Fresh start for Honduras?

Monday 21 May 2012

The Charter Cities concept takes hold in Honduras, but what role will architects play?

This vibrant image depicts a few hundred metres of lush green foliage in the Honduran Rainforests, acres upon acres of verdant flora growing up over the region’s rolling hills; beautiful scenery that masks a plethora of underlying urban issues. The political problems in Honduras are well known. A republic in Central America, Honduras has been tested by turbulent politics and spiralling levels of crime that have thrown a painful percentage of its population into crippling poverty. The road to recovery appears to have no end.

One man is campaigning for a new direction. Paul Romer is a Professor of Economics at the NYU Stern School of Business and in 2009 he presented the concept of Charter Cities at a TED event. Romer suggests that a plethora of regions like Honduras could benefit from the construction of new cities on unused land, governed by an entirely independent political system from their host government.

Using Hong Kong and Singapore as examples, Romer explains: “A charter city is a new type of special reform zone. It extends the concept of a special economic zone by increasing its size and expanding the scope of its reforms. It must be large enough to accommodate a city with millions of workers and residents. Its reforms must extend to all the rules needed to support exchange in a modern market economy and structure interactions in a well-run city.”

The concept of charter cities and the consideration of a similar method of development in Honduras has spawned several protests in the republic and led to considered musings by architectural journalists. ArtInfo ran an article last week entitled Architects versus Economists: The Battle for the Future of Urbanism, from Honduras to Upstate New York where the author, Kelly Chan, questioned what such an approach would mean for the profession, asking: “Can architecture really be so trivial in the discussion of urbanization?”

Chan’s concerns stem from Romer’s fixation on political policies and economic guidelines rather than a thorough consideration of urban design and the formation of key public spaces. Honduras has got fully behind the charter cities idea, passing a constitutional amendment to recognise new independent reform zones - la Region Especial de Desarrollo (RED) - which can partner with foreign governments, bringing Romer’s concept of the charter city one step closer to realisation. Canada has expressed an interest in partnering with Honduras on the project.

What sticks for Chan though is a quote given by Romer to journalist Greg Lindsay for Forefront which reads: “It’s important that buildings don’t catch fire or fall down when there’s an earthquake. Otherwise, I don’t think it matters all that much.” Creative genius or disillusioned idealist? What do you think…?

Sian Disson
News Editor

Key Facts:

Urban design

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