Radical Cities

Radical Cities, by Justin McGuirk: is Latin America the future of cities?

McGuirk writes about an emerging urbanist philosophy manifesting itself in cities across Latin America that comes from a different philosophical place than the many failed public housing projects of the latter 20th century (think Cabrini Green in Chicago, 23 de Enero in Caracas) and seems to actually be working. The theses of the projects described in this book are roughly:

  1. “You can soothe social divisions with urban forms.” That is, while architects cannot create social relations (the arrogant stance of post-LeCorbusier architects), they can create the channels that allow such relations to occur naturally.
  2. “The answer to a divided city is integration, and there is no integration without transport connections.” When poor people’s housing is far away from the city center, it separates them from economic opportunities and class-stratifies the city. Transportation infrastructure is the only solution for this, and unlike housing, that is something only governments can do.

If you’re interested in urbanism and the future of urban living, this book is highly worthwhile. What follows are a few of the highlights of the case studies it presents.

Central to the book is the concept of informal dwellings: improvised housing of variable-quality construction, not officially on any map, which may or may not legally or illegally receive basic services such as electricity and running water, “exist[ing] outside the legal and economic protocols that shape the formal city” (think slums, favelas). Over 1/3 of urban dwellers in Latin America and nearly 1/4 of humanity worldwide live this way, and it’s estimated that 85% of housing worldwide is built “informally.” Yet, while classic old-school urbanism views informal housing as a stepping stone towards urbanization rather than an end state, informal housing is characterized by stakeholders who, by virtue of being direct participants in constructing their own communities (out of economic need) are more deeply in their community than any “formal” public housing project has been able to achieve. As a result, these places are often self-regulating systems (similar to Dharavi in Mumbai; see also Brillembourg et al., Informal City, Prestel, 2005) that just need some thoughtful injection of resources combined with participatory design. Latin America is placing this attitude front and center as a way to better leverage public housing funds, an approach originally articulated by British architect John Turner in 1963, who argued repeatedly that “living in a self-built shack near the city centre was best for rural migrants, because they could save money and be close to work and opportunities.” In this scenario, governments have definite but well-circumscribed responsibilities, in particular where transportation infrastructure is concerned.

Classic social-megahousing projects fail for many reasons. They are seen as a one-time capital investment but allowed to deteriorate from lack of operating resources (Cabrini Green, USA); they are vote-buying exercises subsequently abandoned (Piedrabuena, Buenos Aires); the actual building projects fall victim to a corrupt construction industry (nearly everywhere) or dysfunctional bureaucracy (Minha Casa Minha Vida, Rio de Janeiro); they are built on the periphery of city “citadels”, thwarting socioeconomic mobility for their residents (Co-Op City in the Bronx).

A few examples are given of what Latin America is doing differently.

Alto Comedero, San Salvador. Túpac Amaru is a grassroots social movement whose premises are the right to self-organize and the right to work, and it lives entirely off of very modest government subsidies. Alto Comedero, consisting of about 2700 houses at the edge of San Salvador, is one of its sites. Needy families were organized into work parties that at first built their own homes (to a standard-issue blueprint provided by the public housing authority; 2 bedrooms, 50 square meters), then subsequently built factories to produce the essential building materials such as steel and bricks, and then factories to produce quotidian necessities such as textiles for clothing. It builds houses four times faster than private construction companies for 2/3 the cost (about US$23,000 per house), with the builders being paid for their work. In other words, public money buys the materials, you get paid to build your house, and then you keep it. Groups of houses are built around enormous swimming pools and parks that serve as social nuclei: “Social housing is ordinarily a matter of achieving the minimum…But how do you define ‘essential’? Swimming pools are a relatively cheap way of making poor people feel rich.” Politicians are scared of Túpac Amaru because it shows that the promise of building housing may no longer be a viable vote-buying mechanism—and maybe, because it is a grassroots social justice movement that subverts existing political-economic structures: it “operates seemingly independently of the market. These people own their houses, but they did not buy them. Nor was there a developer generating profit out of this enterprise. Instead, government funds are made to work hard, with the benefits distributed to the community – and any profits converted into playgrounds and other social amenities.”

Quinta Monroy Houses, Iquique, Chile. Santiago-based architect Alejandro Aravena and his firm Elemental believe firmly in Turnerism. With a government subsidy of $7500 per dwelling, they arranged to build each family half a house, specifically the half they cannot build themselves—concrete structure, roof, plumbing—arranged around communal courtyards. There are gaps left between the houses so families can later add more living space, and most do. The idea of building a house shell and letting the inhabitants fill it in was proposed by LeCorbusier but its “business model never got off the ground,” which is perhaps the reason Quinta Monroy worked: it is pragmatic but not idealistic, wrangling a government loan system, a policy framework, and construction and land-use issues to achieve a practical yet bespoke result that would be unlikely to scale well, either in density or number of dwellings. The success has been repeated a few times at small scale in Chile, which is now democratically governed and richer because of copper: several new dense projects close to the center, in which the exterior and infrastructure (and since housing subsidies are higher now, a nice facade) are constructed, and the residents complete the interior, including dividing vertically into two stories if they wish. Interestingly, Aravena is less interested in these developments, which “look like middle-class housing developments,” because when there is more money available “the quality comes out as architectural language” rather than each home being a more direct expression of its owner’s tastes and investment. This attitude strikes me as intellectually arrogant, but there are plenty of money-challenged places Aravena and Elemental could make a difference, and they are now working on projects in Guatemala and Peru. Today Chile’s overall housing deficit (modulo the recent earthquake) is about 100,000, which is nothing for Latin America, though the houses aren’t great—both the Pinochet government in the 80s and the center-left government in the 90s built about 1M low-quality, low-density, far-from-the-city projects, which eased the housing deficit but are recognized as some of the worst housing in the country today.

Rio de Janeiro. Unlike some cities, here the marginalized favelas are right in the city center, housing 1.4M people or 22% of the population. Rio has installed funiculars like Medellín, but they were costly, are underused, and have been much more controversial, as the public space taken by the stations was lost without the residents ever being consulted (though it enriched construction companies). There is even a marked path for tourists to follow to see the “authentic” favela from a viewing platform overlooking a garbage dump. There seems to be a kind of cargo-cult-science feel to this ham-handed approach. Over the decades, most efforts to seriously eliminate favelas have failed because “policies were rarely capable of matching the scale of the problem…[or]…erred too much in one direction or the other: they placed too strong an emphasis either on architecture (as with the mass housing programmes) or, conversely, on economic policies that ignored the spatial dimension altogether.” This changed in 1994 with the Favela-Bairro project, whose first intervention by architect Carlos Nelson was arguably the first attempt to “upgrade” a slum via sound architectural principles but with participatory design, rather than see it as a tabula rasa. As Medellín would do later, transportation infrastructure (roads, stairs, funiculars) linked the neighborhood to the larger city, and prideworthy public spaces were inserted, often at the boundary with middle-class neighborhoods, to soften the transition. Unfortunately, for all its successes, the program neither brought out the “social investment” from homeowners in their communities, nor did it rid the neighborhood of drug trafficking. (Two decades later the latter problem saw some improvement with the introduction of Police Pacification Units, an uncomfortable-sounding moniker if ever I’ve heard one.) And tragically, a key element of the plan—the creation of a public plaza, and the elevation of a railway line onto piers to create a linear park and remove a barrier between neighborhoods—has fallen victim to dysfunctional bureaucratic processes, so that the train line is indeed up on piers, but the displaced dwellers whose houses were destroyed to accommodate the work have not been relocated, turning the area under the train line into a war zone rather than a park. As well, the newer Minha Casa Minha Vida project has eschewed having architects on board in favor of providing another vehicle for the construction industry to profit from, resulting in poor-quality, ugly, faraway buildings that serve the interests of everyone except their residents, ignorant of the lessons of previous projects including Favela-Bairro. The best laid plans are readily wrecked by a dysfunctional or venal bureaucracy.

Jailson de Souza, an academic from the favelas, opposes Hernando de Soto’s argument (The Mystery of Capital) that what the favelados lack is access to the capital embedded in their homes: if they were suddenly given that, he argues, they’d sell their land for peanuts and enable the gentrification of the neighborhood, eventually leaving themselves worse off. (Some of us have witnessed this firsthand.) He argues instead that they should be given the right to pay a low rent for the cost of living there, which can be passed on to another renter if they move out, effectively arguing for a co-op model over a condo model—effectively placing the land’s equity value in the neighborhood, not in the landowner.

Caracas, Venezuela: “Urbanism is frozen politics.” Although now overtaken by events, the two fastest-growing types of developments in Venezuela have been slums and gated communities—Chávez distributed a lot of petrodollars, but mostly in the form of material goods, not improvements in infrastructure or urban fabric, modulo a few political-theater concessions such as appropriating shopping centers or office parks to turn into housing. One success was a large and well-designed gym that has provided an essentially public activity space, but it has not been replicated. The funicular almost didn’t get built because of a mayor so corrupt and vindictive (Barreto) that he made New York’s Al Smith look like a Boy Scout.

What happened at Quinta Monroy and other places by design has happened at Torre David in Caracas by accident: the skyscraper was left incomplete (for the usual reasons: corruption, venality, running out of money) with most of the floors poured but no curtain walls, modest infrastructure (they’re connected to the power grid legally but with makeshift machinery), no elevators (28 of 47 floors are inhabited; an adjacent parking garage is about 10 stories high), and is now a self-policing, unofficial, and probably unsustainable squat of 3000 residents, with its own gangster caretakers, internal ecosystem of micro-stores, legal payments to the electric company, and co-op agreements that allow the transfer of squatting rights (and the $23/month maintenance fee) but not sale. If it’s a populist gesture of “empowering” the people, it’s a fragile, illusory, chaotic, and unsustainable one.

Bogotá: city as school. Antonus Mockus, a Lithuanian Jew who became a Colombian academic with a theatrical flair that got him fired from the university but elected mayor, turned Bogotá around starting with mimes that patrolled traffic intersections and shamed bad drivers despite having no authority to issue fines, cards that drivers could hand out to each other to praise or criticize each others’ driving, and painted yellow stars at intersections that had been sites of traffic-related deaths. “As mayor you don’t regulate people’s behaviour, you build conditions for people to regulate each other’s behaviour.” His successor, Enrique Peñalosa, built a BRT system (“TransMilenia”) that made it so that the poor now moved the fastest through Bogotá, as has occurred in Curitiba, Quito (“el trole”) and other large Latin American cities. (He’s the source of one of my favorite quotes: “An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation.”) While many of Mockus’s concrete advances seem to have been rolled back—traffic is awful again, the TransMilenio is overcrowded, aggressive driving is back—the memory of what Bogotá could be is, perhaps, his legacy.

Medellín: “el más educado.” Mayor Sergio Fajardo’s idea was to build schools and libraries as symbols of the fight against inequality, and “wash the violence from our public spaces” by building new ones that represent the city’s aspirations: “opportunities based on education, science, technology, innovation, entrepreneurship and culture.” These projects, even if architecturally imperfect, send an important message to the populace, as well as to small businesses that subsidize public good (e.g. in the form of free museum admission on certain days) because they want to be seen supporting that message.

In all, McGuirk presents an ultimately hopeful vision of urbanization, led by Latin America and based on a reformed notion of the roles of architects and government in urban development. Here’s hoping.