Urban Cable Car, Barrio San Agustín
The Barrio of San Agustín is one of the most centrally located and connected barrios in Caracas. It sits next to the city center, adjacent to a main highway, the city’s botanical garden and some higher-income residences (Terraza del Alba). According to the 2001 census, the entire barrio has a total of 45 000 residents. From these 45 000 people, 20 000 live in the hill and the other 25 000 in the lower, flat area adjacent to the highway. In the last months, San Agustin has also become home to the first cable car system of Caracas. The Metrocable, part of the city’s metro system, enters San Agustin through the Parque Central Metro Station, looping around the barrio and finishing in the San Agustin station, disconnected from the rest of the Metro system.
From past to present: the Metrocable
The barrio began in 1926 with the temporary workers’ housing constructed by the Banco de Obreros. This housing was organized in 12 blocks, located in the lower part of San Agustin. Soon after their construction, the housing went from temporary to permanent, receiving an upgrading in infrastructure in 1934, by organizations such as Proformento y Promejorar. This permanence was accentuated in the 1950s, as cultural associations marked their presence through the construction and establishment of various theaters, and community centers. Soon after, the barrio grew onto its surrounding hills, and quickly gained an unfortunate negative reputation related to the high rate of violence and criminal activity in the barrio.
Around 2007 and 2008, Caracas Urban Think Tank (UTT) pitched an initial proposal for a urban cable car system in the area. The government accepted the proposal and asked UTT to provide the Schematic design as well as Design Development drawings. The Construction Drawings and actual execution of the project, were allotted, after a competition was held, to a construction company firm called Odebrecht Constructores. As a result of this design/execution disconnection, we can see that there are great gaps and changes between the initial proposal and the final product. For example, the initial design included public programs, such as a health care center, a day care, a supermarket, recreational facilities and even public housing, in the Metrocable stations. In contrast, the final product consists of just the stations with nearly any public space or additional programs.
Observations on the Metrocable
Initially, the project projected close to 15 000 users, the reality however, has been much shyer than this, having approximately 2500 users/month. Nevertheless, the mobility system has brought quite some attention to San Agustin, opening the door for smaller government programs to take place and local groups to organize in the barrio. To illustrate, there are now 3 state “misiones” or programs that are now involved in the barrio: Misión Barrio Nuevo (dealing with the reconstruction of houses), Misión Tricolor (focusing on the facades of houses in the barrios, painting them with the national flags colors: yellow, blue and red), and Misión Bario Adentro (which performs medical and health attendance).
Part of the reason why the Metrocable hasn’t achieved its potential, is the fact that it doesn’t really lead anywhere, but goes around in a loop through San Agustin. As a result, the majority of the users are residents of the barrio, and more specifically, they are residents living adjacent to the stations. To further explain the low usage as well as the specificity in the users, are the internal borders and hierarchies existing in the barrio. San Agustin is internally divided into various sectors, each one with its own hierarchy. Residents call this phenomenon “pavellonización” referring to being trapped in one’s own “pavellón”, or pavilion/defined territory. That said, as a resident from a specific sector, it would be unsafe to cross the boundaries into an neighboring area. As a result, a person living in the middle of the settlement will not use the Metrocable to go “down” to the center (as this would mean, walking up to then come back down in the cable car), nor will they use the Metrocable to go up to their house because this would mean getting off at a station and walking through “unfamiliar” territory in order to get to their home. Even though the stations were placed at what seems to be the most logical location, the top of the peaks, they have remained disconnected from the rest of the settlement, and thus have not optimized its use.
As mentioned previously, the constructed intervention placed little if any attention on public space and programs. I have to recognize that even though I still question if UTT’s design truly acknowledged/understood the internal logic of the settlement, it is a more integral than that which was constructed. The initial design not only includes public programs in the stations, but also recreation areas, paths and parks around the barrio.
Unfortunately, the actual intervention also includes large void spaces, filled with debris, around the stations as well as around the structural posts. Speaking to some of the residents, these voids and debris were of high concern since they were perceived as visual contamination hurting the pride of the San Agustin. On a similar note, the debris left over from the clearance of the site, are the only sign of a supposedly housing project funded by the Caixa do Brasil, located on one of the hills, next to a Metrocable station …
On a similar note, and contrary to the design of the Metrocable stations in Medellín, these stations resemble bunkers, completely closed and solid in their lower levels. They automatically break from the rest of the settlement and both visually and physically disconnect from the surrounding circulation. The fences and dead-ends constructed around the stations clearly accentuate this disconnection.
It is interesting to see how, similar to what has happened in Medellin, the houses surrounding the cable system, seem to have physically evolved and improved in comparison to their to the other houses in the barrio. To illustrate, the roofs in particular have undergone some positive changes, reflecting new tiles, paint and sometime even profitable advertisements. In this regard, there can be some mention of physical determinism, but we cannot ignore the fact that there is no sign of the violence or criminal activity diminishing after the construction of the cable car system. Is it a matter of time? Can we truly think of the Metrocable as a potential Panopticon? Just a thought…
A Metrocable system is a large financial and physical investment for a city that it is hard to understand why the system was not taken advantage of for the city in general. Quite easily, the system could have joined 2 fragmented areas in the city, instead of simply becoming somewhat of a “merry-go-round” in one barrio. Although some circulation and accessibility issues were addresses, it seems as though a main priorities in the intervention was having visibility. As previously mentioned, San Agustin was already one of the most connected barrios in Caracas; its proximity to the city center and a major highway made it an attractive site for a “floating red gondola”… That said, the priority placed on image and representation has overlooked some of the larger structural problems in the area. Some of the main issues in the barrio involve rainwater drainage and black water treatment, as well as high risks of landslides, waste collection complications, and a very ambiguous and undefined relocation and housing strategy.