The model Napoli, quartieri Spagnoli (image: flickr)
If the mainstream view on the slums describes them as places to escape from and as to destroy as soon as possible, more and more people look at slums in a different way.
The first glances at slums were from some of the architects involved in urban renewal projects, who started to integrate in their projects some elements of the slums. Some of the recurrent features are:
narrow courtyards and alleys
division of the building into small blocks
use of different colors and materials within the same building.
The model Atrani (image: flickr)
The results of this approach may be interesting from the esthetically point of view, and are for sure between the most interesting developments, but seem to have missed the point. While slums are usually made without the help of any technological devices, their imitations cannot exist without the most advanced designing tools and lots of structural analysis, yet they still lack the qualities that make slums so interesting.
A more radical approach has come with Jane Jacobs and her books “The Life and Death of Great American Cities” and “Cities and the Wealth of Nations“: If slums look dirty and chaotic, they are also one of the most efficient urban settlements: people can live close to each other, and possibilities to randomly meet are maximized. Social organization emerges naturally, and the overall system uses the available resources in the most efficient way.
But slums, despite all these good qualities, keep on being dirty and unhealthy places, lacking both sanitary and social services. How can we turn them in a place that could be healthy both for body an mind?
A significant contribution has come from Robert Neuwirth, who spent two years in slums in order to better know their internal dynamics. The results of his inquiry can be see in the video here below.
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8779859103646494132 (Slides from Neuwirth’s speech are available here)
According to Neuwirth, the main problem of slums is neither density nor the lack of sanitary infrastructure. The main problem is the lack of reconnaissance between slum dwellers and local authorities, that blocks all long-term investment: a precarious relationship, that leads to precarious dwellings. With a new agreement between public authorities and slum dwellers, slum can improve their condition, and even become attractive places, just like medieval cities did. A detailed explanation of the process can be found here.
Siena (image: flickr)
An example of project that follows this rule is Quinta Monroy, by the Chilean firm Elemental. Instead of providing a ready-made solution, it provided just a basic shell of the building, that can be completed little by little by its inhabitants.
For further reading:
Emergent Urbanism, a complete theory on self-organizing structures, and their use in architecture and urbanism.
Procedural City Engine, a 3D modelling engine, based on the same principles.