Beyond Flyover Urbanism: Learning from São Paulo

In January of this year, Thaddeus Pawlowski, an associate urban designer at the New York City Department of City Planning, was invited to São Paulo by SP Urbanismo, a public-private agency responsible for large scale development projects under the Secretary of Urban Development, to participate in a professional urban design exchange between the two cities. São Paulo is a vast, sprawling metropolis shaped as much by rapid population growth — the population quadrupled between 1950 and 1975 and then nearly doubled again between 1975 and 2005 — as by planning and design. As a result, Paulistanos face housing shortages, inadequate public space, poor transit infrastructure, and countless other social, aesthetic and environmental challenges. But it is also a city with much to teach other large cities, including our own. Here, Pawlowski reflects on his time in Brazil’s largest city, what São Paulo and New York can — and can’t — learn from one another, and how local ingenuity in the face of adversity helps define a city. His thoughts on the experience are relevant not only for his specific comparative observations, but also as an argument for how the individuals who make up New York City’s municipal corps of urban planners and designers can benefit from a wide variety of perspectives on how to improve the design and experience of cities worldwide. –V.S.

Sao Paulo | Photo by Thaddeus Pawlowski

Three weeks ago, Mayor Gilberto Kassab of São Paulo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York met in São Paulo as part of the C40 Large Cities Climate Summit and shared their particular strategies to meet the challenges of climate change. It’s clear that both mayors take sustainability seriously, and their administrations have adjusted their priorities accordingly.

São Paulo is similar to New York in many ways. Both cities are big and growing. They attract the best and brightest, the dreamers and the strivers, and as a result they have a rich cultural life and diversity. They also both face similar problems, from housing solutions to open space access to efficient transportation.

Everything I think I know about good urban design comes from what I know about New York, and working at the New York City Department of City Planning. But recently, I had an opportunity to work for three weeks with the São Paulo city government as part of a professional urban design exchange organized by SP Urbanismo, a public-private agency under the Secretary of Urban Development. And so, equipped with the principles I’ve learned here — and barely any Portuguese — I briefly stepped onto the front lines of the enormous challenges of rapid and unplanned urbanization.

Sao Paulo | Photo by Thaddeus Pawlowski

One of São Paulo’s priorities is to mitigate its notorious traffic jams. A Paulistano can spend up to three hours each day waiting in traffic and most of their traffic planners believe that the only way to reduce congestion is by adding more road. However, the land-use planners I worked with see the importance of investing in mass transit, and that adding more road results in more cars and more traffic. We talked a lot about how easily São Paulo could become a walkable city. A walkable city needs to have complete neighborhoods: a concentration of density around mass transit, a mix of uses, innovative architecture and design standards for streets and public space. These are the principles on which São Paulo was originally built.

Sao Paulo | Photo by Thaddeus Pawlowski

In São Paulo’s old city center, a mix of Art Nouveau and Beaux Arts buildings crowd together around spacious pedestrian streets and continuous networks of public parks. Trolleys once ran on the tree-lined streets and every apartment building or office building had ground floor shops. In 1940, it was a city of about 1.3 million people living in an area roughly similar to the size of Brooklyn. The city center today retains the idyllic pedestrian-friendly DNA apparent in the grainy photos from the 1930s, but now the retail is low-end, many of the great old buildings vacant and covered with graffiti, and many of the parks have been revised over the years by architects fixated on the texture and plasticity of concrete. Since the 1960s, density has been dispersed throughout the city with no apparent pattern, housing has been separated from other land uses, and traffic engineers have guided the major public infrastructure expenditures to serve the unchallenged primacy of car-based transport.

Currently the planners in São Paulo are proposing several urban redevelopment projects that would recreate this vibrant mix of uses and density around transit. But it’s an effort being met with resistance and fear of change. Packed auditoriums of angry residents denounce the projects in fiery oratory, worried that adding density will add more cars and more traffic, not alleviate them as planned. New York sees its own share of conflict and debate over issues in the public realm, but here the City is working hard to create a mutually-supportive alliance between advocates for a greener city, transit-oriented development and safe affordable housing. The planners in São Paulo need more allies to help them make their case.

Sao Paulo | Photo by Thaddeus Pawlowski

Flying over São Paulo, you can see a seemingly endless expanse of city, a wide variety of single family houses and pencil towers. You might notice patches of green around the towers, but you won’t see much public open space. Working with São Paulo’s planners, I began to understand that this pattern of prioritizing private open space over public open space is deeply embedded in their regulations. Setback rules push buildings off the street; parking requirements are uniformly high, roughly one space per inhabitant; most of the city is zoned at a low floor-to-area ratio, between two and four. And there is a growing middle class that wants to live in high rises — which demand substantial parking provisions, security fences and significant open space on the lot, which is offered as a private amenity to the residents. But anyone on the other side of those tall fences is left walking on narrow sidewalks, creeping along what feels like a prison wall.

Sao Paulo | Photo by Thaddeus Pawlowski

Mayor Kassab is pushing back against these regulations. He has made open space a high priority, constructing 66 new parks and planting nearly 200,000 new trees in the last five years, a much needed greening. Here in New York, we’ve seen Mayor Bloomberg lead his strategy for New York’s open space with a directive to bring each New Yorker within a 10-minute walk of a public park. To achieve that goal, we’ve discovered new opportunities for public space where we can find them: on abandoned rail lines, former roadbeds like Times Square and formerly inaccessible waterfront industrial sites; and have worked with developers to provide high quality, publicly accessible, privately-operated open space.

A third priority for São Paulo is how to provide safe and affordable housing for the estimated three million people who currently live in precarious settlements. These notorious favelas occupy land that is often on steep slopes or flood prone areas. The daily conditions in these homes are fraught with poverty, crime and disease. Seasonal floods frequently cause landslides and lead to dozens of deaths.

Sao Paulo | Photo by Thaddeus Pawlowski

São Paulo’s housing agencies are employing two major strategies to address this housing crisis. The first is to bring roads and infrastructure through the existing favelas, a process that the housing ministry calls “urbanization.” This model avoids displacing existing communities as much as possible, yet it fails to provide housing at the necessary scale — the government has set their target at providing one million new units in the next fifteen years. The second strategy is to find a very dense model of housing that can be expediently planned and constructed, safely located, strongly built and easily connected to roads and to the municipal infrastructure. To meet this vast demand, they have adopted a familiar model: “towers-in-the-park.”

In the mid-20th century, Robert Moses and the authors of the 1961 Zoning Resolution adopted the towers-in-the-park model with the stated goal of replacing New York’s slums. But over time we’ve seen the shortcomings of this model. Yes, towers-in-the-park offer great advantages in terms of concentrating infrastructure, and being able to execute projects quickly and affordably. They can also provide individual dwelling units that enjoy a lot of light and air and standardized layouts which simplify the economic model, making them easy to scale and repeat. But these virtues have to be weighed against the vices that we’ve come to know. Building gated housing complexes, cut off from the neighborhood street life, reinforces isolation and creates an insecure environment. New York is now turning towards affordable housing projects that are designed to integrate with the surrounding community to create a stronger sense of public life in the neighborhood and transform the urban design of the area.

Public transportation is good for cities… right? That’s something that I thought needed no explanation. But I had a debate recently with my boss, Alex Washburn, about which form of transportation has done the most harm to cities. To me, it’s obvious that automobile-centric urban design wreaked a sudden and complete havoc on the American landscape. It only took one generation for much of the United States to go from towns, farms and railroads to suburbs, strip malls, and interstates. Today, other cities all over the world, especially those that are experiencing rapid economic growth, seem to be following this bad example. As I sat in the back of a cab for two hours on my way to a meeting in São Paulo, I noticed the narrowness of the sidewalks, the absence of pedestrians or bikes, the ubiquitous walls, the apparent single-use zoning all around me. All of this to serve the consumer demand for cars. And it’s happening all over the world. It may be years before these cities feel the full effects: the degradation of civic space, the expense of providing services and infrastructure over a widely sprawled area, and the increase in chronic diseases because people walk less.

Even so, Alex says that airplanes may be guiltier, because for many years precocious urban designers (like me) have flown all over the world and put forward their big ideas to politicians and builders. You could call this “flyover urbanism.” On one such mission, Robert Moses came to Brazil in the 1950s to help plan highways, helping to set the direction of its current urban design trajectory.

But planning and prodding can only do so much, and no city can “leapfrog” past the mistakes others have made, or copy their successes. Great cities will always be shaped by forces of economy, politics, nature and pure chance. There is not one course of history which all cities will follow, nor one destination we all seek to reach. Also, cities don’t leap.

Sao Paulo | Photo by Thaddeus Pawlowski

Cities might not leap, but every city has its own flow. The forces that govern that flow — “why” we do things — might be similar between places, and we may even learn together the “how,” but we must be wary of copying the “what.”

São Paulo has an elevated highway called the Minhocão that runs through a neighborhood that has strong potential for redevelopment. There is some debate about the utility of this highway to the traffic network, and so it has been closed on Sundays to allow people to use it recreationally. I was asked by officials if I thought this could be São Paulo’s High Line. With this internationally-acclaimed example in mind, architects and engineers have begun to make plans for capping the elevated highway with a park, thus creating even more obstruction of light and air to the public realm below. Trying to recreate the High Line on the Minhocão is copying the “what.” Great urban design projects cannot be dropped from an airplane. But perhaps principles can parachute in to offer a little help. The principle of the High Line is that we can create an invaluable resource out of something that had been thought of as an unwanted remnant of another age.

I have wondered if what Tolstoy famously said about families is also true of cities: that they are unhappy in different ways but happy in similar ways. It would be a boring world if all cities were the same. But it is not our particular unhappinesses that make us different. In fact, our problems seem to be getting more and more universal. What makes us unique is the way in which we deal with these problems, using our own local ingenuity. I once heard a story about an artist who lived in a beautiful, but sparsely furnished, house for very little rent. The landlord gave him a deal because once a year the house is completely under water. The genius is in the adaptation.

All photos by Thaddeus Pawlowski.

Thaddeus Pawlowski is Associate Urban Designer for the Office of the Chief Urban Designer of the City of New York, Department of City Planning. He works on large scale neighborhood and infrastructure projects including the redevelopment of Penn Station area and Hudson Yards. He has previously worked at the Office of Emergency Management where he developed “What if NYC…” a design competition for post disaster urban housing. He earned a Master in Architecture and certificate in Urban Design from the University of Pennsylvania and a BA from University of Pittsburgh.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Thaísa June 24, 2011

(first of all, i’m sorry about my poor english)
Your text is brilliant. You’ve precisely summed up all the problems Sao Paulo is facing due to fast and disoriented growth.
I think our first challenge is everybody desiring the same sustainable city. That process I think has already started but everybody needs to be disposed to change a little bit their lives to conquer a greater benefit. Having in mind the city we want, the second challenge is – like you’ve said – how to make it. The conflicts between the private sector interests and the majority of citizens are enormous. Certainly we need open minded and courageous politicians to redirect our model of development. And I’m sure that will only happen if the population requires it from them. Who’s going to tell the car industry to redirect their industry to trains and buses?

And like you told us once, as urban designers our role is to work hard to find the best solutions according to our own context and justify our choices by the politicians to convince and strengthen them to make the decisions.

Mandar June 28, 2011

A good read…most cities in the developing world have to get their act together and avoid the worst case scenarios. Here in Mumbai, the civic administration and the people too havent learnt the lessons from the 26th July 2005’s downpour which brought the city to a grinding halt with much loss of life and property. The state of affairs in the city of Mumbai is getting from worse to bad. Lack of political will has robbed the charm of the city and its suburbs. Hope the NGOs and civic society bring these issues up and spread the awareness before it gets too late.

Joshua March 11, 2013

This is a really good read. I’ve been to Sao Paulo, and I’ve read “The Power Broker,” a great book that artfully explains the tortured and short-sighted path of an “automobiles first” urban planning policy. Right now, I’m sitting in Porto Alegre, which has also fallen victim to this urban planning. There is a potentially beautiful park here, near a famous statue, that is ringed by mini-highways jam-packed with cars. It is hard to find green, even though the city sits along the water.

Cars can be wonderful — there is no substitution for an ambulance, for example — but cars should be like abortion: safe, legal and rare.