JANUARY 2022 · ESP
Carolina Huffmann is an architect, walkability specialist and founding partner of Urbanismo Vivo, a team based in Argentina that seeks the connection between citizens and the spaces they inhabit.
In Post-Pandemic Cities, she shares the keys to the collaborative work that they develop to promote a friendly, active and humanized city.
Ciudades pospandemia #20
Audio: Carolina Huffmann.
Sound production: Genzo P.
Curatorship: Kristine Guzmán y Eneas Bernal.
Imagen: Urbanismo Vivo. Festival de Caminatas, 2021.
Ciudades Comunes: www.ciudadescomunes.org.
Enlace Defensa: urbanismovivo.com.ar/enlace-defensa.
Festival de Caminatas: festivaldecaminatas.com.ar.
HInhabiting the collaborative, the experimental, and uncertainty.
Carolina Huffmann [Urbanismo Vivo]
First of all, thank you to Eneas and Kristine for the invitation. I’m Carolina Huffmann, an Argentinian founding partner of Urbanismo Vivo. We are a team seeking to promote, through our projects, the connection between people and the city from a local and human perspective.
It was February 2020, we had set up and opened our office. The old apartment of one of our grandmothers was for sale and they lent it to us to use. We had just been hired for a tactical planning job in our own city, which was a dream of ours. We were also organizing the walking festival in May, like every year, and an in-person Latin American convention with friendly organizations, in a few months’ time, in advance. We had everything planned. Or so we thought…
Skip forward a month to a national broadcast from the president, and two hours later Buenos Aires put in place a long and very strict quarantine. In Argentina the lockdown came before we actually had many cases of COVID. It seemed quite early and we almost believed that it would manage to avoid a long lockdown, which was not the case. In Buenos Aires there was a total lockdown for a long time. In an overwhelming city which was very difficult to control, the cases began to rise and when they reached the most vulnerable neighbourhoods and slums the situation became very complicated. The divide that is normally seen in our city, as in many Latin American cities, became more and more evident and shocking, as well as the emptying and silence of our city.
As a team, due to our personal circumstances and acknowledging at the time that we were addicts to cities in a city that we no longer understood or knew, we began, like never before, to question everything in our work and to reassess the situations we were living through. In an almost desperate act to understand and learn what we were going through at an urban planning level, we turned to work in that city that was so difficult for us to recognize.
Facing uncertainty in Argentina, and Latin America, is not new. Added to this was the global uncertainty, the lack of knowledge and the constant changes (of rules, ways, norms and more), which the pandemic brought. We understand that these searches and findings are not solutions or certainties or absolute answers, but tests, experiments, searches, attempts, until we find what best suits what we are looking for, for as long as it is useful. Our work has always been based on this premise and this situation made us take this to the extreme and the approach was universal.
With the return to face-to-face meetings and physical spaces, it is time to adapt again and we ask ourselves, what did we learn the most from this pandemic? We have learned a lot and some practices that are here to stay, we cannot unlearn.
To start with, we learned that hybrid occupancy granted us spatial resilience. Facing that moment of crisis, answers were found in the integration and dissolution of those defined use boundaries, to create hybrid spaces and to search for new functions for known spaces. For example, houses became workplaces, squares became birthday party venues and gyms, bars became artisans’ fairs, as well as libraries turning into vaccination centres, and even something that we had never imagined: theatre was reinvented into digital formats. Suddenly, the spaces as we knew them became something else,
time and time again, complementing each other. Understanding the concept of “Occupying our spaces in a hybrid way” was very important for us, not only at the project level, but also at a professional and personal level.
From our annual planning of those three structural projects that we had, we did all three, clearly in very different ways to what we initially thought. Adapting, searching, and creating hybrid spaces to understand how we could continue working and rethinking our cities, even more so in this situation.
That face-to-face convention planned eight months in advance did not make sense, what did made sense was asking ourselves the questions at that place and time. Together with all the organizations that are part of Ciudades Comunes (Common Cities, in English) and the wonderful guests, we managed to put on a digital convention in one month.
Ciudades Comunes 2020 was an online event rethinking the co-construction of cities based on the global health crisis caused by COVID-19. The event brought together more than 36,000 online attendees in a digital, non-local, open, and global way, most of whom were from Latin America and Spanish-speaking countries.
Like many, we were faced with the urgent need to question and rethink everything. If there was a moment of doubt, this was it, but it was necessary to go out in search of opinions, views, clues of “where to?”.
The other 2 projects we had were also transformed.
The first project I want to tell you about is Enlace Defensa (Defence Link, in English), a project in San Telmo, one of the oldest (if not the oldest) neighbourhoods in the city of Buenos Aires, specifically on a motorway underpass, a run-down urban space that “divided” the neighbourhood in two. A project on a motorway underpass throws up generic complications in itself, as is often the case in the city of Buenos Aires, as well as in many Latin American cities with similar characteristics, and the idea was precisely to have the project of this pilot case so as to potentially replicate it.
We started work and the pandemic brought a lockdown to our city and everything was interrupted. Several things happened: on the one hand, priorities changed and that investment which was originally temporary could no longer be thought of that way considering the urban, but above all, social and economic crisis we were going through. On the other hand, the need for open public spaces for people such as health and wellness spaces became extremely evident, even more so in a neighbourhood with pavements as narrow as in the old quarter. Simultaneously, as in many cities around the world, the use of parking spaces as expanded dining space for restaurants became normal. Finally, we suddenly had the opportunity to experience an almost exclusively digital citizen participation process in a context where it would have previously been impossible to imagine. When I say we had, I mean both ourselves and the BID, Inter-American Development Bank and the City Council. As an experience, the three organizations had a lot to learn and then we got the green light to do it and heard that this project would not be cancelled, as we feared at some point.
Then this project morphed into a much less temporary experimental intervention, with a possibility of really transforming this space into a habitable public place through public participation, with a local identity suited to the daily use of that street.
So, we began a participatory process that consisted of a series of meetings (digital and face-to-face) with residents and traders.
In short, this great project by Enlace Defensa, consisted of a mural on the roof of a motorway underpass and a floor mural with images of the identity of San Telmo, a traffic calming ground project using parking spaces for private vehicles to gain spaces for pedestrians with furnishings and flowerpots, lighting, pavement improvements and cleaning and restoration of the street in general, furnishings with recycled materials, a cultural programme, activities for children, neighbourhood lunch, walks and more.
From this entire project I want to highlight two wonderful parts of this process in relation to what the COVID situation enhanced. On the one hand, Microhistorias de San Telmo (San Telmo Micro-stories, in English) is a project within a project, which came about as an initiative to share perspectives and stories of those who live in San Telmo and turn them into visual pieces. It consisted of the development of eight illustrated stories from digital interviews carried out with neighbours. These micro-stories are from the first digital interviews with strategic actors, who introduced us to the neighbourhood when we couldn’t leave home. Their stories, even digitally, without being able to go the area, were very sensitive and representative of the area. They each told of stories and particular aspects that immersed us in different images that drew a picture of that San Telmo which was invisible at first sight, which lives in the imagination and in the memory of those who live there. By turning them into illustrations, you can recognize everyday people, learn secret stories, identify its most relevant landmarks, and connect with its features and most sensitive aspects.
Jane Jacobs in 1960 was a pioneer in talking about the importance of proximity, the value of walkable neighbourhoods, and proximity to the liveable environment and it seems that this pandemic has served to put that into practice to an extreme degree. But at a time of so much social, neighbourly, and neighbourhood disagreement, of so much mistrust towards others and towards the city itself, Microhistorias sought to link the present and the past by highlighting the value of the oral tradition and the intangible cultural heritage of this area. Walking down the street finding these stories and relating with these people was a way to bring them closer.
In terms of participation, in any participation process we tend to ask ourselves: Who is missing?, Who is not here? And, in this case, we knew that there was an important section of the population that was not represented in these digital workshops, basically because in San Telmo, in addition to those who live and work in the neighbourhood, there are many people on the street, people who live and work on the street, especially children. The economic and social crisis in Buenos Aires, Argentina, greatly increased in the pandemic and this reality is present in this neighbourhood that shares this urban social coexistence on a daily basis. Somehow we wanted to be able to address some of these issues in the project, while being clear that it was a project on a street on a motorway underpass and many of these problems are structural in nature and very challenging. Throughout the process, we saw that many child street vendors were passing through, but from the digital point of view we could not include them. We decided then to create a play space, to include it within the painting project.
With great joy, we noticed that, even if just for a few minutes, as they walked by, they stopped working and played in the street. Even if it was only for a moment, it made their day. This made clear the possibility of designing a space to be able to transform the daily life of each and every person.
We had many questions about how this experiment in digital participation would turn out, of which there were not many examples in itself. This extreme inclusion of digitality in our daily lives allows us to rely on it to enhance the process. However, it does not replace face-to-face contact, based on the
connections, the area, and the inclusion of many people who don’t have access to the digital realm, which must be taken into account.
The other project that had and still has modifications is the Festival de Caminatas (Walking Festival, in English), a cultural project that we have organized annually since 2012, which aims to promote a bond with the city and open discussion among people through walking, connecting with the city in a different way.
For eight years, the festival was a physical, in-person event. In 2020, with the pandemic, we found ourselves in our homes unable to go for a walk and we wondered if it was possible to walk digitally. That first experience, in full adaptation, was a completely digital project conducted on our screens. The difference and contrast of the original project to the digital one had an impact and we wondered if we could turn it into a hybrid space.
In 2021, having learnt from 2020, we questioned what the hybrid was and we experimented between the digital and the face-to-face. This proposal consisted of inviting people from the digital event to go for a walk individually through the stories, short tales, instructions, exercises and even street displays, through the streets of our city (and others as well).
A few months later and with a more open city in terms of restrictions, on the 10-year anniversary of the festival, we put together a festival of literary walks, as a hybrid proposal bringing together the face-to-face and the digital sphere in a different way. On the one hand, we had the “classic” face-to-face walks. We walked through the city in a group, once again focusing on and highlighting everyday urban culture. On the other hand, we turned these walks into audio guides to be able to carry out the tours in an asynchronous and de-localized way. These audio guides can be listened to anywhere in the world, exploring and connecting with each city through literature. Therefore, by no longer being one hundred percent face-to-face, the door is opened to other connections and other possibilities for experiences, exchanges, and cultural connections.
The need for people to go out, to get together, to participate was evident. More than two thousand people participated in the festival, including many older people. Suddenly, the public space officially became the safest place to meet and gather for all generations. The streets and pavements were filled with people walking, because in reality they were once again full of people, as were the squares and parks too. The importance and vitality of the public space that we preached so much about became evident.
As I mentioned, we learned several things about hybrid issues, especially on a personal level, and also as a team. We spent a long time isolated in our homes in the huge city of Buenos Aires that we neither recognized nor could enjoy. After one year, half of the team moved to different parts of the country, the main thing was to ensure that they had a direct connection with nature and wifi. You can laugh, but there was an absolute need to stay connected digitally and connect with the physical world in a universal and natural way. Our country overall has such a notable polarity between what the city of Buenos Aires is and the rest of the cities and towns, to the point that in other parts of the country the restrictions were also very different and much more relaxed and they had a different way of living in this new stage of the pandemic. We understood that part of this advance is digital and that allowed us to continue working as a team from wherever we wanted to be, digital work was (and still is and will continue to be) part of our daily lives.
What about now? Now we continue working, adapting, and recording what we have experienced up
to now, a bit like always, but having experienced extreme situations, with a bit of distrust and flexibility. We incorporate digitality in our projects as part of the daily routine of connecting with the area in a complementary manner. We analyse projects according to the specific things that we have to do and seeing what things can be added that may have an extra impact. But above all else we accept living in the uncertainty of what will come, almost like living in the uncertainty of what we already know.
Throughout the last year and a half we have participated in talks, digital meetings, panels that spoke of a pandemic or post-pandemic city and we continue chatting and sharing experiences because there is still much to learn. What we learned when this was just starting is not the same as a year and a half later, or 5 years later…
A month after lockdown began, when we held the Ciudades Comunes meeting, Saskia Sassen asked a question that could have been a passing remark but I think it made a bigger impression on me than I thought: “How do we not forget?”
A year and a half later I think that if I cannot answer what to do to not forget, it is better to ask myself:
What should I not forget?
Carolina Huffmann [Urbanismo Vivo]