Mapping Informal Cities

University of Miami Institute for Data Science and Computing Software Engineering Director Chris Mader on Santa Cruz del Islote

Mapping Informal Cities

Mapping Informal Cities is a collaboration with the School of Architecture. This Places & Spaces: Mapping Science project provided on-site documentation of informal settlements in 11 Southern Hemisphere cities.

Mike Singer, in “Putting the World’s Informal Cities on the Map: The fastest growing cities and neighborhoods are the ones architects and planners know the least about, writes:  “Since World War II, the global population has increased from 2 billion to 5.5. billion, and nearly all this growth has taken place in the developing world where the urban population has grown from 300 million to 1.7 billion today.

A startling trend in these World Bank figures is how many of these urban dwellers live in communities belonging to an urban geography that is literally off the map: undocumented, illegal, mobile, ephemeral, and generally beyond the reach of government services and infrastructure. In many of the world’s major cities (including Mumbai, Sao Paolo, and Mexico City), over 50% of the population live in these kinds of places, often labeled ‘slums.’ More than one billion people now live in slums world-wide, a number expected to double by 2030.

This global housing crisis presents architects opportunities to use their planning and design skills to improve these troubled neighborhoods, as discussed in ‘Organic Settlements: Housing Typologies for a Billion People,’ a closing session at the AIA 2011 Annual Conference in New Orleans.

Carie Penabad of Cure and Penabad has visited many of these settlements—also known as informal cities and shantytowns. ‘There is very little scholarship on these cities as works of architecture,’ said Penabad. ‘While undeniably precarious in construction, unplanned cities exhibit underlying urban and architectural patterns of remarkable resilience that reflect their inhabitants’ enduring cultural values.’

Her careful on-site documentation of informal settlements in 11 Southern Hemisphere cities, undertaken with her students from the University of Miami School of Architecture where she is an associate professor, reveals urban patterns that help overcome the chronic lack of basic information that plague attempts to ameliorate the problems informal city residents are trying to overcome. With her University of Miami Open City Studio students and with her colleagues Adib Cure, and Teófilo Victoria, Penabad’s research and documentation of informal slum settlements has helped open up an understanding of what types of design solutions might follow.

‘How can you make a diagnosis if you don’t understand the structure of a body?,’ Penabad asked, comparing the mapping projects to an X-ray that allows architects and planners to contextualize the spaces researched. ‘These cities have a lot to teach us. What is clear is that one size does not fit all.’

Comparative urban mapping, undertaken with Google Earth, GPS mapping, and on-site follow-up visits, found some notable trends, including compact, clearly delineated boundaries separating the informal city from the formal city, as well as very few physical points of entry. There is a dense, more complex network of streets (mostly unpaved) than in formal cities. In Mumbai’s Dharavi, the houses are very small (80-150 square feet), as they lay on prime real estate in the middle of India’s financial capital, where an entire family lives with cooking and bathing activities done outside on the streets. More spacious 500-square-foot dwellings are found in Cape Town’s Joe Slovo shantytown. While very few public buildings exist in these informal cities, there are some public spaces, including cricket fields in India and soccer fields in the Latin-American examples.

In all these settlements, houses are self-built with collected pieces of wood, tin and cardboard, and are often expanded when new family members arrive. Most residents are without access to safe water and toilets, making both key infrastructure improvements. More durable, mold-resistant, and sanitary building materials are needed, along with opportunities for entrepreneurship and integration with formal settlements that ensure access to city water and services.

That’s a tall order, but last year, when Penabad and her students traveled to Barranquilla, Columbia, the focus went beyond the documentation and mapping of the city’s Barlovento shantytown. Following a comprehensive urban mapping of the settlement, the studio focused on site selections for the design of a sustainable architectural proposal for the ‘Escuelas Folcloricas del Carnaval,’ which would provide a variety of educational and public spaces associated with the events of the annual Carnival of Barranquilla. This building could serve to organize the residents (who currently produce many of the crafts for the carnival) in one building, fostering a sense of community ownership and pride.

‘We believe that this type of development,’ Penabad said, ‘is vital in the ongoing effort to transform these settlements into stable and legitimate neighborhoods.’ “

SOURCE:  The American Institute of Architects | May 27, 2011


aerial view of Santa Cruz del Islote, the world's most crowded island