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Saturday, March 22, 2008 | Teddy Cruz, a visual arts professor at University of California, San Diego, says he looks to Tijuana’s diverse development to draw inspiration for the architecture projects he designs.

The Guatemala native laments that housing subdivisions and downtown condos in San Diego have left urban denizens socially isolated from one another. He aims to design ways to bridge the gap in a city that he describes as “a network of fragmented islands connected by this freeway infrastructure.” He says more emphasis is needed to connect residents across the isolation forged by social and economic classes.

The New York Times recently wrote of Cruz’ work: “His great achievement here has less to do with aesthetic experimentation than with creating a bold antidote to the depressing model of ersatz small town America embraced by so many suburban developers.” We sat down with him to ask what lessons San Diego’s development could learn from Tijuana’s.

I’m curious when you picture development in Tijuana what immediately stands out to you?

Everything is so set in terms of the recipes in the U.S., the homogeneity of projects you see everywhere. We need alternative ways of developing.

So the lessons learned from Tijuana really have to do with rethinking sustainability, social configurations, social organization — in relationship to density and housing and development. Many of the recipes used here to develop benefit the developer and very seldomly benefit community or the people who live in particular neighborhoods. It seems the whole system is geared towards developers calling the shots in terms of how the city is shaped, and not a participatory model. Tijuana offers a very different agenda.

What’s missing from zoning regulation to encourage diversity of construction?

It’s a long story. This territory is so pregnant with conflict. That conflict for me has been an instrument to redefine the way I work as a designer, to expose conflict. This territory is a laboratory of ideas. It is across this border region, between San Diego and Tijuana, where we find the most compelling issues — politics of surveillance, labor, migration, sprawl, density, wealth and poverty.

No other place in the world you can find some of the wealthiest real estate as found in San Diego’s North County, barely 40 minutes away from some of the poorest settlements in Latin America. This becomes a model of how the cities in the world are made of these divisions between enclaves of wealth. Downtown, super powerful, in terms of revenue and potential. Surrounded by neighborhoods with poverty and a lack of resources. It is in those neighborhoods of poverty where the service communities live.

We need to reveal the contradictions. If you create a land-use map of the areas close to the border, the land use in Tijuana would be a higher pixelation of colors, in terms of mixed uses. San Diego has larger chunks. The colors don’t mix. It’s not about three-dimensional use, with housing above their businesses. Mixed use is just one business on one lot, and a house on the other. Zoning conditions need to be transformed. Density needs to be addressed in a more intelligent way. It is a moment of crisis.

In one of the largest housing booms in San Diego’s history, very few affordable housing projects have been built in many of these neighborhoods around downtown San Diego. It is a crisis of affordability. Instead, it is this oversaturation of luxury condos. For a private developer … to get the tax credits (for affordable units) they need to build 50 units. But in many neighborhoods, 50 units of density and mixed use is prohibited. So it creates this Catch-22.

We could learn from Tijuana, because that complexity is already there. Those mixed uses thrive.

What do you see getting lost in the polarization, in the divide you describe, the lack of diversity? Why does that need to be changed?

Because of issues of environmental crisis. We’ve been growing irresponsibly. We have just been catering to a building industry fundamentally dependent on this waste of resources, depending on an urbanism reliant on cars. What’s lost is social integration. Density is ultimately about complexity. We need to rethink density and construct a different idea of talking about density. What people are afraid of is huge buildings. But density is about rethinking the way housing, transportation and social networks integrate.

The San Diego River from the beginning should have become the framework for growth. Instead, we put our back to it. The network of canyons should have been a way of been a way of organizing the growth of the city. Instead, we ignored it. Instead, we think of the city as a network of fragmented islands connected by this freeway infrastructure.

The result of density when thought about more responsibly is about levels of sociability, of co-existing. We continue to think people want to live in a nice detached dwelling somewhere in a pastoral landscape. These endless spaghetti-like streets with cul-de-sacs surrounded by homogenous McMansions and tract homes, we should think of those environments differently, while still maintaining what people want. The more we distance ourselves from each other, the more we create levels of alienation.

Where is the origin of that homogeneous development?

A lot of people talk about the difference between San Francisco and San Diego. A lot of people who settled in San Francisco were Bostonians and people coming from more urban environments, while many people settling here were coming from the Midwest.

There is an isolation that is not easily identifiable in the beginning. It’s this mixture of marketing, the building industry, morale, the need for isolation and privacy, all this mixes together into this urban recipe. But there are alternatives. That’s what interests me, creating alternatives. I feel there is a level of sacrifice we are not yet ready to speak about in this country, in San Diego. The collective investment in public infrastructure, let’s begin there. If taxes are anathema for society, if we continue to perpetuate that, our cities will always be what they are now.

It’s incredibly sad and contradictory that we continue the polarization of political parties based on taxes and investment in public infrastructure. The primary thing is that we are really not addressing priorities at this moment. There are problems with traffic? Let’s make two more lanes, let’s increase the capacity. That is the mentality. Imagine that! Instead, we should be talking about rethinking the system of transportation. It is ridiculous to see huge buses empty in San Diego.

Isn’t that a discussion that climate change has put us on the brink of having?

But it still for the public is very distant. Everybody is talking about sustainability, but it is translated to strange policies that don’t deal with the core issues. Sustainability is beyond just making a building green. We have to start challenging the footprint of that building, not only in terms of carbon footprint but in terms of actual size. It’s ridiculous to think of a green house that’s 4,000 square feet.

We have to rethink the size, the relationship of the owner to the parcel, to the block, to the city. Our institutions need to be redefined entirely, and that’s a long process. So for me, it’s very frustrating. Because I want to begin with the most philosophical, theoretical ideas of reframing and rethinking ways of doing. If we don’t begin there, look at it. It’s not about a developer coming in with a recipe: Starbucks in the corner, beige buildings in a row.

That was one of my questions. When you go to Tijuana, the color of development is so striking when compared to here. We live in a beige-colored world, and they live in a rainbow-colored world. I’m curious for your thoughts.

I call San Diego a beige urbanism. Bland, homogenous. Maybe that sounds controversial and too critical. But whenever I talk about our work, I talk about pixelating the beige with difference. But it’s about more than just color. And of course, that’s not just the color of buildings. It’s really about use, the variety of uses.

You talk about frustration with the system, but you’re a part of the system to a certain extent, serving on the board of directors at CCDC (the Centre City Development Corp). Do you have a view of that inertia, that development motive from the inside?I wanted to participate in the conversation. It’s one thing to create alternatives from my studio, in terms of my work and my teaching. But as designers, we’re also responsible for being part of the body politic, part of the debate. It’s just trying to inject ways of seeing, ways of understanding into the discussion at CCDC.

More and more, cultural institutions need to be injected into these parks in downtown. A lot of nonprofits groups, theater groups, are homeless. All of those institutions, as small as they are, have been ignored and need to be a part of the mix, absorbed and invited by developers to be (housed next to public spaces). They blame me for being too abstract, too theoretical. But the relationship between public spaces to public institutions, if we don’t have that, those public spaces just remain static pedestals for semi-decent sculptures and not spaces for social exchange.

— Interview by ROB DAVIS

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