Biblio (46) The precarious settlement planning handbook

Biblio 46 manual asentamientos precarios

The title is in itself a paradox, not unfit for G.K. Chesterton, and even more if you read a more clear title; this is a handbook for illegal subdivisions. Urban planning was born to make possible a living environment of quality for the whole of the population. And this is why this book is both an abomination and a much needed publication, depending on who judges.

The handbook appears in Argentina, a country which is not in the worse situation regarding that matter in Latin America; this is perhaps one of the reasons why a team at the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urban Planning of the University of Buenos Aires, lead by Viviana Asrilant,  gets to think that facing the problems to solve this situation for decades, such an initiative can be of help. There seems to have been a help by the Ministry for Public Education.

The handbook follows this table of contents, which seems to consider as a given fact the existence of an organized group of settlers:

1-        Who may use the handbook

2-        How to build your neighborhood

3-        How to legalize your neighborhood. Legal way to regularize domains.

4-        Ways to access housing

5-        The organization and the dynamics of groups

6-        Annexes

Apparently (I do not know the argentine law so I cannot judge in detail) there seems to be a serious approach to each item, including warnings against the illegality of some actions.

I do not believe this to be a solution for such problems. As a matter fact, I do not think illegal action and property conflicts to be a good way anywhere; facing the consequences of illegality for yourself or your family can be much worse than what can be thought of. This handbook is probably closer to the ideal of open-source urban planning (or more properly, a planning hacker’s cookbook)  than many European or North American; and this is a relevant question, as an open source manual gives you access to a knowledge, but by no means reduces it complexity or gives you the complete knowledge of a complex matter.

This publication also raises an additional question, even more after two weeks with posts about something as simple at first sight but as complex, as the handbook shows, as a street, its design and its building. Today there is a certain interest worldwide for this kind of settlement, mainly by urban planners and other experts, sometimes with a fascination that seems closer to aesthetics than to a real experience of a life there. And if it is interesting to know how neighborhood improvement projects work in cities that seem to have a certain success, as Medellin and Rio de Janeiro, it could be even more interesting to see what is waiting down the line by looking at how things have been done in countries that are thought to have solved the problem during the last decades. As for each favela or African slum there was probably a Spanish poblado chabolista after the civil war, a Hoovervile in the US during the Depression, a bidonville in France during the 1950s-1960s or other examples in more advanced countries.

Density in Madrid (5) Berruguete


Dens madrid-5- Berruguete2001: 187 dwellings per hectare

2013: 233 dwellings and 403 persons per hectare

Berruguete is a part of the old slum of Tetuan, which appeared in 1860 after the african war, when colonial troops settled north of Madrid. The neighborhood uses as a reference the Bravo Murillo street (A-B), the old trunk road towards France. A clear sign that this was an unplanned settlement is the lack of large structure axis but for the old trunk road: these axis are being materialised still in our days by opening through the urban tissue, as the calle Marqués de Viana (B-C), or they are more a historic trace than a true element with an ability to organize the urban landscape, as the Paseo de la Dirección (D-E-F-C, the Direction’s trail, so called as it was the path followed to inspect the Canal de Ysabel II, which bring to the city water from the reservoirs up on the sierra de Guadarrama).

How to explain the increase in density that seems to have happened during the last decade? Tetuan, as a slum, resulting from informal urbanism, was historically, but for the strip around Bravo Murillo, which densified over time, mainly an individual housing area, with just one level built; just remember that around the time Tetuan was founded, the law for the Madrid Ensanche is passed, so two models appear, one formal and following the rules, and the other serving the newly arrived citizens that had scarce economic means. For the last decade, the real estate bubble that has led to the current economic crisis has reinforced a densification that was already in progress, and small buildings on small lots have increased density substantially, profiting from what today is a central metropolitan location. Be it through newcomers or through the sons of the neighbors, the neighborhood has also increased its population. The lacks of public facilites and green spaces has usually been covered in neighboring areas, as in Valdezarza.

233 dwellings per hectare is probably just a number to you, so it is interesting to compare with a diferent area within the same density range: The Eisenhower area in  the Quartier de la Croix Rouge in Reims, France (page 62 on Habitat- Formes urbaines). In Tetuan building heights are usually 2 to 5 levels (the planning allows for a height still not completely adopted), while in Reims the average height is ground floor+7, with even parts reaching ground floor+18. Why? Because in Reims you have wider streets, green spaces and public facilities. This does not imply that there are no similar exemples in Madrid, or that there are not old faubourgs like Tetuan in french cities.

Croix Rouge, Reims

Croix Rouge, Reims

The most common surface range in the appartments in the Berruguete area was in 2001 from 46 to 60 sq m, with an average surface of 65 sq m; in Reims the average surface was 100 sq m, so there is also a part of the height difference to be attributed to better (or at least larger…) dwellings.