Architect transforms urban neighbourhoods with youth workshop

Ana Cristina Vargas uses photography to understand how youth perceive their neighbourhoods. (Submitted)

The directions Ana Cristina Vargas gave to the 40 children and teenagers listening to her attentively was clear: "Look at your community, look at the details, think about what you would like to transform."

Vargas’ passion project Tracing Spaces is now a thriving non-profit for community improvement and development of Venezuelan neighbourhoods, but it began almost seven years ago on the other side of the world, in India.

While pursuing a masters in Urban Design at MIT, Vargas, an architect, began to wonder how children perceived their own environments, their neighbourhoods. She spent the summer of 2013 in India, passing out cameras to young people for them to photograph their streets. She understood that public space is part of cultural identity, and wanted to see how youth perceive their surroundings.

After the youth returned the cameras and observed the photos, some told her of what they would change in their neighbourhoods if they could. Vargas returned to the U.S. with hundreds of images, and those voices in her mind.

After observing their neoghbourhood, youth were asked what they would do to improve it. (Submitted)

She decided to return to India, and began delivering the workshop she had designed: Tracing Spaces. First, the facilitators would invite the children to observe: they would be given cameras to photograph their context. Then they would invite them to imagine: they would expose the images, and together with the community, they would think about what to change and how to do it, with experts teaching them the basics of design. And finally, with the participation of professionals and locals, they would prepare to transform the spaces.

The project won the Best Thesis Award from the MIT School of Architecture and won the Dubai International Award for Best Practice with UN-Habitat. Vargas began receiving many job offers in New York, but she did not accept. Although it was 2014 and Venezuela shuddered with street protests against the government of Nicolás Maduro, she decided to return. She was convinced that she could build where everything seemed destroyed.

Upon arrival in the country, a private company supported her by covering the operational expenses of the Tracing Spaces project to be implemented in the Juan Moreno neighborhood in the state of Aragua.

In 2015, Vargas delivered her first workshop in Venezuela. The children of that neighborhood pointed out vacant lots where weeds grew, gray, sun-chipped walls and dilapidated passages. Months later, those run-down places were filled with color: little by little they inaugurated a mural of flowers, a mural of ceramics, a square for children to play marbles, an amphitheater and a gazebo.

“This has been very nice,” says Vargas, five years later when she stops to think about the journey she has been through. She says it with pride. She feels immense satisfaction knowing she could bring fruits to a land that many warned infertile.

Vargas returned home to Venezuela, eager to implement her workshops in communities across the country. (Submitted)

Vargas lists off what has been achieved in this time: 32 communities have been impacted; 611 children have participated, 2038 people have been influenced and 2460 square metres reclaimed. And they have crossed borders: the project has now been replicated in the United States and Chile.

“We have evolved a lot. Now we are a multidisciplinary team: an educator, a psychologist, and several architects. We have had community development consultants, and that has been fantastic. What was once an architectural process, of transformation of spaces, has become the human transformation of those involved. It is a way of doing citizenship. Observing their community, imagining that they can change something and then materializing it is an experience that means a lot to a child,” she reflects.

Vargas wants Tracing Spaces to reach more communities, and become self-sustainable. Currently the organization is supported by donations or financing from private companies and organizations. Vargas knows the challenges are not over.

“This project is important because we need empowered citizens who come together to change the environment, regardless of political or religious beliefs. We need people who are together for the common good. That is what it is about.”