Tag Archives: redevelopment

What we’re reading: Rebuilding Gaza

Addressing ecosystemic housing challenges and gaps – which all cities and countries face – is difficult when the housing units themselves are destroyed. What we’re reading this week – a recent report from the global humanitarian response coordinator Shelter Cluster on the situation in Gaza – reminds us of the tragedy of both natural and, in this case, man-made disasters that cause people to lose their homes.

Although the cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has been in effect for nearly a month now, the region is just now taking definitive steps toward rebuilding Gaza after the most recent conflict. According to Shelter Cluster’s recent report (available for download as a pdf here), 17,000 housing units were destroyed in the most recent conflict between Israel and Palestine. This is on top of 5,000 housing units still in need of repair from prior conflicts, as well as a general shortage of about 75,000 units. These numbers include residential buildings only, without taking into account the schools, power plants, and other public infrastructure damaged during “Operation Protective Edge,” Israel’s latest military operation in Gaza.

Much of this housing shortage can be attributed to restrictions on importation of cement, aggregate, steel, and other building materials into Gaza. Past use of these materials to construct the tunnels between Israel and Gaza has made the Israeli government reluctant to allow further importation, so oversight of the use of these materials has been a major point in the recent negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

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A Palestinian woman in the rubble of her home, destroyed in the conflict this summer. Credit Said Khatib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images, New York Times.

Despite Shelter Cluster’s grim prediction that it will take 20 years to rebuild Gaza after this most recent conflict, journalists report that talks between Israeli and Palestinian authorities about rebuilding have been positive. Last week, the UN revealed the details of a temporary deal regarding construction struck late on September 16. As the New York Times reported:

“…Robert H. Serry, the special envoy for the Middle East peace process, told the Council that he hoped the deal would lead to a broader agreement on opening border crossings to Gaza and on ending severe restrictions on imports to the Palestinian territory, where the economy was stagnating before the 50-day war this summer.

The Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, will have “a lead role in the reconstruction effort,” while United Nations monitors will ensure that reconstruction materials are not “diverted from their entirely civilian purpose,” Mr. Serry said.

…“Arriving at this agreement has not been without its challenges,” Mr. Serry said, according to a prepared statement. “We consider this temporary mechanism, which must get up and running without delay, as an important step toward the objective of lifting all remaining closures, and a signal of hope to the people of Gaza.”

Unfortunately, housing is just one of the issues Palestinians will face as they seek to rebuild Gaza. A recent World Bank report details several obstacles, including restriction of movement, economic recession, and an energy crisis, which will have to be dealt with before Palestine is able to build a resilient economy.


Connecting the dots : Urban Resilience and Affordable housing

 By Eman Lasheen, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Affordable housing has always been looked upon as a supplementary service provided for a certain population. It is generally defined as housing that is appropriate for the needs of a range of very low to moderate income households and priced so that these households are also able to meet other basic living costs such as food, clothing, transport, medical care and education. As a rule of thumb, housing is usually considered affordable if it costs less than 30 percent of gross household income 1. The core value of investing in the provision of affordable housing is usually related to meeting a growing demand in the fastest, most efficient and inexpensive form, to alleviate socioeconomic burdens. Despite the importance of this highly materialistic perspective, it strikes me as quite lacking to account for higher, more complex interactions at the urban level, where positive impacts of affordability are manifested most profoundly. The connection between the availability of well designed affordable housing and the level of urban resilience is highlighted dramatically during times of crisis or unexpected change. The fact that people would find decent shelters during disasters or sudden shocks is not the only aspect of connection. It is the understanding of how urban communities are able to prioritize, plan and move forward that makes affordable housing a crucial aspect of urban resilience.

One major problem with resilience as an evolving field of research is the ambiguity around its components and intentions. Rooted in ecological sciences, the term has gained a lot of prominence within many other disciplines including engineering, social sciences and urbanism. It has been adapted within each of these disciplines to inform about a certain form of interaction. It remains however confusing to a great extent when it comes to urban sciences, where question such as : “resilience of what ? to what ” becomes a great source of trouble to practitioners and decision makers alike.

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How do the Olympics affect affordable housing?

By: Judy Park, Analyst

Mega-events such as the Olympics are not just time-honored international sports competitions. They are some of the truly global stages in the world today, with billions of viewers and dollars involved.

Eager for the international prestige and economic multipliers that come with such an event, countries often spend a fortune just to vie for the chance to host. Once they win the bid, a massive construction and redevelopment agenda kicks into high gear: monumental stadiums, transportation networks, airports, athlete housing, luxury hotels, and revamped tourist attractions. While this city-wide facelift generates benefits for the economy and tourism, it also threatens the livelihoods of urban residents already suffering from poverty and marginalization. The rapid pace of development often results in forceful “beautification” programs, soaring housing values, and a lack of due process in relocation efforts.

Brazil, the envied host of this summer’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, is a ready example of this phenomenon. The country has already channeled $4 billion into preparing its cities for the limelight. However, in the process, the government has already displaced 19,000 families from Rio de Janeiro’s well-known favelas, attracting calls of “social cleansing” in the process. Although city officials claim that they have faithfully adhered to established expropriation guidelines, residents say otherwise. In addition, it is often the case that even when better physical housing might be offered, residents do not want to move away from the social and economic networks they have built over their lifetime.

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Interestingly, Brazil’s oft-decried favelas are also being touted as cheap accommodation for World Cup attendees and an opportunity to experience the “real Rio de Janeiro” through “one of the city’s most fascinating and vibrant communities.”

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Theresa Williams, director of Catalytic Communities, notes the dissonance between these two images of the favelas:

“[In the runup to the World Cup] international media are presenting Rio’s favelas either as violent no-go areas or cheap places for tourists to stay. They can’t be both, so which is it?” says Williamson. Rio’s favelas could not only offer a model amid the growing need for affordable housing worldwide but enhance a city already famed for its natural beauty with 600 unique communities with distinct cultures, she says. (Link)

(By the way, we at AHI agree that the urban slum is where the solution to global affordable housing crises begins.)

The negative impact of mega-events on local communities is not new. A study by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) highlights the consequences of Olympic events on housing in six cities over the past two decades:

  • 1988, Seoul: 720,000 people evicted from 48,000 buildings, where 90% of those evicted did not receive replacement housing and most were forced out using violent methods.
  • 1992, Barcelona: Houses prices rose by 250%, making housing unaffordable to many residents and forcing them to leave the city.
  • 1996, Atlanta: Country’s oldest public housing complex, Techwood Homes, redeveloped as the first mixed income HOPE VI community, but net loss of 800 public housing units and minimal relocation assistance during redevelopment. 9000 arrest citations given to homeless people in 1995-1996 as part of city-wide “clean-up.”
  • 2000, Sydney: Real estate speculation led to eviction of residents. Gentrification accelerated and number of homeless tripled over five years.
  • 2004, Athens: Games were used as pretext for displacing Roma communities. 2,700 Roma were forcibly evicted.
  • 2008, Beijing: 1.5 million people displaced over a period of 8 years.

In order to mitigate the costs of any future mega-events, COHRE lays out some “best practices” for bidding and preparing for the Olympics, including: regulating the involvement of the private sector, local community participation in decision-making, public commitments to housing preservation, protection protocols for minorities and the homeless, housing rights legislation, housing-positive regeneration strategies, strong community activism, and the post-Olympics use of venues for social housing.  A good example of the last point occurred in 2012, when it was announced that nearly half of London’s Olympic village would be transformed into affordable rental units to ease the city’s housing shortage.

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What do you think about the impact of mega-events on housing? What should be done to address this issue? Please let us know in the comments below!

Image Sources 

  1. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/worldcup2014/article-2611094/More-World-Cup-concerns-Brazil-Rio-favela-riots-break-just-50-days-tournament-kick-offs.html
  2. http://metro.co.uk/2012/04/23/how-the-build-up-to-the-world-cup-and-olympics-is-affecting-rios-favelas-406668/
  3. http://www.thenation.com/blog/179077/brazils-world-cup-gentrification-through-barrel-gun
  4. http://favelaexperience.com/#rio-de-janeiro-apartment-rentals
  5. http://inhabitat.com/londons-2012-olympic-village-to-be-transformed-into-affordable-housing-units/

Housing and Public Space, Part 2

By: Siddharth Nadkarny, AHI Associate

[Continued from last week’s Part 1.]   

By the 1950s, as Mumbai grew northwards, the gaothan was enveloped by ‘urban’ development – four to five storey tall multifamily residential buildings. Formalized codes regulating floor area ratios made it easier to build more than what already existed on the small plots in the gaothan. For a neighborhood with a growing population, this should have translated into larger houses when the next round of rebuilding took place. However, the introduction of better public infrastructure around the gaothan – roads, schools, open spaces, piped water and sewerage connections – helped keep the balance between the private home and public space. While larger families had to be accommodated in shared bedrooms, or smaller subdivided areas within the house, the access to a larger quantum of public space and infrastructure maintained or increased living standards. This is evident in the size and type of built form staying fairly constant in the gaothan right up to the 1990s.

But in the 1990s, this seemingly happy balance begins to change. The usual allocation of space for public activities during each phase of rebuilding houses comes to a stop. By the early 2000s, the public space network is severely reduced.

So what was Lorenz’s butterfly that changed the ecosystem here? The slow reaction of public infrastructure to changes in the population of the neighborhood. It was actually the result of a flying elephant – changes in economic policies at the national level that brought in more investment in housing at the local level. Pressure to allow more area per plot resulted in changes to FAR codes all over the city. In the neighborhood of the gaothan, four and five storied apartment buildings transformed into nine stories. The resultant higher population led to a competition for public infrastructure and the emergence of privatized open spaces, controlled by citizen groups that fiercely protect their turfs.

The change in FAR codes made it easier and more profitable to redevelop small plots within the gaothan as well. Combine this with the reduced availability of urban infrastructure, and the balance in the ecosystem shifts to favor a more conventional land use-ownership relation. Houses that got rebuilt in the gaothan in this phase did not look anything like before.

New buildings – Note the “pitched roof” in the first image, the fig leaf for contextual design

The guarding of private resources manifested in seemingly mundane devices like water pressure boosters and electric generators that prioritized the private at the expense of the public. The infrastructure coming into the gaothan did not change much, and the protection of private resources reduced its share amongst others who did not get a booster or a genset. This started a domino effect with most houses being rebuilt along the same lines and more damagingly, resulting in the loss of large parts of the public space network. Perhaps a proportionate augmentation of public infrastructure to maintain the balance would have prevented this transformation.

Parts of the network lost to the public

Severely reduced public space network

What happened to community capital exchange? Somewhere down the line, the unsaid negotiations that protected public space didn’t happen anymore. This could be a chicken-and-egg kind of situation, but my sense is that the shift in private v/s public came first, and that broke down the negotiations.

This point is clear by talking to residents. Now, as anyone who’s done this before knows, older residents tend to have a ‘how-green-was-my-valley’ longing for an imagined past. Confirmation was talking to residents who were about ten years old in the 1990s, old enough to remember how good things were, yet young enough to not forget how bad they were either. These conversations clearly identified a trend when residents who were in their teens in the 1990s remembered seemingly mundane events and activities (‘playing football’, ‘sitting on our bikes’) in spaces (‘mad mr.x’s yard’, ‘next to the big red house’) that stopped when these spaces got rebuilt (‘he sold his house and that building came up’, ‘they put a fence and we had to stop hanging out there’) to protect the private. Reduced playtime couldn’t have been due to TV, video games or computers – these only emerge in the late 1990s or early 2000s in the gaothan.

Unfortunately, the limitations of internet attention spans do not let me discuss other aspects of this transformation – changes in demographics, income levels and perception of living quality – that further establish the radical change in the gaothan’s ecosystem. To summarize, the loss of the public space network has increased dependence on private public spaces (normally accessed by paying a fee for use), increased flooding within the gaothan and further reduced space in the gaothan by the spillover of activities from the private-public space into the actual public space. Residents who chose to stay in the gaothan are paying more for the same level of infrastructure and services they had twenty years ago. In this ecosystem, the grass WAS greener a while ago.

Housing and public space, Part 1

By: Siddharth Nadkarny, AHI Associate

“Housing is an Ecosystem”. Anyone remotely involved with development hears this phrase so often that calling it a cliché is an understatement. The conventional understanding is that housing is a vital cog in the machine of a city, a neighborhood, an individual’s life. It also implies that for a particular context, housing transforms, and is transformed by, other urban systems.

An important part of this urban ecosystem, one that affects and gets affected by housing, is public space. These two elements are like yin and yang: the first is concerned with the private, the other with the public and their interaction sets up lifestyles, standards of community interaction, land use conventions and property ownership rights. The spatial configuration of housing and public space plays an important role in this interaction. 

Case in point: Çatal Hüyük, one of the oldest cities excavated. Archaeological evidence suggests a dense city of two to three story houses, built to work and live comfortably under the burning sun. It was also a layered city, where the terraces of closely packed houses were pedestrian pathways, small public plazas, maybe even a mini-stadium for CH’s hippest rock band. A ladder from the roof led to an underworld of privacy, where perhaps the band’s music didn’t let someone sleep in peace.

Çatal Hüyük’s public realm – “Don’t make me come up there!”

One can imagine this straightforward response to climate would have affected other aspects of urban living too. Apart from the similarly sized, self-built houses suggesting an egalitarian society of individuals, I haven’t come across information that explains other systems in the city. Looking at the imaginations of how space was used in ancient Çatal Hüyük, I wonder if you could you sit on a rocking chair on your terrace and shoo pesky kids away with “Git off mah lawhn”? To put it differently, was the house considered private property? What part of it? What about the land the house occupied? What about the terrace? Being uninhabited for a few thousand years, it might be difficult to ascertain exactly how Çatal Hüyük’s unique form of housing affected its urban ecosystem. But it seems fairly clear it could not have had conventional, clearly demarcated understandings of public v/s private that provides structure to contemporary urban space.    

There is a living example this blog post documents. Pali is a former agricultural settlement in a tony suburb in northern Mumbai, India. Colloquially called a ‘gaothan’ or hamlet, the neighborhood would probably be better described with an oxymoron – an urban village. The gaothan was settled in the late 17th/early 18th century, well before Mumbai became the behemoth it is now. With the intent of maximizing agricultural land, houses were packed closely together without a lot of space left over for infrastructure or open space. By this time, formal property systems were already in place in the region, either through local chieftains or British colonizers and all land within the boundary of the village was owned by different individuals in the village.

Part of a City & Town Survey map, 1940s, indicating property lines and built form in Pali Gaothan. All plot numbers correspond to private individual ownership

By this time, formal property registration systems were already in place in the region, either through local chieftains or British colonizers and all land marked within the boundary of the village was owned by individuals who lived in the village, except for a minimal network of pedestrian pathways. But roads are not the only public space in any community, and soon the formal property ownership and rights system was supplemented by an informal system of congregation spaces and spaces for incorporating physical infrastructure, all located on private, individually-owned land but having informal public rights. These were not just spaces to hang out, but spaces that worked as drainage channels during heavy rains, spaces where light poles were installed to illuminate public pathways and in some cases, the only access points to some parts of the gaothan.

Open space on parts of two different private plots

Corner of private plot (marked with posts) preserved for religious gatherings

Another tidbit marked by a grotto, opening up the public pathway to create space

Individually owned plot shared by neighbors as access space

While these seem small bits and pieces of public space for a neighborhood with over a thousand residents, they add up to a surprisingly large network spread across the neighborhood.

Take public pathways

Add some private plots that are publicly accessible

A smidgen of private plots partially accessible to the public

And voila! Public space network is ready to serve.

How does this public space network operate? The network is not formalized with an easement, owned/maintained by a community group nor has any formal administrative body staking claim. It’s not a restriction on land use – for those private plots where houses stand, the built form is organized in a way that this public space is accessible, but there are no rules governing housing footprints, whether formal or informal. It’s not communally owned – Spaces are maintained by the individual owners and allowed for public use, but no one other than the owner can modify them. It’s not an easement – The exact location and sizes of spaces within each plot have changed as houses have been built and re-built, but the extent of this private-public space in the neighborhood has stayed fairly constant. It’s not a building incentive – having a space on your plot doesn’t entitle you to build more than normal. For that matter, it’s technically not even public space – owners do end up policing space to stop activities they don’t like.

The lack of public infrastructure in the gaothan necessitates this strange network of space, both public and private unless you decide to choose one or the other depending on the context – Schrodinger’s Cat for land use, in a way. This was not a Randian utopia of noble superheroes – it is natural that individuals sought to maximize house areas. What seems to have prevented this is an unwritten code of disbursing community capital. Any improvement that added to the public space network earned the resident brownie points in the tight-knit community. Allowing a celebration or a prayer on your land added to your clout within the community. Future generations seeking to rebuild these houses tried to hold on to this community capital, which meant that even rebuilt houses retained public space in some form. The other incentive was the exchange of community capital – if you let others use your space, someone else reciprocates by letting you use theirs.

Sacrificing a few square feet of housing on your own plot of land gained you access to a substantially higher area in other parts of the gaothan. The incentive to access more space balances the incentive to build a larger house. Until it stayed an (overlooked) rural settlement, this ecosystem of formal land ownership and informally regulated land use worked well to retain public infrastructure.

[Continued next week in Part 2.]