Sunday, December 11, 2011

Instrumental Response: Tuning the Tension

In my past entries, I have attempted to describe the tension in Caracas. The city exhibits many of the same tensions, essentially growing pains, felt in other small to medium sized cities, places of transition and uncertainty. Unlike the case in many other cities, in Caracas, a host of elements in tension continue to be unrelieved, many questions held unresolved, as a strong neoliberal development force (largely empowered by vast oil wealth in Venezuela) squares off against current socialist governance that gives voice to the disadvantaged.

With elements thus held in tension in Caracas, there is the possibility of instrumental response, the tuning of urban elements, adjusting interrelationships, in an urbanism that yields greater equality and less human suffering. Two particular groups stand out in their very different efforts to facilitate an urbanism of instrumentality in Caracas.

Urban Think Tank (UTT)
UTT is a pioneering architecture firm in Caracas, run by New Yorker Alfredo Brillembourg and Austrian Hubert Klumpner. The group utilizes modern design technology to facilitate more viable informal urbanism. Their designs range from the very simple and small scale to the complex and regional. Some of their projects include:

Modular stairs: prefabricated stairways easily installed among steeply stacked neighborhood structures, with minimum of only two anchor points. These are built away from hillsides to allow passage when flood waters are running down the steep slopes in the barrios.
Modular Stairs
Vertical gymnasiums: multiple floors of athletic space are flexible enough to be reconfigured as needed for multiple sports. Providing space for active sports helps keep vulnerable children off the street.
Vertical Gym (simulation)
Vertical community center: evolving from vertical gym designs, this community center was built into the scar on a Grotao neighborhood hillside after demolition of ranchos in a mudslide zone. The center provides infrastructure, services, and public space for sports, education, and community activities. The design also includes housing replacement for those removed from the unstable hillside.
Grotao Community Center (simulation)
Metro Cable: a new cable car system provides mass transport over barrios in lieu of a roads tearing through the barrios. The system is a designed to carry up to 1,200 people per hour in each direction along the cable line.
MetroCable Station
MetroCable Station at Night
This nighttime image reflects the potential beauty of instrumental urbanism. The Metro Cable responds to elements held in tension, formal high technology is designed to mesh with the framework and needs of the informal city. Instrumental work remains to be done: the cable car system remains isolated from other areas of the city and due to perilous intrabarrio rivalries, the cable car remains largely unused by nearby barrio residents.

Chavez’s New Socialist Cities

In contrast to Urban Think Tank's instrumental response in the heart of the barrios, President Chavez is attempting to address inter-class tension in Caracas by building a dozen new socialist cities in the jungle surrounding the city.
Leaving Caracas: the Road to Utopia
Reminiscent of Corbusian tabula rasa designs, the new cities are meant to be self-sufficient utopian communities. The government plans to move Caraquenian barrio residents to the cities, where they will ideally become active in community affairs, growing crops in community gardens surrounding their homes.
Plans for Ciudad Caribia
Chavez has taken a personal role in the guiding the design and development process for the new cities. And all Venezuelans are realistically stakeholders, as Chavez has commanded a large investment of state resources for the purchase and operation of earthmoving and construction equipment for the projects.
Hugo and His Model
Venezuela's New Trucks
Recently, the first new socialist city, Caribia, opened the doors to 602 new apartments (check out this ad for Caribia). By April 2012, the city plans to have over 2,000 residences occupied. Hopefully the bouncy house will still be up.

Building Ciudad Caribia, Venezuela
Move-in Day: Ciudad Caribia!

Element-in-Tension: Production (Part II - Neoproduction & Postproduction)

In 1989, President Perez took office in Venezuela promising to fight U.S. pressure and oppose structural adjustments demanded for IMF loans. But once elected, Perez rolled over and pursued neoliberal policies, imposing austerity measures cutting social spending, devaluing the currency, liberating price increases for domestic goods (including gasoline), and installing business leaders in key government posts. The policies quickly doubled the price of gasoline, critically lowering living standards for the lower and middle classes.

On February 27, 1989, food riots/looting broke out across Caracas. President Perez was overwhelmed, and declared a state of emergency putting Caracas under martial law. Suspending several articles of constitution, Perez then deployed the army into the barrios against rioters. The resulting massacre of civilians, known as el Caracazo, left hundreds or thousands left dead (depending on who’s counting). The results were especially brutal in the poorest neighborhoods.

Outrage over el Caracazo ultimately set stage for the entrance of Hugo Chavez’ socialist Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. Chavez was born poor, but gained influence by rising successfully through the military to become a paratroop commander. During his career development, Chavez idolized Caraqueno Simon Bolivar, Venezuela’s liberator from Spain who had dreamed of a strong, united, and independent Latin America. Chavez also read many leftist thinkers, and came to believe the military should act forcefully in the interest of the working class if the ruling class was corrupt.

Before the Caracazo occurred, Chavez had secretly started a leftist Bolivarian revolutionary movement within the military. During the Caracazo, he refused to participate in the army action, describing it as “savage repression” by a “genocidal regime.” In response to the massacre, Chavez and his loyalists began plotting a coup d’état. In 1992, their coup attempt against Perez failed, and Chavez was imprisoned until 1994, gaining great popularity with the poor during his well-publicized incarceration. Upon his release from prison, Chavez used his visibility to organize the “Bolivarian Revolution.” By 1998, popular sentiment swept Chavez into the presidency via a landslide election, and by 1999 he had a new Venezuelan constitution approved. 

Since that time, Chavez (Venezuela’s first visibly African-indigenous president) has provided strong influence for the poor in the federal government, nationalizing industries and sharing revenues through social programs. Such changes do not come without conflict. His pro-poor policies even saw Chavez temporarily removed from power and detained in 2002, when a massive bourgeois demonstration marched on the presidential palace and demanded his resignation. In reprisal, a popular uprising among the poor was mounted, and eventually supported by the military-- within 48 hours, Chavez was reinstated as president. 

With regard to urbanism in Caracas, Chavez’s ongoing validation of the voice of the poor has drawn the social production of the city into palpable conflict. While the elite living in, or invested in, the city seek to produce to a formalized urbanism showcasing their vested interests in speculative development, financial solvency, and material wellbeing, the poor in the barrios desperately struggle to improvise an urbanism that meets even their day-to-day needs for secure food, water, shelter, and community. 
Country Club vs Barrio
Which of these objectives is the legitimate social production of the city? In BE 551 this quarter, we have talked at length about the diversity of perspectives regarding small and midsize cities, enough that I do not believe I can summarily address the “character” of such cities. The city is a multi-faceted production, its meaning constructed and perceived in myriad ways by interested observers. When many observers share the same perception of a city’s essence, we may be tempted to name an existential quality of the place, e.g. “Abuja is disappointing… Astana is hopeful… Brasilia is sterile… Belgrade is grim… Dubai is oppressive… Songdo City is ambitious…” Yet, regardless of common perceptions, opinions of a city’s essence must be understood as perspectival. 

So, if real estate investors laud Dubai as inspirational, but the children of abused workers in Dubai’s service sector want to burn the hateful place to the ground, is there one true quality of the city that may be assessed?

Although estimates of a city’s character will always be perspectival, there are functional outcomes of urbanism that are more empirical. A city expands or contracts, densifies or thins, exports or imports, conserves or consumes, provides or neglects. In assessing such functional urbanism, it seems that upholding basic human rights would be one reasonable minimum threshold for legitimacy. From this perspective, the bourgeois productions of urbanism that demolish slums and project billon dollar towers toward the stratosphere while nearby impoverished masses fight for clean water, although potentially marketable as “improvements,” are also pragmatically troubling.

In strictly monetary terms, it is easy to justify fairly divergent approaches to development. Would barrio dwellers reliably make wise decisions if handed the billion dollars that was going to be used to build an office tower? The answer to that question is clearly “no,” yet the premise of the hypothetical is also compromised by the artificial nature of monetary economics. If development options are evaluated in terms of the irreducible currency of life- energy- rather than it’s surrogate, money, then assessment of the options change. Could barrio residents reliably make good use of the vast amount of energy (caloric, human, mechanical, chemical, thermal etc.) that is captured in the financing and construction of an office tower?

We live in a closed system, energetically speaking. In contrast to fiat currency, which is created apropos of nothing and is technically both inexhaustible and worthless, the energy in our world originates in the sun, is finite in quantity and is invaluable for life. Of course, it is understandable that fear of unavoidable demise could lead to popular denial of the finite conditions of life. Thus, conversion of energy into money and its analogues, seeking to capture and horde finite resource in a form that may be eternally passed along via estates, is a comprehensible (if weak minded and futile) effort to escape expiration. Perceiving life in monetary terms helps sanitize this behavior that would otherwise be of concern. When our neighbor first filled her house, and then her porch, and then her yard, with piles of worthless junk, we assessed the behavior as hording and considered her demented. How is it different to horde vital global energy in the accrual of monetary wealth or in unnecessary development tantamount to fiat currency?

While it is impossible to say what is a legitimate approach to urban development in truly universal (ontological) terms, we do seem to have a somewhat useful global scale of reference provided by the inescapable gruesome truth that we are human. As predominantly self-aware beings, we know our limits and (try as we might) we cannot escape knowledge of our finite nature. Accordingly, with an end in sight, we cannot avoid reasoning about the condition of our ephemeral lives. In the most basic of terms, we know what seems fair. While, linguistically, something about the term minimum dwelling unit sounds haughty, implying unilateral sacrifice on the part of the poor, we nevertheless seem to have an innate idea of what constitutes a defensibly reasonable dwelling unit. Let's find out:

Is this (Charlie Sheen's mansion) a reasonable dwelling?
Are these African shanties reasonable dwelling units?
Is this high rise tower reasonable dwelling?
How about this one: reasonable?

Is this new monster craftsman, dwarfing the old monster craftsman next door, a reasonable dwelling?

Is this (our rental house) a reasonable dwelling? I am still debating.
I wager most of us had discernible feelings about whether these residences were reasonable. When it comes to resource utility, we have a sense of justice well-honed through millenia of pre-industrial struggle for the survival of our species. The abstractions of the monetary economy confuse rational arguments a bit, but we still sense what is fair. An instinctive part of us knows that life on earth is a zero sum game in which we may manipulate and distribute, but not ever really create, fundamental resources. Someone’s gain is another’s loss. 

I’m no great capitalist, so I have no qualms positing that equitable distribution of resources among all people seems pretty reasonable to me. Of course, I don’t know exactly how we get to equitable distribution. There are a lot of people, so it would certainly take work-- but if we can recreate a miniature model of the world of out man-made islands in the Persian Sea, I really can’t find a justifiable excuse for not even trying. 

There may be no definable right or wrong ideological model for producing Caracas, but the results of different urbanisms yield either more or less equitable distribution of resource, either increasing or decreasing human suffering. In continuing the difficult task of holding production in tension, there are a couple of approaches toward instrumentality being pursued, tuning elements in hopes of increasing equality and reducing suffering. I'll address those in my next entry.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Element-in-Tension: Production (Part I)

A city is a social production, the multi-faceted expression of myriad vested wills, political ecology, and zeitgeist. In Caracas, the interaction of these factors seems to have collectively segmented the production of the city into several distinct eras.

During the early days of Caracas, like the early days of many other cities in the European colonial era, the economy was based on conquest, Spain bending “virgin” lands and lesser peoples to state purposes. Plantation agriculture drove the Venezuelan economy for three centuries and provided an agenda for the production of Caracas. To ensure that new colonial cities would provide efficient and effective hubs for ongoing profitable management of nature and people, Conquistadors were trained in town planning practices in vogue in Spain. The city masters (if not master planners) were instructed in best practices regarding geographic location, street lay-out, building construction, industry, water supply, food systems, and public services. The colonial urban centers were carefully designed for protection of inhabitants from climate, disease, and enemy forces but also flexible enough to grow and change. Thus, from the founding of the city in 1567 until the late 1800s, Caracas followed development under a grid-iron pattern, which Spain had rediscovered from ancient Roman design. The short square blocks allowed expansion in all directions without much revision, reduced wind among the blocks, and allowed easy navigation[1]. Below are some images of the gridded city gradually filling the Caracas valley through three centuries of development.
1578: Original Caracas Grid

1578: Caracas Grid in Geographic Context

1766: Nuestra Senora de Caracas  (Our Lady of Caracas)
1812: Sketch of Caracas
1839: Vista de Caracas
1870: Plano de Caracas

As I have previously discussed in some detail regarding wellness in Caracas, the late 1800s marked a new era in the social production of the city. The metropolis had grown into a cosmopolitan center considered to have a European ethos (declared the “Paris of South America”), yet the city had defective infrastructure that yielded high mortality rates. In order to make Caracas a “Complete City,” health experts spurred the Bella Epoca (Beautiful Time) in Caracas. By the 1920s, the early evolution of the oil industry helped to fund a new development agenda focused on hygiene, civility and progress. The state regulated hygiene, controlled land development and architectural design, and established Banko Obrero, the first South America housing administration, in order provide working-class housing for the many new laborers needed to support Venezuela’s growing industrialization. While not comprehensive in scope, the coordinated consideration of traffic, sprawl, and housing in the Bella Epocha of Caracas ushered in modern urbanism.

Following the turn of the century shift to begin prioritizing issues of urbanism, in the 1930s the Venezuelan government formed Direccion de Urbanismo, the first official Venezuelan urban planning office. The group worked with French urbanist (and Yale professor) Maurice Rotival to replan the central zone of Caracas into a modern metropolis reflecting the new hope, influence, and economic power of oil-rich Venezuela. In 1939, Rotival’s Plan Monumental de Caracas was unveiled (then approved by council in 1940). 
Plan Monumental de Caracas
The plan provided Beaux Arts approach to capital with a very wide main avenue and redesigned distributor streets, intended to solve traffic problems by “absorbing great vehicle mass.”[2] Later in the 40s, the second phase of the plan was implemented replacing the central square with an impressive new modern building integrated with a five-level central plaza and transit terminal – Centro Simon Bolivar. The new center was considered a success in both image and utility, and it still functions as the emblematic central tower of the city, a core square and retail area, and a transit, traffic, and pedestrian node. 

1940s Plan Monumental de Caracas - Model
Plan Monumental de Caracas under development
Centro Simon Bolivar

The social product of the lucrative 30s continued to yield additional modernist development, entwined with the structure and aspirations of the Plan Monumental de Caracas. Maybe most significantly, in terms of influential urbanism, in 1944, Carlos Raul Villanueva (having arrived in Caracas in 1929) planned a modernist central university campus in Caracas – called City University. The campus was located on the site of the historic hacienda of Simon Bolivar’s family and was connected to the new city center of the Rotival plan. The University plan was one of Villanueva seminal works, and he continued to refine phases of its development until his death in 1975. In 2000, UNESCO declared City University a World Heritage site.
Villanueva's City University
Another major development occurred in 1950 with Villanueva’s plan for development of enormous Corbusian residential super blocks, designed to prevent sprawling informal development in Caracas. The blocks were constructed to provide affordable housing in 20,000 apartments, but they were expropriated by the military elite in the 50s[3]. Then, in 1958, poor residents physically retook the blocks in a popular uprising overthrowing Dictator Jimenez and demanding democratic rule. Since that time, the housing development has become known as 23 de Enero (23rd of January) commemorating the day of the dictator’s ouster.
Villanueva's 23 de Enero
While the ongoing evolution and increasingly well-to-do social production of newly-democratic Caracas continued through the oil boom of the 70s, the fast growing city also developed a working class counter culture that would eventually rend the socially produced fabric of Caracas urbanism. The divided city ultimately became more visible upon the collapse of oil prices in the 1980s. As neoliberal regimes supported by influential and wealthy Venezuelans tried to sustain standards of living through international borrowing, associated increases in interest rates and national inflation made life extremely difficult for the lower classes. Tensions grew... (continued in next post)
Caracas's modernist Helicoide was designed in the 50s as a shopping mall,  then
commandeered by the State intelligence agency, and is now surrounded by barrios!

[1] Waldron, K. (1977). A social history of a primate city, the case of Caracas, 1750- 1810. Available from /z-dissert/ database.
[2] Almandoz, M. A. (2002). Planning Latin America's capital cities, 1850-1950. London: Routledge.
[3] Lester, J. (2009). Prometheus unbound in caracas. Social. Democr. Socialism and Democracy,
23(3), 61-88.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Element-in-Tension: Habitation

As Caracas has quintupled in population over the past half century, habitation has become one of the fundamental divides in the city. Informal development is widely reported to currently represent up to 2/3 of the residential settlement within the metro area. The 2/3 of the population that live in the informal barrios are the same 2/3 of the population that are impoverished. Thus the differences in housing characteristics in Caracas vividly represent the city’s class division, which profoundly influences other elements drawn into tension in the city.

As most of the known readers of this blog are in the allied built environment professions, I will not go into detail describing the home building techniques of the Caracas barrios. Worldwide, these techniques are fairly similar: the necessary common traits are extreme thrift and resourcefulness. One way the Venezuelan ranchos (shanties) do literally rise above the pack is in visual prominence. As the conventionally developable bottomland of the Caracas valley is claimed by the formal city, the informal barrios must expand up the steep hillsides surrounding the plateau. The resulting development is both visually stunning and frightening. The ranchos are, unfortunately, as precariously perched as they seem. Landslides too often sweep the houses and inhabitants from the hills.

The specific details of middle to upper-class residential development in Caracas are also far from unique. Gated and, increasingly, fortified suburban-style communities are common, as barrios looming on the bluffs above constantly remind of the perceived security threat from nearby grinding poverty. Urban Think Tank in Caracas estimates that over $1 trillion is spent on private security in the city each year.

Through decades of evolution of the divergent housing sectors in Caracas, various efforts have been made to provide affordable public housing as an alternative to barrios for the poor. Most famously, in 1950, C. R. Villanueva designed Corbusian super bloques to replace the sprawling informal development in the city. The bloques were to provide affordable housing in 20,000 apartments, but after construction in the 50s, the military elite expropriated the units. Then, in 1958, poor Caraquenos physically retook the bloques in a popular uprising overthrowing Dictator Jimenez. The development was rechristened 23 de Enero to commemorate the day (January 23) of the dictator’s ouster. Eventually, the giant bloques themselves became the physical source of electricity and water supporting barrios growing up mercilessly around the blocks.

In Caracas, the barrios are in your face, composing the majority of settlement in the city. Given the force of those numbers, housing issues continue to be held in tension in the city, weighted to the degree that the mayor recently discussed the possibility of closing the city's famous Olmsted golf course to build public housing on the links. The situation seems somewhat unlike that in many other S&M cities. In Abuja, over 800,000 people have been displaced by bulldozing of informal settlements over the recent years. In Brasilia, informal development is tolerated but relegated to satellite villages well outside of sight fro the central city. In New Belgrade, authorities are engineering plans to eradicate a successional stage of informal housing undergrowth overtaking spaces left vacant by massive bloque construction similar to that in Caracas. 

Despite prevailing world sentiment pushing toward bourgeois resolution, Caracas continues to engage in a running, and built, dialogue regarding habitation.

I believe I will let that brief description and analysis suffice.It seems pictures may best tell the rest of the story regarding housing in Caracas... Click on the photos to zoom in.

Gated Mansion Communities in Caracas
Good Fences Make Good Mansions
The Dark Side - Caracas Barrio
1950 23 de Enero Super Bloques - Intended to Replace Barrios
23 de Enero - Supporting (Being Slowly Consumed By) Barrio

Informal Meets Formal - Caracas

In Living Color - Caracas Barrio

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Element-in-Tension: Wellness

In the late 1800s, Caracas was broadly considered a cosmopolitan city of European ethos, proclaimed the “Paris of South America.” However, given the defective infrastructure and high mortality rates in Caracas, medical leaders in Venezuela frowned upon gaps between the South American city and those in Europe, declaring that Caracas was not yet a “complete city.” In the early 1900s, those conditions spurred debate regarding hygiene in the city, and modernizing hygiene was added to the “police” responsibilities of the state. The resulting Bella Epoca (beautiful era) in Caracas was focused on hygiene, civility and progress[1].

The oil export boom of the 1920s funded new the development agenda for growing Caracas. The city passed ordinances regulating hygiene, technical development controls, and architectural design. Then, in 1928, Banko Obrero, the first housing administration in South America, was formed to provide working-class housing. Though no true comprehensive urban planning occurred during this period, the coordinated consideration of traffic, sprawl, and housing marked the beginning of Venezuela’s era of modern urbanism. Great oil-funded advances in the city’s public health followed – tracking with the growth of oil wealth through the 1970s. 

However, during the oil bust of the1980s and 90s, the substantial advances that had been achieved in Venezuelan public health eroded. In association with neoliberal policies implemented during those decades, medicine was just one of the many industries that became largely privatized in Venezuela. Accordingly, the economic position of the lower classes weakened, and as prices were liberated in the medical industry, larger portions of household income were required to pay for medical care. Fees for health services and medications became unaffordable for increasing numbers of Venezuelans[2], and there was a general decline in the quality of the health system. By the end of the 90s, health care was essentially inaccessible for much of the population. 

After a popular backlash against the impacts of neoliberal policy led to Hugo Chavez’s election in 1998, health was of critical concern in forming the new Venezuelan constitution (1999) which states that “health is a fundamental social right and an obligation of the State” and that the health system should be “decentralized and participatory… guided by principles of free cost, universal availability, inter- sectoriality, equity, social integration, and solidarity.’’[3] Under these guidelines, Health Ministers attempted to translate Latin American Social Medicine concepts into Venezuelan policies and practices. These efforts, implemented in a top-down manner, received little support from physicians who had largely been aligned with political parties previously in power, and also did not well-represent the true concerns of the poor. Thus, the efforts proved ineffective in providing adequate care for impoverished Venezuelans (Briggs).

Finally, an effective approach to public health for the Venezuelan poor was initiated at the local level in Libertador, a municipality of Caracas facing severe problems with living conditions in its barrios. Through interviews of barrio residents regarding their opinions on housing, health care, education, food security, and employment, it was determined that access to health care was their most common concern. A collaborative proposal, called Plan Barrio Adentro, was developed to recruit Cuban medical personnel who would reside in poor neighborhoods to provide free medical service and to work with residents to design and implement local health programs. By 2003, Plan Barrio Adentro was so successful that Chavez tranformed the program into a national plan called Mission Barrio Adentro (MBA). In the following years, the government has extended health care to millions of Venezuelans previously without access. By 2007, over 23,000 Cuban medical professionals were serving patients at over 6,500 sites in marginalized communities (Briggs).
MBA module in Caracas
The development of the free health clinics staffed by Cuban medical personnel has been a focus of the opposition to Chavez’s policies supporting the poor. Venezuelan doctors that look upon the MBA sites as competition have even called into question the qualifications of the Cuban staff. Yet, over the past years, intense antagonism against Chavez’s, acted out in highly visible protests that have gone so far as to block MBA ambulances, have backfired by increasing Chavez’s popularity. The administration has, accordingly, responded by continuing to prioritize and invest in MBA (Briggs).
This story of public health in Caracas over the past century reveals that, as the city grows and the diversity of environs within the city proliferates, provision of services to ensure the wellness of the whole population is challenged. Through segregated and class-oriented development, dramatic disparities have arisen between services provided for the middle and upper classes and those services provided for the poor.

Currently, Caracas is divided into five separate municipalities each with separate governing administrations. Even emergency response services are segmented in the city (police actually wear different uniforms in each municipality) and such complications impede even basic services supporting wellness. As a shocking example of these circumstances, mortal peril in Caracas has grown to be one of the most grave in the world: recent statistics indicated there are 200 violent deaths annually per 100,000 people in the city NYTimes.

Clearly, general wellness, or even mere survivability, is an element of life in great tension in Caracas. As growing class division has split the city, poor residents’ basic rights to life and wellbeing have come into question. However, while circumstances have become extreme, it still does not seem completely resolved that only the well-to-do should be well in Caracas. Given the recent advances in medical care made via Chavez’ MBA, it seems population wellness will continue to be held in tension in Caracas. With more intentional tuning of that element of life, the city may be instrumental in (re)creating a future urbanism of more egalitarian wellness.

[1] Almandoz, A. (1996). European Urbanism in Caracas (1870s-1930s). PLANNING HISTORY, 18(2), 14-19.
[2] Briggs, C. L., & Mantini-Briggs, C. (January 01, 2009). Confronting Health Disparities: Latin American Social Medicine in Venezuela. American Journal of Public Health, 99, 3, 549.
[3] 14. Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Vene- zuela. Gaceta Oficial. 36,860, December 30, 1999, Ar- ticles 83 and 84.