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Building the Just City: Contemporary Urbanism in Brazil: Beyond Brasilia

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In Part One of this two-part review of Contemporary Urbanism in Brazil: Beyond Brasília, edited by Vicente del Rio and William Siembieda, I discussed how right-wing authoritarian regimes in Brazil had, as recounted in the book, adopted wholesale the principles of modernist urbanism, but that when the military gave up power in the '80s, the new democratic government inherited an urban catastrophe.

The urban population of Brazil increased from 26% in the 1940s to 80% in 1990 -- an increase in absolute terms of 85 million more urban dwellers. Massive numbers of these new city-dwellers reside in favelas or other irregular settlements. The military regime -- backed by "an international paradigm," i.e., modernist housing blocks on the outskirts of cities -- purported to build housing for the favelados, but by the time the military gave up power, the whole federal housing system was bankrupt, having made hardly a dent in the need for housing.

Of course, Brazil was not the only developing country beset with exploding urban populations and shantytowns. But the transition to democracy in Brazil allowed for a dramatic change in the goals and tools of urban planning. The new goal was a just city, and the new tools, as described in the book, were "postmodern."

Two important laws marked the process of making urbanism in Brazil more just. These were the 1988 National Constitution and the 2001 Statute of the City. These laws were crucial, according to Professors del Rio and Siembieda, to "the struggle to achieve social equity and a just city for all."

This new attitude manifested itself in projects that sought to revitalize the traditional urban centers of many Brazilian cities that dated from colonial times, such as existed in historic but downtrodden districts in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Belém and Porto Allegre. Several essays in the book discuss these case studies.

The book also contains what many would consider a mandatory article, in any book about urbanism in Brazil, on the history of progressive planning in Curitiba. This article, by Clara Irazábel, a professor at Columbia University, describes the many successes that have taken place in Curitiba, and the political process that allowed those successes to happen. Prof. Irazábel, however, ultimately argues that the city needs to institute "more effective citizen involvement" in decision-making to continue its progress.

This fits the book's conception of "postmodernism." As described by Prof. del Rio in his introduction (page 34), "contemporary Brazilian urbanism is postmodern in the sense that it accepts and incorporates a multitude of social values and different visions of quality; it is more participatory and responsive to community needs, and it strives to produce more socially just environments." What makes urbanism in Brazil postmodern is that it focuses on societal benefits rather than any particular model.

That a variety of approaches are needed is evident from the scale of the urban crisis. The articles in the book about revitalization efforts and the making of a "more just" urbanism show that the remaking of old places can never solve all the urban problems of a developing nation like Brazil, where city populations have exploded far beyond the capacity of the traditional urban cores. Several essays in the book deal with the challenges of upgrading favelas, which has been the strategy since the return to democracy. Meanwhile, the experience in Curitiba shows that the expansion of public transportation infrastructure is more important than any paradigm of urban design, a conclusion that is reminiscent of the expansion of the New York subway system a century ago to deal with the crisis of the Lower East Side (which, at 240,000 people per square mile, was the U.S. equivalent of a favela).

Successful urbanism in Brazil and throughout the developing world will require the integration of irregular settlements into the larger city, as well the building of new cities and extensions of old cities that take into account the needs of all. As discussed in the book, the result will be a "polycentric city" that will be both subject to and independent of centralized planning authority or design. Ironically, one can imagine that as irregular settlements ultimately obtain appropriate infrastructure such as utilities, their unplanned "organic" forms may form the basis for desirable districts for people who reject the uniformity of planned spaces.

Co-editor William Siembieda, in the book's conclusion, makes the points that modernism's notion that it could bring improvements to society through built form did not prove valid, and that if a designed city doesn't work, a real city will emerge. These realities do not mean, however, that there will no longer be a role for architects and planners. But in a postmodern world they will need to work directly with the people and engage with the context.

Cities are the basis for civilization and progress, and that is why it is crucial for everyone, including, in Brazil, the favelados, to have a "right to the city."

Prof. Siembieda puts Brazilian contemporary urbanism in the vanguard of urbanism today because urbanism in Brazil explicitly regards the city as a tool for social justice, because Brazilian urbanism recognizes the pluralism of urban solutions and varying "territorial logic's", and because in Brazil urbanism reflects an expansion of participatory democracy, a value that is not only a matter of process, but also of substance because it's celebrates the city as a place for public life.

Or, put it this way: as Brazil's democracy has become stronger and stronger, so have its cities.

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column on local politics, which often involve land use issues, for the Santa Monica Lookout News, a news website. His first book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, was published by City Image Press.