Havana, Cuba and the dead hand of the municipal planner

 

Eric Goldman, Forbes

 

As I walked deeper into Havana’s Vedado district, well off the tourist track, I could feel my anxiety rising.  It was the same angst prompted by the human curation of every detail at Disneyland, where nothing feels natural or organic.  I encountered a government-run sandwich shop at a corner, followed by a government-run pizzeria at the next corner, then a crumbling concrete bus stop with vague 1960s styling at the next corner; followed by a sandwich shop, then a pizzeria, then a concrete bus stop, repeating with little variation for block after block.  It was like I was walking through a 3D model of the template a government municipal planner conceived decades ago.

 

We sometimes refer to the “dead hand of the architect,” the concept that the architect’s choices—often driven by social conventions prevailing at the time of construction—constrain future building occupants decades later.  For example, office buildings from the 1930s or earlier rarely provided many womens’ restrooms because there weren’t many women in the workforce; as it turns out, an architectural constraint as workplace demographics changed.  The dead hand of the architect reflects the fact that capital investments are costly, and those costs are amortized over the project’s useful life.  It can be too expensive to fix architectural design choices through renovation, so the assumptions and social norms animating the architect’s design persist until the building is replaced.

 

The dead hand of the architect rules over Cuba; or more precisely, it’s the dead hand of municipal planners.  Decades ago, someone decided upon the designs of concrete bus stop and the location of government-run restaurants, and those choices live on today–even as social conventions have evolved around it.  In a sense, the fixed infrastructure and cultural evolution work against each other; society is changing but the infrastructure isn’t, and something has to give.

 

Eventually governments must renovate and replace the infrastructure they provide.  However, the Cuba government lacks the money to do so.  Financially strapped by the other services it provides to its citizens, the Cuban government won’t replace or redesign its infrastructure until it becomes absolutely necessary (and maybe not even then).  You often hear Cuba described as a “time capsule.” In part that means the infrastructure is frozen because the government can’t afford replacing it to reflect modern cultural norms.

 

Time has largely stood still in Cuba since the 1960s, but change is in the air.  When Cuba no longer has a Castro in power, the US government surely will further loosen restrictions on American tourism to Cuba.  (Already, due to recent liberalizations of the rules, almost every tourist I saw in Cuba was American).  More American tourists will mean more American dollars, higher expectations for service levels, and (presumably) infrastructure upgrades to more modern specifications.  If you wanted to see and experience a “socialist” Cuba, your window of opportunity is closing rapidly. Go now, before the inevitable Cancun-ification of Cuba.

 

 

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