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Urban street transformation and tactical material intervention in São Paulo

Urban street transformation and tactical material intervention in São Paulo

By Purva Chawla, with contribution from Ankita Chachra, Program Manager, at the Global Designing Cities Initiative

From textiles to products, to architectural facades; materials–both as structure and finish–play a crucial role in the performance and perception of design. And we talk about them frequently in these contexts.

How about when we shift our focus to a different scale altogether–the scale of our urban environment? Along the planes of streets–how do materials infect change there? And what material interventions are both robust and economical enough to create an impact at this larger urban scale? What materials respond to the social and political climate of these sites?

Before we ask this and illustrate the answer to these questions, it is crucial that we spell out just why design at this scale–that of urban streets–matters so much. 

First and most obviously, street design sets the tone for livability and both physical and social mobility in a city. It then goes on to play a role in the economy of a city. Closer to the ground, street design is crucial in determining how a city responds to one of its most crippling problems–traffic, and the many dangers associated with it.

Global Designing Cities Initiative (GDCI)

Underlining the importance of street design in creating safe and sustainable cities, is the work undertaken by NACTO’s (the National Association of City Transportation Officials) Global Designing Cities Initiative. Supported and funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, under Bloomberg’s Initiative for Global Road Safety (BIGRS), since 2015 this group has intensely researched street design all over the world and written the Global Street Design Guide , released in October 2016. This guide sets a global baseline for designing streets and public spaces for a rapidly urbanizing world and was generated with input from global experts across 72 cities, in 42 countries. 

Starting in early 2016, the global team at NACTO, under BIGRS, has begun to implement and test these street design principles and guidelines in cities around the world. So far, pop-up transformation events have taken place on the streets of Addis Ababa, Bogota, and São Paulo, along with a longer-term interim intervention in Addis Ababa.  

 A glimpse of the pop-up transformation event organized by NACTO, under BIGRS, in Sao Miquel, São Paulo in November 2016

A glimpse of the pop-up transformation event organized by NACTO, under BIGRS, in Sao Miquel, São Paulo in November 2016

In each of these cities and pop-up events, the GDCI team from NACTO have worked closely with city agencies, embedded staff and partners under the BIGRS and local communities, to temporarily transform streets and intersections. The goal? To show the community ‘what’s possible’ in the realm of street design, create awareness about road safety, collect and communicate with key metrics and evaluations that can help pave the way for effective permanent measures, succeeding these interim and tactical moves.

A pop-up intervention in Sao Miguel, São Paulo

In an eastern district of São Paulo, the team from NACTO-GDCI collaborated with the city, the borough office and multiple partners* to transform a prominent, but notoriously unsafe street intersection. This intersection is part of the selected Area 40–Reduced Speed Zone, and the transformation event was an extension of the community outreach efforts under the 'Area 40–Reduced Speed Zone Redesign’.

A one-day pop event was held in November last year, and nearly 850 square meters of the intersection (of a total of 1200 square meters in the existing area) was converted into pedestrian space. A defunct roundabout was turned into a vibrant and active pedestrian plaza, and multiple pedestrian crossings emerged where none had existed.

  Using paint and other interim material interventions, a vibrant and active pedestrian plaza, narrower lanes for vehicles and multiple pedestrian crossings emerge during NACTO's one-day pop-up transformation event in Sao Miguel,   São Paulo. 

Using paint and other interim material interventions, a vibrant and active pedestrian plaza, narrower lanes for vehicles and multiple pedestrian crossings emerge during NACTO's one-day pop-up transformation event in Sao Miguel, São Paulo. 

 A vibrant and active pedestrian plaza, and multiple pedestrian crossings emerge during NACTO's one-day pop-up transformation event in Sao Miguel, São Paulo.

A vibrant and active pedestrian plaza, and multiple pedestrian crossings emerge during NACTO's one-day pop-up transformation event in Sao Miguel, São Paulo.

Most significantly, the team narrowed the lanes available to vehicular traffic and altered the geometry of the entire intersection. The transformation resulted in a 30% reduction in average vehicular speeds while increasing the throughput at the intersection, and the creation of a pedestrian-oriented space that ensured safety for people of all ages. The team from NACTO-GDCI gathered metrics, both before and during this one-day transformation–documenting the impact on traffic, vehicular speeds and usage patterns.

*The production of the event was held jointly with the São Paulo city government, Bloomberg Philanthropies Initiative for Global Road Safety, MobiLab, Companhia de Engenharia de Trafego (CET-SP),  Vital Strategies, ITDP Brasil and Citi Foundation. Additionally, the Commercial Association of São Paulo – São Miguel District, ANTP, Bijari, Cidade Ativa, Jovens do Brasil, Pingpoint, Red Ocara, Scipopulis and Urb-I collaborated on this project.

The Material Palette

What set of materials allows you to transforms urban spaces this dramatically, but only temporarily?

In the past, the team at NACTO-GDCI used only chalk to delineate new spatial patterns onto asphalt, for projects in Addis Ababa and Bogota. In São Paulo, however, the team opted for vibrant gypsum-based paint, after initial-marking with chalk, and this paint was later washed away. 

Along with the chalk and paint, employing bollards, cones, and planters, the result was a radically altered streetscape geometry–more oriented towards pedestrians and less inclined to support high vehicular speeds. Add to this, a few more temporary and playful tools such as artificial turf, beach chairs and umbrellas, and voila–the once dangerous intersection was metamorphosed into an active and fun space for the day.

 Gypsum-based paint transforms the high-traffic intersection into a pedestrian-oriented plaza.

Gypsum-based paint transforms the high-traffic intersection into a pedestrian-oriented plaza.

 The Material Palette: Paint, bollards, planters and turf.

The Material Palette: Paint, bollards, planters and turf.

Why Interim measures and impermanent material-interventions matter

While patterns of chalk and paint may not seem eye-opening to some, they really are the most effective and impactful tools for many global streetscapes. In most cities, the permitting process and capital funding for permanent interventions can take months or years, allowing the issue at hand to fall to the back-burner. These interim measures and impermanent material interventions can help build the case for permanent solutions to emerge much faster.

 Interim measures like those seen above, and impermanent material interventions can help build the case for permanent solutions to emerge much faster.

Interim measures like those seen above, and impermanent material interventions can help build the case for permanent solutions to emerge much faster.

Another crucial part of public projects such as this is the community support and agreement needed on the nature of intervention itself. With this assemblage of temporary tools–paint, chalk, planters–the design and implementation teams can quickly exhibit the results of community surveys, and allow them to assess how their selections will fare before being finalized.

And certainly, the support of the community paves the way for political backing as well, especially in cities such as Bogota and São Paulo, leading to the eventual success of the project. All in all, this project is a testament to the power of all material-interventions, no matter how temporary or familiar, and the absolute significance of street design in urban life.

Learn more about other projects like these by NACTO and Global Designing Cities Initiative here.


Graceful, interactive surfaces and innovation from Alissa+Nienke

Graceful, interactive surfaces and innovation from Alissa+Nienke

From the past into the future; From Renaissance art into contemporary ceramics–The work of Leah Jensen

From the past into the future; From Renaissance art into contemporary ceramics–The work of Leah Jensen