The Prospects for Progressive Culture-Led Urban Regeneration in Latin America: Cases from Mexico City and Buenos Aires



    Corresponding author
    1. University of Miami, USA
      J. Miguel Kanai (, Department of Geography and Regional Studies, University of Miami, 1000 Memorial Drive, Coral Gables, FL 33124-2221, USA and Iliana Ortega-Alcázar (, Faculty of Continuing Education, The London School of Economics and Political Science, 26 Russell Square, London, WC1B 5DQ, UK.
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    Corresponding author
    1. The London School of Economics and Political Science
      J. Miguel Kanai (, Department of Geography and Regional Studies, University of Miami, 1000 Memorial Drive, Coral Gables, FL 33124-2221, USA and Iliana Ortega-Alcázar (, Faculty of Continuing Education, The London School of Economics and Political Science, 26 Russell Square, London, WC1B 5DQ, UK.
    Search for more papers by this author

  • Initial field research in Buenos Aires was made possible by a FURS grant. Research in Mexico City was conducted as part of the Urban Age project. The authors wish to acknowledge Garrett Jones, Fran Tonkiss and the three IJURR reviewers whose comments helped us improve this article greatly. The usual disclaimers apply.

J. Miguel Kanai (, Department of Geography and Regional Studies, University of Miami, 1000 Memorial Drive, Coral Gables, FL 33124-2221, USA and Iliana Ortega-Alcázar (, Faculty of Continuing Education, The London School of Economics and Political Science, 26 Russell Square, London, WC1B 5DQ, UK.



This article addresses the issue of culture-led urban regeneration from a Latin American perspective. It argues that, despite limited government intervention, the democratization processes that many cities have undergone have enhanced the potential of urban cultural policy as an instrument to address economic, social and physical decay. Grounded on the cases of Mexico City and Buenos Aires, the article shows how highly contingent and contradictory processes of economic globalization, political democratization and institutional neoliberalization have led to much variation in urban policy. In this context, we argue that urban cultural policy is highly dependent on the intricacies of local configurations of power and the negotiation of policy agendas. As a third level of analysis, the article looks at one paradigmatic project in each city. These experiences reveal that cultural initiatives offer the potential to generate socially inclusive forms of economic and territorial development at both the city and neighborhood scales. Yet we also point out that existing fiscal and political constraints limit the extent to which they can be replicated and articulated into a wider policy agenda. The article ends with a discussion of the comparative findings and a research agenda to examine governmental and non-governmental culture-led urban regeneration initiatives.


Cet article offre une perspective latino-américaine sur la régénération urbaine à travers la culture. Malgré une faible intervention gouvernementale, les processus de démocratisation qui se sont déroulés dans de nombreuses villes ont renforcé le potentiel que peut avoir une politique culturelle urbaine en tant qu'instrument de lutte contre le délabrement économique, social et matériel. Basée sur les cas de Mexico et de Buenos Aires, l'étude montre comment des processus particulièrement contingents et contradictoires de mondialisation économique, démocratisation politique et néo-libéralisation institutionnelle ont diversifié la politique urbaine. À cet égard, l'article affirme que la politique culturelle urbaine dépend largement des subtilités des configurations locales de pouvoir et de la négociation des programmes de politique publique. Se plaçant sur un troisième niveau d'analyse, il s'attache à un projet typique de chaque ville: ces expériences révèlent que les initiatives culturelles peuvent donner naissance à des formes de développement économique et territorial génératrices d'inclusion sociale, à l'échelon de la ville comme des quartiers. Il faut néanmoins souligner que les contraintes fiscales et politiques limitent la mesure dans laquelle elles peuvent se reproduire et s'articuler dans un agenda politique plus vaste. Pour finir, sont discutés les résultats comparatifs ainsi qu'un programme de recherches consacré aux initiatives (gouvernementales ou non) de régénération urbaine par la culture.


A growing number of researchers and policy-makers believe that culture provides effective methods to strengthen local economies, upgrade built environments and improve social conditions in cities (Bassett et al., 2005: 153). This culture-led approach to urban regeneration reflects what some call the ‘new conventional wisdom’ in urban policy (Buck and Gordon, 2005): it conceives culture as an instrument for local governments to reconcile the goal of economic growth with social justice and progressive public policies (Miles and Paddison, 2005: 833).1 Arguments in favor of more public support for cultural industries are a case in point. Cities are thought to hold a competitive advantage as centers of creativity and sites for the production, distribution and consumption of culture in the globalized new economy (Zukin, 1995; Florida, 2002). Cultural-products industries are also linked to high value-added goods and services, high-wage employment and positive externalities that accrue to leading sectors in the urban economy while also contributing positively to the built environment and social milieu of cities (Scott, 2004).

Critics argue, however, that this cultural turn in urban policy is yet another overly simplistic and superficial response to the problematic industrial restructuring of city economies in the context of increased inter- and intra-metropolitan competition. The rush to culture can be explained by the same pressures that compel local governments to attempt city-marketing and branding initiatives, and to develop new service-oriented economic functions by attracting highly mobile investments, firms, residents and visitors (García, 2004; Evans, 2005; Peck, 2005). Looked at from this perspective, municipal cultural initiatives are part of the hegemonic entrepreneurialism that has dominated urban policy over the past several decades in an overarching context of neoliberal globalism (Brenner and Theodore, 2002). Furthermore, this group of critical authors sees culture-led regeneration strategies (particularly those involving megaprojects or grands projets) as ‘politically and economically high-risk ventures’, and they believe the goals of cultural regeneration and community self-expression to be incompatible with those of economic regeneration and property development (Bassett 1993: 1785; Evans, 2003: 420).

While originally limited to cities in North America and Europe, culture-led urban regeneration strategies are now also attempted by localities outside the global capitalist core, and this has led to a multi-regional debate on the possibilities, conditions and limits of urban cultural policy — much of which has been published in this journal over the past few years (Teo, 2003; Breux et al., 2007; Plaza, 2008). This article contributes a Latin American perspective to this debate by arguing that globalization processes have created a set of conditions and challenges in the region's main cities for which culture-led regeneration constitutes a suitable policy option. Yet we also warn about the limits to progressive urban cultural policy in the face of concurrent, contingent and often contradictory processes of democratization and neoliberalization, as well as rapidly shifting and unstable localized contexts of urban governance.

In the article's first section we describe how intensified linkages between culture and economic and social development have created a new role for urban cultural policy in the globalizing cities of Latin America. On the cautionary side, we argue that, although urban cultural policy is increasingly being considered in various localities, the region is still to witness a generalized urban policy convergence around progressive culture-led regeneration that explicitly attempts to reconcile economic with social imperatives. In order to illustrate these arguments, in the second part of the article we analyze the cases of Mexico's Federal District (DF) and the City of Buenos Aires (CBA) in Argentina, both are national capitals and the main cities in two of the largest and most globalized metropolitan agglomerations. Both cases present comparable economic, social, territorial and political dynamics as well as experiences of urban globalization. Yet we identify highly divergent paths in the degree to which each city government has resorted to cultural strategies in response to the restructuring of their cities and metropolitan regions.

Together with a review of the general cultural policies of these two cities, the article contains more detailed analyses of individual projects (one for each case) with a sub-municipal focus that policymakers and analysts hail as an exemplar of culture-led regeneration for disadvantaged areas. We argue that the achievements of these projects demonstrate the potentials of culture-led regeneration for the Latin American urban context, even if these need to be weighed within the overall policy frameworks and institutional limitations of each city. The article's conclusion provides a rejoinder and interpretation of our comparative findings. We also make a list of further research directions that require attention.

The new role of urban cultural policy in Latin America

In Latin America, as is the case in other parts of the world, culture occupies an increasingly central role as a resource for economic and social development in cities. The diverse factors leading to this conjunction include: (1) the deepening integration of Latin American cities into transnational networks of cultural production and consumption, including the growth of heritage tourism to historical urban centers (García Canclini and Monetta, 1999; Scarpaci, 2005); and (2) the emergence of a more multifaceted understanding of urban social needs that is sensitive to the role that cultural deficits play in the deepening of social exclusion (Nivón Bolán, 2000; 197–203). Therefore, contemporary urban cultural policy has an increased realm of action and it is now more tightly linked to: (1) the redevelopment of inner-cities — economically, physically, and socially decayed areas that nevertheless hold important historical architectural heritages and cultural assets as well as new strategic roles (Ward, 1993: 1141–2; Herzog, 2006); and (2) urban social policy for disadvantaged areas in metropolitan peripheries where social development, especially the provision of cultural facilities (e.g. cultural centers, cinemas, theaters, museums, etc.), has not paralleled rapid economic, territorial and demographic expansion (García Canclini, 2001: 69).

Nevertheless, emerging opportunities for progressive culture-led regeneration need to be understood in terms of their place in the wider context of urban governance in the region. Largely shaping urban cultural policy in Latin America are concurrent, contingent and often contradictory processes of democratization and neoliberalization. On the one hand, democratic regimes and the rule of law have been (re-)instated in most countries. Political decentralization and the transfer of responsibilities to local governments may be seen as part of this democratic transition, and some argue that new institutional spaces have opened up for urban leaders to implement innovative and pro-poor policies (Campbell, 2003). Urban autonomy is particularly evidenced in national capitals, such as Mexico's Federal District (DF) and the City of Buenos Aires (CBA, formerly named Capital Federal), where local governmental structures used to be directly controlled by federal governments (Myers and Dietz, 2002). But on the other hand, most countries have also undergone significant neoliberalization processes.

In the 1970s, it became evident that the regional model of import-substituting industrialization (ISI) had become unviable (Cavarozzi, 1996: 105–25). Policies since then have shifted from ISI and its emphasis on domestic market growth to free-market agendas that include the liberalization and deregulation of the economy, reliance on exogenous sources of growth and transnational investments, and public-sector contraction (Taylor, 1999). It is well known that neoliberalization was followed by negative societal changes: formal employment declined, particularly in the industrial or secondary sector; there was a massive growth of informality; poverty rates and inequality rose; and crime and delinquency increased substantially (Portes and Roberts, 2005).

These dynamics have inspired heated debates over the complex interplay between democratization (implying political decentralization and grassroots empowerment) and neoliberalization, which leads to administrative and fiscal decentralization, and according to many authors the deepening of inequalities in a context of wide urban impoverishment (Vilas, 2003; Stolowicz, 2004: 172). Boisier's (2004) intermediate position in this debate is that of recognizing the link between the privatizing impetus of neoliberalism and the interest in decentralization in Latin America, but rather than equating the latter to a by-product of neoliberalization, this author also explains that, among other reasons, decentralization has occurred due to: (1) the new democratic institutions, policy instruments and technologies allowing it; and (2) increased societal demands for autonomy and local control, particularly from territorially based civil society organizations. Also optimistic are those who look at decentralization, participation and policy innovation in relation to recent electoral successes of the Latin American urban left, which further promote the implementation of progressive public policies (Chávez, 2004: 3).

In the cultural field, Miller and Yúdice (2002: 131) notice a temporal convergence between the rollback of public (national) investments and the expanded capacity of civil society actors to control the parameters of cultural policy. There has been an undeniable shift to more entrepreneurial and profit-seeking forms of cultural promotion. Private actors are increasingly involved in the management of national cultural assets through, for example, public–private partnerships and foundations (both domestic and international), which are also more implicated in the support of cultural and artistic production. Meanwhile, as the role of subnational and local governments has acquired more salience in the process of cultural policy-making, progressive social movements and grassroots activists have also gained a foothold to steer cultural policy towards socially inclusive goals (Yúdice, 2003). City governments are more permeable to local social demands and the field of urban cultural policy is no exception, even though culture-led regeneration policies remain embedded in a neoliberal context of limited public intervention.

Because of this conjuncture, there is much variation in the policy agendas that Latin American cities have articulated in response to the intensified links between culture and urban development. Indeed, diverging paths appear even among the region's leading urban economies that are undergoing comparable restructuring processes. Structural parallels and similitude in the issues facing these cities might have otherwise presupposed a policy convergence around culture-led regeneration. Quite the opposite. We argue that a ‘new conventional wisdom’ concerning a seemingly progressive urban cultural policy is yet to arise in Latin America, as demonstrated for example by the highly contrasting experiences with culture-led regeneration of Mexico's DF and the CBA in Argentina.2

Both cases present comparable paths of political decentralization, and also illustrate many of the current social, economic and physical challenges that affect contemporary big cities. After having boomed in the mid-twentieth century period of industrialization, in recent decades the metropolitan areas of Mexico City and Buenos Aires have suffered from economic stagnation and a decrease of their industrial and demographic national primacy (Rofman, 1999, Parnreiter, 2002). However, some selective areas in both cities have become privileged sites articulating new regimes of accumulation in the global economy (Sassen, 2002). These nodes feature increased concentrations of wealth, higher-order financial functions, and a stronger transnational orientation (Ciccolella and Mignaqui, 2002; Garza, 2005).

As is the case in Sao Paulo, Santiago de Chile and other leading cities, processes of ‘global-city-ization’ in Mexico City and Buenos Aires have been associated with deepening inequalities and the overlapping of new and old territorial imbalances (Kowarick and Campanario, 1986; Silva Leme, 2003; Muxí, 2004; Parnreiter, 2005). In the rest of the article we review the cultural policy agendas of the two cities within this context of globalization-led restructuring. Additionally, for each case we analyze one specific project with explicit economic, social and territorial goals at the sub-municipal scale. These are the Fábrica de Artes y Oficios del Oriente (Factory of Arts and Crafts of the [City] East, FARO) in the DF and the Centro Metropolitano de Diseño (Metropolitan Center of Design, CMD) in the CBA.

Mexico City

Over the past two decades Mexico City has experienced deep transformations in its metropolitan economy, territorial structure and governance mechanisms. These are clearly linked to broader changes in the Mexican economy. In an attempt to respond to the aftermath of the debt crisis (1982), the country shifted from a state-centric ISI regime to a free-market or neoliberal model characterized by liberalization of international trade and investment, privatization of state enterprises, flexibilization of the labor market, and public sector contraction (Garza, 2000: 176). The country's crisis and ensuing restructuring affected Mexico City and threatened its preeminent position in the national economy. Recovery only began by the end of the ‘lost decade’ of the 1980s through a deep tertiarization process, which for the urban region meant the shift from a national industrial metropolis to a transnational node for financial flows and specialized consumption. This restructuring took place under a politically hegemonic, albeit highly contested local form of globalist neoliberalism (Davis, 1994; Ward, 1998).

The urban economy currently evidences signs of deep polarization and dual development. On one hand, there has been some growth in the formal sector led by the expansion of personal and financial services, and high-end commercial and international tourist centers. Large transnational investors play prominent roles in these areas. On the other hand, Mexico City has also experienced a tremendous expansion of micro-enterprises and the informal sector with precarious labor conditions and devoid of social protections (Ziccardi, 1997). The metropolitan economy is simply not able to generate enough work for all of Mexico City's residents, let alone high-wage skilled jobs.

Problematic territorial transformations have accompanied economic restructuring. Increasing fragmentation and heterogeneity are characteristic of the contemporary urban fabric, and the sprawling metropolitan landscape is dotted with economic activities that show a functional disarticulation both from one another and their surroundings (Pradilla Cobos, 2000; Parnreiter, 2005). Remaining manufacturing locates in the north of the city, with a tendency to decentralize further. Dispersed and underused (or altogether abandoned) industrial and government-owned facilities are poorly integrated with adjacent land uses and the urban infrastructure, even though many of these could be reconverted to cultural or other new functions. The dual expansion of commerce and services also contributes to territorial fragmentation: deteriorated and underutilized areas coexist with crammed public spaces taken over by street vendors, as well as with isolated large-scale retail and service nodes. In urban planning terms, the physical and social decline of public space is one of the most conspicuous consequences of restructuring.

The impetus for governance changes also comes from below. Decades of rapid unplanned growth through ‘popular urbanization’ had generated visible social deficits and a strong urban popular movement demanding improved services and land regularization (Ramírez Saíz, 1986). This movement changed significantly after the 1985 earthquake, the callous governmental response to the devastation, and the solidarity that emerged among those affected. Protests against electoral fraud in the national elections of 1988 further propelled the movement to coalesce into a wider struggle for democratization — popular organizations began cooperating with formal political parties within existing institutional spaces (Cuellar, 1997: 267–85). The political decentralization of the DF is seen as one of the outcomes achieved: the 1996 constitutional reform re-established the residents' right to elect their mayor; expanded the legislative powers of the Assembly; and included provisions for citizen participation and consultation (Peschard, 1997: 226–7; Davis and Alvarado, 2004: 135).

In 1997, the election of Mayor Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, candidate for the centre-left Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution, PRD), generated expectations of progressive urban policies. In addition to improved access to housing and the correction of deep territorial imbalances, the new administration was expected to articulate a leftist cultural policy (Nivón Bolán, 2004). By reinforcing civic identities and the sense of belonging to a multicultural, yet cohesive, metropolis, culture could become a vehicle to ‘recover the city’ and ‘promote citizen participation’ (Portal Ariosa, 2000: 178). However, the successive PRD administrations of the past decade (López Obrador and Ebrard) have a mixed track record in the realm of cultural policy. These administrations have also been the object of widespread criticism from several leading figures of the city's cultural scene.

City government proclaims an institutional commitment to culture, which nevertheless remains unmatched by fiscal resources. In the past culture had been managed through ad-hoc structures funded by various secretaries, but in 1998 the Institute of Culture was created under the remit of the Secretary of Social Development (ibid.). With a specific budget line allocated to the Institute, this shift meant more transparency in what concerns municipal cultural expenditures (Nivón Bolán, 2000: 207). The area also became functionally and administratively independent — rather than subordinated and combined with different fields (e.g. sports). Mayor Lopez Obrador furthered these reforms by establishing the Secretary of Culture (2002).

With culture elevated to the level of a department, like those of urban development and housing, analysts believed that cultural policy was to become a political priority. Since then, however, the cultural budget has been undermined significantly in a local climate of fiscal austerity. Compared to the budgetary allocation in the year before López Obrador took office, his administration reduced the outlays for culture by 45%. Under his administration, the DF committed less than 0.5% of its budget to culture, much less than the minimum of 1.5% suggested by UNESCO (Vázquez Martín, 2001). López Obrador's successor, Mayor Marcelo Ebrard made the electoral promise to raise the cultural budget to 2% for the period 2006–12 (Haw, 2006). Even though proportional allocations had more than doubled by 2008 (to 1.31% of the district's budget), Ebrard's target had not been met, and in proportional terms the DF's spending amounted to less than half of what the City of Buenos Aires (CBA) committed to culture.

An additional hurdle for culture-led regeneration policies in the DF is that city government has not been able to articulate a broader coalition to draft a cultural strategy in cooperation with cultural producers and various other actors in the field. The criticisms that were raised against the 2005 designation of Raquel Sosa as head of the Secretary of Culture are symptomatic. Detractors argued that Sosa's lack of experience in the area and her weak ties with the cultural community were reflected in the composition of her staff and in the policies that they undertook. Furthermore, critics attribute her appointment — and displacement from the highly visible post of Secretary of Social Development where she was replaced by Ebrard, who subsequently became mayor — to electoral concerns among the PRD rather than to Sosa's competency in the field (Granados Chapa, 2005). Similar criticisms have been waged against Ebrard's Secretary of Culture, Elena Cepeda de León, due to her presumed lack of experience in the area and weak ties with the cultural community of the city.

Some cultural programs have also been the object of social outcry. With public–private partnerships assuming an increasingly pivotal role in the shaping of public culture in the city, some argue that private actors increasingly appropriate the built environment for their own interest and exert undue influence on public policies. Governmental management of the Zócalo, the city's central square, is a symptomatic example. In 2003, the district signed a commercial agreement whereby all of the Zócalo's free open-air concerts and spectacles were to be organized by a private trust representing some of Mexico's largest economic actors (Haw, 2003). At the heart of the discontent with the decision is the feeling that the city's most important civic space and a significant part of its cultural program are now controlled and decided on by the private sector; and that highly profitable commercial events will be favored to the detriment of more alternative and progressive programming. Furthermore, the debate over the Zócalo is part of the broader discontent with the historical centre's revitalization project. Also undertaken by a partnership, this initiative is questioned for pursuing economic profit at the expense of the public interest through exclusionary housing and business strategies, and for excessively focusing on the limited portion of the area with touristic and economic potential while marginal areas continue to be neglected.

On the positive side, city government is credited with efforts towards the development and consolidation of cultural spaces, the recovery of urban public space as a site of social interaction, the diffusion of cultural and musical activities, and the promotion of the city's history and social and cultural wealth (Pradilla Cobos, 2000: 98). Though they are unevenly distributed across the city's territory, Mexico City possesses a large number of world-class cultural assets. In addition to the large number of museums hosting international exhibitions, in recent years the public cultural offering has diversified with programs such as free open-air concerts and exhibitions in major public spaces, film showings and book fairs; and the creation of cultural facilities, such as the Fábrica de Artes y Oficios del Oriente (FARO), in underserved areas.


The FARO is a cultural complex, founded in 2000, that combines educational programs in the arts and crafts with the exhibition and dissemination of cutting-edge contemporary art. Occupying a site of 24,500 square meters, the FARO is divided into a central building, a public esplanade that accommodates massive outdoor events, a garden for public use and a 1,000-seat open-air auditorium. The elongated central building includes a 500 square-meter gallery on the top level, 720 square meters for training and workshop activities and an indoor theater for 200 people. An adjoining tower houses a library collection of approximately 20,000 volumes. Yearly, close to 8,000 students register in the art workshops (126 workshops in 2004) and tens of thousands of visitors attend dozens of cultural events. The FARO focuses mainly on disadvantaged youth (over 50% of registered students are age 24 or younger), and all of its activities are provided free of charge.

Known as the Faro del Oriente, Spanish for ‘lighthouse of the east’, the initiative resulted from governmental recognition that cultural facilities and public amenities have an extremely uneven spatial distribution in Mexico City, and that entire parts of the metropolis had grown and consolidated with an almost complete lack of such urban opportunities — in concrete geographical terms this means a disadvantaged east (Oriente), north and north east in stark contrast to the wealth territorially concentrated within the triangle that extends between the city centre and Chapultepec Park to the west and the university (Ciudad Universitaria) to the south (García Canclini, 2006).

In the year 2000 Iztapalapa, the borough where the FARO is located, had only 2,233 acres of green and open space, six cinemas, two theaters and no museums serving a population of almost 1.8 million (Ziccardi, 2000: 594). When the adjacent areas of Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, Valle de Chalco, Los Reyes Ixtapaluca and Chimalhuacan in the State of Mexico are included, the population count climbs to approximately 5.5 million. This region grew rapidly after 1950 through the expansion of popular settlements with poor housing conditions and precarious urban services. Housing has experienced important regularization and consolidation processes in recent years, but the region still presents highly degraded environmental conditions and low levels of social development.

Iztapalapa suffers from high levels of poverty and social exclusion, including unemployment, alcoholism and drug addiction, gang activity among youth and other forms of criminality (Ziccardi, 2000). Residents face limited economic prospects: only 40% of the economically active population are engaged in formal employment. Iztapalapa is also stigmatized and often associated with crime, violence and danger. Much of the FARO's work is focused on reinscribing the position of Iztapalapa in the social and cultural geographies of the city. For example, mainly by hosting massive concerts, the FARO has become a cultural hub that also draws middle-class audiences from better-off parts of the city.

Perceptions are also changing among local residents, both through special events and the art workshops. For example, the local community is engaged in the co-production of security for massive concerts and the police do not enter premises during these events. Competing gangs, it appears from an interview by the FARO's director, have come to see the site as a ‘truce zone’ where they will not fight, encouraging young people to use its public space without fear on an everyday basis. Some of the artistic production generated in the many lithography, photography and performance arts workshops explores local experiences of violence, and challenges stigmas attached to Iztapalapa, appropriating and reconstructing discriminatory terms and imagery.

The innovative FARO transcends purely localist concerns critiqued in previous models of cultural intervention (e.g. the casas de cultura program). Its conception can be described as enabling users to ‘jump scales’, or as dissolving the imposed spatial boundaries that contain rather than facilitate the production and reproduction of everyday life (Smith, 1993: 90). Young artists have the chance to disseminate their work at the major concerts organized on the site, such as the giant títeres (puppets) that form part of stage arrangements, supporting dancers and performers — all have the opportunity to present their work to a metropolitan audience; to relate to the city from the standpoint of artistic creators rather than that of a stigmatized social group. Program participants also have the opportunity to participate in on- and offline transnational collaborative networks. The FARO is part of the Computer Clubhouse program initiated by the Museum of Science, Boston. In early 2006, a collective of FARO-trained artists was preparing their first exhibition in Oakland, California.

The project has brought about physical improvements to the area, both on its own site and in adjacent sites. The building housing the FARO was an abandoned public office and the rest of the site had been turned into a garbage dump. With public investment, the building was refurbished and the environmental deterioration of the site remediated. Open space off the site was also rehabilitated; a more significant effect was the rapid construction of housing developments in the area following the FARO's opening. Before these interventions, a flea market of waste retrievers (mercado de pepenadores) functioned indiscriminately throughout the area. Although not without tensions, the market was removed from the sites, and now functions once a week on sidewalks and pavements. The FARO and the other sites are fenced, which may be working against the project's integration into the local community.

Not being supported by a wider culture-led redevelopment strategy, the FARO is highly dependent on retaining the management that created it and has kept it running through three different PRD city administrations. Evidencing this dependency was the anxiety generated by a proposed change of directors. When the Secretary of Culture tried to appoint a new leadership, the FARO community mobilized and requested program directors that would guarantee the continuity of the original program. But the vulnerability of the FARO is increased further by the fact that between 2000 and 2005 the yearly budget allocated to the program by city government was reduced by 40%. The cuts limit its operations, and have led to the search for other sources of funding (federal, international, private), which generates some compromises in the center's programmatic planning.

Replication of the FARO at other sites in Mexico City has also proved difficult. Instead of location strategies addressing social needs and the potential of various cultural interventions for different areas, decisions were based on the availability of vacant public facilities and on political interests. The attempt to replicate the FARO in a predominantly rural community in the metropolitan outskirts met with a violent response from the local population (Hernández, 2006a). As a result, the Secretary of Culture adjusted the original project, and the new FAROs being built have lost the original linkage between culture and urban regeneration. Instead, they focus on an environmentalist agenda for rural communities in Mexico City (Hernández, 2006b). These complications increase the isolation and vulnerability of the initial FARO project, diluting its potential to become a comprehensive model of culture-led urban regeneration.

Buenos Aires

The restructuring of metropolitan Buenos Aires bears many parallels to the case of the Mexico City region. Buenos Aires has experienced a deepened process of economic restructuring which comprises a shift to services and large-scale deindustrialization, privatization of public utilities and other urban infrastructure systems (e.g. highways, railways, electricity and water utilities), and expansion of the real estate sector linked to new forms of consumption and leisure (Prévôt Schapira, 2002). In the late twentieth century foreign direct investment assumed a pre-eminent role in determining priority investment sectors and the directions of metropolitan growth (Ciccolella and Mignaqui, 2002). As a consequence, inequalities broadened and massive impoverishment appeared in the metropolitan area. Cerrutti and Grimson (2004: 8–19) show that unemployment more than doubled between 1991 and 2002, the informal sector bloated with workers expelled from the formal labor market, and even the salaried population that remained formally employed experienced a substantial erosion of the social wage. Torrado (2004: 33) argues that the irruption of ‘hyper-unemployment’ generated a brutal devaluation of skill levels — a phenomenon unprecedented for a society where educational achievement had traditionally signified upward social mobility. Large parts of the qualified labor force became ‘obsolete’, the skill levels of middle-class workers no longer meeting those sought by employers.

Restructuring has also led to an increase in residential segregation and the deepening of pre-existing territorial imbalances (Torres, 1992). The concentration of high-end real estate developments along the northern corridor has widened north–south disparities, making the north more exclusive and with a larger proportion of residents from higher social strata (Furlong and Torres, 2000). Another concern for planners is the peripheral growth of high-end residential developments and the suburbanization of elite groups that accelerated in the 1990s (Torres, 2001). At the same time, some areas in the inner city and in southern neighborhoods experienced an increase in substandard dwellings, and many of these neighborhoods registered population losses (Ainstein, 2001). Janoschka (2002) points out that exclusionary built forms have appeared both in suburban gated communities, and in the enclosed shopping malls built in decaying inner-city neighborhoods. He depicts a Buenos Aires where self-enclosed ‘bubbles’ replace the ‘open city’ of democratic street grids and public spaces (Gorelik, 1998).

Some have argued that the prospects for progressive urban policies in Buenos Aires are constrained by the path that state restructuring has taken in Argentina (Szajenberg, 1999). Throughout the 1990s, the Argentine state underwent one of the most thorough processes of neoliberalization in the world. The country's radical market-oriented reforms include: a widespread privatization program of publicly owned enterprises; the domestic deregulation and external liberalization of the Argentine economy; and the contraction of the public sector, both in terms of the budget and personnel employed by the national government (Oszlak, 2003).

Yet this period also witnessed the beginning of a political decentralization process with important implications for the City of Buenos Aires (CBA). The 1994 reform to the Argentine Constitution included a clause whereby the capital's residents were granted the right to directly elect the mayor and an assembly to draft a new city charter. This reform has far-reaching potential: the CBA Charter now provides for several instances of citizen participation, democratic accountability and an overall social-democratic orientation to city government (Grindle, 2000).

It is noteworthy that while the reform parallels what occurred in Mexico's DF, a comparable urban social movement clamoring for city-level autonomy and local decision-making was absent. Therefore, some analysts remain skeptical about local autonomy. There has not been a clear political impetus towards implementation of the new charter (Crot, 2005), and there are doubts over whether the successive democratically elected and purportedly center-left administrations have succeeded in articulating mid- and long-term development plans and more progressive policies (Cohen and Debowicz, 2001; Gorelik, 2004). Furthermore, the city's governance structure has been affected by the political and institutional instability of Argentina — the crisis of December 2001 in particular — and it has also witnessed major local overhauls, such as the impeachment of Mayor Ibarra in early 2006. Major political swings have also occurred among voters, such as the turn to a decidedly pro-business and privatist electoral platform that led Mauricio Macri to the mayoralty in the following year.

Within this context, culture is one of the policy fields showing innovative public interventions and a strong political support of the various CBA administrations of the past decade. The rise of Jorge Telerman from minister of culture to deputy mayor and eventually mayor could be seen as correlated with the increased relevance that cultural policy has acquired within the CBA. But that is only part of the story, as the budget for culture continued to expand even after Telerman's defeat. Even though cultural policy has taken a more entrepreneurial character under the Macri administration (from 2007), the area's budget has continued to increase and most of the original programs remain in place.

Such rare resiliency to administration changes has an explanation. In 2001 the city government issued a ten-year strategic cultural plan, drafted in consultation with cultural producers and civil society. The plan has the broad goal of strengthening the city's role as a Latin American global node for the creation, production and dissemination of culture. Budgetary allocations for the Secretary of Culture have also increased steadily, reaching 170 million pesos (60 million US dollars) or the equivalent of 4.5% of the total city budget in 2004. Policies follow three axes: the decentralization and democratization of culture; the mobilization of urban culture and identity as economic resources; and the joining-up of cultural and territorial strategies.

Moreover, since the period of early democratic transition in Argentina in the early 1980s, there has been a drive to shift cultural policy away from a high-culture orientation that privileges elitist institutions (Winocur, 1996). On the one hand, it is evident that the single largest item in the city's cultural budget is still the Teatro Colón— the city's world-renowned opera house that caters mainly to exclusive and wealthy audiences (Landi, 2002: 345). But, on the other hand, it is noteworthy that the city has come to organize a larger number of cultural events and educational programs in neighborhoods, provided extended financial support for young artists and creators, and expanded access to high culture by making city-run institutions more affordable and less intimidating (e.g. ‘El Colón por dos pesos’[Opera for two pesos] and the Night of the Museums).

Since the Argentine economic and political crisis of 2002, there has been an explosion of cultural activity in Buenos Aires and the city's cultural institutions have served both as a refuge for the reproduction of middle-class identities, which provides opportunities for cultural consumption to groups suffering rapid downward social mobility (Wortman, 2003), and as a bridge for new forms of critical cultural production reaching popular neighborhoods (Arrese, 2003: 239). Indeed, this large-scale cultural initiative can be interpreted as one of the central, and less demagogic responses of the CBA government to increased social discontent and political unrest (see e.g. Rodgers, 2005).

The CBA has also sought to harness the economic potential of culture to trigger local development and employment growth. Cultural industries have been identified as a strategic growth sector estimated to generate between 6.5% (Centro de Estudios de Economía Metropolitana, 2001) and 17% (Arrese, 2003: 240) of the city's product depending on how cultural or creative industries are defined (Scott, 2004). The city has supported small and medium-sized firms involved in cultural production, and also implemented policies to attract international investments and tourism — particularly under the Macri administration and with the appointment to the Secretary of Culture of a former business leader related to the hospitality industry.

An example of these policies is the fact that the CBA has streamlined the application process for film shooting permits in public places and initiated a program (BAset) to provide information and technical assistance to film productions — in 2005, 468 advertising clips were shot in the city, and approximately a third of these productions were undertaken by foreign companies, intended to be released abroad only (Observatorio de Industrias Culturales, 2005: 22–4). Other efforts to link Buenos Aires to global cultural networks include programs that inform tourists about the local cultural agenda in Spanish, Portuguese and English, and applications to have the city nominated as a city of international cultural relevance (world heritage sites, etc.). In late 2005, Buenos Aires was appointed the first UNESCO City of Design. While this is merely a nominal distinction (now shared with Berlin and Montreal), it shows the city government's explicit intention to position the CBA in transnational networks of cultural production.

Thirdly, the Secretary of Culture is physically rehabilitating areas deemed of cultural relevance. The most ambitious of these programs is a management plan for the historical core, which includes both the central area of government buildings and traditional neighborhoods to the south such as San Telmo, which blends heritage buildings, social diversity and cultural ambiance (Scarpaci, 2005: 87–8). The plan considers public space improvements, the rehabilitation of the housing stock, and social and educational programs. These actions are more limited in scope than the redevelopment megaprojects undertaken in the early 1990s when city government was still controlled by the Argentine executive — then the paradigmatic case was Puerto Madero, the redeveloped docklands that have become an extension of the central business district and one of the most expensive real-estate areas in the city (Cuenya, 2003). Yet actions in San Telmo and other southern neighborhoods pivot more explicitly around the notion of urban identity and its productive potential, with active plans to attract artists to the area and foster the development of clusters of cultural producers — in the case of Puerto Madero, abandoned red-brick warehouses and port infrastructure were maintained as heritage but with the intent of refurbishing them into prime office spaces and high-end tourist sites, e.g. five-star international hotel chains, boutique hotels and high-scale restaurants.

The Secretary has also made several investments in rehabilitating CBA-owned cultural facilities throughout the city (Arrese, 2003: 240–1), and it has aligned the location of investments in new facilities with the overall policy goal of steering development towards the south. This is the less developed sub-region of the CBA and also presents the most disadvantaged economic and social conditions in the city. Examples include the planned Ciudad de la Música (City of Music), a music complex (auditorium, educational and recording facilities) to be located in an abandoned factory in the neighborhood of La Boca, and the Centro Metropolitano de Diseño (CMD) in Barracas.


The CMD is a program that the Secretary of Culture started in 2001. It aims to provide support to small firms, independent professionals and micro-entrepreneurs; and to improve the global competitiveness of these local actors through strategic uses of graphic and industrial design as factors to enhance local competitiveness and export capacity. The CMD's stated goals include: (1) generation of design-based high value-added activities; (2) re-articulation of local industrial networks in the context of a globalized economy; (3) transfer of technical knowledge and know-how between the actors involved in the value-chain; and 4) exposure of local producers to international cultural trends, available resources and new technologies. More concretely, the CMD focuses on fashion and apparel, furniture and wooden products, publishing and new media (audiovisual products, web design, videogames, etc.).

In 2004, the Secretary allocated a yearly budget of 2.5 million pesos (900,000 US dollars) for the CMD. These funds were leveraged with private contributions to fairs and other events. With a full-time staff of close to 30, the CMD hosts programs that provide technical and financial assistance to local enterprises: IncuBA, a business incubator program providing small firms and micro-entrepreneurs with technical assistance and office space; the Metropolitan Institute of Design and Research, that disseminates knowledge through publications and training (conferences, seminars, symposia, etc.); and the City Cultural Fund, a program administering prizes and subsidies for young cultural producers.

The CMD is also intended to contribute to the regeneration of the city's south. It is located in Barracas, an inner-city neighborhood that has suffered from decades of deindustrialization, disinvestment, physical decay and population loss. The structure housing the CMD was built in 1934. It functioned as a wholesale fish market (el Mercado de Pescado) for half a century until it was closed down when all wholesale food activities in Buenos Aires were relocated to a central market. The site remained abandoned for nearly two decades until the Secretary of Culture decided to refurbish it.

The total cost of refurbishing the site (lot size 8,000 square meters) was estimated at 27 million pesos (8.3 million US dollars in 2005). But by early 2006, only 15% of the site had been refurbished, with the CMD occupying approximately 2,300 square meters of the floor space. Budgeting and implementation problems had delayed completion of the further stages in the project for the CMD to accommodate a larger number of activities and space for the incubation of more micro-enterprises. Although construction has continued apace, in July 2008 the estimated completion date was mid-2010.

The current structure maintains the market's original façades and central water tower — an element often observed in the skyline of Barracas and that the architects in charge of the scheme decided to preserve as a reminder of the neighborhood's identity associated with its industrial past. Several two-story structures have been built within the perimeter to accommodate the CMD's different programs. In order to enable synergistic interaction between programs, these structures — reminiscent of design-oriented computer equipment — are linked by a series of halls, bridges and internal streets that follow the original market layout. A corridor parallel to the street accommodates the 14 micro-enterprises that are currently provided with free fully equipped office space (40 square meters on average) on site for a term of up to two years. These offices have access from both an internal hall and from the street arcade. However, all frontages are currently deactivated and the CMD can only be accessed from one small and secured entrance that is located on one of the street corners of the site's block. In one of our interviews at the CMD, it was reported that soon after its opening there was an incident with a group of organized squatters trying to occupy the rest of the site, and that this event could explain the current high levels of security implemented.

The CMD has become a recognized public entity that provides support to small- and medium-enterprises in the design-based sector of Buenos Aires, and generates interactions among the various actors involved in the field. The fact that the CMD's administration has endured for over 5 years during embattled times for city government may be an indicator of the important functions that the center performs for design-intensive firms. This sector has been one of the most dynamic in the post-crisis urban economy, and it has registered significant increases in its export levels (Santagati, 2006). It is important to notice that the CMD has also withstood the transition to the Macri administration, although the center's directors changed and its level of activity decreased. Under Macri, the CMD had also changed status, moving down from the level of department section to that of program, now administered as an issue of economic development and not one of cultural policy.

In contrast to its relative success in the city, the CMD does not seem to play a similarly relevant role at the neighborhood scale. At the time of the first round of fieldwork in early 2006, the CMD was not having a significant effect on the creation of local value-chains, and the incubated firms surveyed had not developed either up- or downstream connections in the neighborhood. The same held true in the second round conducted in mid-2008. Neither did these firms express an intention to remain in the area after their incubation period when they need to find office space outside the CMD. Upon the project's completion, the CMD may still achieve a more significant local role when the number of activities and incubated firms grows larger and constitutes a critical mass of activity for the neighborhood economy. The CBA has invested in public space improvements in the center's vicinity, and better accessibility via public transportation is being planned, which could also benefit the surrounding neighborhood.


In this article, we have delineated the new role for urban cultural policy in Latin America that has arisen in the aftermath of neoliberal politics and intensified inequalities but that is also associated with democratization and grassroots empowerment. Our argument was that the restructuring of many cities in Latin America predicates a wider scope of action for progressive culture-led strategies. Cultural policy may be used to address situations of physical, economic and social decay, even though it is constrained by the context of reduced governmental intervention that affects all areas of public policy. In order to probe the potentials and limits of cultural policy, we reviewed the specific policies of Mexico's DF and the CBA in Argentina. Both cases present comparable contexts of economic restructuring, socio-territorial polarization and fragmentation, and a contested process of political decentralization that has brought about at least some degree of democratization to urban affairs.

In our reading, the cultural impetus in the CBA appears to have consolidated into a more robust and explicit program of social, economic and territorial interventions than the rather disjointed initiatives attempted in the DF, where city government dedicated fewer fiscal resources to the area of culture and was unable to anchor its policies within a broader coalition of cultural producers and political constituencies. It is noteworthy that, with three mayors from the same party, over the past decade and a half the latter has had more stable local politics than the CBA, where the cultural emphasis has been maintained despite institutional instability and political swings. Furthermore, the divergent track records in urban cultural policy exhibited by these two large city governments remind us that the existence of conditions conducive to progressive culture-led regeneration does not necessarily imply an adequate local policy response and that a consensus on urban cultural policy is yet to emerge in Latin America. The deployment of culture as a mechanism for economic, social and urban development is highly dependent on the intricacies of local configurations of power and the negotiation of policy agendas.

It is important to note that these conclusions do not preclude culture-led regeneration in the DF. In fact, Mexico City features numerous cultural assets and many of the most important national cultural institutions of Mexico are located in the capital (Nivón Bolán, 2000). But we also need to point out that throughout most of the twentieth century, the single-party PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) regime had deployed culture as a device for the legitimization of its seven-decade long hegemony through the construction of a national identity inextricably linked to the party (Bartra, 1989). Indeed, most of Mexico City's cultural institutions, museums, stadia, monuments and public spaces bear some remnants from that past. Over the past decade, the PRD has also been accused of replicating such practices, particularly in vote-catching cultural events held at the Zócalo. Even though in February of 2008 this led to a heated debate at the district's Senate on whether responsibility for managing the square should be transferred back to the national government, it is arguable that the successive PRD administrations of the FD have also departed from the approach to culture of the PRI era, by attempting to promote social development while seeking to enhance the city's competitive position within transnational cultural networks. Articulating these resources into a comprehensive cultural initiative that addresses the manifold economic and social needs of residents remains a task for future city governments. Other recent experiences of cultural policy in the region, such as the case of the CBA, may provide some insights for this task.

Successful governmental programs in both cities, such as the FARO and CMD, show that cultural initiatives offer the potential to ‘join up’ goals of economic development and social inclusion with less uneven forms of territorial development. Both experiences also show the limits to culture-led progressive urban policy in the presence of fiscal and political constraints impeding the generalization and expansion of individual experiences and projects. The risk of such programs becoming one-off ‘best practices’ is ever present. Additionally, the projects point to the complexity of implementing progressive initiatives in diverse and highly unequal urban contexts where different socio-cultural groups coexist and lay claims to a densely developed space. Previous research shows that culture-led regeneration and physical upgrading easily translate into residential and commercial gentrification, and then the displacement of both residents and city-users from popular sectors (Jones and Varley, 1999).

Here we have focused on government. Further research needs to broaden the spectrum of cultural interventions into the workings of civil society organizations. The Circo Volador (Flying Circus) in Mexico City (Vargas, 2004), the cultural events La Trama (The Weaving) organized by the neighborhood assembly of Palermo Viejo, the La Fábrica-Ciudad Cultural (The Factory–Cultural City) in the worker-run IMPA factory in Buenos Aires (Wikler, 2001), and other initiatives undertaken by non-governmental and grassroots organizations highlight the socially transformative agency that cultural interventions assume in urban environments, both among popular sectors and the middle classes.

Many other cities in Latin America have put forward initiatives for culture-led economic, social and physical urban regeneration. Also, as culture-led urban initiatives multiply across cities internationally, the need for more comparative research on the varying contexts and reach of urban cultural policy is apparent. We need to establish the conditions in which culture offers windows of opportunity for progressive urban interventions in a world where globalist neoliberalism still holds sway in the local economic development discourse. This should be a particularly relevant task for the growing research agenda on the globalization of cities in the periphery, which questions the extent to which such cities can act upon their economic and social development in contexts of transnationalization (Machimura, 2003).


  • 1

    The materialist and instrumental definition of culture that predominates in the literature broadly approximates the concept to the ideas and practices, sites and artifacts of the new creative, symbolic or high-value content economy. Cultural industries are understood as those economic sectors linked to so-defined cultural products and services, and in the same way cultural policy concerns the public regulation of cultural production, distribution and consumption (see e.g. United Nations Human Settlements Programme, 2004: 32). These are also the definitions adopted in this article.

  • 2

    With 8.8 and 2.9 million inhabitants respectively the DF and the CBA have jurisdiction only over limited parts of the Mexico City and Buenos Aires metropolitan areas. However, as economic and cultural resources are heavily concentrated in these two central cities, their policies have important implications for their entire metropolitan areas and even host countries.