Live from TEDGlobal

The city of the future, learning from scarcity: Teddy Cruz at TEDGlobal 2013

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

As urban areas have exploded, a dramatic stratification is taking place. While some parts of cities have become playgrounds for the privileged, others have become home to the poor and marginalized. Often these two very different ways of life exist in close proximity, says Teddy Cruz on the TEDGlobal 2013 stage.

Cruz studies the Tijuana and San Diego border region, where some of the wealthiest communities in America exist just 20 minutes from some of the poorest communities in Mexico. Cruz examines the flows that happen across this border. From south to north, there’s a steady flow of immigrants crossing over into the United States. From south to north flows used materials — like bungalows deemed by wealthy Americans too small for posh neighborhoods, or car parts from vehicles that have been replaced by newer models. “Entire chunks of one place flow to the other,” Cruz says. Cruz is fascinated by how these materials are reconfigured in Tijuana neighborhoods, using incredible creative intelligence. Discarded small homes are placed on stilts, leaving room for a business in a trailer underneath. Old tires are stitched together to make retaining walls. Garage doors become the siding for emergency centers. Space is used for multiple purposes, and it’s used socially instead of the one-house-with-lawn model.

“The slums of Tijuana can teach a lot to the sprawl of San Diego,” says Cruz.

Cities of the wealthy grow selfishly, says Cruz. They suck up oil, consume tons of energy and divide space into single uses, often of the personal variety. But in communities of scarcity, like those in Tijuana, Cruz sees inspiration for how we can peel back this selfish urbanization.


Photo: James Duncan Davidson

“I don’t want to romanticize poverty,” says Cruz. “But I want to suggest that this informal development … is a set of social and economic procedures that we can translate.” To put it bluntly: There are other ways of constructing cities.

This transformation is already in progress, says Cruz. At the Tijuana and San Diego border, he looks at how the immigrants flowing north are transforming homogenous American single-family neighborhoods, retrofitting the large with the small. They launch businesses in their garages, add on (sometimes illegal) in-law apartments to make room for multigenerational families, build houses of worship in what used to be single-family homes. Cruz wonders: Could this kind of creative retrofitting be the DNA for new land-use policies in cities? And doesn’t this mean that citizenship is a creative process?

Cruz hopes that cities of consumption will give way to neighborhoods of production. “This could become the framework for producing a new social and economic structure in the city,” he says.