The upgrading of ‘slums’ in Latin American cities attracts the global eye. Although governments, planners and architects have long intervened in informal settlements -or favelas– it is only recently that design and physical interventions have become central components. Following a long history of tabula rasa, public housing, self-help, and sites-and-services schemes, current approaches to favelas have evolved into strategies characterized as ‘urban acupuncture,’ aiming to minimize displacement and improve the conditions in the area by focusing on the aspects most absent in the settlement: infrastructure, public space, and public equipment. From libraries, to parks, to new facades and representations, waterfront renovations, and urban promenades, one of the most popular and recognized interventions today is the aerial cable car system, also known as Metrocable, or Teleferico depending on the context.
With much scrutiny and financial instability, Medellín, completed it’s first Metrocable in Santo Domingo in August 2004. The city now boast three Metrocable systems including Santo Domingo, the Metrocable San Javier, linking the Comuna 13 and inaugurated in 2008, and a tourist line inaugurated in 2010, which begins at the Santo Domingo station and extends into the National Park Arví (an investment of $50.500 millon for the city).
Caracas implemented it’s own Metrocable system in the barrio San Agustín, which began in January 2010.
In great means responding to the city’s preparation for the World Cup and the Olympics, attempting to upgrade and dress up favelas in the city for the great events, Rio de Janeiro completed its first cable car system earlier this year, 2011.
In Bogotá recent elections, the metrocable became a star players, included in the majority of the candidate’s agendas as a strategy to alleviate and address poverty in Colombia’s capital.
Aiming to enhance the connectivity and permeability of marginalized settlements, aerial gondola systems have quite rapidly become the symbols of social change in cities, placing a strong emphasis on the image and representation. As these interventions become more prevalent, they require a scrutinizing and analytical lens.
DRAWING UP THE METROCABLE + PUI NORIENTAL (COMUNAS 1+2)
In 2010, I had the opportunity to conduct an entire year of field research, developing a comparative analysis with a focus on current ‘slum’ upgrading strategies in Latin America. During this time, I organized a series of cognitive mapping workshops with local residents in different settlements; in Medellín’s Northeastern settlements [Comunas 1 and 2], I worked with a local NGO, Convivamos. The mapping sessions aimed to measure the “socio-spatial integration” produced by the Metrocable, the Library of Spain and accompanying PUI interventions, based on a comparison of perceptions between local residents and inhabitants of other “formal” areas of the city.
Before diving into discussions on the results and observations, some quick context:
The first informal settlements, or invasiones, in Medellín were created in the Northestern part of the valley (now demarcated as the Comunas 1 and 2), by rural-urban migrants who were escaping the political violence reigning in Colombia’s countryside in the 1940s and early 1950s.
Today, the Comunas 1 and 2 house the first and most well known PUI- the PUI Noriental. Some of the most notable interventions are the aerial cable car system, Metrocable Santo Domingo, and the Parque Biblioteca España (Library Park Spain) designed by Colombian Architect Giancarlo Mazzanti. The Metrocable Santo Domingo -initiated by former Mayor Luis Perez in 2000 and completed by Fajardo in 2007- connects to the city’s metro system. The system extends up the hillside with three stations, with the final one connected to a separate cable car system, the Metrocable Arvi, a new tourist attraction that takes passengers to the national park Arvi.
Also sitting near the final Metro Cable station, are the Library Park Spain (named after the main donors of the project, the King and Queen of Spain), a CEDEZO (a local entrepreneurship and education center), public plazas, playgrounds, and two schools (a new Quality School, and an older school that was renovated). In addition, small parks were created around the metro cable structures. A final part of the PUI included the construction a soccer field, two bridges, a creek restoration and housing project (Juan Bobo), a large street renovation (Paseo Urbano Andalucía Calle 107), as well as stairs, paths and promenades joining all of the main interventions. Services were formalized by the EPM.
Back to the Cognitive mappings, participants were divided into groups of 5 people, each groups having a ‘mediator’ to help and record the process. All groups were given 2 aerial photographs: one at the scale of the city, and the other at smaller scale focusing on the Comunas 1 and 2. With a series of different colored markers, and drawing on day vs night comparisons, groups were asked to mark where they live, where they work, the areas most frequented during the week and weekend, the areas were they feel safe as well as the areas they feel are dangerous. They were also asked to identify the recent projects in the area they liked the most, as well as those projects they didn’t.
I will not and cannot yet dwell too much on the results, but as overall remarks, all groups reflected a clear decline in their sense of safety due to the increase of violence between smaller gang organizations fighting for territorialization. Contingent on this, ALL residents identified their houses as the only ‘safe’ places in the area. In addition, the most frequented and most appreciated structures and spaces in the area, did not involve recent PUI interventions, but consisted small local community organizations and community centers. To my surprise, the great majority of the groups identified the Metrocable as a ‘negative’ intervention. When asked why they didn’t like the aerial cable car, they replied: “Things were better before. Before, we could carry large sacs with food, and even some chickens up to our houses from the city center […] it was cheaper to travel before and there were more buses and options […] The Metrocable has reduced our means of travel; there aren’t many buses now and very few routes […] now if you don’t have the 3000 pesos to pay for the Metrocable, you can’t get to your house. Before, we knew all of the bus drivers and If we were missing the $500 pesos for the ride home, they would let us pay the next day […]”
These remarks bring up critical questions in the approach: What are the standards by which we are measuring the success of these upgrading interventions? For whom is the intervention- the social city or the struggling residents of the area? In this case, the argument of converting a 2 hour bus ride home to a 7 minute “floating experience” sounds quite disconnected from the existing realities and priorities of current residents… What does it mean to insert a formal intervention in a non-formal city? When is formal too formal? Are these long-term sustainable solutions?
To piggy back on Tucker Landesman‘s previous post on Rio’s teleferico and the fetishizing of urban infrastructure, these informal geographies operate as spaces of capital accumulation, political action, and fragmented citizenship. Solely focusing on physical transformations, and viewing informal settlements as purely built form can lead to an aesthetization of the area, turning informal settlements into simple representations drawn up by the “bourgeois gaze.” One cannot de-politicize and de-historicize the question of informality. Squatting is undeniably linked to the politics of the place and as such, has specific reasons for being and ways to be addressed. Issues of gender, ethnicity, race, as well as class struggles over the use and accessibility of land and housing cannot be neglected, nor can the capitalist market in which many of these systems operate (directly or indirectly). The potential rise of property values, the implementation of “formal taxes,” and the integration of squatter settlements into a system that is no longer flexible enough for its poor residents, makes one wonder how sustainable and potentially beneficial these interventions will be in the long run…
Contingent on this, an interesting study to keep an eye out for is the “Governance, Mobility, and Poverty Reduction, Lessons from Medellin” Workshop that will take place mid December.
 “The establishment of an aesthetic and aestheticized (rather than political) relationship between the viewer and the viewed, between professional and city, between first and third worlds- bourgeois gaze.” Roy, Ananya, “Transnational Trespassing,” pp.302