Sustainable Havana and the Master Plan

Old Havana, Avenida del Puerto.2015. Photo: Roberto Carlos Medina

It’s a cliché of foreign news reports about the island that Havana is literally “crumbling”, due to the number of buildings in the city in need of repair – what is never mentioned is that the city has over the last 25 years had a Master Plan of sustainable regeneration.

In 1976 the Cuban government declared the historic centre of their capital city a ‘National Monument’, and UNESCO named it ‘Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ in 1982. In June 2019 UNESCO also declared the original documents detailing the founding of Havana 500 years ago as ‘World Heritage’. The documents are held in a specially built repository in Old Havana, amongst the plazas and historic colonial buildings which have been systemically restored over the last 25 years.

The Rehabilitation of Historic Havana and the Master Plan
The Office of the City Historian (OHCH) headed by Dr Ernesto Leal Spengler has led the rehabilitation process of Historic Havana since 1981. He had actually been appointed the City Historian in 1967 and given the task initially of restoring the Palace of the Captains-General to turn it into the City Museum, while all over the country former military buildings were being converted to public museums as part of the revolutionary programme. After Old Havana was declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Cuba designated it as a Prioritised Preservation Zone (ZPC) in 1993.

Dr Spengler has said his aim has always been “the preservation of the city’s history, heritage and traditions, without turning the city into a sterile, living museum”.

Euseio Leal Spengler, Historian of the City of Havana

In 1993 the government passed a special law (Decree-Law 143) which introduced a new economic and management model, and empowered the Office to control the use of land, use of buildings, license construction work, self-employment in the area, direct the investment process, and to receive income from hotel, commercial and service facilities in the area for reinvestment. Armed with this new model the Historian’s Office developed the ‘Master Plan’ for the Preservation Zone bringing together institutions and specialists in order to study the problems of the Zone and to outline the strategies for its recovery.

Initially the Prioritised Preservation Zone was restricted to the Historic Centre of Havana, although that is a large area in itself – with 3370 buildings, more than 66 thousand inhabitants. From 2001 the Malecón (the seafront) was added to the Zone – which included 175 buildings, 7,000 inhabitants. From 2003 Chinatown was added to the Zone – which included 195 buildings, 3,900 inhabitants.

This new economic and management model between 1994 and 2008 produced profits around 25-30 million CUC per year, which were reinvested in the area: 60% in new “profitable” projects and 40% in social programmes, and massively increased the rate of restoration of buildings.

The Master Plan was not just a document but an institution which grew over time. Today, the Office of the Historian has a structure capable of carrying out the “complete cycle” of heritage restoration and rehabilitation, from the plan, to the execution of projects, investment, building and management of sites. The total direct jobs went from a few hundred in 1993 to more than 13,000, most of which are local residents.

By 2016 the multidisciplinary Master Plan team was made up of about 50 experts, seven architects plus sociologists, historians, environmentalists, geographers, civil engineers—and also those who provide technological support as cartographers, computer technicians, specialists in archives and documentation, and transit and traffic engineers.

An important environmental aspect is that the OHCH has a plant to recycle demolition and construction waste. The rubble is turned into construction material that is then reused in other construction jobs. Items with artistic or heritage value are safeguarded and reused in the rehabilitation of buildings.

Also, the whole project is not just about the restoration of buildings and public spaces, but also addresses housing, education and health. As heritage buildings were restored and could start to generate income, the money devoted to cultural programmes, social work, housing and infrastructure had steadily grown to above 50 % by 2010.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, with the continued growth of the city and the emergence of new neighbourhoods in the south (Cerro) and west (Vedado), the majority of buildings in Old Havana had gradually fallen into disrepair: many of the mansions of the old city had been subdivided as tenements and city centre residents faced conditions of overcrowding, poor ventilation and structural safety risks. A census carried out in Old Havana in 2001 identified housing as one of the most pressing problems in the area, with more than 40% of the more than 20,000 homes and apartments in the area not meeting minimum conditions of habitability. Inadequate urban infrastructure – particularly water supply and waste collection – as well as damage to buildings as a result of natural disasters, exacerbated these conditions.

The main objectives of the housing programme in Old Havana have been to maintain its residential character, including rehabilitating historic buildings for housing purposes in development policies, improving the quality of life of residents, avoiding gentrification and ensuring that local residents are able to stay in the area. By 2010 1,500 homes had been rehabilitated and another 1,300 had undergone emergency strengthening measures. In addition, 1,060 new homes had been provided for permanently relocated families to address the severe overcrowding issues, 45 % in Old Havana, 41 % in Alamar, the rest in other parts of the city. If residents paid rent it didn’t increase. Despite this, there is still much work to do to improve housing conditions.

In 2010 the Office of the City Historian was a finalist in the World Habitat awards, connected to UNESCO, specifically for its approach to housing, having won awards in 2002 and 2007 for other aspects of the immense project. The restoration of Old Havana since the 1990s was recognised internationally as a model of innovation, economic sustainability and inclusive development, avoiding gentrification or social exclusion. In December 2018, Havana Historian Eusebio Leal was named Honorary Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects, for his contribution to expanding architecture and building sustainable communities.

The city’s masterplan aims to ensure mixed land use wherever possible, so housing, shops, offices and institutions can often be found in the same building. This creates dynamic, walkable spaces, where everything you need is nearby, and avoids creating places which are only for specific groups, such as tourists or locals.

The aim is to avoid the symptoms of rapid, unplanned overdevelopment which have manifested themselves in other Latin American cities through gentrification, unchecked land speculation, huge highways, competing high rise developments, neighbourhood loss of identity, indistinguishable building complexes, uncapped pollution, sprawling shanty towns, chronic traffic jams, and the disappearance of urban green spaces.

The Master Plan gives special importance to training, from the revival of traditional trades for young people (via the Workshop School – ‘Taller Escuela’), to university level professional career paths in heritage preservation, Urban Management, Archeology and more at the San Gerónimo College which opened in 2007. It aims to produce sustainable local development. Local residents are given first priority for jobs and training as skilled construction workers in the restoration process.

The Master Plan also produces publications, with the support of UNESCO, and operates as a library of documents, archives, surveys and materials in urban planning and heritage for specialist users plus a databank. There is an interactive platform to help workers in decision-making, transparency and participation, with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (COSUDE), and a weekly 3 hour radio programme ‘Habáname’ which informs and reflects on urban planning and cultural heritage.

As Cuba extends heritage restoration to other cities such as Santiago de Cuba, Camagüey, Trinidad and Cienfuegos, and then to Sancti Spiritus, Remedios, Baracoa, Gibara and Matanzas it has strongly promoted sharing of experiences.

Patricia Rodríguez Alomá, a director of Old Havana’s revitalization plan said in 2016:
“We’re developing works very close to the community. We are promoting truly participatory projects, building methodical models to facilitate real citizen participation…We’re trying out new ways of doing things, and we’re approaching micro-entrepreneurs whose goals show concern for the community. For instance, the Arte Corte Project directed by Gilberto Valladares Reina (Papito). This produces a benefit to the community and to the businesses themselves. It becomes a new source of employment for young people. It’s a win-win synergy. We’re following this process so that it can be reproduced and upscaled. We’ve also tested Participatory Budgeting. That is, people decide to allocate certain resources to help their community: they may choose to put up a street light, donate equipment to schools, or set up a sports area. It’s not a top-down communication. The community decides and participates in a conscious, useful way.”

In addition to the restoration and rehabilitation Master Plan of historic Havana public buildings, such as the Gran Teatro, the Capitolio building, Colon cemetery monument, Havana University, the San Jose warehouses and many more, since the end of 2017 a programme was put in place for local institutions and government agencies to work together intensively, to complete more than 16,000 work projects by the 500th anniversary in November 2019. This included more than 4,500 renovation works in the Public Health sector – pharmacies, GP surgeries and polyclinics; 806 construction projects in the Education sector plus sports facilities, shops and restaurants. Restoration of city landmarks include the Central Railway station and the Castillo del Morro lighthouse plus 50 parks, fountains and street interchanges.

Despite all this, the focus of President Miguel Diaz-Canel at the launch of celebrations for the 500th anniversary in Spring 2019 was not all self-congratulatory – rather concern for the day to day experience of Habaneros:
“We must work to ensure that the city’s housing stock recovers from the deplorable state it faces today. We must conceive projects and spaces for children and seniors; create more green areas; and find solutions for the city’s streets. Improve substantially the collection of solid waste. We must organize a strong political force to ensure the plan’s execution and disseminate what has been done, what is being done, and what is projected.”

The anniversary has given the impetus to look again at what sort of city Havana can be for the people that live in it.

About the heritage restoration project and master plan: /

This article was published CubaSi Winter 2019-20 magazine

Read more about the history of the city of Havana here

Read an interview with Dr Eusebio Leal Spengler and more info about him here