The Danish urban design practice Gehl Architects has in recent years created increased social interaction and public well-being through careful urban planning in Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo.
Historically, São Paulo’s architecture has been at the forefront of visionary urban planning, with car-free zones and places where people could sit, relax and enjoy the city. But in the 1980s, and with the end of the Brazilian military dictatorship, city planning seemed to just stop. Gehl Architects’ assignment was to facilitate a dialogue process to develop a concept design for the main square, Anhangabaú Square, and best practice projects in the neighbouring downtown areas.
“I just love working in Brazil, which is such a culturally diverse place with a strong architectural heritage. Our projects in São Paulo are meant to strengthen these exact qualities by enabling and enhancing urban life in places that have been underperforming for decades,” says Helle Søholt, CEO of Gehl Architects.
Being the key economic driver of Brazil and generating one-third of the vast nation’s GNP, São Paulo ought to already have a flourishing downtown area, which should have been in high demand. However, an explosion in the volume of traffic pushed people and businesses out of the city centre, leaving empty buildings and parking lots in their wake. Located above a highway and bypassed by pedestrian flyovers, nothing invited people to come down to the city’s main square, Anhangabaú Square.
In order to identify the problems and the vast potential of the city, Gehl Architects conducted a series of workshops with city agencies, universities and a series of NGOs and community representatives. The architects also provided the city with surveying and mapping methods to improve public spaces and public life. By interviewing people and watching how they moved and where they went, Gehl Architects obtain an onsite basis for defining the qualities they were aiming for.
The re-design of Anhangabaú Square had four main goals: to improve access, to create smaller human-scale spaces, to make a more flexible city space for big events and everyday life, and to activate the edges of the square by opening its building facades.
To provide examples of the further development potential of the city, Gehl Architects also incorporated different strategies showing their conceptual thoughts in carefully designed pilot projects, in order to give the people of the city a chance to experience the changes on a 1:1 scale. The goals of the pilot projects were to collect knowledge of the use and the public’s response, which could then feed directly into the design of more permanent projects.
In São Francisco – a historical city district with pedestrians and a nearby university, the pilot project design transformed an inactive public space into a park, with outdoor workstations, play and stay areas and night-time activities.
The pilot project at Avenida São João includes temporary bike tracks, priority bus lanes and good crossings to test out different ways to improve mobility in the city.
The two Gehl pilot projects have now been implemented, and the people of the city have fully embraced the new elements. Hopefully the success of these projects can inspire and inform further people-friendly developments in this megacity.