Design Learning From Shantytowns

Where others see squalor, architect Teddy Cruz sees a blueprint for dynamic communities.


What’s the antidote to the numbing subdivisions planted by rote in sprawl zones from Boston to Baton Rouge? The secret to a vibrant neighborhood lies in the ad hoc ingenuity found in slums and shantytowns. So says Teddy Cruz, a San Diego architect who has spent years studying Tijuana and other poor border towns where free-form structures are patched together from concrete blocks, corrugated metal and scavenged packing crates.

shanty town

Borrowing from slums may be a hard sell with the Trumps and Ratners, but it’s gaining ground in design circles. Cruz, who discussed his approach last night at the Tate Modern in London, argues that humanizing our cities and towns is more important than making them beautiful in a formal architectural sense. In other words, better to be part of a spirited community than unhappy in a Richard Meier condo.


Cruz’s appearance last night at the Tate comes four months after Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. That may not be a coincidence, given that Slumdog featured the Garib Nagar neighborhood of Mumbai. While the film did not sanitize the filth and poverty, it did treat the neighborhood as a picturesque backdrop. It was not the one-dimensional portrait of misery you might expect from Hollywood.

Teddy Cruz

What would Mr. Cruz’s slum-inspired ideas look like in a town like yours? Two years ago he drafted a redevelopment plan for a poor section of Hudson, N.Y., which called for an intricate weave of public and private spaces that encourage mingling, chess playing and gathering around food. Small apartments in garage-like structures would be stacked beside intimate playgrounds, with space left below for improvised uses–food stands, market stalls, gathering spots. Some units would share terraces to foster community, and they might extend over the park to provide shade and shelter.

cruz structure

If Cruz succeeds, Hudson, and a second development at San Ysidro, a border neighborhood in southern San Diego, will become models for a new kind of development that helps residences share resources and run their own businesses alongside their homes. Is this the new American dream? It could at least be a framework that, unlike easy loans that go unpaid, extends a foothold to poorer Americans. “Beyond designing buildings, architects should design political and economic processes as well,” Cruz says.

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