Can Mexico City’s roof gardens help the metropolis shrug off its smog? Green roofs sprouting across Mexican capital not only purify the air but aid recovery of hospital patients, says environment chief


In a sheltered corner of one of the greatest megacities on Earth, there is a place where lizards careen around tree trunks, butterflies drink nectar from vermillion flowers and hummingbirds whisk the heavy air with their wings.

Stand in the botanical gardens of the Bosque de Chapultepec (the Chapultepec forest) and listen carefully enough, and something remarkable happens: birdsong begins to pierce the groan of trucks and the screech of taxi horns from the long avenue that bisects the park.

The gardens are home to one of a growing number of azoteas verdes – or green roofs – that are springing up around Mexico City as part of the metropolis’s efforts to purge its air of the pollution that has long been among its least-desired claims to fame.

The azotea verde atop the circular single-story offices of the botanical gardens, is planted with hardy stonecrop, which can withstand the Mexico City summer, but which also produces oxygen and serves as a filter to draw out the carbon dioxide and heavy metal particles in the air. As well as providing the park’s squirrels with an arena in which to practise their parkour, the roof help regulates the temperature of the offices below and soaks up rainwater to keep the building dry.

Last year, the city’s environment secretariat spent almost $1m (£595,000) on the azoteas verdes project, bringing the total area of green roofs in hospitals, schools and government buildings to 21,949 sq m. This year, the investment will rise by a third.

Mexico City’s environment secretary, Tanya Müller, says: “In a city like ours where urban development puts pressure on the space we have at ground level, we have to take advantage of our rooftops to create a green urban infrastructure.”

MDG : Roof garden in Mexico city : Mexico City's environment minister Tanya MüllerMexico City’s environment minister Tanya Müller stands in front of a screen showing live updates on pollution in the city

The green roofs do far more than simply purify the air: they reduce the “heat island effect”, teach children about nature and speed up the recuperation rates of hospital patients, she adds.

A little way across town, not far from the city’s ancient heart, the Zócalo, sits the secretariat’s air-monitoring lab. It too has been given over to greenery and from its neatly planted roof, where dedicated staff congregate for lunchtime exercise classes, the haze that blankets the capital is plain to see. It smudges the outlines of distant towerblocks, as well as the mountains that enclose the city and its 21 million inhabitants. But, as Müller is keen to point out, fighting air pollution demands rather more technological solutions than sowing seeds on rooftops.

Her glass-and-steel office, which overlooks the Zócalo, feels like a curious hybrid of an internet startup office and an architectural practice. On the wall by her desk is an enormous screen with a live Twitter feed and electronic maps showing the temperature and ozone levels of Mexico City and the surrounding area. On a wet April afternoon, the ozone levels are creeping above the normal levels, but other pollutants are within the usual range.

“I have this dashboard on my smartphone and it’s the same dashboard as the department of air monitoring has and the mayor has,” Müller says. “We know how the air quality is every day and whether we have to take decisions.”

Readings from the 29 air-monitoring stations in the city and the surrounding state of Mexico can trigger a variety of responses. If pollution levels are seriously high and remain so for 48 hours, the environment secretariat’s Hoy No Circula (No driving today) ban kicks in, and those cars with registration plates of a certain colour and two-digit code are not allowed on the roads.

Anyone found driving when they shouldn’t be has their plates taken away and must pay what Müller describes as a very harsh fine of 20 days’ pay based on the Mexico City minimum wage. “Even though the measures aren’t very popular – we’re the first administration not to have suspended Hoy No Circula for any holiday – they are very responsible,” she adds proudly.

Unsurprisingly, Müller, who cycles to work, is a big fan of pedal power. The two mountain bikes parked in a rack outside her office, up the stairs from the Diego Rivera murals that decorate the walls, suggest that her staff are too.

MDG : Roof garden in Mexico city : Azotea verde on Mexico City environment secretariatA garden on the roof of the environment secretary’s air-monitoring labs in Mexico City

By expanding the city’s Metro system and investing in the Ecobici bike hire scheme – which is used for about 26,000 journeys a day – she hopes to wean people off their dependence on cars. “We still have a long way to go: although 80% of the population uses public transport, the city is still very car-orientated,” Müller says. “What we’re trying to do is make people conscious of how you use you car: it has to be in a much more rational and responsible manner.”

Other initiatives to improve the city’s air quality over the past two decades – such as moving refineries beyond its boundaries and introducing cleaner buses – appear to be paying off. Between 1990 and 2012, levels of ozone fell from 43 parts per billion to 27 parts per billion; sulphur dioxide from 55 parts per billion to five parts per billion, and carbon monoxide from 84 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion.

Muller says air quality is her priority “because it has an impact on your health and that obviously has consequences for your quality of life”. She adds: “We’re working on air quality and climate change together, because whatever we do for air quality and emissions will have a positive effect on climate change. At the end of the day, we want a city that can offer better quality of life for its citizens.”

Mexico City’s efforts to clean up its act have not gone unnoticed; Müller recently met officials from Tehran who wanted to compare notes, while members of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group have also shown interest in the city’s smartphone apps.

As Mexico begins to shrug off its smog and attendant grimy reputation, Müller believes its strategies could help cities further north. “What’s very interesting for us is what’s happening right now in Paris and London: we somehow have this perception that in these very developed, first-world European cities with great transport and infrastructure, you’ve overcome these issues of air quality,” she says.

“But we’re seeing that it’s not so. The origin and the problem is the same: it’s the use of private automobiles. People need to know that even if you have a great public transport system, if you do not rationalise private car use, you’re going to have problems.”


Interview with Jan Gehl

In your new book “Cities for People,” you say that the way cities have been planned and developed dramatically changed over the past few years, much for the worse. What happened to many cities? What went wrong?

The big change in paradigms happened around 1960. At that time, we had a modernist ideology but we didn’t use it very much because we were still adding small units to existing cities. It’s only when cities took off and planning really went up in scale and there was a rapid expansion of cities did the modernist principles become applied in practice. That meant that we were able to mass produce big buildings that could fill the whole landscape. 

At the same time, planning took off as a profession. They took off in airplane so they could organize the new optics of the big city. Typically on a big model, you push around with the optics until bingo you had something that looks like some wonderful composition. Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, is a great example. From the air it’s very interesting. It’s interesting for a bird or eagle. From the helicopter view, it has got wonderful districts with sharp and precise government buildings and residential buildings. However, nobody spent three minutes to think about what Brasilia would look like at the eye level. That was typical — planners were to look after the plan, the architects were to look after the buildings. With modernism, they were free of the context of the city. They placed it on open lands surrounded by grass. Nobody was responsible for looking after the people who were to move in these new structures. 





     Image credit: Brasilia / Gehl Architects 

You would think that the landscape architects were the ones. At least they were down at eye level and were moving around. But as far as I’m concerned, some landscape architects have done great jobs for people, but most of the work is not great, just silly benches. They’re more occupied with plans and form. There’s a general pursuit of form in the area of architecture and also in the profession of landscape architecture. So, what really happened was that the eye level stuff were handled by the traffic engineers. They are the ones who mostly shaped our environments in our cities. 

I sum up that in 50 years nobody has systematically looked after a good urban habitat for Homo sapiens. We have written very few books about it. There’s been very little research done. We definitely know more about good habitats for mountain gorillas, Siberian tigers, or panda bears than we do know about a good urban habitat for Homo sapiens. Nobody has taken an interest. If you look at the planning schools, you will find they don’t have a systematic education around the people scale and the small stuff. Look at the architecture school, are there any psychologists, sociologists, or doctors? No. They have a little bit of insight but then they go on making their funny perfume bottles. The landscape architects, maybe they are the nicest. I always felt, visiting landscape schools, that they had a nicer atmosphere. They were closer to the ground. But still the education concerning people is very weak if nonexistent.  

You argue that caring for people in the city is central to achieving “lively, safe, sustainable and healthy cities.” What are the best ways cities can care for their people?

It is my very firm point of view that if we take a more systematic approach and take these “cities for people” more seriously we will find that the cities would be considerably more friendly, livable, and lively because people will be in these cities more. We will find that the cities will become more attractive because the scale will be smaller and the pace and noise is lowered. The cities would be dominated by other people, which is the most interesting thing in our lives. They would be safer because if people are using a city it will be safer. They would be more sustainable because suddenly it’d be much easier to make cities where we can have a good quality public transportation system, where we can walk in style and dignity to and from the station day and night in safety and have a good time doing it. A good public transportation and a good public rail, they’re brothers and sisters. Finally, and this may be the most important thing, we would have natural activity built into the day. 

In many countries, a world has been organized where you don’t have to move at all. In the old days, most of us had manual work. We had to shovel or brick lay or paint or plow the whole day. Now the great majority in the Western world is sitting throughout the day, sitting in the morning, sitting on the transport, sitting during work, sitting on the transport and sitting in the evening, tired and looking at television. In this way there is no natural activity built into the day. You have to set aside special fitness time. Some do but most don’t. That is why cities like Copenhagen, Melbourne, Sydney, New York and Vancouver now have a specific policy. These cities will do whatever they can to invite people to walk and bicycle as much as possible in the course of their daily activities. Only one hour of moderate exercise like walking for half an hour to work and half an hour back, or bicycling, can give you an extra seven years of life. If people will please start to move around themselves again, it will also give a much lower health bill to society. 

      Image credit: Melbourne Federation Square / Gehl Architects

To facilitate this, we can do a number of things. We can simply make sure that car parking lots are far away from where you have to go and there are many stairs in front of you instead of many escalators. There’s a number of things we can do to make a bicycle system really efficient — like in Copenhagen — so we hardly consider taking the car. I have a car and it could easily be three weeks where I don’t touch it because it’s smarter to walk, bicycle or take the bus or metro to most destinations. It’s only when I have to go out in the country then the car starts to be smart. This is a new type of city which is becoming more and more prominent because more and more city councils are deciding to do this. In Copenhagen, where they put all the expenses into a big computer, they are analyzing the cost of a person bicycling for one kilometer for society vs. the cost of a guy doing the same in a car. They found that every time there was a bicyclist doing a kilometer, the society picked up a quarter of a dollar and every time the same distance was driven in a car, society lost 16 cents.

You talk about how important it is to design for the human dimension or scale (not the building scale) and how critical our senses are in experiencing cities. What is the human scale? How can landscape architects make sure they’re incorporating this approach into their work?

Ah, that’s easy because I use about 30 or 40 pages in my book to painstakingly detail what human scale is and how you can find out about it. It is of course based on Homo sapiens, the speed with which we move, the way we move, how our limbs are organized, how our movement system, how our senses are geared to our being a walking animal, and are geared to see everything horizontally. We see everything horizontally but we see very little up and a little bit more down. We can see when we communicate with people, we have a very, very precise system. If it’s intimate, we are at a close distance. If I was to tell you about a big sad story I just had with one of my grandchildren, I would lean over and it would be very personal. If it’s sort of more common, we have the public, the social distance where we yak, yak, yak, and do interviews on landscape architecture. Then we have the public distance which is the distance between the priest and his congregation, teacher, pupil, whatever. We have a number of distances which are part of our instincts and upbringing.

      Image credit: Social Distances / Gehl Architects

We have been through all this evolution over all these millions of years. We are basically Homo sapiens with the same body worldwide. I’ve been able to expand my studies, which started in Italy and Scandinavia, to Bangladesh, India, China and the Middle East, and South America, where you will find all the basics are the same. If people are waiting for a bus, they will all the time stand with arm’s length between them until the bus comes because that’s part of the body, that’s part of the body whether you are Catholic or Muslim or whether it’s hot or cold. There are a number of rules that are basics that come from the body. I really have the feeling that in all cities where we feel really comfortable they correspond very nicely to the body. I can go to Venice and suddenly I relax, “ah, this is for me.” I could go to Portofino, I could go to Greek Islands, I could go to a number of places designed before the second world war, before the cars really blew the scale. 

In this scale story, I have something that I call the five kilometer an hour scale. If we are to walk at five kilometers an hour, things have to be close so we can see them. There has to be frequent interesting things to see for it to be a nice walk. If you are in a car going 60 kilometer per hour, everything is blown up, the signs are blown up and there has to be something with great intervals for it to be a little bit exciting. If you, as a person, are out in a 60 kilometer per hour environment, you have the most boring time in your life. I do think that architects, landscape architects, and planners have gotten confused about scale. They constantly confuse car scale with people scale. Sometimes they make a mix, but most of the time they make car scale and say, look, there’s a sidewalk, people can walk here. What’s the problem? That is not at all exciting.

Which cities are getting the human scale right? Which did the worst job over the last 50 years? Which early offenders are doing the best at undoing the damage?

We do know now that it’s very difficult to undo damage. During the ’60s, European countries built social housing in big hig-rise buildings found on blocks based on modernist ideas. They had enough grass and tap water but they had nothing else. No squares or streets, maybe a playground far away. They had to go down from the 13th floor to play and, when they’re finished playing, go up again. Not easy, not easy. Many of these have become disasters. They are now occupied by the families with least resources and the most problems. They are a big problem area in England, Holland, Scandinavia, and Germany. Going in and improving them is quite difficult. 

To fix this mess in the no man’s land between the buildings, they tried to articulate it very tightly so there will be allotment gardens. This is your garden. There will be areas for teenagers and younger children but also they use all the space to build new row houses. There will be a higher density. There are now some people living on the ground floor who can look for bicycle thieves and muggers and all the problems that go with all these problem-families being concentrated. 

Also, I’ve been involved with some new towns where they were promised a fantastic urban environment and they just got the normal concrete desert. Again, it’s very expensive when they have invested all the money to come and change all the doors out on the sunny side, move the cafes away from the north and into the sun and south, and put all the benches up against the walls when they have systematically placed benches six meter from any back support. Of course, it’s much more comfortable to sit against a warm wall than sit without a back lean six meter out. So we talk about these cases where one has to parachute the little scale in: build pavilions, small gardens, and intimate spaces. We have this tendency today to over-scale everything in the public realm. We make far too many greens, boulevards, streets, roof terraces and promenades for fewer and fewer people in these new areas. 

What are the unique challenges facing cities in the developing world? What are some examples of smart investments emerging cities can make in transportation, parks and street space?

In my book I end up by saying that it’s very well to take the cars out of Broadway on Times Square and make a nice space there. It’s very nice that we can turn Melbourne around and they would have a jolly good time in Melbourne with 15,000 café seats. But the real problem in all this is that people have not been properly taken care of for a long period because no profession has been responsible for making sure that happened. Everybody thought they knew about or that somebody else was doing it. This has been bad for Western cities, our city centers, our suburbs, our new districts, but it’s even worse now in the fast developing cities in the third world, where more and more cars or motorcycles are coming in each day, where people are being more and more suppressed, and their living conditions are falling. Livability is plunging while the economy may be going up. Of course, with this fast expansion, that’s where the major concerns should be.

I have no fast answers but luckily there are a number of people there who have done marvelous things. Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, has done this with bus rapid transit (BRT) in Curitiba and the former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Penalosa, has done with this parks, sidewalks, and the bicycle system. So, some of the things are being done in a few places. It’s lovely, wonderful that somebody has the strength to do it. Those models really showed the way. Now there are so many copying them. 

A city’s edge, particularly the lower floors of a building, has a decisive influence on life in the city space. What’s the difference between hard and soft edges? Why are soft edges so important?

The hard edges are easy to define. If you have a blank wall or just glass, maybe black glass or whatever, you can, as a human being, do nothing and there’s no interest. The words “soft edge” mean a façade where a lot of things happen. It could be many doors, niches, or the vegetable seller putting out his tomatoes on the street. Soft edges could be the front yard where the kids are playing and grandma is sitting knitting just behind the hedge. We have found, of course, the ground floor is where the communication between building inside and outside occurs. That’s what you see. So if the ground floor is rich, the city is rich and it doesn’t matter what you do further up. Ralph Erskine said always make the ground floor very rich, use all the money on the ground floor, it doesn’t matter what’s further up because nobody sees that. 

In my book, I point to several popular shopping streets where they have a shop every five meters, which coincides with the stimuli humans need every five seconds. If you walk at normal speed and there is a new door and a new exhibition every four, five, six meters, that will be just the ideal stimulation for your senses. But it also keeps room for one door and three meter of selling area. We have done some research in Copenhagen that compared a stretch of bad or dead façades with active, lively façades. There was was seven times more activity on that sidewalk. There was the same stream of pedestrians, but suddenly they stopped, looked, went in and out, and started to speak in mobile phones, and parked their bicycles. 

      Image credit: Example of soft edges / Gehl Architects

You point to the world famous Piazza del Campo in Sienna, Italy, as a “100 percent place,” a model of how to design for the human scale. What is it about this 700 year old plaza that works so well? Are there are any modern parks and plazas that work equally as well?

If you take that the toolbox in the back of my book, you will find there are 12 quality criteria. If you go to Sienna you will find that all of them are carefully observed. 

     Image credit: Piazza del Campo, Sienna, Italy / Gehl Architects

I know a number of new ones where they have also carefully observed them. In Copenhagen we have a place called Sankt Hans Square. In Norway they have a square in a new development called Aker Brygge. I do think that quite a few of them would be observed in the central square in Portland

I know of one place where out of 12 they have blown 13. That’s about the worst place I know. In this place, there are people in great numbers. It’s an important rail junction and there’s a shopping mall. What people hit that square, they run as fast as they can from the metro over to the shopping mall and then back again. They are in the square an average of 22 seconds. So, with the quality of the space you offer, you influence what people do enormously.

Lastly, your book includes a great toolbox with dos and don’ts that every landscape architect should know. If you could magically fix just one of your don’ts everywhere, which would you choose?

How the building lands is the most important of all issues. It’s all about how the land falls. Also, very few (and closed) doors, along with sleek corporate surfaces, are also a big don’t. Communities need to offer little gardens, groceries and children playing. The battle for quality is won in the small scale. This is even more true where the buildings touch the city.


Jan Gehl, an architect and urban designer, is principal of Gehl Architects – Urban Quality Consultants, based in Copenhagen. Gehl has worked with a number of cities, including Copenhagen, London, New York City, and Guangzhou on how to become more people friendly. His most recent book is “Cities for People.” 



The truth about Venezuela: a revolt of the well-off, not a ‘terror campaign’

It is hard to take possition about what is happening in Venezuela, because the information that we have received is widely different depending of the who is informing. Here goes an interesting note that appeared in The Guardian, from a reporter on the field.

The truth about Venezuela: a revolt of the well-off, not a ‘terror campaign’

John Kerry’s rhetoric is divorced from the reality on the ground, where life goes on – even at the barricades.


protestor raybans Venezuela

A Venezuelan protester poses for a portrait at Altamira square in Caracas. Photograph: Jorge Silva / Reuters

Images forge reality, granting a power to television and video and even still photographs that can burrow deep into people’s consciousness without them even knowing it. I thought that I, too, was immune to the repetitious portrayals of Venezuela as a failed state in the throes of a popular rebellion. But I wasn’t prepared for what I saw in Caracas this month: how little of daily life appeared to be affected by the protests, the normality that prevailed in the vast majority of the city. I, too, had been taken in by media imagery.

Major media outlets have already reported that Venezuela’s poor have not joined the right-wing opposition protests, but that is an understatement: it’s not just the poor who are abstaining – in Caracas, it’s almost everyone outside of a few rich areas like Altamira, where small groups of protesters engage in nightly battles with security forces, throwing rocks and firebombs and running from tear gas.

Walking from the working-class neighborhood of Sabana Grande to the city center, there was no sign that Venezuela is in the grip of a “crisis” that requires intervention from the Organization of American States (OAS), no matter what John Kerry tells you. The metro also ran very well, although I couldn’t get off at Alta Mira station, where the rebels had set up their base of operations until their eviction this week.

I got my first glimpse of the barricades in Los Palos Grandes, an upper-income area where the protesters do have popular support, and neighbors will yell at anyone trying to remove the barricades – which is a risky thing to attempt (at least four people have apparently been shot dead for doing so). But even here at the barricades, life was pretty much normal, save for some snarled traffic. On the weekend, the Parque del Este was full of families and runners sweating in the 90-degree heat – before Chávez, you had to pay to get in, and the residents here, I was told, were disappointed when the less well-to-do were allowed to enter for free. The restaurants are still crowded at night.

Members of the Bolivarian National Guard guard the streets of Altamira, in the Chacao municipality of Caracas. Photograph: Miguel Gutierrez / EPA

Travel provides little more than a reality check, of course, and I visited Caracas mainly to gather data on the economy. But I came away skeptical of the narrative, reported daily in the media, that increasing shortages of basic foods and consumer goods are a serious motivation for the protests. The people who are most inconvenienced by those shortages are, of course, the poor and working classes. But the residents of Los Palos Grandes and Altamira, where I saw real protests happening – they have servants to stand in line for what they need, and they have the income and storage space to accumulate some inventory.

These people are not hurting – they’re doing very well. Their income has grown at a healthy pace since the Chávez government got control of the oil industry a decade ago. They even get an expensive handout from the government: anyone with a credit card (which excludes the poor and millions of working people) is entitled to $3,000 per year at a subsidized exchange rate. They can then sell the dollars for 6 times what they paid in what amounts to a multi-billion dollar annual subsidy for the privileged – yet it is they who are supplying the base and the troops of the rebellion.

The class nature of this fight has always been stark and inescapable, now more than ever. Walking past the crowd that showed up for the March 5 ceremonies to mark the anniversary of Chávez’s death, it was a sea of working-class Venezuelans, tens of thousands of them. There were no expensive clothing or $300 shoes. What a contrast to the disgruntled masses of Los Palos Grandes, with $40,000 Grand Cherokee Jeeps bearing the slogan of the moment: SOS VENEZUELA.

When it comes to Venezuela, John Kerry knows which side of the class war he is on. Last week, just as I was leaving town, the US Secretary of State doubled down in his fusillade of rhetoric against the government,accusing President Nicolás Maduro of waging a “terror campaign against his own people”. Kerry also threatened to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter of the OAS against Venezuela, as well as implementing sanctions.

Brandishing the Democratic Charter against Venezuela is a bit like threatening Vladimir Putin with a UN-sponsored vote on secession in Crimea. Perhaps Kerry didn’t notice, but just a few days before his threats, the OAS took a resolution that Washington brought against Venezuela and turned it inside-out, declaring the regional body’s “solidarity” with the Maduro government. Twenty-nine countries approved it, with only the right-wing governments of Panama and Canada siding with the US against it.

Article 21 of the OAS’s Democratic Charter applies to the “unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order of a member state” (like the 2009 military coup in Honduras that Washington helped to legitimize, or the 2002 military coup in Venezuela, aided even more by the US government). Given its recent vote, the OAS would be more likely to invoke the Democratic Charter against the US government for its drone killings of US citizens without trial, than it would be to do so against Venezuela.

Altamira Venezuela
Demonstrators hold cardboard posters showing images of those killed during anti-government protests inside Plaza Altamira in Caracas. Photograph: Marco Antonio Bello / Demotix / Corbis

Kerry’s “terror campaign” rhetoric is equally divorced from reality, and predictably provoked an equivalent response from Venezuela’s foreign minister, who called Kerry a “murderer”. Here’s the truth about those charges from Kerry: since the protests in Venezuela began, it appears that more people have died at the hands of protesters than security forces. According to deaths reported by CEPR in the last month, in addition to those killed for trying to remove protesters’ barricades, about seven have apparently been killed by protesters’ obstructions – including a motorcyclist beheaded by a wire stretched across the road – and five National Guard officers have been killed.

As for violence from law enforcement, at least three people appear to have been killed by the National Guard or other security forces – including two protesters and a pro-government activist. Some people blame the government for an additional three killings by armed civilians; in a country with an average of more than 65 homicides per day, it is entirely possible these people acted on their own.

A full 21 members of the security forces are under arrest for alleged abusesincluding some of the killings. This is no “terror campaign”.

At the same time, it is difficult to find any serious denunciation ofopposition violence from major opposition leaders. Polling data finds the protests to be deeply unpopular in Venezuela, although they do much better abroad when they are promoted as “peaceful protests” by people like Kerry. The data also suggest that a majority of Venezuelans see these disturbances for what they are: an attempt to remove the elected government from power.

The domestic politics of Kerry’s posturing are pretty simple. On the one hand, you have the right-wing Florida Cuban-American lobby and their neo-conservative allies screaming for overthrow. To the left of the far right there is, well, nothing. This White House cares very little about Latin America, and there are no electoral consequences for making most of the governments in the hemisphere more disgusted with Washington.

Perhaps Kerry thinks the Venezuelan economy is going to collapse and that will bring some of the non-rich Venezuelans into the streets against the government. But the economic situation is actually stabilizing – monthly inflation fell in February, and the black-market dollar has fallen sharply on the news that the government is introducing a new, market-based exchange rate. Venezuela’s sovereign bonds returned 11.5% from 11 February (the day before the protests began) to 13 March, the highest returns in the Bloomberg dollar emerging market bond index. Shortages will most likely ease in the coming weeks and months.

Of course, that is exactly the opposition’s main problem: the next election is a year-and-a-half away, and by that time, it’s likely that the economic shortages and inflation that have so increased over the past 15 months will have abated. The opposition will then probably lose the parliamentary elections, as they have lost every election over the past 15 years. But their current insurrectionary strategy isn’t helping their own cause: it seems to have divided the opposition and united the Chavistas.

The only place where the opposition seems to be garnering broad support is Washington.

A marxist view to the urban life crisis in Chile

by Francisco Vergara Perucich

Spanish Version:


Along years Marxism was demonized in Chile. This line of thought was linked with unacceptable behaviour for a society that considered it self “modern”. It is true that many violent events of the twentieth century were unleashed following the revolutionary marxist ideas, but it is also true that many problems of the society now were predicted by him in his texts. The crisis of political representation is thriving around the world and the city is the scenario of these manifestations of discontent. Through this brief notes I want to contribute with those that see in marxist ideas a vital ideological input to achieve the pursued social justice. Particularly, I feel interested in tackle Marx’s ideas from a urban perspective, in order to represent the problems that affect the cities in where we live. The class struggle posed by Karl Marx is actually present in the Chilean cities, and it worth to reflect on that.

Although in his texts he never spoke directly about the city, a series of thinkers used his ideas to comprehend the urbanization phenomena of a post-industrial society. Among them: Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, Jordi Borja, and Friedrich Engels, who was his friend and co-author of many relevant works. It was Engles who in 1872 anticipated that the accumulation of capital through the urban development would trigger a sum of negative urban effects that will undermine the social justice. In his writings, he said that this issues would not be resolved through urban reforms, but through an urban revolution. For him, before the absent of this revolution, the society was walking straightly towards the impoverishment of the working class.

The spatial inequality is really easy to read in Santiago. With about 6 millions of inhabitants is the most segregated city among the OECD, where the uneven space have been represented in the every day life quality, and in the manner how people relates each other. The “nest” or the area of the city where you grew up is still a parameter to define who will have a succesful life within our society model. That’s why the slogan of the conservative president candidate, Laurence Golborne, said “This is the man who used to live in Maipu (a working class county of Santiago) to become CEO of a big company”. This slogan was implying that live in Maipu and be CEO is practically impossible with our urban and social rules, to become “someone important” you should live where other important people lives.

For Marx, the fetichism was one of the biggest threat of the capitalist system. The fact that in the last years the family time passed from the public squares to the shopping malls, mean that there is an important achievement for the neoliberal model who used the city as a profit mechanism. In Chile now people prefer the massive consumption spaces than social encounter spaces. Henri Lefebvre posed that it was vital understand the city as a body of social relations, rather than a collection of desirable objects. On contrary, in Chile the idea of “have my own house” has been installed through years as the main aim in order to have a successful life. Along decades, media and politicians have been trying to convince people of the importance to have a house. The verb “to have” related with things is really frecuent. The consequence of this strategy, is that personal relations and enjoy simple things are not such important in comparison with the private property. This consequences are very profitable for builders and companies that are increasing their accounts at the cost of the general impoverishment. The last year, the sell of houses has generated incomes for 500 billions of dollars for companies, almost the same amount of money that the state got from the copper business, our main resource for the national budget.

Another interesting point from marxist analysis is the harm produced in people the fact that they need to be competing each other in order to feel validated by the urban society. Pursuing this goal, appears the clash between those who have everything they want, and those who have nothing. In this relation, usually the first group dominates the life of the second group. With these appears the class conscious. Following this, the march, the protest, the contestation in order to reach justice becomes frequent in our cities.

In my opinion, the most important point posed by Marx is that the society as a whole should decide the future of their cities. Nowadays, the urban development in Chile is leaded by market. Neither the government have the capacity to produce spatial transformation processes. The state planning system was disarmed in Pinochet’s dictatorship to ease the way for private in order to define city shape. The effects of this strategy are evident in Santiago’s downtown, where a massive quantity of buildings rise over the 20 floors have appeared in the last 20 years. The capability that Chileans have in order to transform our cities is inexistent. Then, Chilean cities are becoming neutral and generic.

This article is based just in notes and reflections, quite summarized. Revisit marxism offers a series of new readings about the urban question that can have high interest for the next years. For those interested in Chilean cities, review Marx ideas is vital to comprehend the segregation phenomena that is happening there.

Rio’s favela dwellers fight to stave off evictions in runup to Brazil World Cup

Better consultation with residents, not forced demolitions, could lead to peaceful resolution to battle for Santa Marta slum.
MDG : Kids from the Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Campaigners argue that favelas such as Santa Marta in Rio de Janeiro are a model of affordable housing that preserves human diversity. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty

A steep climb leads to the top of the Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro, where the statue of Christ the Redeemer is visible to the right and the ocean can be seen over the roofs of hundreds of homes below. The residents of the cluster of houses on the summit, O Pico, surely have one of the best views in Rio. But they are fighting efforts to evict them and demolish homes that the city says are in an area of risk.

“For years, the authorities did nothing when it was so dangerous to live here. Now that the area is finally safe, they want us to move out,” says resident Veronica Mora, gesturing at the view from steps that wind down a narrow alley outside a two-storey brick house that took her family 20 years to build. Many of the houses are draped with banners reading: “No to removals” and “Santa Marta is not for sale”.

Rio officials claim O Pico is vulnerable to landslides, but residents point out that the landslides that did occur and caused deaths in 1966-67 and 1988 affected no one at the summit

About 2,000 people who had left the community of 6,000 returned afterpolice pacification units (UPP) arrived in 2008 to regain control from drugs gangs, because “now it’s a good place to live”, says Mora. Five relatives from three generations live in her house and none of them wish to leave neighbours or live apart. Hers is among 150 families that dispute claims that O Pico’s steep location brings geological hazards, as cited in the city’s risk assessments that are being used to justify evictions.

The assessments are just one controversial area of the upgrading of Rio’s favelas on the eve of the World Cup this year and the Olympics in 2016. Campaigners argue it should be an opportunity to reconsider these communities as a permanent model of affordable housing that preserves human diversity rather than temporary housing that is unfit, unsafe and only of value to property developers.

“No informal settlements in the world are more stigmatised and have more negative connotations than Rio’s favelas,” says Theresa Williamson, a British-Brazilian urban planner and director of NGO Catalytic Communities. The organisation campaigns for empowerment of the communities that are home to around 22% of the population and are an enduring feature of the landscape, but whose inherently sustainable qualities, she says, are under threat.

“[In the runup to the World Cup] international media are presenting Rio’s favelas either as violent no-go areas or cheap places for tourists to stay. They can’t be both, so which is it?” says Williamson. Rio’s favelas could not only offer a model amid the growing need for affordable housing worldwide but enhance a city already famed for its natural beauty with 600 unique communities with distinct cultures, she says.

Instead, hosting the sporting events has led to a rush for gentrification of many favelas and to displacement for many residents. Removals and evictions linked to the mega-events have been criticised by the UN.

“The UPP programme is basically state funding of gentrification,” Williamson says. Gentrification has brought rent rises, demolitions and evictions in areas such as Vidigal, Tabajaras and Vila Autódromo, where local groups say residents prefer to stay rather than move to public housing that is offered as an alternative.

Rio’s 2013-16 strategic plan envisages a 5% reduction in favelas in Rio.

Charles Heck, an American academic and former resident of Santa Marta, has been researching the city’s remapping of favelas, agrees with Williamson that the UPP programme has recast the priorities for urbanisation. “Post-UPP, urbanisation has focused primarily on land titles and new businesses rather than health, sanitation, education and other infrastructure,” he says.

At the summit, resident Victor Lira is telling some urban planning students crowded between houses built a few feet apart on a sandy path that the city is “denying services”, including lighting and rubbish collection, to O Pico in an attempt to force residents out.

“From the militarisation [UPP] came the greed of people [and] companies, and now they want to take us out of here,” says Lira, who since 2011 has led resistance efforts to fight demolition of homes in the courts and the media.

Williamson says favelas offer an example of sustainable communities – low-rise, high-density communities whose properties mix business with housing and are geared to pedestrians, and who don’t have to travel far for their basic needs.

In a world where the UN estimates a third of the population will live in informal settlements by 2050, we can learn from Rio’s favelas, Williamson says, and they must cease to be seen through “a negative and sensationalist lens”.

A starting point would be better consultation with residents about changes to their communities in which they have invested for decades, and a comprehensive survey of their assets, she adds. “A city cannot be built sustainably in exclusion of large social groups, and a healthy, vibrant city depends on citizen participation and social justice.”

BY:   in Rio de Janeiro

Friday 17 January 2014 12.55 GMT


John Hilary: UK charities have lost their radical soul

War on Want’s executive director explains his sharp critique of NGOs in his new book The Poverty of Capitalism
MDG : John Hilary, War on Want's Executive Director,

John Hilary says UK NGOs have become overly professionalised and too focused on technical, incremental change. Photograph: War On Want

John Hilary is not afraid of the big questions. As the executive director of War on Want, widely considered one of Britain’s most radical charities, he often speaks out on issues – from what he calls apartheid Palestine to the nature of global capitalism – that few other UK NGOs will touch. His new book, The Poverty of Capitalism, carries in its title conscious references to works by Karl Marx (The Poverty of Philosophy) and socialist historian EP Thompson (The Poverty of Theory).

Published last month, the book tracks what Hilary condemns as the failures of corporate globalisation and the rise of popular resistance movements worldwide. In what could seem a deliberate attempt to set himself even further apart from other NGO bosses, it also presents a sharp critique of mainstream British charities, which Hilary condemns for choosing to cosy up to corporations and governments, rather than align with grassroots movements such as La Via Campesina, the international federation of peasants’ groups.

“I think this is a particularly British problem,” says Hilary, sitting in the basement of the refurbished London warehouse that serves as War on Want’s head office. UK NGOs have become very strong and very powerful, but the sector, he says, is today overly professionalised and too focused on technical, incremental change. It has “lost its political analysis, its transformative ambition, and any radical soul”, Hilary adds.

Instead of challenging the UK government, which Hilary characterises as increasingly regressive and reductive in its approach to global development, charities are giving it “such an easy ride” and appear to have been “seduced by power”.

MDG : War On Want protest against sweetshop exploitation in front of Adidas' flagship store

War On Want protesters outside of the flagship Adidas store in Oxford Street, central London, during the 2012 London Olympics. Photograph: War On Want

It was not always like this, he says, pointing to the 1980s when mainstream UK NGOs joined global movements such as those against apartheid in South Africa. At that time, Oxfam and Christian Aid were, along with War on Want, challenged by the Charity Commission for having positioned themselves politically in what Hilary describes as active solidarity with groups on the ground. “Liberation struggles were once meat and drink to the international NGO community,” he adds.

Today, big NGOs are increasingly taking a seat at the table alongside government and business. Development-speak is littered with references to partnerships and multi-stakeholder initiatives. Hilary refuses to accept this as evidence of progress and argues instead that even the most positive of such initiatives eventually give sway to the demands of the most powerful.

The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is one of the boldest experiments in this area, bringing NGOs and farmers organisations to sit alongside diplomats and company representatives to try to hammer out consensus on how to tackle food and farming challenges. While praised by many as the most inclusive global governance forum, there was palpable anxiety among some civil society delegates at the CFS summit in Rome last month that the very vocabulary of partnerships and stakeholders can gloss over and even tacitly accept the stark power imbalances between those at the table. After a week of negotiations, civil society groups refused to endorse the committee’s final recommendations on biofuels, saying the result defended the interests of industry rather than the needs of small farmers in poor countries.

Hilary has complained about mainstream UK NGOs before, and particularly around the IF campaign launched before the 2013 G8 summit, which War on Want said had been stitched up with the UK government and therefore refused to join. In The Poverty of Capitalism, which Hilary insists is not a theoretical book, he puts these complaints into context and charts how numerous attempts in recent decades to regulate and hold to account transnational corporations have given way to voluntary initiatives and corporate social responsibility projects instead.

The high water mark of voluntarism came with the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro which “affirmed the principle of voluntary self-regulation as the dominant model in place of corporate accountability”, he writes. This “wholesale abdication of responsibility”, according to Hilary, has helped turn the issue of corporate accountability into little more than a public relations exercise.

Hilary winces at the suggestion his book will further isolate him from other UK NGOs. While often brought on to panels and called into debates to give the alternative view, Hilary is not the only one unhappy with the state of British development work. A group called theProgressive Development Forum, for example, of which Hilary is a member, brings together those working in the sector to debate how to reframe conversations away from aid, charity and philanthropy and instead revive narratives of global justice and the need to tackle structural drivers of poverty and inequality.

“The way the British public is being taught to think about international development is still through the prism of the Live Aid generation, the idea of the generous giver and the grateful receiver,” says Hilary. “As NGOs, we have a responsibility to look at how we are framing that story, and if we continue to reaffirm that basic charitable framing, of aid, philanthropy, generosity, then we will continue to reproduce supporters and donors who expect that.”

Recent campaigns on tax, for which some large UK charities have taken a leading role, are a potential exception, says Hilary. “Tax campaigning is an important example of the sort of structural campaigning that used to be absolutely normal. Think about the 1980s, and all the stuff that was being done on debt, linking up the debt crises in Latin America with the high street banks here, all the stuff that was done on trade and investment campaigning.”

But while tax also offers an important opportunity to link struggles in developed and developing countries, the focus has to go beyond tinkering with the system, Hilary insists. “It’s absolutely the right direction, but it needs to be more ambitious.”

If big UK charities can seem defensive, resistant to criticism and careful to stay on message with glossy pamphlets, billboards, and armies of press and PR officers, Hilary is quick to argue that, at least within organisations and NGO meetings, people do speak very openly about these issues. “Within a lot of these bigger agencies, these debates are raging. That’s what gives me hope.”

Via The Guardian: