Samantha Saona


Working with Urban Informality: A Postcolonial Critique of Planning Theory Based on Lessons from the Caño Martín Peña Special Planning District

Advised by Abby Spinak

This thesis adds to the postcolonial perspective by using an empirically grounded analysis of the Caño Martín Peña Special Planning District to offer theoretical interventions. The case has recently been celebrated for combining a robust participatory practice and inventive planning strategies that “work with” the community. However, previous scholarship fails to underscore contextual specificity and the complexity of the process. Thus, I propose a critical methodology to engage with and highlight a systemic understanding of “informal” spaces. Following a multidimensional theoretical framework that converges around risk, situated knowledge, and design politics, this thesis reflects on three questions. (1) How can we improve the living conditions of residents in these areas without asking them to become part of the system that causes their “vulnerabilization”? (2) What is the appropriate scale to think about “working with ‘informality’”? (3) Are the “developmentalist” economic and political projects (capitalist, neoliberalist) the cause of “urban informality”? This thesis suggests that even “successful” participatory processes and sensitive projects are skewed by the politics behind government- approved practices that render the impacted populations legible, and technical documents that are incomprehensible to most. Additionally, I contrast the scale chosen for positive implementable infrastructure and design projects to alternative scales of administering policies that work with the continuous urbanization processes that lead to “informality.” The discussion brings forth how these processes were initially provoked by migration into cities due to imported industrialization operations. Finally, the thesis proposes a decentered and repoliticized framework to reflect on how “urban informality” is created, maintained, and perpetuated.

Samantha Saona, MDes. A photo of a group of people meeting around a conference table with the heading "Working with Urban Informality." Below are four aerial photos of an inhabited landscape with the following titles: Slum Clearance, Urban Renewal, Citizen Participation, Comprehensive Development.
Samantha Saona, MDes. Case study photographs showing the tidal channel, community activities, physical environment, and spatial transformations.
Samantha Saona, MDes. Location map of case study in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Samantha Saona, MDes. Diagram of research process shows the building blocks of the empirically grounded and theoretically guided methodology and includes the interrelation between different sources.
Samantha Saona, MDes. Diagram showing the systemic understanding of the case study depicts complex and multilayered connections between actors, organizations, components, and procedures.
Samantha Saona, MDes. District’s growth and transformation over time shown using maps from 1936, 1962, 1981, 1998, 2002, and 2020.