|Brasília,new capital of Brazil, plenty of public space but so far from population centres it might as well be closed|
The Spring Revolutions in Arabic states would not have been possible without public squares. Where would it take place in Brazil?
Urban planning helps or hinders the flames of revolution and democracy. Since the Spring revolutions in the Arabic nations electronic communication and social networking helped protests to succeed, but the physical public squares are still needed to make them happen. Urban planners can help promote a healthier democracy by designing spaces that allow for free public access. Less important is the need to make them beautiful.
Designing a city for safe protests:
Dr. Tali Hatuka of Tel Aviv University an architect and head of Tel Aviv University's Laboratory of Contemporary Urban Design, studied some of the world's most publicized protests — those in Washington, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Beijing, and Leipzig.
“History shows that protests and civil disobedience are inevitable and necessary expressions of dissent in any democratic nation — and under many authoritarian regimes”
And linking this neccesity with the public arenas of the city: “...their fight for democracy is inseparably linked to their ability to assemble in urban space.”
"Public spaces are the only place in which people feel truly, physically unified ... the physical element is critical for enhancing society's sense of togetherness and solidarity."
For 6 days there was a communications blackout, no twitter, no cellphones etc. but the numbers of people in Tahrir Square increased significantly during this time. 400,000 people congregated in Tahrir Square enforcing the boarders with their own security personel, they started to call it the Republic of Tahrir.
Mohamed Elshahed is a doctoral candidate in the Middle East Studies Department at New York University, he published:
“Social Media, Public Space”, and mentions some scenarios in Egypt that resonated with me and my perceptions of Brazil:
“The Mubarak regime supported laws and actions that sharply limited Egyptians’ access to public space — to places where citizens could congregate, meet, talk, interact. It promoted the development of gated communities with private parks, golf courses and luxury shopping malls, and in doing so facilitated the exodus of Cairo’s middle and upper classes into the desert at the city's periphery. At the same time the government ignored the city's center; its ongoing mismanagement of housing development has resulted in the extensive zone of informal housing, mostly unfinished brick shanties, that rings Cairo.”
This above is happening in Brazil, perhaps not intentionally by the ruling powers, but equally the government isn’t doing anything to encourage development in the opposite direction. I was talking with a travel writer friend of mine who said that the “donut effect” is happening in all major cities in South America. This effect is where old historic centres become neglected and dangerous, the middle classes and development happens in a ring on the outsides of the city creating a donut shaped cities. Whilst this may not be true for all cities in Brazil, and certainly not in the new, planned and growing medium sized cities, I certainly see the donut effect in Porto Alegre and Rio de Janeiro and have heard about neglected, run down old city centres in other old Brazilian cities.
“Urban open spaces — anywhere citizens might congregate and stage political demonstrations (in Cairo) — were systematically subdivided or fenced off or given over to vehicular traffic and flyovers, and thus made challenging and even scary for pedestrians... Collectively such policies have led not only to the decline of public space but also to the inexorable deterioration of cities and the erosion of civic pride.”
Murabak and those in charge knew the power of public spaces A truly public square al-Tahrir would have been feared as a threat to regime security, and so over the years the state deployed the physical design of urban space as one of its chief means of discouraging democracy. For decades most of the square was closed to the public, under the pretence of building infrastructure works (a metro station, a multi-storey carpark) but when protesters took down the fences they found no evidence of any works in progress or even started. The government had simply closed it to public access to prevent groups of protesters forming in public.
“Tahrir was a natural destination for the protesters, partly because it’s almost impossible to seal. “There wasn’t a single large boulevard that the police could block off,” said AlSayyad. In facet 23 streets, lead to different parts of the square—a boon to the protesters, who Tweeted about the entrances that the police hadn’t secured yet.”
The most robust protests occured in cities with historic urban fabric and also a history of political upheaval, Alexandria, Syria, Egypt, on the other hand, protests in the newer gulf state cities have been very weak and fewer.
|Traditional public squares in the Arab world provide better spaces for sucessful protest|
It is said that the older areas of the city in Syria were more sucessfully used for demonstrations, newer areas in Middle Eastern cities are actually obstacles to freedom, the newer streets are set pieces, places to display the power of authorities but crucially they are cut off from roads and alleys, they are not designed as spaces for gathering. Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arábia, has been designed and built to prevent a mingling of females and males but also any public meetings in the open could never occur. The closest thing they have is malls, which are easy for authorities to monitor and control.
A spoof satire wrote a satirical spoof article reporting a revolution taking place in a shopping mal cafeteria área and spreading to the multiplex cinemas, demonstrating how ridiculous is the idea of a revolution happening in these "public squares" of modern society.
One proud Egyptian protestor is as saying “Tahir is the heart of the city which is the heart of Egypt which is the heart of the Arab world”, whether it is the heart of the Arab world or not what is important is that there is a powerful sentiment that this place is of central importance geographically, politically and symbolically. And I don’t think that there is anywhere in Brazil that can clearly take the title of “Heart of the city, heart of the country”.
Brasília is a city of and for politicians and other government workers. There are other people who live there but the overwhelming majority of Brasília’s citizens work for the government. It is a 2 hour flight from Rio de Janeiro, 17 hours by bus. From São Paulo it’s 1030km, 15 hours by bus, 1 hr 40 min by plane. (Brasília deserves articles to itself discussing the reasons for it’s creation and the stunning architectural vision and execution, here I’m merely commenting on it’s location.) The capital of Brazil was Rio de Janeiro until 1960 when it moved to Braíslia, in terms of population and economic activity São Paulo would be an obvious candidate for capital. Brasília was built in a strategic location to be more central to the landmass of the country, and unusually for major cities in the interior. Chiefly it was located to unite Brazil and to encourage development in the interior of the country away from the coastal areas. This brings Brazil closer to the remote regions of the Amazon basin and western regions, but it positions it far from the main population of Brazil in the Southeast. A person living in Rio Grande do Sul, who can’t afford to fly has to travel for 2 days by bus to make their presence felt in the political capital. Then 2 days to travel back again, it's quite a commitment. And the effort is not even very effective, protesting to a population of politicians makes a lower impact than if it takes place in a centre of high economic activity where the ordinary citizens of the country bear witness.
On a smaller scale in the cities there are echoes of the same urban planning that affects the political lives of citizens; in Porto Alegre, the main university campus is located on the edge of the city, at least 45 minutes by bus from the city centre. It is said the reason the campus was moved out of the city is because if the students decide to march in protest the authorities will have a plenty of time and space to halt them before they arrive at any meaningful public place such as the city square with governmental buildings.
If the people of Brazil ever needed to assert democracy where would it take place? I welcome suggestions because I really don’t know.