Gary Hustwit’s newest documentary, Urbanized, documents the design of urban life. They estimate that 75% of people will live in urban areas by 2050, making urban planning of vital importance. The trailer is below, but I would check out the website and take the time to view the full film for the cost of $6.99 (USD).
It’s easy for us gringos to glamorize the favelas, which are the slums of Brazil. They are portrayed in films and photos nestled on scenic hills with breathtaking views overlooking the beaches and abundant natural beauty that the country offers. Despite the fortunate favelas where this is true, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of favelas bear no resemblance to the photo above or the famous Rio de Janeiro locations portrayed in films. The photo below is a more accurate depiction of the current state of living environments that are made available to low-income Brazilians.
Like most of the slums around the world, the favelas are occupied by the individuals and families who are the unfortunate byproducts of their country’s failure to provide affordable housing options for its people. This major lack of proper infrastructure forces people to move to squatting areas. In this situation, it doesn’t matter what the education or income level of the residents are, if people are forced to build their own homes with no guidance or codes, it will create a living environment that is unfit and unnecessary by today’s standard of living. This practice essentially wipes away hundreds of years of living environment improvements that have been continuously updated throughout the years.
The birth of the favelas began when mass immigration from Europe created a housing shortage in the city centers. In order to combat this problem, the government enacted programs to push out the lower income residents to designated spaces at the city’s edges. Once there, the government took an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to overseeing the development of these communities. Without any building code enforcement and without basic proper sanitary infrastructure provided by the government, it was inevitable that these communities would spiral out of control to form a sub-standard living environment. Fast forward 3-7 decades later, and these problems are still being unaddressed, as most favelas have no government representation and are provided with little to no municipal assistance. In some favelas in the large cities, it is not uncommon for the residents to be dependent on drug lords to provide the most basic services.
Due to the explanations given above and combined with overcrowding, environmental and sanitary issues are of extreme importance in the favelas. Individual housing units lack plumbing systems, water supply, and proper electricity connections. Waste collection is also insufficient or in some cases non-existent. Communal washing areas consist of tubs and buckets of cold water. Electricity is stolen from any possible source which leads to the extremely unsafe practice of linking hundreds of housing units to one power source in a very crude and haphazard manner. Even the basic system of mail delivery is virtually impossible. The majority of building materials used in favela living spaces is that of previously discarded items that were collected and used in makeshift construction, which can include metal sheathing used for roofing and walls.
You can be the one to develop a better housing strategy for those in need in Brazil — visit sheltersforall.org.
– Jeff Loftus, Structural Engineer, B.S. Lehigh University 2007, M.E. University of Southern California 2010
I was talking to a friend a few days ago about the book series from grade school called Choose Your Own Adventure. If you don’t remember or aren’t familiar with these books, they were the type where you read a chapter and at the end, based on what you had gathered to that point, would be faced with making a decision on the protagonist’s next action. Based on your choice, you’d be directed to another section of the book and repeat the process until the story was resolved. Books had multiple endings based on the decisions you made, ranging from finding treasure to being defeated by “evil” forces. For us control freaks, these books were addicting. No longer was reading a book a passive, purely observational exercise, but now I could have some sort of influence on the story. I would read these books intensely, combing for the slightest of hints in each chapter as to what decision I should make next and obsessing over getting to the best possible ending. The satisfaction of getting to that ending was such a different feeling than reading a traditional fictional book. The power of transferring the choice of how the story would end from the author to the reader was liberating, addicting, and at times even frustrating. But the ability to direct the story was what drew me in.
In many ways, the urban housing problem in developing countries is a result of a disregard for the theme of Choose Your Own Adventure books. Across the globe, people are born into circumstances that set them up for a life riddled with a lack of choice. Whether it is choice hindered by economics, education, geography, discrimination, or a host of other factors, the world’s poorest often have been at the mercy of decisions and institutions in which they have no voice. Solving the problem of substandard housing in urban slums across the globe is a complicated and dynamic undertaking. However, the basis for any such solution should be the provision of choice; an act of empowerment. Human beings have no inherent desire to live in the squalor and inhumane conditions that define slums. Given the ability to choose between a safe or dangerous home, people will choose safety. Given the ability to choose between sanitary waste systems or an open latrine, people will choose sanitation. Given the ability to protect their families or be exposed to the elements, people will choose protection. The choice to live in a safe and clean environment and to provide shelter for one’s family is human instinct. Having that choice, having the power over the state of one’s situation, is at the core of what it means to have dignity. This dignity, inherent to existing as a human being, is to have access to the things it takes to survive in this world, however dynamic those things may be.
“Housing the world’s poor” is an often used phrase in the discussion of urban slums. If the urban slum problem is going to be addressed, the phrase needs to be more of a result than an action. Empowerment and choice is where the solution lies. Shaping and crafting an environment in which people have the choice and power to influence their living conditions is the most critical engineering task the world faces in addressing this problem. The problem is much bigger and more complex than simply providing a roof to live under. Housing is an indicator of so much more than just the availability of building materials or construction expertise. Housing is a measure and outward illustration of quality of life. The goal of improving the living conditions of the 1 billion people that are currently living in substandard conditions will manifest itself through that indicator.
Choose Your Own Adventure books didn’t always turn out the way I wanted. But as frustrating as it was to admit, I was always responsible for how I got to each ending, through the choices I had made. There won’t always be happy endings, but building systems that allow people the chance to reach a favorable ending is an adventure we all should choose.
– Dustin Mix, Structural Engineering Graduate Student at the University of Notre Dame