Project

Dirty Work

 

Dirty Work
Landscape in the Non-formal City
Partner: John Beardsley, Art Historian, Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Design 2006-Present

There are now approximately one billion people living in squatter communities worldwide, a number expected to double by 2030. Over 50 percent of future urban growth will take place in slums. Squatter settlements vary dramatically in size, character, and level of political and social organization; they are found both in rural and urban areas, although they are increasingly associated with the worlds largest cities, especially in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. These settlements typically have a host of problems: they occupy marginal lands in flood plains or on steep slopes; they are separated from urban landscape infrastructure, be it roads, transportation, sewers, water supply, or storm water systems; they have severe environmental, public health, and security problems; and they lack public space for economic, cultural, or recreational activities. In short, non-formal settlements might be the biggest universal challenge after global warming.

Dirty Work investigates landscape interventions in these communities. In recent years, prevailing strategies for addressing non-formal settlements have shifted from large-scale slum clearance and relocation to on-site upgrading and improvement, with the goal of integrating these communities within their larger urban contexts. Contemporary designers are attempting to upgrade these settlements physically without destroying them socially. They aim to retain what they can of their physical structure while alleviating environmental and social problems ranging from inadequate housing to unemployment, insecure land tenure, and unsanitary conditions. The main focus is not on the upgrade of the individual dwelling, but on the public space in between them--clearly a landscape objective.

Dirty Work is studying the various modes of operation in these upgrading projects. They range from large scale infrastructure networks like new drainage and transportation systems to small scale interventions like the construction of a staircase or a playground. In all cases the active involvement of the community is key to the success of the built intervention. The social challenges often surpass the physical ones and require an artful negotiation process with the community and powers in force. The distinct differences between these planning conditions and issues of traditional design practice have led to the formation of new activist and entrepreneurial practices. In the absence of government programs many of these offices thus operate as their own client and are deeply involved in the messy procedures of community participatory design under constantly shifting circumstances.

In the context of the genealogy and typology of these design interventions Dirty Work is equally interested in their longevity and sustainability. It is not yet clear if upgrading can achieve significant permanent improvements or if it will merely perpetuate social and spatial inequalities, with large percentages of the population packed into disproportionately small areas and cut off from basic services. In addition to social uncertainties the handling of natural resources within some of the upgrading projects must also be questioned. For instance, in the effort to provide basic services outdated civil engineering solutions are applied: creeks are channeled into concrete culverts; shotgun concrete holds back slopes; wastewater is piped downstream. One questions whether more environmentally friendly technologies could be introduced. Since the environmental footprint of the average slum dweller is decisively smaller than that of anybody living in the Western world, an environmentally smart retrofit of squatter settlements might lead to a new appreciation.

Dirty Work exhibited a wide array of practices and upgrading strategies in a Gund Hall Exhibition named Dirty Work - Transforming the Landscape of Nonformal Cities in the Americas at the Graduate School of Design from January 28 to March 16, 2008. The exhibition traveled to Buenos Aires and So Paulo. It will be followed by a book publication with Princeton Architectural Press (Spring 2010).

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