Just a short drive from the U.S.-Mexican border, a densely packed community will soon hum with activity. Homes will be jammed together, with any leftover space commandeered by taco stands, market stalls, and gathering places. It’ll be a far cry from the sanitized suburbs of southern California, but make no mistake: It will sit on the American side of the border.
Indeed, if the architect Teddy Cruz gets his way, the shantytowns of Tijuana, Mexico, will act as a blueprint of sorts for a new kind of urban development. “Architecture has been so distant from the politics and economics of development,” says Cruz. “We need to rethink the way we’ve been developing, and what we mean when we talk about housing, density, community, and neighborhood.”
Behind the precariousness of low-income communities, says Cruz, there is a sophisticated social collaboration: People share resources, make use of every last scrap, and look out for each other. Cruz is incorporating this resourcefulness into the planning of two new developments, in San Ysidro, a border-town community in southern San Diego, and in Hudson, New York. If they work as planned, these projects will become powerful case studies for a new approach to urban development that could be implemented across the country.
In collaboration with the nonprofit Casa Familiar, the San Ysidro development will include 30 housing units alongside spaces where residents can run small businesses. The model also accounts for sweat equity, allowing people who help with construction to gain rent credits for their work. Hudson, meanwhile, may not be a border community, but Cruz says the same conflicts are present—specifically, “a huge gap between rich and poor.” Cruz’s plan aims to vault the income gap with developments on several lots that are integrated into the city. The developments will include 60 housing units, playgrounds, a market, urban agriculture, and job-training facilities, all managed by a coalition of nonprofit groups.
Both projects require Cruz to go beyond the traditional role of an architect; rather than designing for a client, he is working with city governments to change the framework in which developments rise. “Beyond designing buildings, architects should design political and economic processes as well,” he says.