A little more than a year ago, CONURB, the research group of the Catholic University from which I am a member back in Peru put me as the leader of one of its various projects: the creation of an application that would serve as a platform for people to know the level of risk of flooding of the area where they live or plan to live. It would show the level of risk through a traffic light, red, yellow or green, based on the reports of information uploaded by the own residents of the metropolitan area of Lima. It was one of many initiatives launched in Peru as a response to the catastrophic flooding that the coast of the country suffered in the summer of 2017. It was called “Mapa de Riesgos – CONURB” (CONURB Risk Map), uncreative name although with the intention to keep positioning the name of the group amid the community interested in urban matters. The idea was to participate in a competition of ideas launched by the Ministry of Production in order to get some funding. The process of my moving to Boston to begin the master studies among other situations put a halt to the project. Today I recalled that old application in a conversation about one of the most amazing projects I have learned about in the recent time: PetaBencana.Id. (link) a platform for crowdsourcing real time information about flooding in Jakarta. The great Astrid managed to get a meeting with a group of young people working in the development, maintenance and escalation of the platform. Nashin, Pritta and Emir explained to us with great patience the details of the functioning of the application and the facts that have made it that successful. Clever elements developed through both creativity and experience like identifying the unpredictability of the location of the flooding events in the city, the advantages of using already existing channels like twitter instead of the development of a new application or the use of automatic replies in order to use the right level of intrusiveness with the users, were examples of the several things to learn from the project of this organization. In addition, it struck me the fact that the project did not involve any patent of industrial property to “protect” any idea, maintaining itself true to the concept of openness of information (a small reminder of the uselessness of the idea of intellectual or industrial property in the 21st century world) and, on the contrary, showing a strong willingness to collaborate with similar projects in places like Mexico, Hong Kong, Saigon or, why not, Lima. Even when we asked about the topic of our research, it was amazing that in a way the same philosophy underlying the development of this platform also informed their assessment of the problem of flooding in the city of Jakarta. This idea of drawing on the knowledge already developed by people throughout the time and of accepting a coexistence instead of an antagonism of the people with the flooding episodes. The rich conversation took us to the necessity of thinking how the built environment of a place like Jakarta might need to progressively move upwards in order to make the first one or more levels of the buildings prepared for the reception of the water on a periodic basis, an idea similar to the design of the “Vertical Kampung” that earlier in the day we discussed with the people of the NGO Ciliwung Merdeka. Little by little it keeps coming the idea, so relevant for my other research about urban verticality, that Jakarta is in a path to become what in the conversation occurred to me that would be in the future a “Second Floor City”.
About a month ago I had the chance to visit Philadelphia for the first time. Besides the unbelievable experience of walking the epicenter of the conversations about the American Revolution in the eighteenth century, I also did a part of the hipster circuit and visited the Magic Gardens by Isaiah Zagar. The place is a big installation composed by a house, its yard and some attached buildings all decorated with inlaid work of different tones of turquoise, a mosaic at the same time chaotic and beautiful. The moment I saw this house in our second visit to Kampung Melayu I could not help to think in that visit to Philadelphia, since the second floor of this house looked like pulled out from the Magic Gardens. The owner of this house gave us an incredibly valuable time to talk in the tent that lies across her store in the edge of the embankment that separates the houses from the Ciliwung River, all of this with the language help of our great friends Zaza and Cintya. She explained to us that the building of the embankment involved a strong impulse of the government and the relocation of the people that was previously settled in the edge of the river to social housing buildings in a higher area. That is the process that gave birth to this interesting street on top of the embankment, used as a public space by the people of the area. The residents that were not relocated accommodated their houses to this new configuration and performed their own strategy. They organized in a way that allows them to move themselves and their belongings to the second floor when the level of water of the river overfloods the height of the embankment. The first floor, a functional space full of belongings that can be carried and made of materials that are easier to clean up later, and a second floor, a space for the dwelling and the most important objects, and that is also the object of the decorations.
A couple of weeks ago I was in the final review of one of the sections of urban design and planning of the summer program of the Harvard Graduate School of Design as a guest critic. One of the observations made by another guest critic to one of the students was about the lack of a clear grid of the streets of the proposed development in South Boston. I could not help to intervene and ask a sincere question about the need of such organization of the area. Although rational, easier for people to locate themselves and easy for the city to manage it, a city with a grid pattern has in my opinion a negative component of homogeneity. One of the things I use to miss in American cities and in some European cities was those unique corners that happen in a city like Cusco that did not have that much of a rational urban planning. That small chaos of the streets of a not rationally planned city is something that came to my mind today in Kampung Melayu, a medium maturity informal settlement in the east of Jakarta, in the banks of the Ciliwung River. Unlike the settlement we visited the first day, people living in Melayu have been around this area for a long time, that is, two or three generations. Enough time for already having been able to develop a neighborhood of two or three stories houses, schools, mosques, stores, restaurants, streets, alleys and all the elements that typically define a city. What impressed me the most is how beautiful and vivacious the neighborhood was. Not only it looked like an area where people had gone out of a precarious situation, but it looked like an area where one would want to live. The lack of state-led planning disappeared in this area any shadow of a grid and yet the spontaneous pattern of life that was progressively developed here gave birth to edges like the one that is in the picture. We came by foot over the alley that is in the top picture and suddenly we run into this house that had the fortune to be in the corner and, maybe as a compensation for the less privacy, enjoyed a sort of semi-private space, that along with the varied assortment of plants gave the place a lovely sentiment of warm, only broken some steps ahead by the giant mouse that caught the eye of Astrid and made Edu run for his life.
As happens in the whole academic world, it is difficult to determine whether a research topic is original or one has not yet looked for sufficiently among the different authors that have studied the subject. Naturally, that is a more complex disquisition when you are working a topic about a city located thirty-eight flying hours away from your current city. That is the reason why we appreciated a lot to have made a visit to local researchers that have done conducted analysis of their own city. Dr. Mangapol is a geographer from the University of Indonesia. It took us a while to finally meet him in his office in the campus of that university because he had to leave to pay his last respects to a colleague of him that had passed away in the previous day. While waiting in the hallway of the Department of Geography we were able to observe several research projects in boards that were hanging from the walls, many of which had the topic of flooding as one of the main concerns in the geospatial analysis. Once in the meeting we were able to see the physical doctoral dissertation that originated the paper that we had read. Although much patience was needed by both parties because of our lack of knowledge of Bahasa, our conversation in English allowed us to see the methods of identification of the areas of the city prone to flooding. According to the geographic study, that propensity is correlated to the existence of certain type of landform and certain type of land use in an area. However, in order to determine which parts of those areas were prone to disaster, it had to be added the layer of density of population. The result of that analysis was the map that we will include in the research, that shows how the higher risks are associated both to the paths of the rivers and channels that go through the city and the closeness to the northern bay. The most useful outcome of the conversation has been to be able to give a technical support to that intuition that the closer you get to the sea the higher the risk of flooding is.
Life seems to work just like the water. It immediately takes the shape of the object where it is spilled. The liver of that life does not worry about the “could-be” unless pushed to it. The idea of “difficulties” seems to come from the knowledge of different situations, and that is something more present in the visitors than in the residents. Difficulties seem also to take shape only as time goes by and that is what you perceive by looking at these young faces. Moments after these pictures were taken, the ball of the children fell to the water. The kids wearing the jerseys of Messi, Suarez and Cristiano started screaming about their elemental instrument for playing. The couple of hours that we spent walking along or across the canal, that any of our belongings fell to the water felt like the worst thing that could happen in the world. It was a brown and dense water, slowly passing full of floating rubbish and with a subtle stink. On top of that, all the articles read and all the videos watched about the pollution of the rivers and channels of the city surrounded our heads and dramatized any interaction with the body and the soul of this water. However, the falling of the ball for the children did not appear to represent any trace of a disgrace. It was almost a part of their game. As quotidian as throwing the ball down the mountain and running after it with enthusiasm. The easiest way to retrieve the ball would have been to get it from the boat that follows the rope, but the boat had just moved to take us from one side to the other and it would not go back on time to get the ball: the ball was already moving with the current. But I heard Eduardo exclaim “Look! the kids have their own little instruments!” The kids had started disputing some bamboo sticks in order to hit the ball, possibly trying to bring it closer to the edge where some wooden stairs could be climbed down (as the kid on the left of the picture that in a matter of seconds went down to get its sandal that had also fallen to the water). Between the struggle for the sticks and the playfulness of the intent they did not manage to get the ball any closer and the current was almost taking it around that small dock where the kids had crowded together. That is when they took from who knows where a larger stick that had a rounded net on its end and handed it to one of the little girls. It was her that, between the cheers of the children, with amazing skill managed to give a couple of hits first to the water and then to the ball until it became within reach. She grabbed the ball with the net and threw it again to the dock and immediately Messi, Suarez and Cristiano kicked it to the sunken sidewalk along the canal and resumed their soccer match. When we were about to restart walking, I wondered what would have happened if the girl had not managed to grab the ball. It appeared to have been very close to slip away. Despite the naturality with which the kids interacted with the water it did not seem something usual to jump to the canal and swim. And the area of the city where we were did not seem to be one where a new ball could be easily afforded. But I looked downstream and I saw a couple of hundred meters away another dock and another rope connecting both sides of the canal. I thought that if the girl had not grabbed the ball, the kids would have immediately run to the next dock. Even though there is not a sidewalk that goes uniformly along the canal between the two docks, since it is interrupted by sporadic groups of houses that reach the edge of the water, the kids would have easily gone through the labyrinthic alleyways over which we had gotten lost when walking on the other side. There is fewer to fear about the canal than I thought. The body and soul of the water are certainly an additional player in the game of these kids. And all the things I have narrated were only 25 seconds of the everyday life of this neighborhood.
Yo tenía unos 15 o 16 años, estaba en quinto de secundaria y por las tardes iba a tomar clases a una academia preuniversitaria que nos preparaba para ingresar a la Universidad San Antonio Abad del Cusco, la UNSAAC. Como el local principal de la plaza San Francisco simplemente había rebalsado, las clases nos las daban en unos salones del local de la Calle Q’era, al frente de ese restaurant de salteñas bolivianas, unas cuevas en las que dudo que alguna vez hubiera habido una inspección de Defensa Civil. Pero fue en esa academia que por primera vez entré en contacto con una serie de mundos que en mi anticuado colegio eran sencillamente extraños y hasta subversivos. Ahí leí por primera vez con atención adicta las ideas de los filósofos presocráticos y estudié primero de memoria y luego por placer el arché de cada uno de ellos. Ahí tuve un profesor al que le decían “Rafito”, popularísimo entre las chicas, que no solo nos enseñó, sino que escenificó la lucha de Héctor y Aquiles, blandiendo la espada imaginaria al mejor estilo de Obi Wan Kenobi. Ahí descubrí una cierta habilidad desconocida por el álgebra, la geometría y la matemática en general, quedándome desde esa época esa espina clavada que solo me sacaría metiéndome a estudiar economía tanto tiempo después. Mientras que en el colegio me decomisaban los libros que me llevaba para leer, fue en la academia que leí ansiosamente Redoble por Rancas, la Casa Verde, el Quijote, el Túnel y cuántos otros. Ni qué decir que ahí también salí por primera vez de esa atmósfera militarizada de un colegio de varones y conocí a mis primeras novias, tres de las cuales casi me avergüenzo de decir que en algún momento estuvieron sentadas en una misma clase. Entre tantas otras cosas quizás la más importante fue que por primera vez en mi vida vi una correlación entre el esfuerzo y los resultados, y lo vi deliberadamente graficado en esos rankings de notas semanales, propios de esas academias, quizás humillantes para los peores, ciertamente endiosantes para los mejores. Y fue en ese mundo que tuvimos un profesor de lenguaje que rondaba lo surreal –quizás solo comparable con el profesor de lenguaje del colegio, que en realidad dedicaba más su tiempo a ser cantante principal de un grupo de rock local llamado Latina Funky Rosa–. El profesor de la academia era un tipo alto y corpulento, de barba crecida y cabello largo, que venía a la clase con unas botas estruendosas y cubierto con un poncho de lana negro, una facha que me hacía pensar en una suerte de vaquero andino. Su nombre era John David y en su clase nos contaba no sé qué clase de cuentos requeridos por el currículo de la academia o que se le habían presentado en su vida alegre de la semana pasada, mientras se movía como sigilosamente por el hacinado salón, para luego irse en el intermedio de las seis de la tarde a tomarse unas cervezas al frente con los alumnos más inspirados. Fue él, de quien luego me enteré que era un conocido brichero cusqueño, un dibujante creador del personaje “Blac Poncho” y que hasta tenía un documental de Roberto de la Puente llamado “el Q’uchiwato Maldito”; fue él el que un día en la clase nos dijo: “¿Saben cuál es una buena forma de que aprendan más vocabulario? Prendan la tele uno de estos días y pongan el canal 4 –que es el canal en el que en Cusco se transmitía el canal del Estado–, y vean el programa de Marco Aurelio Denegri. Media hora escuchando al viejito y por lo menos una palabra nueva van a aprender”.
One of the great friends I did here in the last months. I ended up not having enough space for taking some clothes to my trip and also, I ended up forgetting that I would have to leave somewhere this white artifact I bought for taking clothes to the laundry. My flight departs in a couple of hours. I will leave it in my desk and will ask Daniel to pick it up and take it to his home for a couple of weeks. I really hate asking favors but he took one second to say sure and to tell me not to worry.
How great was that? It turned out to be possible to return books in a different library from where you took them. If I am not the person in my school who has borrowed the most books from so many of the seventy- something libraries of the university, I at least must be in the podium. It took me 3 trips to take them all to the library for return. I am glad that my trips were within my building.
I have seen the map of China millions of times, I have even read about the rivers and what they represent for the geography of the country. However, I still con not appropriate that space in my mind. Visiting the places is so important for that. I totally have to do that China Trek at the end of the year.