Buenos Aires is trying to use culture and creative industries to address some of its wider social and economic divisions. In doing so, it has developed a number of innovative approaches, from which other cities might usefully learn.
City data: Key facts
- Geographical area: 200 sq. km
- Total population: 3,049,229
- GDP (PPP) million: $98,761
Buenos Aires was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century. From the start it was a trading city: its residents are known as ‘porteños’, people of the port. In the late 19th century, as the capital of an independent Argentina, Buenos Aires became immensely prosperous, known for its rich cultural life and architecture. By contrast, during the second half of the 20th century the city suffered from the national political and economic turmoil. Since Argentina’s return to democracy in 1983, Buenos Aires has entered a new period of growth and it continues to benefit from its rich cultural inheritance. The Teatro Colón, established in the 19th century, is a world leading opera house. Tango remains one of the city’s main cultural exports, with its own festival, World Cup, dance halls (milongas) and local dance competitions. In 2009 UNESCO officially designated tango as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
Today Buenos Aires is a city of over 3 million people. It is one of the most diverse cities in South America with a foreign born population of around 13%. The city retains high levels of cultural participation, a great deal of independent cultural activity, and a history that embraces freedom of both expression and being in public spaces. The government sees public space as a strategic platform for working with community cultural organisations. Buenos Aires is known for its festivals – there are more than 80 spread throughout the year – and the City is committed to supporting them. The Tango Festival is the most popular festival in the city, with 600,000 people attending each year. Both the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival (BAFICI) and the International Theatre Festival (FIBA), a biennial, have been running for over 20 years.
In many ways Buenos Aires is a city of contrasts. Despite its engaging cultural programmes and relatively high levels of cultural participation, the city also faces the challenge of centralised access to culture, with some neighbourhoods situated up to 40 streets away from the nearest cultural activities and others only one. Initiatives such as Barrios Creativos (Creative Neighbourhoods) and Arte en Barrios (Art in Neighbourhoods) have sought to spread the cultural offer beyond its traditional geographic boundaries. Such moves are not only aimed at facilitating access to cultural activities in outlying areas, but also at expanding the conception of culture itself.
Independent cultural centres are also part of this decentralisation strategy. The Usina del Arte (Arts Factory) was opened in 2012 in a restored power station in the underdeveloped neighbourhood of La Boca, and includes a 1,200 seat concert hall. The Centro Cultural Recoleta (Recoleta Cultural Centre) is a multidisciplinary space that has been operating for more than 30 years and provides space to discover new works by young creators, as well as a gateway for teenagers to enter the arts. The Centre is home to visual arts, music, dance, theater, literature, cinema, urban culture and design. Another significant centre is the Theater Complex of Buenos Aires, with a programme of more than 1,700 performances across 4 theaters: San Martin, Ribera, Sarmiento and Regio.
Buenos Aires has been a pioneer of creative industry development in Latin America, which represent nearly 10% of its economy. Through a combination of urban regeneration and tax incentives the City has tried to build a sustainable model for its creative sector, which helped it become the first UNESCO City of Design in 2005. The City’s thematic districts programme clusters together strategic sectors in diverse city neighbourhoods such as Arts District in La Boca, Audiovisual District in Palermo, Design District in Barracas and Technology District in Parque Patricios. It aims to revive under-developed urban areas and make them more competitive, attractive to industry and more inclusive of local communities and workers. Part of the wider Design District Project includes the Metropolitan Design Centre (CMD), an innovative centre for the creative industries. This enormous former fish market located near the river was turned into a design hub aimed at providing business incubation, training courses for enterprises and residency programmes. The CMD also houses an auditorium and a 3,000 square metre space for exhibitions and displays.
By becoming a major centre for the creative industries, Buenos Aires is living up to its rich history as one of the leading cultural cities of Latin America.