Throughout the world's cities, in the midst of current and projected crises-- environmental, health, economic, and otherwise--one question looms: How can we prepare our urban centers' most vulnerable sectors?
Current data paints a bleak picture of cities and the impact of climate change. With urban populations skyrocketing as people around the globe seek opportunities for a better life in the world's urban centers, cities have become gluttons for energy and other resources while simultaneously producing more emissions than ever before. On top of this, 3 out of 5 cities are at high risk for natural disasters.
"If work isn't done to mitigate and adapt cities, these same urban centers will be more crowded, hotter, and far less bio-diverse. It's a matter of aligning the processes that keep the environment in working order and the processes of urban development and doing so with more urgency than ever before."
These words from architects Jeannette Sordi and Felipe Vera preface an article by BID titled Ecological Design: Strategies for Vulnerable Cities, where they compile a series of projects focused on adapting informal settlements throughout the Caribbean and Latin America to climate change.
In this article, we highlight some of the key takeaways from the article, in the words of the authors:
The environmental and climatic crisis highlights social inequality, given that socially and economically vulnerable populations are the ones at greatest risk from natural disasters due to the lack of available services and infrastructure. If we compare the GDP and greenhouse gas emissions of countries, we can see that wealthier countries are the greatest contributors to the climate crisis; however, it is the populations of poorer countries most at risk.
Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, the most vulnerable populations typically reside in informal and crowded settlements. Operating outside of the formal urbanization process, they build their homes in the high-risk, marginal areas of cities where infrastructure and services are scarce and the impacts of climate change are magnified. This level of "climatic inequality" ultimately reflects the pre-existing socio-economic inequality found throughout the world's urban centers. In finding a solution to the climatic issues facing socially vulnerable populations, it possible to address other inequalities faced by residents in the world's informal settlements.
The article Ecological Design: Strategies for the Vulnerable City measures the impact of the climate crisis in the most vulnerable areas of our cities, namely the informal settlements, while also reflecting on how to most proactively protect those most impacted by climate change. Furthermore, it offers new lenses through which to analyze the risks and to design solutions based on the natural characteristics of informal urban settlements in order to make them more resilient to the coming challenges caused by an unstable and rapidly changing climate.
Climate change mitigation strategies call for us to reimagine global ecologies, economies, and societies in order to prepare for future conditions. On that same notes, it's important to think of informal settlements as a reality of rapid urbanization so that we can accurately predict their transformations and anticipate future risks to their residents. If we aim to adapt cities to climate change--for example, increasing permeable surface areas to, not only prevent flooding, but to increase biodiversity and access to water--we need to implement far-reaching structural changes and undertake ambitious projects that seek to integrate all sectors of a city.
Public spaces play a fundamental role in civil advocacy, discourse, and empowerment. Combined with green infrastructure, these spaces can transform into channels for reinforcing neighborhoods' social and environmental resilience. Residents of spontaneous and informal settlements often build and maintain their own homes, but there is nobody to build or maintain the public spaces within these areas.
In Argentina, for example, only 24% of informal settlements include a plaza or park. Approximately 45% of these neighborhoods are in environmentally high-risk zones, making them ideal locations for implementing solutions that, on top of consolidating public spaces and improving their usability, also emphasize green infrastructure in order to make the area more sustainable and resilient. One example would be to pave roadways, not with concrete or asphalt, but with porous and permeable materials. Another example would be to include vegetation and productive green spaces like gardens or orchards.
The Plaza Estacional Project, developed by AGA estudio, PICO, and the Barrio Canaima community in the Frailes and Canaima neighborhoods of Caracas, Venezuela, for example, aims to lower the flooding risk in these informal areas by stabilizing the terrain and garden spaces outside the remodeled houses. The gardens house plants with deep roots as well as permaculture, transforming the neighborhood plaza into a productive common space for the neighborhood residents.
The Greener Rocinha project in Río de Janeiro creates a community children's garden, complete with recycled materials and local vegetation. The project was installed in an empty, trash-filled lot. After clean-up, it was transformed into an organic vegetable garden with the help of the local community. In a similar program, The Manguinhos Garden Project created an immense urban vegetable garden, one of the largest in South America. The space is open to the community 24 hours a day and contains more than 300 vegetable patches to pick from. The first step of the project was to remove the tons of garbage from the area, removing the contaminated top layer of earth, putting down gravel to allow drainage, and then laying the brick walls for the vegetable beds. Finally, an irrigation system connected to the city water supply was installed. The garden provides fresh vegetables year-round to the local community, alleviating the financial burden of buying food while also improving the nutrition of local families. On top of it's contribution to local health and nutrition, the garden also provides a space for socializing and recreation and safe place for children to play.
In Santiago, Chile, the Parque de la Familia project aims to revive the Mapocho river banks in the city's western sector; creating a calm body of water through the use of collapsible flood gates. This would create a space for residents to take part in a variety of aquatic activities with canoes, kayaks, rowboats, and sailboats. The park is located in one of Santiago's most vulnerable sectors in the outskirts of the city, where green spaces are scarce. In this case, the park will play a crucial role in bolstering the community by connecting its residents with each other and other areas of Santiago. The first step of the project was creating a riverbank, which required excavating and removing a large amount of dirt. With this excess dirt, the project team was able to create an artificial landmass that contained the river's course with a series of mounds. The terrain will be home to a variety of native vegetation, which will work to stabilize the land. The park will also feature diverse species of trees.
Another project that manipulates a body of water to create an urban space is the Arroyo Xicoténcatl Park, designed by Taller Capital on the outskirts of Tijuana. For this project, the course of the water was diverted to form embankments, creating a public, recreational space.
The Cerros Orientales Ecological Corridor, designed by Diana Wiesner in Bogota, transforms the outskirts of the city into an ecological corridor and urban park, benefitting not only the informal settlements surrounding it but the metropolitan area as a whole. The project and territorial layout, created in 2006, aims to use biodiversity as a tool for social development and community engagement, allowing for full public access to the ecological corridor. The project centers on both optimal ecological and sociocultural connectivity by prioritizing community engagement in the planning process. In 2015, the initiative was declared a pilot project for the management of the Cerros Orientales.
The Rutas Naturbanas Project aims to connect 5 cantons in San Jose, Costa Rica. The 25km route, of which the first 600 meters has been constructed, facilitates ecosystem and aquatic conservation through the creation of inter-urban green infrastructure. This not only provides residents with a space for socializing and recreation, it connects them with the rest of the city and offers greater security for people to move about the urban outskirts. The project's goal is to regenerate vegetation cover along the river banks in order to stabilize the terrain. This included an extensive study of the river system and the different aspects of construction in order to guarantee the best points of access and connection between the surrounding areas.
Santiago, Chile's Mapocho 42k, also aims to build a network of greenways within the metropolitan area, creating social and territorial connectivity and decreasing urban inequality by creating a space that highlights the geographical and aesthetic attributes of the Santiago landscape. Following the course of the river, this public pathway forms an east-to-west corridor that connects all of the green spaces along the river within the city.
To learn more about Latin America's vulnerable settlements and to see how you can help, download the complete publication Diseño ecológico: Estrategias para la ciudad vulnerable.