Exploring Cuba’s Urban and Environmental Heritage

Peter Pollock, Septiembre 1, 1998

Cuba is a striking country. Its historic capital city of Havana boasts 400 years of architectural heritage. Many areas are in a state of sad decay but some represent very creative approaches to preservation and economic development. Because of the focus on rural development after the 1959 revolution, Cuba did not experience the same kind of popular migration from the countryside to the cities as did other parts of Latin America. What modern redevelopment did occur happened largely outside the historic core of Havana. The good news is that the city’s architectural heritage is still standing; the bad news is that it is just barely standing.

Architects and planners in Cuba are struggling with the basic tasks of improving infrastructure and housing while encouraging economic development appropriate to their socialist vision. They are developing models of neighborhood transformation through local organizing and self-help programs, and are creating models of “value capture” in the process of historic preservation and tourism development.

Through connections with the Group for the Integrated Development of the Capital (Grupo para el Desarrollo Integral de la Capital, GDIC), nine environmental design professionals traveled to Cuba in June to explore the issues of decay and innovation in the built and natural environment. The team included nine of the eleven 1997-98 Loeb Fellows from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

The Loeb Fellowship in Advanced Environmental Studies was established in 1970 through the generosity of Harvard alumnus John L. Loeb. The Fellowship annually awards ten to twelve leaders in the design and environmental professions with support for a year of independent study at Harvard University. A recent tradition of the Fellowship program is for the Fellows to take a trip together at the end of the academic year, to solidify their ties developed over the year, explore a new environment together, and share their knowledge and expertise with others.

The Loeb Fellows who traveled to Cuba have a variety of interests that together represent a cross-section of the environmental design professions:

  • Charles Birnbaum, a landscape architect who advocates the preservation of significant landscapes.
  • Toni Griffin, an architect concerned with economic and community development in urban neighborhoods.
  • Pamela Hawkes, an architect specializing in historic preservation.
  • Daniel Hernandez, an architect who creates affordable housing.
  • Leonard McGee, a community leader who works to transform and improve inner-city communities.
  • Julio Peterson, a community developer interested in economic development in inner cities and developing countries.
  • Peter Pollock, a city planner who specializes in growth management issues.
  • Anne Raver, a journalist interested in people’s relationship with the natural environment.
  • Jean Rogers, an environmental engineer and planner who focuses on ameliorating the impacts of industrialization on the environment.

The Fellows were hosted in Havana by GDIC, which was created in 1987 as a small, interdisciplinary team of experts advising the city government on urban policies. “The group intended since its very beginning to promote a new model for the built environment that would be less imposing, more decentralized and participatory, ecologically sound and economically feasible-in short, holistically sustainable,” according to Mario Coyula, an architect, planner and vice-president of GDIC. He and his GDIC colleagues put together a series of informative seminars and tours for the Fellows in Havana, and made arrangements for them to visit planners and designers in the cities of Las Terrazas, Matanzas, and Trinidad.

Several foundations and groups lent support to the project: the Arca Foundation, the William Reynolds Foundation, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the Loeb Fellowship Alumni Association, and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design Loeb Fellowship Program. Each Loeb Fellow will write an essay on a relevant area of research and its relationship to conditions in Cuba. These papers will be compiled and made available to GDIC, Harvard University and potentially to others through publication in a journal or special report.

Peter Pollock is director of community planning for the city of Boulder, Colorado. In 1997-98 he was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard and a visiting fellow at the Lincoln Institute.