City of Revolution, City of Evolution – Learning from La Habana, a People Centered City

If you’re happy, does reality matter? Happiness is subjective, not objective. Prosperity and wealth help, but definitely not the only things that matter to happiness. By visiting some of the most vital urban places in La Habana, Cuba, I was deeply impressed by the mixture of charms offered by this unique city with both history and revolution.

A few years ago, the ‘Happy Planet Index’ Ranks Cuba Far Higher than the United States (12th and 105th respectively)  based on comprehensive scores on “experienced-wellbeing, life expectancy and ecological footprint”. ( Apparently, the lack of materials and resources due to embargo for over 50 years did not stop Cuba from becoming one of the happiest countries in the world.

Without prominent contemporary urbanization and architecture that transformed many cities around the globe, Havana’s urban core area is aesthetically unique, historical, cultural, and vital.

Photo: a view from the military and historical park across the bay from urban Havana. The park consists of Spanish fortresses Built from the 16th to 18th century, which was used as a military base after Fidel Castro took over, and he had especially established a historical park in this area as an open space to serve the city and tourism.

What I experienced in Havana’s urban public space was fresh and inspiring. In the photo essay, I will write observations to the city’s highly popular place typologies that seem to make urban living in dense Havana full of joy: they include places in Central Havana, Old Havana, Malecon, Formal Park and Squares, Informal Plazas, and the Public Art Spaces through the City. Searching for hidden urban charm in this Caribbean city, I decided to stay in central Havana which is regarded as the “real Havana”, in a famous “protest” neighborhood surround Universidad de La Habana (Havana University) – Cuba’s intellectual leader through history. From my apartment, there was a 30-40 minutes’ walk to Habana Vieja (Old Havana) through all the bustling urban life, crumbling and colorful buildings.

Centro Habana, building massing, use of detail and colors

Centro Habana, crumbling buildings and old façades that lack maintenance and renovation. Many of them are still being used.

Centro Habana, the apartment building I stayed at was built in 1935. With a balcony towards busy San Lazaro Street and a peaceful inner courtyard, the unit has great natural ventilation, lights, and shade during a different times of the day.  

Centro Habana, grocery stores has limited supply on the shelf, but often become places for people to socialize and hang out. People are friendly to the kittens on the streets.

Centro Habana, despite the building quality and maintenance, streets are nicely formed and quite active, holding a mixture of activities. Children feel safe to play in the well-shaded, shared used streets. Façade and architectural detail variations made each street feel different, given some common elements used including balcony, classical details, and new classical decoration. People casually populate courtyards, hallways, doorways that are comfortable “grey space” between outdoor and indoor spaces. 

Old Havana’s urban form remains largely untouched since its time as a Spanish Colony between its founding in 1519 and 1902. The country’s unique politics during the 20th century resulted in streets that retain their pre-automobile connectivity and narrowness. As a result, Old Havana’s streets have an excellent sense of enclosure, with buildings that shade the street, deducing urban heat island effects, while providing “eyes on the street” from the old buildings’ many windows. The city’s many and often contiguous arcades provide further protection for pedestrians from the Caribbean sun as well as tropical storms.

Today’s Old Havana is aesthetically pleasing, walkable, and well shaded even on the sunniest day. Without urban renewal during the 20th century, the city has expanded through the addition rather than replacement of structures, creating the current dynamics of density. Building facades in Old Havana show this story of slow and steady development, with a high degree of variability in façade styles and articulation.

Lunch at Cafe O’Reilly, on one of the busiest streets of Old Town. 

Although density often promotes sustainable outcomes, in Old Havana the way density has occurred has actually harmed environmental and social sustainability. Due to a severe housing shortage, residents have built additions into and onto old buildings through innovative but often haphazard materials and building reuse. Ancient colonial-style buildings with high ceilings on the first floor have been split horizontally, adding mezzanines that are not only cramped but often structurally unsafe. Courtyards have been filled in, blocking the circulation of fresh air. Dwellings added to rooftops can easily be swept away in a hurricane. Small, subdivided housing units are sometimes so cramped that household members are forced to sleep in shifts.

The Malecón

The Malecón is composed of a seawall (to the right of the photographed area) with wide a sidewalk for pedestrians, a wide 4- 6 lane motorway that is one of the city’s busiest roads, and then a row of buildings of various ages that are battered and destroyed by the salt water mists and waves colliding with the seawall. Currently, no crosswalks exist to help pedestrians travel from the city blocks to the left across the busy road to the Malecón’s pedestrian area on the right.

Despite of the lack of shade and relatively plain and boring geometry, Malecón is the most popular open space destination for people who want to escape from the dense urban area and get some relaxing time and Caribbean breeze.

Cuba has been blessed with limited access to cars and gasoline – but that is changing. Demand for cars is being heavily driven by a lack of alternatives. A strong bus system would seem to be a cost-effective and very compatible solution to many of the city’s problems, including housing demand, pollution, and cost of living. Reconfiguring major intersections (or Rightsizing) and restrictions on parking are a few of the measures that could help Havana avoid many of the problems that most developed cities are now facing.

While the activity, human scale, and sociability of the streets is the best traffic calming measure, streets need to be designed as places to support the social uses that the community desires.

Formal Park and Squares

Parks and squares are all over, and their historic qualities are well preserved. A system of small parks and squares, while not always beautiful and polished, are points of pride, sociability, and comfort. Focus on preservation has not allowed the parks to evolve past their historic form though. Many parks and squares should be able to showcase and help evolve the culture and community of the city and its neighborhoods.

Informality Public Space

Cuba’s hot climate and government – controlled, limited wifi accessed end up creating a series of shaded “wifi plaza or grove”, where people stop from pedestrian traffic, seat and enjoy quiet online-surfing time.

Another unique icon is the “ice cream park” in Havana’s trendy Vedado District, where the state-own famed ice cream brand Coppelia attracts crowds of customers at a dining pavilion in the park.

 You have to understand that Coppelia is much more than ice‑cream’ … customers in the pavilion at Coppelia in Havana, which opened in 1966. Photograph: Lisette Poole

Public Art

Havana affords a cutting edge art scene and welcomes artists from around the world. I was able to experience many interesting exhibitions for the city’s 12th Havana Biennial (2015) at the Fine Art Museum.

The Third Paradise – Performance by Michelangelo Pistoletto at the 2015 Havana Biennial – Bienal de La Habana

As one of the most awaited figures at the Bienal, the Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto created a series of art installation with “three circles”, entitled The Third Paradise (middle circle), acquires a special meaning in Cuba— a country faced with the dazzling challenge of reconciling diametrically opposing views. “The real revolution needs to become an evolution,” he says.

Art installations on the Malecon, at the 2015 Havana Biennial – Bienal de La Habana

Grassroots Public Art

My rental apartment happens to be located nearby the famed Hamel’s Alley (El Callejón de Hamel). Occupying two blocks, it is a phenomenal Afro-Cuban community art project. Created in 1990 by self-taught Afro-Cuban painter and sculptor, Salvador Gonzales Escalona, Hamel’s Ally is an impressive example of how a simple idea can transform a rundown place into a creative explosion of color, culture, and art.

Entire four-story buildings are painted in a burst of color and designs reaching all the way to the sky. Whimsical sculptures are made out of recycled antiques into works of art. Inspiring quotes and sayings are painted into the walls. Besides the murals, there are interesting sculptures made out of antiques and other recycled objects such as bathtubs, typewriters, and even old cars. Nothing goes to waste in Hamel’s Alley. There is also a learning area for children in the community to take their try at creating art.

During my entire trip to Havana, I did not see any urban landscape and places built with extravagant materials and contemporary high design. But all those places seem extremely successful in their sociability, human scale, flexibility, mixed-use, and eco footprint. The mix of old and new fabric in shaping public space creates open possibilities for users to populate, reappropriate and enjoy those places with an informal fashion. It is such qualities that contribute to the city’s vital public space with RenChi around 24 hours. Although the density and rundown buildings did present challenges while the city evolved into a “New Havana” as many citizens dream of, the model of its urban place making has a very unique foundation to build on.


Havana’s Public Spaces by Project For Public Spaces

Old Havana, Cuba’s Historic Preservation by Museum of the City

Quick Havana Neighborhood Guide & Where to Stay by The Reward Boss

Photos by Peiwen Yu unless otherwise noted

4 thoughts on “City of Revolution, City of Evolution – Learning from La Habana, a People Centered City”

  1. Peiwen, thank you for taking the time to write up this fantastic article about Cuba. Although known world wide for their cigar’s there is so much more the the country that people are unfamiliar with. Hopefully know that the embargo has been lifted from the United States side, more people from here can begin to visit and see the actual culture of this country and change a bit of their world view versus what the status-quo would have us opinionated to believe surrounding its government, culture, and folkways.

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