Sunday, May 16, 2010

Design Dies Too

[This week is the second of a two-part post examining the construction of social capital through the community design process, focusing on two particular case studies.  Next week I'm sure we'll resume our usual semantic jibber-jabber about different "urbanisms" and the various merits of "constructed ecologies", "mycorrhizal infrastructures", "lo-fi landscapes" and other semantic masturbations.  Will also be happily chipping back in on the fun group reading of "The Infrastructural City" headed up by the good folks at mammoth.]

Last week here at FASLANYC we looked at a community design process, focusing on a small town in eastern North Carolina and the ways in which that process was able to aid the construction of social capital across generations.  One of the important benefits of the community design process is that it promises an auto-catalytic social project that enables the community to both inform the design project and to interpret and execute it long after the professionals have moved on.  To quote the Manteo Town Plan:  

The plan is intended to serve as a guide [for the Town of Manteo] to help it deal with development issues that can be expected over the coming twenty years.  It is directed toward the Board Commissioners, the Planning and Zoning Board, and the town staff, but it is also intended for residents so that they too will be fully involved in making the many decisions that determine the character of the town as it continues to develop.  It is intended to serve as a guide to further direct discussions and decisions.

But in order to utilize/implement the community design process it is important to examine this claim critically, find the weak or sore spots, and irritatingly poke one's finger into it.  Only then can we know its limitations and seek out other methods and initiatives with which to couple (or replace) it.  For that, we should go to the well-documented case of Barrio Jorge Hardoy in San Fernando, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

[The municipality of San Fernando within the conurbation of Buenos Aires]

[Barrios of San Jorge and Jorge Hardoy, villas miseries around Buenos Aires,
located between a river on the left and an irrigation ditch on the right, the
villas suffer from flooding problems]

This area has long been the focus of detailed and thoughtful study and intervention through the ngo International Institute for Environment and Development- America Latina (for a good, short interview with IIED's David Satterthwaite see Polis' recent post).  For nearly twenty years they have been working here and in the Barrio San Jorge, two of the villas miseries that dot the ring of urbanization around Buenos Aires, Argentina.  This villa, like most, is built on public land subject to flooding and has historically lacked most basic municipal services.

IIED has been working for nearly 30 years with this community on initiatives including a mother-child care center, provision of water and sanitation utilities, paving of roads, garbage collection.  Most of this work was done in collaboration with local collectives, the local church, the municipality, and international donor organizations.  

Incidentally, there are bizarre parallels between this type of effort and the South American Jesuit Reduction of the 16th and 17th's centuries.  For all of their problems and the hyperbolic claims of their opponents of the time, the Jesuit Reductions were at least a successful model in resisting the enslavement of the local population by the Spaniards and allowed the Guarani an operating space within the new colonial society; one based on prosperous and autonomous communities with the aim of Christianizing the local population.

[the Jesuit Reduction "mission" at Concepcion]

IIED's focus in all of these initiatives is the construction of social capital as opposed to the capital project (or, in the Jesuits' case, the conversion of the local population).  In 2005 a project was begun with the goal  to work with the youth of the barrio (nearly 60% of the population is under 18) to design, install, and maintain the open spaces in the barrio.  When Barrio Jorge Hardoy was being constructed because of crowding in the older San Jorge, IIED was able to work with the community and agree to designate certain spaces within the center of the community for future plazas, gardens and play areas.  In subsequent years, these areas had remained open- a major victory- but were neglected and their main use was trash dumping.  Despite this, the open spaces did attract the young people of the barrio as a place to practice soccer, play, and pass time.

The project [Movimiento de los Jovenes] would first organize and help to educate interested volunteers about what is possible in the open spaces with a focus on the youth of the neighborhood.  Then, a design process would be undertaken to suggest possible programming and form for the open spaces.  Lastly, these would be presented to the municipality along with a plan for capital construction and maintenance.  The hope was that through this process the learned knowledge among the neighbors and youth combined with professional expertise and backing from the municipal government would be enough to begin the construction and cultivation of the public open spaces, leading to improvements in sanitation, access to healthy food, youth recreation possibilities.  In addition, through the process of working together with neighbors, professionals, and local officials, it was hoped that members of the community would gain the confidence to create new initiatives pertaining to the public spaces and other needs in the barrio.

[existing open spaces with unpaved roads]

[existing equipment is run down and broken due to heavy use and lack of care]

[construction debris- or dirt- is appropriated by kids who still find ways to
play together and practice soccer or invent games]

[a typical meeting, community leaders and youth from the neighborhood
gathered to talk about possibilities, precedents, and still has homework to do]

[models created by the community process, originally they were finely 
detailed, monochromatic architectural models, but those are boring.  so they
busted out the glue gun and the cut paper to get the point across]

[presentation to the municipal officials, the "movimiento de los jovenes" is
there, but not necessarily totally interested]

After the presentation to the municipality, an agreement was reached with local officials to finish the paving of the main roads in the barrio, install public water utilities and a grant was secured to begin a locally run nursery to grow the plants to be used in the public spaces, staffed with community members, and providing supplemental food sources.  In addition, new play equipment would be constructed and installed by the neighbors (many of whom are skilled in basic construction methods due to constructing their own homes).  As this project was progressing, the Barrio was still working to confront the other social and environmental issues of the place including lack of water service, teen violence and drug use, and land rights.  

With the grant for the nursery procured by IIED, the neighbors were able to keep the project going- the first round of planting was installed in the plaza and the roads were finally paved by the municipality.  Later, the neighbors were able to install the new play equipment.  However, much of the planting has died due to lack of irrigation stemming from the water issues in the barrio and a lack of maintenance on the part of the neighbors.  In addition, the play equipment is breaking from heavy usage and lack of maintenance as before.  In the face of other problems and without the help of outside professionals, the public spaces have once again fallen into disrepair.  Sometimes design is not enough.

[the plaza with utilities, walkways, bordered by newly paved roads.
planting nurseries are going in through the efforts of IIED and the neighbors]

[neighbors working in the plaza, now overrun with weeds, but still playable,
and still green]

[shade cloth in the background protects the plants until they're installed, 
the play equipment is calling our for some new paint on the right]

Despite the apparent failure of the initial project- the plazas are now in disarray, the nursery is defunct, the play equipment is run down- there is still a case to be made for the community design process.  Though the project has suffered setbacks due to exterior factors as well as internal shortcomings (was it right to target the youth of the barrio for involvement?  Was a nursery the right strategy for a barrio without reliable water, even though it had been promised by the municipality?) the fact that the project was concerned first and foremost with the construction of social capital instead of the capital project leaves behind a legacy that can be built upon.  The neighbors have the shared common experience of once making a communal space.  In different circumstances, they can perhaps do it again.  The young kids have received some education about what is possible in their neighborhood, and what other cities do in similar situations, and they have the experience of contacting local officials.  What's more, the responsibility for the project was not totally contingent on government, a fact which helps to undermine the paternalistic attitude which can develop between communities and local government officials.

The apparent demise of any particular effort is lamentable.  However, the promise of a initiative focused on the construction of social capital as opposed to the capital project, the design project can still give birth to a later iteration, building on lessons learned and the new skills and relationships within the community.


  1. What you highlight here seems a key issue. The community design process seems to have worked fine in the development and initial capital/social investment.

    The real failure sounds like it was in maintainance funds, perhaps? Even more developed nations have problem with operational funds being budgeted..

    The final question is what would more would be required to make this sucessful. Longer term funding structures or more sustainable methods of social capital building and community involvement. It seems one issue is that children might have less of a buy in then property owners or barring that heads of household. Especially when combined with some sort of long term funding support structures. Perhaps, if successful the nursery, garden or whatever could provide its own funds, through selling certain goods or services?
    In the US we would probably just sell advertising rights, or some other version of a provate public partnership (a la Bryant Park)....

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