Resignifying public space through community engagement
By Jorge Zapata
Colonia La Campana is one of the most notable informal neighborhoods in Monterrey, Mexico. It is located on a hill on the outskirts of the city, about 6 km from downtown San Pedro Garza, the richest city in Latin America. Since it is located on a hill, this neighborhood has a privileged view of Monterrey. On the other hand, this location limits accessibility to the community, which, along with periods of violence in previous decades, has kept the community isolated from the rest of the city.
Because of the long absence of the municipality, the residents have been left with the responsibility for developing and maintaining their neighborhoods. The community is built through informal practices with limited access to public services. Because of unclear private property limits, the existing public spaces are poorly developed and the narrow spaces between homes are used for vertical circulation, not for public activities.
However, in 2015 three women from La Campana formed an NGO named Barrio Esperanza to trigger a change in their neighborhood. Celina Fernandez, a social risk evaluator who was working in La Campana at the time, was asked to facilitate the creation of the organization. The goal of the group was to foster community-based improvements in the neighborhood by empowering the residents in La Campana to shape their own future. The NGO focuses its efforts in three main areas: social infrastructure, education and employment, and health. Most of the operating funds are obtained through donations made by private entities, but there is also a huge effort to take advantage of available materials in the neighborhood and the local knowledge of residents.
The social infrastructure program sought especially to create safe spaces for children and develop a waste management strategy. One of the most important programs that Barrio Esperanza has introduced is the creation of Pocket Parks in La Campana, using available space such as lots abandoned by families or small pieces of land donated by residents and playground equipment donated to Barrio Esperanza by wealthy families from other neighborhoods.
The NGO works with small groups of neighboring residents who will be particularly affected by individual projects. Barrio Esperanza has found that this makes it easier to develop the pocket parks: the neighbors feel motivated to change their immediate environment, which prompts them to work on the project in their free time and without pay. It is also easier to coordinate small groups of people rather than gather the entire community for each of the projects.
This participatory aspect is key to the success of these projects in La Campana. The pocket parks are small and localized, but the positive impact exceeds that scale, creating connections between people, things, and space is a reflection of the agency of the community. Initiatives such as taking back the street and converting it into public space encourage the strengthening of community bonds. The pocket parks also provide a safe space for the children to play, they vitalize street life, and they contribute to keeping the community free of waste.
On the other hand, even though such spatial improvement strategies can foster community building. Simone (2004) argues that they do not address the constant risks faced by communities such as displacement, and they do not solve the lack of basic social, economic, and infrastructure needs. Such projects may also not prepare residents to address such deeper structural problems. In fact, the lack of safe and attractive public space is a reflection of other, deeper problems that should be also addressed in order to reduce vulnerability. The geographic location of La Campana makes the neighborhood an attractive place for development due to the view of the city and the proximity to San Pedro Garza and the private university Tecnológico de Monterrey. Development pressure is one of the impending threats to La Campana, but community-based projects such as these pocket parks can help to reduce the risk of displacement by enhancing connectivity and social cohesion among the residents in the neighborhood. However, projects based on beautification, such as the macro mural Colossal, may inadvertently contribute to making the community more vulnerable to economic pressures.
An informal settlement initially develops because of an immediate need for housing, which leads to the creation of private spaces. However, the stairways, the streets, and other non-built areas between homes are not viewed as “public” spaces. This lack of sense of place can be attributed to poor conditions, especially when there are significant accumulations of garbage in these spaces. However, by organizing residents to create pocket parks, residents appropriate these deteriorated spaces, developing “place attachment” (Shamsuddin and Ujang, 2008). This development of place attachment is key to the success of these pocket parks and also illuminate new ways of thinking about urban design.
Urbanization produces intricate connections between heterogeneous elements, an assemblage of bodies, behaviors, and representations of power (Simone, 2004). The pocket parks in La Campana form parts of a network of spaces that facilitate interaction between residents, in spite of difficult economic conditions and a lack of resources. Community-based public spaces thus exceed the bounds of personal survival, illustrating Simone’s idea of people as infrastructure (Simone, 2004).
The creation of these pocket parks can also be understood as an insurgent appropriation of space and an expression of community power (Simone, 2004). Pocket parks emerge autonomously from the efforts of residents through their own initiative, rather than from planning agencies and other formal authorities. Proponents of assemblage theory argue that relations of power are the result of constant fluidity and exchangeability, and not necessarily a product of political-economic structure (Ross and Dovey, 2013). From the perspective of assemblage theory, it is precisely the negligence of formal institutions that triggers projects such as the pocket parks in La Campana, illustrating the possibility of creativity on the boundary between the formal and the informal (Ross and Dovey, 2013). However, the disciplines of planning and urban design reproduce a formal understanding of cities and therefore reaffirm traditional structures. As a result, these formal disciplines tend to leave out community creativity and local knowledge, which in turn may stymie the agency of local residents and hinder the development of community spaces and a sense of place.