The ‘female pirate printer’ who creates fashion from manhole covers

Artist Emma-France Raff decorates clothing and tote bags guerilla-style in the street using ink, a roller and manhole covers as her printing press

Its not often manhole covers and fashion are uttered in the same sentence, but for Emma-France Raff, these functional metal structures have a distinct charm.

So much so that she scours the streets of cities for ones with intricate details and textures which she uses as a printing press – painting them with ink and transferring their designs onto t-shirts, hoodies and bags.

The artist, who brings a whole new meaning to the term streetwear, gets some curious looks when she gets her roller, ink and equipment out, and starts printing on the ground in public places.




  • Raff copying designs from Berlin and Budapests distinctive manhole covers as well as a more abstract design from Portos tram tracks

But Raff, who has turned the streets of Berlin, Barcelona, Istanbul, Paris, Porto and Stavanger among others into fashion has always been fascinated with tiny details spotted while out and about, and finding inspiration in often overlooked elements of the urban landscape. The appeal of manhole covers, she says, is that they often have a local flavour.

Often drain covers will have symbols or letters that make them unique to that certain place. They have something from the city on them, she says. In Berlin, for example, they have the TV tower on them and other monuments.


  • Raff at work in Vienna in 2017

The Berlin one is very nice because it has a lot of details but I also like the abstract ones. Theres so much variety, you have thousands of different ones. Theyre special because they always have something local.

Raff, whose parents are German, was born in France. Her family moved to Portugal when she was nine, and she came up with the idea of using manhole cover as prints with her father while she was studying textile design in Porto.



  • Raff capturing a floral tile pattern in Barcelona

She went on to create experimental printing project raubdruckerin which means female pirate printer which is based in Berlin, although she travels to different cities to do the printing, and sells the t-shirts and other hand-printed merchandise via her website.

In addition to manhole covers, she finds other neglected patterns in city streets. I did a sign for bicycle parking in Amsterdam. In Barcelona we printed tiles on the concrete floor. If theres chewing gum I leave it on, sometimes you can see it on the print. It makes it very unique – its the idea that this print comes from one specific place, and maybe in two years it will not be there, so it has to do with time and place.

After the printing it can take between half an hour to an hour to clean up. She says she uses a water-based ink, which reacts with the fabric but it doesnt connect with the metal. Its like painting with water marker on plastic, it makes pearls.

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Are motorcycle taxis making the Ebola crisis worse?

Butembo is a huge regional hub for traders, and relies on taxi-motos to keep running but those bikes could be spreading the disease

Swarms of motorcycle taxis overloaded with passengers and goods weave their way through traffic in the eastern Congolese city of Butembo. Motorbikes far outnumber four-wheeled vehicles on the dusty roads of the regional trading hub, especially downtown, where drivers laden with cargo carve their way through crowded street markets.


  • A taxi driver pushes his motorbike through a crowded market in the city of Butembo

These taxi-motos, as they are known, are the lifeblood coursing through Butembos arteries. With local unions representing around 10,000 taxi-motos, they are also a political force that has at times hampered efforts to contain the Ebola epidemic rampaging through North Kivu and Ituri provinces in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).


  • An aerial view of the city of Butembo in Eastern DRC, currently at the centre of the Ebola outbreak

Without the taxi-motos, Butembo grinds to a halt, as it did in May when an accident involving a taxi-moto and a suspected Ebola response vehicle sparked clashes embroiling taxi-moto drivers, armed militia and security forces. Nine people were killed in the violence. The Ebola response was suspended for a fourth consecutive day due to general insecurity. The clash was just one of more than 200 attacks and violent incidents involving Ebola responders so far this year, with some involving taxi-moto drivers. The most recent in the string of assaults that have injured or killed dozens of responders was the murder by unknown assailants of two Congolese Ebola awareness workers near Butembo. But with outbreak declared an international emergency last week by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the subsequent resignation of the countrys health minister, the DRC must urgently address its response to the epidemic.


  • A crowded market in the city of Butembo. The effort to stamp out this Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo already the second largest in recorded history is going poorly, as front-line health workers struggle against rising hostility, insecurity, and distrust


Eastern Congo is awash in armed groups vying for local influence and control. Across Ituri and North Kivu, community self-defence militias known as Mai Mai have been behind many of the attacks on health workers. The Mai Mai and moto-taxi drivers are drawn from the same demographic of young men in each community. Often there is overlap.


  • Those who cant afford motorcycles transport cargo on wooden chukudus in the busy street markets of Butembo



The attacks are driven by a deep resistance to outside influence in an area with a long history of ethnic killings. Many residents in this opposition stronghold blame ethnic violence on the central government, which blocked Ebola-stricken regions from voting in last years presidential elections.


  • Taxi-moto drivers wait to transport mourners to the funeral of Angela Masika, 31, who died the day before this picture was taken, in the town of Biakato in Eastern DRCs Ituri province. Test results had not yet revealed whether Masika died from Ebola

The insular Nande ethnic group dominates the commercial towns of Beni and Butmebo at the centre of the outbreak. Butembo is one of the few major trading hubs in Congo with no visible presence of Indian or Lebanese businesses.

Welcome to suburbia: the millennials done with city life and city prices

Despite their urban image, millennials are looking to suburbs and the country for a quieter, and cheaper, lifestyle

A green sign with a horse-drawn carriage marks the turn in the road: Townes at Covington, it reads, a nod to the management company running properties in this quiet cul-de-sac 30 minutes outside Washington DC.

Of course, there arent any horse-drawn carriages here. There arent even really any pedestrians. I drive up to a cheerful cream-colored house with blue shutters. I park.

Its high summer in the Washington metro area the Fourth of July and neither I nor the couple Ive come to interview seem to mind meeting on the holiday. There is, after all, a reason they left the District and bought a big airy townhouse in Bowie, Maryland, last year. The last place any of us want to be in the 90F (32C) heat is barbequing on a concrete city roof.

Charla Freeland, 27, and Brian Freeland, 32, are graduates of Howard University in Washington, and both still work in the city for the radio station Sirius XM. But they came here to escape DCs soaring real estate prices and the stresses of city life. As Brian puts it when were seated in the living room: I like my space.

Here theres plenty of space: parking for their two cars, a deck overlooking a leafy park, a reservoir with birds nearby, and a room upstairs where, Charla says, we keep our shoes.

All that for less than the price of a one-bedroom condo in Washington. Thats not lost on Brian, whose view of the homeownership is, like other members of the millennial generation, still shaped by the 2008 housing crash and ensuing Great Recession.

At its sale price of $289,000, their three-storey townhouse cost around a quarter of what it would in their old stomping grounds of Shaw a historically black neighborhood where median home prices have more than quintupled since 1995, making it one of DCs fastest-appreciating real estate markets in recent years.

They havent made new friends yet and Charla misses her old ones in the city, whom she now drives half an hour just to meet for brunch. She doesnt expect to be doing it long.

Most of her friends are still single and they give her no grief for leaving. I was lucky, she says of meeting Brian as an undergrad. When they find someone, theyll be out in the suburbs too.

Suburban life may be once again in ascendance, as millennials, pushed away from exorbitant city prices and finally able to afford their first houses, are rediscovering suburbs spacious charms.

Brian and Charla Freeland stand inside their kitchen. Photograph: Jocelyn Augustino for the Guardian

While theres no official data on the number of millennials moving away from cities, the recent census suggests some suburban revival is afoot, driven by millennials.

Population change gives you a crude sense of flow, says William Frey of the Brookings Institution, a demographer who has studied city migration patterns for decades, when I meet him at his downtown office. Smaller cities are growing and large cities are not growing as fast.

Flipping open his 2018 report on the millennial cohort, Frey runs a finger over the chart showing age distribution in the United States, pointing to the bulge in population that tells him millennials are largely responsible for the suburban trend.

If such patterns continue, he argues, they could upend the 2010s stereotype of millennials all wanting to live in a Brooklyn-like urban jungle.

Frey has called the period from 2010 to 2020 the decade of the city. And, while the citys reign doesnt seem to be lasting as long as he predicted, in a sense he was right: the citys rule will be temporary, not an unstoppable drive toward urbanization.

I want to know whats driving young people in and out of cities, and the answer seems to be politics, gentrification and the economy, not vague notions of city coolness or millennial personality traits.

Sure, millennials like aspects of city living, Frey says. But the shift to cities came three years after the housing market crash and recession. He doesnt think thats a coincidence larger economic forces are afoot.

The youngest millennials have more options economically while the oldest millennials are starting to think about what their next stage of life looks like and making decisions that look more similar to what wed expect that age group to do, Jeannette Chapman, the deputy director of the Stephen S Fuller Institute, tells me later in a phone call. Theyre growing up.

Patrick Sterns, 35, formerly of Oakland, California, recently came to the realization he couldnt buy a house where he grew up.

Not long ago, much of downtown Oakland was still considered an affordable alternative to San Francisco, home to the countrys priciest real estate. The Oakland hills of Patricks youth have always been desirable, but now the soaring cost of housing has become prohibitive there, too.

On the one hand its thriving, on the other hand its really expensive, Patrick says.

The problem is that a home is worth what someone is willing to pay for it, and for Patrick who works in the clean energy sector, like his 34-year-old MBA graduate wife, Martha Serianz there is always someone in Oakland with deeper pockets.

Patrick Sterns and Martha Serianz at home outside of Oakland. Photograph: Supplied

Thats how they ended up half an hours drive north of the city in a neighborhood thats technically Richmond but functionally, they say, El Sobrante. And how in the spring of 2016 they bought the 1,300 sq-ft of house they dreamed of having as mid-30s professionals: three beds, two baths and on a corner lot. The list price was $435,000.

If we could have afforded Temescal and being in the hip area where a lot of our friends are, it would have been nice, Martha says.

But walking to cool bars in trendy neighborhoods, she adds, wasnt really an option. Wed have to double the cost of our mortgage, she explains.

It used to be you get a high school degree and you can get a good job with a union, Patrick says. Now the right is dismantling unions, you get a tertiary degree and you still cant get a job.

He adds: Were inheriting this highly toxic system that really only favors rich people. Cities are becoming unaffordable and, at the same time, theres no solution on the table to help with housing.

If were bitter, he says of millennials, its because we have to live somewhere.

Martha adds: Were saddled with so many financial responsibilities. Buy a house but you have thousands of dollars of student loan debts! Or find a great job but older people with more experience will get it!

Combined with the high costs of childcare, and the difficulty of saving for retirement, the situation becomes crippling. City living was supposed to be the future, she says. It certainly isnt anymore.

Suburbs offering traditionally urban attributes appear to be on the rise.

A lot of suburban areas are thinking about how they can be more city-like, says Steven Pedigo, a professor at New York University who directs the Urban Lab at the schools Schack Institute of Real Estate. Similarly, cities, as they lose young people, will be looking at suburban amenities they can provide.

Such closer-in, cluster-style suburbs have already arrived in many places. And Pedigo who chose his town of residence for its diversity, good coffee shops, transit and walkability would know because he lives in one.

My students always say: Youre a city guy who lives in the suburbs!? Pedigo says.

Where things are headed, with many suburbs ranking high in walkability and other public amenities once considered the province of cities, he doesnt think it is a contradiction in terms.

Anything above a certain walk score, we didnt even consider, he says, of moving to South Orange, New Jersey, with his husband.

Its a world apart from more traditional tract-housing-style suburbs (where the buildings are nearly identical), or places where public transit may be non-existent but you can get a lot more house.

Its the tale of two suburbs, Pedigo says. He expects to see more millennials weighing these factors as they make their exodus from cities a practical calculation that, as a suburb-loving urbanist, he admires.

Whats interesting is millennials are, more than anyone else, able to make true place decisions.

It used to be that people moved one of two places: where they could get a job or where their family lived. Instead, he says, millennials ask: which place can provide me with the best quality of life?

If most of us were any good at predicting what will make us happy or provide the best quality of life, self-help wouldnt be the booming industry it is today. But a recent paper published in the journal Regional Studies may offer guidance.

Beyond showing millennials are happiest in cities, the study found that millennials were least happy in rural areas, and, specifically, that they suffered most from isolation, in contrast to older generations who preferred the quiet.

Some anecdotal evidence bears that out. Another Oakland couple I spoke to had moved an hour and a half north of the Bay Area to pursue a rural homesteading dream in Forestville only to move back five years later with the hard-earned self-knowledge that they are city people after all.

They have plenty of company in that. Not only are millennials the exception, theyre the exact opposite of other generations, says the co-author Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn of his papers finding on young people and rural isolation.

But there is a spectrum of urban-to-rural living, and plenty of options for millennials who want a country lifestyle without the sense of isolation.

Scott Beauchamp and his wife Nika had been living in Brooklyn, New York, when they decided to take a road trip to find their future home.

Theyd been living in New York for years, but couldnt afford to buy there. Other people seemed emotionally invested in living in Brooklyn or being a New Yorker, he says, but he and Nika never really were.

Scott and Nika Beauchamp. Photograph: Handout

Her mom had a house on a lake in New Hampshire where they went to stay in the summer of 2014. After that they spent some time driving around New England, and fell in love with coastal Maine.

Beauchamp, a freelance writer, grew up in what he calls postwar strip-mall suburbia in St Louis, Missouri. And the experience was enough to tell him he didnt want more of that. He also knew he didnt want to forgo community.

He and his wife were charmed by Portland, Maine, and lived there for a year, but ultimately they wanted to move somewhere where they were getting a better deal.

We knew we wanted to stay on the coast, he says, adding we like being by the ocean. So they kept shrinking their budget and traveling north, trying to get more for less money.

They found the house theyd buy in the shipbuilding town of Bath. It was 1,400 sq ft with four bedrooms for $180,000. The town has several very cool bookstores, Scott says, a walkable downtown, a beautiful waterfront, an outdoor farmers market, and an endless string of trails.

Theyve lived there since March of 2016, and for Scott, 34, and Nika, 31, its been a pretty perfect fit.

My wife has gotten into native plants, repopulating our yard with them, Scott says, adding that she has a mind to someday buy a plot of land and have a completely environmentally sound homestead.

He doesnt plan to move anytime soon, but its still a bit unclear whether the existential search for home is over.

Living closer to nature has made us more conscious of our relationship to it and its importance to us, he explains. I foresee us living in this house another decade and then probably moving. My wife now that she has a taste, shes hungry for the country life and wants to move even further out.

Back in Bowie, Brian and Charla are perfectly content with their place, and theyve taken pride in showing it off to me. But like Scott and Nika and a lot of millennials, it seems theyve never stopped looking for a house.

The whole time Im interviewing them, the TV is on and though its set to silent, sometimes their eyes will flicker up. Theyre watching The Deed, a show about flipping houses in New Orleans and Chicago. Charlas hometown is New Orleans, and the place where her two sisters and nearly everyone in her family still lives.

She was living there during Hurricane Katrina and tells me early in the interview about how the builders who came in afterward overdid things, erecting million-dollar houses in places that will likely flood again.

The house being flipped, Charla tells me, part excitement in her voice, part horror, is just 15 minutes from her parents place. Its going for $1.23m six times what her parents house is valued.

Would they move back there?

I think I know Charlas answer, but its Brian who doesnt hesitate. In a heartbeat, he says.

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‘The worst it’s been’: children continue to swim as raw sewage floods Gaza beach

For most of the 2 million people in this overcrowded strip of land largely cut off from the outside world the beach and sea are the only affordable form of recreation. The only option now is to swim and even fish in filthy water

It is high summer on Gaza Citys beach. A horse and cart patrols the shore selling brightly coloured swimming rings. A small boat is giving joy rides out to sea. Families sit on chairs while a few children play in the water.

Normally, in the midst of the school holidays, the beach would be crowded. Particularly this year, as an electricity crisis makes many homes unbearable during the heat. But these days many parents are keeping their children away.

The first hint is the smell: the sulphurous odour of raw sewage.

Where children are swimming the water is a murky brown, with a fine suspension of faecal matter visible to the naked eye. Small fish at the waters edge, scooped out by the giggling children, are dead.

While pollution of Gazas 25 miles of beaches is not new, what is different is the degree. These days, according to the last environmental survey, 73% of Gazas coastline is dangerously polluted with sewage amid an energy crisis that is now also affecting Israel across the border wall, sharply up from 40-50% a year ago.

The reason is simple. After 10 years of an Israeli-led blockade that has seen Gazas impoverished urban infrastructure decay, the current decision by the Palestinian Authority under president Mahmoud Abbas to cut electricity to the coastal strip has impacted Gazas rudimentary sewage treatment.

Without electricity to power its lagoons, treatment works and sewage pumps, Gazas waste managers have been forced to make a choice, permit the cities to flood or allow raw sewage to escape the overflows into the sea.

It is a new level of contamination that is not only having an environmental effect, but a profound social one too. In an overcrowded strip of land home to two million people, and largely cut off from the outside world, for many the beach and sea are the only affordable and accessible form of recreation.

A small pleasure boat on a Gaza City beach takes bathers on a joy ride out to sea beyond the 200m limit contaminated by sewage. Photograph: Peter Beaumont for the Guardian

Sitting in his wooden lifeguards tower, Khalid Farahat, who is employed by the local municipality, says he has seen the number of beach-goers drop by almost 50% since the electricity and sewage crisis began in April.

Today he is accompanied by his 12-year-old son who wont go in the water when it is so dirty. It is much less crowded than it was, he explains.

It is so polluted at the moment. There is a sewage pumping line less than a kilometre from here. When the wind blows in this direction the water is filthy. When there is electricity to power my loudspeaker I warn people to stay out of the water.

I remember when we had electricity 24/7 people would still come here to escape the heat. But no beach and no electricity that is a disaster for Gaza.

The escalation of Gazas sewage problem is most obvious in two locations: in Wadi Gaza, at the centre of the strip, where an open river of almost pure effluent flows into the sea, and a second stream in Gazas north where sewage has been flowing via a wadi beneath the border wall into Israel and down into the sea around Zikkim beach.

At Gazas Coastal Municipalities Water and Utilities office, Omar Shatet, the head of operations, explains the growing problem.

This is worst it has ever been. We rely on electricity to drive our systems. And with 20 hours a day without electricity we cant pump sewage.

We have five waste water treatment plants, but most of them were built originally as temporary, until we completed new sludge works. They were planned 15 years ago and only one is nearing completion.

Fishermen around the Gaza City Wharf area. For most residents, the only option is to continue to swim and fish in the filthy water. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

The catch 22 as Shatet concedes is that it will need power to operate. We have 70 sewage lifting stations across Gaza, he adds. But the main priority right now is to stop flooding in cities when the pumps are working. That means that 15,000 metric tonnes of raw sewage is going into the sea as well as 110,000 tonnes that are partially treated.

The result is that the last testing of beach water that was carried out showed 73% has a level of contamination that prohibits swimming which leaves only 27% available spread all over strip.

Shatet himself has not swum in the sea himself in the last few years and would only consider swimming from a boat 200m beyond the coastline, where the pollution diminishes.

At the offices of Unicef, which runs a desalination plant, the UN organisations water and sanitation specialist, Mohanlal Peiris, gives an equally bleak account.

It is very bad. I mean, it was already bad. Now it is worse. There is really no proper treatment works. And whats been happening in the past has now been exacerbated because there is no power. And when there is no power in the lagoons there is no aeration for the treatment process.

The treatment authority is facing a pretty hopeless choice in which Gaza getting flooded with sewage would be even more catastrophic. If that happens the sewage would get into a water table that is already getting brackish because infiltration of infiltration by sewage, fertilisers and sea water intrusion as the aquifers have become depleted.

Families on one of Gaza beaches. More than 70% of the coastline is contaminated with sewage because of the strips ongoing electricity crisis. Photograph: Peter Beaumont for the Guardian

Gaza, as Peiris explains, also has unique challenges. Because it is flat stabilisation ponds for sewage cannot use gravity to separate the sludge, relying on electricity. The Israeli-led blockade means difficulties not only in sourcing generators but any hope of extending marine sewage outfalls from the waters edge out to sea, as is the case in the UK where outfalls are often a mile long.

It is not only bathers who fear what is happening to the sea. Peiriss colleague at Unicef, Milina Shahin, lives by the beach and is concerned about the impact of the odours on her own children.

I live by the beach. It is supposed to be a privilege. But the smells give me a headache. Now I am concerned about my own children. But I cant say dont go to balcony. Its supposed to be a nice thing to see the sea. I paid money for the view but now it is a disaster, she says.

And while for richer residents there are other options including private pools and chalets that can be rented for 12 hours for around 80 it represents roughly half the monthly salary of a lifeguard like Khalid, making it unavailable for most in Gaza.

A second option is to travel north to the mile-and-a-half of beach in Gazas north, immediately bordering Israel, where the water is regarded as the cleanest in the strip.

But, for most, the only option is to swim and even fish in the filthy water.

On the day the Guardian visits Gaza beach, Tayeb Quneitra, a hairdresser, is sitting by the waters edge with his wife watching his children aged three to nine years old playing in the shallows.

He says he last came three weeks ago. I heard on the news that it is not safe to swim because of the sewage. But the kids need to swim, he says. I am not a swimmer myself but I have friends who refuse to come.

But this is the only place where you can come to escape the tedium of Gaza. And you get used to the smell. Last time we came was much worse than it is today, he adds. Then the water was completely green.

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Building Zion: the controversial plan for a Mormon-inspired city in Vermont

A Mormon businessman is buying up land to build master-planned towns from scratch, based on the church founders idea for a plat of Zion

The roads through rural Vermont wind past rolling forested hills and quaint small towns, including South Royalton used as the quintessential New England village in the opening sequence of the TV series Gilmore Girls.

A short drive away, the Tunbridge Worlds Fair has run almost continuously since 1867, with games, contests for best pig or pumpkin, and displays of old-time printing presses and candle making.

And not far from there, one stop on the areas low-key tourist trail dotted with maple syrup farms, pottery workshops and picturesque covered bridges, is the birthplace of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church.

The site now hosts a museum, run by the church and staffed by cheerful missionaries. Outside, a giant granite obelisk rises towards the sky. Calming music flows from speakers located high up in the trees. It is a peaceful place, designed to inspire reflection.

But, over the last year, it has also found itself at the centre of a controversy. In front of many houses and shops, signs exclaim: Save our communities. Stop NewVistas.

NewVistas is the name of an unusual, indeed, one-of-a-kind project led by a Mormon businessman named David Hall to build new, master-planned towns from scratch inspired by notes written by Joseph Smith himself in 1833.

Hall says these designs, which described how ideal Mormon settlements should be laid out and were drafted almost 200 years ago, offer answers to modern-day challenges of sustainable living. And to make it happen, he has been buying land lots of it.

The first goal is to build a NewVista community near Smiths birthplace in Vermont, which would be home to about 20,000 people. The next step: to build more. Ultimately, Halls vision describes a new city of connected communities, with a total population of up to one million.

The fantastic story first came to light last spring, thanks to the careful eye and diligent research of a librarian in the small town of Sharon, who uncovered a series of local land purchases that she traced to the businessman and his plans.

Reflecting on that time, Nicole Antal, 30, says shed found it all hard to believe particularly the scale.

Plat of Zion by Joseph Smith in 1833. Photograph:

This is very big for Vermont, she says. Burlington is 40,000 people. Montpellier, the state capital, is 7,000. This is not one guy buying a house and trying something new.

To date, the NewVistas project is thought to have purchased as many as 1,500 acres in central Vermont with plans to buy much more. Its focused on a largely rural area at the intersection of four tiny towns Royalton, Sharon, Stafford and Tunbridge which have a combined population of just 6,400.

Nor is the project just buying up vacant lots. It appears to be purchasing whatever it can. Antal says a few properties sold to NewVistas were second homes. But so far acquisitions have been fragmented parcels.

Antal first blogged about the land purchases in March 2016, setting off a flurry of articles in the local media. Soon Bloomberg Businessweek and the Wall Street Journal picked up the story, revelling in its unusual characters, audacious vision and local controversy.

Residents in Vermont, meanwhile, had started to organise in opposition.

This threat is like nothing weve ever seen or could have conjured up ourselves, says one long-term local resident Jane Huppe, 58, describing it as a top-down venture that doesnt fit with the areas own ideas for how it should develop.

It hit us like a ton of bricks, she adds. Antal agrees, and says it could completely overwhelm existing communities. Why does he not bring this to where they need massive amounts of housing, instead of disrupting the rural countryside?

Building Zion

Joseph Smith left central Vermont as a child with his family, moving to rural New York, where he later founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But despite his rural upbringing, Smith outlined a vision for new and compact settlements that would go on to influence the planning of hundreds of American towns.

This farm boy … dreamed to build a metropolis that rivalled the large seaport cities he had only heard about, writes the academic Benjamin Park, in a 2013 paper.

In the 1830s, Smith laid out a detailed plan called the plat of Zion. It described new towns, designed to be self-sufficient, ordered by rigid grids, and surrounded by farmland and wilderness.

The memorial of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church at his birthplace in Vermont. Photograph: imageBROKER/Rex/Shutterstock

The plan included ideal sizes of streets, blocks and lots. Roads should be straight and oriented to the points of a compass. Homes, built in uniform stone or brick, should sit within deep individual lots, with front yards and back gardens.

Significantly, the plan lacked designated areas for government buildings and town halls, as well as for markets or commercial districts. Instead, central blocks would be set aside for temples and community buildings.

Once fully occupied, with 15-20,000 inhabitants, the settlement would not be expanded. Instead, others would be built, to fill up the world in these last days.

This wasnt a theoretical plan. Smith hoped to build a new town like this in Missouri, specifically. In 1831, he said that Independence, in Jackson County, had been revealed as the land of promise and the place for the City of Zion.

Unlike other new religious movements in America at the time, which were warning congregants of the evils rooted in urban cities, Smith believed that cities were not to be fled, but sacralised, writes Park. This reflected key Mormon principles that focused on establishing a righteous civilisation … rather than individuals.

[Zion] was literally the centre place for a new civilisation destined to expand as Gods people multiplied. Gathering and city building were not incidental parts of sanctification, but the goal.

In the summer of 1833, Smith and other church leaders met in Kirtland, Ohio, and drew up specific blueprints for a city of Zion, including designs for specific buildings. Smith sent these to church members in Missouri, who were to purchase this whole region of country, as soon as time will permit.

It didnt happen; early Mormon settlers were driven out of Missouri. And in 1844, Smith was killed, before his city plan could be realised.

A computer rendering of a plan for NewVistas that would house, feed and employ 15-20,000 residents. Photograph: NewVistas Foundation

His designs survived, however, and were later used as a blueprint for as many as 500 communities in the American West. In the 1990s, the American Planning Association went so far as to recognise the plat of Zion documents for their historical significance and influence.

Most famously, church leader Brigham Young drew on the plat for the design of Salt Lake City, which was established by Mormon settlers in 1847. The citys core still reflects this: it features wide streets, oriented north-south, and mammoth blocks focusing on Temple Square, where a church museum also holds the original plat of Zion documents.

The concept of Zion remains key to the Mormon faith. The church explains that it represents the pure in heart, but also a place where the pure in heart live. It says: In the latter days a city named Zion will be built [in Missouri] … to which the tribes of Israel will gather. In the meantime, members are counselled to build up Zion wherever they are living.

Salt Lake City itself was also, of course, heavily influenced by broader trends in American life, such as the completion of the transnational railroad in the 19th century, which brought new visitors and migrants, and later by car culture and sprawl.

In December 2016, a popular architecture and design podcast noted that the citys design means that addresses can read like sets of coordinates. 300 South 2100 East, for example, means three blocks south and 21 blocks east of Temple Square. But, it said, the most striking thing about Salt Lakes grid is the scale:

The streets are so menacing and crossings so long that the city has placed plastic buckets on lampposts which hold flags that pedestrians can carry to the other side while crossing. In present-day Salt Lake City, its hard to get around without a car.

Nevertheless, some experts argue that the plat of Zion was a precursor to intelligent urban planning and leaves a legacy that could help tackle haphazard developments today.

The NewVistas project

A design of food production in the NewVistas Mormon development, Vermont. Photograph: NewVistas Foundation

This is of little comfort for those Vermont residents who oppose NewVistas. The Mormon church, too, is apparently displeased: they dont support the plan.

David Hall, the businessman behind the contemporary and controversial NewVistas project, lives in Provo, Utah. His background is in big energy: he reportedly made his fortune selling sophisticated drilling tools to the oil and gas industry.

In an interview with the Guardian, he says Smiths city plans remain remarkably relevant for todays challenges.

The plat describes a very low footprint, 20,000 people on only three square miles. Everything else was supposed to be wilderness. Its telling us not to sprawl, which is what we do, we even go into the mountains, Hall says. It really makes sense for our time.

The projects website says it follows the plat laid out by Smith and that its architectural plans are also based on the same sizing specifications for early Mormon temples, which were designed to fulfil multiple functions.

David Hall with a modular kitchen design in Provo, Utah. Hall, a wealthy Mormon businessman, plans communities of tiny dwellings based on the teachings of church founder Joseph Smith. Photograph: Rick Bowmer/AP

But, Hall says, the goal is to develop secular, sustainable communities taking advantage of modern technology, including food production techniques that make it possible for people to live in ever-smaller spaces. It is envisaged for Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

The NewVistas Foundation argues: Sustainable living in the modern world requires high density urban development, pointing out that sprawl consumes too much energy and other resources, not just in urban areas but rural as well.

It presents a detailed, wide-ranging plan, including specific designs for three-storey standard buildings with apartments, businesses, and some farming and manufacturing, all located in one place.

More futuristic ideas include internal walls and floors that could be moved by robotic systems, so that families could live in small spaces that are easily rearranged. Outside, walkway-podway systems (something like elevated sidewalks and an underground tube network) would operate on multiple levels to transport people and goods. New toilets would monitor users health.

Not unlike Smiths original vision, the foundation says the goal is massive scalability, so that these communities can be replicated to encompass all of the earths billions of people. It calls itself nothing less than a new urban model and economic system for the 21st century.

Each complete NewVista would have as many as one million people, but be composed of 50 similar and carefully designed communities, each with a population of 15,000 to 25,000 and the capacity to be self-sufficient with respect to basic needs.

There are also unusual proposals for how these places will be run: organised according to a private capitalistic economic structure. The community is not a political entity but a productive enterprise, like a company town.

There is even a suggestion that a NewVista Community Corporation would have control over things like land use, transportation, and community environment, which are usually matters of government concern.

Hall predicts that the first NewVistas community could require as much as $3bn (2.3bn) to build, expecting 20% to come from the first residents and the bulk from other investors with nothing from the church.

NewVistas is my own modern interpretation of Joseph Smiths community documents and I have not ever discussed the ideas with the church and wont involve them in the future.

Vermont strikes back

We didnt waste any time when this came up, says Michael Sacca, 61, director of the Alliance for Vermont Communities, a new non-profit organisation formed by local residents in opposition to Halls plans and any other similar large-scale developments in future.

Sitting on the porch outside the house he and his wife built themselves 15 years ago, with the sun setting below the hills around him, he says: We want to protect our future and our childrens future and the region … we want to maintain our lifestyle and our communities.

The NewVistas plans simply dont fit into local, regional or state visions of how Vermont should develop, Sacca argues, which instead aim to concentrate development as much as possible in village centres, town centres, leaving rural areas for rural life.

Sacca also describes the corporate structure envisaged for NewVistas as Orwellian and as an experiment designed to stand on its own as an insulated corporate town.

Residents attend a public meeting in Tunbridge, Vermont to discuss the NewVistas development, which many oppose. Photograph: Lisa Rathke/AP

Opposition to the project, which would transform the area, has been vibrant and vocal. Sign and stickers are visible on the streets of central Vermont, and petitions are calling for discussion at town meetings in March.

The Alliance is also tracking land purchases. By their count, NewVistas has already acquired an estimated 1,200-1,500 acres of land with purchases continuing despite the controversy.

The Mormon church is itself, a significant land and real estate developer, with farms, ranches, residential and commercial properties across the US. In Florida, a church-owned property is now set to become the site of a new city for as many as half a million people by 2080.

However, it does not seem to be too happy about the NewVistas project either.

In August 2016, a church spokesman said: This is a private venture and is not associated with The Church … [which] makes no judgment about the scientific, environmental or social merits of the proposed developments. However, for a variety of reasons, we are not in favour of the proposal.

The NewVistas website explains that the community layout envisaged follows a city plot pattern created by Joseph Smith in June of 1833. But it also carries an Important Note stating that its model is not presented as a fulfilment of Joseph Smiths vision. It is not supported or endorsed by the Church.

The church in Salt Lake City did not respond to requests for comment or further elaboration of its position.

In Vermont, some of the projects opponents hope they can use Act 250 the states premier land use law to stop it. This law was enacted decades ago after new highways and ski resorts lured investors into the state. It requires that developers comply with regional plans, as a way to manage growth and protect the environment.

Hall acknowledges his project has been controversial and many people are against it. But he says hes drawn to Vermont in particular because of its connection to Joseph Smith, because land is relatively cheap, and because there is too much of what he calls rural sprawl.

Theres lots of rules that keep you from building things, so Vermonters would eventually have to approve it but not right away, Hall adds, stressing that nothing is happening overnight and it would take decades to realise his plan.

He says technical components must first be worked out, and he needs to consolidate land, which can take generations because weve had this trend of subdividing and sprawl, so the reverse process will take a long time. The project, he argues, is very unique, but I have a hard time getting people to really look at it and study it.

Meanwhile, land is also being bought in his home town of Provo, Utah, where NewVistas is again facing local opposition. Professor emeritus at Brigham Young Universitys Marriott School, Warner Woodworth, who lives in Provo, described it as a takeover.

To have someone with money and power enter our area and gradually buy up homes, offering distorted purchase power to grab residences, is troubling. It shakes the peace and violates the sense of continuity and mutual care for one another, Woodworth wrote in September, arguing that Halls plans are also a far cry from the original plat of Zion idea:

Halls system is corporatist, while Josephs was more communal. Hall wants to establish a top-down power structure, whereas Joseph envisioned a bottom-up community of common consent. Hall seeks to control. Joseph sought to liberate. The early Zion plat consisted of large family yards and agriculture. In contrast, Hall plans for tiny urban apartments of 200 square feet in a bare, boring apartment.

But, he suggested: It may have been more achievable and acceptable if he had engaged more participants from the beginning. While one may disagree with some of his ideas, its the process he uses that becomes the fatal step.

As for Antal, who first discovered Halls project, she is concerned about the impact on her family.

There are some good ideas [in the NewVistas project] … Polluting less, creating local agriculture. But I dont think it applies to Vermont. I think Vermont is doing a pretty good job at being sustainable, she says. I dont like that this is being imposed on us.

Read the first part of Claire Provosts investigation into the role of Mormons in city planning here. Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter and Facebook to join the discussion, and explore our archive here

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From book to boom: how the Mormons plan a city for 500,000 in Florida

The Mormon church owns vast tracts of US land, and now envisages a huge new city on its Deseret Ranch but at what cost?

Everything about the Deseret cattle and citrus ranch, in central Florida, is massive. The property itself occupies 290,000 acres of land more than nine times the size of San Francisco and almost 20 times the size of Manhattan. It is one of the largest ranches in the country, held by the one of the biggest landowners in the state: the Mormon church.

On an overcast weekday afternoon, Mormon missionaries give tours of the vast estate. Fields, orange trees and grazing animals stretch as far as the eye can see. While central Florida may be best known for Disney World, the ranch roughly an hours drive away is nearly 10 times bigger. It is home to a jaw-dropping 40,000 cows and has grown oranges for millions of glasses of juice.

Now there are ambitious, far-reaching plans to transform much of this land into an entirely new city, home to as many as 500,000 people by 2080. Deseret has said that while nothing will be built here for decades, its plans are necessary because urban growth in the area is inevitable and the alternative is piecemeal development. A slide from a 2014 presentation explains: We think in terms of generations.

The Deseret Ranch in central Florida. The Mormon church has said it plans are necessary because urban growth in the area is inevitable. Photograph: John Raoux/AP

Deserets plans, which were given the green light by local county commissioners in 2015, are thought to be the largest-ever proposed in the state and have attracted high-profile attention. Critics have accused the plans of putting already stressed natural habitats and critical resources, such as water, in further jeopardy.

This is not a typical housing development. It is an entire region of the state of Florida and it is the last remaining wilderness, said Karina Veaudry, a landscape architect in Orlando and member of the Florida Native Plant Society. It is, she stressed, a plan on an unprecedented scale: This project impacts the entire state, ecologically.

For years, environmental groups protested that it was too risky to build so much on such ecologically important land particularly in one of the few areas of Florida that hasnt already been consumed by sprawling developments. We fought it and fought it and fought it, said Veaudry, who described it as nothing less than a David and Goliath struggle.

Except this time, Goliath was part of the property empire of the Mormon church.

Faith and property

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long influenced urban developments in America through specific ideas about town planning. In the 1830s, the churchs founder, Joseph Smith, laid out a vision for compact, self-sufficient agrarian cities. These were utopian in conception and have been hailed as a precursor to smart growth planning.

The plans for the Deseret ranch in central Floridahave shone a spotlight on another side of the churchs influence: its investments in land and real estate. Today, the church owns land and property across the US through a network of subsidiaries. Its holdings include farmland, residential and commercial developments, though it remains notoriously tight-lipped about its business ventures.

The church has been buying up land in central Florida since the 1950s, starting with 50,000 acres for Deseret Ranch since expanded almost sixfold. Its most recent major acquisition, by the church-owned company AgReserves, was another 380,000 acres in the states north-western panhandle the strip of land that runs along the Gulf of Mexico. Deseret Ranchs website quotes the late church president, Gordon B Hinckley, as saying that farms are both a safe investment where the assets of the church may be preserved and enhanced and an agricultural resource to feed people should there come a time of need.

Across America, subsidiaries of the church reportedly hold 1m acres of agricultural land. This is thought to include land in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Utah and Texas. Church companies are also thought to hold land outside the US, including in Canada and Brazil. In 2014, when church-owned farms in Australia were put up for sale, reports estimated their worth at about $120m (72.8m).

The Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City where the church has its headquarters. Photograph: George Frey/Getty Images

Recent real estate investments by church companies include the 2016 purchase of a 380-unit apartment complex in Texas, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars, and, in Philadelphia, a shopping area, a 32-storey apartment block and a landscaped plaza being built across the street from a newly constructed Mormon temple.

In Salt Lake City, where the church has its headquarters, a church company is currently working on a new master-planned community on the citys west side for almost 4,000 homes. Last year, another investment was unveiled: the new high-end 111 Main skyscraper. Goldman Sachs is reportedly signed up as a tenant.

This city was built by Mormons. In the 19th century, early Mormon settlers gave Salt Lake City bridges, miles of roads, rail and other infrastructure. Hundreds of businesses were also set up: banks, a network of general stores, mining companies. The citys Temple Square is filled with statues glorifying the pioneers.

Nearby is a more contemporary monument to the investing and enterprising church: the City Creek Center, a new shopping mall with 100 stores and a retractable glass roof. It cost an estimated $1.5bn. At its grand opening, a church leader cut a pink ribbon and cheered: One, two, three lets go shopping!

The church said its investment in the mall would help revitalise central Salt Lake City as part of a wider multibillion-dollar initiative called Downtown Rising. Bishop H David Burton said it would create the necessary jobs and added that any parcel of property the church owns that is not used directly for ecclesiastical worship is fully taxed at its market value.

The City Creek Center project has been controversial, however even among Mormons. Some current and former church members have questioned why money invested in such projects isnt spent on charitable initiatives instead.

In 2013, Jason Mathis, executive director of Salt Lake Citys Downtown Alliance business development group, said the church was an interesting landlord. Theyre not worried about the next quarter, he explained. They have a much longer perspective they want to know what the city will look like in the next 50 or 100 years.

The City Creek shopping centre in Salt Lake City, which reportedly cost $1.5bn. Photograph: Rick Bowmer/AP

Black box finances

Projects such as the Salt Lake City shopping centre have certainly focused attention on the churchs investments, but it remains secretive about its revenues and finances.

An entity called Deseret Management Corporation is understood to control many of the churchs enterprises, through subsidiaries focused on different commercial interests including insurance and publishing.

Several church ventures bear the name Deseret itself a term from the Book of Mormon meaning honeybee and intended to represent goals of productivity and self-sufficiency.

In central Florida, the churchs Deseret Ranch is understood to sell cows to Cargill, a Minnesota-based trading company, and oranges to Tropicana, as well as renting land to hunters and other companies.

Deseret, however, declined to confirm this. It said: As a private investment affiliate of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Deseret Ranch does not release financial information or details about our production and customers.

The churchs press office in Salt Lake City also did not respond to emails from the Guardian.

Previously, church officials have emphasised that finance for its companies investments do not come from tithing donations (church members are supposed to contribute 10% of their income each year) but from profits from other such ventures.

But these and other claims, even when offered, are also difficult to verify. Ultimately their finances are a black box according to Ryan Cragun, associate professor of sociology at the University of Tampa.

Cragun previously worked with Reuters to estimate in 2012 that the church owns temples and other buildings worth $35bn and receives as much as $7bn in members tithing each year. But he says the church stopped releasing annual financial information to its own members many years ago.

Estimating their total land holdings? Good luck, says Cragun. Nobody knows how much money the church actually has and why theyre buying all of this land and developing land.

The Mormon church-owned skyscraper at 111 Main in Salt Lake City. Photograph: City Creek Reserve

A new city for Florida

Over the last half-century, Florida has become something of a laboratory for ambitious and sometimes surreal master-planned communities. In southern Florida, for example, the founder of Dominos Pizza funded the construction of a Catholic town called Ave Maria. Closer to Orlando is the town of Celebration, developed by the Walt Disney Company, where shops on meticulously maintained streets sell French pastries and luxury dog treats.

Across Florida, more new subdivisions and developments are planned. Many of these projects have drawn criticism for their potential impact on Floridas already stressed water resources.

Sprawl is where the money is, and people want homes with big lawns and nearby golf courses, a columnist for the Florida Times-Union newspaper recently lamented. He suggested the state should step in to ban water-hungry grass varieties and introduce stronger planning procedures to limit large-scale developments.

The ranchs plans are the largest of these yet. Indeed, they are thought to be the largest-ever proposed in the state, and this land lies in an area thats been called Floridas last frontier.

In 2015, local Osceola county officials approved the North Ranch sector plan, which covers a 133,000-acre slice of Deseret property. As part of this plan, tens of thousands of these acres have been earmarked for conservation lands, not to be built on; and, in addition, Deseret has insisted that it will also continue ranching operations here for generations in the future.

But most of this land, under the approved plan, could be transformed into a new urban landscape. By 2080, it could be home to as many as 500,000 people. The plan explicitly refers to a new fully functioning city.

It envisages a massive development complete with a high-intensity, mixed-use urban centre and a variety of centres and neighbourhoods. There would be 16 communities and a regional hub with a footprint of around one square mile equal to [that] of downtown Orlando.

The Lake Nona complex of master-planned communities where the grass is greener. Photograph: Claire Provost

New office blocks, civic buildings, high-rise hotels and apartment buildings are among the structures anticipated, along with new schools, a hospital, parks and a university and research campus. New motorways and rail lines would connect it all to Orlando and cities along Floridas eastern coast.

The document argues that the plan is necessary to prepare for expected population growth. More than 80% of the vacant developable land in the very area where demographic and economic forces are propelling an increasing share of the regions population and job growth is located on Deserets North Ranch, it says.

In an email to the Guardian, Dale Bills, a spokesperson for Deseret Ranch, said it offers a framework for future land use decisions but will not be implemented for decades.

Were not developers, but the sector plan allows us to be involved in shaping what the ranch will look like over the next 50-60 years, Bills said. When growth does come to the region the plan will help create vibrant communities that are environmentally responsible and people-friendly, he said.

The plan also provides for continued farming operations, Bills added, meaning that generations from now, Deseret will still be doing what we love growing food and caring for the land.

Meanwhile, the ranch has set aside another, smaller block of its land for a separate and more immediate project called Sunbridge, to be developed by the Tavistock Group known in the area for its Lake Nona complex of master-planned communities just south-east of Orlandos international airport.

A render of the Lake Nona development. Photograph: KPMG

On a weekday afternoon, the still largely empty Lake Nona development is silent. Signs planted by the road proclaim it is where the grass is greener. At the visitors centre, a pair of well-dressed women chat over coffee. A sales agent hands out glossy brochures with aspirational verbs embossed on its cover: DISCOVER. EVOLVE. INNOVATE.

Still under construction, Lake Nona describes itself as a city of the future with super-fast internet connections, one of the top private [golf] clubs in the world and homes ranging from luxury apartments to sprawling estates. Less than an hours drive from the ranch, it offers a potential hint of whats to come.

The damage is done

Until this happened [the ranch] was a quiet neighbour, said Jenny Welch, 54, a registered nurse and environmental activist who lived in the area for decades before leaving earlier this year. When I first moved here in 1980, I thought it was great because it would never be developed. This is such environmentally important land. Its a wildlife corridor. There are wetlands.

Major concerns about the Deseret North Ranch plan have included how much water it will consume, the impact of proposed new roads and the amount of land set aside for conservation.

Veaudry, the Orlando landscape architect, said environmental groups tried to engage with the Deseret plans from the beginning by raising concerns but also suggesting enhanced measures to protect local ecosystems.

But, she said, what was ultimately approved was pretty much the nail in the coffin for decades-long efforts to establish a north-south ecological corridor to allow wildlife and ecosystems to flow across the state. It would put literally a city right in the middle of it, she said.

The new city envisaged for this land wont be constructed overnight. While the overall plan for the area has been approved, more approvals will be needed on specific details. This has not reassured critics.

Florida environmentalist Charles Pattison has argued that the long time frame only makes it harder to monitor the project. People involved in this today will not be around to see [it] through to completion, as many new administrative and elected officials will come and go over that time, he said.

The main guidelines, the amount of conservation, how wide the buffers have to be, all of that is already approved and set, said Veaudry. As far as I understand it, the damage is done. Locals know what happened. The Mormon church is the largest landowner here. And they have enormous resources.

The second half of Claire Provosts exploration of Mormon city planning will appear tomorrow. Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter and Facebook to join the discussion, and explore our archive here

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People power in Puerto Rico: how a canal community escaped gentrification

How do you improve a neighbourhood without causing land prices to rise? Residents along a polluted waterway in San Juan set up a community land trust to help save their homes, as well as the environment

For years a graffiti message has appeared throughout San Juan, Puerto Ricos capital, as an urgent demand: Dragado ya! (meaning dredging now!).

Even passersby who have never set foot in the eight barrios making up the Cao Martn Pea community a large informal settlement along 3.75 miles of canal in the central city know the message points to the dire need to dredge the waterway, which has become so clogged with refuse that those driving by with the windows down can immediately smell the stagnant waters.

This previously neglected area was originally established on mangrove wetlands and lacks adequate water drainage systems, so even mild rain storms led to flooding that backed up sewage and polluted waters, causing health and environmental problems for its 26,000 residents.

Desperate to alleviate these issues, the local community started organising themselves to demand the dredging of the canal, but feared the rising land values and displacement of families that such neighbourhood improvement tends to bring.

Residents spent two years collectively drawing up plans for the future of the area, ultimately creating a formal development and land use plan which was then adopted by the Puerto Rico planning board. With the help of national and city government support, local residents and organisations set up a collaborative project called Enlace to help implement the plan to improve the canal and its adjacent communities in an inclusive way.

A crucial part of this involved the establishment of a community land trust, to inoculate against gentrification through collective ownership of land. The 2,000 families of el Cao as the area is locally known now collectively own 200 acres of land that cannot be sold.

As part of the wider Enlace project, residents are involved in decision-making in the social and environmental transformation of their area, and are able to feel more secure about their future as landowners.

Citizen participation and critical awareness has been fomented through various programmes: addressing and improving environmental justice, affordable housing, food security, violence prevention, local entrepreneurship, youth leadership and adult literacy.

San Juans Cao Martn Pea community before the Enlace project. Photograph: Stephanie Maze/National Geographic/Getty Images

The bonds within the community are evident the moment you step foot in the neighbourhood. On a recent afternoon, resident Carmen Febres pulled her car alongside two teens riding their bicycles and asked them if they had done well in school that day. S, nodded the boys in deference. She wagged her finger at them, Im keeping an eye on you! As they pedalled away, they seemed to like her admonishing attention.

Every bit a leader, Febres is president of the G8, an umbrella organisation of the eight barrios, which operates under a pluralism recognising their common interests while respecting the political, religious or cultural diversity among them. The G8 works in tandem with the community land trust and city government to progress the Enlace project, ensuring that residents have a say in all aspects of decision-making in the project.

Community gardening has been a central activity in the district, helping facilitate youth leadership and improving food security, as well as enhancing education about sustainable food. There are several communally managed urban gardens in the district and more across the wider city all of which are seen as a response to the fact that 85% of food is imported in Puerto Rico.

These activities have helped the community become a model of self-improvement and sustainability, as well as fostering pride and a more secure sense of belonging among residents. Its attracted international attention too: last October, the project was awarded the 2016 United Nations World Habitat Award.

Genesis Coln, 20, traveled to Quito last October for the awards as a member of the projects youth leadership development group. The third of four siblings, she is studying nursing and is the first in her family to pursue a university degree. Coln says she wants to see through to the future, to the dredging, and to struggle for the community. She adds: My family has considered leaving Puerto Rico, but I want to stay.

This is no small commitment in a country facing a historic $72bn debt and economic collapse. The impetus to leave at this time is strong, with emigration levels rapidly increasing (84,000 people left for the US mainland in 2014-15), further eroding the tax base and in turn deepening the crisis. The US Congress has imposed a federal fiscal control board on Puerto Rico a US territory of 3.4 million people now poised to enact austerity measures that will likely eviscerate the public sector.

A sizeable portion of the debt is owed to predatory US vulture hedge funds two US Supreme Court rulings nullified Puerto Ricos supposed autonomy as a US commonwealth, exacerbating Puerto Ricos colonial condition. At the same time, local laws designed to create a tax haven for the mega-wealthy are luring outside speculators.

Using a land trust model gives a community a fighting chance to stay where they belong. Photograph: Line Algoed

This is a menacing prospect for communities without the kinds of protections that the Cao Martin Peas G8 have forged. Its easy for communities to lose control for not having the right piece of paper, says David Ireland, director of the Building and Social Housing Foundation, which partners with UN Habitat to organise the World Habitat Awards. He adds that using a land trust to deal with speculators picking off members is not usually seen outside a highly developed context. While not a guarantee, it offers a level of protection, and gives a community a fighting chance to stay where they belong.

The community land trust also helps sustain the area by generating income through renting its properties, developing vacant lots and implementing various projects. Individual houses can also be sold, with a right to use the community-owned land they stand on.

Building community trust, especially in such a climate, has been a key achievement on both macro and micro levels. Perhaps the projects most delicate programme involves relocating families whose homes are most prone to flooding or stand in the way of dredging. Integrating members of 130 families who have already moved to coach residents facing relocation has been key to its success, according to Lyvia Rodrguez, who directs the Enlace project.

In her view, the challenge is to create hope for the society and country as a whole, with environmental policy positively influencing economic advancement.

With more than 100 collaborators and allies, from university oral history projects to solidarity with other community struggles such as the activism combating disposal of toxic ash in Peuelas to the countrys south a spirit of exchange has flourished.

This kind of vision has attracted Line Algoed, an urban anthropologist from Belgium, to work with el Cao. She aims to establish an international observatory of popular knowledge on community land trusts in informal settlements, so community leaders in so-called slums around the world can find their way to the Cao to exchange information with people like Carmen Febres, to get this model translated to other communities worldwide.

To share this land trust and development model with communities worldwide, a group of about 20 people from NGOs and community enterprises in Latin America, North America and Europe will visit el Cao in February.

Algoed also sees an important shift in moving away from the emphasis on individual land titles in regulating informal settlements, towards collective land ownership as a more effective protection of historical and cultural communities. She says the project also sets an example for architects and engineers to participate in community initiatives rather than hope to win the interest of members without that grassroots work.

Ireland shares such a holistic view in promoting not just the community, as if in isolation, but in relation to the rest of the city. When poor people get displaced, he says, they often become the poorer for it, and continued displacements worsen city life as a whole. A mixed city where everyone benefits makes for a healthier social fabric.

The graffiti messages throughout San Juan show that while community development is flourishing, environmental progress is slower: the government keeps postponing the dredging of the canal with an estimated cost of hundreds of millions of dollars due to the countrys ongoing financial crisis.

Still, just a few steps from the Sacred Heart University train station in the teeming Santurce area of San Juan, with the tall buildings of The Golden Mile banking district looming in the background, one can now sense change in the air at el Cao.

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US housing crisis: what can Ben Carson learn from radical 1960s ‘new town’ plan?

The US housing departments ambitious initiatives of the 60s and 70s created urban communities that were both mixed race and mixed income. Though many didnt last, are there lessons in them for Donald Trumps new housing secretary?

Innovation is, to put it mildly, not one of the first attributes that come to mind when you think of Hud the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, soon to be overseen by Donald Trumps former Republican rival Ben Carson. Yet this wasnt always the case.

Imagine urban and suburban communities that banned cars, collected trash in pneumatic tubes, offered prototype community video chat capabilities, built elaborate pedestrian and cycle networks, and carefully retained existing foliage. You may not be thinking of the Jetsons, but products of the groundbreaking Hud New Towns initiatives in the late 1960s and early 70s.

Whats more, these aims were achieved while paying real and successful attention to creating both mixed-income and mixed-race communities.

So where should Carson go to be inspired by these pioneering projects? The catch is (with a few exceptions) federal support for them had sputtered by the mid-70s and vanished entirely in subsequent years, leaving at best, mere fragments of their once grand ideals.

The genuine problems with some of these projects now perceived as failures, if recalled at all eclipsed their admirable qualities in historical memory. These are qualities that might have offered Carson models for a country that is currently experiencing acute housing shortages in many of its metropolitan areas.

In the 70s, 15 projects were approved for Title VII support, most on greenfield sites near existing metropolitan areas. Two were in cities: Roosevelt Island (previously known as Welfare Island) in New York and Riverside Plaza in Minneapolis. Another, Soul City, was distant both from any nearby cities and prevailing practices of building them, as an effort to build a genuinely multi-racial community, spearheaded by an African American developer and African American architects.

There were many inventive elements on the drawing board, and some became a reality. If most developments were substantially suburban in character, planning mainly for single family homes, they often integrated higher density elements or multi-family homes, as well as significant efforts at pedestrian friendliness.

Donald Trump nominated Ben Carson as his secretary for housing and urban development. Photograph: Rainier Ehrhardt/Reuters

The Woodlands, near Houston, attracted praise for a trait that seems intuitive: retaining nature. Initial planning in semi-arid Texas was guided by an intention not to disturb the sites water table, which would have affected the vegetation. The preservation of generous amounts of greenery around existing streams and drainage patterns was the first planning goal, not an afterthought.

Jonathan, Minnesota, a suburban new town, included an extensive trail system throughout the community and even more futuristic touches. According to Andy Sturdevant in the Minneapolis Post: Each house was to be wired with interconnected cables as part of a General Electric Community Information Systems (CIS) project that would turn each television into a telephone that allowed you to communicate visually with your neighbours.

Each homes address was also its ID number for the system: Someone dials up 110612 on their television, your TV makes a futuristic ringing sound, and you can have a video conversation, Sturdevant wrote.

The two urban projects, Roosevelt Island and Riverside both of which were fairly substantially realised were thoughtful reactions against the known shortcomings of the design and composition of prior decades of low-income housing. Both forsook the anti-urban characteristics of prior decades of towers in the park and stressed the importance of planning for a mix of incomes.

Roosevelt Island (substantially the work of New Yorks fascinating Urban Development Corporation) centred its marquee-architect designed main street around a coherent, colonnaded main street lined with shops. It introduced other innovations, banning private cars (for a while) and collecting trash via a pneumatic tube system.

Floyd McKissick visualises the future Soul City to be built on these empty fields in Warren County. Photograph: Harold Valentine/AP

Riverside Plaza, designed by the notable modernist Ralph Rapson, included Minneapoliss first high-rise residential towers but, more importantly, offered buildings at a variety of scales designed to house a variety of incomes, along with retail and community amenities. It was also a surprising television star, the site of Mary Tyler Moores residence in later seasons of the eponymous show.

How did this brave new wave of innovation come about? Two housing bills in the twilight of the Great Society sought to chart a brighter residential future in offering loan guarantees and other incentives to developers to build mixed-income and mixed-race modern towns. The latter bill, passed in 1970, formed a corporation chartered to distribute $500m in bond guarantees to new town projects.

Inspirations were quite openly European, yet the programmes structure was considerably different. Congress eschewed the direct construction of new towns, as Nicholas Dagen Bloom, associate professor of social science at New York Institute of Technology, wrote in an 2001 essay entitled The Federal Icarus:

Title VII stated instead that the government would rely to the maximum extent on private enterprise in the creation of new towns. At heart, congressmen sought to harness the power of private enterprise for public policy, believing they could save the government money by recruiting developers who would, through their plans, attract home-buyers and their money. Title VII thus relied on the individual choices of thousands of homeowners who would, in theory, buy homes in these towns and in turn subsidize the high development costs of these communities.

It was a forward-thinking solution, mandating the substantial provision for housing within the means of persons of low and moderate income. It also encouraged the use of design innovations in land use and construction, the provision of community services, and more. The carrot was federal loan guarantees and promises of eligibility for other financial support.

Construction work at Roosevelt Island in 1975. Photograph: New York Post Archives/The New York Post via Getty Images

The developers were varied, ranging from Robert E Simon (creator of the well-known new town of Reston, Virginia) to Edmund Marcus (son of the Neiman Marcus department store founder) to Floyd McKissick (civil rights leader and head of the Congress for Racial Equality, who lead the Soul City project).

What could go wrong? Quite a lot, actually. Most Title VII projects didnt advance very far. Some, such as Soul City, were too far away from existing population centres to attract much growth. Others were admirably set up but failed to attract buyers, probably due to their aversion to any or all of the characteristics of modern, mixed-race or mixed-income planning. Some developers didnt manage their projects well; others suffered when pledged federal grants failed to materialise.

In time, the Carter and Reagan administrations terminated federal relationships with most of these projects. Some never really developed, while others ended up as conventional suburbs. Riverside Plaza fell from grace after its owners abandoned its original careful balance of income, and converted the complex entirely to subsidised housing.

And yet some things went very right. Roosevelt Island, which had been carefully designed and engineered for multiple incomes, remained a lasting success, with an unusually low crime rate even through the citys most dangerous years, and a recent spurt of growth including a new Cornell Tech campus on the islands south end. The Woodlands, too, flourished as both a high-end suburb and a corporate centre, although its lower-income elements essentially vanished.

Suburban new towns may seem quaint to foolhardy given 40 additional years of sprawl, yet there are traces of these ideas in the recent rise of New Urbanism and efforts to provide options beyond the car. Perhaps more importantly, the Title VII new towns were a large-scale effort to achieve income integration as a central goal of housing policy. Subsequent decades only rendered clearer the lesson that concentrated amounts of poverty tend to produce comparativelyhigh concentrations of crime and little opportunity.

Today its not simply the poor, but a broader number of lower-income Americans who are increasingly squeezed by rising rental costs. A Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies report early last year found a remarkable growth of 9 million renters to 43 million from 2005 to 2015. These are increased numbers chasing a dwindling supply, leading to the unenviable situation of more than 28% of renters paying more than half of their gross income in rent. As with any shortage, lower-income Americans are most affected.

Whats the most important quality missing today? While barriers to construction continue to choke off the meaningful expansion of housing supply, government support for low-income housing typically remains minimal. There is also an element of self-fulfilling prophecy to much of their work: low-quality construction only sporadically maintained will inevitably age badly and produce undesirable results. The new towns movement wasnt a panacea by any measure, but it demonstrated the notably superior results that slightly greater effort could produce.

The Trump administration has broadcast its enthusiasm for infrastructure spending and theres no structure more important to the public than a home. Ben Carson and the Department of Housing and Urban Development could do far worse than look to the spirit of experiment of the new towns movement. Today its not new towns but old ones under increased pressures of growth but we need experiment and effort to make them generally accessible again.

Anthony Paletta writes about architecture and urbanism for The Wall Street Journal, Metropolis, Architectural Record and The Architects Newspaper. Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter and Facebook to join the discussion, and explore our archive here

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