I recently visited Havana, Cuba, where I saw a few things that aren't unfamiliar to our region: a metropolitan area trying to provide for its current residents while preparing for growth, a blending of old architecture and new, and the fact that a place is more inviting when its easy to walk around there. Below are some photos, along with more specific thoughts, from my trip.
Until recently, Cuba was off limits to most Americans. The US Department of Transportation approved several direct plane flights between the United States and Cuba in 2016. The routes are one of several ways that Cuba-US relations have improved over the last few years. While no Washington region airport has a direct flight to the country, many others along the Eastern Seaboard do.
Havana has to balance preservation and growth
Habana Vieja (Old Havana) dates back to the early 1500s and is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The centuries-old buildings are now home to historic hotels, apartments, art galleries, and lots of museums. Walking around Habana Vieja, you quickly see walls with no buildings and the cranes getting to work on new construction.
Efforts are underway to preserve the area's historic buildings while modernizing everything else. In some instances, hotels are adding contemporary buildings on top of existing roofs!
There are pop-ups in Havana, too
Pop-ups aren't only a subject of debate here in our region. In Havana, I saw many examples of these buildings in different neighborhoods throughout Havana:
A few more things an urbanist might notice
The Havana neighborhoods a visitor is most likely to explore—Habana Vieja, Miramar, and Vedado—are best explored on foot. Walking around, I noticed the Cuban government is currently renovating its capitol building, and there's a temporary protected walkway to address construction blocking the sidewalk:
Sure, 1950s era cars usually come to mind when someone mentions transportation in Cuba. But it is not all antique cars. Taxis, buses, and rickshaws move a lot of people there:
Many of Habana Vieja's streets resemble pedestrian boulevards. In fact, some are closed to cars to officially establish pedestrian-only streets:
Calle Osipo is one of the most famous. There, street furniture helps reinforce the fact that the space is only for people on foot:
The streets of Havana reminded me of both the familiar and unfamiliar. Four days in the city was not long enough. But I do feel like I gained a lot of knowledge about Havana's history, architecture, and culture. It was enough to make this GGWash reader happy and wanting to learn more.