A Civic Ecology project that has radically transformed the old city centre of the Southern Brazilian city of Curitiba.
In the old centre of Curitiba city there has been something very powerful happening over the last year… Citizens are starting to Re-imagine and Re-create the city. It has all happened in a tiny corner of an old street, a space less than 40 square meters, that was derelict and boarded up for 20 years, but now has gone through an amazing transformation. Not only has it changed this little corner, it has changed the street, in has changed the city, but most of all it has changed the public’s perception on how urban change happens. This is the story of Curitiba’s Cyclists pocket square, or the “Praça de bolso do ciclista“, as it is knows in Portuguese.
The cities cycling community has been going from strength to strength in recent years and under the officially organized group of Ciclo Iguaçu, they have fought for and won many important things to make a more bike friendly city. From their growing strength some bike activists and artists set up a bike shop / cultural space, which is one of my favourite places in the entire city.. the Bicicletaria Cultural. This space opened up onto the hoarded off city corner, but 2 years ago, that section of town, the end of “Rua Sao Francisco”, was a no go zone, a crack alley and area of prostitution.. How things can change!
In 2014 the 3rd “World Bicycle Forum” or #FMB3 happened in Curitiba, with the 2 first forums happening in Porto Alegre in Brazils most southern State Rio Grande do Sul. The forums theme was not just bike stuff but a space to discuss, examine, critique the entire urban situation under the banner of “The Balanced City”. This was a fabulous event, highly organized, totally crowd sourced so that it was free to attend, people attended from many corners of the world, great fun a real catalyst in the city to take things to the next stage. At this time, there was no “Praca Ciclista” but the first steps were already underway.
As part of the lead up to the event an art project happened, graffiti and mural artists from Brazil and beyond were invited to paint murals relating to cycling and bike culture, all of which had the approval of the municipality. One such mural, happened in that closed off corner behind the hoarding, it was a giant 4 story flower with a bike coming out of it, as you can see in the image below. This lovely piece was painted by a Swiss born community artist based in San Francisco in the United States, Mona Caron. The artwork called “Bike Flower Curitiba” is a symbol of natures resilience, the flower or weed depicted normally is the first type of natural life that bursts through, as the concrete jungle starts to crack… Fitting for the urban transformation that this lost corner was about to undergo…
After the forum ended the Praca was the next project on the list. The plan was to design and build the project through a series of Mutirão, this word being a very special Brazilian Portuguese word, with its origins in the dialects of the Tupi tribes, the indigenous communities of this region. The word does not have a one word English equivalent and it roughly translates as “an organized open collective work event”. (Oddly enough in my own native language in Ireland, Gaeilge, we have the word “Meitheal” which has the same meaning. I think this says a lot about different cultures and their languages…). There had been discussions in previuos months between the bike communities and the council, asking what was the situation with this sad corner of the city, who owned it, why was it kept derelict for so long, why did the council not clean up this dangerous part of the city… After some investigation it turned out that it was a bit of a grey area as to the legal situation of the zone, so it was deemed public and the council agreed to hand over the design and construction of the square to the public, with a minimal level of support and funding coming from the council. So a few weeks of designing, under great work by the local architect Gabriel Gallarza and support from the city planning group IPPUC under another city architect Miranda, we had a plan, fully agreed upon through consensus and with an understanding of the materials that were available. As part of this process myself and my wife Tania made a questionnaire to find out what locals thought about the plan, did they know about it, get their feedback, concerns and dreams into the process..
So at the end of May, we went from thinking and talking to action… The day had arrived. The hoarding was pulled down, lands were measured and a digger came in to open up the ground.. People arrived, loads of people. The street was closed off every weekend, the once “crack alley” had turned into an urban play space, neighbours got to know each other, local kids suddenly had a whole world of fun and friends right outside their door. People worked hard together, people sweated under the warm Brazilian sun, juice and water was shared. Passers by were taken aback, stopped to ask what the hell was going on, and many, on hearing that they too could get involved did just that… It was really something very special, an open space allowing for people to plug in and participate, a ferocious unleashing of the public’s creativity, passion and joy in making. In short, what true urbanism and architecture should be all about!
After a few months of mutirão, it was done, it was finished. The public of Curitiba had re imagined and remade their small little new urban square. On International car free day 2014, 22nd of September, the mayor Gustav Fruet and many more came down for the official opening of the square. After that there were city bike rides and more projects to be worked on.. Its a long list.
So since last September the magic has just grown and grown. The street is now filled on the weekends, people in the public realm, having a few beers, chatting and creating a really vibrant cultural space in the city. A place of art, creativity, diversity, possibility. The space is even designed so that at night time it turns into a free open air cinema…
Another fantastic step has been the successful right to hold organic markets in the square.
The centre piece of the square is a public bench with a mosaic piece all around it, this again was created as part of those weekend mutiraos under the leadership of another great local woman Leda Emi Sew. Barcelona has its Park Guell, Curitiba has its Praca ciclista!
And if its possible here, its possible in every city in the world… Então galera, so people…
Recreate Your City – Recrie Sua Cidade
Obrigado to all who helped make and continue to make magic happen.. Your passion is an inspiration to the world.