Participatory Planning and Preservation in Havana

Ann LeRoyer and Mario Coyula, July 1, 1997

Q & A with Mario Coyula

Q. Why is Havana so acclaimed for its beautiful old buildings and neighborhoods?

A. More than two hundred years ago Havana was the preeminent city in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean basin. Established as a service-oriented Spanish colonial settlement, the city spread west and southwest from its initial development next to the port, leaving behind a valuable built heritage representing many different architectural styles over more than four centuries.

The historic character of Havana persists both by accident and by design: By accident, because the 1959 revolution quickly stopped an on-going process of replacing fine old buildings with high-rise condominiums; by design, because one early goal of the new government was to reduce rural poverty and improve living conditions in the countryside and smaller cities and towns. As a result, Havana became more dilapidated, but the population goal was cut short, and the city was spared the fate of traumatic urban renewal and speculative real estate development.

Q. What are the two faces of Havana referred to in the title of your forthcoming book, Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis?

A. Every city has at least two faces, depending on the social, cultural and political bias of the observer. Havana had many very wealthy people, but many poor people as well. Some people will tell you that pre-revolutionary Havana was a wonderful, glamorous city, a perfect place to live until communism arrived. Others will recall it as a place ridden with poverty, discrimination and social injustice; they believe that the revolution opened equal opportunities to all.

Some will tell you that present-day Havana is on the verge of collapse because of the lack of maintenance, and dull because of the lack of services and choices. Others will point out that because of that, Havana’s unique architecture was protected from redevelopment. People in the inner districts may be overcrowded, but they have not been expelled by gentrification. In every case, it is both things at the same time. Maybe that is what makes Havana so fascinating.

Q. What is the mission of the Group for the Integrated Development of the Capital?

A. The Group was created in 1987 as an interdisciplinary team of experts to advise the city government on urban policies. Our mission is to place on an equal footing the economic and social development of the city, emphasizing the active participation of the city’s residents. Preserving Havana’s extensive built heritage represents an impossible drain of state funds at a time when the Cuban economy is severely impaired. Yet investment is critical to reassert Havana’s leading role in the region and to create an urban environment that can stimulate economic growth and improve the quality of life of the residents.

New investments should encourage residents to identify and solve their own problems, and progress must be monitored to avoid negative impacts on the natural environment as well as the built and social fabric. Planning for change in Havana demands a pattern of development that would be economically feasible, environmentally sound, socially fair and politically participatory. We want to work with investors who understand and respect the community, to help build a social identity and neighborhood commitment through improving material aspects such as housing, transportation, education and health.

Q. What is the role of the neighborhood transformation workshops started by the Group?

A. These are organizations of neighborhood residents, guided and stimulated by architects, social workers, planners and engineers. We try to find professionals who actually live full-time in the neighborhood for each group. The groups choose and manage revitalization, housing construction, recreation, or other economic and social projects, according to their own vision and priorities for community development in their specific neighborhoods.

Some of the workshops have chosen to focus on the manufacture of building materials, even by recycling rubble (an abundant raw material in Havana!), using these for their own projects but also selling them to other groups. Other neighborhood workshops have chosen to focus on urban gardening or recycling waste. Most importantly, these workshops encourage the self-reliance and commitment of the residents, thus developing a local pride that helps prevent marginality.

Q. What are the respective roles of the central government and the neighborhoods in the revitalization of Havana?

A. The central government has found it increasingly difficult to meet the needs of the neighborhoods, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union. Fuel, food and transportation were once supplied and managed centrally, or even imported. Citizens grew to expect a benevolent government to take care of things from the top down. Now one of our biggest challenges is to energize and empower citizens to provide these things locally, from the bottom up. For example, the government has authorized the creation of tens of thousands of small, community gardens on vacant lots, and the surplus from these gardens is sold in city markets.

Q. What are the pros and cons of tourism development in Havana?

A. On the one hand, tourism can attract new investment and income that will help to improve the living standard of the city’s residents. On the other hand, large-scale construction just for tourists can overwhelm the local built environment, and encourage Cubans to see tourists not as fellow human beings but just as an economic resource—almost the way the hungry man in the old Charlie Chaplin film saw everyone around him as a roast chicken or a delicious dessert.

I would rather attract many small investors than a few large ones and find ways of reusing some of the city’s old mansions as small-scale hotels. That way, we can manage both the benefits and the risks of tourism more effectively, and spread the benefits and costs more thinly across many neighborhoods. This pattern should be more sustainable and less vulnerable in an unfriendly external context, including the American embargo.

Q. The Group has built a huge scale model of Havana. How do you use it?

A. We use the model as an educational tool, to help people see the city as a whole and to place their neighborhood within it. Because the buildings are color-coded by the period when they were constructed, the model also helps people see how the city grew, and how newer buildings replaced or overwhelmed older ones. The model was built at a scale of 1:1000 and now covers 112 square meters. It is exhibited in a custom-made pavilion that serves as an information center for anyone living in or visiting the city.

We also use model to test the visual impact of new projects. By placing proposed buildings on their intended sites, we help people get more information on different options and opportunities. This process has actually stopped some inappropriate, disruptive projects because everyone—planners, developers, neighborhood residents—could see clearly how a new structure would impact the community.

Editor’s Note: Architect and planner Mario Coyula spoke at the Lincoln Institute, the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and the Kennedy School of Government in April about the history and architecture of Havana, his home town. He has been a full professor at the Faculty of Architecture of Havana since 1964 and is vice-director of the Group for the Integrated Development of the Capital (GDIC). Dr. Coyula is also a member of several commissions, scientific councils and advisory councils. He is a co-author of the forthcoming book Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis (New York and London: John Wiley and Sons, 1997) with Roberto Segre and Joseph L. Scarpaci, Jr.