Brazil: Future cities for a future environment?
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Brazil: Future cities for a future environment?

Brazil has long been called the país do futuro — the country of the future.

Depending on the criteria, Latin America’s largest economy has alternately succeeded and failed to live up to this aspirational title, resulting in an environment that is a dream for some and a nightmare for others. Yet many still see the labeling of Brazil as the perpetual “country of the future” as some kind of cruel joke. When, they ask, will it deliver and how?

In recent years, Brazil has, in many ways, appeared to be rocketing from its longtime status as giant of the developing world toward securing a place among the globe’s advanced economies. Home to a burgeoning middle class, a World Cup and the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympic Games, a place that was once referred to (reportedly by a Brazilian ambassador to France) as “not a serious country” is finally starting to live up to its potential.

However, the expectations placed on modern countries have also continued to evolve, and industry and development must now be tempered by environmental awareness and responsibility. This can seem like an insurmountable challenge in Brazil, which is home to the Amazon rainforest — a region threatened by an exploding agricultural industry and hydropower sector — as well as several massive cities straining under the burden of widespread poverty.

Still, despite the significant challenges facing residents and local governments, some of Brazil’s cities have given rise to progressive and even environmentally responsible development. The southern city of Curitiba, designated a “green” city all the way back in the 1980s, is often held up as an example of the “right way” to urbanize Brazil.

From Green Planet Monitor:

Curitiba is blessed with some 400 square kilometers of public park or forest space. That’s more than 50 square meters per inhabitant.  According to some measures, it emits 25 percent less carbon per capita than most Brazilian cities, even though more people own cars here. The discrepancy arises from Curitiba’s famous public transportation system, which carried some 70 percent of commuter traffic in the last decade.

Curitiba’s reputation as a livable city has attracted a wave of migrants, causing the metropolitan population to swell to more than 3 million inhabitants and putting increased stress on the city’s transportation and waste disposal services, among others. This is something Curitiba must solve if it is to remain an example of green development.

On the other side of the country, the Amazonian metropolis of Belém do Pará, surrounded by rainforest and rivers, offers some alternatives to Brazil’s industrial model of agriculture. Research on the city’s agricultural practices has shown that local home gardens and urban plots provide environmental benefits and nutritional advantages, especially for the poor.

Belém, which experiences daily torrential downpours, also has the advantage of an infrastructure designed to deal with deluges, something some other Brazilian cities lack. As climate change increasingly threatens vulnerable urban areas, city developers might do well to look to Belém’s drainage system as a guide.

Climate change may be the greatest challenge for architects currently designing new urban structures in developing countries, as the need to heat and cool new buildings in Brazil’s future cities will increasingly drain the country’s already strained energy resources. The massive construction that takes place in the favelas that exist in every major Brazilian city must also be considered in terms of health, safety and environmental impact.

A move towards human cities?

Anyone that has ever visited São Paulo and stared up at its endless amount of small-windowed massive concrete tenements can understand how some forms of urbanization can have negative psychological effects. The absence of nature, green space and beauty can sometimes be nothing short of soul crushing. Building on the example set by Curitiba’s practical and often-pleasant design, the idea of “Playable Cities” offers a more human — or humane — alternative to the concrete jungle.

Claudio Marinho, an urban planner and policy-maker who participated in a recent “playable cities” conference in Brazil, sees the concept meeting the need for “an affectionate re-appropriation of public places to get back city-center life from our bunker-high-rise isolation.”

I for one agree with that need, as I have never felt such urban isolation as I did in the giant concrete apartment blocks of São Paulo and Belo Horizonte.