On Saturday 26th March a motorboat provided by the Empresa Metropolitana de Aguas e Energia spent the entire day shuttling back and forth across represa Billings, the large man-made water reservoir set in the lush nature reserve at the southernmost tip of the São Paolo Municipality. The boat moored continuously at the Cantinho do Céu pier to pick up and drop off the numerous people taking part in the third Jornada da Habitaçao organised by São Paulo Calling: international guests and São Paolo residents arriving from the city centre, as well as large numbers of inhabitants from the settlements which, like Cantinho do Céu, have developed along the banks of the Billings reservoir since the 1980s. An opportunity to try out a new and much quicker means of transport for connecting to the city centre: a kind of dress rehearsal for the new public water-transport system that the São Paolo local administration plans to develop.
Creating new transport connections across the Billings reservoir is the next stage of a bigger overall urbanisation project aimed at developing and improving the area with focus on creating a sustainable relationship between the neighbouring favelas and the reservoir. As well as creating infrastructure in the urban areas and reclaiming the water basin, another contribution to the development project is the long linear park, designed by architect Marcos Boldarini, which extends along the shores of Cantinho do Céu creating a picturesque welcome to those arriving by boat.
During the sun-drenched day of the Jornada da Habitaçao the park was teeming with bicycles, pushchairs, families, children, youngsters and the elderly, enjoying a walk along the green shoreline whilst taking in the magnificent landscape. This new public space developed to create a new relationship with the lake – until now used simply as a ‘service area’ behind the built-up areas – appears to have been successful.
The creation of public spaces in these informal settlements, their singular nature, the ways in which local government and architecture can contribute to their development in such a way that they become integral part of the city, are all issues that were addressed in discussions that took place on the synthetic grass of the new lakefront football pitch, inspired by the ongoing project development in Cantinho do Céu and the transformations that have taken place over the last few years in the Columbian city of Medellin.
Violeta Kubrusly, of SEHAB, emphasised how this impressive, cross-institutional project involving the favelas located on the banks of represa Billings, is the result of a pact made between public administration and the local community. This pact is symbolized by the new public space and the new connection between the villages on the lakeside and the water.
What has clearly emerged through meeting with the community during events of these first three Jornadas da Habitaçao – particularly engaging testimonies were given by Vera Lucia Basalia and Emilia dos Santos Vieira in Cantinho – is that the inhabitants of the favelas are the key protagonists of the development process of the city. They have chosen to live in these sites and have fought for the right to stay there. Their battles for rights to housing, infrastructure and quality of life have stimulated and guided the various urbanisation projects developed by the public administration. This is also what the sociologist Maria do Carmo Brant claims, underlining the fact that it is because of these self-organised community movements that both the São Paolo administration and public opinion became fully aware that these fragments of city cannot simply be eliminated, but must be recognised and consolidated. Experts involved in the process of urbanisation need to take note of the insight provided by the people who have built and lived in these informal cities.
Architect Teddy Cruz intervened on these subjects and illustrated a research that has been undertaken for years in the border territories between Mexico and California. Research aimed at developing new concepts and interpretations of the 'informal', where ‘informal’ is not an aesthetical category but rather a praxis. Informal is an area where, through transgression from a given political boundary or through imposed top-down models, it is possible to create new interpretations of infrastructure, property and citizenship.
Cruz, originally from Guatemala but now resident in the USA, believes that in migration flows and in the hidden dynamics seen in border crossing between the United States and Mexico, lies a hidden value able to generate a new and distinctive idea of the economics and politics of a city. This particular border is crossed in both directions: south to north by a flow of people trying to get into the United States from Mexico and, in the opposite direction, by a flow of waste material that from California is transferred to the suburbs and shanty towns of Tijuana. One could say that the informal slums that expand everyday in Tijuana have been built with San Diego waste products: car tyres become supporting structures, garage doors become home walls... endless examples of employment of rubbish, showing great creative intelligence that architects must take inspiration from.
According to Cruz there are positive models of productivity and economic and ecological sustainability that develop in informal cities and which can be used as valuable resources in times of crisis. A slum is an informal diffused factory, a valid alternative to the de-localisation of production in China. It provides new models that must be recognised as guiding principles for developing urban public policies.
Public policies and the role of architecture in informal cities are subjects that were also discussed with two important protagonists of the urban and social changes that took place in the Columbian city of Medellin between 2005 and 2009: architect Juan Manuel Patino, professor of Urbanistics and Vice-Director of the Medellin Metropolitan Projects, and architect Giancarlo Mazzanti who designed a number of important public projects which contributed to promoting these changes.
In an interesting exchange of ideas with the SEHAB administrators, Juan Manuel Patino described the geographical, urban and social situation on which the PUI (Integrated Urban Project) had to intervene and how its main lines of intervention developed through collaboration with the inhabitants of these informal settlements by listening to their requests for an improved quality of life. Juan Manuel Patino illustrated one of the strong points of the PUI: a project for developing a cable-car connecting the highest points of the city, creating an essential transport link for the community which had, until then, been abandoned to itself. In addition to the cable-car, contributions to the requalification of large areas of informal cities have included a reforestation project (with over 1000 trees planted) and the construction of new residential homes, public buildings and public spaces. The interventions have helped the communities of these informal cities (until recently in the hands of the criminal world of drug trafficking) acquire a restored faith in public administration and embark on renewed forms of collaboration.
The highlight of the PUI building project is undoubtedly the Parque Biblioteca Espana, designed by Giancarlo Mazzanti and portrayed in an exhibition set up along one of the colourful walls in the lakeside park of Cantinho do Céu. The Columbian architect presented the project of this imposing public structure set on top of a hill, surrounded by informal settlements in which the public library becomes a central reference point for community life. Giancarlo Mazzanti illustrated another project aimed at inspiring the São Paolo administration to employ the Billings reservoir water system as a resource for connecting the communities that live on its shores. The project consists of a specially equipped public boat service which, on a rotating schedule, navigates along the river Magdalena providing the isolated settlements with a wide range of services: a science lab for students, a library, a specialised medical centre, a theatrical performance, a concert, a community event...