An infrastructure for intensity
Self-building of housing in informal settlements is a common phenomenon in much of the world. Often referred to as slums, squatter areas, or shanty towns, this type of development comes with a variety of social and physical problems. Many lack clean water and other basic amenities and protections. At the same time, informal settlements provide affordable housing: for many residents they are the only alternative to homelessness. Often considered a phenomenon exclusive to the developing world, informal settlements do in fact exist in the United States. The most salient examples are the colonias of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. These are neighborhoods found mostly along the U.S.-Mexico border, in rural counties just outside of border cities, where they developed thanks to a regulatory vacuum that existed prior to 1995. Built in peripheral areas without proper infrastructure, including water, sewer, and paved roads, colonias often have poor living conditions. On the other hand, they have allowed tens of thousands of families to achieve home ownership. This thesis explores the implications of building regulation and infrastructure on the creation of decent housing with limited means. It draws on the example of the colonias as well as other projects from the Americas and Europe. The design proposal centers on a question of bringing self-building to an urban area. It is cheaper in the long term to provide infrastructure up-front to a dense urban development than it is to retrofit it in a sprawling ex-urban colonia. Beyond density, however, architect Renzo Piano has proposed that cities be considered in terms of intensity: the spatial concentration of the conditions necessary for vibrant urban life. This thesis focuses on a former rail yard in Houston's Near Northside, a place where the right infrastructure could support an intensity of self-building and urban regeneration. The proposal is both a physical and conceptual framework for the self-building of an alternative colonia. It suggests a balance between public and private investment and individual and collective effort, creating a model that could promote social justice, support long-term development, and create lasting economic value.