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A São Paulo for a Shared Living

10/05/2013 | 00h00
By Marli Olmos


In a deserted street of the Barra Funda district, taken over by mechanical workshops, a woman pushing a stroller goes unnoticed by those who frequent the area. Nonetheless, the image shocked the anthropologist Luciana Aguiar, the coordinator of a team responsible for tracing the profile residents and prospective residents of the central region of São Paulo. Scenes of life in inhospitable environments may disappear with the new “repopulation” program for the center of the city of São Paulo.


The proposal is an initiative of the government, but unlike others, it benefitted from the involvement of civil society, tired of the “absence of city” in the central region of the largest municipality of Latin America. Aguiar coordinated an army of 73 professionals, among which are sociologists, engineers, architects and lawyers, promptly brought together by entrepreneur Philip Yang in order to map the sociological profile of the residents, as well as the development site, architectural and legal conditions of buildings, properties, and former industrial edifices spread across the expanded city center.


Completed within four months, the work has enabled the Institute of Urbanism and Studies for the Metropolis (URBEM), a nongovernmental organization led by Yang, to win the competition, opened by the state government for the creation of the Casa Paulista Project, the first public-private partnership (PPP) of the country dedicated to housing. The results from the efforts of the group, treated by Yang like a work of art, are detailed in 12 volumes of 300 pages each.


Despite the foreign name inherited from his Chinese father, Yang is a Paulistano in love with his city. Curiously, he is not an urban planner, nor does he work in a related field. He is a musician, who believes his interest in urbanism to be natural. He points out that affinities between the areas had already been perceived by Goethe (1749-1832), when he claimed that “architecture is frozen music”.


However, the poetry from the German writer’s citation is insufficient to support the bold idea of conducting the project. It requires financial backing. Founder of Petra Energia, a firm that explores oil and natural gas, Yang uses part of those profits to sustain URBEM and his dream of facilitating the participation of civil society in the reorganization and humanization of São Paulo urban areas.


It took several million dollars for the entrepreneur to assemble a group of professionals who competed with other large consortia such as Odebrecht, Impacto Gouveia and Brookfield. “We believed that if we made a project of unquestionable quality, we would not lose this fight”, said Yang. His fear was that more than one participant would win. According to him, this could lead to fragmentation, risking the new housing developments of being a repetition of those models which had resulted in pockets of poverty.


Seeing the NGO win over construction companies of great importance represents that which Yang calls, the first miracle of the program. To him, the result tends to be better when civil society is able to have input in a plan that would traditionally be under the mantle of public authority or at the mercy of the real estate market.


According to him, the government alone is not fast enough to guarantee that the urban space will keep pace with economic changes. The first zoning law of the city dates from 1930. The second only appeared 40 years later, and the most recent one is from 2002. And, he claims, if the real estate market plays the game alone, the result tends to be even worse. “Everything revolves around business opportunities. One day we have a tower here, the other we have a shopping mall there. This movement brings profit but is insufficient for the development of a more agreeable urban fabric.” To him, it is possible to profit from popular housing without neglecting the legacy that remains for the city.”


Located in a beautiful house in the neighborhood of Higienópolis, the headquarters of URBEM seems to be the dream office of any urban planner. In the immense meeting room, with views of leafy trees of a plaza, Yang talks about his project with that same enthusiasm he had a month ago when presenting to the municipal and state authorities in the inauguration of the Casa Paulista.


Excited, he reviews the details of the presentation. The plan is to erect 20.2 thousand residential units, divided into six areas. The project will cost R$4.6 billion. The state government will invest R$2.6 billion and the municipality another R$404 million. The private initiative is expected to absorb the largest portion of the remaining costs. Resources are also expected to be provided by the federal program Minha Casa, Minha Vida.


Yang, a 50 year-old entrepreneur, joyful and committed to developing projects to transform the city into a more pleasant place, does not waste any time in the presentation of his project. Before a huge screen formed by rows of monitors on the main wall of the room, he repeats the speech, which he brought to the authorities: “Let’s first show what the Casa Paulista is not”.


Thus begins a depressing selection of photographs of the old housing projects of the Banco Nacional de Habitação (BNH) and of middle-class condominiums surrounded by large walls. The entrepreneur calls this type of construction the “medieval model”. Although the BNH type is different from the medieval, Yang points out similarities: “The two are ghettos and do not create public spaces, they do not create cities”.


Casa Paulista’s proposal is to mix housing, work, commerce and services. Another characteristic is the proximity to rail transportation. The residences will be located within a buffer of 600 meters from a train or subway station, a distance that allows for easily accessible public transportation, within the reach of a 10-minute walk. A mixed-use model would foster “city life” in areas hosting such disconcerting and empty streets as pointed out by the anthropologist Luciana Aguiar, one of the partners of the research firm Plano CDE. “Barra Funda is too masculine of a district”, said Luciana to the architects that participated in the project. The mother who was pushing the stroller revealed to the researchers that she regretted having bought an apartment in such a boring area , dreary and bleak to walk around in with a child, which basically offers services for those in need to repair cars.


The material gathered by the social scientists and anthropologists generated a database. It collected testimonials from 80 families that live in the city center or that are searching for a house to buy there, as well as interviews with four leaders from housing movements. “We gathered information from the perspective of the users”, says Luciana. The work revealed profiles that do not appear in census research, such as the Bolivian immigrants, who also make use of the urban equipment.


In URBEM’s project, the buildings of the central region open directly onto the sidewalk, with no setbacks, with shops on the ground level, and housing and offices on the buildings, ample pedestrian streets, and linear parks. The buildings designated for housing will mix families of different income brackets. The buildings will thus house families earning up to six times the minimum wage and families earning a maximum of 16 times the minimum wage.


According to Yang, this model is what makes cities such as Barcelona, New York, or Paris so pleasant. However, those who reside on 25 de Março Street live in the inverse situation. “During the day it is a dynamic place, crowded, but at night it is scary because it is deserted”, says Luciana. And while it is full of textile stores, the area does not have a supermarket.


Before the creation of the Casa Paulista, URBEM had already attempted to establish a partnership with real estate owners of the city center in order to induce the reoccupation of the region. It, however, faced problems such as abandoned buildings with complicated documentation. The situation of each location, including complicated cases of inheritance, was also mapped by the URBEM team.


The group includes professionals such as the economist Ana Claudia Rossbach, consultant from the World Bank with experience in the public domain and in popular housing projects in other countries. According to her, the data collection includes the analysis of issues such as the possible existence of contaminated soil in areas that were previously occupied by industries. “These difficulties increase the cost of the process. A housing program of social interest would be unviable without partnerships”, says Rossbach.


Yang sees the “second miracle” of the program to be the union of the city, state, and federal governments, who put aside party lines, politics, and questions of administrative cycles. He now looks forward to the third miracle, which will come with the involvement of the private initiative, such as construction firms and banks. This, however, depends upon the publication of another term of tender, awaited by the URBEM team with much excitement.


Since the cost of building residences in the central region is higher than in most of the peripheral areas, construction firms will have to be convinced of the expected profitability, especially with the exploration of the commercial and service areas. If everything works out as planned, the first units will be ready in 2015, and all the urban renewal will be concluded by 2018.


URBEM also gave a helping hand to the government partnership. The Casa Paulista program was launched by the state government as the city electoral campaigns were taking place. Yang did not waste any time and decided to initiate conversations with the candidates for mayor. He says that discussions were held with the two finalists – Fernando Haddad and José Serra.


Up until this point, Yang managed to work with the discretion that he would like to preserve until the conclusion of the construction phase. But he lost his anonymity in the presentation of the project. Even so, he still tries to remain reserved. He always attributes all the merits of the successful initiative to the team. He insists in putting himself behind the team, even when posing for the photo of the article. He prefers to reserve his musical talent to his personal life. In his leisure time, he plays piano with his wife, also a pianist. And his tact for business management, on the other hand, he honed with his Master’s degree of Public Administration in Harvard University. Rarely does the smiling Yang talk about himself.


The timid Yang, however, transforms himself into an eloquent presenter when it comes to the Casa Paulista. To him, the under-usage and degeneration processes of the center, which cause “a scene of absolute absence of city,” is the consequence of the gap between economic and urban development and the hindrances of outdated zoning laws. “While the economy moved forward, triggered by new ideas and technologies, the city remained frozen by obsolete zoning laws and construction codes”, claims the president of URBEM.


“There was a clear move away from the central region of São Paulo in 1991. A slight repopulation took place later, thanks to improvements in transportation infrastructures and migrations of class D families to class C. But it is still subtle. We are now trying to make a leap, over 20 years later”, he says.


Yang endorses the urban planners’ almost unanimous opinion that the attempts to improve the central region through revitalization or the creation of cultural equipment, such as the Pinacoteca de São Paulo and the Sala São Paulo, did not contribute to the reoccupation. “They were themselves successful, but not as a city. When a concert ends at Sala São Paulo, everyone leaves swiftly. It lacked plural intervention.”


For the entrepreneur, there is hope that the new experience will allow São Paulo to jump some steps in the urban organization, in relationship to what “more mature” industrial cities such as New York, Tokyo, Paris or London have undergone since the 1930s. At that time, these cities were characterized by workspaces and leisure spaces that were completely geographically separated. In the 1906s, however, in the post-industrial era, the gap between work and leisure began to be bridged, and by 2000, it disappeared. They finally mixed. These cities, claims the president of URBEM, took advantage of the deindustrialization phenomenon to reorganize and humanize their urban fabrics. “They managed to develop new vocations in the field of technology and of creative economy thanks to the powerful combination of action from the government, from the market and from civil society. Who knows, perhaps our delay will allow the city to leap ahead.”


But for the “third miracle” to happen, it is necessary to attract the private initiative. Even so, conquering the credibility of a population that is already tired of previous unsuccessful attempts will not be an easy task. Yang, however, seems prepared to continue as the conductor of civil society in this performance.


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