Shantytowns: Successful Social Environments?

8 01 2009

Happy New Year! A few things that have come my way in the last few days have related to shantytowns or slum areas, both as planning inspiration and a source of reflection. The first, a short piece on Good/Magazine about architect Teddy Cruz designing an affordable housing project in San Diego that takes physical and functional cues from shantytowns in Tijuana, Mexico. The 30-unit project will offer homes that are “jammed together, with any leftover space commandeered by taco stands, market stalls, and gathering places”. The rationale offered is that shantytowns, while being the loci of highly-concentrated poverty, offer a rich and supportive social environment.

Without knowing the urban context within which such a project will be built, it is impossible to say how successful such a small project will be in its hoped-for role as a center of social activity. Slums, in my experience, are densely-packed agglomerations of humanity. The argument can obviously and easily be made that they are too dense, considering their characteristic dearth of amenity and public services. Regardless, if density can be a positive aspect of shantytowns in terms of the vibrancy it offers, how could a 30-unit development ever hope to generate a similar social environment? It also seems odd to me that Cruz talks about gathering spaces in shantytowns, as my experience has been that such areas are usually just a warren of narrow pathways and cheek-by-jowl huts, the only spaces staying unoccupied for long being garbage dumps or drainage channels (sometimes one and the same). Perhaps Tijuana shantytowns are less chaotically and compactly built than Mumbai slums?

The idea is intriguing nonetheless. Architecturally, there seems no reason that we need to be wedded to the modernist ideal of straight lines of construction and highly-formalized social spaces. From a planning perspective, mixing homes and places of business in an intentionally social environment has been an increasingly orthodox ideal since Jane Jacobs wrote Death and Life, but rarely does the ideal seem to be successfully put into practice. So perhaps emulating the organically created environments of economically impoverished but socially vibrant shantytowns is just the ticket.

To seesaw back again in my discussion, however: one wonders whether the concept idealizes shantytown social life a bit unrealistically. Boingboing also linked to the piece and a comment from “Guidodavid” there declared gross naïveté on the part of the architect:

“[A shantytown] allows plenty of unwanted social contact that gets on your nerves. Have he ever lived sharing the same bedroom with 5 more people? Or the bathroom with 10 more? Maybe it is an overreaction, but to me, that live surrounded by shanty town, and that can see its hideous effects, someone to stand up and call this a good thing is deeply disturbing.”

Honestly, I am skeptical that this project, considering its small scale, will ultimately recreate either the best or the worst social aspects of shantytowns and slum areas. But I would still be very interested to stroll through it a few years down the road to see the results.

The other shantytown observations came my way from a co-worker, currently on leave for a year with her husband and children, and spending the time living in Namibia and India. They shift to India later this month, but Sue had this to say about Namibian neighborhoods on her travel blog:

“There are mostly white neighbourhoods – usually right along the beach, then coloured neighbourhoods – next to the white neighbourhoods with not such nice houses and very little landscaping, and then there are black neighbourhoods that are usually on the edges of the town and have shanty houses.  I find it difficult to see the substandard shanty areas.  Though from an urban planning perspective, they are at least walkable, there is street life, and there seems to be a real sense of community.  Hopefully, eventually neighbourhoods will be more integrated here.”

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