Rethinking the Green City in Brasilia…

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… Helen Hoyle

“Built for automobiles and air-conditioners, not people…it’s a lousy place to visit and no-one wanted to live there”, so my 1996 Lonely Planet Guide describes “the great planned city” of Brasilia. Danni Sinnett and I were on our way to find out if and how the city had changed since then.  We were taking part in a collaborative Newton-funded workshop, “Rethinking the Green and Planned City”, masterminded by Ian Mell (School of Environment, Education and Development (SEEDS), University of Manchester) with Maria do Carmen Lima and Camila Sant’ Anna from the University of Brasilia. The objectives were to bring early career Urban Green Infrastructure (UGI) researchers together from throughout the UK and Brazil to network and to identify challenges and opportunities for future international research collaborations around the planning, design and management of UGI. I was invited to present my research on stakeholder perceptions of introducing urban meadows1, whilst Danni and Maggie Roe were invited mentors. Danni presented her work on the development of the Building with Nature benchmark2 and perspectives of residents of former metal mining areas on their mining heritage.

Ian Mell (left) opens the workshop with colleagues from the University of Brasilia

The workshop structure was an exciting mix of short, focused presentations by participants with different international research perspectives, longer sessions where mentors presented their ‘good, bad and ugly’ experiences of collaborations on research projects, participant-oriented problem-solving exercises, and a walking field visit where we experienced some of the challenges of living in Brasilia first hand. This was inspired in its approach, because by walking through the city, we gained some understanding of the challenges of moving about the city on foot…life at the human scale in a city built for cars.

Brasilia…road transport still dominates in 2019

First conceived by President Juscelino Kubitschek to bring economic growth to the Brazilian interior, whilst relieving high population densities and land values in the coastal cities of Rio and Sao Paulo, Brasilia was inaugurated as the new capital of Brazil in 1960. Planned by Lucio Costa and designed by architect Oscar Niemayer and landscape architect Burle Marx, the city was built rapidly in three years and politicians and bureaucrats were lured there from the east coast by the promise of high wages. An almost unbelieveable photograph from 1957 reveals the original blank canvas of ‘cerrado’ or savannah landscape, with a cross on the ground across which the two main axes of the city were developed.

The crossing of the axis. Image by Mario Fontenelle in 1957 showing the crossing in the native cerrado vegetation.

Lucio Costa devised ‘The Pilot Plan’. The city was laid out in the form of an aeroplane, with the fuselage declared as ‘the monumental axis’ along which  significant government, civic and religious functions were located: the iconic towers of the Ministerial Buildings, Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aperecida (Metropolitan Cathedral), Teatro Nacional Claudio Santoro (National Theatre) and dome-shaped Museum of the Republic. The city was and still is an exemplar in functional zoning, with residential neighbourhoods, retail and hotel functions laid out along the ‘wings’ of the aeroplane.

Lucio Costa’s ‘Pilot Plan’.

The field visit started at our hotel, just off the ‘monumental axis’ (in the hotel district, of course). The day before I had been for a morning run along some of the retrofitted foot and cycleways in the middle of the axis, where the city looks its most ‘green’. I had been told it was perfectly safe to run there (in terms of both personal safety issues and traffic) and indeed, at 6.34am there was actually little traffic to cross as I made my way across one of the major freeways towards the green. The view of the city and surrounding landscape from the central axis was vast – I almost felt as if I was flying, but I also began to understand how the topography might contribute to one of the city’s greatest challenges, flooding. The city is built on a slope, and with a high percentage of impermeable surfaces and compacted soils, it was easy to see how rainfall would flow rapidly overground towards the artificial Lake Paranoa to the east of the city. As highlighted later by Mariana Siqueira, a landscape architect practising in the city, most of the native cerrado vegetation has been removed from the city, in favour of short grass, limiting infiltration and contributing to flooding and the sedimentation of Lake Paranoa.

The view towards the monumental axis from our hotel

As we all walked through the retail quarter towards the main bus station on our tour, I was aware that at 8.30am there were many more vehicles on the road than there had been at 6.34 am the day before.  We had learned from Gabriela Tenorio, one of our hosts, that the population of the city has now grown to 3M, with most people driving to work daily from surrounding satellite settlements. We were also aware of street vendors selling everything from fruit to clothing and bags, but it didn’t seem too difficult to navigate on foot, at least within the central area. We continued our walk to the Metropolitan Cathedral. Here, as later in the Three Powers Square, I was struck by how stark the buildings looked against the skyline. The white concrete structures of Niemayer’s architecture catch the sun, but there is no softening green vegetation or human-scale street furniture. A UNESCO world heritage site since 1987, the city defies any addition to or alteration of Niemayer’s minimalistic designs. Although he aimed for sensual curves, there is little to soften the landscape in the harsh light. Inside the cathedral, the curved wall made for a ‘whispering wall’.

The Metropolitan Cathedral…
The cathedral and city under construction
Walking the walk…Danni and Ian
Niemayer’s Museum of the Republic, with the towers of the Ministerial Buildings in the background

Later, a visit to the residential units provided some contrast. Located along the southern ‘wing’ of the ‘aeroplane’, each unit comprised four ‘superblocks’ made to house 3000 inhabitants in six-storey buildings. Planted walkways and in some cases ponds and other water features were incorporated (designed by landscape architect Burle Marx), interspersed with commercial streets. A church, school, social club, health centre, kindergarten, library and cinema were included within each unit, indication that social infrastructure was well-integrated and provided.

Plan of a residential unit with its four superblocks

Here we learned from Gabriela that the superblocks are now much sought-after. There is also controversy about the high cost of maintaining the planting here, with accusations that wealthier residents are not footing the bill, now subsidised by other areas of the city budget. These are some of the few residential areas in Brasilia (and in Brazil) where middle class people live in open, un-gated neighbourhoods. Brasilia is considered the safest city in the country, yet social and economic polarisation are stark throughout the country. Workshop participants (architects living in Sao Paulo) described to me their own gated neighbourhoods, explaining that they would not ride their bikes from home, but would drive somewhere first to cycle in a designated recreational zone.

Inside the superblock. Planting integrated with six-storey residential buildings

The final part of our tour took us (by bus this time) to the Botanical Gardens to the south of the city. Home to a mosaic of native cerrado, here the city’s residents can take picnics in a designated area of pine planting outside the gardens, or access wilder nature on a walking trail through the cerrado. We took part in a number of team building activities before taking the trail.

Walking through the native cerrado inside the Botanical Garden

The workshop was a refreshing, eye-opening opportunity to share experiences and develop collaborations with people working in very different international contexts. Although we share the need to address the overarching challenge of planning and designing future UGI in a context of climate crisis, with common issues such as the need to mitigate flooding and reduce car-dependence, more specific challenges and opportunities are localised. Personal highlights of the workshop included meeting and hearing the inspirational Ana Carolina Carmona, a landscape architect at the University of Sao Paulo, who talked about raising awareness of vegetation amongst her students in her presentation ‘See the green’. Students had spent time drawing in Nature, creating a drawing resource for the future. Ana Carolina introduced me to fellow landscape architect Mariana Siqueira. Mariana is working in Brasilia to raise awareness of the value of the native cerrado ‘campo’ (meadows) for flood mitigation, biodiversity enhancement and human enjoyment, and we are now developing future research possibilities in the UK, Brazil and more widely.

The UK-Brazil group outside the University of Brasilia



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