How Puerto Ricans are Collectively Designing their Just Recovery

By:
Carlos Berríos Polanco
Published in
March 6, 2024
Right to Belong
Political participation

A women-led participatory design agency is helping redesign community water systems, urban gardens and parks

This story was made possible thanks to a partnership between 9 Millones and Proximate, a not-for-profit media platform that reports about emergent participatory models that shift power to people with lived experience.

Rosalina Abreu had just finished eating lunch at La Loma de la Niña Mariana, a recreational park in the Mariana neighborhood, nestled between the mountains in Humacao on the eastern coast of Puerto Rico.

Just an hour ago, the food hall was crowded with dozens of people, talking and eating baked chicken with stewed rice and vegetables – a serene environment that has become a staple of Mariana’s community.

It wasn’t always like that. After Hurricane Maria in 2017, “It was like a bomb had dropped,” Abreu told me. In the wake of the destruction, the community decided to trust the only thing they had: each other. So they opened a free restaurant. By the time the government arrived months later to ask what the community needed, La Loma de la Niña Mariana was already serving free lunch to hundreds of people a day.

“For people to collectively imagine, they need to be safe.”
– Cynthia Burgos

Abreu is the secretary of local Mariana non-profit ARECMA (or the Mariana Community Recreational and Educational Association of Humacao, Inc). ARECMA was created by a group of Mariana neighbors to protect the local environment and encourage community engagement, and in recent years they have taken lead on a number of projects, from building a local playground to building a more resilient water infrastructure system.

To design these interventions, ARECMA has partnered with La Maraña, a women-led participatory design and planning non-profit that is pioneering a new kind of community-led development across Puerto Rico.

La Maraña was founded in 2014 as a way to revitalize and rebuild abandoned urban spaces. They grew quickly and began to partner with non-profits around the island, like ARECMA, to facilitate the “participatory design” of everything from playgrounds and community gardens to critical infrastructure.

“Our mission with La Maraña is to democratize the project management process,” says co-founder Cynthia Burgos.

In the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and María, La Maraña launched a unique “community participatory recovery project” called Imaginación Post-María. They partnered with leaders in Mariana on a large project to redesign the region’s water system, and also worked on large-scale civic projects in San Antón and La Vuelta Del Dos.

Abreu says that La Maraña has helped her community learn about collaborative design. “We have learned [so much] from La Maraña,” Abreu says. “They don’t work from the perspective of ‘what I know’, but from the wisdom of everyone, from what we all know – and what are the things we need according to where we are.”

From a Children’s Park to a Water System

The community leaders at ARECMA first approached La Maraña in 2018 on a small-scale project to rebuild a children’s park destroyed by hurricane Maria. Approximately forty young people chipped in to co-design the Mis Panitas (in English, My Friends) park, which was inaugurated during the 2019 summer camp at La Loma de la Niña Mariana. “All of that was the vision of our kids and youth,” Abreu said.

That process went so well that ARECMA and La Maraña continued to collaborate on a bigger project. After hurricanes Irma and María, the water situation in Mariana and neighboring Jagüeyes was becoming untenable. Faced with devastated pipes and pumps, the community had spent six months without accessible drinking water.

La Maraña helped co-design a community engagement process to help determine what the community needed most. Between January and June of 2019, Mariana and Jagüeyes leaders organized a series of meetings in which they voted on their most pressing needs. They landed on a water supply system – a project they called Agua para Todos (in English, Water for Everyone) – that La Maraña helped co-design.

Simultaneously, they consulted 2,500 residents of Mariana and neighboring Jagüeyes. The volunteers identified community assets—houses, schools, churches, outdoor areas and community centers. Then, they compiled those assets into a community map and a series of digital plans to be used during emergencies.

After the community’s vote, they started co-building the water supply system. They used sand from Naguabo’s Blanco River to create dams. From the dams, water passes to cement stations through a system of PVC pipes, pushed by the force of gravity. Two of the three water stations were built in the shape of a tower so they could be easily identified as community supply points, according to the needs identified on the base map and emergency plan.

Eventually, Ariel Well Drilling & Pump Service created a well that reaches 600 feet underground. According to the company’s experts, it should supply the community for 25 years. The well is located in La Loma de la Niña Mariana, and the water stations are open to whoever needs them. One of the stations supplies water to the restaurant and a few nearby buildings; it is the only local water station that provides drinking water through a filter system.

Looking back on the project, Abreu celebrated that “the community will not be lacking water for many years.”

One of the cement stations of the water supply La Maraña co-designed with ARECMA on Dec. 20, 2023 in Humacao, Puerto Rico. This station is connected to a 600 foot deep well and supplies drinkable water thanks to a system of filters. It was placed next to a hill so cars could easily pull up to fill their water tanks. (Photo by Carlos Berríos Polanco/Proximate/9 Millones)

Co-designing with the community, for the community

Agua para Todos was just one of the projects that La Maraña is facilitating through Imaginación Post-Maria.

In La Vuelta del Dos and Los Guaretos, La Maraña collaborated with local artists to bring  forth creative solutions to the environmental and infrastructure challenges their communities face. In San Antón and Saint Just, they collaborated with local grassroots activists to redesign an abandoned school into a hub that can propel community organizing and development.

According to co-founder Cynthia Burgos, La Maraña’s participatory design process in each case is divided into three phases: dream, design and build. The “dreaming” phase involves bringing the community together to understand how they want to transform and use the space. Next, La Maraña turns those hopes into detailed collaborative development plans. Finally, they accompany the community in co-building the space using a mix of internal and external collaborators.

This is markedly different from the process employed by government programs, which typically come to a community offering a response that was designed in a faraway office, without assembling or involving the community.

In 2023, La Maraña undertook two new projects in addition to the four they were already working on, offered 16 participatory design workshops, and awarded $68,000 in community grants. This year, they hope to begin their third cycle of the Participatory Design Lab with two community projects.

Through “Imaginacion Post-Maria,” La Maraña’s community co-designers developed a six-stage methodology that spans from immediate emergency to the co-planning and inauguration of a project based on a just recovery framework to take action. La Maraña also aims to work on pushing for a just transition, that is, getting communities on track to eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions.

“For people to collectively imagine, they need to be safe. You can’t [ask] a person to think collectively, when they are homeless or bedridden. For participation to be effective and long-term, you have to meet a need,” said Burgos.

Therefore, La Maraña’s methodology includes steps for short-, medium-, and long-term recovery. The short-term consists of connecting with the community and responding to their immediate needs. Medium-term recovery happens when community assets are mapped out and participatory design workshops begin. Finally, long-term recovery is when the community votes on the project they want to build and begins to actually build it.

Cynthia Burgos, co-founder and executive director of La Maraña
Cynthia Burgos, co-founder and executive director of La Maraña, poses for a photo outside the collective’s office in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Feb 5, 2024. (Photo by Carlos Berríos Polanco/Proximate/9 Millones)

A garden that will feed the community

La Maraña continued to grow its footprint and develop creative partnerships.

One of the projects that La Maraña started in 2023 was with Urbe Apie—a community organization in Caguas focused on rescuing abandoned spaces—where they are trying to reestablish a community garden called Huerto Feliz (in English, Happy Garden), which boasts more than 40 varieties of plants, a system for collecting water, and several murals created by the community.

Photo of Zeus Ayala Gonzalez and Zuleyka García Torres
Zeus Ayala Gonzalez and Zuleyka García Torres, co-founders of Urbe Apie, have big plans with abandoned properties in Caguas, Puerto Rico on Nov. 1, 2023. (Photo by Carlos Berríos Polanco/Proximate/9 Millones)
Zeus Ayala Gonzalez shows the final design for the Huerto Feliz
Zeus Ayala Gonzalez shows the final design for the Huerto Feliz through a design booklet made by La Maraña in Caguas, Puerto Rico on Nov. 1, 2023. While they have already put $17,000 into the project, they are still missing around $30,000 to finish it. (Photo by Carlos Berríos Polanco/Proximate/9 Millones)

“The place was a wasteland, a lost space. We, the community, revitalized it and started planting,” said Zuleyka García Torres, co-founder of Urbe Apie. Huerto Feliz was originally restored in 2016, only to be destroyed by Hurricane Maria the following year. By 2023, the community rebuilt it for the second time, and now there are new opportunities for the space.

“This space was designed by the community,” Garcia Torres said. The collaborative design process involved meetings with more than 20 community members to discuss the future of the space. In these gatherings, they reached an agreement on what they needed most: food access, public restrooms and a meeting space that would be accessible for people in wheelchairs.

Urbe Apie is in the process of raising the funds to complete the construction. They used $17,000—donated by La Maraña—to employ people from the community who did construction work, such as creating the access ramp, knocking down a cement wall, sowing plants, and installing the water and filtration system.

“[Revitalizing] is difficult when we don’t have the property title, but this is not a problem that the state is going to solve,” explained Zeus Omar Ayala González, co-founder of Urbe Apie, while sitting in the community garden, under a tin roof that protected him from the hot Caribbean sun.

The Municipality of Caguas once declared the lot occupied by Huerto Feliz a public nuisance while Urbe Apie volunteers were still fixing it up. The people quickly mounted a campaign against the declaration that eventually forced the municipal government to back off and archive the motion to declare the property a public nuisance, according to court documents reviewed by 9 Millones and Proximate.

Challenges of participatory design

After working with participatory design projects for ten years, it is clear to Burgos that achievements do not come without obstacles. She points to the cost and time it takes for citizen participation as the main difficulties of employing this methodology. Getting people on the same page requires empathy and many conversations, Burgos added.  

Like many community-based organizations, La Maraña faces the challenge of raising money for the projects it undertakes.

For the Agua para Todos project, La Maraña donated $50,000 to ARECMA for materials. Most of the labor came from the residents themselves. The Planet Water Foundation and the Hispanic Federation donated a water storage system and a food storage system respectively to ARECMA for La Loma de la Niña Mariana.

“Not only does it take time, but it also takes money. The time of the professionals who are doing this [work] obviously costs, and it has value. We have to figure out as a society how this work —the professionals’ and residents’— is valued,” agreed David Carrasquillo, executive director of ¡Planifiquemos!, which manages design and planning projects with communities to advance equity.

La Maraña has wanted to refine their process of collaboration with community groups, so they have created “La Cartuchera”: a community design and training toolkit that they will begin distributing to community leaders in 2024. Burgos stressed that they are not organizers. Instead, they want the communities they collaborate with to already have the social infrastructure in place to begin the participatory design process. La Maraña’s intention with “La Cartuchera” is to advance the educational phase on community design and planning, so that they do not have to start from scratch when submitting projects to the entity.

“We are very zealous and careful not to come to a community and say, ‘Let’s dream, let’s design,’ without having the money to at least execute part of the project,” Burgos explains. When they launched their first open call for projects, they gave community grants of $17,000, which helped fund the Urbe Apie project.

While there is still a long way to go to finish what has been started at Huerto Feliz, it is clear that it is a seed of hope in the community. The group still needs an additional $30,000 to complete the project. The first phase of installing fences, knocking down a dividing wall and creating a ramp leading directly to the Huerto will be completed by mid-February, said Ayala González.

"Thanks to the participatory design, we have been able to achieve the objectives for the space,"

García Torres said.

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