Intro Post by Silvia Soonets [Proyectos Arqui 5]
In 1999 we started working on the improvement of our informal settlements, or barrios. The goal of the “Programa Nacional para la Habilitación Física de Barrios” (National Program for the improvement of Informal Settlements) was to integrate the informal areas to the formal city, and to equal the urban services between both zones. The time framework of 15 years, if optimistic, seemed attainable. We knew the work ahead was difficult and that perhaps it would not be possible to upgrade all the barrios, but no one could have imagined what really happened.
Today, only 12 year later, we have almost reached the aim: the city and the barrios are one and the same thing.
Unfortunately, things went just in the opposite way they were planned. Instead of improving the connections and the roads crossing through the informal zones, many streets look like moon landscapes. Far from the dream of having code zones in the barrios, all along the city buildings flourish ignoring any regulation. And rather than safer and more comfortable substitute houses, a new housing typology has arrived in the form of vertical barrios that occupy abandoned or unfinished buildings. The formal city is being swallowed by the informal overgrowth.
We are certainly in our way to a cohesive and integrated city: a huge, continuous, endless barrio.
Meanwhile, life inside the old informal settlements continues almost unchanged. Only few of the projects were in fact built, most of the proposals are lost, and the National Program was abandoned, degenerated in several plans for the improvement of the most visible individual houses. The problems related with insufficient and poor quality potable water and sewage have not been solved. As the risk studies were ignored, many of the dangerous zones have actually collapsed, resulting in numerous homeless families living in temporary shelters. The main visible difference is the extent of the barrios, which have not stopped growing.
After the end of the Upgrading Program in 2005 we have approached the problem from various angles: we have worked directly with the communities, with NGO’s, with the Academia, have turned to the private sector for support, and accepted public projects proposing only new housing, only infrastructure or even the improvement of individual houses. As we measure success in terms of actual building and real lives improved, none of these attempts succeeded.
Looking this scenery our much published project in La Vega, once the symbol of better times to come, seems old and tired.
Many other colleagues are as frustrated as us: most their interventions lack of significant impact or were not correctly built. The recent and very attractive parks built by Sucre Municipality fail to target the pressing problems of services and infrastructure.
In spite of the poor results, I’d like to believe that all the hard work we and other professionals have undertaken has not been vain, and that, along with the communities, we have learned some valuable lessons. This apprenticeship deals with participation, with the changing roles we architects shall assume, with the errors we committed and with strategies we still have not tried.
As things do not seem to be changing in the near future, understanding the wrongs and studying the new challenges seems to be the most useful path. Our next posts will be dedicated to these subjects.