Learning from the Ebola Response in cities: Communication and engagement

‘We must turn this crisis into an opportunity’ (Roache et al., 2014: 15)

Check out these reflections on working with urban communities in times of crisis, a central theme in future urban humanitarian responses.

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“When done well, communication improves the effectiveness of assessment and response. It can allow people to make informed decisions, prevent dangerous behaviour, address confusion and unrest and align expectations.” – Campbell & Miranda Morel, 2017



Who will be a Botero in the future? Bogotá, Colombia

(Leer en Español)

“When the danger of dying of hunger doesn’t exist, what does ‘living’ mean?”

– Cornelius Castoriadis

This question not only refers to the basic human need to eat, it refers to the fulfilment of all basic human needs. Have you ever asked yourself, aside from having a roof with no leaks, a deliciously comfortable bed, a fridge full of food, a place where you have learnt to write and count, a safe and clean place to do your business, a family of friends and relatives; what else makes me feel alive? What else makes me smile, think, excited, sad, angry? That’s what Castoriadis is asking us in his discussion on social transformation and cultural creation.

Who will be the Botero of the future Colombia? 

The answer to Castoriadis’ question, or at least how I interpret it, is culture. The series of principles on which we as individuals lean on to give significance to our lives. Beyond what we need to function as living organisms, there are many things in life that you do, not because you need to, to survive, but because they have a symbolic or other significance to you. These things are what you might call culture.

Throughout time, by doing these symbolic things, individuals have emerged that are today considered the geniuses of history. Costoradis presents the examples of Kafka, Picasso, Michelangelo, Mozart and questions who are going to be the Kafkas and Mozarts of the future? And how are you incentivising the creation of spaces that form these geniuses amongst the generations of today?

In the case of Colombia, I ask, who will be the Botero and Garcia Marquez of the future? And how are we going to ensure that all the potential of genius that the country has, will have the opportunity to reveal itself in what will become the modern history of Colombia? Who will the art, music or literature museums of the future talk about?

Returning to the initial theme of part I (see here); How are we ensuring that not only those who have the money to do so, are developing their skills and genius as citizens that express, create and revolutionise Colombian culture?

Learning to value, create and think…

Beyond learning to count, read and value certain principles, as human beings we search teachings on how to think and create. A great school and an encouraging family environment can do so, but the city (both the built environment and the society that dwells within it) can teach us the most valuable lessons of all and provide us with the necessary tools to develop as citizens.

For example, public space where people live and make politics is a space of learning. And I’m not just talking about politics in the terms of voting for different political parties, I am also talking about the practices and values that we, as citizens, exercise in our daily routines.

When you share a bench with a stranger, when you give way for an elderly lady to enter a shop, when you avoid a beggar on the street, when you approach a vendor to ask for directions, all these are political acts. Why? Because they are acts of coexistence that recognise that space must be shared, that form relationships of power between one individual and the other and that result in moments of exchange. One cannot walk through a city and act as if they were the only person living in it, although some do mistakenly believe so. So, having said this, within the city we learn to value the other and to observe how we function with the other inside this dense and rich space; we learn to understand the city and in many cases create a better city through our individual actions.

In Bogotá…

The city of Bogotá is a great school. It has taught me about inequality, about social movements, about participating in space, about innovation, about how those who have the least give the most, and many other things that I had heard about in school but only really lived when I arrived in Bogotá. Nevertheless, it is a city that has a lot more to learn.

If you read the first part of this series, you’ll realise my position toward the role of the private sector in building the city. It is a fairly critical position, but as you’ll have seen there are some examples of places that have shown a potential in intervening in public life in an inclusive and collective way.

Following this I would like to tell you about a house, in the city of Bogotá that really made me smile because I instantly felt an important connection to what Castoriadis is asking us and to my own reflection; on the possibility for those who have very little to develop their potential as the future Boteros, Mozarts and Kafkas of Colombia.

Casa B, Belén, Bogotá

Casa B, Belén, Bogotá

CasaB, Belén, Bogotá, Colombia

In 2012, two Colombians, Chucho and Dario returned to Bogotá from Germany and dedicated themselves to a search, for a place where they could build and alternative space that would promote community action.

The centre of Bogotá, la Candelaria, as many of you know, is being gentrified. For whom? For tourists, for hotels, for museums and universities that are gradually buying out most of the area. Diego, another Colombian who gradually joined the project of CasaB, clearly states that in the Candelaria, there is no more local community. And I completley agree. When you walk through those streets on a weekday, in the evening, they are dead because no one lives there anymore!

For those who have never been: walking along the 5th (a carrera) from the Jimenez (a calle) toward the 1st (another calle), passing in front of Doña Ceci (a corner shop that has gradually turned in to an icon for the culture of dancing and drinking pola on friday nights); Guache’s graffiti “Nuestro Norte es el Sur”; the Luis Ángel Arango library and many hotels, cafés and boutiques, the lack of residents is obvious. One can’t deny there is a drastic change when one crosses from one side of the 1st to the other in what one sees around them. On the other side, there are no more hotels, cafés with english names or students walking around with fancy tags.

Instead, there are several open garages selling second hand, ancient yet beautiful furniture; men with huge beer bellies and their wives giving them orders; children running on the street from one side to the other chasing a street dog or the ball that is gaining speed as it rolls down the hill; or adolescents that are staring you down, watching as you enter their territory. And in the distance you can hear the ‘mecha’ (hit) of a tejo tournament, a sound of a television that loses its signal or the patacón and the meat that are being fried in someone’s kitchen. This is neighbourhood life. This is Belén.

Belén in the city, CasaB

Belén in the city, CasaB

There is no doubt that the best place for an alternative space for community action is Belén.

Initially, this intervention focused on working with adults in the community. Gradually the space was formed through a collection of ideas that were brought by community members to the leaders of the house. However, CasaB is in continuous transformation as Diego puts it, it has gone through a metamorphosis.

Bit by bit it became more and more obvious that those who were using and appropriating themselves of the space where the children of the neighbourhood, in search of a safe place to rest and play after school.

Arts and Crafts, CasaB

Arts and Crafts, CasaB

These same children have set the foundation for the ideas and energy that has built this alternative pedagogical space, in which children are able to develop skills and knowledge in dance, art, martial arts, health and nutrition and urban agriculture. An important part of this is their development of an understanding of the importance of common goals and collective action.

Agricultura urbana, CasaB, Belén, Bogotá

Agricultura urbana, CasaB, Belén, Bogotá

3 years later, these same children continue to participate in CasaB activities every day. Some have become tutors and leaders in the centre.

Clases de Muay Thai, lideradas por uno niño del barrio, Belén, Bogotá

Clases de Muay Thai, lideradas por uno niño del barrio, Belén, Bogotá

This year a young boy from the Muay Thai activity is applying for an opportunity to travel to Peru and become a professional Muay Thai instructor.

Columpios, CasaB, Belén, Bogotá

Columpios, CasaB, Belén, Bogotá

So: “When the danger of dying of hunger doesn’t exist, what does ‘living’ mean?” or should we even ask “When the danger of dying of hunger does exist, can we still ‘live’?”

I know, this is a pretty extreme way of putting this question. But, yes there is a But, what I mean to ask is if we can ensure that those young girls and boys that suffer from inequality might also have the opportunity to ‘live’ as Castoriadis puts it? Could it be that a private intervention, like CasaB is allowing this to happen?

Whose space is it? Bogotá, Colombia

(Leer en Español…)

So I’m actually one of those people who defend the role of the public sector and speaks with a lot of scepticism about the private sector in the making of cities. Have you ever heard of gentrification? Don’t get me started… I don’t know about you, but the way things are going in large scale urban development makes me nervous.

City life is so beautiful when one can enjoy it in a collective way because at the end of the day, what makes a city, is its people. I mean, come on, what is the first thing you do when you go to a park in your city? You relate to other. You sit down on the grass, bench or whatever surface, look around and observe. The kids playing with a football, the students with a frisbee, the cute ancient couple on the bench across from you, the young sexy looking guy with the dog, or the sexy looking girl in her jogging outfit. I don’t know what floats your boat, but I do know that you can’t deny how fun it is to check out all the odd looking characters that roam the streets of your city.

Yet in many places, like Bogotá, not everybody is getting to enjoy city life in the same way. Not everyone gets to be an observer or the observed in peace, many get kicked out because they don’t look the part, yet they are in a public, and I repeat public space. In many cases, the access that people have to city spaces that are clean, safe and protected depends on how much money they have, or look like they have. Considering a city’s virtue and richness comes from those who dwell in it and that public space is by definition supposed to promote inclusiveness, participation and freedom of expression; the fact that only those who have enough money can enjoy its virtues, is seriously concerning.

Many of the places that are feeding this system of exclusion have been built and designed by private companies (and this is not to say that the public sector doesn’t play a part in this).

The 3 Frencheteers

So, following my long rant about public space, I want to show you something that has made me sceptical about my scepticism.

About 5 years ago, 3 frenchmen in Bogotá decided that the city centre needed a place where people could come and enjoy culture in many different ways without having to go to the expensive Modern Art Gallery, the expensive language school or the very expensive concerts that the city often offers; where big, hot-shot artists could come and give cheap concerts or exhibitions but also young debutantes could take a risk and show themselves and their work; or where people could have a reason to get involved in local cultural activities, by chance or intention. The centre needed a space that would contribute to the rich cultural scene that the city of Bogotá has, but has yet to be further discovered, particularly by those who are not directly involved, like me! Or you!

The adult playground: Introducing… A 6manos.

The adult playground

The adult playground

The adult table

The adult table

A 6 Manos

A 6 Manos

Christophe Vandekerckhove, despite his name which is difficult to pronounce, is one of the three charming frenchmen who came to the rescue of the neighbourhood’s cultural scene, describing the project as an idea that ‘took its shape as it went’.

‘El puro hasard!’ (Spench) says Christophe. It used to be a parking-lot in the middle of town. Today it’s a dynamic little restaurant-bar-art-gallery-shop-concert-hall-and-many-other-things. The idea being that it be a place for everything, kind of like a shopping centre but in a cultural sense, hence the shopping-cart logo (apparently).

When I first walked in, I looked around and couldn’t help but smile like an idiot. I felt like a child in an adult body…but not out of place. It was strange. You kind of have to go there to get what I mean. Or maybe you’ve felt like this before? It’s a great feeling, you should definitely go there.

Having interviewed Christophe, it turns out that not only has 6manos had an impact in the neighbourhood by providing a space where locals can observe and admire young musical or artistic talents, taste delicious food, learn new skills, languages and exchange experiences; but they have also participated, in the making of similar initiatives, for example by working with the Ministry of Culture to develop and implement the ´Corridor of Culture´ policy and strategy in Bogotá; an attempt to maintain and develop symbolic spaces in the city, through their revitalisation and appropriation, promoting cultural activities in an attempt to recuperate their significance.

Sceptical about my scepticism

So yes, A 6manos presents an example of a project driven by a set of individuals who aimed to have an impact in the promotion of the neighbourhood´s cultural experience, participation and development. And guess what? They are technically private sector! (But in my defence, definitely a very generous private sector who wants to collectively share its space, a rare thing!). It’s also an exhibit of how public policies and strategies can learn from, particularly due to its effectiveness in implementation, private sector projects. I stand, somewhat, corrected.

When in Bogotá…

Also check out Las Nieves, once a fabric factory abandoned for 25 years, until its owner transformed it in to a series of open art studios and spaces of exhibition. Today, two generations of artists have used the space and every year it opens for exhibition in October.

Cra 8 con calle 20A, Bogotá, Colombia

Cra 8 con calle 20A, Bogotá, Colombia

Its entrance is hidden in what seems to be a very inconspicuous place, particularly for an art studio of its category. Although, having said this, you could also argue it was a perfectly evident location for an art studio of its category. It all depends on how you view artists and whether or not you approve of their love for drama and egocentrism (sorry artists! I like to think of myself as one too, so I’m allowed to say this).

As you wonder in, take the ancient elevator that can still be controlled by a lever (this was very exciting for me). Check out Carlos Blanco‘s studio, he is one of the co-founders of the space.

Carlos Blanco studio, Las Nieves, Bogotá, Colombia

Carlos Blanco studio, Las Nieves, Bogotá, Colombia

Carlos works with air, paper and shades. He has exhibited all over the world and works  here, along with 14 other artists.


Catalina Mejía’s studio, Las Nieves

Las Nieves gives you a very special opportunity because not only are these studios open for exhibition but they are open for the public to meet the faces and unique characters behind each piece of art.

Entering an artists’ studio is like entering an artists’ soul. It’s where they keep all their ideas, secrets and mistakes! Yes, artists make mistakes.

Another place to check out is El Parche.  A duplex within a partly abandoned building turned in to an artist-residency which is also an art gallery. All-in-one.


El Parche, carrera 9 con clle 22

Once again a relatively difficult door to find. This second project provides a space where young student artists are invited from different parts of the world to prepare an exhibition based on works done with local communities. The original group, El Parche, is from Oslo, Norway.


Inside El Parche, exhibition room

These spaces don’t onIy support emerging artists, but they can also be a link to a wide network within the art scene of the city. There is a huge network out there, you just need to know where to look and I don’t recommend starting with the guidebook.

It’s our space, enjoy it!