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An idea to save the center of SP and a radical proposal for the future

In an interview with, the urbanist who developed the project chosen by the city to repopulate the center of SP explains his ideas and reveals a radical project for the future.

07/04/2013 | 08h50

By Amanda Previdelli


São Paulo - He is responsible for the project that promises to change the center of Sao Paulo, and he still has more radical ideas to improve the city as a whole. Philip Yang is the founder of the URBEM Institute, which developed the project presented last week by the city and state government to revitalize and repopulate the city center. The central area now provides 20% of jobs, but only houses 3% of the residents of the State capital.

The Casa Paulista project aims to construct 20,000 housing units in the greater downtown area. The most important issue, according to Yang, is to create areas of mixed use containing retail, services, green spaces, and residences. The concept of mixing was also considered for residential units: apartments will be distributed among families with different income levels (from R$ 755 to R$ 11,000 per month), to give greater diversity to the center.

Yang talked to to clarify details of the project chosen by the government, and also proposed a radical solution - at least in the perspective of drivers - to increase the city’s sidewalks and public spaces. - How do you think URBEM´s project will revitalize downtown Sao Paulo?

Yang - The situation is the following: if you let the government take care of social housing in central areas, they will create several pockets of poverty and will end up further degrading the center of São Paulo, which urgently needs economic robustness, life etc.. If you leave it to the market to take care of repopulating the center, it will create poorly designed buildings with walls around them, which is horrible thing from an urbanistic perspective. URBEM believes that a good city is one where people can live together; we can create a conceptual proposal for a new dynamic occupation of the center. - The construction of thousands of housing units is not something that goes unnoticed. How does the project interact with the history of the center?

Yang - One of our principles is to respect the existing infrastructure. Actually, the project does not cover the center itself, but the expanded center and particularly areas of social concern. In such areas, one must worry about some historical heritage that is of great importance in terms of the industrial history of São Paulo. Other areas of intervention include those that are completely abandoned, underutilized and in an advanced state of degeneration. - We've had politicians say they would like a church on every street corner of São Paulo, while others ask for an enterprise in every corner. What would you like to see in every corner in the city?

Yang - A park. A public space. I think the success of cities, and this is demonstrated in cities that we like to visit, like Barcelona, ​​is the mixture. Another thing I wanted to have in front of home: a sidewalk. - A "sidewalk", why is that?

Yang - Look: I was walking by Juscelino Kubitschek Avenue with a group of friends and one of them stopped to talk to a colleague who he had run into. There were some people complaining that "people stopped on the street" and I took a look at the sidewalk, it measured 1.2 meters. I measured. And this was in front of a skyscraper. What kind of city is one where you can’t talk to a friend on the street? - But then you are picking a fight with the cars, when you want to widen the sidewalks. How do you deal with a city that favors the automobile?

Yang - I have an idea. And it's a radical one and I will still fight to try to convince people. You know the formula for us to overcome this? It is the complete suppression of parking on the streets. No charter of human rights says you have the right to park. Parking is a something that you have to pay for anyway. You have a car, you pay. So what do you do? Take away all the blue zone parking spaces, which are about 40 thousand street parking units managed by the city. This would be equal to one hundred vertical parking buildings with the capacity of four hundred cars each. It is absolutely doable. You expropriate some key areas, give the private sector the right to build and operate the parking, and the city turns the parking lanes into sidewalks and bike lanes. In four years you change the urban landscape of a city. - During the election campaign last year, current mayor Fernando Haddad spoke a lot about the urban issues and mobility in Sao Paulo. For him, the solution would be to create more employment centers in the periphery. The new proposal to create housing poles in the center is the opposite. Wouldn’t that result in further saturating the central region?

Philip Yang - The repopulation of the city center is a phenomenon that is already underway. Taking a step back, the center lost perhaps something around 300,000 inhabitants in one decade, but since then only recovered about 30,000. The center has enough idle infrastructure already installed and it will be long until it becomes fully saturated. - Do you think the project will end up reducing the overload of the city’s transportation routes?

Yang - Yes, what will alleviate the problem of mobility is the balance between jobs and housing. Take the Radial Leste, for example. It has six lanes, a giant median, a well-structured bus lane and yet, when you look, you cannot see the city. Then, if you talk to a city hall bureaucrat and ask him about it, he replies: "ah, if allow to build here, it will generate a lot of traffic." However, you have a lot of traffic because the people who work there live at the end of the city. The logic for increasing mobility is the creation of new centers. – Why will the real estate not go to these regions then?

Yang - You have a huge gap between economic development and zoning laws. The first zoning dates back to the 1930s; it was updated in 1970; and then only in 2002, 2004. Imagine the challenge of changing the spatial dynamics of a territory only every 40 years. This is an absurd thing when the economy moves this fast. - What is your opinion regarding initiatives to relieve traffic with congestion charges and changes in the rotation system (increase the hours or days that cars are not allowed to circulate)?

Yang - Congestion charges restrict the right to come and go. I believe such charges are not legitimate. But I have no restrictions on rotations. It’s one thing that is horizontal for everyone. It is a fixed time and day, people can plan ahead, and that's cool. It's a sacrifice you make for the sake of the collective good, which I think everyone should do and is a nice thing. I am an avid user of public transportation and taxis, I think nobody should have car, but those who decide to own one should deal with the related costs.

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