“The Right Stuff”: Ana Vargas wins Dubai International Award

A third of the world’s population lives in informal settlements, and Tata Center alumna Vargas’s unique project addresses their needs

ana vargas
Ana Vargas leading a workshop in Mumbai.

Ana Cristina Vargas (S.M. ’14) has won the Dubai International Award for Best Practices in recognition of her innovative work on public space in Mumbai, India and other locations around the globe. The award comes shortly after completing her Master’s thesis at MIT with support from the Tata Center for Technology and Design.

Vargas’s thesis project, Tracing Public Space, began at MIT, but has its roots in her native Venezuela, where she worked in architecture and construction. There she became interested in informal settlements, “cities built by people, not the government.”

Vargas estimates that a third of the world’s population lives in such communities, and she is developing Tracing Public Space in response to the needs of this extraordinarily large, and often ignored, constituency. Even though many informal settlements are “off the grid” and have limited access to modern electricity, plumbing, and municipal services, Vargas believes that quality of life can be improved through the intervention of community members themselves.

In a series of workshops aimed at children between the ages of 11 and 16, she encourages residents to take ownership of the public spaces in their communities, and equips them with the skills to transform those spaces for the better. The pilot workshop took place in Boston’s diverse Jamaica Plain neighborhood, and subsequent workshops were held in Mumbai neighborhoods, from low-income Mulund and Malwani to affluent Colaba. Now, Tracing Public Space is turning its attention to communities in Venezuela.

As a Tata Fellow, Vargas worked under the guidance of Professor Miho Mazereeuw in the Urban Risk Lab and has traveled to India for fieldwork three times in the past year. She credits the Tata Center with not only making her work feasible, but pushing her to ask questions that had to be answered in the field.

The process, she says, was “typical MIT: learn by doing. It needed to be hands-on, and that would only have been possible with the Tata Center’s help.”

Focus on the future

A key part of Tracing Public Space’s methodology is the way it engages children. “They are actually the future of that place,” says Vargas. “They are more open to seeing different possibilities in their communities.”

Vargas works with residents to find new ways of representing and visualizing their community, using a combination of photography, mapping, and modeling. She equips children with digital cameras, teaches them to draw maps to scale, and works with them to make tangible transformations to the public space.

“In India,” she says, “the line between public and private is blurry.” Notable for their extreme density and lack of resources, Indian neighborhoods pose special challenges. For example, in Malwani, a transit camp originally meant to be temporary, Vargas found that 100 families share a single courtyard and public toilet, and that there is no clear authority for cleaning and maintenance.

Residents review photos of their neighborhood in Malwani, Mumbai.
Residents review photos of their neighborhood in Malwani Transit Camp, Mumbai.

In the course of a workshop, she asked the residents of Malwani what simple change they would most like to make, given the means available to them. They elected to beautify the space by cleaning the courtyard and painting the walls of the toilet.

Using the information gleaned from the Tracing Public Space workshop, the children of Malwani went to each house, independently explaining the project and asking for donations. They were able to raise 300 rupees–only a few U.S. dollars, but a significant amount of money in that community–and purchased paint and cleaning supplies, which were used to transform the space.

It may seem like a small step, Vargas says, but “the ultimate goal is to change the way people see public space.”

This practice of empowering residents to change their communities is at the heart of Tracing Public Space. “We can’t wait for the governments to go into the slums. There are changes that cannot wait for the government to take responsibility.”

Taking the project forward

Since graduating from MIT, Vargas has returned to Caracas, Venezuela, where she is partnering with major companies to hold Tracing Public Space workshops in informal settlements.

The government of Dubai took notice of her work in the fall of 2014, and will present her with the Dubai International Award for Best Practices (DIABP) in the category of University Research in January 2015. She reveals that the day before she was notified about winning the award, she was feeling a sense of exhaustion with the project. “This is a hard phase, when I’m trying to improve the method and at the same time make it more replicable.”

The DIABP, which recognizes outstanding contributions to improving quality of life, has given her a renewed spirit of motivation, however. “Sometimes you need a little push, [to know that] you’re doing the right stuff, that someone else thinks this is good.” The award also includes a monetary prize, which Vargas plans to invest in the project.

Vargas will accept the award in person and present her project to various dignitaries, including the Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan.


To learn more about Tracing Public Space, visit http://tracingpublicspace.org