HISTORY OF THE ORGANIZATION

URBEM, the Institute of Urbanism and Studies for the Metropolis, is a “do-tank”, a center of action, that aims to conceive and implement urban development projects in São Paulo and other cities.

Established in 2011, URBEM’s focus is to structure projects that create a better urban fabric, in undertakings that allow for the generation of both economic and social value. URBEM was created as a third sector organization with the objective of finding a common ground between government, private sector, and civil society. 

URBEM catalyzes actions and projects to make cities flourish – cities that are prosperous, sustainable, safe and inclusive. Cities with life and ample opportunities for work, housing, learning, culture and entertainment. The institute was spearheaded by Philip Yang, a Brazilian entrepreneur, as a wish of legacy for his home city, São Paulo. From its inception in June 2011 to mid-2015, the work of URBEM was made financially viable by a donation of its founder. From 2015 onwards, URBEM has been self-sustained through the provision of consulting services to "citymakers": organizations of civil society, governments, developers, investors and owners of land. As a result of URBEM's experience in São Paulo, the institute has been present in other cities in Brazil, and has also responded to public calls in cities abroad, as it was the case in Paris, London, and New York.

VISION, MISSION AND VALUES

 

URBEM is driven to action. We aim not only at producing knowledge but also – and above all – at engaging agents of society, markets and governments around the inception and the implementation of sound urban projects. 

Inequality acquires concrete territorial expression in cities. As inequality widens, spatial segregation intensifies. Sometimes elusive in figures and statistics, inequality and income gaps are blatantly revealed in the spatial imbalances that mark the landscapes of contemporary cities: larger housing deficits, the absence of basic sanitation services, lack of public spaces and green areas, longer commute times between work and home, growing urban crime and violence, and higher exposure to climate change and environmental risks.

In light of these manifestations of socioeconomic disparities in the urban realm, URBEM upholds that the distribution of collective goods in cities – high quality infrastructure inserted in an urban fabric made of a well-balanced mix of uses and people of different backgrounds, income brackets and ethnicities – must be at the forefront of the battle against inequality. 

At the core of our mission is the belief that a better urban environments – with adequate housing, more sanitation, greener and more engaging public spaces, more mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhoods, improved mobility and less car-dependence – is a major component of a peaceful confrontation against the forces of inequality. At the core of our vision is our confidence that territorial injustice is one of the most brutal, vicious, and concrete manifestations of inequality, one that impacts huge and growing portions of the populations on a daily basis. At the core of our values is our conviction that urban change can only be achieved with a convergence between the forces of government, market, and civil society.

CORE COMPETENCIES

URBEM's central competency is the ability to deal with complexity. Cities are the theater of conflicts that can only be overcome with an aptitude for both dialogue and multidisciplinarity, which are the hallmarks of our approach to the urban challenges that we face. 

URBEM's actions are focused on structuring projects for both large privately owned areas and urban interventions in public concessions. URBEM participated in the Casa Paulista and Arco Tietê projects, promoted respectively by the São Paulo state and municipal governments, and ranked first in both public calls, competing against the largest infrastructure contractors in Brazil.

On the first instance, the Casa Paulista Program, was launched in April 2012, in the form of a public call for a Public-Private Partnership (PPP), aimed at an urban requalification of the city center and the provision of 14.000 housing units in central areas of São Paulo. 

The Arco Tietê Project was developed as part of an urban planning initiative promoted by the City of São Paulo in 2013 that encompassed the planning of an area of approximately 6,000 hectares in the surroundings of the Tietê River – roughly a 17 km long and 3 km wide stretch of land (1,5 km to each side of the river). 

For the private sector, URBEM has recently served as the structuring agent of an urban and real estate development project in a brownfield area owned by Votorantim, one of Brazil's largest industrial conglomerates. The project area of 300,000 sq.m, is adjacent to CEAGESP, the main wholesale food market in São Paulo, situated in the Vila Leopoldina neighborhood. The masterplan, as conceived by URBEM, alongside the financial and legal model of the project, was the result of an intense dialogue with regulators at the City Hall, various social and market stakeholders, including local activists and leaders of the vulnerable communities. 

Among the many shared achievements for all actors involved in the three years that the negotiation took to mature, it has been commonly agreed that all local community residents shall be resettled in new housing units that will be built within the neighborhood, as part of the entire urban development project. 

URBEM makes urban interventions viable, conceptually and pragmatically, by modeling projects that consider economic feasibility, sound legal and regulatory structures, in favor of a more humane, efficient, and attractive city.

 

Another core feature of our organization is the ability to engage professionals who are at the frontiers of innovation. As an example, our projects in Paris and in London involved the engagement of figures in urban design such as Aravena and Paulo Mendes da Rocha, both Pritzker Prize Laureates, Carlo Ratti, Director of the Senseable Cities Lab of the MIT, Alex Washburn, former Chief Urban Designer of New York City, among others. 

 

STRUCTURE OF THE ORGANIZATION

URBEM is a very lean and flexible structure. An organisational chart that would best reflect the functioning of the institution would be not so much a static picture but rather a dynamic diagram with a varying geometry that responds to the needs and specificities of each project we selectively undertake. 

Typically, an internal team of 8 people coordinate an extensive network of professionals from different fields of knowledge, in Brazil and abroad. The small permanent internal team is made up of a director-general, four specialized boards (urban planning, architecture, business and legal affairs), two project coordinators and an administrative back office with two assistants. Networks of external professionals are mobilized according to the needs and characteristics of each project being developed. Our work methodology has allowed such networking structure to easily branch out to tens of highly qualified professionals, as was the case in the previously mentioned Casa Paulista PPP project, which articulated experts in such wide domains as social psychology, historic preservation, sociology, real estate markets and finance, press and communications, law, among many others. 

URBEM is therefore structured as a platform of a flexible shape which mobilizes and integrates a wide network of professionals according to the nature, concept, requirements and scale of the projects and the institutions involved.