Shantytowns as inspiration for urban developments

 Wp-Content Uploads 2008 12 Shantytown
Architext Teddy Cruz is planning low-income housing developments in San Ysidro, San Diego, California and Hudson, New York that are inspired by shantytowns in Tijuana, Mexico. From GOOD:
Homes will be jammed together, with any leftover space commandeered by taco stands, market stalls, and gathering places...

Behind the precariousness of low-income communities, says Cruz, there is a sophisticated social collaboration: People share resources, make use of every last scrap, and look out for each other...

In collaboration with the nonprofit Casa Familiar, the San Ysidro development will include 30 housing units alongside spaces where residents can run small businesses. The model also accounts for sweat equity, allowing people who help with construction to gain rent credits for their work.
Shantytown, USA


  1. Excuse me, but does this means the poor are not entitled a better living environment than shanty level? They don’t live as they do because they love it, but because they have no choice. Encroachment, localization of services or the need to relay on someone who is a little less poor than you or the family, forces this type of “arrangement”.
    I understand the advantages of mixed living-working environments but this is not a model for a long standing community, but a validation, a coat of paint over it’s failure.

  2. A shanty town has positives and negatives. I believe the architect and planner are trying to accentuate the positive while providing safe, comfortable structures beyond what any true shanty can provide.

  3. I don’t think there’s anything wrong about wanting to live in a shantytown-style dwelling. Lots of (rich) people have an appreciation for the simplicity, community, and solidarity that sometimes manifests in poor encampments. And that’s great, they should pursue that and try to create it for themselves.

    But I agree there’s a dangerous implication in this type of romanticization: the idea that impoverished people don’t have it that bad. After all, “[poor people] share resources, make use of every last scrap, and look out for each other” right? Plus there’s neat little businesses crammed in every corner – I don’t see what anyone could complain about!

  4. Agreed with Marlborotestmonkey7. If this would be a kind of experimental community freely elected, like a Kibbutz, I would be for it, but to give this to people who has little choice but take it does not seems right to me.

    “Behind the precariousness of low-income communities, says Cruz, there is a sophisticated social collaboration: People share resources, make use of every last scrap, and look out for each other.”

    And allows plenty of unwanted social contact that gets on your nerves. Have he ever lived sharing the same bedroom with 5 more people? Or the bathroom with 10 more?

    Maybe it is an overreaction, but to me, that live surrounded by shanty town, and that can see its hideous effects, someone to stand up and call this a good thing is deeply disturbing.

    Come to live a month in our cozy shantytowns, foreign architect, if you do not get a bullet in your head you might learn something new.

  5. Favelas, shanty towns, squatter settlements… whatever you call them, this isn’t it. This is just dense multi-use development. Well, from what the article says, anyway. I suspect, or at least hope, there’s more to it.

    I like the idea of the sweat equity scheme, and I applaud the idea that a townscape should visually reflect the culture that exists within and fosters it, but this whole scheme seems very top-down designed.

    I spent my post-graduate architecture degree wondering about similar developments, starting with a Pirate Village for IP thieves and finishing with a hidden suburban shanty in Neasden, London.

    By far the most useful resources for my study were online, including the Global Guerillas blog by John Robb, who is increasingly writing about what he calls the ‘resilient community’. Then there’s also the excellent Squatter City blog by Robert Neuwirth and its accompanying book Shadow Cities, in which he relates tales of a year spent living in squatter developments around the world to discover the dynamics of how they actually work.

    I’m encouraged to see the architect say “Beyond designing buildings, architects should design political and economic processes as well”, but I do wish he’d say what those processes actually might be.

    I think there’s a lot of scope in this idea, but I’ve seen very little around the world which has concluded in an appropriate architectural representation of a very complex series of processes. I noticed this last week, though, which impressed me.

  6. I have worked with Teddy Cruz before so perhaps I can clarify some things that are being misunderstood here.

    Dculberson got it right. What Teddy aims to do is to take the positive aspects of the Tijuana shanty and turn those into a sustainable urban development. Looking at a shanty you see what almost becomes an organic development that isn’t bound by the traditions of urban planning;a shanty grows to its own logic that is dependent on the needs of those who live there.

    Also, shantys use reusable materials, what we would consider garbage for the most part, as building materials. With that, there is a notion of “going green” (to an extent) and trying to find renewable solutions to housing construction.

    This is also a return to a kind of turn of the century ideal of “the walking city”; this would be a community where one could live and work and traverse on foot. Granted, this is in a small scale when compared to the larger urban environment, but it does create community.

    Ultimately, this project is about turning to the marginalized for inspiration and seeing what they have done with what we have denied them and using that as a strategy for development that can benefit all. This would create a community based on interactions and urban flow.

    The criticism here seems based on a lack of understanding of architectural and urban theory and taking the word “shanty” at its face value. Also, to say that Teddy Cruz has no idea about the actual conditions in a shantytown is to be ignorant of his past work. This article even says that he is looking towards them as inspiration, not replication, and he acknowledges the “precariousness of low-income communities.” This is more of a work based in the idea of understanding and awareness, than exploitation and a blind eye.

  7. the big problem with this kind of development in the US are highly restrictive zoning and building codes – meaning, he’s going to have to come up with some very creative ways to meet code when allowing people to insert their own alternate uses into these “inbetween” spaces.

    he’ll also run into problems with building inspectors and the uptight-citizen’s-brigade.

    but – more power to him – if he manages to get around the these obstacles, then people like myself who do similar community-based design work will have an easier time getting much needed changes to zoning regulations.

  8. Well, BearVsGorilla, I hope you are right because I’ve been there (lived side by side with shanties for 30 years and know others which never progressed out of their miserable origins) and there’s more to dignified living than urban theory.

    Also, reusability-green is a double edge concept when confronted with -as Anonymous have said- zoning and building codes and health standards.

    But then I don’t know everything so good luck anyways.

  9. Thanks for the explanation, BearVsGorilla.

    I am sorry I reacted in that knee-jerk fashion, but I guess I am tired of certain people that choose to live as a poor lives here and says how fantastic it is without realizing that kind of life for most people is not a choice but an imposition.

  10. I completely understand the reactions. I was there too, and perhaps because I have worked with Teddy I have a different perspective now because I know the man and his work.

    I do think that all of the concerns raised so far are valid, and something that anyone who is working with such issues as poverty and development need to take into consideration if they ever hope for any amount of success.

    I hope that Teddy can see his vision through here and show that what we often call the third or developing world and that we tend to marginalize can teach us lessons. Hopefully, this will raise awareness and shed some light on those marginalized people and the interstitial urban environments they inhabit.

    Again, I don’t romanticize their plight; that would be awful and create some sort of semi-nostalgic erotics for the poor. I do think that the poor and those who are forced to live in such conditions can show us a resilience and innovation that most of us aren’t privileged to, and through this we can hopefully work to better urban environments for all people.

    I admit that it has the tint of Utopian idealism, but it is based in real world situations; hopefully, some gap can be bridged here between harsh reality and smooth idealism to create spaces and places that can foster community, sustainability and awareness for interstitial urban environments and conditions.

  11. Different levels of wealth don’t mix. In pre-Georgian Edinburgh the inhabitants lived compacted into the are now known as the Auld Toon in tall houses. Due to the streets also being the sewers, prime real estate was in the higher floors (some buildings having up to 11), with wealthy middle class citizens paying to have external stair built up to their windows to avoid unpleasant encounters with dwellers on the lower levels on the internal communal stairwells.

    In the 19th century factory towns were such enjoyable and healthy places to live that wealthy factory owners with consciences started building model villages like New Lanark and Bourneville ( ).

    Then came the garden city movement ( ) resulting in entire cities being designed and built from the ground up as models that would hopefully inspire change in the vision of the city planners of the time.

    The change in fact came but after WWII and mainly due to the need to rebuild war damage.

    Housing schemes for people with low incomes fail because they are for people with low incomes – it becomes a stigma to live there, the only choice for people who have no choice.

    Finally in the case of the Narkomfim building ( ), was designed to prove that collective living was the future of city planning, thus the cooking areas were all communal, yet many built illegal private cooking areas in their apartments.

  12. From someone who grew up in San Ysidro, which is all of five minutes walk from Tijuana, I can say that this is hands down a bad idea. Probably the worst I’ve ever heard of when it comes to reinventing barrios and ghettos.

    San Ysidro is already densely populated, there are no activities for children – the single park nearby where I grew up isn’t safe to play in, its gangland now. There are some lucky few apartment complexes with playgrounds but most of the time the equipment is busted, unsafe or just so institutional it’s no fun at all. Schools have no extra circular programs – the attitude is that they should be grateful to get lunch assistance. So kids have nowhere safe to play where they can run and have fun, no funds for programs that would introduce them to the arts, music, sports or anywhere to get tutoring in school and be encouraged to achieve higher education.

    As for the shanty towns across the border – I’ve seen them, spent lots of time working with various local church groups volunteering there, and sure BearVsGorilla they are green. But do you want to live out of a shack made out from corrugated tin sheets, chicken wire and cardboard. Don’t go being romantic about how these noble poor people are the true greenies because they live in homes made from recycled materials. Homes, that with any minor rainstorm end up being washed away. What you mistake for logical growth is desperation – denied the money to create a safe, enjoyable environment to live and raise families in, people will do what they must to survive.

    Shanty towns are not romantic, nor are they green, nor are they the ideal back-to-basic walking communities. Has anyone done a physiological evaluation of the people living in the shanty towns in Tijuana before you determined that shanty-style living was the answer to all the problems of the poor? San Ysidro is already a desperate place, blighted by many troubles and does not need some harebrained plan pushed by a person who has no personal stake in the outcome.

    It’s great people take an interest in the problems affecting San Ysidro. But this isn’t going to help. If anything, this is going to hurt the people already living there. I’m going to be passing this onto as many community groups and churches as possible and will do my best to make sure this lunatic idea never sees the light of day.

    You want to make San Ysidro a better place to live – invest in the kids so they don’t feel the need to turn to gangs. Invest in the schools so they can help children get into the same colleges as the kids from La Jolla and Del Mar. Invest in the families so that most parents aren’t having to rely on foodstamps and that they can spend more time with their kids rather than having to work multiple jobs just to float rent and the electric bill.

    …and by invest, I don’t mean just drop loads of money on the problem (not that we couldn’t use it here – I’m sure just removing half of the graffiti done by taggers would be expensive). We need people to also donate time – professionals who could mentor kids, college students or retired seniors who be teacher’s assistants or tutors. Money is great, but so are people who can invest their time.

  13. High density urban spaces are seeing a LOT of success in other parts of the country. People like Zombie seem offended by the idea that the architect says he took inspiration from a shanty town, but whether its a shanty town or a medieval village, or a turn of the century burough, it’s really all the same notion.

    High density urban living with shared common spaced and people working and living in the same community. Where the businesses that serve the community are owned and operated by people in the community. It’s a very effective formula for creating stable, vibrant communities where people care about and are invested in the future of their neighbors and their neighborhoods.

    Will it work? Maybe. Can it work? Certainly, and it has worked before. I live in a rehabilitated community designed around the notion, and we actually have MORE public ( and uninterrupted ) green space than many suburban neighborhoods I have lived in.

    It’s a real shame, Zombie, that you are going to try to kill a project you know nothing about simply because you are offended by the idea that it claims to have found valuable knowledge in something terrible.

    All the things you put forward are very effective. You want to invest in kids, and families by creating opportunities for them… but only on your terms? Only in ways you approve of? That’s a tad pretentious, don’t you think?

    There is no way you can know enough about this project from that anemic little article to know if ANY of your concerns are justified. As I said, I live in one that has worked remarkably well. So well, in fact, that the area schools have improved to the point that surrounding neighborhoods are being gentrified by parents seeking better schools for their kids.

    I live in a similarly modeled community, and I couldn’t draw enough information to determine if your concerns are justified. There is no way you could possibly make an educated judgement based solely on your experience living near a shanty town.


  14. I live in Amsterdam. A city older than the USA. There are some disadvantages to it; my place is probably smaller than yours. There are some great upsides, too. I live in an inner city that is not a ghetto but an inner city. I don’t own a car because I don’t need one. Everything I do on a typical day is within walking or biking distance from my doorstep. This is nothing unusual here; bicycle culture is thriving, keeping the air clean enough and the city not all that congested.

    Not to mention that this is possibly the world’s most mutant-friendly city. I don’t plan to leave any time soon.

    There’s one thing a city of before the nineteenth-century fossil-fuel revolution and a shanty town have in common. They are both built on a more harsh reality in terms of energy economy than the highly car-dependent suburban sprawl, so they fit more functions on the same acre. And now that sustainability becomes less and less of an alternative because the alternative, um, cannot be sustained, looking to people who are poorer than you are for an example might not be such a bad idea after all.

  15. Eeyore – How does this shanty-town innovation stop the gangs? How does it stop the drugs? How does it stop the cartel violence from leaking north from the border? How does it stop prostitution? How does it stop our kids from going to schools that lack resources to prepare them to compete against the kids in wealthy suburbs? Is it going to solve the problems caused by a lack of sufficient English literacy that hold people back from high education and better jobs?

    I have lived in San Ysidro for twenty years, and have returned weekly for the last ten years to visit family. The problems in San Ysidro are not going to be solved by a pretty place to live. I know this because I know this neighborhood, because its still part of me, because it was the cradle where I began my life, lived my childhood and grew into an adult.

    Are you going to live in these shanty inspired units Eeyore? Are you going to be there when the gangs move in? When they start tagging every available surface? When they start lurking late at night and intimidating people? When the violence erupts between them? Is it going to ease the burdens of single mothers, help them getter better jobs, spend more time with their kids, provide better opportunities for them?

    Personally Eeyore I think your the one being pretentious. Your just jumping on the bandwagon that’s going to paint the slum in pretty colors. At least I speak with the knowledge of someone who knows San Ysidro on a personal level and has the first-hand experience to know what we need and what we do not.

  16. @Eeyore
    did you look at any of the schools of architecture I mentioned?
    And why the ultimately all failed?

    I get that the architect believes people need to have a sense of community to make them care about where they live, but the inspiration he takes isn’t the best – ok he wants to stop people going to the mall however many miles away – so he doesn’t think about building a mall inside the project. Oh yeah right he did, the taco stalls and local businesses. People want that lots in the US that’s why malls are dying out. It’s only more affluent people who decry the death of the local drag, all the less affluent look at the price tags.

    The sense of community he hopes comes with the style of housing won’t happen. The rosy mom and pop businesses empowering the inhabitants and offering employment in the area will be looked at as dead end jobs, the only choice for people with no choice, stigmatised, uncool, call it what you will. It’s a fact people aren’t just happy to have a roof over their head, they want what they see in the films, on mtv, on tv, billboard sized flat screen tvs, computers, game stations, bitchin wheels, sick urban designer gear ……..
    The wish list is like pi, it just keeps on growing.

    And they aint get that workin at the mom n pop.

  17. A pretty place to live wont solve drugs, or gang violence, or the cycle of ignorance and poverty. It wont prevent kids from getting pulled in and spit out by by the crush of it or help adults find a new way. But a pretty place to live can be a part of a process as it was here… and it doesn’t have to be gentrification.

    The developer ( who grew up here ) went out and secured community development grants, drove community participation in schools and attracted local techies and engineers from surrounding communities to mentor and tutor kids, and brought in SCORE and other service organizations for adult education and made a conscious decision to favor locally owned businesses in the area.

    Starbucks offered 3x the rent for the space the local coffee shop occupies before it opened. Instead, it’s owned by a guy two streets over who just sent his oldest daughter to Sanford on scholarship. The shop is thriving, even though he’s paying as much to be there now as Starbucks offered.

    Of course it’s not all success stories.. Some people were displaced. Not everyone can own a business, and not everyone can run a successful one, even with help. Property values are rising ( even in the down market ), and even with the rent controls in place, the price of living here is creeping up. However, most of the change is new people coming in, surprisingly little is old people leaving.

    There is no progress without price. No one, no idea, and no program can save every person. The ‘shanty town’ architect may fail, miserably. It has happened before, and it will happen again. The developer here foresaw increases in property value here, and worked with the city to get special rules in place to limit property taxes for long term residents, and worked very hard slow the rise in rents as the neighborhood has grown. Still, some people are displaced. Some kids, we dont reach. Some people try and fail, and others dont try at all.

    The best any person or group can do is try our best to make sure every kid has a chance to know there is a different way, and the ( real ) opportunity to choose it – and the same for adults.

    The architect may be a fool who thinks that pretty buildings can change people and social structures all by themselves. But hopefully there is more to it. The article doesn’t tell you enough to know – which was my point all along. How do you sell a difficult and complicated idea to rich people with the attention span of a gerbil? You show them a pretty building.

    Hell, even if he does all the right things, he STILL may fail. This area had a lot going for it. We don’t get a lot of pressure from external gang activity any more. Its focused far enough away ( now ) that we don’t get a lot of casual pressure here.

    We have a big tech sector here and once one or two of the big companies came on board, it wasnt too hard to get the rest to fall into line and provide resources and people to help establish after school and adult education programs.

    We’re not economically isolated. There were economically healthy areas nearby that began to contribute to growth once the safety and gang issues came under control.

    :o) Im not stupid, and Im not some pie in the sky idealist. I also know enough planning theory to know that we proved in the 60’s that stuffing poor people on top of each other and off in a corner is incalculably bad not only for the poor people, but for the health of a city in general – whether the projects be pretty, or drab.

    Perhaps I am being naive, but it is not without cause. Perhaps its unreasonable to hope that any project that could actually get enough funding to get off the ground could possibly be as idiotic and shortsighted as you seem to think it is. Perhaps its unreasonable to think that an otherwise intelligent architect with a significant interest in urban planning could possibly be stupid enough to ignore 50 years worth of consequences of moronic high density urban planning.

    Or perhaps, as I said in my original post, there is more to the project than just pretty buildings. Perhaps you see it differently because you have never seen anyone who thought it through. Perhaps I see it differently because here, something akin to it worked.

    … And perhaps you are right, that he is just a well meaning idiot stealing resources better spent elsewhere.

    My point was a simple one that any boinger should know. Find out the whole story before you try to crucify anyone.

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