viernes, 21 de marzo de 2008

On people and places

Atención
By Ali Zerriffi
March 21, 2008
San Miguel de Allende

Urban centers are experiencing a phenomenal growth all over the world and the challenge for architects and city planners, as well as ordinary citizens, has become an effort to provide a living environment that is human and convivial.

Economic growth, technological change and increased availability of private vehicles have turned once quiet and enjoyable communities into congested urban centers, sometimes threatening to choke the very causes of their success.

A number of original initiatives, some spontaneous and some planned, have emerged in communities around the world to reclaim public space for the enjoyment of the residents and to create environments where people can congregate and be comfortable and safe.


Most people by now have heard of the Slow Food Movement, which came to mean more than avoiding franchise food eaten on the run. It has developed into a “prise de conscience” around the world that to live healthy one must not only take a break from the hustle of modern life in order to enjoy life but also one must avoid fabricated and altered food and try to eat organic and, preferably, locally produced food.

Now the Slow City Movement is spreading around the world. It also started in Italy and, alas, most communities are already beyond the recommended ideal of 50,000 inhabitants but the principles of the movement make sense for any locality and can be applied to the neighborhood level.

The Italian mayors who started the movement committed themselves at their first meeting “to a series of principles that included working toward a calmer and less polluted physical environment, conserving local aesthetic traditions and fostering local crafts, produce and cuisine. The goal is to foster the development of places that enjoy good food, healthy environments, sustainable economies and traditional rhythms for community life.” All of the above principles would not be complete without a commitment to implement “a range of programs from the promotion of organic agriculture, the banning of genetically modified foods and organisms, urban revitalization and historic preservation, alternative energy systems and the preservation of local traditions and heritage, signage and light regulations.”

Project for Public Spaces (www.pps.org) is a nonprofit organization “dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build communities.” It quotes Enrique Peñalosa, (ex-mayor of Bogotá and now professor at Columbia University): “Public space is for living, doing business, kissing and playing. It can’t be measured with economics: it must be felt with the soul.”

By public places the organization and the ex-mayor mean parks, squares (or jardines), waterfronts, public markets, transportation, civic centers and, of course, libraries.

We here have recipes for healthy environments used almost along the same principles by both large modern cities that are trying to engineer solutions for better living and old traditional communities that are trying to preserve a way of life that is based more on quality than modern global consumerism.

The underlying controversy regarding the future of San Miguel has more to do, except for the adepts of rearview mirror nostalgia, with preservation of what made San Miguel special and the management of its growth from a sleepy little town to a successful community with a multicultural dimension but also with “traditional rhythms of community life.”

Progress and growth, concepts too often and too readily confused, might very well be unavoidable but they can be channeled in at the right pace and along the right trends.

Urban planning in a relatively small administrative entity like the Municipality of San Miguel de Allende takes on a totally different dimension if one envisions growth and development as a project that will not only capitalize on the assets of the city itself but would integrate the social and economic development of the surrounding rural communities. A master plan should include education, infrastructure, alternative methods of agricultural production, complementary lightweight and non-polluting industry (canning, for example) and non-pervasive activities like eco-tourism.

The city itself needs the collaboration of every sector of society to define its future in order to preserve its uniqueness. A tighter application of zoning and construction rules will be a major first step but more importantly a concerted effort to revive traditional meeting places like public markets, community centers, waterfronts and green spaces. The size of San Miguel and the willingness of many of its residents to get involved in projects benefiting the community should make participatory commitment to a consensual overall plan an easy thing to organize. Projects involving specific neighborhoods should have preliminary consultations with the residents to weigh short-term inconveniences against long-term benefits for the colonia directly affected and the community at large.

On the very promising side the present government has initiated several projects that go in the right direction toward an integrated economic and social development plan. Consultations with and assistance to organic farmers, artisans and tourism operators have led to important actions from developing business plans and co-op organizations to planning of eco-tourism infrastructure and cultural festivals. The implementation of educational facilities thanks to a project between the government, UNAM and the Biblioteca Pública will give our town not only the resources needed by the students of the region but also add an academic dimension to the cultural life of our community.

Collaborating efforts of NGOs and government in San Miguel and the Bajío region in general, as well as devising plans for proper use of publicly or semipublicly owned spaces will help us turn renovated old buildings and available green spaces into centers of learning and recreation, and much-needed conservation areas that will balance the growing urbanization of our environment.

The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not reflect those of Atención San Miguel or the publishers, the Biblioteca Pública.

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