How can we redesign abandoned buildings and turn them into hubs for resilience available for the community?

by Hilyarit Santiago-Robles



Along with a group of students from the University of Minnesota, I was on the island of Puerto Rico from January 3rd to 17th talking with a large number of teachers, students and people living on the island. These conversations were about the situation of Puerto Rico before, during and after the hurricanes Irma and María. In 2017 Puerto Rico was hit by two natural disasters that radically changed the daily lives of the Puerto Ricans. Although this affected the island in a big way, it brought attention to the impact of climate change on Puerto Rico. In this paper I focus on the situation in Puerto Rico in relation to impacts of hurricanes Irma and María as they relate to electric generation, the situation of the Department of Education and possible proposals for problems found in these areas. I also incorporated information about other conferences and conversations that the Minnesota group had during our visit to Puerto Rico.

My desire to find ways to redesign abandoned buildings in Puerto Rico emerged from our visit to an abandoned school in the city of Aguadilla, Playuela sector. That day we met the director of the Superhero Foundation, Soammy Hernandez-Acevedo.  We talked about the Department of Education and the current situation on the island and how this school came into the hands of the Superheroes Foundation.

The education sector in Puerto Rico has been affected by the economic crisis that started in 2006. More than 300 schools have been closed in Puerto Rico due to the low enrollment of students in them. These decreases in school enrollment are due to the low birth rate on the island, the increase in migration and an overinflated  forecast about population growth, which led to the construction of new schools, some of which were then not needed and were thus closed.

 In 2017, 71 out of 164 schools closed were rented or adjudicated, of which 50 were rented. By May of 2018 the numbers of consolidated schools in different regions of the island were sent, the results were: Arecibo region 35 schools, Bayamon region 35, Caguas region 46, Humacao region 41, Mayaguez region 47, region of Ponce 42 and the San Juan region 37 for a total of 283 schools consolidated.



 The longer these schools remain abandoned the more they deteriorate and the more expensive it becomes to redesign and rehabilitate the building for new uses. Also it could be a security problem in the community when they get vandalized. Since the closure of these schools greatly affected surrounding communities, the government created laws that allow these closed schools to pass into the hands of organizations that support community development. The government is also evaluating the possibility of giving at least one school to each municipality so that they can be used as community centers and shelters, among others things. The process for acquiring this empty schools is through forms which are evaluated by an Interagency committee. The form asks for: information about the organization, its interest, proposal, budget and to which people it benefits. Within organizations that have submitted proposals are nonprofit, private, municipalities and state agencies of which the government has approved dozens for annual contracts.

 In addition to talking about the Department of Education, Soammy Hernandez-Acevedo explained to us her plan to use the Aguadilla school for the non-profit organization Superheroes. The Superheroes Foundation in Puerto Rico is a non-profit organization that provides free services to children with special needs. Puerto Rico has over 100,000 children with special needs, but only a fraction receive services from the government. The Superhero Foundation aims to provide services to those who have been denied services by the government.

The Superheroes Foundation is benefiting from  the law that provides schools to community groups who apply for the property.  They were given the school along with a piece of land just in front of the school so they can carry out their services. The process to secure use of the property took a year and many documents and hard work. The Foundation’s goal is to transform the school into classrooms, therapeutic pools, gardening spaces, and accessible parks for children born with special needs from 4 months-old to adults. The school also has great potential to provide other aid to the community. The way in which these spaces should be redesigned should be informed by how natural disasters impact the island and what communities need in the face of such disasters.

Hurricane Irma and Maria caused a lot of damage in the form of shredded houses, blocked and destroyed roads, bridge  collapse, cut power lines across the island, polluted water, and cut off modern communication. Entire communities flooded, and for them the only refuge from the waters was to climb to the rooftops of homes, where they were saved from the flood, but exposed to the violent winds. Due to the island-wide power-outage, people were forced to wait in lines that stretched for hours, under the blaring sun, to buy a limited amount of ice, that did not last very long, meaning they would have to repeat the process the following days.

Hurricane Maria made it clear that Puerto Rico's energy infrastructure is weak and requires changes, but Puerto Rico continues to be in an economic crisis with poorly managed organizations, that impedes the possibility of a change. After Hurricane Maria, it took more than a year for Puerto Rico to return power to the island and it was understood that many of the problems we find in health are due to lack of energy. The student Jonathan Castillo Polanco, graduate student at the University of Puerto Rico, made a presentation about the situation of public health in the island during and after hurricane María and a number of problems where discussed. In relation to health, a month after the hurricane hit there was a limited number of hospitals operating and most of these were not in the central area of Puerto Rico. Since the roads were blocked, access to a hospital was almost impossible for many people. Another impact on health was the large number of diesel generators that were in each home and where many people were unaware of the proper way to use the appliances. This caused cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, meningitis and more. The lack of electricity caused there to be no drinking water for a long time which led many families to use the rivers to satisfy their needs which caused deaths due to leptospirosis.

Maria revealed the importance of energy systems on the island and how it impacts other dimensions of social wellbeing. That is why in the next plans that are proposed to redesign abandoned spaces, it is necessary to include energy systems that give security to the community so that events like these do not happen again. As learned in a presentation made at the Marvel Marchand architecture firm, one of the initiatives in Puerto Rico is Puerto Rico is Resilient Power Puerto Rico, which was born in the days following the hurricane. Through donations, this group (RPPR) teaches and contributes in the construction of solar energy systems with storage in heavily affected communities. These community centers can provide power for the surrounding community when the main grid fails.