This June, the Global Cities program of the University of São Paulo (USP) carried out the research Emoções Momentâneas (lit. Momentary Emotions) to measure how the pandemic was changing the relationship of individuals with public spaces in São Paulo. Among the collected data, there was one that caught the attention of the group of researchers: 86% of the surveyed people wanted to spend time in green environments such as parks and squares.
"The research indicates a desire for reconciliation with the public space," explains architect Deize Sanches, one of the people involved in the research. "A desire to see the potential of green spaces to improve the quality of life in a way that was not being experienced before the pandemic."
The research also points out that the desire to be in open spaces is followed by a natural concern for health after eight months of the pandemic. Parks were one of the last public amenities to reopen full time - after shopping malls, bars, and restaurants - and although social distancing and wearing a mask are mandatory, there is still some fear of crowding and of using public transportation to get there.
So city squares seem to be a good alternative for occupying public space, since they are more accessible and not so crowded, thus healthier and more democratic. Most squares were not closed down during the pandemic, although furniture such as benches and fitness equipment was prohibited.
"Because of the lockdown, people are beginning to think on the scale of the neighborhood, valuing pedestrian mobility. Small areas and green squares, which are accessible on foot or by bicycle, turn out to be a space of physical and mental health preservation," explains Deize.
Movimento Boa Praça (lit. Good Square Movement), which occupies and revitalizes city squares, made a manifesto advocating the square as a place for increased physical and mental health, as long as the sanitation protocols are followed.
Doctor Thais Mauad, a member of the Boa Praça movement, also vouched for the healthy nature of these spaces. "The coronavirus, like every virus, is transmitted through aerosols. In public squares, with social distancing and wearing a mask, the risk of contamination is much smaller. It is possible to sunbathe and relax there."
City squares: the challenges of becoming a model of citizenship
There are five thousand city squares in São Paulo, which are very diverse, some are large, like the Amadeu Decome on the west side with 10 thousand square meters, and others are more modest with only a few trees or equipment for the elderly. They are part of a system of protected areas, green areas, and open spaces, included in the master plan for the city of São Paulo, and are supervised by the subprefectures.
However, they are not all properly designed or well distributed in the urban fabric. Since the allocation of green areas is so uneven across the 32 districts of the city - only eight have a vegetation area of 15m² per capita - these squares are clustered in central regions.
"There are neighborhoods without any squares, others with many. They are also poorly equipped. Some squares are actually a paved traffic circle named after a city councilor, with no environmental benefits. Others are as big as parks, and serve not only their own neighborhoods but people from other regions," adds Carolina Tarrío, co-founder of the Boa Praça movement.
The squares also face a problem of mismanagement, as Mauad testifies, which can affect their sanitation during the pandemic. "Unlike parks, squares do not have their own cleaning or security staff. If you leave a trash can inside it, nobody will take it out. That's why so many squares try to assume the title of a park - as happened with the Buenos Aires square in São Paulo - so that public authorities pay more attention to them."
For civil engineer Ivan Carlos Maglio, who was part of the research of the Global City program and is closely involved with the master plans of several municipalities, public authorities still struggle to understand how vital green spaces are.
Up until 2002, the master plans regarded the environment as an accessory. From then on, with the Statute of the City, the environmental issue became strategic. Parks, squares, and the issue of water resources are gaining visibility. But there are still difficulties, and every debate has a compromise. As of 2014, no new linear park has been created in São Paulo, and many of those that already exist are neglected. - Ivan Carlos Maglio
The researcher believes that all the change and struggle for green spaces and squares happened due to the strong involvement of activists and organized civil society. This is the case of the Boa Praça movement itself, of the Fórum Permanente de Áreas Verdes (lit. Permanent Forum of Green Areas), and achievements in green spaces such as the Augusta Park, in downtown São Paulo.
The square and it's potential for enhanced social participation
The Boa Praça movement has been working on the squares of São Paulo for over a decade, bringing people together, activists, and local government for the conservation and maintenance of the squares. This means everything from revitalizing a public space with the collaborative construction of urban furniture to pressuring the public authorities for a more careful approach to these spaces.
For the squares to be successful as a healthy gathering place, they need to have complexity. This term, coined by architect Jane Jacobs, suggests that it is not enough for a space to exist. It needs to make sense to the people around it, to have several purposes, and to relate with other surrounding amenities.
"We need to catalog them and adapt them according to their size, their purpose, the public they serve, and their variety of uses. Ideally, for us, every district in the city should have a series of squares with different functions depending on the topography and neighborhood. One can have a skatepark, the other a place for contemplation," adds Tarrío.
For the squares to truly promote this new configuration of the city after the pandemic, which will prioritize public spaces, open and democratically located, the coordinator is emphatic about the need for greater participation of public authorities:
Considering that the municipal elections are happening right now, if the squares were addressed by a public policy, it would be possible to recover and regrow green areas throughout the city as a fair system. That is not yet the case. Urgent intervention is needed for the city to realize that it needs more green, more trees, healthy spaces for the population. Physical health and mental health, to have a place where children can run, where they can be free and breathe better air. But also spaces of conviviality, of democracy, without restricting who comes in or out. - Carolina Tarrío
Via Portal Aprendiz
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