LISBON/ROME – Danielly is 22 years old; tough years spent growing up in Mare, the largest slum in Rio de Janeiro. She does not yearn for wide streets or green spaces around her. In the city of her dreams, the youth have a future, regardless of their origins.
Danielly Rodrigues, or Dani, as she is known to her friends, is a rare case for a favela resident: she has studied design, has learned Spanish and can work from home. The coronavirus cut short her wedding preparations: “I don’t know when I will go,” she says.
She shares a two-room apartment with her mother and brother on the third floor, so when the pump fails, they are left without running water for two weeks. But theirs is one of the nicer sections of the slum. “There are poor areas, and even poorer ones. Within Mare, there are differences as well.”
Dani has never left the state of Rio, although she holds onto hope of doing one day when she will leave Mare to move closer to the center and be able “to enjoy culture.”
Center, culture, water … while half the world debates how cities will look post-COVID-19, with green spaces and self-sufficient neighborhoods, the rest imagines how to open a bridge to the future.
“My ideal city would be one without inequality,” Dani says. “In my dreams, a city that is good for us is one that provides the same opportunities to those who do not live here.”
And what of green spaces and wide avenues? “For us, that is not the priority,” Dani says. “The priority is to have a life, to be able leave this place, or to be here and be able to move around freely, without being worried about what I am going to eat, drink, or whether I will make it home alive or not.”
HOW WILL WE LIVE TOGETHER
Before the COVID-19 crisis brought the world to its knees, the Venice Biennale Architettura was preparing its 2020 exhibition titled “How we will live together?”
Nobody could have imagined then the weight this question would take on, but three months have been enough to drastically change the world.
Once the initial panic is over, the debate on alternatives for sustainable and safe development will begin as experts urge the redesign of cities so that they are better equipped to withstand future pandemics.
History is full of changes that have been triggered by survival: the plague changed Roman cities, Central Park was created in response to poor hygiene in Manhattan, boulevards oxygenated large capitals and reduced mortality rates.
“We have to rethink life in our cities. It takes courage but also balance,” Italian architect Stefano Boeri, a promoter of vertical forests, tells EFE in an interview.
Around 55% of the global population lives in urban areas, a figure that in 2050 will climb to 70%, or more than 6.5 billion people.
The risk of contagion of diseases will multiply exponentially.
Urbanization will grow faster in poorer countries, the United Nations predicts.
“It would be a huge mistake to return to the normality that this pandemic has allowed. A normality in which we continue to punish nature, creating situations of imbalance,” Boeri adds.
On paper, the problem is clear: green, sustainable, healthy cities focused on correcting the profound imbalances that affect the poorest population.
The reality, however, is much more complex: solutions drawn up in New York, London or Paris have little to do with the dreams of people like Danielly.
Home to around 115,000 people, Mare, where she lives, is the largest informal settlement complex in Rio de Janeiro. It is one of the largest in the world, but it is not the biggest: Dharavi in Mumbai (India) and O Kibera in Nairobi (Kenya) house around 800,000 people. Overcrowding, poor hygiene and minimal services are their common denominator.
It is a situation that the UN, in a recent report, described as a “ticking time bomb.”
“More than 1 billion people live in these conditions. In 2030, there will be 2 billion and it is estimated that by 2050 half the population will live in these settlements. It is worrying and right now it is not on the agenda,” Elvis Garcia, doctor in Public Health at Harvard University points out. “Inequalities are grotesque.”
The pandemic has shown the importance of personal hygiene to prevent the spread of disease, but that is no easy feat when there is no safe water available.
At least 2 billion people in the world only have access to polluted water and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that, in just five years, almost half of the world’s population will live in areas with water shortages.
Some of the most recent pandemics broke out precisely in those areas that lack basic living standards.
“Who is going to invest in sub-Saharan Africa to fight these outbreaks?” Garcia wonders.
In his opinion, one has to be pragmatic in order to change our reality.
The Ebola outbreak in Africa led to better hygienic conditions but only in certain areas, he admits.
“It is very difficult for these countries to be able to adapt themselves,” it’s not possible to quickly “create a city based on utopian concepts.”
For Canadian Alain Grimard, head of the UN-Habitat office for Latin America, integration is the only way to effect real change. The first step is to recognize the rights of the population of these settlements, he says, and the process requires political will and financing, the key to everything.
Economic, social and environmental growth are the three pillars of sustainable development. “If authorities want to solve cities’ sustainable development, they have to start investing in informal neighborhoods,” he adds.
THE IDEAL CITY
In the ideal city, residents would not need to travel more than 15 or 20 minutes to get their essentials, whether it’s on foot, by bicycle, in shared electric vehicles or on sustainable public transport.
This is the concept of the “15-minute city,” inspired by the “living cities” imagined by urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs and which is lived out in Paris or in Barcelona’s “superblocks” of car-free pedestrianized zones with more green public areas.
Other models include the “8-80,” an initiative which aims to make all aspects of a city desirable for everyone from the ages of 8 to 80, or the “Fab City,” which would see cities sustainable producing everything they consume themselves by the year 2054.
In a post-COVID world, these innovations, while largely inspired by old utopian models, are more poignant and relevant than ever.
In the words of Boeri, they are “kaleidoscope cities” that are “green, green, green.”
Achieving the Italian architect’s dream is an extraordinary challenge and the starting point is not encouraging: nine out of 10 people in the world breathe polluted air and seven million die each year from pollution.
More than 90% of the victims are in Asia and Africa, followed by Mediterranean Europe and Latin America, the World Health Organization warns.
Urban areas generate around 70% of greenhouse gas emissions and are also particularly vulnerable to the impact of the climate crisis.
In the new models, energy saving is decisive and the solution targets insulated buildings and integrated mobility networks, such as bicycles, shared-use electric vehicles and clean public transportation as the car is no longer an option and fossil fuel even less so.
A successful formula that has been tried in Copenhagen, Helsinki, Amsterdam and Vienna are to have more than 40% of trips made by walking or cycling.
“Mobility infrastructures” are needed, says Juan Espadas, mayor of the Spanish city of Seville and president of the Spanish Network of Cities for Climate.
“By expanding highways or ring roads you don’t get fewer cars. On the contrary, you have more.”
The big gamble is public transport and decongesting urban centers forces us to rethink activities and schedules.
Regulate loading and unloading, opening fast bus lanes, creating parking lots outside – the list is long and it also requires defining a new approach to work.
Guimaraes says it is necessary to stagger working hours and insists that “we have to reformulate this concept” of work.
Making offices, shops and schools more flexible and opening public spaces is the basis of the mobility revolution that Boeri is also proposing for his green city.
Planning for the future cannot forget health.
“A health problem can completely engulf the economy. If our politicians do not perceive it now, they have not perceived anything,” says Miguel Guimaraes, president of Portugal’s Order of Physicians.
“A healthier population is a more productive population.”
In the short term, infections are the main threat. “They will be our main enemies,” Guimaraes warns.
And the mega-hospital scheme in big cities no longer works.
The trend is to have centers with fewer beds, light, open spaces and corridors, the Portuguese specialist says, as well as “a more robust intensive care network.”
The aging population, which is more pronounced in Europe, also forces us to look towards the care economy.
This issue goes beyond pedestrianizing streets or opening urban parks.
These changes are so profound that they will not take shape in cities for many years, says Oscar Chamat, a researcher at Metropolis, a global network that encompasses 130 cities around the world.
In his opinion, we are not facing a revolution but an evolution.
The transformation cannot get around the demographic balance and that is why it is necessary to promote the parallel development of small and medium-sized cities, Grimard says.
Urban growth will come from nuclei with less than one million inhabitants, the UN predicts.
For Garcia, rural areas represent an “incredible opportunity (…) as long as governments can provide them with enough infrastructure,” starting with the internet.
“Even in a crisis like this, urbanization has more positive than negative aspects, such as access to health services, education or water. They are much easier to obtain in cities than in small towns,” Grimard tells EFE.
According to Boeri, the key is finding a balance between small towns and big cities.
A mix of both will offer the chance “to enjoy healthier places with lower population density in contact with nature,” without losing the opportunities the city offers.
He admits he fears ‘anti-cities’ schemes can repeat, which would mean ‘concrete jungles’ and shopping centers multiplying throughout the world.
If we do not return to this scheme, he insists “we must return to small towns where culture, history, architecture and art are,” Boeri adds, “it’s not about nostalgia or romanticism.”
Robot dogs patrolling Singapore parks, drones that spray disinfectant on the streets, applications that reveal contact with people infected. The COVID-19 has anticipated the future: the beginning of the new smart cities.
The city of Songdo, also known as South Korea’s smartest city, is fully automated and offers 40% of green spaces in 600 hectares of blocks of buildings in which some 120,000 people live.
European cities such as Amsterdam are also experimenting with smart neighborhoods. An example of it is Schoonschip, a sustainable residential area that includes a shared electric car park for the neighbors.
A smart city “uses the most appropriate technology to respond to people’s problems,” Chamat says.
Internet connectivity is the key to this new city model, but today 3.6 billion people are still unable to access the internet. The digital divide is decisive when it comes to development: 82% of Europeans have internet access compared to just 28% of Africans.
Controlling people’s movements and personalized data on coronavirus infections have reopened the debate on privacy.
Applications with information about the virus are crucial to stop the spread. “We cannot afford not to use them,” Garcia says.
He acknowledges, however, that “people are afraid because once you open the door, it is difficult to close it.”
Chamat points to a contradiction amid the controversy: “We are willing to give our data to platforms and social networks, but we are scared when it comes to the State. It’s a paradox.”
Maria Augusta Rei has seen her central Lisbon neighborhood of Alfama, where she was born and raised and which she still calls home, change so much during her 89 years that she barely recognizes it anymore.
“Before it was all fishmongers,” she recalls, as well as bakeries, butcher shops and even a hairdresser. While there were plenty of people, there were hardly any restaurants, and even fewer tourists.
“It was like a town square,” she says while describing the district’s narrow, winding streets where neighbors would catch up with each other by leaning out of their windows.
But that all changed when tourists started arriving in huge numbers. Local shops began disappearing, priced out by restaurants and souvenir gift shops, and residents were soon forced to move to the city’s outskirts.
Like many other European cities, the face of Lisbon is being changed by real estate speculation, the explosion of city breaks tourism and gentrification, evicting many working-class people who can no longer afford to live there amid the spiraling costs.
In the last 20 years, inequality within countries has worsened and has even accentuated differences in life expectancy between different areas of the same city.
For Grimard, this “privatization” of public spaces is a concern. Closed neighborhoods and shopping malls have usurped the role of public parks: “We must change segregation dynamics. Now more than ever we must understand public spaces as spaces for integration.”
The clothing store where Maria used to work was also among those that was forced to shut after its owner fell ill and ended up in a care home. “Sometimes I walk by here and I see everything is closed. It makes me very sad,” she admits.
“I’d like to see people who come from here, like me, return to this area, instead of how it is now, full of tourists” and foreign-owned convenience stores.
For Maria, the ideal city has also come and gone.
What would an urban utopia look like today?
The answer to this daunting question might lie in the words Italo Calvino attributes to explorer Marco Polo in his ‘Invisible Cities’: “It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species (of happy and unhappy), but rather into another two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give their form to desires, and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.”