09/24/2014 11:52 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Housing: More Than a Place to Live

Building affordable housing is only the first step towards inclusive cities. As housing should be seen as an urban strategy to improve the overall quality of life for all citizens, affordable housing must be inclusive by design. The urban poor must have access to basic infrastructure and public transportation, and should be integrated into local communities rather than being marginalized on the city margins. The cities of São Paulo, Cape Town, Cali and Caracas are exploring different ways to provide their residents with not only affordable housing, but also lively communities.


São Paulo is in the process of approving a new Master Plan, which will establish urban guidelines for the next 16 years. The plan focuses on reducing the city's need for 700,000 new homes and democratizing residents' access to opportunities by creating homes in areas that offer jobs, leisure, and services, minimizing commutes and improving quality of life. To reach these goals, the maximum-allowed building height will be higher for areas near effective public transportation systems. Apartments will be capped at 80m², the number of parking spaces will be limited, and the first floors of buildings will be used as commercial spaces. The government hopes that these measures will encourage densification in already developed areas and the use of existing public transportation.

2014-09-24-ca1407css2_400x266.jpgHousing plays a critical role in facilitating South Africa's post-apartheid inclusive vision "that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united." Urban social housing features high-density accommodation and has the potential to integrate lower-income groups physically and socially within well-located areas. For example, Steen Villa is a recently completed urban social housing project in Cape Town. The project consists of 700 units in two or three-story walk-ups, clustered in groups of 20 to 35 units around courtyard spaces. The courtyards are specifically designed to bring neighbors together for everyday activities such as play and laundry. A 'Good Neighbor Charter,' football and netball teams, a pensioners' club, Women's Day celebrations, a job placement program, and a neighborhood watch are among the other initiatives that aim to promote racial and class integration.

In Caracas, Gran Misión Vivienda Venezuela has built more than 25,000 housing units in the last three years and aims to build two million housing units nationwide by 2017. Although this goal is ambitious in scale, little attention has been given to residents' livelihoods, basic infrastructure, safety, and public spaces, and urban planning in general. The construction of houses should not be seen as a stand-alone solution, but rather as part of an urban plan that builds the city fabric. In 1945, the 'Reurbanización El Silencio' project constructed affordable housing along with infrastructure, recreational public spaces and commercial areas. Apartment buildings were organized in macro blocks where people could enjoy private open courtyards and apartments with cross ventilation, while the buildings' external façades were well suited for commercial activities. After 70 years, this neighborhood remains one of the city's most beautiful. It is an essential and vibrant part of the city - not just a housing solution.

2014-09-24-ca1407sui31_650x488.jpgIn Colombia, the combination of political pressures and financial constraints often results in huge housing projects in which the poor are segregated from the rest of the population, and lack important services. Careful planning and well thought-out public policies can make a significant difference, with no additional financial resources. One promising initiative is Ciudad Santa Barbara, a 16,000-unit project currently under construction in Palmira, near Cali. Designed to integrate mixed income groups, Ciudad Santa Barbara reserves up to 33 percent of units for low-income families can afford to live in this middle-class environment with the help of government subsidies. By mixing lower and middle-income units, the community as a whole has the financial resources necessary to properly maintain the buildings and common facilities, such as swimming pools and elevators.

With thoughtful design and planning, housing can be more than a place to live; it can be a place to thrive. Click to learn more about practices in the four aforementioned cities as well as housing initiatives in other cities on Join the discussion and share your thoughts.

Photo credits: David Warlick, nesya anggi puspita