{FAVEL issues}

AICA, the workshop

Post by Silvia Soonets

Few weeks ago I was invited, along with other professionals with experience in informal settlements, young architects and students interested in the field, civil servants and community representatives to participate in a workshop to study the opportunities to integrate our “barrios” to the formal city.

The event, organized by Maria Isabel Espinoza, Elisa Silva and Ana Cristina Vargas with the Caracas’s Metropolitan Government was innovative in several ways.

Within the workshop format we all went to visit the settlements together and spent three days “looked up” in the beautiful Centro Simon Diaz, producing, in that short period, a proposal for each one of the two barrios we studied. An enormous difference from the traditional approach: work in offices, show the proposal to the community and the local agency and repeat the process several times. In a few days we accomplished what it usually takes months.

The motivation was also new. AICA stands for “Actions for the Integration of Caracas”, and instead of focusing in the improvement of the informal settlement itself we were asked to think about ways to integrated and connect them with the rest of the city. This approach is of paramount importance in Caracas, as nearly half of the inhabitants live in informal settlements. They “go down” the formal city daily, but the interchange is not symmetrical: rarely who live in other parts of the city have reasons to visit a “barrio”.

The dynamic was inspired on the Base Plan methodology, as proposed for UN-HABITAT, CGLU, the program UIA-CIMES of the Architects International Union and the UNESCO Chair on Intermediary Cities, of Lleida, Spain. The Base Plan is a tool to define metropolitan priorities and to formulate projects promoting equity, integration and social  agreement

The idea of looking the informal settlements as they were intermediary cities was first proposed by Maria Isabel Espinoza for the Barrio Ojo de Agua. The results were interesting enough to think about scaling the idea to every informal settlement in Caracas. The workshop was the first step.

The selected barrios are very different: “La Palomera” is a small one next the traditional town of Baruta. Barrio Union, Petare, is on the other hand, a gigantic continued informal mass. There were selected precisely because of their differences, and because it was easy to contact their communities.

To see the settlement from outside, forgetting the hard problems that the inhabitants face every day proved to be more difficult than expected. The method asks for large scale thinking. It was difficult for the neighbors participating in the experience, who cannot avoid caring about little details and difficult for the professionals, not used to think about how to improve the zones with a wider view. After years of limited resources for large projects, we find difficult to think big.

A huge city map, to walk around, to see relations and to draw freely, helped a lot. And when we managed to change the focus the results were more than interesting. For example, in La Palomera it was concluded that the influence area is 140 Ha., much longer than the 8 Ha. the informal houses actually occupy. The proposed actions include some conventional upgrading strategies, as the improvement of garbage recollection, but also some ones outside the settlement as new pedestrian streets, parking spaces or a new park.

Notably, not all the proposed actions are physical ones. In both cases it was suggested to find ways to attract visitors from the formal city, organizing cultural activities and sport events. And it also was evident that is essential to change the urban regulations to include the informal areas, and that surrounding each barrio there are zones with unclear legal and regulatory status.

The workshop leaves many aspects to ponder, not only about La Palomera and Barrio Union but also about other barrios, and how to escalate the experience. But there are also other valuable outcomes.

Although many of participants knew each other, the opportunities for sharing knowledge and experiences do not present often enough. This was a wonderful space for sharing. And a great fun. I am thankful to have been asked.