The Cuban Cities of Tomorrow

Their hooks lie expecting their day’s catch. The fishermen hold passively onto their rods, their plastic and their metal, quiet and content. Gazing up at the sky through the beat of their glasses, they’ll allow some moments to pass, moments only gauged by the motion of the sun. ‘Nuevas Versaches, Cabròn?’ asks a fisherman to another, curious as to what he is wearing. ‘No chico…’ he begins to explain, and gives, instead, this smooth sounding name, to which his friend isn’t familiar, a name as smooth sounding as the Spanish language itself.

Behind the fishermen pass a mother and daughter, seemingly late to something, fast-paced in their suits as if they were bound for some meeting in midtown Manhattan. The two fishermen turn around, seeing the two approach the line up ahead, almost wanting to say something odd, until the mother shot them an eye of warning. Before the fishermen could even think of something fairer to say in the rounds of the teenage girl, it became too late, everyone on the line had already boarded. La Guagua Especial would stop a little too close to where the fishermen worked. Every time it passed, some of the fishermen, especially the older ones, would become distracted by its length, by its sleekness, and the especially by that rubber pivot holding the two cars together. Every time the bus would pull away it’d blow a cloud of a gasoline toward the fishermen’s faces— and every time they became brushed by that scent of ethanol, some of them, especially the older, would struggle to stop their smiles.

The mother checks her phone and wallet, putting herself together while she could. The daughter, still faced, just stares out the window, tired, even though her day has barely begun. PLAZA VIEJA the bus ticker shouts. The mother stands up, seemingly having to drag her daughter with her. It’s been a while since they’ve ridden the bus together. In the daughter’s mind are the faint memories of the bus conductor once yelling all the stops. “As old as the city itself,” her mother says to her as they get off the bus, but only in Spanish. The daughter finally looks at her phone, ’11:30’, and starts to hope that the interview might have food. It doesn’t help that she’s passing a strip of restaurants on her way. She can smell the boliche, and the baking bread for sandwiches, the pastry shop, even the smell of the oil from the fast food place. She tries to distract herself, with the geezers playing checkers and dominos on the tables, some of the wives sharing pictures and laughing over at the bench, some teenagers complaining about something over their phones, and some other small children kicking around a soccer ball. It was only 11:30 and the sun was as strong as ever. “Está caliente,” she complains to her mother, who turns around and tell her to stop complaining about the heat and to try and put on a professional attitude. Seeing the building in front of her, the large glass and masonry, she hopes it might be the type of building to have awesome air conditioners, and food! She sees a small bulletin about food as she’s walking in, but it was plastered over by another about some candidate for next month’s elections. She sighs. “Stop it!” the mother stops in her tracks, telling her to get her act together.

They’re up on what must be the 30th floor. Her mother talking to the professional about their future, tapping her shoulder to get her to pay attention, she just can’t. She can see almost all of Havana. She’s grabbed by the view and looks around at the plaza below, at the buildings and blocks around, and sees a closed shop with its sign dangling in front of it. It’s the only thing closed on the block. She gazes in for a moment. It wasn’t a shop, and she realizes that she’s familiar with it. It’s a been a while certainly, but she remembers it. She remembers that time on the line forever while her mother was sick in bed, hoping they wouldn’t run out of medicine. She remembers being there that time with her father, actually, she then tries to not. She then remembers how everything was so different back then, and how she only understands so much of it. She remembers the year when everything changed, how she had to come home early some nights, hearing the loud noises in the distance. She remembers seeing her mother cry on the kitchen floor one night, having to hide her little brother so he wouldn’t get scared. She remembers things changing after that, not really remembering how, just remembers things getting different, more exciting in a way. She understands a lot more now that she’s older, but maybe not as much as she would like. “Josefina!” her mother taps on her one last time, visibly annoyed. She finally pays attention.

Street Culture


Faces of politics will change, and the course of history will continue to present new phases of cultural-economic shape and shadow. From its origin in Spanish colonialism to its current phase in socialist depression, Cuba’s streets and plaza’s have continued to be a point of cultural governance. Whereas in the Baroque, such spaces functioned as social centers due to the simplicity of technology and culture, such spaces function likewise today as moments of social collection, largely due to the perilous state of technology and economic welfare on the island. The lack of cars and sophisticated transportation technology, as was the case in the Baroque, up until the twentieth century, established the social parameter necessary for the common interaction of peoples within the community upon the streetscape. Passing individuals and bystanders, especially those who do so everyday, will clearly engage in more intimate communication than those separated by speed and machinery. Likewise, today, the economic deprivation of the Cuban people coerces them into a similar social parameter. While outdated cars and questionable mass transportation systems exist, their lack of economic integrity renders them near inefficient. However, our today example is only part explained by technological inaccessibility, and more so explained by the lack of recreation we experience in first world countries. The Cuban people, upon their return from their efforts making little over two dollars a day, are not returning to engage in social media, play computer consoles, and engage in similar, indoor, introverted activities, such luxuries, without needing explanation, do not exist. Rather the Cuban people must spend their time a bit more traditionally, engaging one another outside. But this simple logic, Cuba continues to boast one of the most thriving street cultures in the world. Cuban street culture is a testament to the resiliency of a people determined to define “having a good a time” in the few ways that they can.

It is without question that the Cuba’s future industrialization, whenever such a post-socialist society may arise, will undoubtedly challenge the social system that has been with the culture since its roots. It’s up to design to craft the future of Cuba’s urban systems, so that it embraces the fruits of industrialization, without erasing the cultural legacy inherent in its street culture. So, if it is understood that vibrant street life exists under the conditions of Cuba’s poverty, their lack material distractions, and more importantly, their lack of industrialized traffic to threaten its pedestrian domination, how is it that both industrialism and street-communalism can coexist? Well, it’s not impossible according to one late visionary traffic engineer, Hans Monderman. His innovative approach to urban traffic, called ‘shared space’, refutes common logic that industry and pedestrian should be forever segregated. Rather, their integration can have a number of positive cultural, and even positive economic consequences that urban traditionalists might fail to see (Gary). ‘Shared Space’ has the potential to preserve the social capacity of streets and plazas, keeping at bay the easily dominating industrial forces, while yet not completely forcing loss upon them. Hans Monderman’s, ‘Shared Space’ is an innovative urban approach that could provide the base fabric for the Cuban cities of tomorrow.

Recent thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba is a sign of hope for future cultural and economic reforms on the island.
Recent thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba is a sign of hope for future cultural and economic reforms on the island.

It’s hard to give a testimony as to when Cuba’s current political situation may finally turnover. Its socialist stalemate has certainly left the island in a state of deprivation and stagnation. Certain philosophies hold the Revolution’s efforts to be worthy by certain means, though certain objectivities within the system speak for itself. It’s hard to imagine a society where peaceful protest might put you in prison, if not killed. It’s hard to imagine a society where beef and milk are illegal for the public consumption (Alvarez). It’s hard to imagine a society where prostitution has become an acceptable second-job so that a mother can provide basic needs for her children. It’s hard to imagine a society where a waiter at a tourists’ resort can bring home more money in tips within one day, than the most established doctor can make it a month. Yet, it’s all okay, according to certain philosophies. Every child has access to an education—an education so empowering that the craft of any pen is manipulated by the state, to ensure ‘artistic unity’ of course. Yet it’s all okay. Everyone has access to free healthcare and medicine, healthcare and medicine that must becomes even more essential for a society collectively on a modest diet. It’s hard to imagine such a society being so valued that others would experience its replication, unless you’re Venezuelan—but that’s a digression.


It’s hard to give testimony as to when Cuba’s current political situation might end—but it’s easy to give testimony as to what economic events might proceed it. From the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the liberalization of Chinese economic policy under Deng Xiaoping, and similar liberalization in Vietnam, the release of socialist gridlock on a culture produces a massive cultural expansion. The phenomenon is the fundamental argument of capitalism, that a society unfettered by constrictions will produce, within itself, all the goods and service it will need to survive and thrive. Like these precedent societies, Cuba’s economy is dormant under a heavy blanket of totalitarianism, waiting to jump up upon its release. As seen in China and similar societies, Cuba will undergo intensive industrialization, compensating for the years of history for which it has been left in the dark, literally. Such massive industrialization will undoubtedly bring about massive cultural change. How do the daily lives of the Cuban people change in response to new economic opportunities, and how does the structure of its society, the structure of its cities, best respond to its new cultural rhythms?

The footprints of commercialism have taken their footing in the urban fabric of this town in suburban New Jersey.
The footprints of commercialism have taken their footing in the urban fabric of this town in suburban New Jersey.

Without design intervention, Cuba, is doomed a type of Americanization referred to as the ‘Paramus Effect’ (Goldberger, 52). The rise of suburban mall culture in response to the accessibility cars and means of extended travel, created an industrially efficient means of allocating commercial space from residential space, but was socially destructive as it eradicated the potency of the town plaza. No longer does the population care to convene at the the city center for all of their needs, instead, their shopping has been reallocated to all contained mini-city of its own, one completely dedicated to commercialism, and isolated from the neighborhood fabric. The social parameter to engage people on the streetscape no longer exists. Socialization has been exported to the shopping mall, whose overwhelming commercialism transforms the spaces’ social potential into something more modest. Mall’s can host passerby’s and their conversations, and annoying teenagers who hang out at the junction of corridor’s but no space is quite allocated for the purpose of community gathering the way the central plaza has always been. In the Paramus example, referring to the urban condition of a New York City suburb, there is no central gathering space, at all. The town is formed along the axis of two intersecting commercial highways with residential highways being pushed around, segregated by the barrier-effect of such highways. The town’s municipal building is centrally located, in an industrial warehouse neighborhood isolated from the residential street system, and apart of the commercial corridor system, completely surrendering all community intention to the dominance of such commercialism. Hans Monderman’s innovative traffic system is an ideal first approach toward reforming Cuba’s urban systems so that it embraces industrialization, without erasing the remnants of socialism and communalism from its urban fabric, its legendary street life.

The Dutch Hans Monderman's shared space initiative has restored the streetscape for pedestrians, and returned some of Europe's urbanism to it's older, plaza-based past.
The Dutch Hans Monderman’s shared space initiative has restored the streetscape for pedestrians, and returned some of Europe’s urbanism to it’s older, plaza-based past.

It might be first considered counter-intuitive to eliminate the pedestrian-vehicular traffic separation that has come to define our cities up until this point. It might seem against a certain simple logic for people and cars to share their space. However, the evidence from existing examples has vindicating Monderman’s vision, that shared spaces, instead, create a more responsive traffic, coercing both the pedestrian and vehicular elements to engage in dialogue in order to achieve their objectives (Gary). In our status-quo system, pedestrian and vehicle are blinded by the false security of segregated circulation space that they become less attentive to the objectives of the other party, contributing to accidents and fatalities. While fatalities are inevitable, and Modermann may not be suggesting a clean-all absent of its moments of failure, he is suggesting a system that will ultimately contribute a more attentive, alert, and in such way, communicative street culture. By sharing such space, the streets be reopened to the pedestrian, and socially engaging street cultures may presume.


Some might imagine that a shared space would lead to a slow down in travel times for vehicular travel. However, as spaces are shared, and the necessity for traffic lights becomes voided, such system also changes. Rather than having a series of vehicles wait for a minute stopped at a light, vehicles, in communication with the pedestrians around, will instead, continue to move, just at a pace responsive to their environments, a system which largely, given the precedent examples, has actually reduced overall traffic time.


The application of this system in Cuba, or in any other context as Monderman asserts himself, relies largely on supporting, industrial-priority, traffic infrastructures elsewhere in the city. Controlled-access highways and radiating avenues can continue to prioritize industrial traffic and their means in and out of urban cores. It is the urban cores themselves that are deserving of Monderman’s innovative treatment, and it is this very system that can become the urban basis for Cuba’s industrialized cities. Avenues and Boulevard should be zoned from one another, assigning shared spaces, if not pedestrian only spaces, to certain avenues, and industrial-priority to others. The manner in which this is approached is up for further study.

diagram plazas
Stars represent shared space plaza cores, while orange arteries represent industrial-priority avenues.

One approach would encourage the promotion of a city’s neighborhoods into zones each containing their own shared space systems and central plaza systems. They would be divided by the industrial-priority, large avenues that ribbon through the city. Such approach is certainly efficient and logical, yet divisive, separating the city into sub-cities while creating a difficulty for their cross-communication over the dividing avenues, an approach Jane Jacobs notably fought against in 1960’s New York (Flint).

Light green pathways represent boulevards zoned for pedestrian priority. Dark green pathways represent supporting, industrial-priority arteries.
Light green pathways represent boulevards zoned for pedestrian priority. Dark green pathways represent supporting, industrial-priority arteries.

Another, almost inverse of an approach, would be rather to allocate all major Haussmann-like boulevards as pedestrian-priority or shared spaces, and support them with industrial-priority streets along side them. Independent plazas, bearing the pedestrian or street-shared systems, could still exist apart from this network. All industrial traffic would face their own traffic lights, or moments of interruption upon their intersection with pedestrian-priority or shared spaces.

Diagram Networj

Both systems would anticipate the existence of a circumnavigating industrial-priority highway outside the city core, which connects in intersections with regional and national highway systems. Thus, industrial traffic is still free to roam wherever it may need through the city, but now becomes checked into a more balanced street system at the city’s core, in order to preserve the sociability of its spaces.

The future of Cuba, particularly in the short-run, in uncertain. What forces will exist to maintain Cuba’s cultural legacy against the pressures of mass-industrialization? Hans Monderman’s shared space can form a basis in the structure of Cuba’s cities so that pedestrianism is not exchanged for industrialism. The preservation of Cuba’s legacy requires active design to best conduct and orchestrate these spaces throughout its cities. Establishing this, as the foundation of Cuba’s urbanism, and provide the basis for the next conversation, how can a contemporary, free-market Cuba express itself in its architectural structures?

  1. Toth, Gary. “Where the Sidewalk Doesn’t End: What Shared Space Has to Share – Project for Public Spaces.” Project for Public Spaces. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.
  2. Alvarez, Jose. “Overview of Cuba’s Food Rationing System1.” EDIS New Publications RSS. University of Florida, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.
  3. Goldberger, Paul. “Bringing Back Havana.” Building up and Tearing Down: Reflections on the Age of Architecture. New York: Monacelli, 2009. N. pag. Print.
  4. Flint, Anthony. “Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City” (2009) Random House.




Photograph: Evening at El Malecón, from

One thought on “The Cuban Cities of Tomorrow”

  1. Hi Christopher,

    Try a couple of searches in these three resources for additional information on your topic. These resources target academic publications and I’ve included some search strategies to try.

    Type the search strategies as they are written below into the search boxes in the various resources.

    AVERY Index to Architectural Periodicals
    Locate this online database on the Databases tab on the Libraries homepage at

    heritage AND “developing countries”
    “public spaces” AND Cuba
    “architecture Cuba”
    heritage AND preservation AND culture*
    “heritage preservation”
    architecture AND heritage AND culture*
    Cuba AND heritage

    This is the University Libraries’ online card catalog and contains both full-text online materials as well as listings of the Libraries’ books and paper-format journals.

    “heritage preservation” AND Cuba
    On the search results page, find Discipline in the far lefthand column and select ‘architecture.’

    “public spaces” and Cuba
    On the search results page, find Discipline in the far lefthand column and select ‘architecture.’

    “cultural tourism” AND Cuba
    On the search results page, find Discipline in the far lefthand column and select ‘architecture.’
    You will need to scroll a little down this second listing of search results to get to the “good stuff.”

    Google Scholar
    Locate this online database on the Databases tab on the Libraries homepage at If you enter Google Scholar from within the Libraries, Google Scholar will recognize you as Penn State-related (we gave them all our IP addresses) and you will have access to most of the full-text materials you find. Those articles that you can’t access full-text, you can request for free using InterLibrary Loan.

    architecture AND Cuba AND heritage
    “cultural tourism” AND Cuba
    “public spaces” AND Cuba

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