How Can Local Design Impact Large Infrastructure Plans and Projects?

Anna Dietzsch
Sustainable Cities Collective
June 25, 2015

São Paulo. Photo: Nelson Kon

After decades of “progress” and aggressive, mostly unplanned, growth, the modern city in the “developed world” collapses under the weight of its heavy infrastructure, or because of the absence of such infrastructure. More than ever, the city needs to be understood in terms of its vertical section, where all of the layers of urban reality are considered simultaneously: its natural substrate, infrastructure, buildings, and cultural values.

One of the impediments that prevents us from realizing this approach to our understanding of the city is that infrastructure, even as it shapes our city, is not always visible or obvious to most of its inhabitants. Rainwater management, sewage, water, and the distribution of electricity are all, in the engineered city, “invisible”. And unfortunately, so is nature. In São Paulo it is not different.

Being a Paulista and having lived in São Paulo until my mid-twenties, I was accustomed to a dead river, the smell of carbon dioxide, skies of beautiful orange and pink enhanced by air pollution, and a lack of open green space. My understanding was that to be with nature one needed to leave the city.

But it was in this sprawling metropolis of 20 million people, over 8,000 km2, catering to private transportation with tons of asphalt and concrete, that I discovered the force of sub-tropical nature. It was also where I learned the importance of urban design’s educational and interactive role, the importance of relatively small interventions that could elucidate the complexity of the city and could bring people closer to the understanding of more harmonious and sustainable design solutions.

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Not being an ecologist, a biologist, or a landscape designer, I was originally trained to design cities from the perspective of the built environment, reflecting the practice of architecture in Brazil today, where different specialties meet to sustain a fragmented, partial vision: that of the professional who initiates the process. With little prior interaction and discussion that could amalgamate numerous urban facets into a holistic approach, we continue designing in fragments. Every specialty holds to itself its own primacy, its own knowledge. In the same way, in our daily realities, governmental RFPs are launched for engineering firms (or even construction companies) when it comes to infrastructure, with no mention of architecture, urban design, or landscape design.

So it was very exciting when, in 2007,  I was invited by a friend to participate in a project in São Paulo involving urban soil contamination. My friend was orchestrating a partnership between the City and a private publishing company to transform the site of an old incinerator into a productive public space. The site, a former medical waste incinerator, was allowed to fester and remained abandoned for many years following its decommissioning. With no precedent in Brazil and hardly any legal support in our laws, the proposed public-private partnership was innovative and courageous.

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Eco-Park plan. Image: Dietzsch/Levisky

The preliminary design, though, was non-imaginative, proposing something of a bucolic small-city plaza, with winding paths and benches over a three-foot high cap of new soil. This cap was required by the City’s Sanitation Department, which understood that the contamination needed to be contained before the site could be dedicated to public use.

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