Exploring public space in Sāo Paulo

June 15, 2023

Felipe Morozini, president of the Parque Minhocão community association, shares the challenges of creating vibrant public spaces in Sāo Paulo.

This summer, we’re publishing a series of essays, interviews, and other stories that explore the themes in our Beyond Concrete season, highlighting local and global projects that centre interconnectedness. This story is inspired by Clarice Lima’s project Woods, which was presented at The Bentway on May 27 and 28, 2023 and has previously been staged on the Minhocão.

Parque Minhocão, in Sāo Paulo, repurposes an elevated, three-kilometer roadway that connects the northwestern part of the city with its downtown core. During weekdays, this road is used by tens of thousands of drivers; at nights and on the weekends, it’s closed to traffic and becomes a playground for kids, couples, bikers, dog walkers, musicians, and vendors. For decades, neighbours and community advocates have tried to convince the local government to forbid its use by cars, creating another permanent public space in a city where parks and plazas are in short supply.

Beyond Concrete guest editor Brian Sholis spoke with Felipe Morozini, current president of the community association spearheading these efforts. Also, embedded at the end of the interview is a short playlist drawn from Portuguese-language songs currently popular in Sāo Paulo—what you might hear if you were on the Minhocão on a Saturday afternoon. Click play and listen while you read.

Listen to the Minhocão-inspired playlist

Brian Sholis (BS): It’s my understanding that in 2014 the city’s new master plan offered two choices for what to do: decommission the elevated roadway and turn it into a park or demolish the roadway altogether. Can you talk a bit about how that set up the ensuing debate over the Minhocão?

Felipe Morozini (FM): In the last decade, a lot of people argued about the demolition of the Minhocão. There are two questions at stake here. First, demolition is very expensive and there is no easy or logical place to put the debris. They haven’t already torn it down because it’s not a natural or easy option. And the roadway is already serving as a park on the weekends. So why go to the extra effort? I’d say that over the past decade, in general, the option to demolish the roadway has largely disappeared.

BS: One political aspect of the question I haven’t seen discussed in English is the fact that the roadway was built during the military dictatorship (and originally named after an army marshal turned president). Does that history and symbolism play into the desire to demolish it?

FM: I think older Brazilians don’t want to remember that time, sure. They are also the ones who would want to re-create the avenue that existed before the elevated roadway was built. But the beauty of that avenue—that doesn’t exist anymore in Sao Paulo. At the other end of the same street, the one that lifts up to become the elevated roadway, there are no trees, no plants, no flowers, no boulevard. That’s why I think that it’s better to take what we have and turn it into a park.

BS: What happened in 2018 and 2019, with the adoption—and then suspension—of a law that would create the park?

FM: In my opinion, people found a little mistake in the law. Nothing major; a technicality. But that has stopped momentum, especially as governments shift and different politicians assume important roles like tourism secretary. There are still a few people inside the government working to figure out how to bring that law into effect and make the park full-time and permanent.

BS: Public space can be formal, with agreed-upon boundaries and rules, or informal, created through the lack of oversight. Can you talk about what kinds of public spaces exist in Sao Paulo and what are needed?

FM: I think Brazilian culture is about improvisation. There is no “department of public space” here. What happens is that a given place derives a new significance from the people who use it, rather than being given a new categorization from the government. We have five big parks and a bunch of improvised spaces that have been shaped by local communities.

I’ve fought for this park for twenty years and I have taken meetings with many, many politicians—all the way up to the secretaries for tourism and urbanism. They know little about how cities work or about what makes for good public space. They’ve never visited the Parque Minhocão. Twenty years ago, when we began this campaign in earnest, nobody in the media or government was talking about the concept of “public space.” In Canada, I presume you live in a city with boardwalks, good lighting—the infrastructure necessary to ensure people can inhabit public spaces.

Here, we have two problems: car dependency and crime. The car dependency is evident in the weekday usage of this roadway. The crime is evident in the number of people who have their phones or wallets snatched. It’s a shame, it’s a nuisance, it’s too frequent—and it requires another kind of infrastructure we don’t really have here.

BS: How has the increasing pedestrian access—first on weeknights only, then on weekends, then in expanded hours—changed the character of the surrounding areas?

FM: Gentrification, like public space, is a new term here in Brazil. But even if the price of the surrounding real estate goes up, I’d hesitate to call it gentrification. It’s just restoring the value of these properties. When the roadway was built, everything surrounding it lost about 70% of its value. The neighbourhood, in real-estate terms, went through a kind of crisis. People who are buying here now are still doing so because it’s cheaper than to try and live elsewhere in the center of the city.

Again, we need basic infrastructure like safety and public space before we’ll have to worry about gentrification in the way that other global cities do.

BS: What is the best possible outcome for the Parque Minhocão?

FM: It’s simple: that the space be declared a park, permanently, and that people use it. I used to be a lawyer. Now I’m an artist, writing and making murals on buildings. I’ve been fighting for this simple vision for a long time and I sometimes feel lonely and tired. But even though what I’m arguing for is simple, I still think I’m a dreamer. We have to dream it into being. I’m keeping at it.