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Vargas honored in Dubai ceremony

MIT Tata Center alumna's innovative work with public space empowers residents of informal settlements.
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Ana Vargas (center) receives the Dubai International Award for Best Practices from Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum (right), deputy ruler of Dubai.
Ana Vargas (center) receives the Dubai International Award for Best Practices from Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum (right), deputy ruler of Dubai.
Photo courtesy of the Dubai Municipality.

Ana Cristina Vargas SM ’14 has won the Dubai International Award for Best Practices in recognition of her innovative work on public space in Mumbai, India, and other locations around the globe. The award comes shortly after completing her Master’s thesis at MIT with support from the Tata Center for Technology and Design.

Vargas was one of 11 winners from around the globe feted at a ceremony in Dubai on Feb. 24. The award, sponsored by the Dubai Municipality and the royal family of Dubai, recognizes outstanding efforts to improve quality of life and a sustainable civilization, and includes a monetary prize of $15,000.

Vargas’ project, Tracing Public Space, began at MIT, but has its roots in her native Venezuela, where she worked in architecture and construction. There, she became interested in informal settlements, “cities built by people, not the government.” Vargas estimates that a third of the world’s population lives in such communities.

Tracing Public Space was cited as creating “effective tools that allow non-technical people and residents of the community, including children, to learn methods of observation, identification, planning and design of public spaces,” in a report by Gulf News.

Even though many informal settlements are “off the grid” and have limited access to modern electricity, plumbing, and municipal services, Vargas believes that quality of life can be improved through the intervention of community members themselves. In a series of workshops aimed at children between the ages of 11 and 16, she encourages residents to take ownership of the public spaces in their communities, and equips them with the skills to transform those spaces for the better.

The pilot workshop took place in Boston’s diverse Jamaica Plain neighborhood, and subsequent workshops were held in Mumbai neighborhoods, from low-income Mulund and Malwani to affluent Colaba. Now, Tracing Public Space is turning its attention to settlements in Venezuela.

Vargas’s initial contact with India came through the MISTI MIT-India program in 2013. As an MIT Tata Fellow, Vargas worked under the guidance of Professor Miho Mazereeuw in the Urban Risk Lab and has traveled to India for fieldwork three times in the past year. She credits the Tata Center with not only making her work feasible, but pushing her to ask questions that had to be answered through field research.

The process, she says, was “typical MIT: learn by doing. It needed to be hands-on, and that would only have been possible with the Tata Center’s help.”

Focus on the future

A key part of Tracing Public Space’s methodology is the way it engages children. “They are actually the future of that place,” says Vargas. “They are more open to seeing different possibilities in their communities.”

Vargas works with residents to find new ways of representing and visualizing their community, using a combination of photography, mapping, and modeling. She equips children with digital cameras, teaches them to draw maps to scale, and works with them to make tangible transformations to the public space.

“In India,” she says, “the line between public and private is blurry.” Notable for their extreme density and lack of resources, Indian cities pose special challenges. For example, in Malwani, a transit camp originally meant to be temporary, Vargas found that 100 families share a single courtyard and public toilet, and that there is no clear authority for cleaning and maintenance.

She asked the residents of Malwani what simple change they would most like to make, given the means available to them. They elected to beautify the space by cleaning the courtyard and painting the walls of the toilet.

In her workshop, Vargas trained the children of Malwani to manage the project themselves. They went house to house, independently explaining their goal and asking for donations, and ultimately raised 300 rupees — only a few U.S. dollars, but a significant amount of money in that community. The money was enough to purchase paint and cleaning supplies, which were used to transform the space.

It may seem like a small step, Vargas says, but “the ultimate goal is to change the way people see public space.”

This practice of empowering residents to change their communities is at the heart of Tracing Public Space. “We can’t wait for the governments to go into the slums. There are changes that cannot wait for the government to take responsibility.”

Taking the project forward

Since graduating from MIT, Vargas has returned to Caracas, Venezuela, where she is partnering with major companies to hold Tracing Public Space workshops in informal settlements.

The government of Dubai took notice of her work in the fall of 2014. She reveals that the day before she was notified about winning the award, she was feeling a sense of exhaustion with the project: “This is a hard phase, when I’m trying to improve the method and at the same time make it more replicable.”

The Best Practices award has given her a renewed spirit of motivation, however. “Sometimes you need a little push, [to know that] you’re doing the right stuff, that someone else thinks this is good.”

Vargas enjoyed her trip to Dubai, saying that “the most interesting part [of the ceremony] was meeting the other winners and learning from each other.” Tracing Public Space projects in Venezuela are ongoing.

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