How to ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing in Latin American cities is a central question for many CRP students. Christeen Pusch (MSCRP 2010), who participated in the Santo Domingo course in spring 2010, spent the subsequent summer in Los Platanitos and mapped the pattern of housing typologies and qualities. She also investigated the strategies residents use to build and improve their homes, and examined the broader housing market in Santo Domingo. Danielle Rojas (MSCRP/MA 2013) also worked on housing issues in informal settlements in Lima, Peru, but in her thesis she focused on the role of the emerging rental market in providing both housing solutions and sources of income. Jared Genova (MSCRP 2012) investigated the informal property exchange system in Cuba, while Rosa E. Donoso (MSCRP 2008) conducted her research for her master thesis on housing policies in the historic center of Quito, Ecuador, focusing on strategies for the recuperation of existing buildings for residential use. Sara McTarnaghan (MSCRP/MA 2015) is conducting a comparative study of affordable housing policy in Santiago, Chile, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, focusing on social impacts of large housing redevelopments. And PhD students Alejandra Reyes and Ariadna Reyes (PhD anticipated 2017) are both exploring alternative housing development models to contradict urban sprawl in Mexico City.
COMMUNITY AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
In their thesis research, CRP students have documented some of the creative strategies used by city planners and by residents themselves to further community development and provide sources of employment and income. Shawn Strange (MSCRP 2010), who participated in the Santo Domingo project in 2008, spent summer 2009 in Los Platanitos and mapped the network of locally owned businesses that constitute a relatively self-sustaining local economy. Shawn was the winner of CRPs’ Best Thesis Award in 2010. George McQueen (MSCRP/MA 2011) traced the historical trails dedicated to Simón Bolivar in Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela, and analyzed how these heritage tourism routes supported economic development in these three countries. George was the winner of CRPs’ Best Thesis Award in 2011. Rachael Die (MSCRP/MA 2012) conducted an ethnographic study of the tourism industry in Bocas del Toro in Panamá, asking to what degree this industry support the local economy, and how it contributes to social changes and challenges. Allison Phillips (MA/MSCRP 2007) conducted research on the intersections of art, youth, and community development in Salvador, Brazil, focusing on the Projeto Grafita Salvador, a municipal program that employs youth to paint graffiti in public spaces. Sam Tabory (MSCRP/MA 2016) is investigating the discursive strategies deployed by NGOs, government agencies and community residents as they negotiate planning solutions and intended outcomes in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
ENVIRONMENTAL AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
Many CRP students are concerned with the environmental risks and social vulnerabilities facing informal and marginalized communities in Latin American cities. They often approach their research from the perspective of environmental and social justice, a research framework which also drives the coursework in Santo Domingo. After attending the Santo Domingo project course in spring 2010, Omar Díaz (MSCRP/MA 2011) returned to Los Platanitos in summer 2010 and conducted his thesis research on the impact of solid waste accumulations on children’s health. Omar worked directly with children and used drawing techniques to document their perceptions of the slum environment. Lindsey Engelman (MSCRP/MA 2011) spent two summers in Quito and Esmeraldas, Ecuador, documenting the serious social and health impacts of the oil industry on low-income residents. Gabriel Ortiz (MSCRP/MA 2016) is interested in the insurgent role of graffiti and street art in the context of globalization in Medellin and Bogota, Colombia.
GENDER AND DEVELOPMENT
Gender relations are significant for all the topical areas within Latin American planning, but some students choose to focus their thesis research directly on issues of gender and development. Meredith Bossin (MA/MSCRP 2009) returned to the Dominican Republic after participating in the Santo Domingo course in spring 2008 and investigated women’s access to formal employment in the informal settlement of Los Platanitos. Meredith developed a mixed methodology including surveys, focus groups and visioning activities to propose strategies for addressing gender inequalities associated with income generating activities in the community. Meredith was the winner of LLILAS’ Best Thesis Award in 2009. Marisa Ballas (MSCRP 2007) investigated transportation barriers that exist for the women of the informal settlement of Pudahuel, Santiago, Chile. She used surveys, interviews and focus groups to determine what improvements in both land use and transportation policy can be implemented to minimize these barriers. Her work also included design of bus stops with improved safety conditions for women. Marisa was the winner of CRP’s Best Master’s Thesis Award in spring 2007. Marla Torrado (PhD anticipated 2016) received a Fulbright scholarship to conduct her research into the role of women's groups in the organizing efforts against commercial development of genetically modified soybean production in Argentina, specifically the role of representational tactics in contesting dominant ideas of regional development.
Urban Informality, or those “practices and activities operating beyond what the state would define as “normal” and/or which exist contrary to stipulations laid out in law” (Donaghy 2002, 271), is present across the globe not just in marginal conditions, and how Friendly and Stiphany (2019) pointed out it “refers to the specific structural platforms that cultivate ‘a differentiated process embodying varying degrees of power and exclusion’ (Roy, 2005: 148).”
In 2019 we open a new site for our fieldwork in what is known as informal settlement. “La Campana: Bridging Academia and Practice with Participatory Action Research” is a project using this leading method for social planners who want to address issues of social inequalities.
La Campana, located once outlying hill that is now part of near the central business bustling city of Monterrey, Mexico, is a well-established informal settlement. Where its residents possess a strong sense of community pride, which proves beneficial when tackling local infrastructure projects. For their latest effort, community members and local NGO Barrio Esperanza have invited us, an interdisciplinary team in the University of Texas’s Community and Regional Planning Department, to collaborate with them. They are in the process of transforming an abandoned trash-filled lot into a treasured pocket park.
Since January, our class has been using participatory action research methods to work with La Campana neighbors, catalyzing their planning processes so that they can envision, design, and execute projects based on their own unique priorities. First, in order to be most effective, we set out to discover all that we could about the community, its context, and the various actors involved in its ecosystem. In January we spent a week in Monterrey familiarizing ourselves with La Campana, learning about the work of Barrio Esperanza, and talking to key members of the private and public sector. Upon returning to UT, this insight guided us in our subsequent individual and group efforts throughout the semester. Our objective leading up to our second trip in March was to capitalize on our group’s interdisciplinary knowledges and abilities and to hone our community engagement skill set so that we could incorporate ourselves effectively into the community’s rhythm; we and the community would collaborate, learn and grow together. This cross-border partnership was made possible by a ConTex grant, our supportive partnership with Barrio Esperanza, and our collaboration with la Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León’s architecture department. Follow the process here.
The CRP program provides field research and service learning opportunities in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic, through a partnership with city officials, NGOs and community leaders. The goal is to provide technical planning assistance to our partners in the Dominican Republic and to develop graduate level, practical student research and learning opportunities. The work is concentrated in Los Platanitos, an informal settlement suffering serious environmental and social challenges. In spring semester 2008, Dr. Bjørn Sletto’s students conducted a participatory assessment of risk and vulnerability in the informal settlement of Los Platanitos in Santo Domingo Norte. They produced maps, models, posters, and a report to assist community leaders, planners and policy-makers to improve environmental and social conditions in this marginalized neighborhood. In 2010, a second group of students returned to Los Platanitos and, building on the first project, developed a plan for community-based solid waste management. In spring 2012, a third group of students formalized relationships with the NGO FUNDSAZURZA and the City of Santo Domingo Norte, assisted the community organization Fundación Los Platanitos with its institutional development, and initiated a vermiculture project with support from the US EPA's P3 Award Program to assess the feasibility of composting as a means of addressing the solid waste problem. Drawing on the work conducted by the 2012 class, students in spring 2014 conducted an outcome assessment of the vermiculture project and a study of plant culture in Los Platanitos to examine the possibility for leveraging the composting project to improve local food security and green spaces.
Migration is an important phenomenon that shapes economic and social development in Latin America, both in sending and receiving communities. Planning scholars and practitioners need to understand the consequences of migration within individual countries—especially the demographic shift from rural to urban areas, which has significantly altered urban landscapes for several decades—and international migration within Latin America and to and from United States and Europe. Monica Bosquez (MSCRP-MA 2011) investigated the disciplinary processes that shape the immigration landscape and practices in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and the role of support networks formed by migrants and their families. Vanessa Martínez (MSCRP-MA 2012) documented the economic and political significance of links between Mexican immigrants in Fremont, Nebraska, and their home community of Chichihualco in Guerrero state. Specifically, she is concerned with how their responses to discriminatory city planning policies in Fremont are informed by their organizing experiences and continuing relationships in Chichihualco. Migration was also an important component of Christeen Pusch’s (MSCRP 2010) and Danielle Rojas’ (MSCRP/MA 2012) research on affordable housing in the Dominican Republic and Peru, since they worked in neighborhoods initially settled by migrants from rural areas.
NATURAL RESOURCE MANAGEMENT
Planning professionals and scholars in Latin America not only work on urban issues; they are also engaged in issues of environmental planning, wildlife conservation, watershed management, and other aspects of natural resource management in rural areas. Marla Torrado (CRP-PhD) is investigating the social and environmental consequences of genetically modified soybean production in Argentina, and has previously researched the impacts of road construction on Makushi communities in southern Guyana. Dr. Bjørn Sletto conducts research on conservation planning and management in the Gran Sabana, eastern Venezuela, and in the Perijá mountains in the Colombia-Venezuela borderlands. In the Gran Sabana, his work focuses on a conflict between indigenous people and state planners regarding fire management. In the Perijá, he investigates the social dimensions of watershed management, again focusing on indigenous land rights and natural resource management. The Perijá are rich in coal and also central for water supply to Maracaibo, the second largest city in Venezuela, and have seen serious conflicts between indigenous groups, mining interests, and environmental activists.
Dr. Bjørn Sletto directs LLILAS’ Initiative on Participatory Mapping, a research effort dedicated to exploring the struggles for land and resource rights among indigenous, afro-descendent peoples and other marginalized peoples in Latin America. Community-based, participatory mapping has become an important tool for indigenous, afro-descendant and other marginalized people in their struggles to secure their land and resource rights. To facilitate research and critical conversation about this tool and to develop strategies with implications for practice and theory, faculty members and graduate students at UT in collaboration with Rights and Resources Initiative organized an international conference in Bogotá in June 2011 with speakers from throughout Latin America. In subsequent phases, this initiative will seek funding to support future research and engagement by UT students and scholars, building in part on Dr. Sletto’s long-term participatory mapping work with indigenous communities in Venezuela and collaborations with scholars at Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia; Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas in Caracas, Venezuela; Proyecto Nueva Cartografía Social de la Amazonía in Manaus, Brazil; and Universidad Federal de Rio de Janeiro.
TRANSPORTATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE DEVELOPMENT
Many planners working in Latin America are concerned about developing effective, environmentally sound and equitable transportation and infrastructure networks. Often, however, low-income residents and informal settlements don’t benefit from these modern systems, as CRP students have shown through their research. Gina Casey (MSCRP-MA 2011) investigated the narratives of modernity that drove the politics behind the development of the new Metro in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and documented how the metro thus far provides little benefit to marginalized communities. Gina was the winner of CRP’s Best Thesis Award in 2011. Colleen McGue (MSCRP-MA 2011) conducted her thesis research in São Paulo, where most of the city’s low-income population lives in the periphery of the city while most job opportunities are concentrated in the city center. She found that the current transportation infrastructure is insufficient to transport the number of commuters from the periphery to and from the city center to work on a daily basis. Peter Almlie (MA/MSCRP 2009) conducted his thesis research on housing and infrastructure conditions in two colonias located in the eastern hills of Tijuana, Mexico, focusing on documenting and assessing road quality. He showed that the low quality of the infrastructure in these colonias has serious implications for residents’ ability to obtain and keep employment. Also in Mexico, Samantha Kattan (MSCRP 2014) documented the newly established, municipal composting program in Mexico City and explored the potential roles of municipal trash workers to improve implementation of the program. In Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Kelly Strickler (MSCRP 2014) focused her thesis research on green infrastructure and explored alternative, small-scale and dispersed interventions models to reduce flooding problems in low-income communities.