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Brasilia: From Placeless to Place-Centered

Created from scratch in the plains of central Brazil in the 1950s and 1960s, Brasilia is the largest city in the world that did not exist at the beginning of the 20th Century. It lacks the sexiness and excitement of Rio and the earthiness of Sao Paolo, but this was deliberate. Remarkable in its own right, the city was intentionally designed for efficiency, not flair, nor sense of place. Based on my week in Brasilia in September 2013, I can attest that they succeeded in creating a city devoid of places in ways they could not have imagined.

Eastbound lanes of Monumental Axis, which at 250 meters including the median, is described in the Guiness World Records as the widest avenue in the world.

Eastbound lanes of Monumental Axis, which at 250 meters including the median, is described in the Guiness World Records as the widest avenue in the world.

PPS is engaged with a project that will change the landscape of Brasilia forever. More on that later; first a bit of background on Brasilia.

Whether you love it or hate it – and Brasilia inspires both extremes – there is no denying that it is a landmark in the history of city planning. In fact, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has listed it as a World Heritage Site, describing the Pilot Plan (Plano Piloto) drawn up for it as possessing “expressive power.” In a haunting and ironic way, UNESCO is right: the most defining feature of Brasilia’s Plano Piloto is that it constantly overwhelms your sense of being with the awe of architecture and roads that express power over your humanity.

Like Washington, DC, Brasilia is a Federal District and the Plano Piloto enshrined by UNESCO is just part of it. The principle of efficiency and improving the quality of life for lower classes may have worked like a charm, if Brasilia remained the size that its planners envisioned. According to original plans, Brasilia would be a city for government authorities and staff. But when Brazilians from all over the country flocked to Brasilia, the population grew from its planned capacity of 500,000 to almost 2.5 million in the 2010 census. Since there was no plan for this growth, squatting became prevalent, and a series of spontaneous developments has sprung up all around the Plano Piloto. Many were unregulated and occupied by poor people living in unsanctioned favelas with no running water, sewerage, or other infrastructural amenities. Brazil’s government, perhaps overwhelmed by the surge in growth, perhaps indifferent to it, stood by and watched as hordes of people built barely adequate shelters on land that they did not own.

What has resulted in the Brasilia Federal District is a paradox of the haves and the have-nots. This was not foreseen by Brasilia’s planners and architects. The legendary Brazilian team of planner Lucio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer adapted the principles of the legendary/infamous Le Corbusier. Those of us who eschew auto-centric planning often view Le Corbusier as a devil; however, he developed his principles believing that his forms would eliminate urban squalor and raise the quality of life for the lower classes by eliminating the chaos and disorganization of 19th and 20th Century cities. In Brasilia, the Plano Pilato reflected Le Corbusier’s ideals of separation of functions, wide traffic lanes, and vast natural spaces. In fact, most Brasilia fans, when asked what it is they like most about Brasilia, will point to the abundance of its green spaces. I can confirm that they are there, even if most of them are virtually inaccessible, only within view from a speeding car.

Brasilia is a city that favors efficiency over excitement and compartmentalization over multi-use destinations. By design, it eschews Placemaking. If this works for you, then Brasilia is heaven.

The core of the Fazenda (Farm) Paranoazinho

The core of the Fazenda (Farm) Paranoazinho

But this concept did not work for Rafael Birmann, a private real estate developer based in Sao Paolo. Seeking to create a new model for Brazil, the Birmann family and some partners purchased a large farm outside the core of Brasilia called Fazenda Paranoazinho (FP) and created a company called Urbanizadora Paranoazinho S/A (UPSA). UPSA is dedicated to the idea that high quality of life should not be limited to those fortunate (and wealthy) enough to live within the original Plano Piloto. The Birmann family also believes that quality of life is not simply based on having access to jobs and schools by car, but can only be fully achieved by the richness and unplanned encounters associated with Placemaking and having the choice to walk and bike instead of being trapped within your car.

The Birmanns’ bold plan for Fazenda Paranoazinho

The Birmanns have articulated their vision of Fazenda Paranoazinho becoming one of Brazil’s great communities. As members of PPS’s Placemaking Leadership Council, Placemaking is clearly part of creating their vision. During the week of September 2, 2013, I visited Brasilia and represented PPS on a team of professionals to assist UPSA in planning a place-based community in Fazenda Paranoazinho.

How Placemaking Can Help Transform Brasilia

PPS’ Gary Toth explaining how the Streets of Fazenda Paranoazinho can both support place and serve as Streets as Places.

PPS’ Gary Toth explaining how the Streets of Fazenda Paranoazinho can both support place and serve as Streets as Places.

The Birmann family wanted to go beyond good urban design. Instead of just looking at the big picture and deciding simply on building heights, where roads should go and how big they should be, and the desired formula for mixed use, the Birmanns are seeking to create a world class place. In fact, being believers in the PPS Power of Ten principle, they recognized that they needed a series of distinct places within the larger place called Fazenda Paranoazinho. UPSA’s world class team of urban designers, architects, landscape architects, and planners created the basic urban design. I helped to guide the development of a place-based street and bus network and incorporated Placemaking input from the PPS team. We advised on transportation, turning the urban design process upside down through the Placemaking approach, recommending early activation of Fazenda Paranoazinho via Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper strategies, green infrastructure, and the proper sizing, use, and location of parks.

The overarching principles of our recommendations are listed below. Anyone wanting to see the full report should write to Nidhi Gulati at PPS.

  • Make it easier to get around Fazenda Paranoazinho by biking or walking than by car. Only one street allows car traffic to run continuously from the northern to southern end of the development; most others prioritize alternative modes of transportation while creating convenient connections for bicyclists throughout.

Street Grid to serve Fazenda Paranoazinho

Street Grid to serve Fazenda Paranoazinho

Note in the graphic above that only the purple street will run continuous and even it will contain a bike lane buffered by parking.

  • Streets as Places: PPS developed the framework for a Place-Based Street Typology that matches desired vehicle operating speeds to support Placemaking. The widely deployed automobile Level of Service targets will be irrelevant in Fazenda Paranoazinho.
  • Thinking Beyond the Station and Stop. Transit service in Fazenda Paranoazinho will be designed to support Placemaking, with stops designed as places, not merely portals for moving people. Fazenda Paranoazinho will start with Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper bus service over light rail and streetcars.
  • Enriching Urban Design via Placemaking: The urban bones of Fazenda Paranoazinho will be created around people and what they need to do at the local level.
    • Buildings and the spaces in between will be arrayed to facilitate a sense of shelter and enclosure.
    • A mix of uses on the pedestrian level, shade, and outdoor rooms will promote activity and socializing.
    • The focus of spaces and buildings will be on multi-use, facilitating many different activities.
  • Sidewalks, Storefronts and Amenity Zones: Each of these will be planned to support place, not just mobility or economic function. They will facilitate fluid movement between the public and private realm, and blur the distinction between indoor and outdoor space.

Canted Street Corner with Outdoor Seating

Canted Street Corner with Outdoor Seating

  • Facade treatments: These will foster diversity allowing for a personalization by property owners instead of pre-specified forms.
  • Street corners: Corners and intersections provide an added opportunity to lure people into the streets. The canted corner in Buenos Aires (photo to the right) provides an example.
  • Destination Street: Reflecting the PPS Power of Ten concept, Fazenda Paranoazinho will be anchored by a destination street where people come without a fixed plan because the multitude of activities provide many opportunities for engagement. Shared Space principles will be incorporated, and the street will be framed by urban parks at both ends.
  • Pedestrian and shared streets: These streets will break up blocks to make distances shorter and more conducive to walking. They will increase opportunities for displays, kiosks, outdoor seating, local shops and businesses, shelter, and social interaction.

Jogged Intersection

Jogged Intersection

  • Jogged Intersections and Curved Streets: Curved street designs break the sight-lines, slow down cars, and also provide opportunities for highlighting architectural features and creating an array of spaces and setbacks (curved streets) and signature corners (jogged intersections).
  • Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper Places: Temporary development and LQC initiatives will showcase desired and supportive places that future development will bring and dissipate the fear of the unknown.
  • Flexible markets: Flexible, organic market places that improve access to routine life necessities, particularly for the low income “irregular” development at the North-East end of the property. This could include a LQC street that brings people together for leisurely lingering and that provides a “shadow of the future” to create excitement within the existing communities instead of apprehension.
  • Placemaking and Green Infrastructure: A large tract of ecologically valuable land on the border of the core Fazenda Paranoazinho development creates the opportunity for an urban park. This park could utilize a “String of Pearls” concept with multiple destinations instead of one mega park, in order to capitalize on the linear nature of the potential park area. A LQC approach would allow for flexible testing of various activities. Multi-use destinations within the park would provide the capability of a place to serve more than one purpose and transform itself into a different space and experience, based on programming and management.
  • Continuous Parkway: Created along the boundary of the Fazenda Paranoazinho development, it would act as a spine that ties the various destinations and promotes active transportation along it.
  • Urban parks that anchor the Destination Street: Two parks, one at each end of the Destination Street, will serve as focal points of activity, places for display and venues of celebration. PPS has recommended edges that are open and inviting with spaces that are flexible for gathering and activity. Good programming and management is necessary to ensure success.
  • Residential squares: Dynamic and multi-use public spaces are recommended for residential neighborhoods. The areas enclosed by residential buildings can be framed to serve this purpose.

Exemplary projects like this upcoming collective of places at Fazenda Paranoazinho, could certainly facilitate change towards a ‘Place-Centered’ Brasilia. To know more, send us a note.

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