Contemporary urban studies, especially those in global cities often acknowledge the challenges in city planning and a variety of urban development problems that are associated with rapid urban growth. The city of São Paulo, Brazil, which is one of Latin America’s most developed urban agglomerations, is no exception. The lecture by Nadia Somekh draws on 40 years of theory and practice, using the case of São Paulo’s Bixiga neighbourhood as an entry point to explore how a critical approach to urban planning practices can help city planners move towards a more inclusionary understanding of heritage management.
Nadia Somekh is an Emeritus Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning at Mackenzie University whose current research focuses on heritage and urban projects in the contemporary city as well as the vertical growth of Brazilian cities. Amongst other roles, Nadia is the author of “A Cidade Vertical e o Urbanismo Modernizador” (“The Vertical City and Modernist Urbanism”). Outside of academia, between 2013 and 2016 Nadia served as President of CONPRESP (São Paulo City Heritage Council) and director of DPH (Heritage Department of São Paulo City). Nadia has also held the position of President of EMURB (Municipal Urbanisation Company) as well as Economic Development Secretary in Santo André City.
One of the many thought-provoking questions posed by Nadia to the audience during her presentation was; how do we deal with social issues in urban planning? I believe Nadia’s challenging question reflects the ethical crossroads that the 21st-century city planner is confronted with. More so, it raises the complex question; how does a planner reconcile issues relating to spatial justice with preservation of heritage? This question is rightly posed within the context of the case study of São Paulo, which is Brazil’s largest conurbation, with a high proportion of its residents living in a sub-standard housing (Budds, and Teixeira, 2005). Since the 1950s, Brazilian cities have experienced rapid urbanisation and this conurbation is moving into neighbouring vicinities and the outskirts of the city, bringing with it a myriad of social, economic and planning challenges (Sperandelli et al, 2013). In terms of perceived space, São Paulo is a vertical city but not a dense one and this verticalization is now extending to the outskirts of the city to neighbourhoods such as Bixiga. Historic buildings are gradually demolished in favour of high rise apartments. Housing remains a pertinent issue in the city even with the introduction and implementation of master planning and zoning. This is a regulatory and urban policy, which was established in the 1980s in a number of Brazil’s large cities to address inequality and dwellings (Caldeira and Holston, 2015).
Reflecting on the narratives around Heritage and preservation, Nadia posed another critical question, “how do we deal with the tensions between high-rise building and heritage”? As highlighted by Nadia, there exists a number of listed buildings with very little being done in terms of preservation. The protection of Bixiga’s heritage buildings is not just about preserving the buildings but also, the social relationships as well as dealing with gentrification. In discussing the evolution and urban morphology of the city, it is pertinent to examine the disembeddedness of social practices in defining and owning the space. Nadia highlighted the issue of identity and how the residents perceive heritage buildings. Social practices and the way identity is perceived also play a crucial role in preserving heritage sites. Previously, the perception of these heritage sites was not imbued in ‘identity’ and the praxis of developers was to erase history and build high-rise building, however, recent findings illustrate that people are beginning to value history and now want to preserve and protect the heritage buildings and sites.
One theme emanating from the discussions was that different countries view and understand heritage in diverse ways. For example, the United Kingdom has different streams of funding for heritage projects, one being the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The HLF uses money raised through the National Lottery to provide grants for conservation activities or projects. A project would need to meet several criteria for funding, one of which is that the building must have some economic use as well as being beneficial to the community. One great example that comes to mind is Manchester’s Victoria Baths, a Grade II* listed building, which in 2003, won the first BBC Restoration programme and with it, £3m of Heritage Lottery funding (BBC).
The concluding part of the seminar was an intellectual discussion centred on preservation and heritage. I took from the engaging and enlightening debate that heritage is understood and perceived in different ways, and in different parts of the world. Another important observation that I made, is that for an inclusionary understanding of heritage management to take place, it is necessary to identify the importance of heritage both in economic terms and its contribution to the community and then seeking for different streams of funding. There is also the need for participation from all, including planners, architects and the community. A good example mentioned by Barbara Lipietz, of the Development Planning Unit (DPU), is her reference to the case of Medellin, Colombia, where planners, community members, architects and different actor groups come together in a city level to tackle problems associated with urban planning.
In conclusion, heritage management must not only focus on the preservation of heritage but also at the same time ensure the economic and community benefit.
BBC:http://www.bbc.co.uk/manchester/content/articles/2008/09/17/victoria_baths_history_feature.shtml. Accessed 28/11/2017.
Budds, J. and Teixeira, P. (2005) Ensuring the right to the city: pro-poor housing, urban development and tenure legalization in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Environment and Urbanization, 17(1), pp.89-114.
Caldeira, T. and Holston, J. (2015) Participatory urban planning in Brazil. Special issue article: Urban revolutions in an age of global urbanism. Urban Studies. Vol. 52(11).
Godfrey, B.J. (1991) Modernizing the Brazilian city. Geographical Review, pp.18-34.
Irazábal, C. (2009) Revisiting urban planning in Latin America and the Caribbean. Unpublished regional study prepared for the Global Report on Human Settlements.
Sperandelli, D.I., Dupas, F.A. and Dias Pons, N.A. (2013) Dynamics of urban sprawl, vacant land, and green spaces on the metropolitan fringe of São Paulo, Brazil. Journal of Urban Planning and Development, 139(4), pp.274-279.
Dr Lilian Schofield is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Development Administration and Planning (DAP). She has over five years experience working in Higher Education Institutions in the UK as well as experience in the development field having worked with development consultancies and NGOs in Nigeria. Lilian Schofield has a PhD in Construction and Property Management and investigated the role of stakeholders in housing development projects in poor communities in Nigeria.