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Interview of the Month: Tatiane de Menezes

Densification of the big cities – is it possible?

The phenomenon of the urban densification refers to an intense occupancy, and many times disordered, of the soil. The governments of several world big cities have established planning measures to an urban densification that respects the environment and makes the citizens’ life quality a priority. Invited to be part of the last chair of the Seminar Housing and Expansion of the Brazilian Big Cities, occurred on 01/22, recifense professor of Regional and Urban Economy of Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (UFPE) and specialist in analysis of the regional development, Tatiane Almeida de Menezes talked to Instituto Escolhas about what the challenges of the cities today are. Check more this Month Interview!

Instituto Escolhas – The fast (around 50 years) and dramatic increase of the Brazilian urban population was not followed by policies of planning of the cities leading to a series of problems (housing deficit, traffic jams, pollution, spatial segregation, inequalities of access to services and opportunities, violence, among others). Upon such social trend that seems not to give signals of reduction, which are the historical factors of such inertia in the urban planning, and why there is no a medium- and long-term thought to think about our cities?

Tatiane de Menezes – In fact, there is no political commitment in Brazil to the urban planning because there is not a culture of planning in the country in a general manner, whether in health, education, or urban planning. Regarding the latter, for example, what we have is the stimulation to the unrestrained consumption as it was the salvation of the economy, without being concerned about the consequences it generates. It was the case of the increase of the use of motorcycle and cars stimulated at the start of Lula government, for example, which reduced the taxes for acquisition of such assets, generating serious problems to social security with the high index of accident victims, loss of life, disability. We are not used to make tests and simulations, to create possible scenarios in some cities, and then generate scale to the rest of the country.

As a good experience, I may mention the city of Curitiba, when it has as mayor the architect and planner, Jaime Lerner, who promoted a densification on close public ways of collective transportation. In other places, the cities go increasing and the public administrations go behind making roads. Brazil tries to follow the North American model that favors the use of vehicles on large urban ways, where each one has his/her car, and there is not concern with public transportation. But Brazilian cities in their majority follow an European urbanization standard in the molds of the colonization with narrow streets and does not accommodate such model. In the 1950’s with Juscelino’s plan of bringing the large automobile companies to the country – 50 years in 5 – we had the advance of the automotive domain, the abandonment of the railroads and the removal of the trails of the trams. Nobody else was concerned about answering what we would make with so much cars. Our leaders only think in the horizon of four years, there are no State policies, but policies of governments. Our society is short-sighted, a social agreement is needed in relation to the long-term urban planning. We need to create educational campaigns to the population that was educated to only think about here and now.

Instituto Escolhas – The unrestrained expansion of the cities brings significant problems not only to their inhabitants, which face hours moving around the city, as well as to the municipal public managers that need to guarantee infrastructure and services to an area increasingly larger. Many specialists point out the densification as one of the possible solutions to the problem of the urban expansion. In your opinion, which are the benefits of promoting the densification in the large Brazilian cities? What does it mean to densify from the point of view of people’s well-being also from the point of view of the public management?

Tatiane de Menezes – The densification is an interesting way because it is democratic. It reduces a lot the price of the square meter in the region where it occurs and approaches people to work and leisure, and it is an advantage. Additionally, it enables the access to equipment, transportation, and public services in areas where there already is an implemented structure, which reduces costs to the public sector. The densification breaks with such American model of urbanization that promotes isolated housing of the high middle class in distant neighborhoods that use roads and cars to access the cities.

Therefore, such procedure, carried out in a considered and planned manner, has a lot of advantages, but it needs to be tied to urban mobility, since when you densify, you put many people in a same area, a demand for quality public transportation services occurs. If everybody starts to use their cars, the home/work displacement time will increase a lot, becoming unsustainable.

Instituto Escolhas – What are the possible conflicts that may arise from such process? Talk a little about the negative consequences of the densification. In your opinion, why such negative consequences end up prevailing? Is it possible to mention some measures so that it is made in a proper manner? Or even experiences (national and international)?

Tatiane de Menezes – The great international example is the city of Amsterdan (The Netherlands), which carried out densification without destroying the historic heritage between different transportation modes in a qualified manner. People from different social groups shall be able to select between different modes to carry out their locomotion. In Europe, transportation is easy, good, and cheap, with urban modals defrayed by the public and private sector, after all, they already understood that if you want a productive worker, you may not let such person to spend 2 hours in a displacement. Life quality is essential to increase people’s productivity. I may also mention Baltimore and Portland in the USA as examples.

As everything in life, the densification also has another side, since where before you had around 10 to 20 families, it suddenly passes to have 400 families living in the same area. There is no sanitation structure that survives that, so planning is essential. Where may we put high buildings? Where shall we merge that? They are much variable. Respecting the weather and current of winds, for example. But there still is much fear of the densification because it may worsen the life quality of who lives much well, that is, it is a fear of loosing privileges, of leaving your comfort zone. People of the highest social classes do not want to densify and it occurs because historically it was always made without planning in relation to transportation modes, sanitation, temperature of the city, that is, always followed by the drop in the life standards of the richest classes. People act in a rational manner and it is difficult to change certain thought standards. An example is the habit of make supermarket shopping every month. It is result of the inflationary memory of the Brazilian economy of remote times, but that still reflects today.

Instituto Escolhas – Based on a concept that you research (index of urban happiness and health economy), which are the main (economic) impacts of the urbanization not planned that challenge the public managers of the Brazilian big cities?

Tatiane de Menezes – There are several aspects. First, I need to highlight that lack of sanitation has a direct impact on the population’s health and with the growth of a demand for such service in a certain region, it will naturally overload such infrastructure, thought to initially serve a smaller population. Another fact we shall take into account is that the long displacements bind the workers to sleep less. As further you live, less you sleep. The sleep quality and quantity reduce. Additionally, there is a huge physical and mental wear of such worker. Also, the access to the medical appointments (health centers) is precarious by virtue of the high demand. It impacts on the life expectancy of the elderly, for example. The children under age do not get along their parents, who spend a lot of time outside home, they are children more sick by virtue of such factor, many of them play in the middle of open sewage. It is common to check unhealthy houses in slums of big cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Recife, also unsafe from the point of view of fires. It is a human tragedy.

Instituto Escolhas – Then, in practice, is the women’s life condition much worse than men’s?

Tatiane de Menezes – In fact, we do need to talk about that. The woman’s work, especially the different division of the household work that fully falls upon her, impacts a lot the conditions of social mobility she may have in life or not. In our culture, the woman is more responsible for the family than man. Due to it, women tend to look for job next to home, the women’s range of possibilities to earn for their living and have financial autonomy is much smaller in such sense. Man may go further, achieve higher salaries, and have a better life. It is a social urban prejudice, since there are no the same rights to go in the search for better jobs, the women shape themselves to the neighborhood due to their family. There is no social mobility to the peripheral woman, who may not invest in her professional qualification, being bound to an eternally subordinated condition.

Instituto Escolhas – Today, it is very recommended the reduction of the emission of atmospheric pollutants in urban areas, such as, for example, in the city of São Paulo, to avoid what we call urban heat islands, promoted in great part for the high flow of vehicles and also the presence of concrete and asphalt. Do you believe that a tower of 40 or 50 floors in the urban centers favors the heating of its surroundings? In addition to the plantation of trees and creation of green spaces in the big cities, what else is possible to be done to mitigate the formation of such islands?

Tatiane de Menezes – As economist, I believe that before densifying, we have to make simulation, tests. Calculating how many people and cars will be put on the streets, question what will happen with the weather of such region and establish forecasts of the consequences of a certain proposal of densification. It avoids that thereafter things get a lot worse. I am fully in favor of densifying, but it shall be planned and use the technologies available today to make such simulations. It passes a lot through the master plan of the city. In Recife, where I was born and currently live, there was a serious problem that was Ocupa Estelita, huge port warehouses abandoned by the City Hall, which went through a doubtful auction process where real estate companies acquired the land to construct tall buildings. It was checked that it would remove the city’s ventilation by virtue of the barrier of buildings. Civil society get mobilized not to let it go ahead. Is it important to give other used to such empty lot? Yes. A lot. But the public authority has to know how to do so with proper urban planning, understanding the consequences to the rest of the city. Otherwise, the private appropriates of the public with no constraint as we saw in the movie Neighbouring Sounds (2012).

Instituto Escolhas – So we will ingress in our next topic. Which are the specificities of Recife, a city of Brazilian Northeast that also experiences the urban expansion and its challenges? Could you talk a little about how it is the urban planning of Recife, the regulatory benchmarks, and the social participation in such process?

Tatiane de Menezes – Recife is a city that grows surrounding Capibaribe river, therefore, at flood times, the city always suffered a lot with flooding and inundation of the river. The region of Boa Viagem only appeared in the 1970’s and did not go through such problem, but what happened to the coast line is an aberration. At 03:00 or 04:00 PM you already have shadow in the whole sand strip. The real estate speculation grows in an uncontrolled manner by the sea. Pernambuco grew a loot in the 1990’s, many people started to earn money and Capibaribe region became a desired area, since it is where everyones wants to live, bu the city of Recife has a region of 218 km² (Census 2010) and 1,700,000 (one million, seven thousand) inhabitants live there. Such occupancy was autophagic, disordered, the city was consumed by buildings and all urban equipment was consumed in such densification very fast, the citizen’s average displacement time is equivalent to the one of a São Paulo citizen. However, such movement also had advantages. Recife’s class C is not so far from downtown, classes A and B are concentrated in Boa Viagem and next to Capibaribe, the hills continue being inhabited, despite all, it did not expel poorer people to much further. But to who lived there in the previous decades, life quality got worsen. Then, it is needed to think in different modes of transportation to the city and take out the cost of such public transportation from the citizen, taking it to the private initiative.

Instituto Escolhas – Recife, as well as Santos, are cities very vulnerable in relation to sea advance. The climate change tends to worsen the problems already existing in the city, such as flooding, landslides, heat waves, and limitations in the supply of potable water. You talk a lot about the importance of avoiding the heat zones in the planning of the city of Recife, for example. As do you see the theme of the adaptation to the climate change going beyond the discussion about urban planning? Is there adhesion of the specialists?

The adhesion is much little. It is a theme little though of by our managers in Brazil, but in the world the matter of the heating of the cities is more relevant. A good part of such heating goes through the densification and the quantity of concrete, and it needs to be brought to the speech of our politicians. People are looking for feasible alternatives to such densification, reducing the climate consequences, being more sustainable. As we are a tropical country, it is a priority.

To read other interviews, access HERE
Coverage of the Seminar
Click here to watch the participation of Tatiane in the Seminar
FGV broadcast