A new heart for São Paulo
In the effort to make the historic downtown of São Paulo lively, safe and attractive to people, Gehl Architects have been hired by Itaú Unibanco to assist São Paulo Urbanismo in the development of new public spaces.
By Stine Behrendtzen, freelance journalist
“When darkness falls, people quickly disappear from the sidewalks. The shops close their shutters and the streets turn into long, dark alleys. The historic downtown is not a place where people go for a drink, a coffee or a walk. In fact it seems a bit deserted at night”
This description is given by CEO of Gehl Architects, Helle Søholt, who shares her thoughts on the ambience in the area surrounding Vale do Anhangabaú, one of the largest and most central squares in São Paulo.
In the 1970′s the city was ahead of the curve in their approach to public spaces. At the time,
car-free zones were established. The city center was filled with pedestrian areas where people
were seen relaxing on benches or strutting around among colorful telephone booths, shaped like giant oranges.
An ambitious plan
São Paulo has always had a strong architectural foundation, influenced by ground-breakers, like Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier. However, during the 1980s, city planning ceased.
Following the end of the dictatorship in 1988, the city evolved rapidly but also randomly, according to Helle Søholt. Jobs disappeared from downtown, families started to move away, and slowly the area was transformed into a place with many vacant buildings. Most of the businesses that used to occupy the ground floors closed down, and nowadays upper floors are used primarily for product storage and ground floors for parking.
The area has become a place people mainly go to if they have a specific errand to run or if they work in one of the public sector offices. Few go there for leisure, explains Helle Søholt, unless attending one of the many events. Now the city has decided to do something about it.
“A new mayor and a new operational chief for city planning were elected in November of last year, and one of their goals is to rectify the old city center. The municipal council is currently working on a very ambitious plan. They are serious about generating more life and daily day-time activities into the area.”
One of the visions is to breathe new life into Vale do Anhangabaú. Today the large central square functions mainly as an event space and does not facilitate everyday use, even though there is a large body of potential users that pass by on the nearby streets and cross the square every day on their way to and from public transport, going to work and school in the area.
An inclusive process
“Our job is to facilitate the process, but we believe that it is important to understand and respect the historical and cultural context. In order to broaden our perspective, and include a variety of voices and viewpoints, we’ve held a series of workshops, where we have included various local experts,” explains David Sim, Creative Director at Gehl Architects.
The people attending the workshops have been a mixture of architects, engineers, police officers, bicycle enthusiasts and people who work to conserve Brazilian cultural heritage.
“If a city needs a new heart, it’s important to include everyone in the process. It’s their city. That’s why it is only right to give them the opportunity to make their mark. Only by including people in the planning process can they truly engage and get a sense of ownership in a project like this one.”
Observing city life
For example, a part of the workshop included a simple exercise in observation – a group of 30 people going to the square and observing life unfolding.
“Basically we started by identifying all the things we could agree upon. Generally when you have a lot of people involved in a process like this – a good starting point is unity. Finding similarities instead of differences.” he says.
“We quickly agreed that there was a need for more trees, as well as a need for more activities so we should include kiosks, cafes and free wifi. There was also a general consensus regarding some form of water on the square, and a more uniform surface and universal access, so everyone would be able to go there, regardless of any disabilities. On the whole we agreed that it should be a flexible place suited for both large events as well as an everyday place where you would want to eat your lunch or just chill.”
Acupuncture for cities
Gehl Architects define one of their ways of working as ‘urban acupuncture’. The idea is that if you make an effort to create an area that is inviting and people- friendly, the effect will spread to other neighbourhoods.
In addition to the project in Vale de Anhangabaú, Gehl Architects has been commissioned to facilitate a process for 4 pilot projects in selected parts of the city, says Architect Sofie Kvist.
“Currently city life in the old city center is very objective-based: You go to the market, visit a pedestrian street for shopping or you go there for work or to study. Everyday life is not particularly supported, so there’s no incentive to hang around in the area.”
A better pedestrian environment
The purpose of the pilot projects is to improve the environment in order for everyday life to flourish. The first one is expected to be launched in December 2013, and is aimed towards the area surrounding the busy shopping street of 25 de Março, which is typically crammed with people.
The pilot project gives space back to the pedestrians and reorganizes the street vending to create a better pedestrian and shopping environment. This is already part of a reoccurring Christmas event. The pilot prolongs the period of street closure and adds elements such as wayfinding, seating and art into the street.
“Including local stakeholders and creating partnerships with possible contributors and locals to the area is crucial in order to make the pilots a success,” explains Sofie Kvist
One of many ideas is to transform a side street which today is used for parked cars, into a small recreational square, where people can take a break, relax, and get a drink in between shopping on the busy 25 de Março. There are among other initiatives plans to install benches, tables, parasols and food stands that sell local delicacies.
Helle Søholt hopes that Gehl Architects can contribute by making São Paulo more inviting to people.
“We want to contribute to changing people’s impression of the city center. Hopefully these pilot projects will place the city center on people’s ’mental maps’, and change their perception of the urban spaces.”