Favelas, Social Housing, and the ESRG

Favelas and Social Housing

The principal urbanist problem facing the world today concerns the squalid conditions under which much of humanity lives. In the developing world, 50% of cities are composed of "informal housing", whereas in the least developed countries LDCs, 80% of cities are slums. [1] For decades, both governments and non-governmental organizations NGOs have been trying to solve the housing problem, applying various methods and philosophies on how to approach it.

The Environmental Structure Research Group

The Environmental Structure Research Group ESRG has brought together prominent researchers from diverse fields such as architecture, urbanism, planning, biology, ecology, medicine, mathematics, computer science and other fields. Its goal is formulating a new approach to design and the built environment. Most of its original members are close associates of Christopher Alexander. The first major project undertaken by ESRG was a comprehensive study on Favelas (or villas miserias) and Social Housing. This report was presented by Nikos Salingaros to the Latin American Congress on Social Housing in Brazil in 2006. This page presents the views of the ESRG on Favelas and Social Housing, rather than a comprehensive treatment of every other approach to this problem.

Social Housing in Latin America

Social Housing in Latin America: A Methodology to Utilize Processes of Self-Organization, by Nikos Salingaros, David Brain, Andres Duany, Michael Mehaffy & Ernesto Philibert was written by ESRG members. This paper outlined the role and importance of socio-spatial relations that can guarantee people's happiness. The fundamental relations are then developed into a better way to frame socio-political processes in planning and construction of social housing, as well as large-scale renovation of favelas.

How the housing process creates good space

A good space is loved by its inhabitants, enough to be defended against encroachment and degradation. The criterion is an emotional one, and arises from the correct satisfaction of the residents' emotional needs. This successful type of urban space rarely arises from the typologies of post-war planning.

Community participation is essential for success

First emphasized by John F. C. Turner, the ESRG also insists that a human built environment cannot usually be imposed top-down. A central component of design with user participation is to use the patterns of Christopher Alexander in the design process, and to develop new ones as needed for specific needs of each project.

Evolution of human space requires flexibility

Varying degrees of flexibility of the design are necessary to allow the project to evolve in time towards accommodating human physical and emotional needs. Whether the street plan is flexible, or the lot sizes are flexible, or the interiors of the dwellings are flexible, or the choice of materials is flexible; one or more of these freedoms gives the necessary life to the project. Community values cannot appear at the beginning of the process of building. They have to emerge as people's feelings and ideas are allowed to shape their environment and endow it with the qualities of human space.

Sacred structure

Taking a non-traditional view of this religious concept, certain focal points of a settlement have to be considered sacred by their residents. These could be natural or built structures, which are valued by the entire community so that they tie the community together. Examples are large trees, rocks, water source, kiosk, meeting hall, church, etc. A human space created through this process connects emotionally to the inhabitants, and this connection helps to create the community. The sacred structure embodies people’s feelings and ideas in a collective discourse, giving a powerful common meaning to the community.

Creating new settlements and upgrading older ones

Most of our great cities were originally informal settlements. Through a process of continuous upgrading, they became what they are today. A process of upgrading is preferable to whole scale destruction, except in cases where pollution, unstable soil, and the threat of rainwater runoff and flooding affect people's lives. When considering upgrading, the processes must respect and be extremely sensitive to the complexity of social processes and their dependence on spatial form.

Political strategies

The problems of building new housing, and renovating old housing, are principally political ones. That is why any attempt to apply new methodologies immediately becomes embedded in a political process. Planning comes up against the existing political system, as well as the opposing forces that are trying to fight the power base. Trying to rescue people's happiness becomes lost in these larger struggles. A project that preserves resources and is friendly to its residents and to the natural environment requires the cooperation of many actors above the residents: government on several different levels (who might be in conflict with each other); construction companies; utilities; the banking system, etc. Much social housing is not concerned with the poor, but is merely a governmental act for political gain. Nevertheless, the same gain (in votes) can be achieved with a more lasting result in the housing fabric. This requires a real constitution, carried out by the community with government or private NGO help, the whole process aiming to embody the complexity of social life in the built environment.

Other authors on social housing

There are numerous other authors who have addressed the problems of favelas and social housing. We select just a few of them to alert readers to their work and ideas, which coincide in large part with those of the ESRG. John F. C. Turner [2] is a pioneer who proposed user participation in Social Housing. Three argentinian architects/urbanists currently work in Argentina and Brazil [translations are by Nikos Salingaros].

  • Jorge Jauregui. From an online interview in Spanish: [3] The city works precisely because of the diversity and richness of functions that it has on the ground floor ... Constructing dwellings has to be merely a pretext for constructing a city. And there is a didactic function in this urban practice, because building "city" shows others what they have a right to desire, and for a long time could not even know it.
  • Victor Pelli. His work and ideas are summarized in a new book in Spanish: Habitar, Participar, Pertenecer (Nobuko Editores, Buenos Aires, 2006). [4] From page 131: The resident has the right to be a participant, with an ample measure of power in decision making, in the general definition of his/her dwelling ... in the aesthetic definition, not only in the aesthetic codes (signs and styles) but also, and most important, in the priority that achieving the aesthetic effect will have on the application of financial resources destined for his/her house.
  • Ruben Pesci is using top-down methods based on the best of 19th century city planning to construct new towns. He also applies the patterns of Christopher Alexander to create a town plan that densifies towards a sacred center. From an Editorial to "Habitat y Vivienda": [5] Half of the world builds according to formal planning, urbanism, and architecture. The other half builds as best as it can ... In face of the magnitude of demand from those who have to make do with what is available, it becomes necessary and urgent to redefine the formal activities of architecture and urbanism, in order to collaborate with informal production, there where the State or private capital does not reach.

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