Post by Silvia Soonets [Proyectos Arqui 5] on Caracas

The electoral year ( Venezuela has Presidential election in October 2012) bring new opportunities to rethink the housing policies, of course aiming to gain votes, but also, and more interestingly, to plan for a new era.

It is nowadays more or less accepted that any housing policy should include some kind of upgrading program for the informal settlements. Because of that, along with our fellow architects “barriologos” we have been asked to wheel out our old projects. Some resilient and hopeful community leaders have been, again, invited to participate and collaborate with us.

Of course we are pleased with the renewed interest, and of course we’ll do our best to ensure to this new attempt all the success. But we cannot but wonder if it is possible, or even convenient, to restart an upgrading process as if we were turning a switch on. There are some aspects that should be considered carefully: participation, the adequateness of the existing projects, a newest set of actors, and the pertinence of our methodology.

It is not easy to turn participation on, after an off process that last almost a decade. The ways will probably have to change. People are tired of answering questions, filling forms and attending meetings without compensation in their life quality. If urban planners appear at their doors again with the same speech, they will probably not be welcomed. Because of that, it makes sense to build some representative projects in order to show the good will and seriousness, and ask afterwards for participation and support. This may be against all we have learned about intervening in informal settlements, but each on-off policy process brings distrust and suspicion, people feel treated as lab rats. It is not fair to ask for more time and commitment with a process that have shown such meager results.

The representative projects should then be built without delay. Using the existing projects seems the straightforward solution, but after reviewing the list of possible candidates among the ready to build projects, it is evident that the solution is not that simple. The fast building rates in the informal settlements makes any proposal obsolete very quickly, and some lots are no longer available. Although some problems persist, priorities are not the same: what looked like a pressing issue in the past can now have been dwarfed for any other, new or worsen, one. After working for ten years with twelve communities we ended up with only three viable things to be built in the short term. It also makes me doubt if the projects were appropriate at all, but that is matter for other post.

The actors now involved are also a tricky problem. In the meeting to talk about the possible relaunch of the upgrading policy I (in my late forties) was among the younger attendants, which was worrying. Even with the formal upgrading program halted, some things have been built, some of them very interesting indeed. They may not be as structured as desired, and certainly do not solve the problems in the integral way that was our goal. Still, these constructions, the professionals involved, and the communities beneficed, have made a point.

Among their valuable lessons are that too much planning is paralyzing, that participation is not the only way or at least is not needed in every step, and that one small thing built is worth more than a thousand drawings.

If we are to turn ON the upgrade switch again, it must now shed a different light. We are trying to figure it out how it should be.

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