Spontaneous Communities and Incremental Housing

“…social and cultural bonds can breathe life into dead spaces regardless of how mean or inhospitable they are. But it also tells how physical form endures, and is hard to retrofit once constructed. Innovative means of transforming the physical fabric of these fragmented landscapes must be invented”  -Susan Rogers

Some interesting posts:

Susan Roger’s piece on the emergent community of Gulfton in Houston, or Superneighborhood27 chronicles the  transformation of an abandoned, stereotypical post-WW II middle suburb into a thriving, diverse community (over 40 nationalities) that is currently 5 times the average density of the Houston metropolis.  It achieving this form without the aid or guidance of planners and designers.

In this particular instance Houston’s notorious lack of urban planning or strict zoning policies may have served as a retrograde asset, allowing the new residents to customize and create a compact, multifunctional community without adding new buildings.  Granted not all is perfect, and the community lacks  basic public amenities that were never integrated into the developer-driven design, such as sidewalks, streetlights and public parks.  But the ever-so-elusive and hard to achieve vibrancy that we attempt to materially design into places is spontaneously there.  Its a remarkable permutation of the ‘suburban retrofit’ and another example of how hard it is to generalize or stereotype contemporary suburbs, or pass over the design opportunities latent within them.

Similarly, yet at a smaller scale, Mammoth’s Über post on the best architecture of the decade (well done) included the design of the Quinta Monroy incremental housing community in Chile, as well as a link to incremental housing blog and its possible applications for the future rebuilding of Haiti.  What Roger’s documented at the massive neighborhood scale of Gulfton is here observed in an isolated development.  Yet spontaneous communities and incremental housing are interrelated, differing largely in the scale of emphasis (curiously, incremental housing remarks that Haiti is more in need of housing than community–I’m not sure I understand why or how that is meant).

All these examples point to the improvised and creative informality that characterize monetarily poorer communities and they highlight the contextual importance of social and economic factors in structuring homes and communities (i.e. none of these examples would ever come close to occuring in a gated upscale community; the improbability due to the socio-economic and cultural context).

This discussion wouldn’t be complete without adding Teddy Cruz into this mix, who has been doing amazing housing work with non-profits for some time and has pioneered the testing and expansion of urban policies in the U.S. to allow for more flexible, and less exclusive forms of housing.  His work looks at ways to enable spontanious or user customized urbanism, similar to what has been observed in Gulfton.  I worthy quote from Cruz’ website:

“The micro-heterotopias that are emerging within small communities across the city, in the form of non-conforming spatial and entrepreneurial practices, are defining a different idea of density and land use, setting forth a counter form of urban and economic development that thrives on social encounter, collaboration, and exchange.

Can architects rethink political and economic systems in the context of these conditions?  Can architects design collaboration and participation across agencies and institutions?  Can conflict become an operational device to redefine practices of intervention in the city?  Can we redefine the meaning of globalization by radicalizing the local?  By reflecting over many of these questions, we can reopen the potential of the metropolitan as the site for a new brand of social realism and reevaluate the re-definition of the relationship between architectural form, the political, and the economic.”

I think another central question to be asked is what are the minimal or optimal design frameworks  to generate a successful, cohesive community for communities lacking access to material and other resources, and how does that framework need to shift, adapt or morph depending on the value of the land and the wealth of the surrounding region in which its inserted?  The answer is conditioned on the social norms and economic habits surrounding the site.  As a contrasting example that demonstrates the contextual shift, in wealthy nations like the United States (however uneven that wealth is) we typically have to over design or master plan where land is desirable/profitable or else its likely developers will carve it up into a puzzle of non-cohesive fragments. New urbanist villages on the cutting suburban edge have a completely different set of ‘external’ design tactics for this than Gulfton residents based on these differences.

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