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Master Plan for Havana: An Encounter with Julio César Pérez Hernández

April 3, 2009 by Administrator in Spring 2009

By Regula Modlich

“Havana Cuba: A New Master Plan” reads the flier for Julio César Pérez Hernández’ lecture in Toronto, Canada. What progressive planner wouldn’t do a double take? Havana, the “David” nation of approximately 2.2 million residents that fought, won and still struggles to build an alternative way of life at the doorstep of its “Goliath” neighbor! How does this alternative reflect itself in urban planning?

Surprisingly, in spite of socialist ideology being so closely associated with planning, and two agencies responsible for planning, Cuba’s capital has never had an officially adopted comprehensive plan to guide its development! These questions brought me face-to-face with Julio César Pérez in his simple, yet stunningly elegant, two-story studio and residence in a traditional street of San Antonio de los Baños, a small community southwest of Havana. There, Julio, in his early fifties, passionately describes his “labor of love” for which neither he nor his team have so far received a single penny. Pérez realized the value and urgency of creating a master plan for this amazing city with its 450 year history while a Loeb Fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2002. With the assistance of R.A. Venancio, M.D. Hernández, J.C.T. Martinez, G.F. Santos, A. de la Cruz Alvarez, J.E. Gonzalez and V.F. Rodriquez, Pérez produced the plan as a collective effort.

Context for the Master Plan

UNESCO declared Old Havana a World Heritage site in 1982. Today’s city features substantial sections dating from between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries: wonderful Art Deco buildings from the early twentieth century; post–revolutionary Cuban masterpieces; adaptations of the Soviet “self-build” prefabricated mass housing; a handful of American modernist skyscrapers; the recent Miramar Trade and Office Center; and even a few car-based suburbs such as Tarara. Yet there is no dwarfing jungle of high-rise office and condo towers, no mega shopping centers in a sea of parking, no bumper-to-bumper polluting traffic. There is also no belt of ramshackle slums, the typical welcome mat of cities in the South, but I still felt the urge to pick up a paintbrush, trowel and mortar to tackle the overwhelming deterioration.

Quite apart from its acknowledged beauty, Havana’s traditional built environment is based on mixed-use, compact blocks and a grid street pattern. Challenged by climate change as well as energy, water and food shortages, today’s planners increasingly recognize that this development concept can greatly enhance urban social, economic and environmental sustainability. Stores, trades and services at the street level become economically viable when there are four to eight stories of residences above. Such commercial activities offer highly accessible employment, goods and services to the neighborhood. The elderly, children, caregiving adults and those with limited means benefit particularly from not needing private cars. Street-oriented compact blocks allow dwellings to have dual orientation with interior courtyards and balconies that allow for eyes on the street, air circulation, socializing and plants. The loss of precisely this urban concept, which prevailed in nineteenth and much of twentieth century New York, formed the main impetus for Jane Jacobs’ critique of modernist planning in her Death and Life of American Cities. Large sections of pre-twentieth century—and therefore pedestrian-oriented—European cities such as Paris, London and Berlin are also still based on the compact block and grid and have retained their vitality. Pérez adds, “The grid is a very powerful tool to order territory; it’s a very rational one.”

The Master Plan for Havana includes an extensive history of Havana’s architectural evolution, which forms the basis of the plan’s overall urban design concepts, and detailed design guidelines for several new and existing neighborhoods, parks and public spaces. The detailed design proposals stem from charrettes Pérez has been conducting in recent years in cooperation with the Council for European Urbanism. The master plan stands in contrast to Canadian official plans, which are almost devoid of urban design, a component still largely considered the prerogative of developers. Official plans in Canada are legal policy documents which, together with maps and supplemented by zoning by-laws, establish quite rigidly what uses and densities can be placed on any given piece of land within a municipality.

Master Plan and Its Ten “Elements”

The master plan lists ten key “elements,” described below. The elements cannot be tidily compartmentalized because, as Pérez notes, “If we don’t approach this thing in a holistic way, we are lost.”

1. Waterfront revitalization: A waterfront really defines a city

The plan pays homage to the famous Malecón Drive along Havana’s seashore. Uninterrupted public open spaces are extended along the entire waterfront of Havana. Taking advantage of the slope of the existing reef, the plan proposes an ambitious two-level tunnel under the whole length of the Malecón (image 4). Multiple potential benefits would derive from this: adding open space for public and social interaction at grade; increasing the buffer to protect the heritage structures along the Malecón against the eroding saltwater mist from the sea; protecting against future rising sea levels; channeling public and private vehicular traffic and its pollution away from pedestrian areas; and incorporating new water, sewer and hydro infrastructure.

2. Reinforcement of polycentric structure

The plan represents an “ecological alternative to suburbanization” by including major open spaces within the urban structure. Pérez adds: “Yes, this is one of the good news in Cuba, there is no land speculation.”

“Havana has a polycentric tradition,” explains Pérez. To minimize massive highway construction and maximize pedestrian accessibility, the plan proposes to reverse the 1975 amalgamation and reestablish the autonomy and identity of the historical municipalities. In many major cities in Canada, amalgamation of the 1980s and 1990s removed civic administration from the people, discouraged locally appropriate solutions and increased the size and cost of bureaucracy.

3. New public transport system

“We plan for both vehicles and pedestrians, but we don’t plan for highways or very wide streets that conflict with pedestrians,” comments Pérez, who also envisages bicycle lanes, battery-powered trolleys and an ambitious subway system.

4. Infrastructure upgrading: Infrastructure needs to be upgraded according to modern technology

5. New urban image: The city needs a new image that speaks for its regeneration and vitality

The detailed urban design concepts that are offered for eight different neighborhoods would certainly revitalize the city if the mixed-use, compact block concept is applied to future development.

6. Increase of public space: Life is vibrant on streets, squares and parks and allows for human exchange

The detailed urban design plans for neighborhoods, squares and parks, including the Plaza de la Revolución, civic center and the Paseo del Prado around the Capitol, all increase and enhance public spaces.

7. Mixed use: Different neighborhoods share different uses, as the model provided by the traditional city

This “element” is critical for the revitalization of neighborhoods, yet its realization is probably the most challenging for Cuba, which currently allows only very limited outlets for private enterprise.

8. Social and cultural integration: People should be able to freely work, relax, enjoy and interact

“Cuba is very diversified, yet integrated, there are no gender problems, no racial problems,” stresses Pérez. He underlines that the new neighborhoods are to include a full range of housing.

9. Revitalization of calzadas and thoroughfares: Commercial axes attract people

The porticos, or covered walkways, along mixed-use streets are a trademark of Havana’s built heritage and provide natural cooling. The plan provides several street sections and landscaping proposals which include porticos for pedestrian comfort and renewed life along the calzadas.

10. Increase of green areas: It is an environmental must

The waterfront, the landscaping of calzadas, plazas and squares and new green areas within the polycentric structure all show a commitment to increasing the current ratio of ten square meters of open space per citizen. All neighborhood plans, included in the master plan, feature extensive proposals for green spaces. An interesting modification of the compact grid to allow for more open space is shown for the Casablanca neighborhood. Where neighborhoods connect to the waterfront, their road grids orient to the sea to “air condition” the entire neighborhood.

The master plan provides for holistic high-, medium- and low-density designations to guide all urban functions and thus allows for their full integration and continuing evolution. The plan also gives a strong and relevant urban design framework for the city. For a comprehensive master plan, however, some elements need to be further elaborated, and some additional elements may be worth considering. Pérez points to two major problems in Havana—housing and transportation. He envisages approximately one million new dwellings in two of the proposed neighborhoods, Vistamar and Habanamar. Yet, we do not know how many dwellings the remaining six redesigned neighborhoods will yield and how they will relate to the three broad density categories proposed in the plan. Similarly, the transportation text does not sufficiently explain the maps or relationship between various transportation modes . In a society with such exemplary health care and child care, one might expect that plans for renewed neighborhoods would include location criteria for a comprehensive range of social services. A section spelling out environmental and sustainability criteria is also absent, although the proposed urban design meets significant sustainability criteria. Lastly, Cuban urban agriculture has acquired international recognition, yet Pérez admits: “You see how much land is wasted and how much land is abandoned and uncultivated, I don’t find an explanation for that; I am ashamed of seeing that.” Perhaps one of Pérez’ future charrettes could address this issue and develop policies and community design guidelines that will attract Cuba’s educated youth to agriculture, both urban and rural, at least part-time.

Next Steps?

Julio Pérez has been traveling extensively to explain the content, value and urgency of the plan both in Cuba and abroad. Everywhere he receives strong support. Yet it is the Cuban government, that needs to take an official stand and commit at least to the fundamental elements of the plan, its finalization and implementation. This would mean:

  • determining what elements should be expanded or even added to ensure the plan is truly holistic, as Pérez envisions;
  • establishing a policy framework for mixed uses to flourish and which supports and guides individual initiatives, ideas and innovation for the benefit of the community without unleashing unbridled market forces, speculation, corruption and exploitation;
  • evaluating international research and experience with alternative construction materials, energy generation, waste management and water supply and treatment, and specifically in the context of their suitability for Havana and Cuba; and
  • involving grassroots organizations such the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the Federation of Cuban Women and trade unions to refine the plan and take ownership of its visions.

Places around the world face challenges similar to Cuba in terms of how to balance market forces with state regulations to bring about socially and environmentally sustainable economies while nurturing both cooperation and individual initiatives for the common good. Clearly the master plan’s mixed-use, compact block concept along a grid street pattern answers some urgent challenges before an increasingly urbanizing humanity. Pérez sums it up best: “We have conquered very important goals in education, in public health, biotechnology… We understand that, but we have to move on. Changes are needed. My guess is that the government is doing this right now; they are aware of the need for changes, but they cannot do all the changes at the same time, they are doing things gradually.” Just as ninety miles from Havana there are great expectations for President Obama to bring about change, Cubans similarly trust and expect that Raul Castro, too, will do just that.

Regula Modlich (rmodlich@evdemon.ca), a retired urban planner and activist, helped develop a gender analysis of planning. For more information on the charrettes of the Council for European Urbanism, visit www.cuba.moderno.no.

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