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Living in an Urban Age

By Darryl D'Monte

Sao Paulo is arguably the most violent city in the world, with 120 murders per 100,000 population in the poorer areas of the city. At the second Urban Age conference in Sao Paulo, participants discussed the problems of crowded urban areas and looked for ways to make these spaces less violent and more inclusive

problems of crowded urban areas

As Indians, Latin America may, for all practical purposes, be our Area of Darkness, almost another planet. We are hardly aware that we are part of BRIC -- an acronym that includes Russia, ourselves and China as large, emerging economies which will dominate the world in a few decades. For that very reason, we draw our urban knowledge from the West, while Latin American cities have much to teach us. For that matter, we can teach them a thing or two.

The overwhelming experience for the handful of Indian participants at last month’s second Urban Age conference in Sao Paulo was the pre-occupation with personal security. We were warned well in advance not to flaunt expensive cameras, other equipment, or jewellery. We were shepherded from our hotel to the conference site, to the favelas (slum colonies), and other events by bus; armed guards preceded us, forming a cordon as we descended. We were once even prevented from waiting for the bus on the pavement outside the conference venue and were escorted to and from dinner at a restaurant 300 metres from our hotel.

Indian participants, no strangers to stark poverty, were bemused. By Mumbai’s standards, Sao Paulo’s favelas looked almost posh, pucca structures for the most part. Their residents are obviously better fed and clothed. The tan-brick tenements are far more sturdy.

If levels of poverty are far higher in our country, why the excessive precautions? We could even pass for Brazilians, which made the cordon sanitaire that much more incongruous. I had learned that in Mumbai, in 2007, for the first Urban Age conference, participants who visited Dharavi had guards with them on the bus, but the NGOs that organised the trip firmly told them to remain seated when they arrived.

Although the security agency that was hired in Sao Paulo had exceeded its brief, what Indians aren’t familiar with is the violence in Latin American cities. In some respects, Sao Paulo -- the most populous city in South America as opposed to the whole of Latin America, where Mexico City rules the roost -- resembles Mumbai, the most populous city in India. Its metropolitan region boasts some 19 million, which approximates India’s commercial capital. The city is home to slum-dwellers who form 15% of the population -- a far cry from Mumbai, where they comprise 55%.

Where Sao Paulo and other Latin American (and African) cities differ from their Indian metropolitan counterparts is in the violence. The UN once listed Sao Paulo as being the most violent city in the world, after Cali in Colombia which is plagued by drug gang warfare. Sao Paulo had an overall murder rate of more than 60 per 100,000 people, in the late-1990s. However, this average camouflages the grim reality that in the posh neighbourhoods like Jardim Paulista where our hotel was located, it is only 3 per 100,000, slightly higher than the UK average. In the poor neighbourhoods, on the periphery of the city, like Cidade Tiradentes, this figure can go up to 120 deaths.

As one Urban Age conference participant put it: “Violence is not only expressing but accentuating inequalities.” On the face of it, Sao Paulo and other Brazilian cities like Rio de Janeiro are postcard images of racial mingling. But the discrimination is deep, if not evident. Most of the murder victims are young and black. Half the population in Tiradentes is black, with all the indices of poverty and joblessness. Gareth Jones, from the London School of Economics, which hosts the Urban Age think-tank, asked whether the State was “securing the city from or for young people. He wanted young people to be involved in planning at the community level.

These young persons, between the ages of 13 and 25, face extreme hopelessness because they have been excluded from the public realm. They resort to trafficking drugs as the last resort. Somewhat surprisingly, this “urbawar” has drawn some favela residents to various sects of the Evangelical church which, far from quelling the violence, has actually provoked it by sparking off conflict between sects. The money collected in churches is often used for a range of illegal activities. The response from better-off Paulistas is to erect higher walls and gates, with round-the-clock armed guards. This, in turn, has evoked its own unique response from young gangs who have sprayed graffiti and drawn paintings or pixacaoes not only at the street level but as high as the human hand (and their spray guns) can reach on high-rise buildings.

In the Urban Age document, Teresa Caldeira, professor of city planning at the University of California at Berkeley, writes: “These public inscriptions are usurpations that recreate a public domain in a city privatised by walls.  Graffiti and pixacao reclaim the streets, the facades, and the walls as spaces of communication and contestation instead of separation… Obviously, many interpret these appropriations as vandalism, crime and proof of the deterioration of the public space… (The practitioners) invent new styles, spreading signs of their transgressions and powerfully transforming the character of public space.”  Incidentally, one innovation which Mumbai and other cities will do well to emulate is the ban in Sao Paulo of all billboards, under a ‘Clean City’ law. Even the size of a commercial plaque has to be proportionate to the area of the façade.

Caldeira cautions that “Sao Paulo is a complex city that will not be captured by simplistic dual models: neither the proximity nor the distance of its opposed social groups”. The iconic image of the extremes of poverty and affluence is captured by a gated high-rise apartment complex called Edifico Roof in Morumbi, which has come to symbolise all that is wrong with urban affluence. Every curved balcony in the complex boasts a tiny swimming pool! At its foot are tennis courts and a full-sized swimming pool, and cheek-by-jowl is the Paraisopolis favela. The workers who built a nearby football stadium set themselves up next door in this slum.

The overwhelming message at the conference was that if we depend on experts (architects and planners) and technocrats to run big cities in developing countries, we are doomed. Urban Age stresses a multi-disciplinary approach, where knowledge is used as a means of power, and thus city-building is an education as much for the doers as for the receivers. Today, real estate is running our cities -- which is why we always say that the only real thing about Mumbai is the estate! Political decisions are as important as large-scale participation of all “stakeholders”. And there is always a tension between the knowledge of an expert and that of the community, learned on the ground.

As it happens, Sao Paulo has been a laboratory for many such experiments. There is Slumlab with Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in New York, which is working on “risk areas” (because of landslides on the slopes) like Grotao and Paraisopolis. The approach, as Ricky Burdett, director of Urban Age explains, is to “retrofit” favelas “through good design, incorporating new infrastructure into the existing fabric without having to start from scratch -- like a pacemaker deftly inserted into the arteries of an ailing body”.

Such an approach deviates from the conventional remedy of demolition and resettlement. As two proponents underline, it is “about presenting urban concepts of mapping data and retrofitting -- a process by which focused, small-scale architectural interventions can spread iteratively throughout an impoverished area to produce an emergent sense of order, one that effects massive urban and social change”. Mark Collins from Columbia University has worked with government representatives in Mumbai, China, Cairo and Nairobi to adopt this approach. He writes: “Sao Paulo’s methodologies were hailed as the standard-bearer for slum upgrading and (at a recent ‘global dialogue’) each delegate seemed to suggest that it could serve as a template for urban remediation in their own locality.”

One proposal is to provide universal accessibility of water, waste removal and energy under an urban farm network. By linking different houses in Paraisopolis -- the favelas are eminently suited to urban agriculture because the roofs aren’t pucca enough to allow for vertical expansion -- and employing hydroponics to grow food crops like sweet corn and tomatoes, the community can convert dwelling places into sites that generate income, as a result upgrading the entire environment. One must emphasise that a major difference between slums in Sao Paulo and Indian cities is that a very high percentage has individual toilets, which makes a world of difference.

Another proposal is to give Paraisopolis a multi-functional and adaptable space for recreation, cultural and educative activities. This gives the youth a sense of purpose and keeps them off the streets. Inventively, the proponent has suggested building three half-sized basketball courts on the hillsides, combined with ramps for pedestrians. This “generation of geometry of the hillside is the product of the favela itself,” as distinct from conventional full-size recreational grounds.

Other innovative proposals from a student called Sonal Patel include using a new technology called ‘peizo electricity’, where energy is generated from stress on special material: when compressed, the material distributes a charge across its surface. Thus, people walking on piezo electric tiles in an artery of a favela can produce sufficient energy for local lighting. Similarly, stormwater runoff can be collected to augment supplies -- a “valuable community asset”. An “ecoscape” can create a networked system which will collect water, purify it (a la the Osho nullah in Pune) and create food security through cultivation with hydroponics. As a student writes: “Through these techniques, an understanding of how public space works and a knowledge of unmet needs within Paraisopolis, unstable terrain can be transformed into corridors of stable development -- residential, commercial or civic.”

Urban Age also emphasises the importance of social infrastructure, as we have seen with stadia in Sao Paulo. Bogota has built more than 50 new schools for its poorest citizens, which not only reduce truancy but instil a feeling of inclusion. It has started a programme to build new libraries; its Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) has been inspired by the pioneering city, Curitiba, in Brazil. In both these cities, interestingly, the reserved lane for articulated, highly frequent and well-appointed buses has been initiated by architects who were elected as mayors. Bogota’s former mayor, Enrique Penalosa, who attended both Urban Age conferences, has also visited Pune. He memorably writes: “A protected bicycle lane in a city in a developing country is a powerful symbol, showing that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is as important as one in a $30,000 car.”

In Sao Paulo, the mayor of Lima, Chile, cited how the previous government had privatised the transport system, where “free choice was taken to the extreme,” and has now introduced a BRTS. Surprisingly, New York is following suit, on 34th Street, according to the transport commissioner, Jeannette Sadik-Khan. New York has also been toying with a congestion tax, on the lines of Singapore and London, which is long overdue in a city like Mumbai where traffic arteries run on a north-south axis. As many as 56% of New Yorkers don’t own cars and only 5% use one to travel within the city regularly. The city is creating a bicycle network where tracks will speed past such iconic sites as Madison Square Gardens and Broadway. Bogotá has already introduced “summer streets” where some of the main arteries are closed to traffic on a Sunday, turning these into recreational grounds for around 50,000 people.

Most surprisingly of all, Los Angeles -- which Mike Davis immortalised in his epic tome Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster -- is installing a new rail-based infrastructure for the sprawling city, the epitome of everything that has gone wrong with an automobile-obsessed society. Sao Paulo is one of the world’s worst cities as far as transport goes: half its 19 million people own cars, which is why it can take you 20 minutes to drive around a single block during rush hour. Yet, even in such a highly motorised city, as many as 30% of the total trips in a day are by walking. And, despite the crush of cars, a higher percentage of commuters using motorised transport take buses.

Jamie Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, who is world-renowned as the “inventor” of the BRTS in the 1970s, cited a number of unconventional methods to solving the problems of mega cities, at the Urban Age conference. Seeing that Curitiba’s favela-dwellers used the areas under flyovers to store and recycle garbage, he “bought” the garbage from them and paid them in bus tickets, thereby ridding the city of an unsightly, unhygienic mess and promoting public transport at the same time. He adopted the same approach to coax fisherfolk to collect trash in a city bay during their lean periods. The bay was cleaned and better stocked with fish! He also made a plea to allow the informal sector to take over downtown areas after 6 pm, to inject life into these otherwise derelict areas -- a unique formal-informal equation.  

InfoChange News & Features, January 2009