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Are Fake Forests Good Enough for Poor Folk?

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 8, 2012

The plaza in Bogota’s Cazucá neighborhood. (NYT Photo by Paul Smith)

In today’s New York Times, architecture critic Michael Kimmelman looks at recent developments in Bogota, Colombia.  I found this photograph–and the thinking behind it–highly disturbing.  Here’s what Kimmelman writes:

City planners and government officials need to upgrade housing and infrastructure, without undermining homegrown energy and ground-up urbanism.

That’s partly the hope behind a 7,500-square-foot canopy [Giancarlo] Mazzanti has also designed over a concrete plaza in Cazucá, a truly forgotten place, perhaps the poorest and most violent slum in or around Bogotá, on a hillside not far from Bosa. A $614,000 project, paid mostly by Pies Descalzos, a private organization established by the singer Shakira, it came about after long negotiations with drug gangs that controlled the plaza, investing them in the plaza’s improvement, enlisting them in its maintenance. Mr. Mazzanti designed a field of large modules, dodecahedrons, made of green steel mesh and translucent panels, raised on slender steel tubes. The floating structure, perched along the side of a hill, suggests a thicket of trees, like umbrella pines, where there’s not a real tree in sight, a spectacle meant to be visible from far away.

The canopy can look like a lot of architecture for such a small project, but that’s partly its value: to put Cazucá on the map and create a de facto town square beside the school (made of shipping containers, serving a population in which a quarter of the children are malnourished, I was told by the school’s principal). Now children play soccer under the canopy and clean up the square every day, and there’s a vegetable garden with tomatoes and herbs.

What bugs me is that they could have put up real trees for far less money, and achieved the same results in terms of cleaning up the site, driving out the drug dealers, and giving people a public square where they could relax together.  They might have had birds and the shifting of the leaves in an evening breeze.  They would have had change with the seasons and the time of day, as well as with the passing of years.

There’s a widespread assumption that poor people (and nonwhites more generally) don’t value such things.  They’re supposedly too busy trying to find jobs and feed their families.  But surveys in recent years have demonstrated that they want these amenities as much as any other human being.

Instead, they get this instant faux-forest, which will inevitably look like hell, or require another $600,000 in repairs 10 years from now.  It seems like a missed opportunity for Shakira, who has otherwise demonstrated admirable philanthropic instincts for improving education and other social services in her home country.

Lots more photos and comments at Mazzanti’s web site.

2 Responses to “Are Fake Forests Good Enough for Poor Folk?”

  1. Margaret Nolan said

    In light of this article I think it would be a good to contrast it to the GREEN BELT MOVEMENT started by Wangari Maathai.

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