Pre-Emptive Versus Retroactive: The Beginnings of a Post-Informal Landscape Urbanism

“a renewed interest in urban ecology and the provision of public and social amenities has brought forward the beginnings of what could argue towards a Post-Informal Landscape Urbanism”

While it is hard to find Landscape Urbanism case studies in general, it is even more difficult to reference landscape projects inside informal settlements. In many Third World countries, informal areas are ignored and sometimes don’t even appear in official maps or planning documents. Any data about these neighborhoods is difficult to find, and even then can be out-of date or incomplete. Adding to the difficulty in finding landscape case studies is the dominant view of housing projects as the main solution for these areas. Landscape and public space improvements are relegated to a secondary importance. Yet a renewed interest in urban ecology and the provision of public and social amenities has brought forward several projects that come closest to the beginnings of what could become a set of case studies to argue towards a Post-Informal Landscape Urbanism.

Colombia and Brazil are presently at the forefront of implementing landscape strategies throughout informal settlements that are both pre-emptive and retroactive in their impacts. Pre-emptive design anticipates future informal growth by providing public space around which new development grows, while a retroactive approach offers interventions in already consolidated informal settlements so as to promote formal aspects. Several Latin American cities have synthesized the need for public space and infrastructure in such a way that they not only connect informal settlements to the formal systems of the city in which they are located, but also tap into the rich social capital that exists in such neighborhoods.

In aiming for settlement-wide improvement, the following projects move away from focusing solely on housing solutions that only offer benefits at a small scale for a small percentage of informal dwellers–instead, these projects direct their energies at a landscape scale, where the public realm and ecological restoration take center stage in improving the social, health, economic and safety aspects of informal cities.

The Favela Bairro Project – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1995)

In Rio de Janeiro, Jorge Mario Jauregui Architects began upgrading informal settlements in one of the first attempts at improving conditions in the city’s favelas. The project focuses on improving the quality of existing housing and public spaces through targeted retroactive incisions that improve the status-quo of environmental, health and socio-economic aspects by converting small spaces and roads into boulevards and public spaces for the residents. While the project does address housing as well, the architectural interventions impact only select homes and do not extend to the favela as a whole. The Favela-Bairro Project is still regarded as one of the pioneering projects, which attempts to formalize the favelas, integrating them into the “official” city.

An access stairwell is converted into a garden/public space area in one of the many landscape strategies part of the Favela Bairro project in Rio de Janeiro. 

Informal Upgrading – Medellin, Colombia (2007)

In 2007, the city of Medellin began one of the most influential upgrading projects to date, a city-wide operation to provide informal settlements with sites and services that would not only enhance the daily lives of residents but which also sought to integrate informal areas into the formal city. What sets the Medellin example apart from other projects in informal areas is the shift in focus from housing solutions to essential neighborhood infrastructure: transportation, education and public space. The project involved a series of physical interventions such as the “Metrocable” tramway that connects the residents to the formal city, and an extensive system of escalators which help residents traverse the steep topography. Yet, beyond providing a mobility infrastructure, it is the hybridization of programs within these infrastructures that is most interesting. A new library that overlooks the city not only becomes a new symbol for Medellin, but its plaza provides a leisure space that reinvents the alien nature of this new program inside the neighborhood.


Several public space projects in Medellin have shifted the focus from provision of housing, to provision of social amenities, from a new iconic library (top), to a new community center and recreation plaza (bottom). Images from:

Antonico Creek Urban Project – Sao Paulo, Brazil (2009)

In a city where 30% of areas are informal, MMBB Architects’ proposal for the Antonico Creek uses a landscape revitalization approach to enliven public spaces in a Sao Paulo favela by connecting housing issues and water management. The project reconfigures the existing drainage systems through the advantageous use of open spaces while simultaneously creating a means of land appropriation that prevents future invasions. In this case, the retroactive approach seeks to prevent future growth so as to preserve the newly designed open spaces. A new surface canal (bioswale) “will be a corridor of open space of varying widths for pedestrians.” A new stormwater management infrastructure becomes a structuring system that provides open space and resilient infrastructure against flooding in a fragile context.

An existing creek (Above) is transformed into a public promenade. In this case, landscape becomes water management infrastructure and provider of open space for a favela in Sao Paulo.

What these projects demonstrate is the predominance of a retroactive stance when confronting change in informal settlement. While the aspirations of such projects are often sweeping and ambitious, the majority of favela interventions seem resigned to upgrade the status quo. This is not to say that this is the wrong approach—such initiatives like these projects should continue to happen in Latin America and beyond. However, a new mindset must be brought forward, which deals with the growth of informality; not as a way to accept informal growth, but as a way to bring formality, decency and a sense of city to these ever-growing areas.

Leo Robleto Costante. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Leo finished his undergraduate studies in Urban Planning at the University of Cincinnati and holds a Masters from the AA in Landscape Urbanism. He is currently finishing his second Masters in Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania after working with several firms in London, Caracas and New York.

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