Sketches to better project our cities
From the time when humans took shelter in caverns, we have been going around charting our existence. Much more recently, there is a way to do so that is increasingly familiar to geographers, urban planners, and architects, which gives them a common language for working with communities for urban resilience.
At plain sight they seem like simple and naive sketches of thin strokes, but a second examination reveals that these are illustrations that represent horizontally the most important points of a community’s environment. Starting from this point, the discussion begins among all these actors about how we can improve that environment in which we live.
This technique is not attributed to the anonymous bison painter of Altamira, but to the city of Yokohama (Japan), an entity that ensures that the principles of its urban design are outlined in making a unique, aesthetic, resilient and human city a reality: four characteristics whose balance is rare in Panamanian cities. Thanks to the management of the Urban Risk Center, an initiative for research and extension of Florida State University from the City of Knowledge, specialists from the Tokyo Center for Development and Learning came to Panama in April 2019, along with professors from universities in Japan and urban professionals from the city of Yokohama, with the support of the World Bank, to engage in a dynamic of mutual learning based on the urban design vision methodology of the city of Yokohama.
In a report on urban resilience in the capital, Manuel Trute, Director of Urban Planning of the Municipality of Panama in the last administration, notes: “If we start from the fact that human settlements are the result of the transformation of the natural environment to the built environment, in the case of our city, the lack of integration of the former to the processes of use and occupation of the land is evident. The city’s limited ability to recover from the impacts and stresses to which it is subjected, warns us that we must be more resilient. That is why we have a responsibility to apply better territory planning instruments that recognize and integrate into their design the risk and vulnerability in light of the effects of climate change.”
In a meeting to imagine the city we dream of, specialists from the Yokohama Bureau and a group organized by the management of the Urban Risk Center, held a two-way learning workshop, in which they not only practiced a method of proven usefulness, but they also addressed real urban challenges.
Experts from the city of Yokohama, came to Panama thanks to a collaboration between the Urban Risk Center with the Tokyo Development and Learning Center and the World Bank. They had the support of citizen voices to find in the city basin of Rio Abajo, the perfect subject matter to apply this new practical experience.
Rio Abajo, one of the most important rivers in the capital, embraces in its course a heterogeneous range of socioeconomic, urban, and historical characteristics. To facilitate its study in terms of risks and resilience, it was divided into three large functional areas:
Its mouth (community of Panama Viejo); the middle-low basin (neighborhood of Rio Abajo); and the middle-high basin (where the more recent low-density housing developments of Condado del Rey and its neighbors have been built). All these areas have constant floods.
“In Panama, there have been instances in public consultations where people are shown a map and they identify the problems they perceive. However, not everyone can read them, or know where to identify something on a detailed plane, which is more expensive to elaborate. Here, we start from the idea that people know how to see where a place is in a sketch, if you draw it sideways, just like what you see when you go down the street.”
Sitting in the laboratory of the Urban Risk Center (URC), in an interview for Sapiens, its director and founder, Alexander Coles, talks about risk as a “human creation”: “The Center is framed within that conceptual framework,” the geographer and university professor says. At his side is Rodrigo Guardia, architect, urban planner, professor, and member of the URC, who values the educational importance of these sketches and their methodology: “In Panama, there have been instances in public consultations where people are shown a map and they identify the problems they perceive. However, not everyone can read them, or know where to identify something on a detailed plane, which is more expensive to elaborate. Here, we start from the idea that people know how to see where a place is in a sketch, if you draw it sideways, just like what you see when you go down the street.” Professor Coles backs him up: “It is that tradition that among geographers we call cognitive mapping.” “It may sound counterintuitive, but geographers and architects understand each other by drawing things as they exist, while that real city, many visualize it in a different way,” Guardia adds.
Experts from the city of Yokohama, came to Panama thanks to a collaboration between the Urban Risk Center with the Tokyo Development and Learning Center and the World Bank. They had the support of citizen voices to find in the city basin of Rio Abajo, the perfect subject matter to apply this new practical experience. Rio Abajo, one of the most important rivers in the capital, embraces in its course a heterogeneous range of socioeconomic, urban, and historical characteristics. To facilitate its study in terms of risks and resilience, it was divided into three large functional areas: from its mouth in the Bay of Panama, where the community of Panama Viejo is located; the middle-low basin, where we can find the neighborhood of Rio Abajo and its important legacy of wooden houses with an Afro-Antillean flavor; and the middle-high basin, where the more recent low-density housing developments of Condado del Rey and its neighbors have been built. All these areas, Guardia and Coles stress, have constant floods.
In the context of the Japanese collaboration, a workshop was held with important community actors. One of them was Ricardo Gálvez, an engineer from the Panama Canal and a resident of Condado del Rey since 1994. It took Gálvez 20 years to raise the banner of citizen activism and, so far, he has yet to lower it. In his struggle for “urban justice,” he recalls that his activism began over the logging of two emblematic trees in his neighborhood. He admits that the numerous problems in his neighborhood have been growing for many years, but he especially remembers the day when the asphalt swallowed a garbage truck on an afternoon of heavy rains, much to the surprise of the unwary and journalists who later reported a mysterious collapse. Analyzing some of the problems in the middle-high basin of Rio Abajo, Gálvez comments that in the 1980s some lands of the Reverted Areas, that were handed over to the Technological University of Panama and the Santa Maria la Antigua University, were developed against a trust; and in that model: “What you built was passed on to the State,” Gálvez recalls. “So, everything was developed without a comprehensive plan, and as the areas have been progressively expanding, there are no well-thought-out connections between these universities.”
One of Ricardo Gálvez’s many contributions during the workshop was the idea of establishing a connection between both universities, joined by the hustle and bustle of Tumba Muerto Avenue on both sides, vast green spaces perfect for recreation and student coexistence. “It doesn’t fit in my head that in less than three kilometers there are three universities. Why don’t we flip this around and use the land that is available for students to connect from one university to the other? I don’t see the difficulty in doing that,” says Gálvez, who studied at the University of Oklahoma in the United States whose campus, he says, “is the size of Costa del Este.” Gálvez’s contributions were part of a dynamic that both he, as well as Guardia and Coles, remember with enthusiasm in the way in which the workshop was conducted with the Japanese technicians, whose structures were perhaps more rigid but soon became localized, in favor of mutual learning.
The broadest sketch
Sapiens asked Rodrigo Guardia and Alexander Coles about the main challenges in terms of resilience and urban risk in Panama, both in the capital and in the rest of the country. Coles argued that “in risk mitigation, the main commitments must go toward strengthening local development and geographical planning with a scientific perspective.” The Director of the Urban Risk Center takes as a reference one of the first projects he did with Guardia, which became a municipal agreement for risk reduction, that reached the level of ministerial resolution and was implemented in Boquete to determine the spaces with properties suitable for safe construction.
Rodrigo Guardia, for his part, thinks about the potential losses by not establishing databases: “The records of the events that occur are not linked to the cost-benefit impacts. Let’s say there are five floods in Juan Diaz at the end of the year. If we don’t know how to record the amount of losses, we are not going to realize that, say in ten years, that would be the amount if there had been an earthquake. Our events are in the collective memory, but not in the data.” Therefore, one of the main objectives of the URC — a kind of think tank on urban planning and resilience — is to promote research, education, institutional continuity, and technological innovation in support of public policies for the country and region in urban risk mitigation.
It might be redundant, but how do you achieve the resilience of the same resilience projects at the local level, in a scenario where the bureau of technicians and experts “resets” every five years? Alexander Coles points out that it is a tough challenge for cities if their officials with technical experience in the field have no continuity in their work because of constant political changes. In this regard, Guardia, who was Director of Territorial Research at the Ministry of Housing and Land Management, notes: “There is an issue in the administrative career that is not working very well. Right now, as the framework is, officials and even their bosses, are freely appointed and removed. Therefore, anyone who shows an independent criterion that goes against a political premise simply knows that they will lose their position. When this happens, the entire system of punishments and rewards of the workforce is upside down, because the wrong things get rewarded.”
The systematization of the final results of the collaboration experience of the Urban Risk Center of Panama with the Tokyo Center for Development and Learning will reflect the contributions of Coles, Guardia, Gálvez, and so many other Panamanians who, linked by the basin of an emblematic river, discovered a new way to see themselves to address their realities and fight for a useful, safe, and beautiful city.
Perhaps with huge gardens that connect the universities of Tumba Muerto, with a promenade of guaiacwood trees in Condado del Rey that welcome you to an urban festival during the week in which they bloom, or an Afro-Antillean trail with better easement and wooden houses valued for their history, or the end of the routine annual floods that always take us by surprise.