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Havana and Its Landscapes

May 02, 2008 // 9:00am11:30am
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Drafted by Sarah Neuman

On May 2, 2008, Nicolas Quintana, professor of architecture at Florida International University, Jorge Sanguinetty, president, CEO, and founder of DevTech Systems, Inc. and Olga Kaganov, Senior Associate at The Urban Institute, convened at the Woodrow Wilson Center to discuss urban planning and development in cities undergoing sudden or rapid political and economic transition. The seminar focused on the challenges of preserving Havana's architecture and cultural resources in an environmentally sustainable way while also addressing the pressing needs of residents, such as housing and infrastructure.

The great dilemma for Havana's future is modernizing the Cuban economy while preserving the city's heritage, began Jorge Sanguinetty, describing the deprivation of basic materials and resources over the past fifty years. As the Cuban government liberalizes, there will be tremendous pressure to develop the economy and to focus on increasing production and consumption. According to Sanguinetty, these economic priorities have the potential to destroy what remains of the city's cultural heritage. He emphasized that Havana's stakeholders must focus on preserving what is left and rebuilding that which has been lost.

Reconstruction will come primarily from private, individual interests, and will expand citizens' economic opportunities, said Sanguinetty, asserting that ultimately, public and private sector coordination will be imperative to achieve economic growth and recovery together with historic preservation. He highlighted two basic facts about these opposing forces. In the short run, unchecked economic expansion would destroy part of the city's heritage as developers jump at the opportunity to profit from new projects, without regard for valuable historic buildings. In the long run, preservation would require significant resources—raw materials funding, and management-- to implement and enforce regulations. This will be the opportunity cost for preservation, sacrificing immediate, private growth in the short run for long-term, public benefits.

Preservation requires public funding and oversight. Public funds make taxpayers' interests an important consideration; as such, citizen support is crucial. Sanguinetty explained that Havana's officials must recognize that support for preservation will not be automatic and universal because preservation is not a priority for those living in poverty. However, he argued, preservation can become a priority through education. Additionally, Sanguinetty stressed that preservation plans must be tied to economic reconstruction policies in order to win public support.

Nicolas Quintana presented a series of visual images to show why the preservation and restoration of Havana's buildings and neighborhoods is imperative. He highlighted Havana's spectacular architecture and its import as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To provide historical context, Quintana talked about the tremendous growth, both in population and construction, that came with the end of colonialism in Cuba; by 1919, ten buildings were completed every day in Havana. The government provided housing, education and health care. Quintana characterized Castro's power as rapid destruction that followed these prosperous times.

Quintana described the project, Havana and its Landscapes: A Vision for Future Reconstruction in Cuba. He stressed the importance of avoiding American-style suburbanization and detailed a public transit system that would eliminate the need for cars, making Havana a pedestrian city once more. Designated public space every seven blocks, surrounded by avenues for mixed use was another important aspect of Quintana's model. Quintana demonstrated through computer rendering and modeling that modernity can be achieved while maintaining a traditional Cuba.

Olga Kaganova illustrated how St. Petersburg's lessons could be instructive for Havana as it develops from a post-socialist society. In St. Petersburg, the value of new buildings is significantly greater than the value of historical buildings; the rehabilitation of an historic building takes at least 21 months and costs $1250 per square meter, while a new building can be built in 12 months and for $550 per square meter. For this reason, Kaganova real estate markets work against historic preservation.

In St. Petersburg, historic preservationists had trouble working with developers because each had distinct priorities. Kaganova estimated that there are currently 4,000 historic buildings in Havana that need restorative work. Insufficient resources could lead to their abandonment and the construction of new, glossy buildings on the outskirts of the city, an unwanted outcome. Another problem often associated with post-socialist urban development is the privatization of public lands. In order to avoid elite development on public space, Havana must designate land for redevelopment, auction the land and use the profits to reinvest in the city.

Kaganova concluded with reflections on the Russian experience that can be applied to the case of Havana. First, historic preservation cannot work independently; it must build upon more fundamental reforms. Second, land planning and land use must be market-oriented and offer efficient, effective and transparent management of public lands. Third, Havana should update its infrastructure, and it cannot depend on the private sector for these repairs. The government must provide public subsidies to encourage private sector investment. Fourth, Kaganova emphasized that even government officials tend to be uneducated about real estate economics. A successful development plan must include training for public officials. Finally, Kaganova advocated for public-private partnerships, similar to those in Western Europe.

 

 

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