Caos Planejado, in conjunction with Editora BEI/ArqFuturo, recently published A Guide to Urban Development (Guia de Gestão Urbana) by Anthony Ling. The book offers best practices for urban design and although it was written for a Brazilian audience, many of its recommendations have universal applicability.
For the time being, the book is only available in Portuguese, but after giving it a read through, I decided it deserved an english language review all the same. The following are some of the key ideas and recommendations. I hope you enjoy.
GGU sets the stage with a broad overview of the challenges facing Brazilian cities. Rapid urbanization has put pressure on housing prices in the highest productivity areas of the fastest growing cities and car centric transportation systems are unable to scale along with the pace of urban growth. After setting the stage, GGU splits into two sections. The first makes recommendations for the regulation of private spaces, the second for the development and administration of public areas.
Section one will be familiar territory for any regular MU reader. GGU advocates for letting uses intermingle wherever individuals think is best. Criticism of minimum parking requirements gets its own chapter. And there’s a section a piece dedicated to streamlining permitting processes and abolishing height limits. One interesting idea is a proposal to let developers pay municipalities for the right to reduce FAR restrictions. This would allow a wider range of uses to be priced into property values and create the institutional incentives to gradually allow more intensive use of land over time.
Meeting People Where They Are
Particular to the Brazilian experience is a section dedicated to formalizing informal settlements, or favelas. These communities are found in every major urban center in the country and often face persistent, intergenerational poverty along with high rates of crime. GGU frames the challenge as legally and socially reintegrating these marginalized communities into the larger urban fabric. There are a slew of recommendations here, but some of the highlights include formal recognition of land titles and the extension of basic infrastructure into previously unserviced communities. The book citesProject Cantagalo as an example of a successful integration project carried out in Rio de Janeiro.
To provide more context for readers less acquainted with Brazil, favelas can have populations as large as 50,000 people living on what’s technically public land. Some have existed for well over a century. And through that time have received little to no investment in public infrastructure while experiencing near complete exclusion from the formal economy. These communities are in a world apart from the rest of the cities that surround them and the ultimate challenge is bridging that divide.
Brazil’s challenges in this area are somewhat beyond what we face in the U.S. in terms of scale, but the lessons learned are highly instructive as a we think about political enfranchisement and economic development in marginalized communities in our own cities.
Understanding Public Space
The first half of GGU is good, the second half is great. There are a few topics that will be old hat for market urbanists (e.g. congestion pricing, criticism of free parking, and a warning against mega projects), but there are plenty of other topics we don’t cover on a regular basis. Much of it has to do with systems design and thinking about how different elements of urban space interrelate, but the first thing that stood out to me was how the book thinks of ‘public’ space as a concept.
GGU defines ‘public space’ as “…an open space that permits free and unrestricted access to whosoever would like to use it. In this sense, public spaces can be public property, private property, or even jointly owned”. This is significant because it gets us away from more abstract definitions of ownership and focuses us on questions of function. Ultimately, public space is what we all can and must pass through to get from one private space to another. And from that starting point we can begin thinking of how this public sphere stitches together the urban environment as a whole.
Small is Beautiful: Parks, Squares, and Plazas
GGU goes on to advocate for a large number of small parks, squares, or other public spaces throughout an urban environment and recommends a couple considerations for design. It points out the benefits of allowing a wide range of uses (street vendors, ground floor commercial, residential, etc) in terms of public safety. And it offers suggestions for sustainable financing strategies as well (park adoption programs, specifically).
But beyond the specific design recommendations for individual parks or squares, GGU suggests these spaces should be small in size, large in number, and dispersed throughout a city. It points out that one large park or plaza is accessible to fewer people because it becomes a space you have to go to to utilize rather than one of a number spaces you naturally pass through without extra effort in the case of many small parks or plazas.
Cars: Not Everything Is About You
In a similar vein, GGU introduces the concept of ‘shared spaces’. Think of this as placemaking for multi-modal transportation. Recommendations here revolve around rethinking roads such that we create spaces that can be better used by multiple transit modes including walking and biking.
One specific policy example is to level the grade and reduce speed limits for motorized vehicles down to 30km (where the rate of fatal accidents declines dramatically). Importantly, GGU points out design decisions such as using cobblestones instead of asphalt can get drivers to actually reduce their speed instead of relying on updated signage or constant enforcement. Thinking about how individuals will actually interact with the physical environment is an important concept and GGU calls it out well in in this section on rethinking how we relate to roadways.
Moving from the general concept of shared spaces, GGU shifts to talking about bike friendly infrastructure. There’s a detailed discussion regarding different ways to implement bike lanes, even mentioning my favorite implementation (which we have it here in Oakland) where street parking is set away from the sidewalk with bike lanes sitting between the parking spaces and the curb. This keeps cars from having to cross bike traffic to reach street parking and ends up leveraging parked cars as a protective barrier between cyclists and moving traffic.
GGU also calls out the need for bike racks or lockers as well as space for bikes on mass transit. The text points out, and I tend to agree, that supporting bicycling is a low cost / high impact way for a municipality to support mobility. It requires a holistic view of how all bike related infrastructure works together across an entire urban area, but doesn’t entail the kinds of capital expenditures that come with other types of transit investment.
The final chapter I’ll mention is in fact the last one in the book. GGU closes with a list of metrics which it suggests municipalities should be tracking. Data is important as policy makers go about making policy, but deciding what’s even important to measure has to come first and I think this list is a good place to start:
- Housing availability for different income groups
- The number of residents living in informal communities (favelas or slums in the Brazilian context, we might think of this as a measure of the houseless population in the states)
- The vacancy rate for both publicly and privately owned real estate
- The number of jobs that can be reached by mass transit or bicycle from any given point in a city
- Land prices, housing prices, and household income
- Land and housing supply: how much land is developed each year and how many new buildings receive permits for construction
- The length of time it takes to obtain building permits
- Levels of air pollution
- The number of traffic accidents, broken down by the specific modes of transit involved
- Average travel time for commutes
- Percentage of trips made by each mode of transportation (e.g. car, bike, walking, etc)
- Average travel times for commutes
- A walkability index, a measurement of pedestrian street accessibility, and a measurement of pedestrian traffic down to the individual street level
- Average number of transfers per trip (changing buses, switching modes)
- Population growth with separate figures for immigration and reproduction
I’m all for tracking specific metrics to monitor the health of a system and these seem like a great place to start for understanding what’s going on and what needs to change within a city.
Overall, a Guide to Urban Development was a great read. It explained a lot of important concepts, it made a lot of great points (many of which I couldn’t even fit into this review), and I only wish there was already an English language version. If specific topics in this review sound interesting, it may be worth your time to copy / paste some text into Google translate to get at some of the meat of the text. Barring that, MU readers will have to live with my second hand account of the book, that is, unless we can get a translation commissioned sometime soon (looking at you, Anthony Ling).