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    The Amazonian city in Peru at crossroads

    By Giovanna Astolfo, on 3 August 2017

    The contemporary urbanisation of Amazonas is a geopolitical creation, and a recent phenomenon. For long time native communities have been living in sparse, often isolated, settlements. Adapting to the mutable conditions of the river, they created a system based on mobility, economic diversification and ‘multi-sited territorial appropriation’ (Peluso and Alexiadis, 2016). Such use and production of space was and still is disarticulated from any single master principle of spatial organization and from usual dichotomies such as rural/urban and public/private. Starting from the 1960s, extractive activities favoured rural-urban migration. Cities such Iquitos, Tarapoto and Puerto Maldonado in Peru, Leticia in Colombia, Belem and Manaus in Brazil grew immensely in few decades. Rural population moved to the cities, settling along the river, often retaining the traditional spatial organisation. Their survival is now threatened by climate change and flooding risk, coupled with recession and growing unemployment following the recent decline of oil extraction. Exploitation of resources prevented the growth of productive activities offering now little alternative sources of income to the urban population.

    Photo credit CASA

    Photo credit CASA

     

    It is in this complex context that the research project Ciudades Auto-Sostenibles Amazónicas (CASA), led by Pablo Vega-Centeno at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP), and coordinated by the BUDD alumna Belén Desmaison (PUCP), with the involvement of DPU’s Camillo Boano and Giovanna Astolfo, is developing a participatory process with local communities, local authorities and the national government to co-produce sustainable spatialities and promote alternative livelihoods systems in the Amazonas, starting from local technologies and knowledges. The project aims to create evidence-based methodology for a more participatory implementation process of preventive relocations. The project looks at the city of Iquitos, in the Peruvian Amazon, where a massive relocation process of around 16,000 people living in the flood-prone low-district of Belén is undergoing amid great difficulties and resistance. The government-led relocation has been implemented following a DRM policy released in 2011 and as part of the national programme “Programa Nuestras Ciudades”; despite many positive pioneering aspects, the decision-making process was centralised and the project poorly articulated, failing to capture the socio-spatial complexity of the context. Particularly, the relocation threatens the traditional spatial organisation of Amazon’s communities, negatively impacting the livelihoods system.

     

    Photo credit CASA

    Photo credit CASA

     

    Approximately 200 families have been relocated to date. However, the decision whether to move or not is creating tensions and conflicts amongst the remaining groups, as highlighted in earlier research conducted by the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) as part of the research “Reducing Relocation Risk in Urban Areas” led by Cassidy Johnson at DPU.  If, on one side, relocation can improve health condition and security, on the other side it might result in greater impoverishment consequent to the loss of jobs and traditional ways of living. Currently, most of the population is against relocation. Lack of trust in the process, and the polarisation of political parties are poisoning the debate (Chavez, 2016). Understandably enough, relocation is, above all, a matter of the narrative that is created around it.

    Connected through a newly constructed road, Nuevo Belén is distant from the city of Iquitos, and from the Amazon River and its tributaries which are the main source of income. It is an artificial city that looks like a dorm, as few of the planned facilities have been built so far. Each family has been given a lot of around 120 sq.mt., out of which 40 are occupied by the house. The housing typology is far from reflecting the social organisation and the constructive tradition, let aside being suitable to the climate. Reason why most of the dwellers have already transformed the space. Shelters on stilts are popping up where the ‘gardens’ should be, while the concrete houses serve as shops. Productive spaces (‘huertas’) are mushrooming around the houses as a consequence of informal appropriation of land, although under temporary deals – as the land will be soon occupied by the second round of housing construction.

     

    Photo credit CASA

    Photo credit CASA

     

    Starting from the ‘huertas’, the workshop that took place in July in Nuevo Belén focused on alternative design proposals for the creation of self-sufficient systems to ensure the economic sustainability of resettlement, and to create new livelihoods options. Proposals, developed by an interdisciplinary team of PUCP students and validated by the community, investigate what technologies and construction techniques are better adaptable to the context in social, spatial and climatic terms (particularly related to solar energy and rain collection).

     

    Photo credit CASA

    Photo credit CASA

     

    Clearly, Amazonian cities posit great challenges, particularly to those communities affected by economic recession, settled on flood-prone areas and at risk of relocation. It is necessary to think a different urbanisation, flexible, adaptive and temporal, more similar to the tradition of disperse settlement of the native communities. Relocation should be conceptualised as an urbanism in flux characterised by interconnected mobilities and heterogeneity (Browder and Godfrey, 1997); and its open spaces should not be purely private nor merely public and should be understood as in-between spaces, reproduced through mobility that is constitutive of this urbanity in flux.

     

    Photo credit CASA

    Photo credit CASA


    DPU’s Camillo Boano and Giovanna Astolfo are involved in the research project Ciudades Auto-Sostenibles Amazónicas (CASA) that looks at the Amazonian city of Iquitos. The project is led by Pablo Vega-Centeno of the Centro de Investigación, Arquitectura y Ciudad (CIAC), Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP), and coordinated by Belén Desmaison (PUCP and DPU alumna). As part of the project, in July Giovanna Astolfo participated to the workshop ‘Taller Partecipativo’ in Nuevo Belen with CASA team and students from PUCP.

    https://casapucp.com/

    CASA is part of the CRC Initiative funded by CDKN, IRDC and FFLA. https://crclatam.net/

    Citywide upgrading strategies in Phnom Penh, Cambodia: three years of engagement

    By Giovanna Astolfo, on 23 May 2016

    In a famous picture of Phnom Penh in 1979, two children stand in the foreground looking steadily at the camera, while behind them the city, once the ‘pearl of Asia’, is nothing but a desolated and spectral bunch of abandoned buildings. The urban history of the capital of Cambodia is demarcated by iterative evacuations and expulsions of its population. Although there is no agreement on numbers and scale of the phenomenon, the first evacuation took place in Phnom Penh during the Pol Pot regime. The vast majority of the urban population was forcibly deported to the countryside, in order to fulfil the utopia of a rural Kampuchea and a classless agrarian society; while public buildings, cultural and institutional symbols, were emptied, abandoned and eventually destroyed in what can be referred to as urbicide, an act of extreme violence towards the city and what it represents for its people.

    At the end of the war, people returned to Phnom Penh. As refugees in their own city, they occupied abandoned buildings or settled in unregulated land. When, two decades later, Cambodia opened to the global market, and new foreign investments flew into the city, that land became attractive to the appetite of new developers. As a consequence, entire communities were brutally evicted and forcibly moved to peripheral areas. Relocations took place from the 90s to ‐ officially ‐ the early 2010s. Over this period, with more than 50 relocation sites around Phnom Penh, the relocation process has become the main way to produce the city.

    Today, urban planning is still not high in the national agenda (there is a city strategy plan which level of implementation is hard to grasp and local investment plans which consider private development only), while the housing policy (released in 2014) is poorly articulated and not yet implemented. Although a social housing policy (programme) for low income people is under study, the housing needs of the poor are not addressed. In general terms, local government is not much interfering in the land market; such a laissez faire approach is favouring private-sector development, with no alternative for the poor. As the land on the market is not accessible to them, poor communities keep occupying public or private interstitial land along canals and unused infrastructure, mostly vulnerable and prone to flooding, while gated communities and satellite cities are growing in number. Given that 50% of the urban population are below the poverty line, who can afford these houses? Gated communities are probably aimed at a middle class that still does not exists or better to foreigners and officials that are part of a highly corrupted political system.

    Looking inward: challenges at site level. Smor San community, Chbar Ampov district, Phnom Penh, settled since the 1970s on a graveyard. Pictures by Catalina Ortiz.

    Looking inward: challenges at site level. Smor San community, Chbar Ampov district, Phnom Penh, settled since the 1970s on a graveyard. Pictures by Catalina Ortiz.

    Most of the sites selected for the MSc BUDD fieldtrip – taking place in Phnom Penh for the third consecutive year – reveal aspects and nuances of these urban processes. Particularly, Pong Ro Senchey and Steung Kombot communities are informal settlements on narrow strips of public land stretched between private properties waiting for redevelopment; while Smor San settlement is located on a graveyard. By learning from the unique approach of our partners, Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR), Community Architects Cambodia (CAN-CAM), and Community Development Foundation (CDF), and from the people in each community, BUDD students, divided into three groups and joined by local students of architecture and urbanism, by UN intern and representative of the housing department, worked for five days in the three sites. Five days of emotionally intense engagement with the people and the context, trying to identify needs and aspirations, while unpacking the complex power relations within the government, digging into the legal and normative frameworks to understand how to ‘break the vertical’ and to disclose the potential for change.

    After working with the communities to develop site upgrading strategies, the students were asked to produce an ulterior effort, that of looking across the different sites (and for this purpose the original groups have been reshuffled into new groups each one including at least two members from each site group) to address what we call ‘citywide upgrading’. This is a difficult and ambitious task, as it encompasses the multidimensionality of urban issues at the political, social, spatial and economic levels. Particularly, it calls for a multi-scalar reasoning and strategising that takes into consideration the community singularity and agency as well as the national policy framework in which community action needs to be framed. The scaling up of site upgrading strategies does not happen in a merely quantitative manner (i.e. iteration of a similar strategy), but rather considering the city as a wider community, where spatial proximity is replaced by shared practices and interests. Citywide upgrading is at the core of the BUDD pedagogy, and although this is not a new theory, BUDD students are currently contributing to its redefinition as a development theory for the poor, deeply embedded into the practice of ACHR and CAN.

    Engaging the community to identify priorities for upgrading in Steung Kombot, Russey Keo district. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci

    Engaging the community to identify priorities for upgrading in Steung Kombot, Russey Keo district. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci

    Amongst the principles for citywide upgrading, three seem to be crucial.

    First, to include the urban poor in the ongoing development. While Phnom Penh is witnessing fast urbanisation and growth, poor people are still uninscribed in such growth. How to capture and redistribute the profits and benefits? How to dismantle the hierarchical system that is at the basis of unequal development?

    Secondly, to question the regulatory role of state authority. Although the government is merely indulging in highly corrupted laissez faire, legal and policy frameworks exist (for instance, art. 5 of the housing policy includes onsite upgrading). The question is how to implement them? How to monitor the implementation through accountable mechanisms?

    Third, to address the aid dependency and foster self determination of the communities. This stems from the acknowledgement of existing potential: the people knowledge, skills, technology and capital. How to achieve political recognition? How to increase the visibility of people processes?

     

    BUDD and Khmer students @work learning from each other. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci/Giovanna Astolfo

    BUDD and Khmer students @work learning from each other. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci/Giovanna Astolfo

    The above questions have been addressed through small, short or long term, concrete actions such as: environmental upgrading particularly related to flooding risk (households repeatedly affected by seasonal flooding or flooding related to climate change and land development, can access to new grants for upgrading); online knowledge platforms (as people are increasingly connected, online platforms can ensure easy and fast access to knowledge, and data collection and sharing; such platforms can be accessible also to NGOs and local authority); network upgrading fund (as private development is happening, social responsibility can be strengthen, for instance through new funding schemes sourced from the private sector and led by people); social ombudsman (in order to ensure the inclusion of the community as well as the transparency of the decision making process, the implementation of policy and scrutiny of the process).

    As in the previous two years, strategies have been publicly presented by students and representatives of the communities, serving as a platform to advocate ‘the cause’ with national and local authorities. As political recognition remains one of the main challenges that the communities in Phnom Penh face, after three years of engagement, the ‘cumulative impacts’ of the work developed by BUDD with local partners has inspired a young and strong generation of architects equipped to take up the challenge of a more just future for our cities

    Presentations to the local authorities in Khan (district of) Por Senchey and Russey Keo. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci/Giovanna Astolfo

    Presentations to the local authorities in Khan (district of) Por Senchey and Russey Keo. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci/Giovanna Astolfo

     


    Giovanna Astolfo is a teaching fellow at the MSc Building and Urban Design for Development, she recently joined students on overseas fieldwork in Cambodia. This is the third year that the MSc BUDD has visited Cambodia, continuing a collaboration with the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights and Community Architects Network Cambodia