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Urban Planners Find Smart Design In Argentine Shantytowns

Planning experts from Denmark and the U.S. tasked with redesigning a Buenos Aires shantytown were surprised by some of its built-in people-friendly dynamics, which can be applied elsewhere — even in upscale projects

Villa 31 is a poor district of Buenos Aires
Villa 31 is a poor district of Buenos Aires
Miguel Jurado

BUENOS AIRES — International city planning experts invited to reform and rebuild Villa 31, a poor district of Buenos Aires, stumbled on a basic feature they didn't expect: cheerful living conditions despite the poverty. The panel of experts advised city authorities not to bulldoze away the conditions that make it possible. Moreover, there is an opportunity to replicate the dynamics of Villa 31 elsewhere.

The specialists from Denmark's Gehl Consulting were struck by the vitality on the streets of Villa 31 and its intensively sustainable mobility — mostly, lots of walking — compared to some of the city's well-to-do districts. It is "one of Buenos Aires's most interesting neighborhoods," says a Gehl report from January, with the "scale of medieval European settlements attracting thousands of tourists. It has the city life sought in cities like New York and Melbourne."

Mayra Madriz and Jeff Risom from Gehl's U.S. offices, were nevertheless careful not to idealize the neighborhood. Being strategically placed near the city's wealthiest neighborhood, Villa 31 "remains a painful reminder of the deep socio-economic differences in Argentina," the firm stated. While Buenos Aires is often cited as a sophisticated city, in Villa 31 some 8,000 homes have no kitchen and a quarter of them have no toilet. Certain residents, it states, keep spare shoes to put on after walking through its muddy streets.

For the past two years, Gehl has been advising the city's Social and Urban Integration office on how to redevelop this neighborhood. Gehl's speciality is urban design based on sustainable mobility and good use of public spaces. In Buenos Aires, the firm studied the life of streets and squares in eight districts displaying the capital's diversity. They have organized the information gathered by field teams working daily with Villa 31 residents.

A glance is enough to indicate many of the Villa's persistent urban problems. Ambulances and fire engines cannot pass through some of the streets, which means hundreds of families are beyond the reach of health or fire services. Most homes lack drinking water, sewerage and storm drainage, and their clandestine electricity connections are dangerous. To this one must add overcrowding, unsanitary households, crime and the absence of any bus service throughout the area. The priority for the experts was to assure immediate access to public transport.

But as the Gehl specialists delved deeper, they realized there was a trap in rebuilding a district without criteria. "In the Villa, meeting building regulations will mean widening streets, restricting residents' enterprising zeal and possibly, raising construction costs," state Madriz and Risom. "To meet regulations, the local community would have to renounce some of its most powerful attributes."

People prefer neighborhoods developed organically over those planned by a small group of experts.

The main surprise for the specialists was in noticing that on the streets of Villa 31, there were more people walking, cycling, chatting, playing and looking at other passers-by than in the rest of the six districts they studied. "We realized that most social housing projects the government has undertaken in the last half century have given worse results (in security and healthcare) than these informal districts built by residents themselves," they stated. Moreover, they observed that while enduring serious shortages, families living in this area enjoyed some of the conditions to which the world's wealthier cities aspire.

Gehl's work focused on developing strategies to connect the district to its surroundings. They state that making the neighborhood physically more accessible complements its integration in the city's social and economic fabric. "We have helped design streets and spaces to connect the micro-communities forming the Villa, and thus reinforce the notion that the public space really does constitute the district's essence and basis for sharing," they explained.

The experts noted Villa 31's paradox, which they have been finding in city planning more generally: "People prefer neighborhoods developed organically thanks to the contributions of many, to those planned by a small group of experts."

Plans presented in 2014 to enhance Villa 31 — Photo: Culture Ministry

Madriz and Risom state that in a city marked by skyscrapers and heavy car traffic on eight-lane avenues, the Villa's narrow streets and its compact form shield its residents from city noise and bustle. The consultants state that in spite of being one of the capital's densest districts, most buildings in Villa 31 "are less than five floors high. The width of streets ranges between three and 16 meters, generating a network of shared little alleys with an agreeable microclimate."

Its particular dynamics include density, which ensures the constant, watchful eye of neighbors on homes, and curving streets that create emerging vistas. "These passages vary in width, which allows the emergence of little squares and meeting places. The alleyways become paths linking parallel streets allowing pedestrians to take shorter, more direct routes than vehicles."

After years of neglect, the neighborhood needs changes, but the experts have said its current "values and strengths' must be recognized, and any redevelopment should not eliminate its existing qualities. The firm advised that spaces like Villa 31 need the state's support but not excessive regulation to stifle the community life that has emerged during its absence. "We have learned lessons there,"which we can use in other urban design projects," the designers conclude. "Still, it is essential not to idealize the conditions rooted in scarcity and need."

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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