27 January 2009

São Paulo's Water Ways

redefining the power of São Paulo's infrastructure
Fernando de Mello Franco
On the verge of summer, when pluviometric rates in São Paulo are at their highest, the chronic problem of flooding resumes. With the intense process of disorderly urbanisation, the soil has become excessively impermeable. The transformation and occupation of São Paulo Basin riverbanks and fluvial plains, which used to control water flows, just worsen the problem.

The entire population is hit by the flooding. Underprivileged populations who live close to water flows in historically depreciated areas are directly affected in their own dwellings. The risk situation of these populations represents for every public administration a reason for concern, which might be either of lower or higher level, according to their social commitment. This issue has never been tackled in an effective manner, and suffers with continual government changes and discontinuity.

The population not affected in their own dwellings is affected by difficulties imposed by a lack of mobility when the main road system, situated on a tableland and strategically placed parallel to the water ways, floods. As water incapacitates traffic flow, the problem gains a metropolitan dimension, also reaching production sectors.

As flooding is a factor of urban diseconomy, harming the efficient flow of people and goods, it belongs to the city administration plan and political agenda, to which successive governments have allocated funds, although never enough. In this investment, there is an opportunity for action, pinpointing needy areas throughout the metropolis.

Articulating Systemic and Local Concerns: the network of piscinões
The issues involving water resources — urban drainage, sanitation and water supply — are complex and demand efforts at both macro and micro levels. Since 1990 it has been dealt with by the State Plan of Water Resources (PERH) and Macro-drainage Plan for the Upper Tiete Basin.
One of the solutions proposed for city flooding is the construction of a set of large reservoirs, piscinões, to retain and control rain water, holding it back from city rivers and streams, reducing any overflow. In short, the piscinão replaces the original regulating function of the fluvial plains, now occupied and fully impermeable.
Presently, there are about 319 built reservoirs out of a total estimate of 131, which will be sable to hold 15.5 million cubic metres of water. They are distributed throughout the micro-tributary basins of Tiete River, covering the entire São Paulo water system. Many are located in peripheral areas, close to informal sectors of city occupation. Thus, in order to face the metropolitan dimension of flooding problems, there must be some meaningful public investment in peripheral areas. Finding a fit between the metropolitan and local dimensions of this question is the starting point toward any solution.
The 'informal' sectors have the most need for public spaces. In São Paulo, where disputes over space are often mediated by violence, there are still some unoccupied areas: pieces of land usually devoted to football fields, and other community activities. In the informal sectors, samba, funk dance and football matches are important events for the construction of social and communal networks, highly necessary for the strengthening of relationships to resist the adversities present in a large metropolis. They are a spontaneous manifestation that shows the value of public space in these areas.

This collection of vacant urban spaces in São Paulo can be converted into an opportunity for a new network of public spaces. For example, the piscinão is only active about 3 to 4 months out of the year, during high-water periods. For the other months it is idle. New programs can be added to the piscinão, building on the future steps of the Macro-drainage Plan.
Piscinões unit both the system of the borough's public spaces and the technical system for the drainage, treatment and re-use of water resources. They can serve as a landmark and spatial reference on the cityscape of the borough, laying water's claim to the floodplain.

Re-urbanisation of Água Branca, São Paulo, SP, 2004
Fernando de Mello Franco, Marta Moreira and Milton Braga, in association with Camila Toledo Fabrini, Guilherme Wisnik, Martin Corullon and Roberto Klein.
São Paulo will have to be consistent in managing its natural resources in a sustainable and rational manner. In this context, the effective urban reconfiguration of an area as large as the proposed new borough in Água Branca can only be achieved through the infrastructural planning of the region. However, an intervention on this scale essentially means defining the design of that urban infrastructure, giving legible form to a strategic action on behalf of the public authorities.
The association between transport and water-related issues in São Paulo surfaces here as a project theme, broached through a consequent critical deportment.

New train stations on existing lines are proposed to fulfill a strategic role as points of mediation between scales, and to serve as links between the metropolitan transport non-polluting railway system and the localities. In our project, these train stations are organised as agglomeration points for public facilities, special services and social housing.

Another matter is the definition of public spaces in this project: recreational and gathering spaces, which seek proximity with the circulation system and with the watercourses, arise out of precisely this conviction. the resulting water square holds both the system of the borough's public spaces and the technical system for the drainage, treatment and re-use of water resources. Fruit of a wellspring of non-contaminated groundwater, it will serve as a landmark and spatial reference on the cityscape of the borough, laying water's claim to the floodplain, at once technical and symbolic, rigorous and crystalline.

de Mello, Fernando. 'Water Ways' On Site review, no. 17 Spring/Summer 2007
©Fernando de Mello Franco and On Site review

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