Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Improving Housing and Neighborhoods in Mexico: Lessons from a New Harvard GSD Report

by David Luberoff
Senior Associate Director
What kinds of planning and design interventions can help improve housing and urban development practice in Mexico? Can housing be a key tool in efforts to redevelop and expand the country’s metropolitan areas in efficient and equitable ways?

In Revitalizing Places: Improving Housing and Neighborhoods from Block to Metropolis, a report released earlier this year, a team headed by Ann Forsyth, a Professor of Urban Planning at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), tries to answer these questions. The report, which was part of the larger GSD project "Rethinking Social Housing in Mexico" does so by drawing on international and Mexican experience to identify policies, programs, planning approaches, and tools to help implement an ambitious housing and urban development policy announced by the Mexican government in 2012.

Vivienda Social en Cancun, one of the research case studies

In the report, Forsyth and three research associates who worked on the project – Charles Brennan, NĂ©lida Escobedo Ruiz, and Margaret Scott – identify four key strategies that can help create more sustainable and inclusive communities.

First, they note that those who wish to densify existing metropolitan areas can use a range of policies and programs aimed at increasing development in the urban area as a whole (including the core cities and suburban regions). These include simplifying the infill development process, promoting public acceptance of infill, and promoting accessory apartments. Together these types of strategies promote densification on various levels and also address physical, regulatory, and organizational issues.

Second, they recognize that, in most of the world, accommodating all growth in existing urban areas is difficult, and that better approaches to developing greenfield sites are necessary. Key strategies for doing so include “creating additions to urban areas that are rich in infrastructure and services and using innovative designs to comprehensively develop neighborhoods and new towns.”

City square in Oaxaca, Mexico

Third, they emphasize that strategies to retrofit some areas should respond to concerns about existing developments. They note that “upgrading areas where services and infrastructure are lacking and dealing with abandoned housing are both vitally important.” They further assert that adding mixed-use, multi-functional neighborhood and town centers to developments and providing better job opportunities can better connect people to services and reduce the sense of isolation often found in new developments.

Finally, they observe that a lack of data coordination is a significant barrier to making positive changes in metropolitan areas. The authors note that Building Better Cities, a companion report also produced by the Rethinking Social Housing project, analyzes existing policy and political challenges to coordinate and promote densification strategies in key Mexican metropolitan regions. These challenges, they note, include data coordination, which is needed to develop and share success indicators that not only provide feedback on the process and interim achievements but also help key actors "recalibrate and improve actions."

Taken as a whole, the authors conclude that these policies and programs are not only useful for Mexico but are more broadly applicable in middle and higher income countries trying to meet housing demand while minimizing the negative effects of urban sprawl.

Housing development in Aguascalientes, one of the research case studies

The report was produced as part of a larger project "Rethinking Social Housing in Mexico" headed by Forsyth and Diane Davis, Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism and Chair of GSD’s Department of Urban Planning and Design. The report and the larger project were funded by INFONAVIT (Instituto del Fondo Nacional de la Vivienda para los Trabajadores), a major Mexican government-sponsored funder of mortgages for private sector workers that was interested in how its polices could help create a more stable housing market and better towns and cities.

INFONAVIT’s efforts in Oaxaca, which was the one of the areas studied in depth as part of the Rethinking Social Housing project, will be the subject of a panel discussion on “Staying a Step Ahead: Institutional Flexibility in the Rehabilitation Of Social Housing In Oaxaca, Mexico,” that will be held in Gund Hall at the GSD at 6:30 pm on Wednesday, November 9.

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