A Metrocable for community development in the Caracas San Agustin neighbourhood
The Caracas Metrocable re-connects a poor hillside neighbourhood with the city focusing on social infrastructure and community development.
Inspired by the Metrocable experience in Medellín (Colombia), the new Caracas Metrocable, located in the informal barrio (neighbourhood) of San Agustin, responds to both transportation and socio-economic issues. Residents now have access to the city’s existing public transport system, facilitating their commute around the city. The project also includes community facilities in each of the five stations, turning the Metrocable into an "infrastructure for social change".
The company Urban Think Tank, founded by the two architects of the project Brillembourg and Klumpner, employed in their preparatory work a bottom-up approach, consulting community volunteers and working with the neighborhood to best respond to local residents’ needs. The particular location of the barrio, on a hill and the densely constructed settlements, made the Metrocable the best-suited transport solution for urban integration and social acceptance.
Constructed between 2007 and 2010, the new Metrocable reduced cost and time of transport for offering residents new physical as well as social mobility perspectives outside of the barrio. The project further saw a reduction in violence due to the gondolas acting as an "eye on the city". Nevertheless, not all of the initially planned community facilities were installed as of 2010, thereby reducing the social benefits of the infrastructure.
Background and objectives
San Agustin is a barrio (neighbourhood) of Caracas, located in one of the city's hillside peripheries and characterised by the presence of a low-income population, insecurity problems and uncontrolled urban development. Until the Metrocable was planned, the existence of this informal settlement wasn't officially recognized by the municipal authorities, leading to a lack of urban infrastructure and social amenities for its residents. Despite the fact that few job opportunities were available in the neighbourhood, the area still remained isolated from the rest of the city. As a result, San Agustin's residents were restricted to walking inside a limited area and putting up with long travelling time for destinations outside the barrio.
The Metrocable was developed in reaction to a proposed national highway construction project, which would have cut through the neighbourhood at the expense of about one third of the existing settlement units. Promoting an alternative vision, the two architects Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, founders of Urban Think Tank, championed a transport infrastructure solution which was based on community needs and respected the existing urban landscape.
The most urgent needs faced by the community of San Agustin concerned security issues, economic development and social integration. The Metrocable project was confronted with the following challenges:
- Providing safe access to public transport
- Strengthening economic oppportunities
- Creating new social infrastructure to improve the access to community services
Two guiding principles were established for the project development:
- The desired infrastructure solution should also contribute to improving the social, economic and cultural situation.
- The planning process, as well as the maintenance of the infrastructure, should be used to empower the local community and reinforce social inclusion in the city.
With the stated aim of re-connecting the barrio with the rest of the city and giving new development perspectives to its residents, the urban and social integration of the Metrocable had to guarantee a low impact on existing dwelling units (few expropriations) and the integration of community-oriented services in the stations, conceived as "community hubs".
The San Agustin Metrocable project was first developed in reaction to plans at the national level to construct a highway. In order to initiate an alternative planning process, a symposium was organized with the help of volunteers in July 2003 to give voice to professional urbanists and architects. One of the immediate results was the establishment of a task force, supervised by the Urban Think Tank. Consisting mainly of representatives of San Agustin, this group rapidly laid the foundation of the future San Agustin Metrocable by identifying it as the most appropriate and sustainable transportation mode for the neighbourhood. Important criteria were the adaptation to terrain, a minimal invasion into the existing urban fabric and high design flexibility, determining the Metrocable as the most sustainable option.
As part of a day-long community workshop, the concept was further tailored to the needs and wishes of its future users. Thanks to a media campaign and public presentations, complementary funding and widespread public support was gained for the project. Importantly, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez personally encouraged the realization of the project, considering it a model potentially applicable also to other cities in the country.
The construction of the Metrocable began in 2007 and was completed three years later. The Austrian-Swiss aerial ropeway manufacturer Doppelmayr/Garaventa Group was in charge of its technical realization. The materials chosen for the construction were inspired by those commonly used in informal settlements reinforcing aspects of local identity and improving acceptance in the community.
Similarly, the Metrocable stations were conceived as community hubs to respond to social needs through the construction of community-oriented facilities. They include for instance spaces for community gatherings, health care facilities, a gym and a government-sponsored supermarket. The aim was to create a network of social infrastructure, easily reachable by residents and to bring together people from previously disconnected areas. The plan also foresaw the construction of 40 new housing units in one of the Metrocable stations in order to compensate for the necessary demolition of some houses in the barrio.
Instead of trying to predict and thus prescribe the use of community spaces, the development favored flexibility in the planning and development process. The stations were not conceived as fixed and finished entities but instead provide opportunities for expanding spaces and adapting the infrastructure to the most pressing community needs. Moreover, the Metrocable project was an important step towards San Agustin's energy self-sufficiency, with wind turbines powering all metro stations and PV ensuring energy supply in the neighborhood.
Financing and resources
The costs for the Metrocable project were estimated at US$300m. With its rather short length of only 2.1 km, the actual construction costs of the Metrocable’s infrastructure were modest at only US$18m. The majority of the costs, US$282m, were used for land expropriation and the construction of community facilities.
Results and impacts
The goal of better connecting the San Agustin barrio with the rest of Caracas was achieved through two main mechanisms:
- The construction of five Metrocable stations located in different areas of the San Agustin neighbourhood
- The possibility for residents to easily switch to the main city transportation network at the two terminals of the Metrocable.
It has, however, been criticised that the Metrocable never achieved its full transportation and usage potential. The funicular railway has a capacity of transporting up to 1.200 passengers per hour in each direction, which is rarely reached. One of the reasons for this may be, as has been pointed out, that not all social amenities initially planned were actually realised.
While some socio-spatial challenges remain in the San Agustin neighbourhood due to the persistence of gang violence, many residents use the Metrocable as their daily transportation mode and consider it secure.
In this sense, the integration of the new infrastructure in the neighbourhood fully succeeded. From an urban point of view, the objective to adapt to the existing housing structure in the barrio has been reached: few dwelling units were destroyed and new ones were constructed in compensation. Station roofs are used by the inhabitants to advertise their business. From a socio-economic point of view the Metrocable also had positive effects: about 30 jobs have been created, which are financed by the income generated from the Metrocable fares.
One of its most significant indirect effects was a decrease in the overall crime rate in the barrio because of the gondolas' dissuasive effect on criminals, fearing that they will be watched. The same effect had also been recorded for Medellín's Metrocable.
Barriers and challenges
In the beginning, the main barrier to the Metrocable project was to propose a credible alternative to the national government’s initial highway plan. Instrumental in convincing national politicians was the widespread support gained from the population for the Metrocable project and its integrative social approach for the development of the barrio. Taking into account residents' opinions and needs early on in the planning process allowed limiting opposition with regard to the stations' locations.
Some years after the opening of the Metrocable, some physical and mental barriers to free movement still exist in the barrio due to security problems. The long delay between on the one hand the construction of the stations and on the other hand the full implementation of a "network of facilities and amenities" for inhabitants diminished the success of the social infrastructure component.
As a result, some stations appear today as over-dimensioned when most of the space dedicated to the social facilities is underused.
Lessons learned and transferability
The Caracas Metrocable was inspired by Medellín’s experience, Colombia’s second largest city. While both cities are located in a mountain valley, their hillside barrios were poor and dangerous neighbourhoods, badly connected to the rest of the city. The first Metrocable opening in Medellín's barrio of Santo Domingo in the mid-90s has had very positive effects in terms of community development and the fight against violence. While Caracas was opening its first Metrocable system, Medellín was launching its third line. The focus on social amenities within the stations was a particular feature of the Caracas Metrocable. The possible replication of the Metrocable system to other similar barrios in Caracas has been taken into account in the course of the project's development.
High public acceptance of the project in Caracas has been reached through participation and shared decision-making with inhabitants. Its conception as a bottom-up process allowed the planners to incorporate the needs of the residents in terms of transportation and social amenities. The integrated approach of the project with its strong emphases of community development was a result of the central role played by the urban planning agency Urban Think Tank and its two leading architects. Urban Think Tank organized the first conference which allowed to re-think the the government’s initial highway plan and to gain support from numerous national and local actors. The Metrocable stations have been conceived as community hubs in an area lacking public infrastructure and helped thus giving an urban structure to the barrio.
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