Liliana Raquel Miranda Sara

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2003
This description of Liliana Raquel Miranda Sara's work was prepared when Liliana Raquel Miranda Sara was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.


By promoting the use of local, sustainable materials that make homes and other buildings safe, durable, cost-effective, and energy-efficient, Liliana Miranda is bringing a new sense of urban planning to cities that have grown too quickly and with too little foresight.

The New Idea

An architect and urban planner, Liliana has seen firsthand what happens when cities expand rapidly: their building practices–and indeed planning generally–fail to keep pace with growth, and inexpensive but potentially hazardous building materials are chosen over sustainable ones. She aims to present such cities, and the people who call them home, with standards that will ensure quality and safety and demonstrate the benefits of sustainable building: reduced costs over the long run and conservation of precious resources such as water and energy. Working with construction companies, self-builders, and policymakers in two carefully chosen sites–shantytowns in Lima and Chimbote–Liliana is reducing the use of hazardous materials like asbestos and encouraging communities to set aside community-tended green spaces and parks. In the process, she is demonstrating that citizens–including poor people with few resources–can erect homes and design neighborhoods that are safe, secure, and clean. A source of pride rather than shame, these living spaces will, she hopes, translate into a shared sense of community and responsibility for maintaining them. As a base for spreading the ideas and standards she is developing, Liliana has brought citizen groups, builders, and representatives from the municipalities of 21 cities in Peru together into a Cities for Life Forum that will advance change nationally.

The Problem

With 70 percent of its population living in cities and towns, Peru is an urban country. The capital city, Lima, is one of the most complicated examples of urban expansion in Latin America. A megalopolis that is home to a third of the country's population at nearly eight million people, Lima experienced explosive growth in the 1980s and 1990s when masses of people fled the countryside to escape the violence associated with the guerrilla group, Shining Path. The rapid nature of this migration meant that construction–particularly in shantytowns–was irregular and unplanned, a trend that continues to this day. Because building in shantytowns is done out of immediate necessity, recent migrants use the most readily available materials they can afford, regardless of their environmental or safety drawbacks.
Despite recent hurdles, including the elimination of several government institutions dealing with housing issues and a drastic reduction in the national housing budget, many municipalities in Peru have conceptually adopted principles of sustainable development following the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Two factors, however, continue to prevent the idea from translating into reality. First, while accepting sustainable building in principle, few understand what it means in practice. For example, one community that had adopted improved aspects of sustainable planning, including green spaces and participatory budgeting, continued to use the same old unsustainable, unhealthy, and potentially dangerous materials in planning new construction projects. Moreover, construction and maintenance remained dependent on the intensive use of nonrenewable energy sources and water, which are not even available on a daily basis in many poor neighborhoods. Such patterns have meant that people will continue to get sick from materials like asbestos, water supplies will run out, energy sources will diminish, houses will remain vulnerable, and the environment will continue to suffer.
Compounding the absence of examples of what sustainable construction actually looks like in a city is the failure to see incentives to adopt new practices. Developers, shantytown self-builders, and others have little understanding of the idea of sustainable building or materials. Self-builders reach for the most readily available and inexpensive materials they can find, or simply use whatever their neighbors use. If they are given a new unknown material, they tend to assume that it is because they are poor and that it must therefore be inferior. Construction companies are similarly resistant to change, as their accounting systems and profits are based on the use of familiar materials and budgets.

The Strategy

Recognizing that people need to see what these changes mean in practical terms– especially the costs, benefits, and what it takes to make them work–Liliana is implementing carefully chosen pilot projects to demonstrate the value of sustainable building. Drawing on studies and small-scale experiments conducted over the last five years by Cities of Life Forum members, these projects will display both new construction and corrective work. As each pilot project must make a visible impact, Liliana is drawing in all of the relevant people–the residents of the neighborhoods, the construction companies, and the local governments–to take part in every stage of the process. By involving all parties in the designing, budgeting, and planning of the projects, Liliana allows them to see firsthand advantages of incorporating these materials and practices into future construction.
In the first of these pilots in shantytowns in the cities of Lima and Chimbote, Liliana is showing homeowners that changing the way they build can improve their quality of life. Specifically, she is demonstrating that ecologically oriented improvements to building materials and systems can be made relatively inexpensively, for investments ranging from $300 to $2,500, which will be returned by decreases in energy and healthcare bills. For example, the cement or clay bricks typically used to build houses can be replaced by locally produced sand bricks, which, when built and reinforced properly, hold up better in earthquakes than clay. In communities that have water only a few days a week, such as Lima's Villa El Salvador district, Liliana is working with communities to perfect the use of gray water systems and introducing two-way toilets, which separate liquids and solids, thus reducing needless waste of water.
More than just showing individual families the benefits of sustainable building, Liliana is also working with communities to develop public land, creating community-designed green spaces and common areas that everyone can enjoy. Emphasis is placed on creating spaces that are multigenerational, to bring families and communities together rather than divide them. Not just limited to parks, Liliana also encourages small public spaces between the houses and the streets so that everyone can have something nice right outside of their houses–thus enhancing residents' incentive to participate. To implement these alterations, Liliana's organization helps communities secure credit to make the changes they choose, both in their homes and in public spaces. Architects are often involved so that they can learn how to implement sustainable construction and offer design ideas, if asked, but the community always makes the final decisions.
While focusing on shantytowns provides immediate benefits for residents, working exclusively with them runs the risk of relegating sustainable practices exclusively to the poor. To bring sustainable building to the mainstream, Liliana is planning two more pilot projects: persuading a local university to build its new auditorium using all sustainable materials and gradually correcting the Cities of Life Forum's own office by replacing materials, changing energy sources to solar panels and energy-saving light bulbs, and building a place for employees to park their bicycles as an incentive not to drive to work.
More importantly, Liliana and her organization are also educating construction companies about the value of using local, sustainable materials and working with them to make the necessary transitions from their accounting systems for their old materials to the new ones. Utilizing her own contacts from her architecture days, Liliana aims first to influence at least one big construction company to adopt her idea to use sustainable materials and utilize the tactic in an upscale building. While she acknowledges that this may be one of her most difficult challenges, she believes she can persuade companies by demonstrating that there truly is a potential for making money using these materials. It may not be immediate, but the first companies to switch over could find themselves in the position of being leaders in products that will have a quickly expanding market, a market that Liliana is actively helping to build. Moreover, use of these materials could become a competitive advantage and give the company a competitive edge in a tight housing market.
To create a policy environment congenial to standardized sustainable building, Liliana works closely with the Cities of Life Forum. Since its founding in 1996, the forum has grown from 12 to 78 members including local governments, NGOs, unions, and universities from 21 cities throughout Peru. With the help of these partners, many of whom have participated in the pilot projects, Liliana is pressing for both local and national governments to adopt new construction regulations that allow for the use of gray water (not presently legal) and two-way toilets, eliminate asbestos, and support the use of good local materials from sustainable sources.

The Person

Liliana grew up in Chiclayo, a small city of 250,000 people. After studying accounting for a year near home, she moved to Lima to pursue her dream of studying architecture at the Ricardo Palma University. Despite challenges–she had to move constantly and seldom had the drawing materials that she needed–she graduated with the highest grade in her class, and her final project won first place in a contest sponsored by the Architects' Association.
During her studies and subsequent work as an architect, Liliana noticed that the types of buildings that students were taught to design were not realistic given Peru's economy. In a country where most people are poor and build their own homes, she realized that the fancy buildings she designed were not practical. Deciding she "wanted to work for Peru" rather than for a prestigious architectural firm, Liliana opened her own office and took on projects like titling land for 4,000 families living in shantytowns in Pamplona Alta. She later worked for the local government in San Juan de Miraflores, another marginal Lima neighborhood, as director of urban development, a position that allowed her to improve public building procedures and make them more transparent. Eventually, Liliana also took a position with an NGO called Ipadel, in which she continued working on urban development in San Juan de Miraflores and other municipalities. These experiences taught her not only how to operate in poor neighborhoods, but also how to relate to local authorities, the central government, and NGOs.
After completing her degree in urban planning and management first in Colombia and then in Holland, she returned to Peru and secured funding from Ipadel for the project "Capacity-Building for Environmental Urban Management," which she coordinated in Bolivia and Peru. When Ipadel had to close because of lack of funds, Liliana moved the project to a different organization, Ecociudad, and, along with 11 other organizations, formed the Cities for Life Forum to solve critical urban environmental problems that affect vulnerable populations. In its earlier days, the forum worked extensively to promote Agenda 21, which emerged from the Rio Conference to foster participation in local planning and sustainable development. Liliana is currently president of Ecociudad and executive director of the Cities of Life Forum, but she intends to step down to be the coordinator of the area that works specifically on sustainable building and materials.