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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Using Social Housing to Implement a Progressive Urban Agenda: Lessons from Bogota, Colombia

When Gustavo Petro, a self-described radical, was elected mayor of Bogota, Colombia in 2012, he embraced policies aimed at densifying that city, making it more sustainable, and reducing widespread spatial segregation by economic class. The struggle to implement those policies, and what those struggles suggest for scholars and practitioners who favor similar approaches in other locales is the subject of “Implementing a Progressive Urban Agenda Through Social Housing: The Mismatches of Scale,” a new article in Planning Theory & Practice that was funded in part by a research grant from our Center.

Written by Maria Atuesta, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) and a Meyer Fellow, and Diane Davis, a faculty affiliate of our Center and the Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism at the GSD, the article focuses particularly on Plaza de la Hoja, a new, 456-unit social housing project located in a middle-income neighborhood in downtown Bogota. The project was part of an ambitious new territorial plan, adopted not long after Petro took office, that called for building several modern social housing complexes in some of Bogota’s most privileged areas to house the city’s poorest residents, many of them displaced by the country’s long civil war. To foster inclusion and sustainability, the housing projects were designed as mixed-use, transit-oriented developments. In the case of Plaza de la Hoja, for example, designers planned for commercial and communal spaces on the ground floor, open to the neighborhood. Moreover, as part of the city’s efforts to encourage transit, the plans provided no parking for cars on the site.

Since opposition from would-be neighbors (and Petro’s national political rivals) stymied many planned housing projects, the La Hoja project was the only one completed. Atuesta and Davis, who interviewed 23 La Hoja residents as well as 16 other people who lived nearby, write that the “well-situated and modern complex offered much-needed housing for displaced persons in Bogota’s inner city, and its central location has helped provide better access to public transportation and other amenities.”

They also found, however, that despite its integrated design, the complex and its occupants remained socially and spatially isolated. Moreover, many residents did not value its open physical layout and the reservation of street-level spaces for commerce, which did not, as planners hoped, attract businesses or pedestrians from the surrounding neighborhood. Instead, residents began to find homeless people sleeping inside the buildings in the mornings. Drug dealers and local gangs also exploited the open spaces in ways that became a safety concern. Furthermore, the failure to provide parking within the complex in the early stages of the project, a trade-off made to allow space for commercial activities and facilitate pedestrian access, led some residents to park their cars on local streets, which exacerbated tensions with neighbors and made La Hoja residents feel they were being unfairly asked to bear the burden of the city’s ambitious transportation goals.

Atuesta and Davis suggest that these outcomes offer important lessons for those interested in pursuing similar policies in other locales. They contend that the planners and designers who conceived the project should have paid more attention to the ways that their open space innovations and efforts to foster urban sustainability goals could “negatively impact” the people living in the new units. Planners, they explain, “must be prepared to ask whether implementation of city-wide progressive policies at the site of a single project will impose an undue burden on vulnerable populations. Will these impacts further disadvantage these groups, particularly with respect to better-off residents who may not be required to adjust to these programs and plans?” In the end, they conclude that the theory and practice of social justice planning should take into account the mismatches of scale of well-intentioned progressive ideals, if unintended negative outcomes are to be avoided.

For more in-depth analysis of the proponents of and barriers to progressive social housing in Bogota, see Maria Atuesta and Diane Davis’ Joint Center for Housing Studies working paper, Progressive Politics and Inclusive Social Housing: Enablers and Barriers to Transformative Change in Bogota (2019).