Extract from the article published on March 25,2010 in the DJC, by Marc Stiles
What would Fidel do?
Some may scoff at that notion that developers and civic leaders could learn anything worthwhile in Cuba, but that didn’t stop a group from going to Havana last month on an i-Sustain tour.
Seattle-based i-Sustain, which counts among its clients many of the region’s leading architects, developers and builders, works to identify best urban development and sustainability practices and takes people on study trips to see how those practices work. They travel to Scandinavia, Australia and Brazil — among other places — to capture the best ideas on issues ranging from alternative transportation to recycling.
But Cuba? What could people learn from that falling-apart, communist country? Plenty, says Seattle developer Kevin Daniels.
“While I would never want to live there, they are the most sustainable country in the world,” says Daniels, who is also a member of the board for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “They have to be.”
Last month, Daniels took his second trip to Cuba with i-Sustain, and he’s looking into helping the National Trust plan a mission to Cuba, where the nonprofit is working to preserve Ernest Hemingway’s home. Seeing how Cuba is preserving Old Havana, a collection of historic buildings similar to Seattle’s Pioneer Square, was worthwhile, said Daniels, president of Nitze-Stagen & Co. and Daniels Development.
Cuba invests revenue from tourism to train people in the neighborhood to restore old buildings, which are turned into shops, studios, restaurants and housing. With such a different system in Cuba — the government owns everything — Luis Borrero, an i-Sustain principal says, “it’s a little tough to replicate up here.” But with tax and other incentives, the concept could help keep in place the people who give gentrifying neighborhoods character to begin with.
“They’ve done some really amazing historic preservation,” said another tour participant, Seattle City Council member Sally Clark. It’s somewhat similar to what Seattle has done with public development authorities, such as the one that operates Pike Place Market. “It makes you think what else we could with the PDA model,” she said.
Under the Cuban system, most of the tourism revenue generated at Pike Place would be plowed back into the market. An interesting concept, but will Clark propose it? “Not [anytime] soon,” she says, adding that is a state-level decision that would require a longer discussion.
The i-Sustain group also examined Havana’s urban agriculture co-operatives and how neighborhoods are structured around what are called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. “With that name, you kind of freak out,” says Borrero.
Fascinating yet controversial stuff, but too much to detail here. You can learn more about the Havana trip during a brown bag discussion that the Seattle design firm SRG Partnership will host at noon April 9 at its offices, 110 Union St. RSVP to Bonnie Duncan;email@example.com or (206) 973-1697.