New cities often have a modernist design, but fail to meet the dynamic needs of their residents. In Venezuela, PhD researcher Simone Rots discovered that it is better for the government to give residents a helping hand in organising things themselves.

In the post-war period, Venezuela was able to spend more than other Latin American countries thanks to its oil revenues. For example, it built several brand-new cities for its rapidly growing population, calling upon the expertise of Western modernist architects in the process. That may sound like a recipe for order and regularity, but there are considerable differences between cities – as Simone Rots discovered while investigating two of them.
23 de Enero, a city situated near the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, dates back to the 1950s and was envisaged as a Venezuelan equivalent of the Bijlmer area of Amsterdam. But before the city was completed, a revolution broke out in 1958 and the 38 huge apartment complexes (‘superblocks’) – the backbone of the city – became occupied by squatters. Instead of providing a home for the 60,000 people for whom they were built, a few hundred thousand people now live in and around the colossal high-rise complexes. “It’s fascinating. Here you can see how the Modern Movement meets organic urbanisation,” says Rots.
Ciudad Guayana was planned and built in the 1960s, in collaboration with academics from MIT and Harvard, as a new industrial capital. It was built around a modernist new town from the early 1950s and an existing fishing village – this time with no massive high-rises in sight. The government did not want a repeat of 23 de Enero. Ciudad Guayana became a living lab for urban planning ideas and home to several innovative demonstration projects.

Self-organisation

Informal urbanisation has been integrated in both cities. In 23 de Enero it happened spontaneously, as citizens literally took over the buildings. This resulted in good, but also dangerous, dysfunctional neighbourhoods.
In Ciudad Guayana, the process was steered by an ‘aided self-help’ programme – self-organisation with the support of the government. The government not only allocated plots of land, but also supported the future residents by providing financial and technical assistance. Less affluent people were also given opportunities; they received help in building public facilities, such as sewage systems, and water and electricity systems, for example. By working together, residents were able to keep housing costs low. Some opened small businesses on their plots, which improved the social and economic structure of the neighbourhood. It also helped to create a diverse population. “It’s a long process, and the government needs to invest time and money in it, but a real city is emerging,” says Rots. “It’s very similar to cities that developed naturally.”
What lessons can be drawn from this research for other new cities elsewhere in the world? One thing we have learned is that, when planning new cities, we must think more carefully about the living conditions of future residents – including those on low incomes, says Rots. So there needs to be affordable housing, and the government should give people a helping hand so that they – either on their own or together – can build their own homes and create a close-knit community. That is more effective than planned, strictly modernist cities.
Is self-organisation better than modernism? “No, they’re not opposing ideas,” says Rots. “But aided self-help demonstrates that a caring government can help facilitate urban planning on an inclusive, human scale. Just by respecting what people can do for themselves.”