Meagan Durlak and James Frankis, both students studying Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons New School for Design, have developed a mobile mapping tool to unveil the true dynamics of informal slum communities, as revealed by Metropolis Magazine.
The system, called Mark, is being tested in the Heliopolis favela of Sao Paulo, Brazil, after which the duo hope it will be "scalable and adaptable" enough to be applied to other informal settlements all over the world. The SMS-based tool is designed not only to provide information about the settlements to external organizations, but also to be a sharing platform for the residents who become cartographers of their own neighborhood.
Read about the motivation behind the Mark project after the break
Durlak and Frankis are part of a growing number of designers who are developing a new understanding of informal settlements, characterized by a desire to work with existing communities and neighborhoods rather than razing and replacing them. The article explains:
"Underneath the overwhelming weight of negative associations and stereotypes, there is an undeniable richness that exists within this informal space. The makeshift culture that emerged from the combination of the informal and the formal has created systems, beliefs, and a sense of community that are unlike anything you might find in a formal city setting."
They are certainly not blind to the problems of these settlements, but prefer to ascribe to the idea that "there are evident systemic problems, but this does not define the everyday life of inhabitants within Heliopolis."
They describe how Heliopolis and its residents were originally dependent on Sao Paulo, however as the favela expanded, some residents took an entrepreneurial approach and established small businesses such as shops, laundromats and restaurants, creating a true community. "We believe that as these communities begin to map their surroundings, the dominant issues and cultural values that are relevant to them will start to shift from the background to the foreground."
In addition to both providing a way for residents to share and discuss aspects of their neighborhood, the information which the residents generate will hopefully help designers to make more sensitive interventions into an informal settlement:
"Through the collaborative and cross-disciplinary conversations we engage in, we are able to uncover the dense systems that exist around a single issue. Working through and within this kind of complexity, offers insight into not just the consequences of an action but also the consequences of that consequence. This problem mapping ensures that the intervention, or the design, is thoughtful and considerate of the space it will exist within."
Despite being a low-income area, Heliopolis is described as perfect to test Mark because residents have "nearly 100% access to basic cellphones and a well-established community". This project demonstrates the huge potential that modern technology offers, allowing us to understand and improve our urban environment in a way that previously would not be possible.