Democracy through public space

Today, as humanity lives through its most intense period of urbanisation, the largest and fastest growing cities are increasingly concentrated in the majority world.  Commonly referred to as the “third world”, “developing word” or “global south”, the continents of Latin America, Africa and Asia are in fact home to 82% of people on this planet. Its cities will absorb 93% of the projected urban growth through 2050, mostly in urban slums, which by then will be home to a third of the global population—compared to one-seventh today. This world and these cities must be put at the forefront of our global consciousness and action because they are where the majority of our lives will be decided.

The promise of the city to provide a better life has delivered on many levels, but whether in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Medellin, Cape Town or Mumbai, inequalities in social and economic opportunities as well as political voice are translated directly into space and services, producing the self-reinforcing cycle of the divided city that we all inhabit today.

While power structures are organised in a top-down manner, the functioning of the city system is determined from the bottom-up. As citizens suffer the violence of the lack of access to services, infrastructure and human rights, this violence is returned in a literal manner, culminating in the failure to achieve an equitable and productive society.  The argument for urban integration is both normative and instrumental for the effective functioning of our cities.

In addition to these integration challenges, the severe impacts of climate change (concentrated in the majority world) demand that we address the fragile equilibrium between our urban and natural systems, whose limits are already dangerously strained. The dream of living and prospering in the city must take a different form from the default carbon-based model we rely on now.

These are urgent problems, and it is up to our generation to lead the charge to create more equitable, just, productive, sustainable and resilient city systems. To realize this vision two main challenges confront us: firstly, we have to change the way we make our cities, and, secondly, for this to happen, we also need to change the way we design.

After finishing our graduate studies at Harvard University, these pressing questions led us to make the favela of Vidigal, in Rio de Janeiro’s south zone, our home and laboratory with the aim of producing top-notch research and design while also doing serious fieldwork. We knew there were biases embedded in our own understanding—the theories and databases we worked with, as well as the education systems we came from—and we wanted to know the reality first-hand.

We must keep evolving architecture in a manner that integrates the pursuits of social function, aesthetic excellence and technological innovation

From there, we were able to integrate the contextual intelligence of the community with our training and the sound evidence gathered from our academic and professional peers into our design. We evolved our understanding of architecture to be centred on user-experience, and extended it to include elements beyond space (primarily policy and technology). We came to see design as more than a discipline, but instead as a process that must be made widely applicable and accessible, along with research and development (R&D) as an integral part of the technological innovation process. We call this R&D2 and have applied this process within our urban strategy, RioLab, in the delimited built and natural space of Vidigal.

During the same period, with the support of the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), we travelled to six cities in five different Latin American countries analysing more than 30 projects designed to address the challenge of urban integration. The evidence we gathered demonstrated that simultaneous improvements in education, democracy and urban development are necessary to enable citizens to have better access to knowledge about their community and city, and agency to engage productively in the design and development of more effective urban projects and policies. Only with the combination of knowledge, agency and access to opportunities will we be able to move from the cycle of the divided city to a progressive city.

The RioLab urban strategy has been focused on delivering projects that together shape the cycle of the progressive city. The first was Future Now, our concept for a school integrating education, design and technology. It was the subject of a studio at the Harvard GSD in 2012 and inspired the experimental school GENTE, in Rio’s favela of Rocinha, which opened in 2013 and surpassed its national education exam goal in 2014, two years ahead of time. This project has continued through various research and design initiatives focused on innovation in education, early childhood development and in integration with the Digital Agora, which emerged from this work.

The Digital Agora, focused on democracy, is our concept and formulation of a new spatial program that integrates public policies, spaces and technologies to produce a new calibration between representative and direct democracy at the city level. The Digital Agora is designed to decrease asymmetries of information while improving civic engagement and executing the “right to the city” through the creation of new forms of public space (both physical and digital). The first Digital Agora became operational at RioLab in Park and Institute Sitiê in February 2014, serving as the basis for Vidigal’s civil society, and was the subject of a case study for innovation in democracy published by Harvard scholars Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford, in their book The Responsive City (2014).

Our urban development efforts have been concentrated on Park + Institute Sitiê, an initiative that began with the transformation of a 16 ton trash dump into a park, with reforestation and urban agriculture, becoming the first agro-forest in the city of Rio.  Over the last three years, we have worked together to build the coalition and community necessary to transform Sitiê into a public green space and institute for the environment, arts and technology, with community leadership and ownership that serves Vidigal and the city of Rio. It is recognised globally as an example of urban innovation and received the 2015 SEED Award for Excellence in Public Interest Design, administered by US-based Design Corps. Sitiê, now at 8500m2 and expanding to 104 ha, is responsible for 58% of Vidigal’s public space and has become symbol of integration and development for the city of Rio. Sitiê demonstrates that the advancement of democracy must happen through the creation and occupation of public space and that our built space must work to strengthen our natural environment.

RioLab’s solutions come from a diverse coalition of people who share a common vision for a significantly better future—they are not limited by boundaries of professional disciplines or social class. The results of these projects—Future Now, the Digital Agora and Sitiê—have proven how the metabolism of different types of expertise and knowledge, all of equal importance and value, is the most effective path to produce innovation in the way we make our cities.

Additionally, they prove that we must keep evolving architecture in a manner that integrates the pursuits of social function, aesthetic excellence and technological innovation.

Since making the decision to move to Vidigal and developing RioLab we have learned a great deal about many things, most fundamentally about human empathy and independent thinking. These are not things that you can learn in a classroom, although they should be essential aspects of any education. Through this endeavour we have matured and sharpened our design practice. But, most of all, we have become ever more dedicated to delivering change, especially for those most at risk—us in the majority world—knowing that the surest things about the future are that it is up to us to make it, and that it starts now


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