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Can São Paulo Avoid the Abyss of New York City in the 1970s?

By Alexandros Washburn and Philip Yang

São Paulo is the New York of the 1970s. The Cracolândia, the Campos Elíseos, Vila Leopoldina, and other central neighborhoods live the same problems with crime, drugs, homelessness, prostitution that Times Square, Bowery and Hell’s Kitchen experienced 40 years ago. The conflicts and dismay that mark São Paulo’s urban life today are identical to the violence and discouragement that prevailed among New Yorkers in the period that is seen as the gloomiest and most dangerous in the history of the Big Apple.

Is there any sign that São Paulo can follow the same path of recovery that New York pursued from the late 1970s onwards, in a process that reinvigorated the quality of public life and brought New York back to being one of the most lively and dynamic cities on the planet in one generation? We think so.

The answer lies in a planning procedure. In 1975, NYC established a regulatory tool known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). It is a charter-mandated sequence of government actions and public reviews invoked any time a major change to the built environment of New York is proposed. It is a mediating process that emerged from the epic battles of the 1960s between Robert Moses, New York’s famous master builder of highways and bridges who tried to put a highway through the neighborhood of Greenwich Village in 1962, and Jane Jacobs, a powerless, self-described “mother with big glasses” who organized her neighbors and fought to save the place she loved. She eventually won the fight and became the mother of community planning.

ULURP is the codification of their top-down versus bottom-up face-off, a process of alternating official visions, market interests and public comments given at open hearings with the intent of reaching a compromise at the end of a multi-month time frame. Such a mechanism was a crucial development for placing New York back on track to rebuild its urban fabric as well as its social fabric. ULURP, it turns out, was more than a planning procedure. It gave voice to the powerless while demanding respect from the powerful, and so ever so slowly and ever so bureaucratically, ULURP rebuilt the trust between New York City and its citizens.

Credit: Alexandros Washburn, The Nature of Urban Design (Island Press, 2013). CLICK TO ENLARGE.

Four decades later, São Paulo finally adopts a regulatory framework equivalent to ULURP, the Projeto de Intervenção Urbana (PIU), an instrument created in the Master Plan of 2014 which establishes a mechanism to propose and to discuss urban projects. Although derived from a different historical process, PIU, like ULURP, establishes a procedure so that private forces, communities, and public authority may achieve a balance between potentially conflicting interests, through the adjustment of parameters and rules applicable to the intended project.

PIU and ULURP, in addition to bring together top-down and bottom-up forces, allow the city-wide rules of the Master Plan and Zoning Laws to be adjusted and adapted to the scale of a neighborhood, in a transparent platform of debate and negotiation capable of unlocking what is best for a neighborhood in the context of the city. Instruments such as PIU and ULURP are fundamental to the task of building our neighborhoods, and the achievement of the PIU in São Paulo should not be minimized.

The Minhocão, a 2.2-mile elevated highway in São Paulo, Brazil. Credit: Leonardo Finotti

Historically, the economic environment has determined urban development. Today, in the so-called knowledge economy, the logic is reversed: it is the urban environment, the quality of the territory of cities, that determines the conditions of economic development. In the value chains formed by the production and circulation of goods, services, ideas and capital, 3/4 of the economic value is added in urban spaces, both in Brazil and in the US. Nothing is more urgent than improving the mechanisms to make our cities more efficient, beautiful, humane and just – capable of fostering the creative economy, of attracting the best brains, in an urban network built within the framework of regulations such as ULURP and PIU, with the public participation and decision-making speed invigorated by new technologies.

In the Bloomberg administration, the city planning process found a dynamic equilibrium. Community groups were powerful and focused on the future. Government regained its confidence and capacity to manage change. Top down and bottom up were both strong and trusting of each other’s capacities. The result was to bring the city into a new era: the virtuous cycle.

Now with the PIU framework, São Paulo seems to be finding the point of balance of its own virtuosity – more so if government, market and civic groups use the mechanism not as a platform of confrontation but as a procedure to translate in space what Paulistanos know in their heart: we are neighbors in this great city, and we must leave it better for our children than we find it today.

Alexandros Washburn was Chief Urban Designer for the City of New York during the Bloomberg administration and the author of The Nature of Urban Design.

Philip Yang is the founder of URBEM – Instituto de Urbanismo e Estudos para a Metrópole.

Related Post: Cities We Make

Comments

  1. Maria Claudia Guimaraes
    Sao Paulo
    August 5, 7:13 pm

    Excellent Article! The establishment of URBEM is an awesome initiative! I hope it succeeds in helping revigorate our city!!! On NY, needless to say.. superb what has been done. Congrats for the achievements!!!!