International Perspectives on Planning and Social Housing by Isabel Cuervo

It is estimated that 60% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2030 (World Health Organization, 2013), making it critical that we learn how to improve or create appropriate housing and public spaces for the rising number of urban dwellers. The following readings address contemporary urban development with a focus on the global South, where much of the growth is occurring, and more specifically, the creation of housing in Colombia for people with few resources. Labeled ‘social housing’ by most international housing literature, this term connotes a societal responsibility rather than the US-centric terms ‘low-income housing’ or ‘public housing.’  This list of readings reflect both status quo and counterhegemonic practices and theories, and points to a direction for future research.

Urban planning and architectural theory, and to some extent, practice, is shifting to attempt to better consider, and sometimes advocate for (e.g. Kellett et al., 2013), the people who inhabit settlements. Jan Gehl (2010) calls for designing architecture and other city elements at “eye level”, which is how people experience a space (p. 195). According to Gehl, design should be guided by the following order: life, space, buildings. However, traditional planning practice typically occurs in the opposite order, if it even considers how people live at all.  Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, is considered to be the ultimate expression of modernist design, privileging certain physical and spatial attributes, as well as the ultimate manifestation of a modernist state government exercising total control over its territory (Holston, 1999).

Alternatively, whether people take it upon themselves to combat state practices, or the state decentralizes in favor of market driven strategies (e.g. Ballén Zamora, 2009; Chiappe de Villa, 1999; Fique Pinto, 2009; Gilbert, 2004), contemporary planning theory suggests that there is a relationship between building cities and the formation of citizenry (e.g., Douglass & Friedmann, 1998; Holston, 1999). In Brazil and other Latin American countries, planning practices have since become fragmented and include spaces of and for democratic citizenship, illustrating the concept of the ‘right to the city’ (Caldeira and Holston, 2008; Irazábal, 2008). Previous research highlights the role that urban governance plays in public spaces (e.g. Irazábal, 2005). The Colombian cities of Bogotá and Medellín are currently undertaking many innovative building projects that have placed them at the forefront of globalized city planning (Mendieta, 2011). Bogotá, in particular, has overtly utilized public space to teach its citizens new behavioral and cultural norms (Berney, 2011). In line with this thinking, my research found that state mechanisms in Colombia collude to create a space for a new kind of urban citizen–one required to follow different sets of rules and behavioral expectations after moving into new social housing coordinated by Metrovivienda, a Bogotá city agency.

Large development projects aside, much of the urban expansion in the global South has taken place informally, that is, without the intervention of formal regulations by the state.  Entities like Metrovivienda, and planning laws and regulations in Colombia were created to control this kind of unmeasured growth (e.g. Filardi, 2008). Nevertheless, informally planned communities flourish despite lacking adequate physical infrastructure. Much can be learned by how people organize to control their own living spaces (e.g. Dayaratne & Kellett, 2008; Klaufus, 2000; Torres Tovar, 2009). Considering both informal and formal urban phenomena, the concept of ‘habitat’ is highly problematized by Colombian and other Latin American academics in order to design housing policy, critique, or improve it (e.g. Yory, 2008).  It integrates multiple notions about how people live in their homes and communities.  However, this ecological concept and perspective is largely missing from the Anglo and North American housing literature.

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