Sunday, December 4, 2011

Element-In-Tension: Infrastructure

The infrastructure of Caracas is an element under great tension. For decades, the infrastructure investments in the city have catered to ruling class needs and desires – including subsidies for car purchases and operation – while neglecting basic infrastructure needs of marginalized populations.
Gasoline is very cheap in the city. According to crowd sourced website tracking cost of living (Numbeo) 1 liter of gasoline in Caracas costs $0.22 while 1.5 liters of water costs $1.70. 

With such cheap fuel, the infrastructure development in Caracas has centered around the extensive highway system constructed with oil wealth in 60s and 70s. Large urban interchanges like the one below are sources of pride for residents,
despite the severe congestion on highways and deteriorating road conditions. A recent study (Bloomberg) reported that texting is on the increase during driving in Caracas, because the average traffic speeds in the city are as low as 7 to 9 miles per hour. Worsening the problems with congestion, the focus on highway transport has resulted in neglect of alternate transportation such as pedestrian routes, trains, trolley systems, or other mass transportation that would be accessible to all social classes.
It's a Gorgeous Day for Stop-and-Go Traffic in Caracas
Similar to the transportation system, the limits of the water and power systems in Caracas are also being tested. The Guaire River that flows through Caracas actually receives raw sewage from the city, so three distant reservoirs are the sources of clean (though still not potable) water. Inadequate investments in the infrastructure, in association with droughts due to climate change, have led to water shortages and necessitated rationing over the past few years (Wikileaks-Venezuelan Embassy Cable). The rationing had disproportionately affected the poorer residents of the city.

The electricity for Caracas (as well as 70% of Venezuela) comes from the Guri Dam, and enormous hydroelectric dam project built in lucrative 60s. It is the third largest structure of its kind in the world.

Unfortunately, after original development of the project, the dam infrastructure has been poorly maintained.  With related systemic problems, in combination with droughts due to climate change, the hydroelectric power for Caracas is failing. Last year Chavez declared an electricity crisis in Venezuela, and instituted rolling blackouts.

One final source of tension regarding infrastructure in Caracas is that only 5% of existing infrastructure connects between formal and informal development areas. Sanitation and safe supplies of water and power are desperately needed in the barrio

Belgrade and Caracas appear to exhibit similar tensions around infrastructure. As cities that have been established and evolving for some time, rather than more recent tabula rasa creations, it seems both cities have developed into beings very different from what the original infrastructure was intended to support.

Water Main - Caracas

Sidewalk - Caracas

Park Bench - Belgrade
Infrastructure is an element drawn into tension by a formal city demanding ever more service for its desires while an informal city grasps for the basic needs of life to support relentless climbing of barrios up the Caracas hillsides or viral development of informal settlement in Belgrade[1]. Holding infrastructure in tension, considering and responding to needs, the two cities may be instrumental in creating an urbanism of conscious provision, enabling a vital humanity.

[1] Read, S., Rosemann, J., & Eldijk, J. . (2005). Future city. London: Spon Press: “Belgrade, evolution in an urban jungle” / Stealth Group

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