Studying the ingenuity of border neighborhoods to inspire new models of housing and local economy

Teddy Cruz is a UC San Deigo visual arts teacher and urban researcher devoted to designing better urban environments that are more suited to human communities.
Teddy Cruz is a UC San Deigo visual arts teacher and urban researcher devoted to designing better urban environments that are more suited to human communities.
(Photo by Erik Jepsen)

To box Teddy Cruz into a single discipline would be a difficult — if not impossible — task. Cruz, renowned by many architects and activists for his innovative approaches to urban design, currently teaches in the visual arts department at UC San Diego.

But in practice, his work is a convergence of many different fields: politics, architecture, sociology, economics and public policy.

Perhaps the best way to sum up what Cruz does is to call him an urban researcher. He’s co-director with Fonna Forman of the Blum Cross-Border Initiative at UC San Diego, which is committed to new forms of collaborative teaching, learning and research in partnership with local community-based agencies in border neighborhoods. In June 2013, he presented his studies of the Tijuana-San Diego border at a TED Talk in Edinburgh, Scotland.

His task, he explained, is to communicate the importance of alternative approaches to urban design to policy makers and urban planners. The aim is to design better urban environments more suited to human communities.


‘Second-hand urbanization’

Cruz sounds more like an anthropologist than a typical visual artist when he speaks about the inspiration he draws from the slums of Tijuana: “When we look at these environments of poverty, we just see poverty and even danger. But very seldom do people realize that embedded in those neighborhoods there is a huge intelligence as well.”

Looking beyond the characteristic decay and crime of shantytowns, Cruz believes a “creative intelligence of informality” can be harnessed to produce better designs for otherwise impoverished neighborhoods on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Many homes in the Tijuana slums are fashioned from the waste of San Diego — garage doors, for instance, might become exterior walls, or an entire pre-fabricated bungalow may find a second life in the shantytown.


Cruz considers this repurposing a kind of “second-hand urbanization,” a type of innovation in sustainability that relies not on technology but on human ingenuity.

“The creative social, economic and political processes that produce that informal urbanization is off the radar of the institutions of planning,” Cruz said. “It’s sort of invisible. So here my work has been interested in translating, representing, mobilizing that bottom-up energy embedded in these neighborhoods so that it can begin to trickle upwards to help support ideas and to rethink land use, to rethink density.”

Building people-centered communities

On the U.S. side of the border, Cruz’s efforts have been focused on the neighborhood of San Ysidro, the first immigrant community travelers pass through when crossing north over one of the world’s busiest border crossings. There, Cruz has been collaborating with a local nonprofit community development organization, Casa Familiar, to design and build affordable housing that is culturally attuned to its residents.

David Flores, community development officer for Casa Familiar (and architect by trade), said the organization held countless community workshops while developing the design in order to ensure that the final project would accommodate the actual needs of those who’d be living there.

For instance, Flores said, they kept hearing from seniors who were the primary caretakers of their grandchildren. Because they lived with kids, they were ineligible for most senior housing.

With that in mind, Cruz and Casa designed Abuelitos, a 10-unit housing complex in San Ysidro that can accommodate a family structure common in many immigrant households. (Supported by a combination of public and private funding, the housing projects are presently coordinating funding to begin construction.)

That’s the difference of having somebody who understands development from inside the community,” Flores said. “The work of development is long-term.


“Otherwise, these projects only yield generic social gathering spaces that nobody is going to be programming, and it’s going to revert to being another living room where youth are just going to watch movies. Instead, we are interested in the kind of environments that have the ability to transform through specific social, cultural and economic activity in collaboration with residents.”

Cruz echoes that.

“We were aware that if we wanted to design a new model of housing, we also needed to begin by engaging the community differently,” Cruz said. “We were interested in beginning to produce a process of mutual awareness, where not only the community could be challenged to re-imagine identity … but also, some of us professionals who think that we have the solutions to all the problems — we could be inspired by the community’s own narratives of everyday life to re-imagine the role of design.”

Leah Soleil, Brand Publishing Writer