Learning from “Informal” Urban Innovation

It’s not like we need to encourage bottom-up building and community building, because that’s happening without anyone asking or assisting.

Transcribed from This is Hell! Radio’s 4 July 2014 episode and printed with permission. Listen to the full interview:

“It’s not like we need to encourage bottom-up building and community building, because that’s happening without anyone asking or assisting.”

Chuck Mertz: Lately on This is Hell! we’ve been getting a lot of great feedback about our interviews that touch on history, those that discuss revolutions. Our listeners seem very interested in cultural revolutions and possible futures; analyzing what we have, re-examining it, conceiving ideas for possible alternative futures—especially by reconsidering our past.

That’s why we’re talking with award-winning journalist, writer, critic and curator Justin McGuirk. He is the author of Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture.

Justin, when you consider radical cities, and the future of cities and alternative communities in cities across Latin America from Brazil to Venezuela, from Mexico to Argentina, I suspect you would find results of things like NAFTA and globalization. Are slums—the favelas that we are seeing during the World Cup in Brazil—a result of globalization and NAFTA? How did they come about?

Justin McGuirk: It’s a complex story. Favelas and barrios and slums are a byproduct of modernity and industrialization—or rather post-industrialization. When industry went into decline in the middle of the sixties, people flooded cities because that was where the work was. And in the middle of the last century, governments responded to massive urbanization with massive housing programs. But at some point they decided that they couldn’t build fast enough or cheap enough to house these urban migrants, and they gave up. That’s the beginning of the problem.

One of the reasons they gave up was because American policies and economics were starting to influence Latin American governments. They said, “let the free market handle housing.” So these governments took a laissez-faire attitude to housing for the vast urban poor. And what we saw over the next two or three decades was an explosion of slums.

What my book does is it tells that story. But it also picks up on the last decade of work, where architects and politicians with a social conscience are going back into the city and saying architecture has a role again. We used to build big modernist estates; architects had political backing. Then that fell through. What we’re seeing at the moment, though, is a return to architecture as a social pursuit.

CM: In history of art and architecture classes, 101 level, we’re told about public housing with the ideas of Corbusier and the Garden City (for people out there who don’t know who that is or what that is: the “Garden City” idea of Corbusier is the idea of human beings being stacked on top of each other as much as possible, to have as small of a footprint on the landscape as possible, and then being surrounded by these beautiful gardens).

We hear about the Pruitt Igoe, the St. Louis public housing development that was torn down in the early seventies. Or here in Chicago we have the Robert Taylor Homes or Cabrini Green or Altgeld Gardens. What we often hear in those 101 classes is that the decay and urban blight happening in these housing complexes was the result of faulty thinking, faulty philosophy—of architects who live up in the Alps, like Corbusier, giving ‘from on high’ these ideas that did not fit into the living landscape that people needed.

Is that part of the reason we have abandoned public housing? Because the philosophy, the ideas of Corbusier were a failed idea? Is that why public housing failed?

JM: I think it’s debatable. There are many instances where those big public housing projects worked very well. But people tend to blame the architects for the failures, and in some cases they’re right. More often, though, it’s a political failure.

The problems of these estates were not necessarily the architecture or the ideas behind the architecture—although sometimes they were—but often they were moving people to the edge of cities. They would clear a slum somewhere in the center, freeing up valuable land, and then move people to the edge of the city, effectively removing them from jobs and social networks and, by withdrawing any support or maintenance, putting them in a situation where these estates fell into neglect and they became ghettoes. The problem is that the political process let those buildings down.

The facts on the ground now are different: massive slums with millions of people living in them. Slum builders build more housing every year than all the governments and developers put together. So the “informal city,” as we call it, is here to stay. It’s going to grow massively in the coming generation. The question is now, how do we deal with that?

We don’t necessarily need massive house-building programs—and I’m talking about the Global South here—because people are building houses perfectly well. What they need is support. They need infrastructure; they need services; they need transport. All these things were not traditionally the architect’s role, but architects can try to retrofit these informal cities and make them healthier, better, more livable, more connected places.

CM: When you hear the word slum and when you hear housing project there are so many images that pop into your head—

JM: It’s interesting, because slum is a pejorative word, generally speaking. But I think that’s going to change in the coming years as we start to normalize them. For years, slums were vilified by politicians, and not just vilified but neglected. No one wanted to put in the services and the infrastructure. In some cases they did, but often they didn’t want to, because they didn’t want to seem to legalize what they saw as illegal squatting—and squatting on land that could have made money for developers and pumped into the economy and so on.

So the problem was that the slum population, whether we’re talking Lagos or São Paulo or Rio, was neglected for so long that it grew out of all proportion. The thing about slums or favelas is that they are actually incredibly successful devices for incorporating millions of people into the city and offering those people the opportunities of urban life. But they come with problems. They come with depredation and lack of services. And that’s what we need to address.

But there is something successful about the slum. When people hear about this book, they always say, “oh, you must have written about Brasilia, that’s the radical model.” But I didn’t write about Brasilia—that’s the quintessential modernist, planned-from-the-air, very rigid, slightly stultifying city. A much more radical idea is the favela, a slum. I focus on Rio in the book because Rio is the birthplace of the favela, and it’s a mode of existence that a third of the global population lives in. So we’re going to have to think about how to deal with that. That, for me, is one of the most urgent questions for architects today.

CM: Brasilia is a great example, where the architect Niemeyer, I believe—didn’t he plan how Brasilia would look from the sky? He planned how the roads would go through Brasilia and it would look like a gigantic eagle. This is literally top-down, since he’s looking down from up in the sky. But it’s also very top-down in the sense that these things are being imposed on people.

Now we are seeing these architects who, instead of imposing things on people from above, it seems like they are coming up from the bottom. How did we get from this place where architects are just focusing on form and trying to be a “starchitect” to radical architects returning to their goal of utopianism?

JM: Something very interesting happened in 2008 with the global financial crash—I think there was a collective self-questioning in the architecture profession about what architecture’s social role is. This is a simplistic breakdown I’m giving you, but it was fairly obvious from 2008-2009 onwards that something had flipped. Everyone looked back and thought, “oh god, what were we building all these iconic museums and structures for, when there are these tremendous social and urban issues that need to be dealt with?”

Now it’s much more common for young architects graduating from architecture school to want to do something socially meaningful with their practice, rather than just design another swoopy museum somewhere. Because many of those museums went on to fail anyway in the economic crash.

You mention top-down and bottom-up. Both of those things have their strengths, and both of them have their weaknesses. And it’s not like we need to encourage bottom-up building and community building, because that’s happening. That’s happening without anyone asking or assisting. In a way what we need is a happy medium. This is where architects and urban planners come in, for my money, because they need to connect these bottom-up impulses with top-down resources.

People can build their own houses, fine, they’ve built millions of houses on hillsides around Caracas and São Paulo and Rio. But they can’t build their own roads, they can’t build their own public transport networks, they can’t build their own sewerage or water or drainage or electricity networks. And the house-building needs to be done in conjunction with all of those things. Otherwise what you get is massive favelas and barrios where people have to walk an hour and a half up the hill, where they don’t have proper running water and drainage systems, and it’s a mess.

If you don’t bring transport to a favela, you get social segregation and psychological segregation. You only get one-way traffic: people form the favelas coming into the formal city to work, but nothing in the other direction. So you get ghettoes building up.

“Property is now just a source of bankable investment, and the people who live in the city can’t afford it anymore. That’s neoliberalism at work. It’s the market at work. Somehow we need to intervene in the market to create zones of exception for alternative communities—something that allows social diversity in cities.

To improve quality of life in the slums, we need to involve government. We need to involve these top-down impulses, and we need resources to bring in a degree of what I would call happy, healthy urbanity. They’re amazing places, favelas, they have amazingly strong communities. But they do need some top-down help.

What can we do to integrate them into the city, to provide for them? Maybe they don’t need houses, but they do need many other things that only governments and urban planners and architects can provide. The way to provide those things is to communicate with those communities. We need to have them participating in the dialogue, otherwise it’s more of this top-down “here’s what we think is good for you” stuff that was happening in the fifties and sixties. They need to be involved in the conversation. “Participatory Urban Design” is the watchword of our day.

CM: But is this just giving city services to favelas? Or is it something more than that?

JM: It’s more than that. The thing about Latin America is that it experienced massive urbanization long before the countries that we’re all worried about now, when we talk about China and Africa and India—the hundreds of millions moving to cities over the coming decade or two. In the 1950s, that was Latin America. So there are lessons to learn from that continent—many of them failures, lessons that we shouldn’t follow. But Latin America has been an absolute testing ground for urban innovation.

And it could be anything. Some of it is architecture. In Chile, Alejandro Aravena experimented with a scheme where if you don’t have enough money to build someone a house, or to build community houses, you build them half a house and let them finish the house in their own time. These are very pragmatic but also very effective solutions.

Sometimes they’re not about architecture at all. The mayor in Bogotá, Colombia didn’t have the money to build anything, so he started to change people’s behavior. He started to do totally unorthodox things like replacing traffic police with mime artists. These things were unheard of. He could have been a laughing stock. Instead he was the most successful mayor in Bogotá’s history.

Medellín in Colombia was the murder capital of the world in the nineties during the drug cartel wars; in the early 2000s, a civic movement rose up and started to build civic space, public spaces and beautiful architecture, often in the barrios themselves. Putting the most noticeable, beautiful buildings in the poorest parts of the city. That had a transformative effect on Medellín.

CM: But all of these favelas and the abandonment of spending on public housing—that’s all the result of neoliberalism. So, look, if it wasn’t for neoliberalism, we wouldn’t have these great urban innovations that people are coming up with right now!

JM: We know for a fact that neoliberalism has had a devastating effect on cities. Neoliberalism by definition segregates the poor from the rich. It widens economic disparity and inequality. Most people in the barrios probably don’t even know what neoliberalism is, but they can see what’s happening, and they know that it doesn’t work in their interests.

If we’re going to talk politics, one of the key challenges facing most of the cities I can think of, including my own, London, is we need to somehow intervene in the market. Even wealthy middle-class people are struggling to afford homes in London now. It’s gotten so insane that property is just a source of bankable investment for people around the world, and the people who live in the city can’t even afford it anymore.

That’s neoliberalism at work. It’s the market at work. Somehow we need to intervene in the market to create zones of exception for alternative communities—something that allows social diversity in cities.

That’s not going to happen any time soon, I don’t think, but in the meantime we have these tremendous urban inequalities that need to be addressed. Look at the World Cup in Brazil, and the Olympics which is coming in two years. These mega sporting events should be tools for leveling out urban inequality. There’s a lot of money being spent on infrastructure. How are you going to spend it? There is a right way and a wrong way to do it.

I would say that Rio has done it the wrong way. They had a radical favela-upgrading scheme ready to go; it was going to be a multi-billion dollar project. It was going to have a dramatic impact. You know what happened? It didn’t happen. Why? Because they spent so much money on stadiums that are going to be used for two weeks and then become white elephants.

What all these mega sporting events really are is a tool for making money for developers and politicians and the construction industry. There’s no way in which any of that money sloshing around is going to benefit people in favelas up in the north or the west of Rio. There needs to be a way in which it does benefit those people.

It’s like All the President’s Men: just follow the money, and you’ll find out what’s going wrong in cities.

CM: There’s another book published by Verso: Dan Hancox’s The Village Against the World that was just released in paperback. In it, Dan writes about the village of Marinaleda, where thirty-five-plus years ago the village expropriated land owned by wealthy aristocrats, and they’ve lived cooperatively since the 1980s. The farms and processing plants are collectively owned and provide work for everyone who wants it. A mortgage is fifteen euros per month. On Red Sundays, everyone works together to clean up the neighborhood. Village mayor Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo in 2012 led raids on local supermarkets to feed the unemployed.

How much are the alternative communities, the radical cities that you encountered in Central and South America informed by Marinaleda? Or by the Indignados movement, or by Occupy? How much are they informed by outside movements, and how much do they inform each other?

“Can these ideas start to infiltrate the much more rigid city-making that happens in the North?”

JM: I don’t think the ones I documented are informed by outside movements. Marinaleda is a fascinating example, though. For me, the question with examples like that is how do we implement them at some kind of scale? How does something like that go beyond being merely a small, self-sustaining exception?

I think a good example would be something like Porto Alegre in Brazil, where they invented participatory budgeting; every citizen can have a say in how the municipal budget is spent. That was a system that was invented in Porto Alegre, and it’s been used in hundreds of other cities.

We really need to think about how these fairer systems can operate at scale and not just in exceptional little towns like Marinaleda. There are very strong leftwing impulses in the slums of Latin America. Look at Caracas in Venezuela. The heartland of support for the Chávez government and the Bolivarian Revolution was in the slums.

It was the same, in many ways, for former president Lula in Brazil. Still, while his policies were lifting millions out of poverty, they were doing so in a way that made them good consumers. It gave them disposable income to spend on goods, which was also good for the economy. It didn’t necessarily bring the lifestyle changes that they needed in their urban communities. It didn’t really turn them into successful communities. It turned them into successful consuming individuals.

I think we need to think more collectively again, and I see things moving that way. The sense of the collective is growing, partly through the internet and social media. We need to overcome this focus on the individual consumer and think again about communities, about the collective good. That’s what we’ve so drastically failed to do in the last forty years.

CM: You have a chapter on alternative approaches that are being taken in Tijuana. When we think about Tijuana here in the United States, we think of a tourist trap; prostitution, drugs—it is a lawless place for an American who has a lot of money; very little money goes a very long way in the Sodom that is Tijuana.

But you point out in your book that these alternative communities are happening right here at the American border. What is happening in Tijuana in terms of an alternative approach to cities?

JM: There was an observation made by an architect in San Diego named Teddy Cruz: he realized that a lot of these communities being built on the border there—which are barrios, effectively–are very sustainable, productive developments. They’re 100% productive in the sense that they are reusing and recycling all the construction industry waste that comes south across the border out of San Diego.

So if the Mexican immigrants are going north, there’s this wealth of material coming south across the border. Sometimes it’s garage doors from San Diego which get turned into houses in canyons on the other side of the border. Sometimes whole houses end up getting put on the backs of trucks; old tract houses from the fifties and sixties get put on trucks and taken across the border and piled up on top of each other—Teddy Cruz calls it “club sandwich urbanism.”

So there’s a lot of that recycling going on, which is very interesting, but there are two main things about Tijuana. One is that Tijuana and San Diego are linked economies, and instead of putting a big wall between these cities and making it a kind of militarized zone, it would be really interesting to see what would happen if they cooperated more on things like watershed systems and labor and land issues.

The other key thing about Tijuana has to do with the reason I end the book there. The book is going north, right? It starts in Buenos Aires and goes all the way north to the American border at Tijuana. And at that point, where it meets the developed world, the question is: can the lessons of Latin America and the lessons of the informal city infiltrate across the border and start to change things in America itself, or in the Global North itself? What we’re finding is that there are interesting ways in which it can.

One of the things that is so positive about the informal city, the “slum” as we have been calling it, is that there are so many social and economic connections going on all the time in every different kind of space. These places are very dense—not just in houses and people but in social and economic connections. Whereas if you look across the border, everything is very rigidly zoned, everything’s divided. You work in one place, you live in another place. It’s very spacious; people live in big houses surrounded by white picket fences and they’ll protect their right to be alone with arms, if necessary.

What someone like Teddy Cruz is asking is, what can you achieve in a community like San Diego if you take out that rigid zoning and put in a much more complex, sophisticated zoning that allows marketplaces and commerce and housing and hotels and everything all on one plot of land? That would be a great experiment, and that’s an experiment he’s actually working on. So I end the book there because there’s this big question mark: can these ideas start to infiltrate the much more rigid city-making that happens in the North?

CM: The last question we do with each and every one of our guests is the Question from Hell, the question we hate to ask, you might hate to answer, or our audience is going to hate your response.

When you were writing your book (and in reactions that you have gotten from people), were you fearful of (and have you been charged with) romanticizing the favelas and downplaying the suffering of people who are stricken by desperate poverty?

JM: I must say I was very careful in the book not to romanticize it. I think there are plenty of graphic descriptions in the book of exactly what an unromantic and un-ideal place a favela can be.

There’s one project in the book that is, in a way, the most extraordinary: this skyscraper in Caracas called Torre David. It’s a 45-story skyscraper in the financial district that was meant to be a banking headquarters, but it was never completed, and then it got squatted by 3,000 people who would otherwise be living in barrios around the city periphery.

Some people call it a ‘vertical slum,’ I call it a vertical village. It’s been an extraordinary project to discuss, because people do start to say, “oh, well, you’re romanticizing this phenomenon.” But it is an extraordinary thing to see a banking headquarters turned into housing for 3,000 people simply by them squatting it.

I did give it as much of the benefit of the doubt as possible, and called it an urban laboratory. Because what are we going to do if the speculative property bubble bursts in China or anywhere else, and suddenly all these office towers are empty and we’ve got poor people around the periphery? This is surely a test case of what might happen if that occurs.

But still, while saying all that, I was very clear not to romanticize it too much, because it’s a dangerous place. It’s a difficult place. This is a 45-story skyscraper with no elevator. Imagine walking up thirty flights of stairs every day when you need to get home.

I think I’m pretty balanced, on the whole, about the upsides and the downsides of these kinds of communities. The main thing is to give them the attention that they deserve—I mean intellectually, not just in terms of resources—so that we understand these places, so that we’re not neglecting them or just leaving them to their own devices anymore, which is what was happening for so long.

CM: Justin, thank you so much for being on the air with us. This is a fascinating book, and I’m really glad that you were on our show.

JM: Thank you, it was a great pleasure.

Featured image source: Destapiadas blog

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