Anti-Patterns of Social Housing in Latin America

Continuing the series of articles developed by Nikos A. Salingaros, David Brain, Andres M. Duany, Michael W. Mehaffy, and Ernesto Philibert-Petit, in this article we'll be exploring how observations on social housing in Latin American have been approached from an outdated and antagonistic point of view. Notions and errors committed in previous studies  - in some cases simply by inertia - are discussed in the Latin American context, and propose adaptable solutions focused on the long-term, urban roots of residents.

A Military/Industrial Planning Philosophy

Let us summarize some of the current beliefs and typologies that drive social housing today, so that we can replace them with an entirely different framework. We will suggest using solutions that we feel work best as the more enlightened alternative. Much of our criticism focuses on top-down control. That approach leads to simplification in the planning process. However, one cannot design and build complex urban fabric using top-down tools. There is more to criticize in the specific images people have of modernity. That concerns both architects, who carry with them a false set of desirable images; and residents, who are invariably influenced by those same images through the media.

Paraísos Siniestros: vivienda de interés social en México. Image © Jorge Taboada

1. Existing public housing projects are conceptualized and built as cheap dormitories, and thus follow a military/industrial planning philosophy: build as many units as possible, as cheaply and efficiently as possible. We should abandon this mindset and build urban quarters instead. Building an urban quarter is a much more complex undertaking, and one that requires complex engagement beyond the small circles of policy-making and professional elites.

2. To erect a housing project most efficiently, the directing entity wants to have maximal control over the geometry and building process. This practical requirement means that user participation is excluded.

3. The very name “social housing” implies that only a dormitory is built, and not an urban quarter. Following World War II, monofunctional zoning became the established criterion by which governmental interventions were carried out. Those ideas were in place before the War, but post-war reconstruction and expansion gave the opportunity to apply them on a much larger scale.

4. The industrial building typology relegates plants and the natural environment to a purely decorative role, or eliminates them altogether. Nevertheless, human health is possible only if we connect to plants and nature in our immediate surroundings: the “Biophilia Hypothesis” (Kellert et al., 2008; Salingaros, 2013; 2015).

Paraísos Siniestros: vivienda de interés social en México. Image © Jorge Taboada

5. An urban quarter is comprised of complex social networks, and requires the appropriate urban morphology of a network. It is never monofunctional, and it is not homogeneous. It cannot be built in a top-down fashion by central government. Individual villages (Pueblos in Latin America) have been evolving far longer than 500 years; they possess a rich inheritance of a mixture of many cultures that comes from the deep past, e.g. indigenous cultures such as Toltec, Mayan, Incan, Carib and incoming cultures such as Spanish, Portuguese, African, Islamic and so on. There are many lessons that we can learn from this evolution.

6. A conventional social housing project is seldom concerned about social accessibility to the urban network, since it is usually built in disconnected (many times rural) areas. All too often, the issue is understood only as a matter of “housing”, with measures of success typically in terms of quantities of “units” and immediate impact on individuals, rather than the quality (or sustainability) of the community life that results.

7. The typical location of social housing projects in rural areas has to do with a powerful economic reason: the land owners have managed to get a change of land use and have obtained for themselves an extraordinary surplus value. This is part of the sprawl-oriented development in our cities. Furthermore, the project itself, the government, and the users seldom benefit in any way from this surplus value.

8. A typical social housing project conceived as a disconnected “urban island” has an awful impact on the environment. It is disconnected from local and from global economic cycles.

Housing in São Bernardo do Campo, Brasil. Image via Wikipedia User: Lukaaz. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

9. The geometry of a conventional social housing project and the configuration of its constituent units give few or no ways to affect further development. They present a number of geometrical obstacles for its evolution over time. This impediment frustrates the inhabitants’ hopes, and suppresses their prospects for social and economic improvement.

10. Architects, government officials, and future residents all carry within their minds an “image of modernity”. This set of ingrained images generates a building typology that is hostile in actual use, and presents one of the greatest obstacles to adaptive social housing.

Governments are still stuck in the mindset of social housing serving jobs in a particular place. The reality is different: healthy urban quarters connect into an urban conglomeration, and people work wherever they can find jobs. By contrast, unhealthy urban regions are isolated, disconnecting people from each other and from employment opportunities. Despite strong social and economic forces leading to isolation, our aim is not to codify this isolation in the buildings and urban form. To do that is to compound the problem. We should instead use the urban geometry to counteract social isolation.

Social Housing in Venezuela. Image © The Photographer. Vía Wikimedia, licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0

The very notion of monofunctional housing is obsolete

The above list of typologies and practices leads to unhealthy housing projects, creating unsustainable social conditions. To achieve a more adaptive approach, those typologies must be reversed, and the forces that lead us to repeat the same mistakes over and over again should be redirected. Some errors arise simply out of inertia: copying failed solutions because it has become a habit to do so, and not identifying viable alternatives. Those errors are very easy to resolve once the situation is better understood. There is another class of errors, however, which arise because the same forces lead to similar expressions in practical applications. Those conditions cannot be changed, and must instead be redirected. Failure to understand the difference between the two problems means that we will never be able to improve the current situation.

One principle becomes clear: there is no point of designing “social housing” as such. We need to design and build complex, mixed-use urban fabric, and to make sure it fits into existing complex mixed-use urban fabric. Social housing, and housing in general, need to be part of a healthy (and socially inclusive) process of urbanism. The very notion of monofunctional housing is obsolete, discredited because it never worked to connect residents to their environment. All of the planning measures we reject — originally well intentioned — were adopted as a means to improve efficiency in facing a serious urban challenge.

The underlying reasons for their failure have never been officially admitted, however.  As a result, there has been a tendency for the debate to focus on problems with the design of social housing as buildings: as if it were merely a matter of coming up with a better design idea to be imposed with more or less the same apparatus of top-down control. Usually nowadays, an architect’s idea of a good design is impersonal and oppressive to the actual users. Some more recent public housing initiatives in the USA (such as the HOPE VI program) have made an effort to incorporate resident participation in the process, but relatively superficially and with very mixed success. Our key point is that the process of producing living places that incorporate social housing has to be changed at its root. It must accommodate more fundamental and meaningful engagement, grounding the generation of urban form in a process that adequately respects the organized complexity distinctive to the nature of cities.

Cidade de Deus, favela in Rio de Janeiro. Image via Wikipedia User: Junius. Licensed under Public Domain

The perception of community

There is a need to mix social classes for a healthier social fabric. The mix can occur naturally through the process of upgrading. It is also important that people who have a choice remain in the neighborhood. The comprehensive approach to creating a village would seem to make sense in places like Latin America where whole settlements of previously rural people create shanty towns and squatter settlements on the periphery of big cities. In that context, there may be no option but to catalyze the generation of whole urban quarters built by the residents, with help by us. Generally, we would want to be cautious about building urban quarters specifically for the poor.

Healthy urban fabric is not monofunctional, and neither does it strictly contain one income level. We are aware of the tremendous social difficulties of encouraging mixed-income housing, because of the perception that no one would ever want to live next to people even slightly poorer than they are. However, we can find encouraging examples of social mixture in historic towns and historic city centers all around Latin America (the Centro Histórico of Querétaro is a good example). The difference lies in the perception of community (which can overcome income differences) versus perceiving a house strictly as real estate. Mixed income communities are not only possible, but are more resilient.

Social Housing in Lima. Image via Wikipedia User: Jorge Tineo. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

It is not just a question here of physically separated urban quarters on the urban periphery. How does one create a unique pattern-generating process for these urban quarters, without creating enclaves that stand out dramatically from the rest of the city? In other words, how does one plan for low-income buildings without creating “projects”, barrios, and ghettos? It seems to us that it is crucial that this rethinking of “social housing” has to be a rethinking of everybody’s housing — i.e., of urbanism — such that “social housing” is subsumed by a more general process of creating a city of healthy networks (Salingaros, 2005). Connecting to the global networks of the city: major streets, the public transportation system, political and social networks, etc., is of the greatest importance.

Part of the mindset of government is that “social housing” has to follow a specific set of policies directed at a specific problem, and administered in and through specific sites. We have super block projects (which are dehumanizing but easy to administer), or we have something like the Section 8 voucher system in the USA, which subsidizes rent for low-income residents. In the case of the latter, social housing becomes an abstract category — defined only in terms of the pathologies of individuals who need assistance, and addressed in the form of payments to property owners. In the latter case, the “site” is a category of individuals, severed from community connections.

Typically, the poor already have complex social networks upon which they rely heavily for survival. At the same time, however, the relative isolation of these networks is a serious problem. Although often very densely connected in a “peer group society”, the poor tend to have limited connections outside those circles, and are isolated in their own villages. They are bound into small networks, but have no sense of themselves categorically as residents of a neighborhood. They also tend to distrust people from outside their networks. Essentially, they have no capacity to identify with or care about the neighborhood as a neighborhood. The problem from a network point of view becomes how to strengthen the pattern of weak ties in such a way that one can incorporate low-income populations into civic life. Moreover, this has to be done without disrupting the strong networks of mutual assistance on which those residents rely. The solution requires organizing these local networks into a network that works on a larger scale.

Traducción al Español de Nuria Hernández Amador, revisada por Ernesto Philibert Petit. Título Original: Vivienda Social en Latinoamérica: Una metodología para utilizar procesos de auto-organización. 2. Antipatrones de la vivienda social.

Originally presented by N.A.S. as a keynote address to the Brazilian and Ibero-American Congress on Social Housing, Florianópolis, Brazil, 2006.


  • Stephen R. Kellert, Judith Heerwagen & Martin Mador, Editors (2008) Biophilic Design: the Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life (John Wiley, New York).
  • Nikos A. Salingaros (2005, 2014) Principles of Urban Structure (Techne Press, Amsterdam, Holland and Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon).
  • Nikos A. Salingaros (2013) Unified Architectural Theory: Form, Language, Complexity (Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal).  Chapter 10 published in ArchDaily, 26 April, 2015.
  • Nikos A. Salingaros (2015) Biophilia and Healing Environments, (OfftheCommonBooks, Amherst, Massachusetts), available free online from Terrapin Bright Green LLC, New York.

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Cite: Nikos A. Salingaros, David Brain, Andrés M. Duany, Michael W. Mehaffy & Ernesto Philibert-Petit. "Anti-Patterns of Social Housing in Latin America" [Antipatrones de la vivienda social en Latinoamérica] 15 Apr 2019. ArchDaily. (Trans. Dejtiar, Fabian) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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