Nicaraguan Neighborhood Provides Housing to the Poorest

This post is an English translation of an article that was originally written in Spanish by Andrea Penman-Lomeli. The original article can be found here.

Their plan allowed for the urbanization of an area that had been unoccupied for ten years, providing services and recovering the city’s investment.

Housing Cooperative in León, Nicaragua

Housing Cooperative in León, Nicaragua

Currently, Faniz Jirón is the owner of her home, where she can plant fruit trees near her house. She lives in what today is the housing cooperative Juntando Manos, but ten years ago she had no other option but to rent. “I sought alternatives to save for a house but I could not find them,” says Jirón. She and a lot of people who are low-income in León—the second most populous city in Nicaragua—found a solution thanks to the Urban Expansion Project of Southeast León.

Before, this was a rural area that had no housing or services. However, through this project, in five years the city managed to produce 3,000 lots for low-income people. At the same time, in ten years, the city managed to recover the investment that it had made.

The initiative started with a $1,408,000-dollar seed capital fund, a result of a collaboration between the city of León and the city of Utrecht, Netherlands. It is estimated that in fifteen years, 6,416 lots that house 32,000 people have been developed. It went from being a vacant and deserted piece of land to an environment where there is pavement, electricity, storm drainage, drinking water, public transportation, and other services. This earned it the recognition of “best practices” in urban planning issues from the United Nations Habitat (UN-Habitat). But how is it that such a large space was developed in a progressive and equitable manner?

Housing Cooperative in León, Nicaragua

Housing Cooperative in León, Nicaragua

When the city council approved the Plan in 1996, there was a strong need for land in the region. According to UN-Habitat, the annual growth rate was at 4.3%, this because of the migration of people from rural areas to the city of León. In 1998, 32.7% of the urban population was identified as living in poverty. All of this was happening after a period of civil war and economic restructuring, were there was not much public investment. After the 1990 elections, the cities were to be responsible for their own urban development. “All of the cities were saying ‘Who is going to help us?… Nobody,’” explains Marc Pérez-Casas, researcher at the Universidad Politécnica de Cataluña in Barcelona, Spain and consultant at the Inter-American Development Bank. “They had a good amount of land without infrastructure, without electricity, water, etc. They wanted a way to develop this space and provide an opportunity to purchase it.”

During the first phase (1999 – 2008) of this plan, the cities of Utrecht and León created the Office of Urban Expansion of Southeast León/Oficina de la Expansión Urbana de León Sureste (EULSE). The EULSE would sell the land and give credit to low-income families with family wages between $120 and $440 dollars (the average wage in Nicaragua is of $330 dollars a month) and who could prove that they did not own other property. The lots, which were vacant, cost between $1,100 and $4,500 dollars and the families would buy them with a financing option of a 10% interest rate from the EULSE—which continues to be a very favorable rate in Nicaragua. According to a study done by Pérez-Casas [and Francesc Magrinyà Torner], microfinance institutions offer financing to low-income families at interest rates that range between 26% and 36%.

“There was financing accessible to low-income families so that they could purchase this type of dwelling…this is what is new,” says Pérez-Casas. The family could not occupy the land until they had paid half of the loan, which in general took a year and half to do so. “I pay a lot less a month than when I was renting,” says Jirón. Before, her rent was $70 dollars a month. Today she pays $30 dollars a month, which will result in the ownership of her home.

Housing Cooperative in León, Nicaragua

Housing Cooperative in León, Nicaragua

In the analysis of the first phase (1999 – 2008), it was found that the cities had recovered their seed capital investment and that the land had been progressively urbanized. “In the year 1999 or 2000, all of the infrastructure had not been built, rather it was done little by little. In fact, it took them five or six years to have water and electricity,” says Pérez-Casas.

The plan depended in a revolving fund, meaning that it is a fund that invests the profits in the same plan to purchase more lots and infrastructure. “The most important thing of all of this is that since that urbanization was coming from the public sector, they had reserved spaces for public facilities,” says Pérez-Casas. In those areas, the government built schools, health centers, community centers, and parks.

The urban expansion of southeast León has been a learning process through action. Innovations that continue to influence the community emerged from the plan. For example, the cooperatives. In these [cooperatives], the families gathered to ask for budgets and buy land in groups, which ended up creating a community.” It was a very nice experience because not only is it a housing cooperative but we also ended up being partners and developing a community. There is a more humane coexistence,” says Jirón. Organizations such as We Effect supported these cooperatives and created models that were replicated in many neighborhoods. She was a part of one of the first cooperatives and worked five years for the mayor, to support others that were trying to do the same.

Building Group of Housing Cooperative in León, Nicaragua

Building Group of Housing Cooperative in León, Nicaragua

Another unexpected development was the interest in the Urban Expansion Project from the private sector, who would buy the lots from the city at a higher price and then resell them to middle class families. “[The city] took that capital gain, that extra income that they had, and were able to invest it to finance part of the structure,” explains Pérez-Casas. Here two interesting processes occurred. “You have the private sector build where one wants, in other words you are facilitating an area of expansion,” says the expert. “[On the other hand], they sell to families with moderate incomes; therefore, you mix different social classes.” This is positive since you minimize the segregation and diversify the communities. In the second phase, of the 3,200 lots that were sold, 1,500 of these were for the private sector and the other 1,700 [lots] were for the public sector.

In the future, Pérez-Casas says that the control of prices will be a challenge, since during the time that the urbanization has taken place, the prices of the land have increased. This makes it difficult for cities to buy more lots.

While other cities depend on private financing for their urban development—Nicaragua has no urban planning laws and recently in 2000 it passed a housing law—León has found an equitable way to do it. According to the study of Pérez-Casas [and Francesc Magrinyà Torner], this formula can also be replicated in other cities. “For me, one of the most important things is that the city projected where the population was going to grow, but it also developed a land policy,” says Jirón. And this policy has impacted her daily life. “Now we have more security, more control over our lives.”

Credits: Data and images linked to sources.

H/T CityLab Latino


Touring Los Angeles, California Through a Toxic Lens


Port of Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California

When visiting Los Angeles, one of the first things that often comes to mind is taking a tour of Hollywood or Beverly Hills. But how about opting for a Toxic Tour instead? The Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), an environmental justice organization that empowers people directly affected by pollution to solve their own problems, has been giving Toxic Tours since 1995. The purpose of these tours is to increase the public awareness of the minority communities and low-income communities that are most directly impacted by various sources of toxins and pollution.

Communities for a Better Environment offers a tour to the general public every quarter, which can either be narrated in English or Spanish by community organizer Roberto Cabrales. The toxic tour may focus in any of the following industrial neighborhoods, which include Bell, Huntington Park, Long Beach, San Pedro, Vernon, or Wilmington. In the tour one will see any of the following sites:

Such sites represent an environmental hazard and generate serious health problems to the residents of the communities, which are predominantly working class Latinos.


Refinery in Wilmington, Los Angeles, California

Recent research conducted in the Los Angeles area primarily by scientists of the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Southern California (USC), has found that there is a correlation between people living in proximity to freeways and a range of health problems that include asthma, reduced lung functioning, cardiovascular disease, and autism. In fact, the area that extends from Long Beach to East Los Angeles, is often referred to as the diesel death zone,” since emissions from trucks, ships, trains, and other diesel-powered sources are common here. Despite the decline in emissions around the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach due to the implementation of new technologies—such as clean-truck program—the severe levels of pollution remain. Furthermore, hot spots for cancer-causing traffic pollutants have been found throughout the area, especially along the 710 freeway—which extends from Long Beach to Alhambra.

Given this reality, it is necessary to bring awareness to the public about the environmental and health hazards that residents of some of our communities must endure. Moreover, it is important to empower these populations by providing them with organizing skills, leadership training, as well as legal, scientific and technical assistance. However, it is also the obligation of policy makers and government officials to address these issues through legislation and initiatives.

Do you live in a community that is exposed to environmental hazards? What steps are being taken by policy makers and government officials in your community to address the issue(s)? 

Credits: Images by Marisol Maciel-Cervantes. Data linked to sources.

*This blog was originally posted in August 2015. H/T The Global Grid


Plans to Revitalize Los Angeles’ Jordan Downs now in Jeopardy over Federal Money


Jordan Downs Public Housing Project in Watts, Los Angeles, California

In March of 2014, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) learned that it would not receive a $30-million Choice Neighborhoods federal grant from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The decision represented a setback in the revitalization of the Jordan Downs housing project. It also was the cause of concern among some residents who, in the past, have experienced disillusionment when proposals to transform Jordan Downs have fallen apart. However, there is hope from the developers that funding for the project will come from other sources.

Jordan Downs is a 714-unit public housing project located in Watts, California. It was named after long-time residents of the area, David Starr Jordan and Samuel Elliot Downs. The premises consist of 103 buildings that range in size from one to five bedrooms. Owned and managed by HACLA, the apartment complex was originally built as semi-permanent housing for war workers during World War II. However, in the early 1950s, HACLA converted the dwellings into public housing.


Jordan Downs Public Housing Project in Watts, Los Angeles, California

Plans to revitalize Jordan Downs began in the fall of 2008 when HACLA and the City of Los Angeles issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) and Request for Qualifications (RFQ) package for the redevelopment of the apartment complex. City officials also made it clear that they sought to create a “vibrant urban village that is sustainable, mixed-used, mixed-income community that includes green development and encompasses all the amenities that enable communities to ‘sustain’ over the long term.” That same year, HACLA acquired a nearby 21-acre piece of land for $31 million. The purchase serves as an indicator of their intent to expand upon the existing housing project.

It is envisioned that this $700 million multi-phase redevelopment project will replace the existing 714 public housing apartments and add up to 1,400 affordable and market-rate homes. Furthermore, the urban village will include neighborhood-serving retail, community centers, and parks. The plan also proposes the development of a comprehensive Human Capital Plan to provide family support, job training, and community programs for residents to move forward toward self-sufficiency. Collaborating in this vision is a private development team hired by city officials, the for-profit Michaels Organization and the non-profit Bridge Housing. The retail component of the proposed project will be undertaken by Primestor Development Inc., a Los Angeles company known for working in underserved areas.


Jordan Downs Public Housing Project in Watts, Los Angeles, California

Today, plans to move forward with the proposed project continue. However, HACLA and its team will have to address some concerns that have been conveyed by local residents, advocacy groups, and other interested stakeholders. Among these are:

  • Secure funding that will enable the revitalization of Jordan Downs housing project;
  • Confirm that there is no contamination of the soil in the proposed site or sites adjacent to the proposed project given the history of heavy industrialization in the area;
  • Ensure that existing residents are not displaced as a result of this redevelopment project;
  • Implement the proposed Human Capital Plan;
  • Attract investment into the community;
  • Continue to decrease the crime rates in the Jordan Downs.

What redevelopment initiative has served as a catalyst for revitalizing your community into an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable neighborhood? How have local officials in your community addressed financing challenges in publicly funded projects?

Credits: Images by Marisol Maciel-Cervantes. Data linked to sources.

*This blog was originally posted in August 2015. H/T The Global Grid

Los Angeles’ South Park BID Embarks on Green Alley Initiative


Alley in Los Angeles, California

In many cities around the world, the use of alleyways have been an integral part of the urban landscape. They have been a place of cultural and civic activity. However, in the United States, we have often viewed alleys as being unappealing service corridors associated with crime, vice, and street vagrancy. In other words, a space that is not meant for public use. However, several cities across the United States, including Baltimore, Chicago, and Seattle, have begun taking steps towards revitalizing their alleys through the infusion of green elements.

Envisioning a more sustainable and greener community, the South Park Business Improvement District (South Park BID) partnered with the Los Angeles Sustainability Collaborative (LASC) to organize the preparation of the “Green Alleys in South Park Visioning Report.” This report provides a series of recommendations for creating more green spaces through the revitalization of its twenty-two alleyways. The report provides three different typologies that would serve as a guide for their transformation. These are: Typology A (complete transformation); Typology B (partial transformation); and Typology C (baseline transformation).

Typology A is characterized by maximizing the pedestrian and cyclist experience. This means that, with the exception of emergency vehicles, there would be restrictions to all motorized transport and illegal dumping.

Under Typology B, the use of vehicles is allowed except for parking purposes and long idling periods. In addition, it grants all forms of transportation equal use of the space, as well as to the general public. Like Typology A, illegal dumping is prohibited.

Typology C grants the general public full access to the alley and allows for all forms of transportation. Like in Typology A and B, illegal dumping is prohibited. This typology enables vehicles to freely use the alleys for means of access and short-cutting but it means that it would limit the full community development potential.


Alley in Los Angeles, California

Common design interventions across all three typologies include:

  • Permeable Surfaces
  • Drought-Tolerant Plants
  • Pedestrian Lighting
  • Recycling and Trash Cans
  • Public Art, Murals, Green Walls and Other Façade Improvements
  • Bike Racks
  • Wayfinding Signage and Branding
  • Monitored and Patrolled Regularly
  • Dog Waste Stations

Seeking creative ways to make use of underutilized spaces is necessary in areas that currently lack green space and inviting public spaces. However, there are some challenges that will have to be addressed when implementing any of these design ideas into the twenty-two alleys. Among these are the limited funding sources and the existing City of Los Angeles code and policies that do not contain provisions for this type of project. There is hope that through community participation, public-private partnerships, and changes to the Quimby Act, the revitalization of these alleys will take place.

How has the revitalization of alleys impacted the development of your community? What initiatives and policies have proved to be beneficial in making alleys greener in your community? 

Credits: Images by Marisol Maciel-Cervantes. and data linked to sources.

*This blog was originally posted in August 2015. H/T The Global Grid

Los Angeles’ Health Atlas Spurs General Plans’ Adoption of Health & Wellness


Harbor City, Los Angeles, California

In June of 2013, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa released the Health Atlas for the City of Los Angeles. The document was the first step to better understanding the areas within the City of Los Angeles that are currently burdened with the most adverse health-related conditions. The Health Atlas analyses how demographic conditions, social and economic factors, the physical environment, access to health care, and health behavior play a role in the health of city residents. Specifically, more than 100 health indicators were studied within Los Angeles neighborhoods. Such indicators include asthma, coronary disease and obesity. Some of the key findings in the Health Atlas include:

  • Geographic location is a very important indicator that a resident born and raised in Brentwood can expect to live 12 years longer than a resident who is born and raised in Watts.
  • Over 90% of adults in several Westside neighborhoods have a high school diploma, compared to less than 50% in neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights, South Los Angeles, and ArletaPacoima.
  • Over 30% of children in South Los Angeles, Southeast Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, and in neighborhoods near the Port of Los Angeles (i.e. Harbor City, San Pedro, and Wilmington) are obese, compared to less than 12% of children in Bel Air-Beverly Crest and Brentwood-Pacific Palisades.
  • Residents in Westlake and Southeast Los Angeles have less than half an acre of park space available per 1,000 residents.

In response to the Health Atlas, in March of 2015, Los Angeles lawmakers adopted the Plan for a Healthy Los Angeles (The Plan). The approval from Council marks the end of a two year planning process that involved community advocates, government leaders, public health experts and thousands of Angelenos. This new element—known as the “Health and Wellness Element”—will be incorporated into the City of Los Angeles General Plan, which is a document that serves as a blueprint for the growth and development of a city and is often referred to as the city’s planning constitution.


Banning Park and Recreation Center in Wilmington, Los Angeles, California

The new health plan is a joint effort between the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, the City of Los Angeles Department of City Planning and the California Endowment, with funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Plan seeks to elevate health as a priority in the city’s future sustainable growth and development. It includes a series of policies and programs that will help guide the city toward a healthier and sustainable future which are not currently addressed by the General Plan. These include:

  • Increasing access to health-promoting goods and services, such as affordable and healthy food, by incentivizing economic development in underserved communities in the city.
  • Ensuring that Angelenos have equitable access to parks and open space.
  • Encouraging innovative solutions to improve food access, including the promotion of urban agriculture and increasing the number of healthy food vendors.

However, it should be noted that no additional money has been allocated to achieve the goals established in The Plan. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how the various goals included in The Plan will be financed.

Is your community considered to be burdened with adverse health-related conditions? How are local city officials addressing such conditions? 

Credits: Images by Marisol Maciel-Cervantes.  Data linked to sources.

*This blog was originally posted in May 2015. H/T The Global Grid

Restoring Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park Into an Ecological Oasis

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Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park, Harbor City, Los Angeles, California

Growing up in the housing projects of Harbor City, California, several of my childhood memories take place in the Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park—or as my parents would call it el parque de los patos (the park of the ducks). This 231 acre park was the ideal setting for the many morning walks with my father, riding my bicycle and playing on the swings with my sister, feeding the ducks with my mother, and countless birthday celebrations that would bring family members and friends together. It was also one of the very few spaces that existed near my home where I could actually freely be a child. Unfortunately playing outside of my home was often difficult; as it was common to see drugs, gangs, and violence there. This park offered everything I needed: green space in which to play, walking and cycling trails, and a beautiful lake where I could watch and feed the ducks.

However, the last time that I visited this park—about three years ago—it had greatly deteriorated. The grass was no longer green and the little water that still remained in the lake had lost its once crystalline appearance. It seemed that this one apparent ecological oasis had been forgotten and hidden in weeds, trash, and contaminated water.

Today, this park located in between Harbor College, a golf course, and a refinery is closed. It is being restored thanks to a $111-million Lake Machado ecosystem rehabilitation project. Funding for the park’s rehabilitation is possible through Proposition O, a park bond initiative that was approved by voters back in November of 2004. So why did it take so long to begin the restoration process? Some contribute the delay to municipal neglect in a community that has a predominantly low-income, non-voting constituency.

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Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park, Harbor City, Los Angeles, California

The rehabilitation process will consist of the following procedures:

  • Dredging six zones separately to remove the toxic sediments;
  • Increasing the depth of the lake by a few feet to make it harder for non-native species to multiply;
  • Capping the bottom of the lake with an AquaBlock bio-layer and an oxygenation system to improve the circulation of water;
  • Removing invasive plants and vegetation and replacing them with native species; and
  • Plans for park landscaping and irrigation.

Work on this park is expected to end in spring 2017 and most areas will remain closed until its completion. However, the closure is worthwhile when one considers that these kinds of sustainable restorations promote the physical and psychological well-being of oneself through the built environment, especially in communities like Harbor City and Wilmington that currently lack green space.

Is there an open space in your community that is in need of rehabilitation or currently undergoing rehabilitation? How are local authorities responding to make sure that such spaces do not become deteriorated and neglected?

Credits: Images by Marisol Maciel-Cervantes.  Data linked to sources.

*This blog was originally posted in April 2015. H/T The Global Grid