After several years at I2UD, first as a Northeastern co-op student and then as a research associate, Carolina Morgan is currently pursuing a dual masters degree in urban planning and real estate development at MIT. This summer, Carolina embarked upon an internship with one of the largest developers-Conservatorio- in Casco Antiguo, the historic district of Panama City, Panama. Below, she reflects on the experience and shares insights on the role of the private sector in promoting social inclusion:
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site undergoing major restoration, Casco attracts both Panamanians and foreigners to its part of town which stands in stark contrast to the daunting concrete and glass high-rise buildings and extensive highways that makes up the rest of the city. Investors have recognized Casco as a tourist attraction and are positioning themselves to take advantage of this renewed demand for the old town.
It has been fascinating to work within the neighborhood during its period of transition. Half of the buildings have been restored to preserve their historic blend of Caribbean, Spanish and French colonial styles. Below the high-end apartments with their decorated balconies are world-class restaurants, art galleries, and souvenir shops. The other half are still in ruins. They are mostly shells with only pieces of the facades still standing and covered in vines, or extremely fragile structures held up by makeshift beams. Many local families live in those, surrounded by unkempt abandoned ones, and sustained by a constant flow of illegally dumped trash.
Nearly a decade ago, Casco was still a precarious city with a prevalence of crime and a strong gang presence. As redevelopment forces currently take hold, many residents are pleased by the alleviation of these pervasive social problems; while others worry about the impact that gentrification will have on the families that have lived in Casco for generations. My I2UD training prepared me to actively participate in these community discussions about holistic, sustainable redevelopment that prioritizes the long-term health of the neighborhood, seeking to maintain the mix of incomes, uses, and to preserve cultural vitality.
Moreover, in addition to a range of social programs and affordable housing projects, Conservatorio focuses on fostering small local businesses by renting to them at subsidized prices in viable locations. I witnessed firsthand various small businesses including restaurants located inside buildings pre-renovation. The shells, with their stone walls and columns but no ceiling, make for great open-air yet intimate dining. This allows the local community to participate in the economic growth of the area, while at the same time keeps the neighborhood diverse and lively.
The tensions between the investment opportunities and the risk of excluding the local community will only intensify as redevelopment progresses. I am optimistic about the role that the developers leading the change can have in ensuring inclusive growth. Having spent the summer embedded in those efforts, I am confident that this place will generate new ideas about neighborhood revitalization, supported by people committed to implementing them. I look forward to returning to Casco to survey its progress and to partake in continuing and future development projects.