Shelter & Territory

They deliberately chose the Colombian savannah, the llanos, because it was so inhospitable. If their experiment in living called Gaviotas could be successful in an area with soil so poor that it was considered practically a desert, then it stood a much better chance of being replicated around the world. In Bogota, in the late 1960s, visionary activist Paolo Lugari convinced a band of engineers, chemists, architects, and others interested in appropriate technology to follow him to the llanos and create this unique, sustainable community.

From the beginning. Gaviotas relied on gizmos, but appropriate gizmos: solar collectors, a solar oven, a seesaw-powered water pump.  “The future will need nature and technology,” one of the Gaviotas engineers told journalist Alan Weisman. “We can’t make solar panels out of whole-wheat bread.”  By 1989, when the UN published a three-volume book on appropriate technologies for the Third World, fifty of the innovations would come from Gaviotas.

Today, the community boasts free housing, food, and schooling.  The buildings are constructed according to green architectural principles, and the energy comes from the sun, the wind, and a biodiesel plant run on palm oil.  The 200-strong community includes former street children and indigenous people from the area.  They farm organically, tap pine trees for marketable resin, and purify water for distribution to the surrounding communities.  The pine trees they’ve planted have generated a tropical forest with 250 different plant species, which has made this inhospitable desert bloom. Through its reforestation plans, Gaviotas plans to expand from 8,000 hectares to an area ten times that size, and ultimately to the entire 6.3 million hectares of the Colombian Orinoco region. What began as an experiment in sustainable design has expanded into a viable plan for a sustainable territory.

The Colombian community of Gaviotas brings together the two ends of the housing spectrum: innovative green building design and affordable housing solutions for low-income communities.  Such a convergence is not always the norm.  In the United States, for instance, it is possible to find a homeless encampment outside an expensively designed green building.  But architects, urban planners, energy consultants, environmentalists, and housing advocates are working to close this gap by coming up with collective solutions that provide low-cost, energy-efficient housing to sustain communities.  As architect Sam Davis argues, design is not just for the wealthy.  It can even serve the neediest, as “a means of establishing trust between the provider and the homeless, and a way to create a sense of belonging for those with little or no social connection.”

Design is also critically important in reducing the environmental impact of architecture (through the use of innovative materials like straw bales) and in reducing the amount of energy needed to heat and cool space (through passive solar construction).  Squatters renovating a forgotten piece of urban landscape, housing activists resisting gentrification by advocating for well-designed affordable housing, and cohousing communities that create new communities of cooperation are all expanding the definition of shelter. The application of sustainable principles to architecture necessarily has both social and environmental implications.

How applicable is the Gaviotas experiment for communities not blessed with visionary leadership and able engineers? Has homelessness become a permanent feature of postmodern society or can the political will be mustered to end homelessness in our life time?  Is green design still a monopoly of the rich and middle class or has it trickled down signficantly into the realm of affordable housing?  Has the squatter movement been gentrified out of existence?  Has gentrification restored urban environments at the expense of their diversity?  Can local politicians push for sustainable housing policies in the absence of federal support?  Have cities in the Global South become unsustainable as a result of migration from the countryside and what can be done to stem the flow?

On a trip to Provisions, you can get an introduction to green architecture in Jennifer Roberts’s book Good Green Homes, flip through the magazine Permaculturefor tips on greening your whole life including your house, log on to Friends of Gaviotasto find out how you can get involved in this exciting project, check out the work of radical fashion designer Lucy Orta and her clothes as shelter, listen to a National Radio Project program on the affordable housing crisis, and watch the documentary The Rural Studio about the Auburn University project to build affordable housing for rural Alabamans.

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