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Q&A: Redesigning Urban Landscapes with People at the Centre

José Domingo Guariglia interviews NATÁLIA GARCIA, creator of the project Cidades para Pessoas

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 13 2011 (IPS) - In May 2011, Brazilian journalist Natália Garcia decided to spend one year travelling to different cities around the world to better understand how to make urban landscapes more liveable for inhabitants.

Natália Garcia, Brazilian journalist and founder of Cidades para Pessoas Credit:  Courtesy of Natália Garcia

Natália Garcia, Brazilian journalist and founder of Cidades para Pessoas Credit: Courtesy of Natália Garcia

She called her project Cidades para Pessoas (Cities for the People), and the 12 cities in her itinerary were chosen by Danish architect Jan Gehl, responsible for the new urban structure of Copenhagen, also known as “the city of the bicycles”.

Garcia has already visited Copenhagen, Amsterdam, London, Paris and Lyon, and through May 2012 she will be travelling to Barcelona, Sydney, Melbourne, San Francisco, New York, Portland and Mexico City.

According to the World Bank, 51 percent of the world’s population lived in cities in 2010. In some regions, this percentage was above 70 percent, such as in Latin America and the Caribbean (79 percent) and Europe (74 percent). But along with growing urbanisation come problems like increased traffic and crime.

In an interview with IPS from Lyon, France, Garcia explained that the solution to improve quality of life in the cities consists of “putting people at the centre of public administration”.

Funding the project was itself a collaborative initiative, consisting of a website, a blog and a Youtube channel. Garcia worked with the site Catarse, a “crowdfunding” initiative where people can present projects and call on others who may want to finance them.

IPS correspondent José Domingo Guariglia interviewed Garcia on her views regarding urbanism and how to develop Latin American cities in the context of crime, violence and lack of planning.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: Why did you create the project Cidades para Pessoas? A: My interest in urban planning started with my personal life. I am from Sao Paulo, and when I was 18 years old I started to drive around the city. At 24, tired of spending four hours a day in the car, I bought a bike to get around the city. My relationship with Sao Paulo changed completely.

In 2008, I started doing some informal research about city issues, like urban planning and mobility. I started writing about those things, I participated in some journalistic projects that made me learn a lot, and I knew about the work of the Danish planner Jan Gehl. He was one of the first in the world to create the concept of “cities for the people”.

I got in contact with him when I decided that I wanted to travel all over the world for one year, visiting 12 cities and living for one month in each of them, searching for ideas that have improved those cities for their people. The travel started on May 5, in Copenhagen, and I have already gone through Amsterdam, London, Paris, Strasburg, Freiburg and Lyon.

Q: Do you think the quality of life in Latin American cities can be improved even with their high rates of violence and criminality? A: I am sure, but Latin American cities have some peculiar characteristics. They developed, to a great extent, after World War II, when cars were produced on a large scale through the world and were considered a status symbol.

We have cities made for cars, public transport services of poor quality, and disorganised growth, all of which lead to very poor neighbourhoods with people living without basic infrastructure.

I think violence and crime are a consequence of bad planning. Violence and crime happen when there are not equal opportunities for everyone.

In my opinion, the first step to alter this situation is putting the people at the centre of public administration. The main goal of the government is to make cities better places to live.

Bogota, in Colombia, is a proof that this change can be possible in a short period of time: in 15 years the city got a quality public transport system that reaches almost every neighbourhood, bike lines, revitalised squares, parks and open areas.

A city where people don’t interact and live together is a city of enemies.

Q: In the list of cities there is only one from Latin America: Mexico City. Why? A: In European cities I tried to understand the classic concepts of urban planning. European concepts can be important tools for Latin American cities. On the other hand, the informality and the focus on cars make the problems of Latin American cities more complex.

But some of the solutions studied in Europe are perfectly applicable, like urban agriculture as a tool to regulate the growth of the cities with “green belts”, decentralisation to improve the work of local authorities, democratic participation in political decisions and civic engagement movements in cities.

I think the concepts learned in the project can be applied in Brazilian and Latin American cities if they are adapted to our reality.

Q: Some of the problems in big Brazilian cities are traffic and pollution. Do you think it is possible to promote the use of bicycles like in Copenhagen? A: I think it is perfectly possible, but we have to realise that Brazilian cities have a different scale. Sao Paulo, for example, has more inhabitants than Denmark. So the key to promoting the use of bicycles in Sao Paulo relies on integrating bicycles with public transportation. We need bicycle parking near train stations, metro stations and buses.

Q: Cidades para Pessoas is also a blog and a Youtube channel where you reveal what you have done in these cities. What are you going to do with all this material once you complete the year of travel? A: I have many plans. Presenting this to the Brazilian authorities is one of them. Putting together reports about how these ideas could be applied in Sao Paulo is another one. There are also some civic engagement strategies that I would like to promote among citizens.

Q: You have visited so far Copenhagen, Amsterdam, London and Paris. Which one has surprised you the most and why? A: I think Copenhagen, because they clean their canals so that people can swim in them. This particular approach with the water is so far from the reality of Brazilian cities.

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