Paving the Way: How Public Housing Shapes Chilean Future

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SANTIAGO — The case of social housing is a subtopic of poverty that is experienced on a both communal and global level. A Chilean based architecture firm Elemental, lead by Alejandro Aravena has taken a big step in 2004 towards shifting the view point on the real-life application of such programs. Aravena highlights the reasoning behind his approach: “The need for social housing is becoming more pressing, with three billion people now living in cities and a third of them living below the poverty line.”

Further apprehension of statistics assembled by the World Bank illustrates that currently 14.4 percent of Chile’s population falls under the national poverty line compared to 29.1 percent in 2006. A decrease in national poverty factors into the daily lives of Chilean population.

Uniquely Elemental

The main reason behind what makes Elemental stand out is their atypical concept in regards to social housing. The Quinto Monroy Housing project includes 93 apartments with a measurement of 36 square meters built for each unit in a 5,000 square meter land allocated in total. At an initial glance, 36 square meters suggests an inhabitable environment, however, an incremental plan made it possible to do so. An incremental plan is defined as a system in which, “the government funds construction of half a good house, with residents completing the other portion as resources allow.”

This places a role in the hands of the residents; a chance to shape their own living space. This was done with the vision of, “alleviating poverty and eliminating slums using a participatory approach that engages local communities in early stages of the design process.” The particular style of design stands out from the social housing projects of the past, primarily due to its location.

Central Location Proves Essential

Providing a central location eradicates dividing societal factors that most social housing programs face due to their inconvenient location. Aravena discloses the practice of what is known as, reduce and displace: “Reduce the size of the houses, threaten the quality of life of its inhabitants and displace them to underserved peripheries where land costs nothing, segregating people from the opportunities that made them come to cities in the first place.”

The incremental public housing plan has encouraged the residents to earn their way into middle class and paved the way for an economically stable future. Elemental argues that, “a middle class family lives reasonably well in around 70 to 80 square meters. The measurement results from taking various conditions of life; ranging from’ a healthy level of nutrition intake to nonfood spending.”

The declared living space grants the residents to fulfill their dreams and not live entirely under the mentality of survival.

Affordable Housing Boosts Economy

Supplementing the egalitarian path taken by Aravena, Center for Housing Policy discusses the “role of affordable housing in creating jobs and stimulating local economic development.” The non-profit organization gives increasing importance to the direct relation between public housing and the local economy. In a 2011 report, it is shown that, “local economy benefits directly from the funds spent on materials and labor.” The arrival of an incoming diverse group of families will also bring a sense of community and the prospect of a fresh start.

Encouraging the residents of Quinta Monroy to strive towards an economically independent future was the key throughout the development of the social housing plan. Elemental has set an inspiring example in “examining the growing gap between architecture and social need.” While many of the local and national governmental organizations view social housing as a risky investment, quite the opposite is true when they are considered on a long-term basis.

Center for Housing Policy notes, “investment in social housing leverages social and private funds and results in both direct, indirect and induced economic activity.”

An induced economic activity is the main characteristic of an economy growing at a healthy level, while acting on an inclusive level to all of its participants and not a select group of individuals. This way, the civil barriers will eventually rise to be non-existent between classes. The very belief system has shifted, “a 30 year old slum to a social housing plan, able to accommodate 93 families.”

The settlement of featured families meant a stimulation in local economical activity. Seeking to comply with the necessities of each family will equate in “educational institutions, social services, dining businesses, professional services, whole and retail trade.” The mentioned branches will serve as the foundation of a self-sufficient community, while at the same time generate jobs for the surrounding population.

Not Just One Step, but Three

Aravena and his team at Elemental took on two other social housing projects throughout Chile, including Lo Barnechea and Villa Verde. All three projects share the characteristic of being designed from a participatory angle. In 2016, the design group made the plans public by, “releasing them as an open-source resource to help tackle the global affordable housing crisis.”

This avant-garde step taken has turned heads and laid the concrete for others to follow. An open-source resource allows for the redistribution and modification of the original content; by ensuing the following philosophy: “for rapid evolution to happen, people need to be able to experiment with and redistribute modifications.”

Open-source complements the social aspects of the Elemental design group and allows for public assistance in defining the future of social housing. Aravena expresses the reasoning behind this move – “the aim is to provide the material to government agencies and developers who might think it is too expensive to invest in well-designed social housing.” It is essential to bring a form of change to the way in which public housing is understood and analyzed by future governments. The reason being, “by 2030, out of the 5 billion people that will be living in cities, 2 billion are going to be under the line of poverty.”

The topic of public housing will not be dissolving any time soon, and the solution lies in thinking and acting on an inclusive and participatory level.

Efe Ulucay
Photo: Flickr

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