of this map serves as the centerpiece in which community members and government officials can discuss an issue of relevant value.


This action was originally developed for Big Bold Cities, an initiative of Living Cities and the National Democratic Institute (NDI); republished here with the permission of Living Cities.