Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Great City of the South: Understanding the Urbanism in São Paulo

[This was originally a continuation of "Ola Sao Paulo!", divided into two posts for readability.]

In our conversations prior to my arrival in Brazil, Anielle Guedes, Urban3D's founder and CEO, described São Paulo as one of the "great cities of the South." These cities -- places like Lagos, Jakarta, New Delhi, Shanghai, and other rising cities across the "Developing World" -- have seen massive population expansions as people move from the countryside seeking economic and social advancement. While these locations have vastly different cultures and political traditions, all face similar challenges in providing services -- from modern transportation and finance to basics like public health and housing -- for their populaces. They also see, to varying degrees, large levels of inequality.

These realities are readily apparent on the streets here. São Paulo is South America's largest city, and has the greatest concentration of industry on the continent. While it was a relatively quiet center of cattle and coffee production at the turn of the 20th century, São Paulo has gone through several periods of great economic growth. Today, the State of Sao Paulo, home to 20% of Brazil's people, generates over 40% of the nation's GDP. Young, well-traveled Paulistanos that I've talked to often compare their city to Nova York: both cities share a strong business culture, a well-utilized metro system, and a large fleet of helicopters (NYC is #1, São Paulo is #2). And the cities are comparatively sized, with the São Paulo metro area's 21 million people in 7,000 sq. km corresponding closely to New York City's 23 million, though New York's metro is spread out over 34,000 sq. km. However, the urban form starts to diverge there. Population density and building types in New York City form a Gaussian curve centered on Manhattan (60-story offices and apartment buildings downtown give way to 6-story apartment blocks in the boroughs and 2-story houses in the suburbs), and the entire city is characterized by an effective grid system that anticipated future expansions. Different story for São Paulo.

São Paulo: Makes Boston look reasonable. Original:
By contrast, the city planning here is more frenzied and less, uh, planned: from its origins as a hilltop Jesuit monastery in colonial times, the city today is a mix of old village centers, streetcar-oriented grids, grand avenues, office parks, highways, and improvised settlements which later had their streets paved and dignified. Its dense residential neighborhoods of two-story houses, host to working-class immigrants and well-to-do Paulistanos alike, established themselves on the former coffee plantations and hillsides one-by-one as the city expanded. Since the midcentury, and especially since the high-crime days of the 1980's, relaxed zoning laws have allowed 30-story apartment towers to sprout across these neighborhoods, providing the rich with a more modern, "American" standard of living complete with strong metal fences and protected basement garages for automobiles. The result of this indiscriminate construction: after riding 30 minutes on the metro from the historic downtown, your view of the skyline remains pretty much the same.
A patchwork of low-rise homes and high-rise apartments, the product of unrestricted and unplanned construction over the past few decades, sprawls out for hundreds of kilometers.
Ana Paula Hirana. Original:
For me, the essential lesson from this reality is that São Paulo, as a city, is difficult to rationalize. In its hugeness and density and sprawl, it is difficult (for me as a stranger) to imagine its entirety. Its streets don't naturally orient you, as New York's gridiron does; its hills are too crowded and too numerous to provide clarifying vistas, as they do in San Francisco, or to provide a backdrop as they do in Los Angeles; its skyline, in its consistency, offers few beacons to the urban navigator, as the Hancock Tower has always been to me in Boston. Even its rivers, the Pinheiros and Tiete, can't contain or define the city; rather, their concrete riverbeds merely provide the courses for the city's circumferential highway, literally called the Marginal, which separates the slightly-older neighborhoods from the slightly-newer sprawl.

Interestingly, this doesn't mean that São Paulo lacks a sense of place; rather, it seems to become a city of many, many places. The relaxed zoning means that some streets become disappointing strips of condo-tower garage ramps, but on other thoroughfares, neighborhood businesses have great freedom to improvise and thrive. The street art here is prolific and fantastic (notably Beco do Batman, but countless murals exist elsewhere). There are big places: Avenida Paulista, formerly home to the powerful coffee planters' mansions, now home to powerful industry leaders' office towers; the Stock Exchange and Financial District; the plaza of the Metropolitan Cathedral.The tangle of streets provide plenty of opportunities for the great civic monuments to bump up against local markets and shops, spray-painted high-rises, and cluttered back-alleys. In essence, the hugeness of the city, and its improvised planning, provide the kind of nooks and crannies essential for humans to settle in and define their own lives.

Of course, this is the outsider's perspective, based on my own observations and conversations with a few of the people I've met here. It's quite likely that a seasoned Paulistano would have a different conception than I would -- it would be interesting to ask how they've drawn up their mental maps.

And also, of course, the unplanned nature of the city means that social problems can be very difficult to solve. Most notably is the entrenched social stratification, along class and race lines, inherent in the layout of the neighborhoods. The central neighborhoods here, with easy metro access and plenty of cultural amenities, are overwhelmingly upper-class and white. The city's working class people are largely people of color originating from Brazil's impoverished Northeast, and are relegated to peripheral neighborhoods. They face long commutes (up to three hours in one direction) on bus lines to get to employment centers downtown, with public social services (healthcare, education, etc) that are "ridiculously underfunded," in the words of one of my housemates. This is further exacerbated by interpersonal discrimination and prejudice. Many of the people I've spoken to have said that social mobility is extremely difficult, and many of the same wealthy families have been running the country's institutions for generations. Sound familiar?

As the 21st century progresses, more and more people will be moving to cities like São Paulo. Urban planning in the 20th century, particularly in the United States, centralized its power in top-down urban renewal agencies. The sprawling metropolises of the 21st century may prove to simply be too gigantic, and will certainly prove to be too under-funded, to pursue that kind of erasure and demolition and resurrection. Much to the chagrin of the Baron von Haussmann's of the world, cities will likely need to live with their confusion and imperfection and un-idealism. Renovations and redesigns will still inevitably occur, but on a much smaller scale. However, these conditions may ultimately be an advantage. Could the reduction of central planning allow a shift in focus back to localization, to communities and neighborhoods? In other words, is it possible that, within the niches of the megacity, we could live at a more human scale? I would like to see this as a possibility, and imagine that modern life can become more, not less, alienating. Of course, the great challenge of this new urbanism will be ensuring that the people now on the periphery are not left behind. Can the people of privilege and power find new ways of bridging the gaps? Or will the amoebic cities of the future, having triumphed over history and trampled over geography, be increasingly defined only in terms of "inside" and "outside"?

Thanks for reading, sorry for the rambling! Do you have any thoughts about urbanism, or anything else? Leave a comment below!

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