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Urban Age South America
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Lucy Bullivant was invited by the Alfred Herrhausen Society, the international forum of Deutsche Bank, to attend the latest Urban Age conference staged by the Society and the Cities Programme at the LSE, held in
São Paulo in December 2008. She reviewed the event for Domus (January 2009 issue).
South American Cities: Securing an Urban Future: the Urban Age South America conference, São Paulo, December 2008, review published in Domus.
São Paulo, a multicultural megalopolis (19 million 'Paulistanos' including 5 million Italian and 1 million Japanese residents) with its high degree of ethnic integration (and multi-ethnic gangs), rich legacy of buildings (Niemayer, Lino Bo Bardi, Mendes da Rocha) tempered by tropical lushness, has a zero-tolerance, Giuliani-style Mayor. Gilberto Kassab is investing in the subway and bus system and leading a crusade for a 'Clean City', with billposting made illegal and buildings scrubbed clean of graffiti.
At December's South American Urban Age conference in São Paulo we heard that more is being done to improve living conditions in the city's favelas, which are largely sprawling at the city's outskirts, than in Rio, which has one in every neighbourhood. But the new Octavio Frias de Oliveira bridge over a river beltway, is a symbol of malaise in merely connecting traffic jams from two neighbouring districts. As many helicopters as in NYC or Tokyo enable the super-rich, taking harbour in gated housing and malls, to skip these issues.
Urban Age is the brainchild of Ricky Burdett, its Director at the London School of Economics, and is staged by LSE's Cities Programme and the Alfred Herrhausen Society, the international forum of Deutsche Bank. One of the event's chief aims since its inception four years ago is interrogating the interactions of the formal and informal in cities and how contested public space can support, not restrict, civic wellbeing. The latest event bravely took on board not just the conscience of this leading Latin American business hub but the urban futures of a whole continent, aided by a bill of 44 Brazilian speakers, as well as 12 presentations from other Latin American cities like Buenos Aires and Santiago, and 40 from Europe and North America.
Visitors experienced the dramatic closeness of the Paraisópolis favela valley site with its new school to the luxury highrises of wealthy Morumbi. Condo dwellers subsidise the favela, while the city council's upgrading policy is to integrate the informal city and the legal, said Elisabete Franca, Director of Social Housing. She led the Guarapiranga, a waterfront scheme with 500,000 people, 230,000 of whom were in precarious settlements, the biggest to date. With their Columbia Graduate School research lab, the Caracas-based Urban Think Tank's SLUMLAB is retrofitting the Grotão/Paraisópolis risk area for her department, via tactics to pre-fabricate, promote open source knowledge, think formally and grow locally.
In the 90s some city dwellers believed in social policies alone, others in police repression. Now more do battle with civic disenfranchisement in the poorer communities, with a recognition of their unique qualities and a mix of actions. Film maker Tata Amaral, whose poplar Antonia series created a new representation of downtown to help promote self-esteem, said this still young city had to rethink democratic processes to build trust.
Urban Think Tank asserts that the rise of violent favela/barrio urbanism is the product of a society that has desensitised itself to social sustainability. Only 40% of new construction in São Paulo is by architects, but a resensitisation happens when architects act as facilitators and interpreters of community needs, as first rate presentations by Alejandro Aravena, the Chilean architect and director of Elemental which is building social housing in Santiago, Alejandro Echeverri's plan for Medellin in Columbia, Enrique Norten's new multi-use waterside park plan in Mexico, and the new Slumlab book, underlined.
As Eduardo Roja, the Brazilian urban development specialist, pointed out, this compensatory stance based on a localising of creative knowledge is vital to strengthen social capital in a city with 39 municipalities, a fragmentation in management and 'no long-term vision'. But Eduardo Jorge, Secretary of the Environment, stressed that the Mayor optimally worked like a conductor of an orchestra across all sectors. Many conductors are needed for the Urban Age symphony, which is about holistic results achieved top down and bottom up.
Lucy Bullivant thanks the Alfred Herrhausen Society for kindly hosting her trips to attend the Urban Age conferences held in Mexico City (2006), Mumbai (2007) and São Paulo (2008).
© 2017 Lucy Bullivant
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