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Spatializing Citizenship and
the Informal Public

Teddy Cruz

Rethinking the Public: From a “Free” to an Urgent Imagination

It is obvious by now that the celebrated metropolitan explosion of the recent
economic boom also produced a dramatic project of marginalization. This
has resulted in the unprecedented growth of slums surrounding major urban
centers, increasing the urban confl icts of an uneven development. This urban
asymmetry at the center of today’s socioeconomic crises also brought with it the
incremental erosion of a public imagination, as many governments around the
world enabled the encroachment of the private into the public.

Our conversation must begin then with the obvious: The public is collapsing
as an ideal within a political climate still driven by inequality, institutional un-
accountability, and economic austerity. This is true not only for the American
context in which I write, but in the countless sites across the world that have
ascribed to and reproduced the neoliberal myth of a public–private schism. In
other words, as the longevity of the top- down public welfare- state paradigm is
in question today, we need urgently to search for alternatives, and seek a more
functional manifestation of public thinking and action at “other” scales and
within community- based dynamics: a bottom- up public? We must ask diff erent
questions if we want diff erent answers. This is why one of most relevant and
critical challenges in our time is the problem of how we are to restore the ethical
imperative among individuals, collectives, and institutions to coproduce the
city, as well as new models of cohabitation and coexistence in the anticipation
of socioeconomic inclusion.

Rethinking the public cannot begin without exposing the controversies and
confl icts that defi ne the present moment’s unprecedented socioeconomic in-
equality. In fact, decoupling the public from the imperative of socioeconomic
equity only risks romanticizing our notions of the public, perpetuating the de-
politicization of this urgent topic from our artistic fi elds and their practices. As a
point of departure, this is a political project that contemporary architectural and

316 • Teddy Cruz

artistic practices must engage. Today, as urban designers, we cannot begin any
conversation about the future of the megacity without critically understanding
the conditions that have produced the present crisis.

Since the early 1980s, with the ascendance of neoliberal economic policies
based on the deregulation and privatization of public resources, we have wit-
nessed how an unchecked culture of individual and corporate greed has yielded
unprecedented income inequality and social disparity. This new period of in-
stitutional unaccountability and illegality has been framed politically by the
erroneous idea that democracy is the “right to be left alone,” a private dream
devoid of social responsibility. But the mythology of this version of free- market
“trickle down economics,” assuring the public that if we forgive the wealthy their
taxes all of us will benefi t and one day become as rich, has been proven wrong
by such undeniable evidence as political economists Saez and Piketty (2013: 1)
have brought to light. They have noted that during both the Great Depression
of 1929 and today’s economic doldrums, we fi nd both the largest socioeconomic
inequality and the lowest marginal taxation of the wealthy. These are instances
when the shift of resources from the many to the very few has exerted the great-
est violence to our public institutions and our social economy. The polarization
of wealth and poverty in the last decades has been a direct result of the polar-
ization of public and private resources, and this has had dramatic implications
in the construction of the contemporary city and the uneven growth that has
radically increased territories of poverty.

This hijacking of the public by the private has in fact been mobilized by a
powerful elite of individual and corporate wealth, who in the name of free-
market economic policies has enjoyed the endorsement of federal and municipal
governments to deregulate and privatize public resources and spaces of the city.
This has prompted many planning and economic development offi ces to “un-
plug” from communities and neighborhoods at the margins of the predictable
zones of economic investment, resulting in the uneven urban development that
has characterized many cities in the world, from Istanbul to New York City. This
retreat of the institutions of governance from public investment has resulted also
in the erosion of public participation in the urban political process, as many
communities aff ected by this public withdrawal have not been meaningfully
involved in the planning processes behind these urban transformations, nor
benefi ted from the municipal and private profi ts they engendered.

An argument can be made, however, that broad, structural political and social
changes are possible. Such changes have occurred in certain moments in history,
when the instruments of urban development were primarily driven by an in-
vestment in the public; two examples are the emergence of the New Deal in the
United States aft er the 1929 economic crisis and the postwar Social Democratic




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318 • Teddy Cruz

urban politics in Europe, and so forth. But today’s crisis and its conditions are
exponentially more complex, as the consolidation of exclusionary power is not
only economic but also political, driven by one of the largest corporate lobbying
machines in history, which has subordinated collective responsibility to serve
individual interests, dramatically changing the terms by polarizing institutions
and publics, wealth and power, and misallocating natural, social and fi nancial
resources in unprecedented ways.

It is necessary, then, for the political specifi city shaping the institutional
mechanisms that have endorsed this uneven urban development to be the cat-
alyst for design today. In other words, the critical knowledge of the very con-
ditions that produced the global crisis should be the material for architects in
our time, making urban confl ict the most important creative tool to reimagine
the city today. Without altering the exclusionary policies that have decimated a
civic imagination in the fi rst place, architecture will remain a decorative tool to
camoufl age the neoconservative politics and economics of urban development
that have eroded the primacy of public infrastructure worldwide. It has been
disheartening, for example, to witness how the world’s architectural intelligen-
tsia—supported by the strong economy of the last years—fl ocked en masse
to the United Arab Emirates and China to help build the dream castles that
would catapult these enclaves of wealth to positions of global epicenters of urban
development. However, other than a few architectural interventions by high-
profi le protagonists whose images have been disseminated widely, no major
ideas were advanced there to resolve the major problems of urbanization today,
which are grounded in the inability of institutions of urban development to more
meaningfully engage urban informality, socioeconomic inequity, environmental
degradation, lack of aff ordable housing, inclusive public infrastructure, and civic

In the context of these shift s, we are paralyzed across sectors, silently witness-
ing the consolidation of the most blatant politics of unaccountability, the shrink-
age of social and public institutions and not one single proposal or action that
can suggest a diff erent approach, diff erent arrangements. So, before economic
and environmental, ours is primarily a cultural crisis resulting in the inability of
institutions to question their ways of thinking, their exclusionary policies, the
rigidity of their own protocols and silos. How are we to reorganize as artists,
architects, and communities to perform a more eff ective project that can enable
institutional transformation? I emphasize eff ective project because what we need
is a more functional set of operations that can reconnect our artistic practices
and academic research to the urgency of the everyday embedded in the crisis of
urbanization in order to produce new housing paradigms, other modes of socio-
economic sustainability, and conceptions of public space and infrastructure, as

Spatializing Citizenship and the Informal Public • 319

well as a new poverty scholarship and practice. At this moment this means that
our work needs to complicate itself by infi ltrating existing institutional protocols,
negotiating modest alterations, and being persuasive enough to transform top-
down urban policy and economy.

In fact, one primary site of artistic intervention today is in the widening gap
between institutions of knowledge and the public. How to mobilize a new inter-
face between the specialized knowledge of institutions and the community- based
knowledge embedded in marginalized neighborhoods? It is through this meet-
ing of knowledges that we can we instigate a new civic imagination. But this can-
not occur without also intervening in our own practices and research protocols.

On one hand, we must question the role of architecture and urban planning,
art and the humanities in engaging the major problems of urban development
today, as well as the social and political sciences, and their obsession with quan-
tifi ed data as the only way to measure social inequity without giving us any
qualitative way out of the problem. In other words, it is not enough only to reveal
the socioeconomic histories and injustices that have produced these crises, but
it is essential that theory and practice become instruments to construct specifi c
strategies for transcending them; it is not enough for architecture and urban
planning to camoufl age, with hyper- aesthetics and forms of beautifi cation, the
exclusionary politics and economics of urban development; at this moment, it
is not buildings but the fundamental reorganization of socioeconomic relations
that must ground the expansion of democratization and urbanization. In the
same manner, it is not enough for social and political sciences to only “mea-
sure” and expose the institutional mechanisms that have produced territories of
poverty—important though that element is—but it is essential that they com-
municate these measurements to those who can make use of them, and work
with communities to develop policy proposals and counter- urban development
strategies, helping us to reimagine how the surplus value of urbanization can be
redirected to sites of marginalization.

What this suggests is a double project, one that exposes the institutional
mechanisms that have systematically and through oft en overtly racist and na-
tionalist policies produced the stigmas, and the political and economic forces
that perpetuate marginalization; it is also one that simultaneously intervenes
in the gap between top- down resources and bottom- up agency, avoiding the
trap of static victimization that has prevented the increase of capacity within
marginalized communities for political agency.

But the formation of new platforms of engagement in our creative fi elds can
only be made possible with a sense of urgency that pushes us to rethink our very
procedures. The need for expanded modes of artistic practice, pedagogy, and
research, which, connected to new sites of investigation and collaboration, can

320 • Teddy Cruz

generate new conceptions of cultural and economic production, as well as the
reorganization of social relations, seems more urgent than ever.

From Critical Distance to Critical Proximity: Radicalizing the Particular,
from the Ambiguity of the Public to the Specifi city of Rights

This double project of research and action must dwell within the specifi city of
these urban confl icts, exposing the particularity of hidden institutional histo-
ries, revealing the missing information that can enable us to think politically
and piece together a more accurate, anticipatory urban research and design
intervention. It is in fact at the collision between the top down and the bottom
up where a new urban political economy can emerge.

It is at this juncture of abstraction and specifi city where the revision of
our own artistic procedures must take place. The same ideological divide that
permeates politics is also found in art and architecture’s ongoing debates. On
one hand, we fi nd those who continue to defend art and architecture as a self-
referential project of apolitical formalism, made of hyper- aesthetics for the sake
of aesthetics, which continues to press the notion of the avant- garde as an au-
tonomous project, “needing” a critical distance from the institutions to operate
critically in the research of experimental form. On the other hand, we fi nd those
who need to step out of this isolationism in order to engage the sociopolitical
and – economic domains that have remained peripheral to the specializations of
art and architecture, questioning our professions’ powerlessness in the context
of the world’s most pressing current crises.

These emerging latter practices seek, instead, for a project of radical proximity
to the institutions, encroaching into them to transform them from the inside
out. Such infi ltration allows us to produce new aesthetic categories that can
problematize the relationship of the social, the political, and the formal, ques-
tioning our own creative fi elds’ unconditional love aff air, in recent years, with a
system of economic excess that was needed to legitimize artistic isolationism and
irrelevance. How to reconnect artistic experimentation and social responsibility,
a major aspiration of the historic avant- garde, must be the central question in
today’s debate.

What is being sought then are expanded modes of practice, engaging an
equally expanded defi nition of the public, where architects are responsible for
imagining counter spatial procedures, where architects are responsible for creat-
ing political and economic structures that can produce new modes of sociability
and encounter. Without altering the exclusionary policies that have produced the
current crises in the fi rst place, our professions will continue to be subordinated

Spatializing Citizenship and the Informal Public • 321

to the visionless and homogeneous environments defi ned by the bottom- line
urbanism of the developer’s spreadsheet and the neoconservative politics and
economics of a hyper- individualistic ownership society.

It has been said, for example, that the Civil Rights movement in the United
States began on a bus. A small act trickling up into the collective’s awareness:
When Rosa Parks sat where she did not belong, the bus was public but it was
not accessible to all. While public transport at that time was labeled public it
was hugely exclusionary, ridden with inequality. This resonates with the collision
between our abstract notions of the “public” and the specifi c reality of economic
inequality on the ground today. For this reason it is necessary to move from
the neutrality of the term public in our political debate at this moment in order
to arrive at the specifi city of rights, the rights to the city, to the neighborhood.

What is needed is a more critical role for design to encroach into the frag-
mented and discriminatory policies and economics that have that have produced
these collisions in the fi rst place. Artists and architects have a role in conceptual-
izing of such new protocols. In other words, it is the construction of the political
itself that is at stake here: not just political art or architecture. This opens up
the idea that architects and artists, besides being researchers and designers of
form, buildings and objects, can be designers of political processes, alternative
economic models, and collaborations across institutions and jurisdictions to
ensure accessibility and socioeconomic justice. This means we need to expand
forms of practice, through which design takes a less protagonist role, via small,
incremental acts of alteration of existing urban fabrics and regulation to mobilize
counter propositions to the privatization of public domain and infrastructure.
The most radical intervention in our time can emerge from specifi c, bottom- up
urban and regulatory alterations, modest in nature, but with enough resolution
and assurance to trickle up to transform top- down institutional structures. And
this is the reason, I maintain, that this project of rethinking public space today
is not primarily an architectural or artistic project but a political one, a project
that architects and artists can mobilize.

This new political project must also mobilize cross- sector institutions to con-
front socioeconomic inequality, seeking to elevate marginalized communities
not only as sites of stigmatization, alienation and control, but primarily as sites
of activism and praxis. In this context, the most relevant new urban practices
and projects moving socioeconomic inclusion forward will emerge from sites of
confl ict and territories of poverty, where citizens themselves, pressed by socio-
economic injustice, are pushed to imagine alternative arrangements. It is on the
periphery, where conditions of social emergency are transforming our ways of
thinking about urban matters and matters of concern about the city.

322 • Teddy Cruz

Cross- Border Neighborhoods as Sites of Cultural
Production: The Informal as Praxis, the Informal Public

These questions have framed my thinking during the years that I have been re-
searching the Tijuana–San Diego border region. It is here where one can directly
witness how the incremental hardening of the border wall and the apparatus
of surveillance behind it has occurred in tandem with the hardening of urban
legislation toward the public, deepening the erosion of social institutions, bar-
ricading public space, and dividing communities. In other words, the protec-
tionist strategies of the last decades, fueled by paranoia and greed, have defi ned
a radically conservative social agenda of exclusion that threatens to dominate
public legislation in the years to come. It is at this juncture, in the context of this
sociocultural closure and the incremental privatization and erosion of public
culture worldwide, where marginalization gets specifi c.

For more than a decade, I have been working and investigating critical issues
of housing and urbanism that emerge from the observation of the many commu-
nities that fl ank the U.S.–Mexico border. In contrast to the generic “global city,”
which in recent years became the focus of an urbanization of consumption, local
neighborhoods in the margins of such centers of economic power remained sites
of cultural production. These are peripheral communities where new economies
are emerging and new social, cultural and environmental confi gurations are
taking place as catalysts to produce alternative urban policies aimed at a more
inclusive social sustainability, giving the local a more critical role in rethinking
global dynamics.

My research- based architecture practice has oscillated from the scale of the
global border to the border neighborhood. Aft er 9/11, I devised the Political
Equator as a visual diagram: Considering the Tijuana–San Diego border as a
point of departure. The Political Equator traces an imaginary line along the U.S.–
Mexico border and extends it directly across the world atlas, forming a corridor
of global confl ict between the 30 and 36 degrees north. Along this imaginary
border encircling the globe lie some of the world’s most contested thresholds
including the U.S.–Mexico border at Tijuana/San Diego, the most intensifi ed
portal for immigration from Latin America to the United States; the Strait of
Gibraltar, where waves of migration fl ow from North Africa into Europe; and
the Israeli–Palestinian border that divides the Middle East.

This global border, forming a necklace through some of the most contested
checkpoints in the world and emblematic of hemispheric divisions between
wealth and poverty, is ultimately not a “fl at line” but a critical threshold that
bends, fragments and stretches in order to reveal other sites of confl ict world-
wide. Across the world, invisible trans- hemispheric sociopolitical, economic,







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324 • Teddy Cruz

and environmental dynamics are manifested at regional and local scales. The
Political Equator, then, has been my point of entry into many of these radical
localities, distributed across the continents, arguing that some of the most rele-
vant projects advancing socioeconomic inclusion will emerge from confronting
the confl icts between geopolitical borders, natural resources, and marginalized

Ultimately, the forces of division and control produced by these global zones
of confl ict are amplifi ed, physically inscribed and manifested in particular crit-
ical geographies such as the San Diego–Tijuana border territory, producing, in
turn, local zones of confl ict. It is in the midst of many of these metropolitan and
territorial sites of confl ict where new practices of intervention and new forms of
“applied research” will engage more meaningfully the spatial, territorial, and en-
vironmental conditions across critical thresholds, whether global border zones
or the local sectors of confl ict generated by discriminating politics of zoning and
economic development in the contemporary city.

At no other international juncture in the world one can fi nd some of the
wealthiest real estate, such as that found in the edges of San Diego’s sprawl, barely
twenty minutes away from some of the poorest settlements in Latin America,
manifested by the many slums that dot the new periphery of Tijuana. These
two diff erent types of suburbs are emblematic of the incremental division of the
contemporary city and the territory between enclaves of mega wealth and the
rings of poverty that surround them.

This has led to a primary focus on the micro scale of the border neighbor-
hood; which I propose as the urban laboratory of our time. The diff erent kinds of
power at play across the most traffi cked checkpoint in the world have provoked
the small border neighborhoods that surround it to construct socioeconomic
practices of adaptation and resiliency in order to transgress imposed political
and economic forces, pointing at other ways of constructing city, other ways of
constructing citizenship. A community is always in dialogue with its immediate
social and ecological environment—this is what defi nes its political nature. But
when this relationship is disrupted and its productive capacity splintered by
the very way in which jurisdictional power is instituted, it is necessary to fi nd a
means of recuperating its agency.

This agency and activism can be found in informal urbanization, which I see
not only as an image of institutional alienation and poverty exploitation; but as a
set of practices, a set of every day procedures that enable communities to nego-
tiate time, space, boundaries and resources in conditions of emergency. We can
learn from these urban processes in order to reimagine the meaning of public
infrastructure in the offi cial city and to mobilize new forms of accountability
from the institutions of planning and private industry, as well to engage these

Spatializing Citizenship and the Informal Public • 325

communities as agents capable of challenging their exploitation by emergent
models of fi nancialization masqueraded as inclusive and ethical.

In this context, one of the most important issues underlying my research has
been to produce new conceptions and interpretations of the informal. Instead
of a fi xed image, I see the informal as a functional set of urban operations that
allow the transgression of imposed political boundaries and top down economic
models. I am interested in a practice of translation of the actual operative proce-
dures behind informal settlements into new tactics of urban intervention. I see
the informal not as a noun but as a verb that explodes traditional notions of site
specifi city and context into a more complex system of hidden socioeconomic
exchanges. Primarily, because of my work in marginal neighborhoods in San
Diego and Tijuana, I see the informal as the starting point of a new interpretation
of community and citizenship, understanding the informal not as an aesthetic
category but as praxis. This is the reason I am interested in the emergent urban
confi gurations produced out of social emergency, and the performative role of
individuals constructing their own spaces.

In recent years, I have been visualizing the many invisible informal
trans- border fl ows, which are physically manifested by the informal land use
patterns and economies produced by migrant workers fl owing north from Ti-
juana into San Diego, and by “infrastructural waste” moving south to construct
an insurgent, cross- border urbanism of emergency in Tijuana. This suggests a
double urbanism of retrofi t by which the recycling of fragments, resources and
situations from these two cities can allow new ways of conceptualizing housing
and density:




My research in this city has been studying the relationship of informal settle-
ments, emergency housing and the politics of cheap labor, as maquiladoras
(nafta factories) settle in the midst of these slums. The periphery of Tijuana is
dotted with slums, which build themselves with the urban waste of San Diego.
This waste fl ows south- bound to construct an urbanism of emergency, as one
city recycles the “left over” of the other into a sort of “second hand” urbanization.

I am referring to the postwar bungalows that have been part of the older
rings of suburbanization in Southern California and are being recycled into the
slums of Tijuana. These small houses are moved physically across the border as
developers in the United States have recently begun to give them away to Mex-
ican speculators in order to replace them with new and larger McMansions. So,
not only people cross the border but entire chunks of one city move to the next.

FIGURE 5. North–south/south–north invisible trans- border fl ows are physically manifested in one direction
by an urbanization of adaptation, as informal densities and economies produced by migrant workers fl owing
north transform San Diego neighborhoods; and by “infrastructural waste,” in the opposite direction, as
Tijuana’s slums recycle the urban “left overs” of San Diego to construct emergency housing.

Spatializing Citizenship and the Informal Public • 327

When these houses are moved into Mexico, they are put on top of steel frames,
leaving the fi rst fl oor open to become the second, to be fi lled through time with
a small business or an addition to the house, setting into motion an incremental
layering of small- scale spaces and economies.

This recycling process does not only include houses, but a variety of small
urban debris come into play—that is, standard framing, joists, connectors, ply-
wood, aluminum windows, garage doors. Once in Tijuana’s informal neigh-
borhoods these parts are reassembled by people into fresh scenarios, creating a
housing urbanism made of fragments. Recycled rubber tires, for example, are
used to construct retaining walls; but in the context of social emergency and
housing shortage, people in these informal settlements have fi gured out how
to strip the tires, how to thread them and interlock them to produce a more
functional retaining wall. Also, the garage doors from the older subdivisions of
Southern California are imported en masse into the slums of Tijuana, becoming
the new structural walls for emergency housing in these informal settlements.

It is undeniable that these slums have erupted as the underbelly of exclu-
sionary global neoliberal economic policies that have turned cities like Tijuana
into tax- free manufacturing heavens. In other words, Tijuana is one of those
global zones of exception where multinationals set up shop to take advantage
of cheap labor, and where they can avoid any sort of regulation against human
exploitation and environmental degradation. Yet, these slums are also intensive
urbanizations of juxtaposition, emblematic of how Tijuana’s informal commu-
nities are growing faster than the urban cores they surround, creating a diff erent
set of rules for development, and blurring the distinctions between the urban,
suburban and the rural. How to intervene in these environments and with their
communities? Beyond the static logics of the institutions of charity that generally
muddle the distinctions between resistance and complicity, the applied academic
research that only treats—at a distance—these communities as subjects to be
“randomized” and “assessed,” and the indiff erence of governments and private
industries that have allied themselves in the further marginalization of these

Tijuana Project: Manufactured Sites
While for architects it is compelling to witness the creative intelligence and
entrepreneurship embedded in these communities, we must ensure that by ele-
vating this creativity, we do not simultaneously send a message to governments
and other sources of economic support that because these communities are
so “entrepreneurial” they are capable of sustaining themselves without public
support and that institutions, across sectors, can ethically unplug from these
precarious environments. Or, in more specifi c terms, that it is not enough to

328 • Teddy Cruz

simply give property titles to slum dwellers to incorporate them into the offi cial
economy—as Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto (2000) pointed out years
ago—without the social protection mechanisms that can guarantee environmen-
tal and social justice (2). Otherwise, we risk perpetuating these environments as
laboratories of neoliberal economic tinkering, based on individuals improving
and selling their own parcels as commodities, without any social protection
mechanisms that can avoid exploitation by the generic fi nancialization machine
that does not take into account local communities and their social and economic
wellbeing. In essence, I am also aware that this creative intelligence needs so-
cioeconomic support systems, political representation, and a new approach to
spatial and infrastructural design that can be inclusive of the temporal socio-
economic dynamics embedded in this stealth urbanization.

This is how on the Tijuana side, I have been researching the alternative ur-
banisms of resilience and adaptation inscribed in informal urbanization in or-
der to redefi ne urban density. Learning from these bottom- up forms of local
socioeconomic production is essential to the rethinking of urban sustainability,
focusing on neighborhoods as sites of environmental, cultural, and economic
productivity. (I realize that when these two topics—neighborhood marginal-
ization and economic productivity—are brought together, some academics get
nervous, since this might suggest a complicity with the logics of top down privat-
ization and disinvestment, or that the language of entrepreneurship, resilience,
and sustainability, resonates with neoliberal urban rhetoric. I want to retake

FIGURE 6. A housing innovation made of waste: A
maquiladora- made prefabricated frame performs
as a hinge mechanism to connect a variety of
recycled materials and systems brought from San
Diego and reassembled in Tijuana’s slums.

Spatializing Citizenship and the Informal Public • 329

those terms and give them meaning through a more robust community- based
engagement. What I mean here is that one of the most fundamental questions
today is how to mobilize other economic pro formas of development that are
neighborhood- led and whose profi ts benefi t the community and not private
developers only.)

This is how my urban research in Tijuana inserts itself in the midst of the con-
fl ict between factories and slums, opening alternative cross- sector processes for
the production of social housing within informal settlements. We have observed
that as nafta maquiladoras position themselves strategically adjacent to Tijua-
na’s slums in order to have access to cheap labor; they do not give anything in
return to these fragile communities. Our site of intervention is then the factory
itself, by utilizing its own systems and material production and prefabrication
in order to produce surplus micro- infrastructure for housing.

The Manufactured Sites project involves the production of a prefabricated
frame (assembled with materials from the factories surrounding the slums)
that can act as a hinge mechanism to connect a variety of recycled materials
and systems brought from San Diego and reassembled in Tijuana. This small
piece is also the fi rst step in the construction of a larger, interwoven, and open-
ended scaff old that helps shore- up an otherwise precarious terrain without
compromising the improvisational dynamics of these self- made environments.
Conditions of social emergency ask for the reorganization of resources and the
cross- institutional accountability and collaboration. The frame is produced by

330 • Teddy Cruz

the Spanish company Maquiladora Mecalux and supported by Tijuana munic-
ipal subsidies, and it takes into account the hidden value of the sweat equity
of people living in the informal settlement, a process that is coordinated and
facilitated by community activists and agencies. The prefabricated parts emerge
from the recombination of existing material systems inside the assembly line,
and they become available for small cooperatives to collaboratively develop extra
housing units with other residents. The design “intervention” here is a result of a
process of negotiation with boundaries, resources, and people in a cross- sector
curatorial project that critically approximates prefabrication industry, govern-
ment subsidies, and communities organization.




As waste fl ows south, people go north in search of dollars. The shift ing of cul-
tural demographics in American Suburbs has transformed many poor immi-
grant neighborhoods into the site of investigation for my practice. My research in
San Diego has focused on the impact of immigration in the transformation of the
American neighborhood, projecting that the future of Southern California’s ur-
banization will depend on the alteration of the large scale of exclusionary urban
development by a small urbanization of adaptation: The micro- socioeconomic
contingencies of informal urbanization will transform, through time, the homo-
geneous largeness of offi cial urbanization of San Diego into more sustainable,
plural, and complex environments.

Increasing waves of immigrants from Latin America have had a major impact
on the urbanism of American cities. Already, Los Angeles, for example, is home
to the second largest concentration of Latin Americans outside the capitals of
Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador, among other countries. Current demo-
graphic studies have predicted that Latin Americans will compose the majority
of California’s population in the next decade. As populations travel north in
search for new opportunities, they inevitably alter and transform the fabric of
neighborhoods where they settle, including in San Diego and Los Angeles. In
these older neighborhoods, multigenerational households of extended families
shape their own programs of use, taking charge of their own informal economies
in order to maintain a standard for the household.

It is not a coincidence, then, that these older mid- city neighborhoods com-
pose the territory that continued to be marginalized in the process of urban
redevelopment of the last decades of growth. Not able to aff ord the high- priced
real estate of downtown or the McMansions of the new sprawl, waves of immi-
grant communities from Latin America, Asia, and Africa have settled into these
fi rst rings of suburbanization in many American cities in recent years, making

Spatializing Citizenship and the Informal Public • 331

these neighborhoods the service communities for the newly gentrifi ed center
and the expensive suburbs. The temporal, informal economies and patterns
of density promoted by immigrants and their socioeconomic and economic
dynamics have fundamentally altered what was the fi rst ring of Levittown- type
suburbanization of the 1950s, transforming it into a more complex network of
socioeconomic relationships.

If we were to construct a binational land use map between San Diego and
Tijuana, for example, showing the diff erent attitudes of these two border cities
toward land use and density, we would notice the large blocks of color of an
exclusionary zoning—a maximum space with minimum complexity—to the
north, and to the south the high pixilation of more compacted uses in Tijuana,
a minimum space with maximum complexity.

This confetti of alternative uses in Tijuana has been slipping into the large-
ness of Southern California land uses, and when it hits the ground it alters the
mono- use monoculture of many parcels in San Diego’s homogeneous suburbs.
An informal economy is plugged into a garage; an illegal granny fl at is built in the
backyard to support an extended family. This is an urbanization of retrofi t trans-
forming the large with the small, with more sustainable and inclusive land uses.

Many stories of alteration and nonconformity can be found in these San Di-
ego environments. The Informal Buddha is the story, for example, of a tiny post-
war bungalow that transformed into a Buddhist temple in the last two decades,
incrementally altering the small parcel it occupies into a micro socioeconomic
infrastructure. These community- based agencies are able to organize and bundle
the invisible socioeconomic entrepreneurship embedded in this community and
translate it into new policies and economies.

San Diego Project: Casa Familiar Micro- Policy
My work on the San Diego has focused on the translation of the sociocultural
and economic intelligence embedded in many marginal immigrant neighbor-
hoods in order to propose more inclusive land use and economic categories
that can support new forms of socioeconomic sustainability. The hidden value
(cultural, social and economic) of these communities’ informal transactions
across bottom- up cultural activism, economies, and densities continues to be
off the radar of conventional top- down planning institutions.

These bottom- up urban transformations ultimately show the need to expand
existing categories of zoning, producing alternative densities and transitional
uses that can directly respond to the emergent political and economic infor-
malities at play in the contemporary city. It is, in fact, the political and cultural
dimension of housing and density as a tools for social integration in the city what
has been the conceptual armature of my work as an architect. How to enable
this urbanization beyond the property line—this micro- urbanism—to alter the

332 • Teddy Cruz

rigidity of the discriminatory public policies of the American city? How can the
human capacity and creative intelligence embedded in migrant communities be
amplifi ed as the main armature for rethinking sustainability?

The story of the nonconforming Buddha suggests the need for mediating
neighborhood- based agencies that can curate the interface between institu-
tions and communities, top- down resources and bottom intelligence. I have
articulated this research not only as a form of discourse that has enabled new
critical conversation and debate across diff erent constituencies, from academ-
ics to activists and politicians, but as a tangible process of collaboration with
community- based nonprofi t organizations such as Casa Familiar, in the border
neighborhood of San Ysidro, to codesign and manage physical interventions in
neighborhoods on both sides of the border.

The main achievement through this process was the tactical design and orga-
nization of a series of community dialogues and workshops with Casa Familiar
that in turn generated the idea of a micro- zoning policy for San Ysidro, pro-
viding fertile political ground from which alternative hybrid projects and their
sources of funding could emerge. This process opened an alternative channel
of relationship with the City of San Diego to demand a more robust partnership
and interface with neighborhood- based local nonprofi t organizations, to enable
them to co- own the resources of development and become the long- term cho-
reographers of social and cultural programming for housing.

In essence, the Casa Familiar Micro- Policy was the proposition to seek a
new role for many ngos in neighborhoods to develop housing. This included
the mediation and translation of otherwise invisible neighborhood dynamics:
These ngos can connect tangible housing needs to specifi c community partic-
ipants, and they can support and generate new economies that emerge from
the community itself and enhance social service capabilities to be plugged into
housing. Agencies like Casa Familiar can mobilize the internal entrepreneurial
energies and social organization that characterizes these neighborhoods toward
a more localized political economy latent in these migrant communities. These
socioeconomic agendas can be framed by particular spatial organization.

The Casa Familiar Micro- Policy includes the documentation of all stealth
illegal additions and small informal economies sprinkled through the neigh-
borhood in order to legitimize their existence, enabling the approval of a new
aff ordable housing overlay zone for the neighborhood. The second part of the
policy included the partnership of Casa Familiar with property owners who
cannot aff ord to maintain their own properties—the production of social con-
tracts within the community to produce a new form of shared ownership and
social protection mechanism is essential here. Then, Casa Familiar will be en-
abled by the city to offi cially prepackage and facilitate construction permits to




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r C











s a













s a






FIGURE 8. Housing micro- policy for San Ysidro, or the neighborhood as a political
unit: expanded models of architecture practice can mediate between top- down
politics and economics of urban development and the bottom- up social agency at
the scale of marginalized neighborhoods

336 • Teddy Cruz

replace the precarious existing illegal dwelling units as well as tax credit sub-
sidy–based pro formas to support their designation as aff ordable housing. Since
developer- driven tax credit subsidies do not support small development, Casa
Familiar would also be enabled to prebundle tax credit subsidies pertaining a
large housing building, but breaking it apart into small loans and facilitating
them through the neighborhood, for which Casa Familiar would take liability.
The facilitation of entitlement and lending amplifi ed the notion that marginal
communities need political and economic representation by agencies like Casa
Familiar. This micro- policy opened up a small- lot ordinance process in San
Diego, one seeking to infi ll transitional and suburban areas of the city while
enforcing an incremental densifi cation and supporting community- led small
development. Most importantly, it presented a challenge: can communities be-
come developers of their own housing stock and public infrastructure?

Toward an Urban Pedagogy: The Visualization of a New Civic Imagination

During the last two years, I have been collaborating with political theorist Fonna
Forman to further question the relationship between social justice, citizenship
culture and the construction of the city: Can these marginalized communities
across the world and particularly those fl anking the San Diego–Tijuana border
enable us to reimagine not only the meaning of public space, housing and infra-
structure, but also the construction of new interpretations of citizenship? The
largest bi- national metropolitan region in the world has provoked the question:
Can a cross- border citizen exist, whose idea of citizenship is organized around
the shared interests between these two divided cities?

We need to seek other conceptions of citizenship, beyond its inscrip-
tion within the offi cial protocols of the nation- state. As evidenced by these
under- represented border neighborhoods, citizenship is primarily a creative
act, enabling the transformation of institutional protocols and the spaces of
the city. It is within these marginalized communities of practice where a new
conception of civic culture can emerge, whose dna is found in informal urban-
ization, and from which we can incrementally construct new interpretations of
community and praxis.

But as we return to these informal settlements for clues, their invisible urban
praxis also needs artistic interpretation and new tools and methodologies for
research. This should be the space of intervention for new forms of pedagogy
and scholarship. In this context, we must expand meanings of spatial and social
justice, understanding them not only through the redistribution of physical and
economic resources but as dependent also on the redistribution of knowledges.
An investment in an urban pedagogy—the transfer of knowledge across govern-
ments and communities—is the fundamental pursuit to construct a civic culture

Spatializing Citizenship and the Informal Public • 337

as the basis for an inclusive urbanization and new conceptions of public space.
Because of this, seeking new forms of urban pedagogy is one of the most critical
areas for artistic investigation and practice today. The conventional structures
and protocols of academic institutions and urban planning agencies may be seen
to be at odds with activist practices, which are by their very nature organic and
extra- academic and trans- institutional. Should activist practices challenge the
nature/structure of pedagogy within the institution? Are new modes of teaching
and learning called for?

These questions have inspired the construction of the Bi- national Citizen-
ship Culture Survey, conducted by former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus and
his nonprofi t Corpovisionarios, in collaboration with political theorist Fonna
Forman and me at the University of California, San Diego, and the munici-
palities of Tijuana and San Diego. The Bi- national Citizenship Culture Survey
is an instrument that will measure and help visualize the shared values and
norms, the common interests and sense of mutual responsibility around which
a new bi- national conception of citizenship can be formed—beyond the arbi-
trary jurisdictional boundaries that too rigidly defi ne cityhood, and beyond the
identitarian politics of the nation- state. The results of the survey in the spring
of 2015 will be stewarded by a cross- sector bi- national council that will develop
a set of priorities and proposals in collaboration with the municipalities of San
Diego and Tijuana and will usher in a new era of cooperation between them. By
recognizing both Tijuana’s and San Diego’s urban policies and taking account of
the assets, resources, and ideas that can be shared, the survey will facilitate the
coproduction of bi- national vision and a process that derives its strength from
cross- border synergies, inclusive of the most vulnerable communities on both
sides of the border.

These are essential questions at a time when the hidden urban operations of
the most compelling cases of informal urbanization across territories of poverty
need to be translated into a new political language with particular spatial con-
sequences from which to produce new interpretations of public infrastructure,
property, and citizenship.

An Informal Public Manifesto:
• To challenge the autonomy of buildings, oft en conceived as self-

referential systems, benefi ting the one- dimensionality of the object
and indiff erent to socioeconomic temporalities embedded in the city.
How to engage instead the complex temporalization of space found
in informal urbanization’s management of time, people, spaces, and

• To question exclusionary recipes for zoning, understanding it not as
a punitive tool that prevents socialization but instead as a generative

338 • Teddy Cruz

tool that organizes and anticipates local social and economic activity
at the scale of neighborhoods.

• To politicize density, no longer measured as an abstract amount of ob-
jects per acre but as an amount of socioeconomic exchanges per acre.

• To retrofi t the large with the small. The micro- socioeconomic con-
tingencies of the informal will transform the homogeneous largeness
of offi cial urbanization into more sustainable, plural, and complex

• To reimagine exclusionary logics that shape jurisdiction. Conven-
tional government protocols give primacy to the abstraction of
administrative boundaries over the social and environmental bound-
aries that informality negotiates as devices to construct community.

• To produce new forms of local governance, along with the social pro-
tection systems that can provide guarantees for marginalized commu-
nities to be in control of their own modes of production and share the
profi ts of urbanization to prevent gentrifi cation.

• To enable more inclusive and meaningful systems of political rep-
resentation and civic engagement at the scale of neighborhoods,
tactically recalibrating individual and collective interests.

• To rethink existing models of property by redefi ning aff ordability
and the value of social participation, enhancing the role of commu-
nities in coproducing housing, and enabling a more inclusive idea of

• To elevate the incremental low- cost layering of urban development
found in informal urbanization in order to generate new paradigms
of public infrastructure beyond the dominance of private develop-
ment alone and its exorbitant budgets.

• To mobilize social networks into new spatial and economic infra-
structures that benefi t local communities in the long term, beyond
the short- term problem solving of private developers or charitable

• To sponsor mediating agencies that can curate the interface between
top- down, government- led infrastructural support and the creative
bottom- up intelligence and sweat equity of communities and activists.

• To close the gap between the abstraction of large- scale planning logics
and the specifi city of actual everyday practices.

• To challenge the idea of public space as an ambiguous and neutral
place of beautifi cation. We must move the discussion from the neu-
trality of the institutional public to the specifi city of urban rights.

• To layer public space with protocols, designing not only physical sys-

Spatializing Citizenship and the Informal Public • 339

tems but also the collaborative socioeconomic and cultural program-
ming and management that ensure accessibility and sustainability
over the long term.

• To enable communities to manage their own resources and modes
of production while creating multiple points of access to share the
profi ts of urbanization.

The informal public is the starting point from which to generate other ways of
constructing the city, and its role today is to mediate between top- down and
bottom- up dynamics: in one direction, how specifi c, bottom- up urban alter-
ations by creative acts of citizenship can have enough resolution and political
agency to trickle upward to transform top- down institutional structures; and, in
the other direction, how top- down resources can reach sites of marginalization,
transforming normative ideas of infrastructure by absorbing the creative intelli-
gence embedded in informal dynamics. This critical interface between top- down
and bottom- up resources and knowledges is essential at a time when the extreme
left and the extreme right, bottom- up activism and top- down pro- development
smart growth, as well as neoliberal urban agendas, all align in their mistrust of
government. A fundamental role the informal public can take in shaping the
agenda for the future of the city is pressing for new forms of governance, seeking
a new role for progressive policy, a more effi cient, transparent, inclusive, and
collaborative form of government. For these reasons, one of the most important
sites of intervention in our time is the opaque, exclusionary, and dysfunctional
bureaucracy, and the restoration of the linkages between government, social
networks, and cultural institutions to reorient the surplus value of urbanization
to not only benefi t the private but primarily a public imagination.


I am grateful to the editors for inviting me to participate in this project; their com-
ments and interventions have been very helpful to me. My thanks as well to Fonna For-
man for her insightful comments on various draft s and for the many concepts which have
emerged through our collaborations.


De Soto, Hernando. 2000. The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the
West and Fails Everywhere Else. New York: Basic Books.

Saez, Emmanuel, and Thomas Piketty. 2013. “Top Incomes and the Great Recession:
Recent Evolutions and Policy Implications.” International Monetary Fund Economic
Review 61:3, 456–78.

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