So, you think the planners in your area are taking something a little too far? Be glad you aren’t in Venezuela…
I wish I could link to the article by Michael Mehaffy in The Urban Land Institute’s May edition of Urban Land titled “Venezuela’s New Socialist Cities”, but ULI doesn’t provide the online edition to non-members. However, I have been able to find some related articles online, which I can share with you.
Development of Caminos de Los Indios, the first of five “Socialist Cities” has begun south of Caracas. In his 2007 inaugural speech, Hugo Chavez said, “We need to a system of cities based on federations, federal regions. We need to build communal cities, Socialist Cities.” “Economic power needs to be transfered to these local bodies (“councils of popular power”) – so that we can work toward the communal and social state and move away from capitalism.”
The concept is tauted by the government as a way of empowering locals and creating sustainable places for the 1/2 million residents. In Nov 17, 2007’s Washington Post, Ramón Carrizales, Venezuela’s housing minister is quoted “A city that’s self-sustainable, that respects the environment, that uses clean technologies, that is mostly for use by the people, with lots of walking paths, parks, sports areas, museums and schools within walking distance.”
However, many environmentalists are appalled, since these cities will be build in the wilderness, requiring roads and infrastructure to these newly deforested locations. Not only that, many rural residents will be forced to resettle into the “Socialist Cities.”
The history of these sort of projects are dismal. From the Washington Post article Chávez’s ‘Socialist City’ Rises:
“The majority of socialist cities that were built in socialist countries failed,” said Maria Josefina Weitz, an urban planner in Caracas. “When you create something by ideological decree, it doesn’t respond to the real needs of people. Cities have their own origin, develop on their own and have their own dynamic.”
The Urban Land article goes further in discussing how cities need to grow organically, quoting Christopher Alexander’s 1965 paper, “A City is Not a Tree”:
The messy neighborhoods of Caracas, or Jacobs’s New York City, feature intriguing examples of “overlap, ambiguity, multiplicity of aspect” and other apparently disordered network forms. But, in fact, these are “not less orderly than the rigid tree, but more [orderly]. They represent a thicker, more subtle, and more complex view of structure.” “we are trading the humanity and richness of the city for a conceptual simplicity that benefits only designers, planners, administrators, and developers.”
Anthropologist James C. Scott calls this Seeing Like a State, and wrote a book with that title in 1998. In the Urban Land article, he is quoted, “strong neighborhoods, like strong cities, are the products of complex processes that cannot be replicated from above.” Top-down decisions, while created to make things orderly, usually fail to meet the needs of complex social interaction.
In Christian Science Monitor’s article from April 2008: Chávez seeks Shangri-La with ‘socialist cities’
Boersner says detractors complain that the idea is not based on the reality of chronic crime, food product shortages – and inadequate housing. “These ‘socialist cities’ of Chávez’s, the same as the majority of his social projects, come from utopian ideas from his imagination,” says Boersner. “It’s a little pretentious to speak of ‘socialist cities’ when there is a shortage of housing.”
Many see this as a strategy for Chavez to tighten his political grip. From the World Net Daily – Chavez ‘socialist cities’ plan compared to Pol Pot regime:
But other critics saw the Chavez plan as more ominous than political maneuvering to increase his own power.
“Chavez’s plan is to introduce a system similar to Pol Pot,” Carlos Raul Hernandez, a political scientist, told the London Sunday Times, referring to the Cambodian leader of the communist Khmer Rouge. “When Chavez talks about people power, he means doing away with elected institutions and replacing them with groups of fanatics.”
Overly ambitious planners of the world should check their ego at the door, and witness the results of planning Venezuela’s “Socialist Cities.”