New São Paulo zoning: the future of a mega city at stake

Once in São Paulo, take as many photos as you want because the city you know is about to radically change in a few years. The bustling Latin America financial capital, home to more than 20 million people in its metro area, is ready to face a new zoning law. After 80 publicly open hearings, more than 7,000 contributions and 250 formal proposals, the new rule was approved by the legislative body last month and now is about to be signed by the mayor. More than general guidelines towards a better city – whatever meaning “better city” can have to a mega city like São Paulo – the new law would detail, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, what can and cannot be done. As frequently occur in cases of such big impact and detailed changes, opposing views are battling to protect their own sides, instead of broader proposals that eventually benefit all citizens.

Despite occasional and remarkable voices, the debate was, and still is, less framed in terms of canonical pro/against views towards the city – like Jane Jacobs versus Robert Moses and the Lower Manhattan Expressway – than a battle summarized by the infamous James Carville quote “It’s the economy, stupid”. The new proposition is about to allow new buildings in central avenues to host more than one car parking lot, exactly the opposite of what was intended at the original document and contrary to the Urban Master Plan, which suggested extra payments in order to enable such thing. More car parks, more sales, argue those in favor of the issue, while their opponents fear of an increase in congestion in a city already famous for its almost 200 kilometers daily traffic jams.

Noise disturbance fines to enterprises such as restaurants and bars are about to drop from US $ 11,000 to a mere US $ 2,100. In parallel to that, the sound tolerance level in bohemian areas should rise from the actual 40 dB to 50 dB. In a city that hosts a 10,000-seat, 2,000-parking lots replica of the Temple of Solomon in the downtown area, even churches would benefit from the proposal. The new agreement allows masses to start one hour earlier, at 6am, and also increases the capacity attendance. Moreover, people living in rich and well-structured neighborhoods spent the last months in a successful campaign, lobbying against a shift that would allow commerce and entertainment in already dense areas. At the end of the day, the new zoning is more about dos and don’ts, which compose a kind of an urban-law patchwork in lieu of an open-to-public-participation framework.

Besides all these incendiary topics, a central aspect remains untouched. In a recent public debate on the matter, both sides, the backers and detractors, agreed that urban sprawl is not welcomed and should be addressed properly. Urban mobility is crucial, they observe, but even in a city with more than seven million cars, the policy about to be signed do not address it properly. Both sides agree that, the way it is written, urban sprawl will be inevitable, bringing about all its consequences, from traffic jams to health issues, including economical losses. Now citizens should rely on decisions about to be made by Fernando Haddad, a mayor recently praised as an “urban visionary” – if he was the boss of a forward-looking city like San Francisco or Berlin, which apparently is not the case.


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