Social Housing in Latin America A Methodology to Utilize

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Social Housing in Latin America A Methodology to Utilize ...

    Social Housing in Latin America: A Methodology to Utilize Processes of Self-Organization.

    Nikos A. Salingaros, David Brain, Andrés M. Duany, Michael W. Mehaffy & Ernesto Philibert-Petit (all members of ESRG Environmental Structure Research Group).

    Presented at the Brazilian and Ibero-American Congress on Social Housing, 2006.

Abstract: We offer here a set of evidence-based optimal practices for social housing,

    applicable in general situations. Varying examples are discussed in a Latin American context. Adaptive solutions work towards long-term sustainability and help to attach residents to their built environment. We draw upon new insights in complexity science, and in particular the work of Christopher Alexander on how to successfully evolve urban form. By applying the conceptual tools of “Pattern Languages” and “Generative Codes”, these principles support previous solutions derived by others, which were never taken forward in a viable form. New methodologies presented here offer a promising alternative to the failures of the standard social housing typologies favored by governments around the world, which have proven to be dehumanizing and ultimately unsustainable.


1. Introduction.

    This paper outlines promising new solutions for the future of social housing. It has been prepared as a comprehensive report by one of the authors (NAS) for Brazil, and is

    generally applicable to all of Latin America. One of us (AMD) is designing social housing in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Two of the authors (AMD & MWM) are

    directly involved with the reconstruction after the hurricane Katrina devastation in the Southern United States, which faces similar, though not identical, realities. Another author (EPP) has researched the pedestrian connectivity of the urban fabric, and is involved in providing government-assisted housing solutions on a massive scale in Mexico. The

    remaining author (DB) has long studied the influence of urban form on social wellbeing and community sustainability, a crucial factor in our discussion.

    The challenge of social housing is a major component of world urban growth, and we wish to present here a comprehensive methodology for radically improving its

    performance. Success will be measured in human terms: i.e., the physical and emotional wellbeing of the resident. We consider a project to be successful if it is maintained and loved by its residents, and also if the urban fabric joins in a healthy and interactive way to the rest of the city. On the other hand, we consider as unsuccessful (and hence

    unsustainable) a project that is hated by its residents for a number of different reasons, wastes resources in initial construction and upkeep, contributes to social degradation, isolates its residents from society, or decays physically in a short period of time.


The essence of the approach presented here is to apply a sustainable PROCESS rather

    than a specific IMAGE to design and building. The way it was done in the recent past is to

    build according to a prepared image of what the buildings ought to look like, and how they

    should be arranged. By contrast, no image of our project exists at the beginning: it emerges

    from the process itself, and is clear only after everything is finished.

    We can move toward a more thorough and satisfying solution by drawing upon

    Christopher Alexander’s work — one of several pioneers who proposed that urban fabric should follow an organic paradigm and can include theoretical and practical work that for various reasons is not widely applied. What we offer is supported by the evidence from

    many examples of traditional practice over centuries. Governments instead choose to

    impose schemes and typologies that ultimately generate hostility for the fabric of social

    housing from its occupants. We will analyze the reasons for this hostility in order to

    prevent it in the future. The relatively simple solutions presented here are generic.

    Therefore, though geared to Latin America, they can be adopted by the rest of the world

    with only minor modifications. This study outlines ideas that are general enough to apply

    to countries where local conditions that produce housing might be very different.

    We can learn from innovative approaches to government-sponsored housing, developed

    by independent groups in many different settings and conditions. Out of many projects

    built over several decades, very few can be judged to be truly successful using our criteria

    of the residents’ physical and emotional wellbeing. Those few excellent solutions tend to

    be neglected because they fail to satisfy certain iconic properties (which we discuss in

    detail later in this paper). Perhaps surprisingly, we also draw upon successful typologies

    developed for sustainable upper-income communities.

    This paper combines two mutually complementary approaches (and will contrast these

    with existing methods). On the one hand, we will give some explicit practical rules for

    building social housing. Any group or agency wishing to get started immediately may

    implement these with appropriate local modifications on actual projects. On the

    other hand, we will present a general philosophical and scientific background for social

    housing and its cultural implications. The aim of this theoretical material is to “give

    permission” for common-sense arguments; to create the conditions that will safely allow

    and support what in effect comes naturally. People, acting as intelligent local agents, may

    then apply methods that evolved during millennia of successfully performing owner-built

    housing as part of the production of healthy resident-built communities.

    This methodology recognizes and incorporates the self-organizing features of the most

    robust human settlements throughout history, by utilizing a “complexity-managing”

    approach, rather than a linear, “top-down” approach. We propose channeling the design talent and building energy of the people themselves, acting as local agents, within a system

    that we manage only to help generate and guide its evolving complexity. In such an

    approach, “bottom-up” processes are allowed to develop organically, though within

    constraints based upon prior experience. On the other hand, “top-down” interventions must

    be done experimentally and carefully (i.e., with feedback), allowing more interaction with

    smaller-scale “bottom-up” processes. Our proposal goes beyond housing that is literally owner-built in the sense that owners

    hammer nails and pour concrete. It is important that they experience the process of design


and building as THEIR process. It’s all about establishing connection and engagement.

    The key point is a process that accommodates real engagement, that is agile enough to be responsive to adaptive processes, and that can engage without being driven by the social dynamics of inequality into unfortunate directions. Most important, the process can take advantages of both technology and expertise. We are proposing something far more than letting the poor fend for themselves we wish to empower them with the latest tools and

    a highly sophisticated understanding of urban form.

    As many authors have described previously (e.g. Alexander et. al. (1977), Jacobs (1961),

    Turner (1976)), established planning practice has tended to follow an outmoded early

    industrial model. That model arose in the 1920s, and was widely adopted in the period following World War II. It was based upon a hierarchical “top-down” command-and-

    control paradigm, leading to predict-and-provide planning. Research amply demonstrates that this model does not sufficiently reflect the kind of scientific problem a city poses, because the model ignores the tremendous physical and social complexity of successful urban fabric. Incredibly, it does not even address human interactions with the built

    environment. The resulting failures and unintended consequences are well documented. As science develops more fine-grained and more accurate research tools for the analytical study of such self-organizing phenomena (which include cities), it is necessary now to propose a radical new urbanism. We wish to empower people with the authority of a new methodology, grounded in recent urban research.

    The problem isn’t just the lack of physical complexity. The key to urban place making is really the relationship between the complexity of spatial form and the complexity of social process. If it were just a matter of physical complexity, one might imagine that a top-down process could be created to simulate that complexity say, a computer algorithm. The

    crucial point is that this physical complexity embodies and expresses social life. It is, in certain respects, social relations by other means (e.g., artifacts and built spaces). To some extent, the answer begins by re-conceiving the built environment itself as social process, not just as product or container. This becomes important later when we talk about

    maintenance, since the processual character of this kind of ownership merely begins when residents move in.

    This paper is very complex and deals with many issues, so we need to map out its exposition. The first four sections provide background and criticize current practices. Section 2 introduces the competition between owner-built settlements and government-

    built social housing. Section 3 reviews the standard practices and typologies of top-down social housing programs, and recommends replacing them (or at least complementing them) with a bottom-up procedure. Section 4 pinpoints how a “geometry of control” ruins even

    the best-intentioned schemes by making them inhuman.

    The next six sections offer specific tools for design. Section 5 turns to mechanisms for establishing emotional connections with the built environment. Biophilia, or the need to connect directly to plant life, is a crucial component. We also discuss sacred spaces and their role towards establishing community. Section 6 reviews the work of Christopher

    Alexander, especially his recent work on generative codes. Section 7 argues against the fixed master plan approach, suggesting instead an iterative back-and-forth planning

    process. Section 8 reviews Alexandrine patterns and outlines their transition to generative codes. Section 9 gives, in the broadest possible terms, our methodology for planning a


    settlement. We suggest getting building permission for a process rather than for a design on paper. Section 10 contains an explicit set of codes describing the armature of services in a social housing project. Section 11 introduces the complementary design tools by describing the generative codes needed for such a project.

    The next four sections continue with practical suggestions for making projects work. Section 12 suggests appointing a project manager to direct the application of generative codes. Section 13 argues for using appropriate materials: cheap but permanent; durable but flexible enough to shape; solid but friendly to sight and touch. We also discuss the proper use of industrial modules such as a plumbing box. Section 14 broaches the topic of funding a project, recommending the involvement of a non-governmental organization that focuses on the small scale. Section 15 is political, delving into how one can best cooperate with existing systems geared to producing social housing that follow very different, industrial typologies. Section 16 offers strategies for getting residents to maintain their settlements after they are built.

    The final four sections identify some of the problems. Section 17 faces the difficult problem of retrofitting the favela to make it an acceptable part of urban fabric. Sometimes it cannot be done. We discuss a reinforcement strategy for when it is feasible to do so. Section 18 analyzes some failures to understand the life of a squatter, such as their economic need for proximity to the city. This makes new social housing built far outside the city unattractive. We also warn against grand schemes that can turn into economic disasters. Section 19 blames architects for imposing modernist forms on social housing. That geometry makes them hostile for residents. Section 20 blames the residents themselves for rejecting adaptive housing and urban typologies, wanting instead the sterile images of modernism. Section 21 reviews how conditions are different today from the past several decades, and offers optimism for a broad acceptance of adaptive housing. The Appendix contains an explicit generative sequence for social housing on a greenfield or open brownfield.

2. The Ecosystem Analogy.

    Here is a basic incompatibility: organic urban fabric is an extension of human biology, whereas planned construction is an artificial vision of the world imposed by the human mind on nature. The former is full of life but can be poor and unsanitary, whereas the latter is often clean and efficient but sterile. One of these two contrasting urban morphologies can win out over the other, or they could both reach some sort of equilibrium coexistence (as has occurred in most of Latin America). In the movement for “self-construction”, the

    government accepts that owners will build their own houses, and provides materials and training to help establish the networks of electricity, water, and sewerage.

    “Social housing” is usually understood as a project for housing the poor, built and financed by a government or non-governmental organization. Occupants could purchase their units, but a usual practice is to rent them at low subsidized rents, or even to provide them for free. In the latter instances, the residents live there by courtesy of (and are subject to varying degrees of control by) the owning entity. A “squatter settlement”, on the other hand, is a self-built development on land that is not owned by the residents, and which is


    frequently occupied without permission. Since squatter settlements are illegal, the government generally refuses to provide the means of legally purchasing individual plots of land. In most cases, it also refuses to connect those residences to the utility grid (electricity, water, and sewerage) of the rest of the city. As a result, living conditions there are the worst among peacetime settlements.

    Social housing and squatter settlements are regions where more than one billion of the world’s very poor live. We are going to discuss these two urban phenomena side-by-side,

    and offer to resolve the ideological and spatial competition between the two. As a basic starting point, housing for the poor represents the lowest level of the world’s urban

    ecosystem. Different forces within human society generate both types of urban system: either government-sponsored social housing, or squatter settlements. Christopher Alexander (2005), Hassan Fathy (1973), N. J. Habraken (1972), John F. C. Turner (1976), and others recognized this competition before us, and proposed an accommodation of the two systems. Turner helped to build several projects in Peru and Mexico, and advised others on implementing such ideas worldwide.

    The ecosystem analogy also explains and to a certain extent justifies the vigilance by which governments prevent squatter settlements from invading the rest of the city. If not restrained by law and direct intervention, squatters move into private and public land. We are describing a species competition for the same available space. Each species (urban typology) wants to displace all the others. Squatter settlements can take over the entire city if allowed to do so (for example, in Cairo, they have taken over the flat roofs of commercial buildings; in the USA people build temporary shelters in public parks and under highway overpasses). The government, in turn, would like to clear all squatter settlements. Governments the world over assume that they must construct planned housing to replace owner-built housing. That is too expensive to be feasible.

    Like all truly organic systems, cities are better off without central control. Accommodating competing urban systems never became standard practice, however. Although the basic ideas about traditional settlements were in place, several key elements of understanding were previously missing. We are now offering expertise in housing as a DYNAMIC process (by combining pattern languages with generative codes: see later sections). Interventions are needed, starting from scratch in new housing projects. The same dynamic process can also be applied to already built environments, in seeking to adapt a large number of informal unplanned housing projects (favelas or others) by bringing them up to acceptable living conditions.

    Competition occurs among all economic strata (“species”) that either use urban land, or profit from it. In Latin American cities, urban land speculation leaves a large amount of undeveloped land with all the services already in place wasted. The poorest population then has to find plots on the outskirts, and pay steep prices for water and other services, without having the benefit of living close to their main source of income (the central city). This creates a severe problem for the government. Rather than characterizing the practice as “unfair” (which does not lead to any change), we point out its tremendous cumulative costs for the future.

    Throughout all the various schemes for social housing tried over the years, it is widely accepted (with only a few exceptions) that the unplanned owner-built favela is


    embarrassing to the government, and has to be bulldozed as soon as possible. Yet that assumption is wrong. Very few in a position of authority seem to consider the urban and economic advantages of existing shantytowns. The geometry of buildings, lots, and street patterns has for the most part developed (evolved) organically, and we will argue here that this self-organization affords a number of very desirable features. With all its grave faults, the favela offers an instructive spontaneous demonstration of economic, efficient, and rapid processes of housing people.

    The favelas’ disadvantages are not inherent in the urban system itself. Their organic geometry is perfectly sound, yet it is precisely that aspect which is vehemently rejected. It simply doesn’t fit into the stereotyped (and scientifically outmoded) image of what a

    progressive urban fabric ought to resemble neat, smooth, rectangular, modular, and

    sterile. A favela’s organic geometry is linked with the illegal act of squatting, and with a pervasive lawlessness. The geometry itself represents “an enemy to progress” for an administration. We cannot build living urban fabric (or save existing portions) until we get past that prejudice. The favela has a self-healing mechanism absent from most top-down social housing schemes. Organic growth also repairs urban fabric in a natural process, something entirely absent from geometrically rigid housing projects.

    Ironically, the organic geometry of the favela is typically at odds with the imperatives of