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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 218 | Septiembre 1999
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Ocotal: Urban Planning for People

Not all of the post-Mitch reconstruction experiences have been slow, seriously flawed or inadequate. An interesting and rather exemplary project is developing in Ocotal. In the course of building new homes for hurricane victims, Ocotal has discovered elements essential to a humane and sustainable development process.

José Luis Rocha

It's not easy to find a municipality in Nicaragua with a central park that is taken care of as well as the one in Ocotal. Flowers and greenery flourish on all sides. Pristine walking paths wind through the foliage, converging at a central refreshment stand. Everything in its place and the municipal government overseeing it all. Four gardeners, all hired by the mayor's office, ensure that this miracle survives despite the scarcity of water and the comings and goings of street vendors. The park is not an extravagance; it's an unequivocal emblem of the current municipal administration's approach.

As we stroll through the park in the direction of the municipal offices—also embellished with a magnificent garden—Marta Adriana Peralta, Ocotal's mayor, explains that “at the end of 1997 we began a process of strategic planning for sustainable development that includes the participation of Ocotal's citizens. We had round-table discussions on five issues: the economy, the environment, tourism as an employment generator, social and urban planning and social factors. In the discussion of social factors, sexual inequality and municipal policies to aid children were among the most outstanding. We were just about to launch our strategic plan, already approved by the Municipal Council, when Mitch hit. It left us entirely incommunicado, like an island in a sea of scarcity, without resources of any kind. The highway to Honduras was totally destroyed. So, we suspended our strategic plan.”
Hurricane Mitch ordained a new agenda for Ocotal, as it did for many other municipalities in Nicaragua. Only gradually, as the immediate crisis dissipated, has the subject of development slowly been reintroduced to the agenda. Few municipalities have taken care to make this development a process in which “the people matter,” and preventive measures are taken to protect the population against future disasters. Ocotal is a beautiful exception.

Nicaragua's most urban municipality

The mayor's office provided us with various documents they have designed, outlining basic information about the municipality, which is also the departmental seat of Nueva Segovia and the site of Sandino's battles against the US Marines. It is dominated by the city of Ocotal, which was founded in 1543, and is situated 226 kilometers north of Managua and only 24 kilometers south of the Honduran border.
The population of today's Ocotal is 29,544 in an area of just under 140 square km. The population density of the municipality as a whole is thus 211 inhabitants per sq. km., but with almost 99% of Ocotal's population concentrated in the city, we are looking at the most urban area in all of Nicaragua. There the population density is 48.45 inhabitants per hectare, or nearly five thousand per sq. km.

As in the rest of Nicaragua, the majority of its population is young: 55% are under 20. This dependent population is a significant burden, given the serious unemployment problem today. Ocotal's economic activities are derived from its circumstances: with such a large urban population, 80% of the economically active population with jobs is involved in trade. This economic bias is also due to Ocotal's proximity to the Honduran border, its location alongside the Panamerican Highway, its status as department head and the underdevelopment of local industry. Neither these commercial activities nor its service enterprises nor its weak rudimentary agricultural activities are enough to provide work for all the available labor power in the area. Sixty percent of the economically active population was unemployed before Mitch; with the economic recession provoked by the hurricane, the number must be much larger now. The single fact that 4,000 hurricane victims were placed in 33 refugee centers during the emergency has to have meant the paralysis of many workers.
Ocotal's distinct urban character also determined the kinds of damage Mitch caused. With both the Dipilto and Coco rivers running through it, the city of Ocotal was readily flooded. Tons of mud blocked the streets and destroyed the roadway system. The hurricane meant the immediate loss of basic utilities, particularly potable water, services that the municipal authorities have only just been able to reestablish after overcoming innumerable obstacles.

Before the hurricane, there were 5,151 houses in Ocotal. Mitch affected 1,318 of them (25.6%), destroying 344. Nearly 500 damaged or destroyed homes cannot be rebuilt on their original sites because the land will no longer support construction. This was the main challenge to the municipality and international cooperation in Ocotal. The houses are being built in a new urban setting, which meant designing another neighborhood with all the problems that entails: obtaining and preparing the land, sensitizing the population to the need to move, building the houses according to technical requirements, and bringing basic services like drinking water, electricity, garbage collection and waste water drainage to the new neighborhood.

Mitch's twelve lessons

After the flood, during the height of the rehabilitation work, the neighborhood commissions took upon themselves the task of analyzing their experiences and learning from this terrible experience, “so that next time we aren't caught unprepared.” The commissions had played a key role during both the emergency and rehabilitation, dealing with all the municipality's institutional, logistical and other problems, so their members were in a good position to extract lessons. It was an unusual but necessary effort. Undoubtedly many lessons were left uncovered, and all the individuals, families and local committees obviously had their own particular experiences, but within the general range of issues related to municipal and organizational efforts, a number of them stand out as important to all.

Lesson one: municipal governments must deepen their knowledge of the powers assigned them by the Municipal Law, especially ones having to do with insuring order and protecting the population during emergencies.

The absence of a law that designates authority and chains of command and distributes tasks during emergencies was uniformly cited as a fundamental problem of disaster prevention. In Nicaragua, disasters and emergencies occur one after another like links in an interminable chain, with the added disadvantage that they constantly catch all the social players, especially the institutional ones, unprepared. In a country whose political and economic agenda is so overloaded with thorny obstacles, the concern with natural disasters—even if they are monumental obstacles to development—moves to the back burner as soon as the immediate crisis passes. This is wrong; disaster prevention requires enormous amounts of courage, technical ability, determination and commitment from institutions but it is not a big vote-getting issue.
Lesson two: Civil Defense must be constituted as a permanent mechanism, with well-defined and clearly designated tasks and objectives. Civil Defense manuals should be drawn up taking each municipality's reality and particularities into account. The formation of a national disaster system in which Civil Defense, which is under Army auspices, plays a leading role is an idea whose flame flares up with each new disaster and dies back down as soon as the crises passes.

The reality is that the Civil Defense budget and personnel have been slashed alarmingly with the decline of military activity and the consequential decline of the Army's importance, despite the Army's multi-million dollar investments. The personnel loss is compensated for with Army members from other areas when emergencies occur, but they usually do not have the knowledge or experience required for working with civilian populations, or the training to know what to do in such crises. There has also been a notable reduction in Civil Defense equipment. Perhaps the Coordinating Center for the Prevention of Natural Disasters in Central America (CEPREDENAC) will introduce financing to help reactivate the Civil Defense section.

Lesson Three: The local government's ability to organize the population and join forces and initiate actions with state institutions, NGOs and civil society organizations is indispensable.

The leadership role that Ocotal's municipal government took on during the crisis and rehabilitation was determinant. During an emergency, some institution or leader must take the reins. Many mayors did in fact do this during the hurricane, but more because of their innate leadership abilities than of any formally instituted policy. While local leadership bodies are essential for coordinating activities and joining forces, there must also be a law allocating authority, chains of command and tasks so as to provide legal backing for local emergency leadership structures or for setting them up if they do not exist. This will avoid the central government's need to create ad hoc committees and appoint new leaders for each new emergency, or—as happened during Hurricane Mitch—giving the role to parish priests, who are not necessarily qualified for emergency work, or for fulfilling such a function in a society that is not exclusively Catholic.

Lesson four: It is necessary to have identified the resources, infrastructure and logistical means to be employed during an emergency. There must be warehouses, landing strips and a complete supply of rescue tools in each neighborhood, as well as alternative sources of electricity, water, and telephone services.

Lesson five: The municipal budget must include a basic minimum line for disaster relief. Of course, this is utopian, since municipalities in Nicaragua are not financially self-sustaining. With the exception of Managua, which even covers expenses of its highest officials that it should not cover, municipal governments lack the financial capacity to provide all the services that the central apparatus, in an opportunist decongestion process presented as decentralization, assigns without allocating the corresponding budget. Nevertheless, while local governments run into many obstacles in reality and depend heavily on international cooperation, it is extremely important for them to have an emergency fund that would allow them to take immediate action until they can gain access to other sources.

Lesson six: Urban planning geared to a city's orderly growth, in harmony with the natural physical environment, prevents disasters.

Lesson seven: Improving the quality of building materials for housing, reviving traditional construction techniques and adapting them to today's reality are other preventive measures.

Lesson eight: Ongoing communication with neighborhood commissions—the populations' basic activist organizations—is indispensable. In Ocotal, the people working in their neighborhoods out of a sense of solidarity, and with an ability to organize and make viable proposals, played an essential role during the emergency.

Lesson nine: One of the municipality's assets is the energetic support of broad groups of organized young people who offered their assistance in working with the hurricane victims. In general, this resource is underestimated and underutilized. Those with military training from the war years, and who have since participated in a whole range of organizations, have immeasurable value during an emergency.

Lesson ten: It is necessary to produce informational materials like maps of the municipality and the cities, and know how to use them.

Lesson eleven: We must value the level of planning knowledge and experience that local administrative personnel have in order to plan municipal development and prevent disasters.

Lesson twelve: Understanding and respecting people's beliefs and customs is key to being able to raise their faith, hopes and spiritual values in the face of disaster. It helps bolster the self-esteem so needed for getting through hard times.

The eleventh commandment: Don't run

Once the first panic of the emergency was over, utilities were gradually restored in Ocotal, and tents were erected to provide temporary shelter for people who had initially been evacuated to refugee centers. It was then that the municipal government, with the aid of foreign cooperation, turned to the task of building a new neighborhood for the people who had lost their homes, or whose homes had been partially destroyed or were in high-risk areas.

“We had the problem of destroyed houses and houses that were still intact but were now on shaky ground,” the mayor explained. “Four hundred and twenty families needed to be relocated; an entire neighborhood. Since people are more important than anything else, all of our efforts went into building new homes. In Ocotal's 22 neighborhoods, the neighborhood commissions worked without bias regarding political or religious affiliations, circumventing the potential for conflict. A technical commission from the mayor's office visited the hurricane victims and evaluated the damage to their homes to determine who would receive new ones. With funds left over from the emergency, we bought 58 acres of land, on which a minimum of 300 houses would be built, in an urban area that met all of our technical requirements. Just one new neighborhood, to avoid spreading our efforts too thinly. Neighborly support freed us from the speculative price gouging in land sales that some municipalities have suffered. And many people from all over the world helped us, the fruit of that international solidarity that we have developed and nurtured over so many years.”
Building new homes rapidly would, among other things, help alleviate the phenomenon of “postponed grieving” that often accompanies post-traumatic stress. Reestablishing one's surroundings is an important element of emotional recovery. This urgent justification notwithstanding, it was decided that the new homes in Ocotal also had to be safe and esthetically pleasing. Good urban planning—which has been given little importance in Nicaragua—has been taking on more and more significance in advanced industrial countries, where it is now recognized as a decisive factor in maintaining the psychological health and identity of both individuals and communities.

A large number of the housing project's beneficiaries are from the old Nuevo Amanecer neighborhood. Ocotal's former municipal administration had been under a lot of pressure to build houses so, as an escape valve, had created this neighborhood in the early 1990s on top of an old landing strip later used as a garbage dump. The current mayor inherited the problems generated by this imprudent solution.

From anarchy to rationality

The new homes thrown up after Hurricane Mitch have been the object of various critiques. Carlos Láinez Granados, a civil engineer, has correctly observed that, for economic reasons, housing construction in Nicaragua is characterized by anarchy. For Ocotal, Láinez appealed for the observation of minimum norms due to seismic and other risks. He noted that one of the varieties of sand being used for concrete did not comply with the standards of these norms, that no technical supervisors were present to assure a proper proportion of sand and cement, and that high walls were being erected without intermediary beams. The faultfinding was well expressed but the media that picked it up unfortunately did not explain that these criticisms referred exclusively to a housing project sponsored by a British NGO named ADRA, and not to the municipality's own project.

Although municipal governments are under enormous social pressure to create housing, the real objective of building homes—protecting people's lives—must be kept in the forefront. The implementation of the ADRA project did not comply with the plan it submitted to municipal authorities for approval months before. The local administration was thus forced to take action. On August 18, Ocotal's mayor wrote to ADRA proposing a meeting to discuss technical aspects of the project before construction could continue. Among the anomalies mentioned were the precarious stability of the land the houses were being built on, the inadequacy of the anti-seismic beams, the lack of intermediary beams, the excessive narrowness of the column bases, the fact that the windows were attached to columns, which further weakened the structure, and that the supervisor had not provided systematic technical oversight. The mayor's office proposed finding solutions and supervision at a national level. According to the Municipal Law, local government has the faculty to insist on this type of supervision, however few exercise it.

Cities: Unstoppable growth

Ocotal is growing and, given the number of young people that make up the population, it will keep on growing even faster. Urban centers designed without a logic that humanizes them, and without making provisions for natural disasters, are potential disasters of another sort—those caused by human beings.

Today, many African, Asian and Latin American cities are growing as much as two to three times faster than the entire population of their respective countries. In Africa, for example, an annual urban growth rate of 6% is not unusual. If we examine this figure more closely, we can see that it means the population is doubling every 12 years, an unbridled growth rate that takes 100 years to match in North American and European metropolitan areas.

Human beings have lived in communities since ancient times. Communal life is precisely what permitted the brain of our species to develop, making us intelligent. But until 1850, only 6% of humanity was concentrated in cities. By the end of the 19th century, over 13 cities already had over a million inhabitants. Since then, urban growth has been irrepressible. By 1965 the number of cities in the world with populations of over one million had climbed to 126, and by the early 1980s to 228. By the end of the 20th century, they will top 400. The growth of cities and metropolitan areas accounts for over 80% of all demographic growth during the last decade. It is estimated that by the year 2000, more than 1.3 billion human beings will be filling the world's largest cities.

It is not likely that Ocotal's population growth will be quite this accelerated, largely because many of its inhabitants—especially those who have received the most professional training—will migrate to Managua. The local economy is not developed enough to absorb a range of new vocations into its local work force.

Why migrate to the cities?

All over the world, millions of human beings live crammed together without adequate supplies of drinking water, electricity or sewage installations. What pushes them towards the big cities, where, in many instances, they barely survive in subhuman conditions? The answer is that, despite everything, chances of survival are greater in the city than in the country, as Italian economist David Parrilli recently described in the pages of this magazine (envío 212, March 1999). There are more schools and hospitals in big cities and, at least in the informal sector of the economy, more jobs.

In Peru, almost half of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is generated in the capital, Lima. Nearly 40% of Thailand's GDP comes from Bangkok. One quarter of the Philippine's GDP is from Manila. In a report for the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA), veteran economist Raúl Prebisch warns that “all the consequences that these facts have had on migration from the countryside to the large Latin American cities, a serious and impressive manifestation of social and economic inequality, have yet to be examined in depth. There is no doubt that these migrations have to happen, just as there is no doubt that further technical progress in the countryside will, in general, tend to exacerbate this phenomenon. But why do displaced populations have to concentrate in large cities? Why don't they stay in rural areas, in small and medium-sized towns, working in industries and service sectors that could partly satisfy the needs of the countryside itself? What are the reasons for this extraordinary growth of big cities in Latin America, to the detriment of the small and medium ones, completely out of proportion to what has occurred in the more developed countries?”
Successive bursts of congestion in the large cities—Managua, in the case of Nicaragua—concentrate demand there in a self-perpetuating spiral motion. For example, as Managua's population grows, so does the need for, and possibilities of, employment. The social importance of geographically redistributing income is obvious. Professionals gather in cities because that is where they can satisfy work and salary aspirations. They generate the demand for services that displaced people from rural areas then come seeking to fill. But this increased demand turns out to be a fantasy, as the majority of rural migrants end up working in the informal urban sector, in poorly paid jobs selling cold water and towels at traffic lights, minding and washing cars. Having left behind familiar and potentially friendlier small rural cities like Ocotal, which had little to offer them in the way of jobs, they come to a big city that is unprepared to receive them, and see their dreams quickly stifled.

How to unclog Managua?

Celebrated Danish economist Esther Boserup believes that city life and greater population density has run parallel to evolutionary technology changes. Population pressures have created the demand for technological innovations that make way for greater population density in cities that keep growing larger. In Nicaragua, population growth and migration to the cities have not been accompanied by technological developments that could benefit the majority of the population, whether they migrate or stay where they are.

Here lies the challenge for cities like Ocotal. How can they develop in ways that appeal to their inhabitants, offering basic services and an esthetically pleasing environment—and promise a future with the opportunity for a variety of jobs? How can Managua become less congested? Or, if nothing else, how can it and Ocotal grow at a similar rate?
Urban development projects should act simultaneously on different levels: national, municipal and neighborhood. Geographic redistribution of the population and of national income calls for geographic redistribution of the national budget. It's elementary. If municipal governments had an adequate budget, they could offer essential services. And once this was achieved, the remaining challenge—no less arduous—would be to provide employment for the 60% unemployed.

Nothing, however, seems to be moving in this direction. At the moment, municipal politicians and urban planners are left to their fate. Investments in transportation and energy, the redistribution of tasks in an attempt to decentralize, the building of houses or promotion of industry and small-scale manufacturing are, like dreams, hard to turn into reality. They still aren't included in urban development plans.

The housing project developed by Ocotal's municipal government is a good example of how to move in the right direction. All construction reflects how well or poorly the close relationship between people and their surroundings is understood. It is a given that to build with the idea in mind that people count is the best way to prevent natural disasters. And to build in a way that respects and promotes human life is the best way to encourage community life.

How to achieve a human neighborhood?

How to create a neighborhood that is more than just a monotonous row of little houses? One of the most common urban planning errors is the destruction of public spaces. A neighborhood with soul needs a park, athletic fields, a health center, schools, places to hang out. All of this has been included in the plans for Ocotal's new neighborhood. There is even space for a Catholic chapel and a Protestant church. “In the project to rebuild homes,” says the mayor, “the architects sought community participation. This means that people who lived together before will live together now. These relationships will not be forfeited.” Social networks are the lifelines of a community, and the new neighborhood respects these links. The beneficiaries also participated in the design of the houses. The original design was modified so that the kitchen area is now a room unto itself, with a back door opening on to it, similar to the traditional peasant homes people are used to.

It is obvious that not everything that people lost with Mitch can be replaced. “Opportunity workshops” have been a place for discussion and education to help people get clear about what they experienced, its meaning, and to raise their awareness level about the possibility of future natural disasters. They explore the changes that such disasters can produce, such as feelings of uprootedness and even violence, and the tendency for individual interests to try to win out over community interests. There were also house-to-house consciousness raising sessions with those who are to receive the new homes.

Rumor-mongering about polarization

Many of the beneficiaries don't want to move, even though they are living in high-risk areas. They offer a whole array of reasons, ranging from dissatisfaction with the size of the lots or feeling attached to their current location to an attitude created by the deeply-rooted “culture of subsidy” that makes many of them upset at having to pay for their houses, even though it is only 50 córdobas (approximately $4) a month over 10 years. Some insist that the value of their former home be deducted from the price of the new one and others oppose having to contribute the 60 Sundays of voluntary construction work required as “down payment” for the contract with the municipal government.

There are also varying degrees of insecurity associated with the idea of paying off the houses over the course of ten years, during which time the local government holds the deeds. Even though the deeds are non-negotiable in the financial system, some are suspicious that only Sandinistas will benefit, or that President Alemán will offer better conditions to people who stay in their old neighborhoods.

Some of these rumors—like much of the slander and insults directed at municipal government personnel, and even at foreigners who work as volunteers—have been irresponsibly reported, and thus spread, by a local radio station called La Voz del Pinar. In blind service to Alemán's Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), its announcers do not warn that—should the slander campaign be effective—the big losers would be the hurricane victims, who will probably never have another opportunity like this one.

The central government, with financial assistance from Taiwan, has already made a commitment to install electricity in the new neighborhood, and even the Voz del Pinar ideologues know that there are no plans to install electricity in any other neighborhoods. Nonetheless, they keep broadcasting their destructive messages in an ongoing effort to foster fear of Sandinistas among the most gullible.
In spite of everything, the new homes are being built and, to the extent that they can, are resuscitating communities. At the beginning of the project, some of the houses did not conform to technical requirements. This was corrected with the help of Cuban architects and of professors at the National Engineering University, who gave training sessions to the bricklayers on construction norms and on how to make better adobe bricks.

Adobe: The old and the new

The adobe brick being used in Ocotal is the product of combining traditional techniques with recent studies. In traditional adobe, pine needles are included in the mixture, an element that today's adobe usually does without. In Ocotal, this technique has been revived to give the adobe better consistency, providing jobs for a number of women whose work consists of chopping up the pine needles. The adobe bricks being used in the project are also smaller and lighter than the conventional ones. Four types of bricks are being manufactured, according to where they will be used.

The innovations in this housing project come from paying close attention to two particular factors. The first has to do with guaranteeing that the wall maintain a certain proportion of width, height and thickness. “This type of masonry has its own guidelines,” warns John Hamilton, one of the technicians directing the construction. “The correct ratio of height to thickness is 1 to 10. A wall three meters high should be 30 centimeters thick. That avoids what happened to the houses built in Momotombo after Mitch, which collapsed with the first tremor.” The other criterion that Hamilton talked about goes a lot deeper than the dimensions of a wall. “At the present time, you only have the right to a new home if you're incorporated into the market, but human beings have rights by the simple fact of being human beings. That's why we have to consider what's best for people: decent housing for decent people, a home that raises self-esteem.”
The second innovative factor is the regular monitoring of the bricks to make sure that the mix includes the right proportion of ingredients. In general, for each 50 wheelbarrows of red clay, 25 wheelbarrows of sand and three sacks of pine needles are added. Occasionally, the amount of clay can vary, but it must be compensated for with a change in the amount of sand. Otherwise, the bricks will crack.

The municipality has opened a small adobe brick-making factory. Organized into groups of 4 men, 13 groups can produce 3,500 bricks a day, slightly more than required to build one house. First they prepare the mixture, which must sit for 48 hours to obtain the right texture. Then they fill the molds, which they later turn out for drying and cleaning, scraping the edges of the bricks to smooth them out. Someday this factory will belong to its workers, who will be able to offer its products to other construction projects in Ocotal.

Technical and social innovations

The same kind of attention to detail given the adobe bricks is given to the structure of the houses. Built by bricklayers, carpenters and even electricians, all hurricane victims themselves, the houses are under constant technical supervision to ensure their quality. Each wall has a buttress or column that juts out to give it more stability. This technical innovation in the project is a departure from typical constructions found in Ocotal and other parts of northern Nicaragua.

Another innovation is that the concrete skirting keeps the adobe away from direct contact with the earth, making it less susceptible to damage by bugs, moisture and water currents. “When the base is made of adobe bricks,” observes Hamilton, “they become saturated with water in the rainy season, lose their consistency and the whole structure can collapse from lack of support. Concrete skirting frees the bricks from contact with water, making the entire house sturdier.”
It took teamwork to decide which elements to include to make the homes comfortable and resistant to the local seismic activity. The result is houses with four divisions: two bedrooms, a living room-dining room area and an independent kitchen. The cost of each house is US$ 2,500, but the hurricane victims will pay only 6,000 córdobas (US$500.00) for them.

A social comptroller supervises all the work to ensure that the neighborhood commissions develop open and honest procedures. The participation level is enormous, which guarantees that the connection between technical and social factors isn't lost. The idea is for the beneficiaries to feel that the house is really theirs from the outset. As one of them said: “Owning a home lets you walk with your head held high, and this is what I've worked for.”

The bricklayer will never forget...

In Ocotal construction is being successfully merged with prevention, and the relocation, which respects social networks and neighborhood ties, is being combined with both the traditional peasant household layout and new construction methods that amount to technological transfer. As John Hamilton and local administration director Ramón González agree, “The bricklayer who worked with us will never forget the way we worked. We want to spread these techniques.”
The real challenge will be maintaining these policies under the pressure of a growing demand for urban housing, and the more pernicious pressure of projects being stalled because of the private property taboo, never dealt with in ways that benefit society. The question is how to inject reason into urban construction that is not pressured by limited and shortsighted objectives, but stresses the harmony of the whole and the protection of human lives against future disasters. One of the most productive answers is to support initiatives like the one in Ocotal, where this concept is no longer a dream, but has become reality.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for Nitlapán-UCA.

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