Sustainability and New Urbanism in the Third World

Karja Hansen's picture

A recent article on WorldChanging.com brought up the subject of sustainable planning and building in third world regions. The article specifically discusses the October 15 8.0 earthquake in the Ica region of Central Andean Peru. The city of Pisco near the epicenter has reportedly lost 80 percent of its housing.

Having seen the amazing response to Katrina here in the States, and the innovation of the Katrina Cottage model in addition to numerous other resources listed in the WorldChanging article - it is obviously possible to rebuild more sustainably - and stronger - than before. The question the World Changing article asks is whether this type of thing is, however, generally just reserved for First World disasters, and if so why and what we can do to change that.

The question I propose additionally is whether even in instances of non-disaster - ie the regularity (albeit disasterous conditions still holding true) within which third world towns usually operate might not be very fertile ground for progress and freer reign to forward the tenets of new urbanism and new approaches. Additionally, it seems that by implementing some of these measures in third world measures, it would give a bit of a jump on dealing with issues like trash and other pollution that runs rampant in the communities.

When visiting Macchu Picchu this past Spring I was struck by the town of Aguas Calientes, built at the confluence of Aguas Calientes Creek and a particularly violatile section of the Urubamba River. Being the jumping off point for tourists to the ancient Incan stronghold, there has been a large amount of money coming into the town, and it seems to have been directed surprisingly well; with outdoor community pavillions and a restoration of the creek as it crashes through the town along with numerous pedestrian bridges across and wide walkways on either side.

(The Aguas Calientes Creek, shot from its confluence with the Urubamba, still mostly a concrete walled rubblefield, but with new pathways flanking and a bridge across.)

(Proper Rubbish Bins seen in the city, connected perhaps with the new path they had struck out upon?)

The WorldChanging article further discusses networking existing groups and causes through the Open Architecture Network, which is worth a look or two.

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Creative Development of Developing Nations

Consider this angle of viewing redevelopment of poor and unprivileged towns; not only is providing housing for those in need a worthy mission, it provides a way to spur creativity. There is a need for housing and it is this basic need that will allow architects and planners to be more experimental. When the demand for housing is not restricted to building large structures, of traditional materials, and with specified amenities, there is room for new ideas. This is really freedom to try new building practices that include recycled materials, positioning to take advantage of the site’s natural elements, and employing alternative energy. This is not to say that we ought to use disasters or developing nations as architectural guinea pigs, but that tremendous opportunity for implementing better building and planning practices certainly exists.

Without a doubt the greatest obstacle for these changes is monetary. Whether it is a significant lack of funds, as is the case with developing countries, or if aid dollars are being misappropriated, as Katrina funds are an example. The political implementation of this kind of development is troubled by cumbersome financing and sometimes simply because of the void of money flowing to the area. The financial difficulties people in the Gulf Coast have encountered, from the damage itself to the difficulty to secure loans and insurance, demonstrate one of the most crucial barriers to making change.

The town of Aquas Calientes is an example of tourism dollars being put to use. The town is a gateway for travelers heading to Machu Picchu, using the train to reach the base town that is otherwise known for their hot spring pools. This town has the great fortune of transportation, natural beauty, and of course location. There are many places that are not nearly as picturesque as being nestled into the Andes or the base town to a nation’s most visited tourist site. Places such as Aquas Calientes are growing in direct relation to the tourist dollars being brought in and are therefore struggling to see that the citizens benefit in addition to the tourists. It is wonderful the river walkways and bridges have been built and it is this kind of basic development that is necessary. What is worrisome are the numerous towns and cities in developing countries that are not points of interest and don’t have the exposure this town does.

To apply new urbanism in developing nations and places of disasters has been a point of interest for me because the conditions are ripe for redevelopment and redevelopment that is structured around these depleted markets. In other words, the relaxed building and zoning codes (if any at all), the absolute need for housing, and a different set of personal housing standards all result in an openness for new ideas. The developing nations should be understood as places that not only are in need, but that can give back.

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