Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean with a current population of 11,224,321. Historically, its strategic location near the Gulf of Mexico and the Strait of Florida made it an important trading route. Its tropical climate and natural beauty make it a desired tourist destination. Unfortunately, the political climate in Cuba thwarts its potential to be an international city. But that may be changing. Leading architects and urbanists in the Capital city of Havana are positioning themselves to prepare for a possible change in political power and what this could mean for Cuba’s future.

Havana holds enormous possibility as an economic engine for the rest of the country. In early 2010, international architects and planners were invited to join Cuban experts and community members to develop design and urban planning proposals for Old Havana. The intent behind this International Design Charette was to help articulate Havana’s potential. The participants paid particular attention to developing the waterfront and East Havana, in hopes of preserving its Mediterranean image and taking full advantage of its natural features. The vision for the harbor included transforming the current industrial zone into a sport and recreation district. The importance of urban open space, housing and commerce was also brought to light. Specifically, the participants discussed incorporating green space to create value and retrofit the old downtown, which is currently in a state of disrepair.

Julio Cesar Perez, a Professor at the School of Architecture in Havana, Cuba shared the participants’ plans at ULI’s 2010 Fall Meeting. The master plans focused on waterfront revitalization, reinforcement of the existing polycentric structure, increasing public space, a new public transportation system, and upgrading infrastructure. Issues of equity and quality of life for residents of the harbor were treated lightly in the design proposals, lacking guidance on plans for accessibility. However, this topic was brought forth in the discussion with ULI members who wanted clarity on how residents who barely make $10 a day would benefit from the new vision of Havana.

Despite Havana’s possibility, it faces many challenges including equity issues, aging infrastructure, a decaying urban core, and the effect a restrictive political climate has on development potential. The design charette brought these issues and much more to light, highlighting Havana’s vibrant culture, natural features, and potential for tourism considering proximity to the United States. Even with Cuba’s obstacles, Havana can be an economic engine that propels the rest of the country forward.