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The Panamanian neighborhood of Curundú will emerge, connect, and become the model of a sustainable city. This statement reflects the future envisioned by the three projects that made it to the final round of the IDB UrbanLab, an international competition organized by the Inter-American Development Bank with a focus on this strategic site that connects the old Canal Zone and downtown Panama City. Though affected by diverse issues such as poverty, waste management, and a degraded built environment, Curundú has enormous potential to expand its economy and improve quality of life for its residents. Its public spaces, human capital, and strategic location, are the key values that brought to life the three best proposals to transform Curundú.

After a process that took six months, last Monday the three finalists traveled to Washington D.C. to present their proposal before an international panel of judges, which was headed by the Mayor of Panama City, José Blandón. Though the goal of this session was to select the winning project, the occasion led to much more: it was an opportunity to get to know the faces behind the projects, discuss their design solutions, examine their implementation strategies and, more importantly, showcase the vast young talent found in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The team presentations revealed the formidable effort that each of the participants made—both on a personal and professional level— in order to identify and understand the reality of the intervention site. For instance, we learned that the members of “Curundú: model of a sustainable city” used their own means to travel from the Peruvian city of Huancayo, all the way to Panama City. More than three thousand kilometers separated them from Mrs. Inés—a local character that warned them about the insecurity that affects Curundú—and from an experience that helped them grasp the need to make people like Mrs. Inés feel proud of her own neighborhood.

lab urbano 1Jhimmy Trinidad and Wilder Condor, members of the team from Huancayo, presented their proposal to densify Curundú.

The team that presented “Curundú Connects!” discovered that the area not only faces challenges such as an unemployment rate of 49%, but also has great human potential; for example, 75% of the population expresses great interest in becoming involved in community and sports organizations. In such a context, the team considers that a strategy that strengthens local capacities can catalyze entrepreneurship and human development in the area. The team from the University of San Carlos in Guatemala indeed “connected”, as it realized that many of the issues faced by Curundú are shared by their own hometown of Quetzaltenango.

 lab urbano 2Maximiliano Flores and Ligia Ruiz from the Guatemala team respond to a question by Carlos Mojica, an IADB urban mobility specialist

Finally, the leader of the young team from University of Panama shared with the audience some of her memories of Curundú, going back to the times when the doors of the historic Juan Demóstenes Arosemena stadium were still open. Through analysis and frequent visits to the area, this team was able to grasp the deep implications of Curundú’s lack of connectivity with the rest of the city. After delivering their presentation, “Curundú Emerges” obtained the greatest number of positive votes from the judges, winning the 2015 IDB UrbanLab.

The winning proposal’s key physical intervention poses the elimination of the Frangispani Avenue overpass and the burial of the National Avenue, which would then become an underground road. In this sense, “Curundú Emerges” was clever to identify the Avenue as a barrier that has contributed to the isolation of the neighborhood. Its high-speed traffic not only obstructs Curundú’s integration to the rest of the city, but also affects its livability. As opposed to the other participating teams, “Curundú Emerges” incorporated a physical solution to this issue, which was supported with an insightful understanding of circulation patterns. The team also stood out in the way it handled the Q&A session, a moment that revealed the proactivity with which its members researched the area, as well as the thought they put into articulating their solutions with existing social and governmental programs.

The millions of dollars that the team estimated for these interventions raised some eyebrows among the judges. Why would the city invest so many resources in Curundú, as opposed to any other place in Panama? The students responded that investment in this site will have rippling effects due to its strategic location, and thus will impact many more people than the three thousand inhabitants in the site. What do you think?

lab urbano 3The VP for Countries of the IADB, Alexandre Meira da Rosa (left), José Ng, and the Mayor José Blandón, stand next to Diana Xie while she thanks the rest of her team members for this multi-disciplinary effort: the team brought together architects, a civil engineer, and a recent graduate from Education Studies.

While the feasibility of “Curundú Emerges” is still to be determined, the proposal reflects the commitment that the IDB’s Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative—ESCI, the organizer of the competition—has undertaken in order to open up spaces where the well-known urban challenges of the region can be nourished by fresh and ambitious perspectives. It is also a testimony of the youth’s drive, and of its capacity to fight the inertia that often limits the vision of a sustainable future for our cities.

An Urban Laboratory for the Region

At ESCI, we conceptualized the IDB UrbanLab as a unique forum where trial and error are admitted, and innovative boldness is encouraged—not without some degree of idealism, of course. Our commitment is to enable the direct collaboration among the winning team, the local government, technical experts and the community, in order to formulate a well-grounded and technically solid version of their plans for Curundú.

The competition has been incredibly tight: we were one vote away from a tie. Nonetheless, in this phase of the competition, talking about first, second and third places has little meaning, since we could all witness the exceptional value that each team brought to the table. In this spirit, the Mayor José Isabel Blandón invited all three finalists to Panama City, where they will collaboratively experiment with their ideas and consult with the community their plans to transform Curundú. Along this process, we have sought to demonstrate that cities, just like universities, need laboratories that can create more opportunities for creativity and experimentation.