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Rio de Janeiro Mumbai Caracas

From to to , flash communities exist in all parts of the world and represent an important cross section of the urban population. Flash communities are settlements that sprout haphazardly, usually by migrant populations. The architecture of a flash community is characterized by the use of locally available materials and basic construction methods. Dwellings begin as temporary settlements; their temporality is reflected in the materiality of the architecture. With time, flash communities evolve on to phases of more evident permanence and rising standards of living. Structural and infrastructural improvements help the formation of more integrated communities. Three case studies were chosen for their uniqueness and richness as urban conditions that merit a closer look. In Rio de Janeiro, favelas represent a large percentage of a migrant population that channeled human capital and civic leadership to self-improve their own communities, which were otherwise neglected by the state. Their Do It Yourself approach to creating public spaces and basic infrastructure is similar to Sanjay Gandhi Nagar’s transformation from flash community to established society. This pocket community of Mumbai is a great case study for illustrating the evolutional phases of a flash community into permanence. The desire for a permanent is mirrored by the desire for a permanent cultural world. The improvisation of streets and the public realm of Caracas has created an urbanism unique to flash communities.


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he favelas of Rio de Jaineiro are flash communities that today house nearly half of the city’s population. They are located in the periphery of the city or on hillsides considered as sites unsuitable for construction. The informal layout of ad hoc favela sharply contrasts the urban planning grid of Rio. Seen from an aerial view, the orthogonal city grid of middle class and wealthy neighborhoods rubs shoulders with an intensely pixilated wave of zinc rooftops that adapt to the mountainous topography. Although policy makers have proposed to eradicate favelas in favor of new public housing, a deeper look shows that favelas stand as legitimate forms of urbanism with the ability to sustain lively and healthy communities. Favelas are the consequence of rapid urban growth in cities where rent prices and available real estate cannot accommodate the market segment represented by rural migrants. According to the Brazilian Secretariat of Social Services, a favela is described as a group of dwellings with high density of occupation, the construction of which is carried out in a disorderly fashion with inadequate material, without zoning or public services, on land which is illegally being used without the consent of the owner. However, it is this negative popular perception, formed particularly by outsiders and those in power, which has determined the attitude taken towards favelas. For various reasons, Brazil’s population experienced migration from rural to urban areas at an unprecedented rate in the 20th century, meanwhile cities were not capable of growing fast enough to provide sufficient employment and adequate urban services for all. In the 1940’s Brazil went through an industrialization drive whose labor demands drew immigrants into Brazil’s largest cities. During the 1970’s Rio de Janeiro underwent a construction boom that further drew people from rural areas into the city; this time flash communities appeared closer to the metropolitan area on many of the city’s hillsides. As illegal squatters, favelados settle in land with third party ownership but that is usually not designated for urban development. As a result, most residents do not have deeds to the property they reside in. At the earliest stages of development, this benefits residents because they do not pay property tax or rent, but it also means they do not receive public services like electricity, running water, or sewage drains. It is accustomed to tap into the energy grid and illegally access electricity from the main power lines, as well as tap into water manes. In terms of urban planning, favelas are not premeditated neighborhoods, but rather grow organically adjusting building form to the landscape.

Favelas are vibrant places where resilience is ever present. Without fixed incomes or access to loans, lacking professional assistance and unrestricted from formal building process protocol, favelados take a do-it-yourself approach to building. Just like informal economies make up a significant portion of the country’s GDP, unlicensed building in favelas accounts for a large percentage of construction activity in Brazil. Most times, a building is not erected all at once like it is accustomed in many parts of the developed world. Construction is done gradually in many phases over time, as financial resources and construction materials become available. After a single story is completed, it is standard procedure to sell the roof rights to your building in order for someone else to build on top. Using mostly reinforced concrete and brick, the design parameters are limited by the structural performance allowances of the construction techniques used. This ad hoc building standard represents careful planning in the use of limited buildable area and implementation of innovative construction techniques, many times on hillsides considered too steep for building by urban developers. The urbanizing world is a place of massive transformation and surprising hope. This flash community’s informal development model defines a unique type of community building. Clearly the human capital and community support are the greatest assets of these flash communities. According to Brazilian historian Mílton Teixeira, all urban planning initiatives up until the late 1970’s contemplated the eradication of every single favela, uprooting its residents and moving them into public housing residential complexes outside the Federal District. Early attempts to carry out the eradication of favelas proved to be a traumatic experience for those who had to move. People were displaced long distances from their jobs, children were removed from their schools and friends, yet most importantly people were taken away from the place they called home. Today, town administrators have found that improving living conditions in already established communities is a more cost effective and practical way of dealing with favelas. A neighborhood improvement program called “Favela-Bairro” was introduced in the early 2000’s with over a $1 billion of funding. Rather than demolishing the existing favelas, this project’s approach is to improve living conditions by installing basic infrastructure and social services. The program’s success lies beyond empowering the beneficiaries of the program to be involved in the process. Beneficiaries are involved in all the stages of the projects, which concentrates on building roads, drainage systems, sports facilities and leisure areas, stabilizing hillsides, and improving basic services like water, sanitation, garbage collection, street cleaning and public lighting.












ne in every six people in the world is a squatter. More than 300 people a day come to the city of Mumbai in hopes of work and a better life. When they get there though the cost of living proves too expensive compared to the $14 a week which they are earning.

The story of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar started with the construction company building a group of out of town construction workers on site housing, to save on transportation costs. When the project was over and the lease expired, these workers refused to leave. Many of them were able to find work nearby on the bustling streets of Mumbai in hospitals and hotels. Slowly, others families joined this ramshackle community on this small swampy plot of land to form a colony of over 300 families. Banded together these families started to strengthen their huts, reinforcing them with wood, tin, bricks and old tires. They did not, however, start reinforcing their homes with rebar and concrete due to the fact that they had no deed of permanence. The neighbors of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar saw this community as an eyesore and soon joined together to get the local authorities to remove this village. There wish was granted; in 1980 the Municipal Authority demolished the small town. Having nowhere else to go, the squatting residents simply reconstructed their homes on the very same site with the very same materials. They were able to do so because the materials that they were using previously didn’t take time to set and were easily bonded together with nails or screws. This process of destruction and renewal repeated itself for years until a fire stuck in 1985. Even though there was no evidence of arson, authorities in India are known for clearing sites for urban development in this fashion. The day after the fire, the State Government issued a cash aid of 70,000 rupees ($2,800) with the notice that people could not stay on the site. Ignoring this, the people of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar rebuilt. On March 12, 1986 the police stepped in for the last time. Yielding lathis, the police crushed all who refused to leave. On this day the community took its faithful step into the unknown. The plight of the community soon caught the eye of local rights group Nivara Hakk Suraksha Samiti: The Shelter Rights Protection Agency. Together the residents and the rights group went on a hunger strike to get their land back. In three short days, a solution was worked out among the people and they were offered a track of land in Goregaon East, 25 kilometers away from their previous homes. The following day, Sanjay Gandhi Nagar officially relocated. When the community came upon their new location they discovered that it was nothing more than a wasteland. A crater surrounded with a 40’ pile of rubble was to be their new home. The first order of business was to fill in the hole with whatever they could get their hands on. Filling the crater with garbage and then covering it with a layer of soil was no cheap task. Pooling together their money, the community raised 200,000 rupees ($16,000) to cover the garbage with a layer of topsoil so that it wasn’t a fly’s paradise.

The land was then divided into 14’x17’ plots for homes, which were allocated to each family. Toilets came next, and in 1989 they managed to get 15 electric meters for the 315 homes to draw power. In the middle of their lease, the government agreed to sell the land for 50,000 rupees and the residents jumped at the chance. Today all of these homes are solid, two story, poured concrete buildings. Each house has its own electric meter and most have running water with in 15’ of a doorway. One would never know the plight of the town by looking at it now. By given the chance to stay put these squatters were able to improve their homes with the best methods possible. With the security of permanence the residents have incentive to build heartier structures for their families to live. In a place where the government can kick you out at a moment’s notice there is no motive for a nice home. These differences can be seen between Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, Dhavari (Mumbai’s biggest slum), and flash communities around the world. As great as it is that the residents were capable of building these new homes, how can public safety be secured with ad hoc housing? This community did start out as a group of construction workers so the basis for design and construction was inherent, yet no architects or contractors were there to sign off on the design. In these buildings there is no way of securing that the rebar is properly spaced, or the concrete properly mixed. What does this mean for the next generation of people who will be buying these homes after the original families are long gone? On the other hand, Mumbai’s government is now issuing a decree saying that if a squatter can verify that he has been living in his home since 1995 he will be given a home owned by the government. With no sense of ownership, pride is not taken in these new homes. If a squatter feels secure in their home, he or she will invest and improve upon their community and neighborhood, yet with no sense of ownership there is no incentive to improve. This is why the government plan ceases to take off. If this program was readily used these government homes would start to become run down in a hurry, leading one to question which one now is the real slum? Is government aided housing the solution to these problems? Can these procedures of dealing with towns such as Sanjay Gandhi Nagar be implemented around the globe? How does one assure public safety in even a self built established town? The struggle and the perseverance of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar is incredible and shows the world that what once was a flash community can become a thriving permanent city.












he creation, growth and inhabitation of flash communities in the developing world has long been documented and politicized throughout the last century. The improvisation of public places is often seen as the lowest form of living and evidence of the despair and desolation these so-called ‘Third World’, or developing, countries exist in. However, there are institutional and infrastructural positives that come out of these self-sustaining improvised communities and these positives are even duplicated, desired, and demanded in some of the most established institutions throughout the world, including here in the United States. These improvised or “flash communities” are fine examples of independent development and highlight an impermanent group coming together to form innovative communal bonds. This form of urbanism, so flatly demeaned and dismissed by societies that romanticize ideas of suburbia, is not based on a prescribed doctrine of planning but rather on the imagination of the people and the basic desire to be part of a collective group. The organization of individuals, no matter how large or small, for periods of time, regardless of permanence, draws from the urban typology of the slum and creates an infrastructure for itself that must be celebrated. The key to all flash communities lies within the name itself, community. The desire to be a constant, necessary, and important member of a community is the most basic part of human nature. Within these flash communities, that exist in a constant state of transition the most permanent and lasting urban element in which interaction occurs is the street. In a flash community such as the barrio of Caracas, Venezuela, these streets exist as the public stage to display and announce the culture of the community and the existence of its people. It is on the streets that the residents create, as Jonas Bendiksen states it, “normalcy and dignity” out of their circumstances. The streets of these barrios are manifested differently than in the developed world. They are not so much a created entity as they would be in other cultures but are instead defined by the context of their surroundings. The street becomes the interstitial space of the urban fabric and is the epitome of the public realm. It is used to physically and emotionally connect the residents of Caracas and their ideas. In the disintegration of planning in Caracas the streets grow naturally out of the human experience and needs of the people. The streets are less concerned with the transportation of people in and out of the barrio than with the connection of people within the barrio. The street is the most public of places in any culture, whether to host a party or give a simple greeting to a neighbor over the morning paper. The street is entrenched firmly in the public realm and in the tradition of American culture it is the essential mixing pot of activity and the place that true society occurs. The nostalgia of a 1950s Independence Day block party or the contemporary romanticism of a farmer’s market, or a city parade down Main Street are all

elements of the public realm and the desire to exist within a community. The infrastructure the street and its related activities are constantly in accordance with the infrastructure of the human spirit and the desire to be connected and recognized. In no place throughout the world is this infrastructure of human nature and the human spirit more evident than in the street of the Caracas barrio. Whether encouraged by economic struggles, political strife, societal abandonment, or adventurous desire the flash community takes these perceived negatives or “unaccepted” means of urbanism and creates a place rich with culture and community. The standardization and impossible rhetoric of a prescribed function of living and of simply being or existing is discarded from the flash community and reverts to living at its most basic levels. It creates a society that is fully adaptable and contains no hierarchy. Every space has the ability to be used in many different capacities at all times. There is a small sense of possession and ownership whether behind private walls or under makeshift roofs but the line is constantly blurred with the outstanding public spaces beyond. The overriding sense of a flash community is that everything is essentially public and is used as such. There is an unavoidable and enriching interweaving of people, ideas, and experiences throughout this improvised, flash community. This street life of the world’s flash communities is at the heart of an acceptable standard of living. These experiences that are shaped, found, and naturally arise from a flash community in Caracas, Venezuela and other locations determined to be in the undeveloped world are found in the traditions of the county fair, a town street festival, a weekend yard sale, impromptu music festival, and city boardwalk. While it is true that some of these have degrees of planning and bureaucratic steps in order to operate and experience, at the root of all them is the basic desire to live and revel in others company and maintain a sense of communal understanding, along with the physical location of a public street. Is the Venice beach street performer any different than the impromptu dance party in Caracas, or the haphazardly planned yard sale not similar to the street vendor, or even the traveling fair different from the overall atmosphere of a flash community in the mingling of culture, activity, and people? The flash communities of the world may not represent the highest standard of living as the “developed world” judges it but they truly represent a high standard of culture, society, and experience that is universally understood and appreciated. A flash community is not perfect when it comes to living in a modern society, a result of many different problems, but it has within it the groundwork that every society and neighborhood needs and desires to build upon from the “third world” all the way to “our world.”






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Flash Communities