How to overcome the crisis of the city

Leandro Medrano from the University of São Paulo’s School of Architecture & Urbanism speaks about the challenges of reinventing the city and “compacting” São Paulo

By Heitor Shimizu, in Barcelona | Agência FAPESP – Urbanism is a science that developed at a time of crisis – more specifically, the crisis of traditional medieval cities that were forced in the nineteenth century to adapt swiftly to the needs of industrial production and its repercussions within the capitalist system.

“Has the crisis been resolved? Evidently not,” said Leandro Medrano, a professor in the Department of the History of Architecture & Design Aesthetics at the University of São Paulo’s School of Architecture & Urbanism (FAU-USP).

“Conflicts are increasing in cities everywhere in the world, especially very large ones. Problems relating to mobility, natural resources, environmental conservation, pollution, public health, housing deficits, violence and so on are frequently addressed by those who study urban space,” Medrano said in a presentation at FAPESP Week Barcelona, which took place on May 28-29, 2015, in the Catalan capital.

“The crisis of the cities is what’s driving new social, urban, technological and political demands,” Medrano said. “The phenomenon is global. It’s not confined to the developing countries.”

Pointing out that urbanism as a science dates from the mid-1800s, when Ildefonso Cerdà, a Catalan engineer, wrote several treatises about city construction and planning, including the “General Theory of Urbanisation”, and laid the basis for industrial development in Barcelona, focusing on the city as the bedrock of western civilization.

“Science emerged in the city. The city is the site of modernity and urbanity, and today urbanity is spread around the world. We live in an urban world, intensely interconnected by real and virtual links,” he said.

“When we talk about the crisis of the city, we aren’t referring to something limited to a single structure or discipline,” Medrano went on. “It’s a general problem that affects all knowledge areas, involving politics, society, economics, philosophy and the other sciences.”

Medrano noted that Brazil, where 84% of the population live in towns and cities, is becoming an important laboratory for research in urbanism. São Paulo has acquired particular significance in this context.

“São Paulo began as a village and became a metropolis in less than a century,” he said. “It was impossible to control the city’s growth using the tools available to urbanism, especially between the 1930s and 1970s, when it received millions of migrants from other parts of Brazil and the world.”

Since the 1980s, however, population growth has decelerated in São Paulo. In fact, Medrano said, Brazil as a whole has been more successful in distributing industry and services throughout its territory, while the birth rate has fallen.

In Brazil and in Spain

Medrano said his research points to differences between São Paulo in the twenty-first century and the previous century, including GDP growth, deindustrialisation, revitalisation of the city centre, participation in the global system, and substantial real estate investment.

“Because of this new picture urban planners and researchers have had to make significant changes to their strategies for understanding the city and developing projects for it,” he said.

According to Medrano, São Paulo is becoming more compact as part of this process. “The city has stopped expanding and is trying to reorganise, or reurbanise its territories. The central district, older buildings and urban revitalisation projects are now preferred to ‘modern’ innovations. The choice favours a more compact, dense and multifunctional city, focusing on the potential benefits to cultural wealth and social diversity,” he said.

“In public and social housing, my main research focus, there have also been significant changes,” he continued. “Large housing complexes in suburban areas have given way to projects and policies that prioritize areas closer to the city centre, with better urban infrastructure and access to public transport.”

In this new setting, according to Medrano, collaborations with European researchers have been highly successful. “The knowledge developed in European reconstruction and reurbanisation projects, especially involving historic centres and heritage buildings, is an important reference point for our research,” he said.

“On the other hand, the complexity and sheer size of the problems Brazil faces result in original solutions and suggest new research topics. This has aroused interest among researchers from many parts of the world.”

Medrano also spoke about the research on social housing programmes he is doing with colleagues from USP and the University of Campinas (UNICAMP). The projects are funded by FAPESP.

“In one study, which was enriched by the contribution of a group at the Madrid Technical University’s School of Architecture (ETSAM-UPM), we produced a critical inventory of the main architectural and urban experiences in low-income housing in Spain and Brazil in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” he said.

For this study the researchers compiled information on housing complexes with technical data on buildings and construction methods, historical photographs, standardised structural and engineering designs, and publications containing critical texts.

According to Medrano, this material serves as a guide for students, professionals and civil servants interested in planning and promoting policies for low-income housing.

“This is a knowledge area of paramount importance in Brazil,” he said. “And it’s been extremely well developed in Spain, especially in the second half of the twentieth century.”