A history of (agri)culture

8 01 2008

Patos de Minas always had a direct relation to agriculture. It emerged out of an agricultural interest in the region, and grew because of agricultural prosperity. Traditional Brazilian agricultural products like coffee, sugarcane, soy, wheat and corn have been produced on a large scale in all the region.

Nowadays the local economy is still quite dependent on the agricultural income. This is directly visible in city growth numbers and through the production of architectural and culture in the city. In periods of prosperity the city council has money available for the construction and maintenance of the patrimonial heritage, social and cultural services, and the organization of celebrations for the community.

Through time several periods of prosperity are to be recognized. The first period comes up with the mass-exportation of coffee from Brazil, and ends with the global economical crisis in the 1930’s. Under the influence of Governor Olegário Maciel the city knows it’s first phase of urbanization with the construction of several public schools, the forum and the regional hospital. Also most of the neo-colonial houses and buildings at the Presidente Vargas avenue date from that period.

The second period of growth initiates with the construction of the new capital Brasília. Since all building materials had to be transported towards the building site over long distances, cities like Uberlândia (and in a lesser extent Patos de Minas) grew because of the overnight stay of the truck drivers. Many hotels and businesses providing building materials emerged in the period 1950-60.

The inauguration of Brasília announced a period of stagnation and dis-animation. A new capital meant lots of new jobs, resulting in a drastic drop of inhabitants since many were moving in search of glory and richness. Leaving behind a city without any prospect. The result: the rise of favela’s near the riverbanks and degradation of existing neighbourhoods.

A period of industrialization, starting halfway the 70’s brought new perspective and hope to Patos de Minas. The construction of several interstate highway, the discovery of gigantic phosphate reservoir in the region, the establishment of a large seed factory in the city and mass plantations of newly bred corn caused a major growth in population and income.

Around 1995 the growth of Patos de Minas stagnated again, as a result of the global economic recession. The result reflects directly in the urban space as we see it nowadays: a bad state of maintenance and no improvement or new initiatives during a long period.

Since a few years the economy is reinforced with new hope. The city is growing, prospects are good, and slowly some money is being made available for (small) investments in public space and cultural installations in the city. The people in the city are positive towards the future and see and point out the need for investments in the quality of life. Almost every single inhabitants I spoke to was enthusiastic about my plans, and they didn’t seem unrealistic at all to them. It seems I just got the luck to be at the right time at the right place.

Centralization or Fragmentation

3 01 2008

As an attempt to stimulate the birth of a new urban identity in Patos de Minas I will propose an architectonic interventions. The intervention will be a cultural ensemble and the program will be mostly cultural. As I have to choose the location of the architectonic intervention, the question rises: where to locate it? And which parameters are going to define the location?

Since the early ages the most important functions of a city are gathered around a central plaza or avenue. The same with Patos de Minas. The avenida Getúlio Vargas was created in the 1930’s, starting at the main church and ending at the Patos Tênis Clube (a society), flanked on either side by other functions like the city hall, forum, city theater (sort of) and aristocrat housing. Symbolically it is still the most important avenue in the city. However, commercially and spatially the rua Major Gote has become far more important. It is the main axis through the city, with the most important shops and businesses facing this street. It is the economical heart. The analysis I made with the Kevin Lynch method confirms the rua Major Gote as most important axis, since all important functions are located at very close by this very street.

Economically and commercially speaking, Patos de Minas has a strong hierarchy and clarity in it’s cityscape. But culturally? The few cultural functions established in the city are as hided, put away, ashamed of their embarrassing look. In my opinion they don’t get the attention they deserve. And to stimulate and upgrade cultural life in the city there is an urge for a new cultural center, to gather many cultural functions and create a vivid anchor point. A beacon of the new city image.

With this in mind I started looking for a location within walking distance from the commercial center. Since most inhabitants wander through the city center by foot or bicycle, it is extremely important to create the possibility of incorporating the cultural center within their regular pattern. Consequence is that the the center will have to provide specific program like a musical school and a city theater, as well as general program in a special setting like some bars, restaurants, a library and maybe some shops, all gathered in a park-like setting. An environment to comfortably relax from shopping, work or school, to take a walk around, see an interesting exhibition, or go to music class.

Patos de Minas has a slightly hilly landscape, with inclined slopes where little streams and rivers cut through the landscape. Thus several hilltops are created which provide a beautiful view over the city. Realizing the intervention on such a hilltop would provide a spectacular view from the center and a great visibility from a large part of the city. From the perspective of archipuncture (interventions on strategically important places to stimulate the creation of a different city image) a good choice for an intervention which means to influence the city image and functions as a catalyst for further development.

Patos is an emerging city in development. It also has no lack of space yet. The process of verticalization has only just started in some areas of the city. And since distances within the city are not to big yet, people live were it suits best to them. Therefore, blank spots of unused terrain are to be found all over the city. This takes away the necessity to tear an existing building down in order to create space for a new one, which is often the case in the Netherlands. Still many suitable terrains are available for development.

The location I choose responds to all the demands mentioned above. It lies in the armpit of an avenue which is gaining importance rapidly, within walking distance from the commercial axis, on top of a hill with a 27o degree free viewing angle. The terrain is currently unused, only some houses are constructed at the border. My hands are starting to itch to start designing…

Some thoughts on urban growth in Brazil

6 11 2007

How can one regulate urban growth in Brazil? In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are the absolute minimum of human rights defined. This also includes a minimum in living qualities, although they differ a lot per country and per region. Logically, in a more developed country the standards are higher then a less developed country. But in any case, tools must be created to control and guarantee this quality. Meaning that a completely self regulating system is unsustainable, if there is no such thing as a common objective and a social involvement with the fellow members of society.

If we apply this thought to the current situation of most Brazilian cities, where the law of the jungle reigns (see post on urban jungle), it seems that some changes have to be made. Since right now it is a socially unfair system which does not protect the weak well enough.

It would be naive to think there are no good-willing people in governments and organizations trying to really change the situation to the better. To the contrary, most of the people do have the very best intentions. But somehow they do not succeed, somehow they do not have the right tools in hand. What seems to be missing is a strong, overall vision. A starting point where everyone can refer to and rely onto.

For this vision, or masterplan, to succeed and come true, it needs to be able to survive individual ideas of a single person. In Brazil majors are chosen every 4-5 years, and every new major wants to prove himself to the people, following his own agenda, many times undoing in a small time what his precedent took years to realize. Considering that a masterplan for a city takes decennia to be realized (if they could ever be regarded as finished) we see one of the sources of the problem. If the masterplan representing the overall vision wants to have any chance of success, it should remain untouched and respected by the passing individuals.

A good example of the successful application of a masterplan in Brazil is Curitiba. A large city in the south of Brazil, counting 2,5 million inhabitants. Thirty years ago a growth scenario was created for the city, supplying a set of rules regulating city growth and infrastructure rather then specifically defining spacial occupation. Nowadays, it is a metropolitan area with (in Brazilian terms) high spacial qualities and good living conditions. For this reason Curitiba serves as an ecological, sustainable example for city planners all over the world.

Law of the urban jungle

6 11 2007

The city I am researching, Patos de Minas, seems to be growing in a very informal way. Informal in this sense must be read as non-formalized, non structured, a natural way. I suppose we all agree that an urban environment needs some sort of structure, or a set of rules to define organizational patterns, to be able to provide good living conditions for all inhabitants.

I am saying this because if no such thing as an overall structure is applied, what happens? Well, Brazilian cities show the answer to this question: we fall back to the law of the jungle; the survival of the fittest. If your neighbor suddenly decides to tear down his house, and is going to construct a 25 story apartment building so he can make more money, you can do nothing against it. Unless you have more money as he does and have more influential friends as he does.

Where people live together there exists a need for organization, whether on a physical, social, cultural or economical level. This is equal for every society, every city, every country. The differences therefore, are noticed by the type of system which is applied. The type of the applied organizational system, and the amount of control/freedom of the citizen, depends totally on the governmental system and the philosophy behind it. We can, for example, distinguish monotonous social housing in communist countries with complete governmental control. A social democratic system in the Netherlands, where regulation is meant to protect the citizens rights, which means in practice an almost completely controlled system with little freedom for individual initiatives. And we distinguish the (maybe developing countries) system, where the government just supplies the basic infrastructure and the free market determines the content of the city. A so called self-organizing system.

The result of the system in the Netherlands is that the individual has many ways to protest against developments which could harm the quality of his territory. Even if the development is of great benefit to the whole society, many times the interest of the individual is given preference. In China however is no space for the individual, and complete neighborhoods and villages are replaced if it is in the interest of society. In Brazil is the importance of the individual determined by his position on the scale of hierarchy in society. The higher the position, the more importance and space (=freedom) is given to the individual. Self-organizing therefore, with no control from above.

A few reasons for picking this subject

19 10 2007

When I traveled through Brazil some years ago, I ended up in a city called Patos de Minas. It lays in the inlands of the state Minas Gerais in between smooth hills and surrounded by country land and forests. A real provincial town with already nearly 150.000 inhabitants. That is almost the size Almere!
Though almost as big in size, I noticed one big difference: city services. A little two-room cinema, a small theater, a few clubs, a number of bars and restaurants, and that’s it. Apart from that housing (mainly one-family), shops and small companies and a few large factories.So, what surprised me was to see a city of such a size and a city services level of a small town in the Netherlands. No clear, visible city plan, no planned public realm. A church, a square, a park, and nothing more. At the mean time local inhabitants told me new initiatives in the city (like a new club) were embraced really quickly, being the talk of the town for a few moths, and then dropped as fast as they rose.

This phenomenon triggered me strongly, and I got really curious to discover what the causes were, and, more important, what could be done to change it. I wanted to discover what the secret or hidden reason was behind this behavior. And, as a real solution-based TU Delft product, find a way to change things structurally to the better in this city.

The need for city planning in Brazil

19 10 2007

In the past 35 years Brazil doubled it’s inhabitants, from 90 million in 1970 to 190 million in 2006 (cia fact book). The growth of the population is shrinking, but is still over 1% a year (almost 2 million inhabitants). Meaning that in 2010 Brazil will reach the number 200 million inhabitants, making it the fifth most populated country in the world, inhabiting nearly 3% of the worlds population (IBGE). In the year 2000, a total of 68 million inhabitants, which is 40% of the total population of the country, lived in metropolitan areas. Meaning that still 60% lives outside of these metropolitan areas. But, like everywhere else, the big cities draw all the attention. Since metropolitans in general provide more possibilities for architectural and urban masterpieces, all the focus lies on them. Also in Brazil, where São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasília get like 90% of the credits.

But what about these thousands of smaller cities? They also need development! They also doubled their inhabitants in the past 20-30 years. They also need urban planning to guarantee good living conditions and good architecture to give the city a new identity. Who is going to design these plans?

When I was explaining my plans and ideas to a Brazilian exchange student here in Delft, he said to me: “Brazil needs this. Brazil needs good urban strategies for her cities to develop.” As you could imagine, this little phrase gave me an enormous boost of good energy, for it confirmed me in my feeling that I am doing the right thing.

Hello world!

16 10 2007

In this blog I will post all my thoughts, ideas, doubts, and all other relevant or less relevant stuff which have to do with my graduation project. Please feel free to post any comment, recommendation or whatever!