towards the creation of sustainable, human-centered cities (4/4)

BUILDING FOR THE POOR

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The Environmental Performance Index (EPI), produced by the Yale Centre for Environmental Law and Policy, classifies countries depending on how well they perform on high-priority environmental issues in two areas: protection of human health from environmental harm and protection of ecosystems.
By analyzing the country rankings year by year, it becomes evident that: not only are there very few emerging countries in the top positions, but those few have started to fall even further down in the rankings. In the year 2010, only two developing countries, Costa Rica and Mauritius, were among the top 10 performers, and Cuba, Colombia, and Chile appeared in the top 20.
In their latest publication released in 2014, we can notice the complete absence of emerging countries in the top positions. Chile is the emerging country with the highest ranking on the list, and it occupies the 29th position. This fact should be enough to make it clear that, for these developing countries, sustainability is not among their priorities. In such countries, where economies are struggling to stay afloat, sustainability, most of the times, is not even considered in the list of issues to be addressed and resolved.
Governments, especially in Neoliberal countries, place economic prosperity at the top of their political goals list, and corporations are all about profit. But, if we manage to convince the aforementioned 1.4 billion people to embrace sustainability by offering realistic low-cost options to their current building problems and, on the way, create solutions that could also promote global environmental health and wellness, governments and large corporations might start thinking about sustainability as a competitive business advantage. Maybe then, they would be willing to start adapting or developing new technologies and low-cost building materials for architects to use when designing with an environmental consciousness.
For most emerging and developing countries, environmental sustainability is a dream. But what if, by finding a different way to approach the subject through small inexpensive interventions framed in the field of innovative building technologies and materials, we could make this dream a reality?
By understanding that environmental sustainability is a social, economic, and political challenge, and approaching the issue in terms of human behavior and consumption patterns, we could change our strategy: forget about state regulations and corporate responsibilities, and start focusing on small innovative interventions that attract individual decision-making. If we concentrate our efforts on people and their needs, and offer them solutions to their problems, we could end up attracting developing countries and emerging economies to the sustainability movement, and this could allow the evolvement of such a complex issue into new and better possibilities.

RECENT DISCOVERIES
A recently created biotechnology start-up manufacturing company named bioMASON has developed a method of growing bricks employing bacteria and naturally abundant materials. By the combination of natural microorganisms through chemical processes, they are able to manufacture biological cement-based masonry building materials. Their concept emerged from a study of coral structure, which is a very hard natural cementitious material created using low energy and material inputs. Their intention is to produce sustainable building materials with high performance and low production costs.
In the field of building techniques, there have also been some discoveries, such as the one made by a company in China, which has started to produce 3D printed sustainable homes that can be built in 24 hours. This modular building method is similar to concrete wall system but does offer the potential of complete onsite construction methods for the assembly of sustainable and affordable homes. As a result, the company creates houses that cost $4,800 each. This process could ease housing crises in many developing countries that are in desperate need of quick assembly, low-cost housing.
These inventions take us closer to a better reality and let us know that some research companies are leading the way towards a healthier world, but we cannot forget about struggling economies. We have to remember their priorities, and, unless these types of materials are able to be manufactured locally, they could end up being limited to the construction industry in developed countries. The same happens with the aforementioned inventive building technique developed in China: since it could depend on the economic involvement of the governments, it could be left aside in developing countries.
Acknowledging this reality could help us analyze sustainability from a deep perspective instead of doing it through a naive view. It could lead us to start looking for solutions that do not have to rely on government support, and it could be a simpler and more straightforward way to help mankind move towards a more sustainable world.

A LOOK INTO THE PAST
If we look back in time, it becomes evident that there are many materials and building techniques once used in construction that were more environmentally friendly than the ones we are currently using, but they were gradually displaced by more innovative resources. One of the many problems we are facing now is that, in most developing countries, these innovative materials are not produced locally; therefore, they must be imported from developed countries, thereby increasing the costs of construction. Hence, it is important to understand the urgency of making an intelligent use of local sustainable building materials.  Adobe, which has been used for years, could become an excellent choice as a building material, and it is already being analyzed in order to overcome the challenges that limit their use and effectiveness in construction. Its low tensile strength, poor seismic behavior, or the fact that it has less moisture resistance, among others, are keeping builders away from this natural, energy efficient material; but if research companies continue to devote time and effort to adobe’s improvement and development, I strongly believe it could become a great asset to construction. Nevertheless, research must continue through a journey to the past in order to find viable options that could lead the world towards a better life.
Our planet is clamoring for a return to its origins and to a back-to-basics approach. However, this statement does not imply we should go back in time and remove centuries
of evolution and progress. It means that, thanks to all those years of experience, and the knowledge we have accumulated during that time, we have now more and better capabilities to turn the basics into something more integral, effective, and sustainable. By comprehending where we come from, we could open up to more human, easy to reach, and sustainable options for the people in the world.
Each country must find its own path, and they must lay the excuses aside and start moving towards the point of convergence between the simplicity of the past and the innovation of the future.

towards the creation of sustainable, human-centered cities (3/4)

THE REALM OF SUSTAINABILITY
realm-of-sustainabilitySustainable development, as I see it, implies much more than just becoming self-sufficient. It is more than the possibility of a better, cleaner, and greener world. It means working with the existing resources and adapting them to our current reality. I firmly believe that the positive social and political implications for the entire world population are limitless. The creation of new technologies based on the use of the existing resources and the lessons learned throughout the years will allow us to see the world from new perspectives and could be the new awakening to still unknown paths.
The problem is that we are used to viewing the most advanced sustainable design projects as the province of wealthy high-end clients, who are willing to pay extra to push the boundaries of eco design, or of large corporations, which are in search of other benefits, such as tax deduction or the positive publicity related to environmentally efficient architecture. Very few small commercial clients decide to invest aggressively in sustainable design, especially in developing countries.
For people with economic limitations, it is hard to think about helping the planet if they are still struggling to make ends meet. According to the World bank’s Poverty data: A supplement to World Development Indicators 2008, 1.4 billion people are living in extreme poverty around the world; that is more than one-quarter of the population of developing countries, while the upper class is, at most, 1% of the world population. If we think of these numbers, we can easily understand the need to stop focusing exclusively on the 1% that has already started to shift towards eco-friendly design.

towards the creation of sustainable, human-centered cities (2/4)

A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO CITY MAKING

human-needsSustainability could be defined as the ability of something to sustain itself and also as the capacity to conserve an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources. According to this definition, people are most likely to be seen as consumers, and sometimes even destroyers, than as intangible assets. But what if, by understanding their needs, we could start thinking of people as one more of the planet´s resources?

The Principles of Intelligent Urbanism (PIU) is a theory of urban planning comprising ten axioms which are directed to the formulation of city plans and urban designs. One of those axioms is Placemaking, which is a multidisciplinary approach to the design of public spaces. It focuses on taking advantage of local community assets in order to create healthy and positive public spaces that promote people’s wellbeing. If we take the time to analyze this concept, we could infer that cities, and not only public spaces, should be created following that premise.

Cities could be defined as permanent human settlements that facilitate reciprocal action between people and businesses through the concentration of development. Public spaces, on the other hand, are social areas accessible to people. If we take a closer look to these definitions, we could infer that the two concepts have something in common: they both promote the interaction of people. By uncovering the ways to encourage human communication and cooperation, we could be taking the first step towards the transformation of the city making process.

In a time of global chaos, changes need to be made. We have to start doing things differently if we want to obtain different results. And the simplest, most direct approach to major change is to rethink what has been proven to work well and adapt it to other areas. So, would it be possible to approach city making as planners approach placemaking? I believe it is feasible, and, by doing so in a sustainable way, we could initiate the creative process by analyzing the assets of the place, of its people, which, over time, could result in positive solutions tailored to them and their environment, that could grant them wellbeing and health.

However, I think we should go further. The changes we need to make should involve everything about the design process, including the research techniques. I believe the key to producing sustainable, human-centered designs is to start being active. We cannot create cities just by sitting in front of our computers. Research must go beyond the internet and printed data. We need to take our actions beyond our cloistered environments and study the possibility of beginning the creation process with physical activity. Planners should go out into the streets and observe what is going on around them in order to analyze the existing reality so they can improve it. They must work with what the communities already have in order to enhance their localities and turn them into sustainable cities instead of just wiping out all existing buildings and starting from scratch.

If we think of the design process as the reconfiguration and rearrangement of the built environment instead of approaching it as we do a blank paper when creating a piece of art, we could provoke substantive changes in humanity based on our reality and needs rather than just dealing with superficial challenges.

towards the creation of sustainable, human-centered cities (1/4)

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I remember hearing that when designing a park, the best way to determine the ideal location for the walkways and trails is to place a group of people in the area, observe the walking routes they follow, and the places where they stopped to take breaks. The areas that were trodden by people should define the walking paths, and the places where they stopped to rest should become the points of interest.

Whenever I think of ecological development, that bit of park design wisdom always comes to mind. It makes me think that it is the people, the ones who will eventually be the inhabitants of those sustainable cities, who hold the key to teaching us, the architects and planners, the way towards the creation of better, human-centered cities. Hence, we could infer that to create healthier cities, we should begin by reviewing what people have, the way people live, which daily routines people follow, what they want and need, and evolve from there.

City making is far more than drawing lines in specific directions to define solids and voids. It means going further than just gathering a group of people in a planned environment and providing them with services, education, and health. I believe city making involves sensing the feel of the space in which the city will be set; it implies adapting the designs of planners to this place so both, the city and its inhabitants, can benefit, especially when creating sustainable developments.

However, it is vital to remember that cities are rarely strictly designed. They are commonly the product of human actions and interactions, rather than of professional and planned design.

Historically, cities have been built around the possibilities that these spaces have offered their inhabitants and affected by the social and economic interactions between them. Therefore, the role of planners is usually to work with the place´s resources and turn them into opportunities that can improve a city’s livability, while setting the guidelines for better, more controlled development.

The problem we are facing now is that in many countries around the world, especially in developing countries, cities continue to grow as random groupings of people without order, control, or intention, and, because most of these nations are immersed in deep economic crises, government policies usually focus on solving problems that could bring them closer to economic stability.  Meanwhile, cities develop as unbridled spontaneous interventions.

But history tells us that the needs of humanity have always guided their actions. Every significant invention or change that has taken place in the world has been related to specific needs: the invention of internet was made seeking to create a computer network that could help the military forces of United States to defend against attacks; the printing press was created due to the need to spread the written word; and I could go on describing the causes of all great inventions, but I think history speaks for itself.

Thus, we should learn from the past, take advantage of this knowledge, and use it to stop the uncontrolled growth of urban areas and clusters. We should acknowledge that, since human interaction is such a large part of the city planning process, their involvement in it should weigh heavily on the design. The considerations about the environment should pair up with the needs of people in order to produce positive social and urban outcomes. Planners should start thinking about creative ways to make people get involved in city making so they become active participants in this challenge.

When designing, architects and planners should begin by uncovering the strengths and weaknesses of the space, analyzing the habits of its people so they can use them as a starting point; but, above all, to be able to delve into the process of city making, everyone involved should lay the excuses aside. Each region has its own–climate, overpopulation, politics, and crime among others–and all of them are used to validate the minimal involvement of designers in building healthier and better planned cities.

Therefore, if we begin to focus on the positive aspects of our reality, and become aware of the needs of our societies, we could start generating better responses for our cities, increasing opportunities for people to become collaborative and contribute with their knowledge.

liberty

http://goo.gl/Qjku9MWhile my country is sinking slowly into a black hole that seems to be consuming all of us and making us disappear in its relentless darkness, I try to stay positive in hopes that my cheerful spirit can rescue me from this madness.

My body and my mind pore over an internal struggle between my reality and the life I want for me and my family; I close my eyes and I find myself sailing through countless memories that transport me from one place to another, going through all those spaces that once saw me go by and filled me with energy.

http://goo.gl/wwGZWRLost in my dream, I open my eyes and find myself walking the streets of New York. I feel the freedom passing through my body; it slips through my fingers and then goes to produce the same effect on someone else. Suddenly I find myself in a street flanked by tall buildings that shelter me and make me feel safe; I have the impression that the content space gives me a sense of peace, the kind of peace that I´ve been anxiously chasing for months in a frustrated search because of the great amount of uncertainty present in my life. I walk a little more, and a small open space appears before my eyes; a beautiful glow blinds me for a moment. The excess of light gradually begins to disappear and my eyes revel in the freedom of this area that, even though it´s contained between buildings, seems to escape every few seconds to fill this place with a delicious sense of grandeur.

I stop for a few minutes to appreciate this gift and try to absorb all the freedom of the space with every fiber of my being. I want it to fill my body; I want to take it back with me to my country which needs it so much.

http://goo.gl/Zoa2RxDarkness… it comes back to my mind quickly subjugating all traces of light that I had managed to get… I open my eyes and find myself back in the same place that wanted to escape from. But something has changed… My perception of it is different. Now I´m able to appreciate it for what it really is and not for what my emotions make me perceive it.

I direct my gaze to the right and find a leafy tree; then I look up and discover that a vast blue sky is protecting me from the unknown. Nothing separates us; not even a delicate cloud is between us; this huge bright and colorful blanket climbs over me highlighting the organic forms of vegetation and the incorruptible straight lines of the buildings. I hear some birds passing over my head and a gentle breeze blows my hair clouding my sight for a few seconds.

I take a breath and everything starts to make sense. I wake up to my reality. I must be here; there is a greater purpose directing the lives of those who are still here.

I cannot surrender. My energy has to regain its luster, color and strength. I must recover my smile, the one that was left hidden behind some door in a sad and dark place.

I close my eyes again; take a deep breath and open them again. It’s back! My lost smile has returned; and with it, my energy. I feel like I slowly regain my strength and begin to believe again, to have faith again. Everything will be fine. There is a bright future ahead of me, waiting for me, anxious for my arrival.

I walk towards it, to that ideal place where my designs are more than just sculptures contained behind bars. That place where the skyline can be seen in its entirety as we walk down any street. That place in which an architect can be a visionary without limitations beyond those imposed by the client or urban planning; where the environment adds to the project instead of subtracting from it; where life flows through buildings without bumping with cold locks.

I know that place is near; I feel it deep inside me, and I also know that I am an important part of this process of change; that’s why I’m here.

I won´t close my eyes to the reality that surrounds me; I won´t be going with the flow any more. Starting today, my life and the way I live it will be vital elements of a major change. Because, as Mandela said: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others…”

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spinning cities

http://goo.gl/zb14iWhen I think about the concept of time and its ramifications, I find myself observing pieces of memories which are connected with each other and, as when using scraps of fabric to create a quilt, I begin weaving stories to assemble a lifetime.

Every memory takes me to another memory; every story, every character, unleashes a wealth of emotions, feelings and desires lost in time, in search of their path, their course, their hope to become real and current again.

Sometimes those memories are better hidden away in some dark and lost place, because their untimely sudden appearance can alter the natural order of things producing unintended consequences. But often, reuniting with memories, with our past, helps us understand our present and even plan for a better future.

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http://goo.gl/8E4Y4In cities, each architectural creation of our ancestors has at least a small part in the great work of today’s cities, every great building of the past is a piece of sand of each and every one of the buildings from our time. Every room, every space once built is the father of many other spaces.

Architecture is our stage, our environment, the perfect backdrop for every memory. When we walk through a building in which we have been previously, our sensors become activated and endless sensations come to mind. Each memory is perfect because it happened in a perfect setting for this event. If it had happened elsewhere, the memory would be completely different.

When we start a creative process, we must be aware of what is the story we want to develop in that place, or if, on the contrary, we want to leave the options open for its inhabitants to take ownership of it, transforming it to suit them as it happens, for example, in kinetic architecture.

But in any case, the process must begin with a vision, with a story to be developed in the time that this building exists and there should be as meaningful as possible so that this story can become larger than time itself.

Our history/story is eternal, just as architecture, because even if we or our buildings perish, the ramifications product of that history/story will live on forever creating more and more connections…

the city without excuses

Excuse: Reason or pretext to avoid an obligation or justify any omissions.

City making is much more than drawing lines in specific directions that surround solids and voids. It is more than gathering a group of people in a planned environment and providing them with services, education and health. City making means living, breathing and feeling through a certain space; means to adapt to it and reach an agreement between the two so that both, space and its inhabitants will benefit.

To be able to form cities we must begin by being honest with ourselves; assuming our strengths and weaknesses, analyzing our habits and exposing them. But above all things, to achieve the real city making we must erase the excuses from our minds. Each country has its own: climate, overpopulation, politics… excuses, excuses, EXCUSES. And Venezuela is no exception, our excuse is insecurity. And it has become the perfect justification for anyone to do anything… literally. Thousands of people decide day by day, more and more, to stay home so we can avoid being victims of crime. We reduce one by one the activities we do every day, becoming more sedentary, shrinking as people and damaging our health by lack of physical activity.

And of course, if people living in cities do nothing, then it makes no sense that specialists do something/anything in terms of urban planning: Why strive if people are not going to go out? Why build if others are going to destroy?

The country seems to be frozen pending the much-waited change. We accumulate reasons for doing nothing, and meanwhile, we all live the consequences of such inactivity.

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But the absence of the concept city making is not only present in Venezuela. In many countries, cities continue to grow as simple random groups of people, without order, control or intention. We keep searching for anything that simplifies our lives and in the way, we leave aside all that is good for us, that makes us happy and helps us become better people.

Walking, dancing, riding bikes, sharing common interests without a screen in between… all of those activities are being left behind as the memories of past generations.

And every day we choose to isolate rather than do something about it, we are missing a myriad of sensations; sounds, textures, glows, aromas…

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We must begin to change; we need to start the process of city making. But  every culture is different, therefore the rules don´t always apply in the same way in all cases. That is why it is so important that city making does not become just about sitting in front of a computer and, once again, becoming inactive. We need to reverse the process, think of the creation through physical activity. Go to the streets to analyze what is happening outside so we can improve what already exists; the idea is not to simply say it does not work and  discard it, or cover it with flowers and a few billboards and advertisements. The change must start from the needs of the people, their daily routines, their activities and desires.

If anything we should have learned by now is that the future cannot be only about flying machines and telepathic messages. Our planet is clamoring for a return to origins, to basics; that does not mean that we will go back in time and erase centuries of evolution and progress; which means is that thanks to all those years and the knowledge we have accumulated during that time, we have now more and better capabilities to turn the basics into something better, more integral, more effective.

And if we just think about the destination and not about the journey, which is basically what we do when we create hiding behind a computer, we will miss the surprises and experiences that are there waiting for us.

But each city must find their own path; and each of us must start with a small change: we must put aside the excuses and start moving towards that point of convergence between the simplicity of the past and the knowledge of the future.

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All images belong to the great artist / architect Cristina Bergoglio.