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Enabling for change

by José Fernando Arns
Even in well-managed cities in the developing world, the constant influx of new people means that informal squatter settlements have to provide homes to many newcomers. A project in the Brazilian agglomeration of Curitiba shows that it makes more sense to make the best of a difficult situation than to close one’s eyes to a reality that, according to official plans, should not exist. [ By José Fernando Arns ]

Curitiba is the capital of the Brazilian State of Paraná. The Metropolitan Area (RMC) includes 27 satellite municipalities within 100 km and has 3.3 million inhabitants. About one third of Paraná’s entire population lives in this relatively small area.

Curitiba is internationally known for forward-thinking zoning and sound environmental policies. The agglomeration has efficient public transport and an extensive system of public parks. It is an example of well-managed urbanisation, even boasting programmes to protect biodiversity (see interview with Mayor Carlos Alberto Richa in D+C/E+Z 7/8 of 2008, p. 103f).

Nonetheless, infrastructure has not kept pace with the steady influx of ever more people into the RMC. Today, only 40 % of the area’s population has basic sanitation services. There are 301 irregular squatter settlements with a total population of some 350,000.

Several government programmes are meant to bridge the social divide between the impoverished subclass and the general population. For instance, people without garbage- collection services are encouraged to exchange their waste for bus tickets and food at trash collection centres. Another programme targets children, offering school supplies, toys, sweets and show tickets in return for recyclable waste. Nonetheless, only 22 % of recyclable garbage in the RMC finds an appropriate destination. Waste piles up in natural and urban environments.

Serious challenges

The most serious challenges are the lack of housing and insufficient sanitation in the RMC. According to government data, almost 520,000 families lack a home, and 85.4 % of them make do with a monthly income of less than $ 750. Most of them simply have no choice but to live in self-constructed shelters.

A project at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Paraná (PUCPR) is tackling this problem. It is called “ECOHABITARE” and aims to reduce housing deficits, sanitation problems and social injustice. Where others see trash, Ecohabitare sees opportunities. The idea is to convert waste into raw materials for the construction of cheap, but safe and appropriate homes. An inexpensive, adaptable and environmentally sustainable architectural model has been designed. It is simple enough for families to build themselves. The costs amount to the equivalent of € 40 per square metre.

The model features dry composting toilets that reduce the yearly water consumption of a family of four by 100,000 litres. It also boasts a solar water heater, solar heating and a vertical urban garden. The architectural model promotes environmental awareness, while also providing comfort in terms of temperature, noise, illumination, location, space, ergonomics and sanitation.

Ecohabitare draws upon research in many fields – including architecture, industrial design, civil engineering, environmental engineering and biology – to develop new building techniques. Materials such as aluminium cans, tyres and plastic bottles are used. Ecohabitare has developed an illustrated step-by-step construction manual to guide users – literate or not. The manual includes advice on ergonomics, worksite organisation and ways to involve all family members in the construction process

Fostering decision-making

User participation in the planning phase is important. It encourages self-expression and motivates users to investment in their homes. In addition to supporting concrete improvements in environment quality and individual standard of living, Ecohabitare aims to generate less tangible benefits at the community level. The approach is educational. Ecohabitare organises discussions and technical workshops, intervening in adolescents’ education. The idea is to empower communities by awaking the ingenuity of their members and fostering communication.

Ecohabitare primarily targets 15-year-olds who make their living collecting recyclable waste from the streets. The goal is to awaken and develop skills of problem-solving, communication and leadership. Ecohabitare engages the youngsters, who are called decision-makers in this context, over the course of twelve months. Many of them never had opportunities to express ideas, emotions or opinions before. Students from PUCPR facilitate the process by inciting discussions, providing incentives, encouraging critical thinking and developing customised solutions that suit particular needs. Children from local schools are also invited to take part in the Ecohabitare programme.

The intervention has three successive phases. In the first phase, participants discuss their ideas, experiences and values without interference from the facilitators. The participants are given four topics for discussion:
– know yourself and know others,
– identify, prioritise and analyse the problems,
– describe each group member’s individual potential, and
– define possible alternative solutions that fit the local situation.

The next phase is about “shared administration”. Drawing on the results of the previous discussions, facilitators and participants brainstorm. They discuss issues such as how to develop a healthy environment and how to bring the community’s and inhabitants’ identities to the surface. The facilitators eventually steer the debate to the question: “What is it important to include in a healthy environment?” The discussions recover local values that have been deprived of their reason for existence and forgotten. Once resuscitated, these values breathe life into the abstract debate. The ideas and opinions of the participants are recorded and developed into a community-accessible database of local social, economic and environment potential.

As the brainstorming progresses, planning begins for the final stage of the intervention: the technological workshops. The objective is to develop ways to attribute value to recyclable waste, and to finds ways to communicate with and inform the local community. Of course, they also stimulate the exchange of human, technical and scientific experiences. The process encourages the creation of new materials that may be of use to the local community.
Five basic issues are tackled in the technological workshops:
– solar water and space heating,
– ecological bricks,
– PVC dividing walls,
– dry toilets and
– vertical urban vegetable gardens.

The students are divided into groups, which are rotated so all students learn about the techniques in each workshop. The workshops normally take place in schools, which provide a secure, easily accessible and familiar venue. Once several alternative solutions have been found for a specific problem, one of them is chosen and put into practice. After a trial period, the group goes back to the drawing board to improve the solution based on their observations.

In the end, the adolescents become knowledge multipliers in their community. In spite of poverty, it is possible to find appropriate and sustainable solutions to problems of housing, waste and sanitation. The goal is a healthy, sustainable and socially cohesive urban agglomeration. The best way to achieve it is in a shared, integrated and continued manner, reflected in attitudes in homes, schools, workplaces and all parts of the urban environment.