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June 3rd, 2008
Analyzing Urban Poverty

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thumb_povertycvrWhen I picked up this book I did not know what to expect. It is not a topic that is often discussed or written about. Authors Rosario C. Giusti de Perez and Ramon A. Perez take us on a journey inside the world of urban development for developing nations. As two of the earliest users of GIS, dating back to 1976, even before ‘GIS’ was used a term, they describe their award winning efforts using GIS in the squatter communities of Venezuela – known as barrios.



Analyzing Urban Poverty

GIS for the Developing World



Rosario Giusti de Pérez and Ramón Pérez


ESRI Press

125 pages; 2008 –  ISBN: 9781589481510

29.85 USD / 19.37 Euro

Review by Jeff Thurston





When I picked up this book I did not know what to expect. It is not a topic that is often discussed or written about. Authors Rosario C. Giusti de Perez and Ramon A. Perez take us on journey inside the world urban development for developing nations. As two of the earliest users of GIS, dating back to 1976, even before ‘GIS’ was used a term, they describe their award winning efforts in the squatter communities of Venezuela – known as barrios. Their work involved ESRI as a consultant whose product names, at that time, many of us had never heard of. The authors clearly had a vision that GIS could play an integral role in understanding poverty and developing urban planning solutions through its use.

In Venezuela 85% of the population lives in urban communities and 50% of them live in barrios. These communities are often considered “cities within the city” and whose development is largely guided by the needs of the residents and apart from formal planning jurisdiction. The hillside communities populate unfavourable terrain and require new rules designed to accommodate their unique needs and situation.

{sidebar id=143 align=left} Within the first chapter the authors expertise and experience in seeing, understanding and evalution capabilities become clear. They point to the issue of land ownership as a key factor in developing urban plans. They identify the lack of public places in barrios as a sign of poverty and the relationship of poor terrain with steep slopes as signifying areas of poverty also. Site analysis is given considerable attention, although the lack of GIS data is often the case for poverty ridden areas. As a consequence these areas are assessed when projects begin and planning is often developed within a context that includes site assessment, data collection and analysis.

However, “the real use of GIS is to identify the absent or scarce social needs and locate them in the best possible space,” the authors mention. Accordingly, the first chapter ends by summarizing a strategy for assessment and data collection and provides the reader with several ‘rules of thumb’ for conducting this work.

Chapter 2 is focused on the site analysis in detail and includes a short discussion on ‘threshold theory’ where environmental variables are discussed. It is notable that terrain analysis is discussed at length given that barrios are situated on some of the steepest slopes in the cities. Issues like land classification and use are also presented, providing a indication of the structure and form of these areas. Vegetation issues are outlined and a feasibility model for development on such lands is described, that is built upon the ModelBuilder software available from ESRI.

In the third chapter entitled ‘Site Analysis of the Urban-Built’ attention shifts to the physical structures on the landscape and their corresponding social networks. Sub-divisions and boundaries are discussed and this chapter proves interesting because it attempts to describe the process of mapping social boundaries, which are often not easy to define and delineate. The book provides a method for approaching this and it is important to frame this effort within the context of the book and other material presented. In other words, the authors bring their collective knowledge to bear on this topic, linking physical structure to social structure for sustainable quality living.

Chapter 4 – Poverty Mapping – begins the journey into a more detailed discussion on the topic of poverty to maps. Described in terms of quality of life, the manifestation of poverty presented. For professionals in the field of urban planning, this chapter can be considered important reading because it underlines the issues unique to poverty related land use as compared to non-poverty situated areas that many planners are more commonly involved with – but which they simply do not know how to see or assess, even though they are likely present in most cities.

The discussion about mapping invisible poverty is quite interesting because it assesses factors unique to the barrios, but also because it attempts to describe and map intangible variables that many of us attempt to map that are usually less defined and more sociological in nature. The book presents a ‘poverty index’ for assessing these variables relative to public facilities and transportation networks. Urban planning is the primary focus of the fifth chapter. Case studies are presented and intervention strategies are provided, referring to projects in the previous chapter. “Whether an area can change depends on whether it can be accessed.”

{sidebar id=144 align=right} Accessibility is a recurring theme in this book, extending from the physical structure and location of the poverty areas. A plan developed for one area that would result in better access had the side effect of removing 500 homes. Another involving greater access would mean the building of a intricate web of switch-backs (roads that turn back on themselves) because of the steep slopes that barrios are located on. We sometimes take for granted the ease with which planning can proceed and construction beginning on more or less flat land with favourable soil and geology.

Chapter 6 is oriented to the topic of managing improvement projects using GIS. It is worthwhile to note that conventional planning issues are not fully similar to those which arise in poverty communities like the barrios. There are many more types of structures in these areas with many types of materials in use. They interface government levels in different ways, sometimes not at all. Yet, these communities can also develop along a path of maturity which slowly raises their presence and identification in the eyes of government, thus garnering more services. ArcGIS Tracking Analyst is used to track project costs in the example given and project investment costs are managed and information provided. The final chapter of this book addresses the issue of public participation into the community development process. Topics include community associations, organizations and the example of the barrio of Petare is provided.

In summary this book is a worthwhile read and valuable to own. The authors are clearly experienced and professional in seeing, understanding and developing solutions for poverty situated communities. Their knowledge is manifested in the numerous criteria, variables and rules which they consider in analyzing urban poverty. But I found this book to be an ‘eye-opener’ possibly for use by all urban planners in general, for the same reason. The book provides clues and experiences about looking at communities in new and different ways. It will therefore be useful for other communities and situations where poverty needs to be assessed, analyzed and appropriate strategies developed. Analyzing Urban Poverty contains the information needed to see, understand and develop urban solutions for poverty ridden areas using GIS tools so these communities can flourish, grow and enjoy a higher quality of life.

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