Monday, May 17, 2010

Paranapiacaba: a rain forest ghost town in Brazil finds hope

Paranapiacaba (which means ‘the place from were you can see the ocean’ in Tupi Guarani), a charming historic vila, is now a town paralyzed in time. The English built it in the 1860’s as a railroad stop to connect São Paulo’s inland coffee plantations to the international port of Santos. The presence of the railroad in town is the strongest visual impact with abandoned rusted trains in the yards and a wide railroad right of way between “parte alta”, the Portuguese original colony and “parte baixa”, the English town area. The English part of town was built mainly with wood structures and with a very organized grid street pattern including alleys for service. On the other hand the existing Portuguese vila built of brick and mortar, has a much more urban organic pattern around a small chapter in a hill top. Coincidentally, I discovered that the English Vila has a very similar street design to Edgewater Glen residential neighborhood of Chicago where I currently live with my family for 12 years and it was originally built in the late 1800’s.

The town has a microclimate with foggy mid days, limited sunshine and showers almost everyday and is surrounded by a beautiful rain forest vegetation water springs and trails. The town presently has only 1,200 inhabitants although it was built to house 5,000 people. The sewer and drainage system was built above the capacity with a large section, underground ceramic pipes, to allow for the rain to clean the flow before it reaches the water shed again.

I arrived in Paranapiacaba on March 26th, 2010, with seven other colleagues to perform a technical workshop with the community, local professional experts, academics and Municipal representatives. The workshop was mainly sponsored by Illinois-Sao Paulo Partners of the Americas and all of us professionals. Mare de Campos in São Paulo and I in Chicago had been heading the organization of this 3-day event for more than a year with many difficulties and oppositions, threats and discouragement based on political fears but the group believed in the cause and we finally made it successfully to the event.

Visiting the town and meeting their leaders such as Zélia Paralego, Fábio Vital, Levi de Araújo, Eduardo Mendes and Jorge Guzo among others was very special and inspiring to me. I felt like I was finally filling a gap in my heart. São Paulo, although it is the economic center in South America, is a cruel city because of its out of proportion size of close to 20million people within the metropolitan area, the lack of green space and limited public transit options. Paranapiacaba, on the other hand is like an oasis outside the concrete jungle and is what urban planners consider the proper size for a smart growth neighborhood. Even though it has a lot of potential, the town is presently poor and depressed, youth at risk of violence and drug abuse for lack of work and job opportunities and more than half of the residential buildings are empty deteriorating with time and desperately crying for help.

We learned a lot from technicians, city representatives and inhabitants in our second day there including the fascinating stories about the English stablishing the first practice of soccer in the town, the creation of a music Lira Serrano Club, witches’ conventions and the invasive poorly planned music festivals that inundate the town during the month of July every year. Local architects have successfully protected the town with all levels of historic preservation protection since the English left in the 1980’s but these strong laws seem to also be part of the economic development impediment in town. The existing “posadas” in town, the heart of the town’s eco-tourism can’t have bathrooms inside the main buildings due to the preservations laws. The color of the homes has to be brown instead of the colorful original variety as some architects remarked and so on. The passenger train that used to stop at the Vila’s central station no longer comes on a regular daily basis and cars and buses invade the town on music and cultural event days.

Talking with City officials, we also learned that the Municipality of Santo André wants to create a technology center not far from Paranapiacaba and as part of the Santo Andre municipal boundary.

After listening to all points of views in town, on the third day we divided our group in two teams and started to brainstorm ideas to recover Paranapiacaba. One group started to look at opportunities to create a technology sustainable town along the railroad to the west of Paranapiacaba. The other group reviewed the town planning, social problems and physical needs, circulation, redevelopment and economic opportunities and historic architecture in detail. It was an intensive day and I wish that we had more time but the results were excellent in such short amount of time. The fresh brand look at the Vila’s problems from most of us was very helpful to find solutions with no political fears and in a completely independent manner.

We created the BIG IDEA concept and calculated a hypothetical budget of $5 billion dollars to construct the technology town, “Paranapiacaba West”, in 8 years creating a tax-financed increment mechanism to rebuild Paranapiacaba for the next 20 years. This plan will create jobs for the village inhabits as well as many other Paulistas in the area. And accumulate tax funds to rebuild Parnapiacaba.

“Paranapiacaba West” as we call it will be a sustainable green development with buildings that will be designed like “trees “and create a new community which will be part of the rain forest, respecting the delicate environment and reactivating the rail road as the main transportation method. Clean and green technologies will be the starting point of discussion as well as methods of smart growth and sustainable green development such as LEED ND and new urbanism that gives emphasis to the pedestrian, historic preservation, sustainable economic development and the human scale in harmony with nature.

For Paranapiacaba itself we proposed a master plan vision with circulation plan that receives visitors into specially redesigned public spaces to receive train riders, pedestrians, bicycles and controlled limited access for private vehicles, buses and tracks. The circulation plan will also include better connections between parte alta (portuguese town) and parte baixa (English town). We identified peripheral areas of parte baixa for sustainable redevelopment of condominiums and high class pousadas and the interior renovation of a large area of parte alta with mixed-use and eco-turism opportunities. The plan encourages music and film festival activities and reinforces the sports and arts activities that the population is already demanding and have an important historic role in town. We also encouraged in the plan the review and redesign of urban streetscape and the rehabilitation of the historic structures with the ability to incorporate modern life demands with appropriate interior renovation.

For the population needs we strongly reccommended environmental education and training in green technologies. The creation of a social and mental health assistance is imperative as it is the proper care of abandoned animals with a specialized veterinarian clinic and animal adoption society. Finally the richness and the surrounding fauna and flora should be protected and explored for eco-tourism opportunities and for potential Universities’ research or even International education exchanges like some that are already being encouraged by Partners of the Americas.

The proposed vision recommendations should be then transformed into a plan that should be incorporated into the revision of the Santo André Comprehensive Plan in 2010 and become the first economic-historic recovery example in the country.

In an area so close to Cubatao, which used to be one of the most polluted places in the world and as part of the inhumane Megalopolis of São Paulo this BIG IDEA for a small area seams to be the right thing to do.

After leaving Sao Paulo 20 years ago with our vision, I can now imagine living in Paranapiacaba, working in Paranapiacaba West and visiting the famous Pinacoteca do Estado close to Estacao da Luz without having to ever use a car. Taking the express trains from Paranapiacaba to Estacao da Luz I could be in the heart of Sao Paulo in 30 minutes perhaps reading a novel or simply enjoying the ride as I get there once in a while. If the trains reconnect also in the other direction I could go to Santos through the rain forest of Serra do Mar also in about 30 minutes and once getting to Santos perhaps rent a car to visit the paradise Atlantic cost.

I never though of coming back to the monster reality of Sao Paulo but this plan made with my colleagues help made my mind believe that it is possible to still think of perfect paradise life in the industrial area of Santo Andre and within the large Megalopolis concrete jungle of Sao Paulo City.

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