Post by Marines Pocaterra [Proyectos Arqui 5] on Caracas

We all agree that urban interventions should be positive social actions that focus their benefits on low-income urban dwellers. There is a wide range of projects in this list: punctual upgrades in informal settlements, participatory projects, new infrastructure equipment, renovations, and so on and so forth.

Yet, as urbanists and urban activists, we will have to learn to sort out the ‘good’ interventions from the theatrical urban shows. This is particularly important, as various demagogical regimes have discovered a way to implement political control through the disguise of innocent urban interventions. Allow me to expand on the latter, as it is a scheme applied in my home country, Venezuela:

Governments begin by preaching ‘globally approved slogans’ on urban upgrading: empowerment of the people, participative projects, equal access to land, leadership in self-development and so on. However, this façade discourse quickly transforms into a prize contest where people are offered, not education, stability nor the power to make decisions; but instead, cheap trinkets ranging from participation on a share of ‘invaded’ land, to white line appliances, to cash, to positions of ‘power’ within the community.

Originally designed to transform dwellers into owners of their own future, provide responsible for their living conditions, support equality in citizenship and so much more; these types of interventions become a simple disguise for manipulation. Instead of strengthening citizenship, free gifts and free help tend to weaken population in general, many times even springing corruption: frequently ‘gifts’ are directed to ‘friends’ and never reach real target populations. As long as people remain in a government shelter or in a particular government list, they are eligible to these prizes; not surprising, surveys have shown that many refuse to get a stable job because it prevents them from attending all raffles while away at work.

In this scenario, slower but informed efforts for long-term sustainable upgrades and development are quickly truncated by quick ‘buying out’ strategies relying on ‘free cash’ and knickknacks. This has become extremely clear in Venezuela, as in recent years, NGOs in the country do not find support but instead are harassed both economically and legally.

Although the following merits a separate discussion of its own, I also want to mention another theatrical strategy relying on the spectacular or iconic urban interventions where a very visible ‘toy’ or gadget is deployed in order to get international publicity for “the social government.”

In short, these theatrical interventions and policies require more free goods and land to hand out in order to feed illusions; there is no time for planning or building adequately, and even less for participatory methods. In this theatrical stage, any house is good enough to give away for free; so the government buys out whatever low cost unit is being built, they use whatever open land they see- a park, a mall, a hotel, an unfinished building, a farm or existing industry- and all of these are torn down or confiscated using arbitrary urban and political tools to half-hazardly install displaced and homeless populations in unsanitary and risk environments.

I don’t know for how long people will be satisfied with “urban mirrors and trinkets”. In my eyes, the city’s decay and appearance are not as bad as the moral damage. The economic dependence of on easy resources, the ecological damage, the deteriorating conditions of cities, the lack of norms and urban procedures, and the list goes on…. Yet, it is exactly this list what will weigh more heavily on the more vulnerable classes in the long run.

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