Declaration of Buenos Aires

January 1, 2005

Urban land management policies and land market operations have taken on greater status in the debate on urban public policy in Latin America, and they are given increased attention in academic research and the development agendas of many countries in the region. Over the past 10 years the Lincoln Institute’s Program on Latin America and the Caribbean has supported a network of Latin American scholars and practitioners who have developed seminars, promoted research, organized public debates, consulted with decision makers and published their findings on these timely issues. Members of this network met at a conference in Buenos Aires in April 2004 to assess their activities and prepare this summary declaration of core land policy issues crucial to the search for more sustainable urban development programs in the future.

Urban land policy in Latin America and the ways that land markets operate tend to produce cities that are economically unequal, politically and socially exclusionary, spatially segregated and environmentally unsustainable. The consequences of these policies can be seen in the high and often irrational prices for land, due in part to the absence of effective urban land management practices.

The Current Situation

Land markets are structurally imperfect. However, the functioning of urban land markets depends on social relations, just as the outcomes of land market operations affect those relations, making it both possible and necessary to influence the markets. Instead of removing the imperfections, many instruments and policies have in fact helped to distort urban land market operations even further. Moreover, many established policies have kept the “rules of the game” in urban real estate unchanged, and apparently untouchable.

A more comprehensive reading of the problem reveals that, rather than being the result of inconsistent rationalization, the current dysfunctional land market is the result of missed opportunities for socially sustainable development in Latin American cities. Yet there are promising and innovative alternatives that can overcome the existing bottlenecks evident in inadequate and destructive national government policies, the enduring difficulties in financing urban development, and poor management practices.

One of the most glaring negative outcomes of the current situation is the relative persistence, weight and importance of informal urban land markets dominated by many exclusionary practices, illegal titling, lack of urban services, and other problems. Deregulation in places that should be regulated (poor outlying areas on the urban fringe), overregulation of wealthy regulated areas, and privatization policies that disregard social criteria are factors that help to drive these negative processes, particularly the spatial concentration of the urban poor. Although the majority of regularization programs are well-intended, they instead cause perverse effects, including increased land costs for the poorest sectors.

Traditional urban planning processes and urban standards have lost importance and effectiveness as instruments for guiding urban development, especially the existing mechanisms for land management. Yet this situation offers opportunities to think about innovative ways to deal with land management and urban planning strategies. This opportunity has already been seized in some places, where new experiments and proposals are causing intense debates by questioning the predominant traditional approaches.

Creating new practices within this framework requires making one unavoidable step: rethinking urban land taxation by incorporating new methods and keeping an open mind regarding alternative fiscal instruments that must be intended as tools to redirect current urban development and discipline the operation of the urban land market. These new tools should not only collect funds in order to build infrastructure and provide urban services, but also contribute to a more equitable distribution of benefits and costs, especially those associated with the urbanization process and the return of recovered land value increments to the community.

Proposals for Action

Recognize the indispensable role of the government. It is critical that the government (from local to national levels) maintains an active role in promoting urban development. The local level should be more committed to structural changes in land management, while the national level should actively foster such local initiatives. Government must not ignore its responsibility to adopt urban land market policies that recognize the strategic value of land and the specific characteristics of how land markets operate, in order to promote the sustainable use of the land by incorporating both social and environmental objectives and benefiting the most vulnerable segments of the urban population.

Break the compartmentalization of fiscal, regulatory and legal authorities. Lack of cooperation among local authorities is responsible for major inefficiencies, ineffective policies, waste of scarce resources and inadequate public accountability. Furthermore, incongruent actions by different public authorities send misleading signals to private agents and create uncertainties if not opportunities for special interests to subvert government plans. The complexity and scale of the challenges posed by the urban social reality of Latin American cities require multilateral actions by numerous stakeholders to influence the operation of urban land markets (both formal and informal), thus insuring the achievement of joint objectives: promoting sustainable and fair use of land resources; reducing land prices; producing serviced land; recognizing the rights to land by the urban poor; and sharing the costs and benefits of urban investment more evenly.

These authorities must also coordinate urban development policies with land taxation policies. They should promote a new urban vision with legislation that recognizes the separation of building rights from land ownership rights, with the understanding that land value increments generated from building rights do not belong exclusively to landowners. Urban managers must also devise creative mechanisms whereby these land value increments may be mobilized or used to produce serviced land for low-income social sectors, thereby offsetting urban inequalities.

Recognize the limits of what is possible. Transforming the current regulatory framework that governs the use of urban land requires new legal and urbanistic thinking that recognizes that inequalities and socio-spatial exclusion are intrinsic to the predominant urban development model. Even within the current model there is substantial room for more socially responsible policies and government accountability. Urban regulations should consider the complexity of land appreciation processes and enforce effective traditional principles such as those that restrain the capacity of government agencies to dispose of public resources or proscribe the “unjustified enrichment” of private landowners.

Break vicious cycles. Alternatives to existing regularization programs are needed to break the vicious cycle of poverty that current programs help to perpetuate. It is important to recognize that these programs are only a stopgap measure and that urbanization, housing and land taxation policies must also be integrated into the process. Reliance on housing subsidy policies, although inevitable, can be nullified if there are no mechanisms to prevent these subsidies from being translated into an increase in land prices. City officials should give priority to the creation of more serviced land rather than new regularization programs, since the right to a home is a social right to occupy a viable “habitat” with dignity. It is also important to understand that the low production of serviced land per se contributes to withholding the supply and, therefore, to higher prices affecting all aspects of urban development.

Furthermore, individual solutions (such as plot-by-plot titling processes or case-by-case direct subsidies to individual families) ultimately result in more costs for society as a whole than broader, collective solutions that incorporate other aggregate values such as public spaces, infrastructure investment and other mechanisms to strengthen social integration. Many Latin American countries have witnessed subsidized housing programs, often supported by multilateral agencies, where the land component is overlooked or dismissed. Such programs seek readily available public land or simply occupy land in intersticial areas of the city. This disregard of a broader land policy compromises the replicability, expansion and sustainability of these housing programs on a larger scale.

Rethink the roles of public and private institutions. Land management within a wide range of urban actions, from large-scale production of serviced land for the poor to urban redevelopment through large projects, including facelift-type actions or environmental recovery projects, requires new thinking about how public institutions responsible for urban development can intervene through different types of public-private associations. Redeveloping vacant land and introducing more flexibility in the uses and levels of occupancy can play a crucial role here, provided such projects fall under the strategic guidelines of public institutions, are subject to monitoring by citizens, and incorporate a broadly shared and participatory vision of urban development.

Showcase projects such as El Urbanizador Social (The Social Urbanizer) in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the Nuevo Usme housing project in Bogotá, Colombia, and that country’s value capture legislation are examples of sensible and creative efforts that recognize the importance of adequate urban land management and new thinking on the role of land, particularly the potential of land value as an instrument for promoting more sustainable and equitable development for the poor in our cities. Creative and balanced new thinking is also exemplified by the joint ventures of public land and private capital in Havana, Cuba, with value increments captured for upgrading densely populated historic areas.

Empower the role of land taxation in public finance to promote urban development. National, state or provincial and local governments must share responsibility for promoting property taxation as an adequate and socially meaningful method of financing and fostering urban development. The property tax should be sensitive and responsive to Latin American cities that have a strong legacy of marked economic and socio-spatial differences. There may be good reasons to tax land at a higher rate than buildings, in a rational and differentiated manner, especially in outlying areas subject to urban speculation and lands offered ex ante to low-income sectors of society (making certain that paying the tax also helps to build citizenship in these sectors). As already noted, it is also critical to create innovative fiscal instruments appropriate to special situations and other methods for capturing the value generated.

Educate stakeholders in the promotion of new policies. All actors involved in these processes, from judges to journalists, from academics to public officials and their international mentors, need in-depth training and education in the operation of land markets and urban land management in order to achieve the above objectives. We must identify the “fields of mental resistance,” particularly in urban and economic thinking and in the legal doctrines that represent the obstacles to be overcome. We must recognize, for example, that an “informal right” exists and operates in many areas to legitimize land transactions socially, if not legally, and to create networks and spaces of solidarity and integration. It is urgent that we take steps to introduce these themes and proposals into political agendas at the various government levels, in political parties, social organizations, academia and the mass media.

Latin American Network

Pedro Abramo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

Oscar Borrero, Bogotá, Colombia

Gonzalo Cáceres, Santiago, Chile

Julio Calderón, Lima, Perú

Nora Clichevsky, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Claudia De Cesare, Porto Alegre, Brasil

Matilde de los Santos, Montevideo, Uruguay

Diego Erba, São Leopoldo, Brasil

Edésio Fernandes, London, England

Ana Raquel Flores, Asunción, Paraguay

Fernanda Furtado, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

Alfredo Garay, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Silvia García Vettorazzi, Guatemala City, Guatemala

Ana Maria González del Valle, Lima, Perú

Samuel Jaramillo, Bogotá, ColombiaCarmen Ledo, Cochabamba, Bolivia

Mario Lungo, San Salvador, El Salvador

María Mercedes Maldonado, Bogotá, Colombia

Carlos Morales Schechinger, Mexico City, Mexico

Laura Mullahy, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USARicardo Núñez, Havana, Cuba

Sonia Rabello de Castro, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

Eduardo Reese, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Francisco Sabatini, Santiago, Chile

Martim Smolka, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Alvaro Uribe, Panama City, Panama

Ricardo Vanella, Córdoba, Argentina

Maria Clara Vejarano, Bogotá, Colombia

Isabel Viana, Montevideo, Uruguay