The Master Plan of the city of São Paulo is a set of guidelines, backed by the power of local law, whose purpose is to guide urban growth through the next sixteen years. The new plan was approved this week after nine months of discussions among councilors to arrive at the final version, which is now awaiting the final approval of the Mayor Fernando Haddad (PT).
One of the major changes brought about by the document is encouragement for the construction of buildings near the axes of public transportation. These buildings may have a greater height than those of the core neighborhoods and, with more units for sale, their construction will be paid for more easily. The provision of parking spaces, an issue which increases development, will be the responsibility of the developers as they will choose what is more advantageous from the standpoint of the market. Another favorable factor of these buildings is that there is plenty of commercial space on the ground, which should help reduce condo fees paid by other residents. This mechanism has the merit of encouraging the use of public transportation, reducing car dependency and increasing the supply of housing where there is already infrastructure. In theory, the plan seems to be thorough and complete. In practice, however, there are some obstacles to overcome in order for the plan to reach the expected success.
For decades São Paulo has grown and developed following the logic of wheeled transport. This means that large avenues or transportation routes, as included in the Master Plan, were conceived of as ways for cars and buses, but not for people, to travel. This is where some problems arise. The first issue is something that anyone who has tried to walk along any avenue in São Paulo has experienced: there are no decent sidewalks. In the entire city, the only reasonable avenue with pedestrian space is Avenida Paulista – it is not a coincidence that it is the best of all the routes that traverse the 1,523 square miles of the city.
If the plan intends to make people use buses and subways and diminish street commerce, it needs to allow for more journeys that are made on foot. Some of the first improvements that should be made include: standardizing the sidewalks, replacing stairs with ramps, prohibiting the use of slippery coatings on sidewalks, repairing the holes that cause hundreds of pedestrian falls daily, removing poles and trees along the way, creating access and sufficient width for the passage of wheelchairs and baby strollers, deploying crosswalks and traffic lights for pedestrians - so nobody has to race across the street to reach the other side, and installing benches so pedestrians can take breaks.
Another issue to consider is that those who live along any great avenue know the torment of facing the daily pollution caused by heavy vehicle traffic. The dirty air that travels nonstop through the cracks of homes, aggravates allergies and creates breathing problems in those who are predisposed, as well as the incessant noise of buses, cars and motorcycles are all factors that keep potential residents from living on these types of streets. Just see the shortage of residential addresses along avenues such as Brigadeiro Faria Lima, Rebolledo, Nove, Santo Amaro, and Luis Carlos Berrini. The occupation of these sites depends primarily on the ability of the market to offer a good balance between square footage and the value of the property, or a benefit that outweighs the cost of giving up the car and the lack of sidewalks, or the noise and pollution. After all, these major streets will continue to be used by buses and cars only to be permeated by buildings that are higher than those which are there currently. It does not seem to make a real change in the quality of life in the city.
As the Danish urbanist Jan Gehl says in his book Cities for People, urban life is a matter of quantity and quality. The density alone does not necessarily produce life on the streets. While many people live and work in buildings, high-density urban spaces can easily become dark and menacing. A more lively city is one that has slower traffic, and always offers something to see while allowing for spontaneous stops. The rapid growth of traffic in cities, and the growing numbers of citizens that spend the majority of time seated in their cars diminishes the number of people that remain in the streets. This also explains why there is so little life in these landscapes. After all, who wants to walk around in the Rebolledo neighborhood?
While the goals of the Master Plan are laudable, much remains until its guidelines are translated into a new perspective for the city, with a focus on the well-being of pedestrians and not on what can be seen through the car window. If the law focuses on this it will just be the beginning of change for São Paulo.
How does your city's master plan affect the growth and livability of the landscape?
Original article, originally published in Portuguese, here.
Credits: Images and data linked to sources.