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Brasilia, from utopian city to urban agglomeration

02.07.2007
Brasilia is the most complete example of the form of urban planning prevalent until the 1970s. Construction took just three years, from 1957 to 1960, following a government initiative to create Brazil’s capital, at a time when cities played a prime role in the construction of national territories, especially in the countries of the South.

The project’s objective was to improve distribution of the country’s wealth by attracting population and economic activity to Brazil’s interior. Up to then people and industries had been concentrated on two competing coastal cities, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Brasilia was constructed according to a precisely laid out urban plan, devised by Lucio Costa, and the architectural programme designed by Oscar Niemeyer following a socially egalitarian and functional vision of the city. The city gained the UNESCO status of Historical and Cultural Heritage of Humanity only 27 years after its creation and remains the symbol of the avant-garde, ideal city entirely appropriate for Brazil at that time.

Fifty years afterwards, the original city finds itself at the centre of a fragmented, sprawling agglomeration of 3 million population. It is threatened by several environmental and social dysfunctions: degraded water resources, inadequate wastewater management, poverty, inequalities of distribution of urban resources and considerable geographical distances between the different social classes, potential sources of conflict. This conurbation takes in 16 satellite towns and extends to the neighbouring district of Goias. The organization of the Plano Piloto, the initial urban perimeter, classified and preserved in its clearly demarcated compact structure, contrasts with an environment that becomes more and more open, broken up and untidy towards the city fringes, where the poorest people are concentrated.

In such a situation, where and how is life in the community organized? How has a project for a clearly delimited city expanded into such a diffuse tangle of urbanization, cut off from the regional environment? IRD geographers and their research partners from the University of Brasilia have been seeking the reasons for this evolution, examining since 2001 the way the city has developed and the consequences of this development at local and regional levels (1). Their approach, which takes into account the built and natural environment and the social dynamics at play, brings into relief possible solutions for conserving the heritage of Brasilia while ensuring the agglomeration’s development in a sustainable way.

The conservation and closing-off of the city’s core “monumental” sector has pushed up property prices and engendered a considerable social cost. People have continued to flow into Brasilia, which concentrates nearly 80% of the country’s formal employment, encouraged by their strong attachment to the image of the ideal city. The situation has restricted them to settling on the fringes of the urban centre, on stretches of land still unoccupied by this growing agglomeration. Geographical distancing between the preserved, fixed “monumental” city and the dense, poorer outer neighbourhoods is therefore matched by social distancing.

This kind of urban development goes against the evolution the initial plan envisaged. The organization laid down was for a city with a compact structure, around four sectors harmonized to guarantee the equilibrium of both the city and the society destined to live in it: social and residential (housing), monumental, bucolic (landscape) and functional (work, services). The way Brasilia has been developing recently indicates an imbalance between these distinctly defined sectors of the original plan.

The research team used this observation as a basis for devising a new urban project, founded on a new reading of the plan and the founding articles. The new proposal hinges on a return to equilibrium between the different sectors – reincorporate local shops in the districts assigned for services, for example – but adapted to the real city, in other words to the whole agglomeration. This involves conceiving the agglomeration as a homogeneous delimited regional territory, whose management, inspired from the founding utopian ideals, would favour access to housing, job generation and improved living standards. This new urban project should reconcile the city’s heritage conservation and its social and economic development, and thereby give an impulse to people’s increased involvement in the future of their urban environment and, in this way, improve social cohesion.

Brasilia’s future now lies in the hands of those responsible for urban development and of its inhabitants. This city remains the unique case of a total-planning approach, an end-of-spectrum example valuable as a reference. Comparison of its development with that of other cities of the South, largely or completely unplanned, can in this sense offer a different perspective on their development and the social and natural risks it can create, at a time when 50% of the world’s population is urban.

Marie Guillaume | alfa
Further information:
http://www.ird.fr/fr/actualites/fiches/2007/fas264.pdf

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