Sometimes your education, training, and experience cannot prepare you for a project, no matter how much expertise you believe you may have. Such was my circumstance when I first encountered the barrio of La Moran in Caracas, Venezuela. Instead of being the professional, I became the student who learned that a place with makeshift dwellings and an apparent chaotic fabric can actually be a functional and congruent neighborhood.
I arrived at the barrio with the goal of applying my urban design skills to upgrade it. What I found was a slum where 100% of the population lives in makeshift houses, perched on steep topographies.
There were upwards of 3 houses stacked practically on top of each other, directly above a ravine filled with sewage waste. The houses were literally floating because a landslide is threatening everything they owned—not that there was much of that. The community was plagued with many of the same problems as other slums. The reality was a maze of houses where everything is shared not because the residents want to, but because there is absolutely no more space on which to build or spread out. I learned quickly that “local” knowledge is what becomes the norm, because all notions of street, sidewalk, park, home, and stairway have a different meaning and concept than what is taught in books.
This is “reality” urban design because it emerges from the hands and aspiration of thousands of people striving for a better quality of life without any education or professional background in the art of house-making, let alone, city-making. While at first the homes are erected based on the need for shelter, little glimpses of coherent social life, prosperity, and longing for a more normal community start appearing directly embedded on the built fabric. It is as if unconsciously, this need for urbanization, for shelter, for “home” exudes countless and imaginative solutions to housing and social life by the construction methods of poor people.
But then come what people do not see: the opportunities for small interventions within the context of what already exists. This is a view of a local community that can come together with stairwells and walkways that connect to different areas of the barrio.
Perhaps there can be a small plaza where dancing and music enliven the whole scene and misery is quickly forgotten. Perhaps a system of pedestrian streets that gives identity to the community. Even agriculture patches, sport fields, and recycling centers. A goal is to try to highlight the social aspect of the place by providing these spaces for the people who live there. With this vision, that word “slum” truly becomes “neighborhood.”
Nothing has ever taught me more than seeing and working in a slum in person. Everything I had learned or applied up to that point became flawed. I arrived thinking I was here to help with my arsenal of knowledge, and that I could not but improve people’s lives in this situation. Yet I was wrong. I became a beginner, almost like an intern, and instead had to let the slum teach me. While urban design gives you a perspective from which to truly see these areas; in reality, nothing prepares you for it. In the case of the Caracas barrios, urbanization and landscape become more than intertwined, they are co-dependent, yet sometimes one (landscape) becomes the force which destroys the other (urbanization).
Having personally studied landscape urbanism and urban design, I arrived at the barrio ready to contribute. While I remain confident that urban design and landscape interventions can help give the residents here a sense of “city,” I am also sure that this slum already has a unique “urban” and “city” essence to it. This is something that other urban designers could appreciate if they experienced it, too. As well they should!
by Leonardo Robleto C., Affiliate ASLA, works for Enlace Arquitectura and is on temporary assignment to Caracas, Miranda, Venezuela.