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Urban slums: The next frontier in green design

   /   May 17th, 2010Design, News

The Vertical Gym sports complex in the San Agustin hills, still under construction

The new sports complex in the San Agustin hills overlooking Caracas looks oddly out of place. Sitting atop a steep hillside above Venezuela’s bustling capital, the gleaming four-story glass-and-steel “Vertical Gym” is unique more for its patrons than for its innovative design. That’s because most of the gym’s 15,000 monthly visitors are slum-dwellers.

The creative minds behind the Vertical Gym belong to the non-profit research and design group Urban Think Tank (UTT), the brainchild of Columbia University School of Architecture graduates Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner. Brillembourg and Klumpner take an unconventional approach, focusing on slum projects that most architects would scarcely consider, never mind pursue. The two design for free. They propose projects to public and private institutions. Once funding is secured, UTT implements projects in partnership with municipalities and private enterprises.

Green the slums, don’t eradicate them
According to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, one billion people live in slums today, and that number is growing fast. Rapid urbanization and widespread poverty have made slums one of the dominant social artifacts of the 21st century.  Traditionally, urban developers focused on slum-clearance, looking to rid urban landscapes of “unsightly” settlements. Today, many are coming to recognize that slums are not just a way of living, but a way of life–one that cannot easily be uprooted. This perspective demands an appreciation for the distinctive way that slum communities emerge and function.

“Slums are like microorganisms,” said Marielly Casanova, a UTT architect and graduate in urban design from Columbia University. “A family will first claim a piece of empty land. As the family grows, they will build a second and then a third floor. In time, they might start a business and take over an adjoining lot. Eventually, they will occupy every available space, resource and opportunity.”

The incremental and haphazard expansion makes conventional urban planning difficult, which is why the designers at UTT advocate a bottom-up approach that is suited to designing solutions according to each slum’s unique needs. “Our objective is to improve the quality of life for people who live in slums,” said Casanova. In San Agustin, for example, the densely populated,

The UTT-developed cable cars in San Agustin. Photo by Andre Cypriano

mountainous terrain made roads impossible, so UTT developed a cable car that carries people up the hillside, a journey that previously took 45 minutes and required slum residents to climb 600 stairs.

Slums—A new frontline in the battle against poverty AND global warming
Slum improvement efforts can bring important environmental benefits as well. Residents regularly burn toxic substances that pollute the air, while inadequate sewage and waste disposal contaminate water and land and breed disease. Thoughtful slum design is urgently needed to protect the environment.

But slum improvement has been largely overlooked as a method of promoting sustainable development. Instead, vast sums are being invested in building “sustainable cities” like Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. Scheduled to open in 2016 at an estimated cost of USD $22 billion, the exclusive, walled city will be the world’s first zero-carbon and zero-waste development, according to design firm Foster + Partners.

An artist rendering of the Vertical Gym

Casanova does not believe that sustainable cities are the way forward. “With more than a billion people living in slums,” she said, “investing in sewage infrastructure and waste disposal services–while not as sexy–will do much more to combat environmental degradation than building some desert utopia from scratch.”

Driven by these social and environmental concerns, slum improvement is gaining traction.  We will likely see more urban designers foregoing big commissions in places like Abu Dhabi for the chance to “slum it” in Caracas.  And the world will be the better for it.

Images: Urban Think Tank

2 Responses

  1. Nikola says:

    I think that sometimes the human mentality is to “move” or change an environment and start fresh; as if this will solve all the problems we face. While I think there is some benefit to this mentality (it might free up thought to new innovative thinking, etc) it is not a very smart way to deal with problems. I love the UTT approach because it is learning about the people, bring a story to life, giving the people a sense of ownership. If we make the environment a better place people will adept to that better environment and in turn live a better quality of life. While the Masdar City is a great example of where we can take future cities, I would like more focus on what UTT is doing because we already have many cities built. Furthermore, not everyone is able to afford Madar City.

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