[ Update ]

Eslarp in Porto Alegre and Sao Paulo

8 February, 2000



This fall I was invited to participate in an unique north-south conference in Porto Alegre and Sao Paulo, Brazil which brought together citizen activists, professional planners and progressive municipal officials involved in participatory approaches to community planning and design. The conference was co-sponsored by the Planners Network (USA) and the Workers Party. Among the North American scholars representing Planners Network were: Peter Marcuse of Columbia University, Tom Angotti of Pratt Institute, Bill Goldsmith and Barbara Lynch of Cornell University, Johanna Looye of the University of Cincinnati, Jackie Leavitt of UCLA and myself representing UIUC's East St. Louis Action Research Project.

The conference began with a three day meeting in Porto Alegre which sixty Brazilian activists, planners and municipal officials involved in grassroots approached to community and economic development attended. The International Meeting on Democracy, Equality and Life Quality: A Challenge for the Cities in the 21st Century featured twenty three academic papers organized within eight tracks focused on: responses to globalization, privatization of public services, democratic planning and social movements, decentralization of government services, real estate and land markets, environment and social justice, social and racial segregation, and university/community development partnerships.

Among the major issues raised during these sessions were: how do progressive movements assume local municipal power without losing their grassroots base; how can marginalized peoples make their voices hear within local, regional national and international political debates; how much weight should be given to class versus race versus gender oppression within popular struggles; can university faculty play a leadership role within broader-based progressive movements?

I had the opportunity to both chair the conference session on environmental racism and justice and deliver a paper entitled, "Creating Progressive Community/University Partnerships Through Empowerment Planning". My paper chronicles the development within American higher education of the growing civic engagement movement. It critically examines the colonial nature of many community/university partnerships while describing the process ESLARP's founders went through to develop a more equitable approach to collaborative problem-solving. This paper, along with a dozen others presented at the conference, is being edited for inclusion in a book on Progressive Planning Examples from the North and South.

The highlight of the Porto Alegre conference was a daylong meeting with local municipal officials involved in the city's Participatory Budgeting program. For the past eleven years, Porto Alegre's municipal government which is one of 200 such local administrations controlled by the Workers Party has involved a growing number of local citizens in determining the major categories for municipal spending as well as the specific projects to be funded. Last year, more than 40,000 of the city's 1.2 million people attended neighborhood meetings to set these spending categories. These local meetings are organized by citizens elected by their neighborhoods. The overwhelming majority of those participating in these meetings are not working class and middle income residents of the city. The city's poorest residents dominate this process which gives them the opportunity to influence major infrastructure, utility, and housing investment decisions. The success of these highly participatory process has led the Porto Alegre administration to adopt this "bottom-up, bottom-sideways approach" to developing the city's new master plan.

Following our day-long tour of Porto Alegre, we flew to the much larger city of Sao Paulo (17 million people) to participate in a day-long conference entitled, "Encounter With Planners Network: Urban Planners and Social Justice" which was sponsored by the Architecture Faculty of the University of Sao Paulo and the local Workers Party. More than 400 students, planing educators, and architecture faculty attended this day-long meeting. During this session, we presented a History of the Planners Network, a Profile of Progressive Planning in the US, and a series of Case Studies of Grassroots Planning and Development. I had the opportunity to present a 40-minute slideshow on the East St. Louis Action Research Project during this program. The planning and design faculty who attended this session appeared very interested in the highly participatory approach we use to develop neighborhood plans and the manner in which we use the web to expand access to this work.

Our final day in Brazil was spent visiting the sites of various illegal occupations of abandoned buildings in downtown SP. As the city's commerce and population has moved to the periphery more than 100,000 housing units within the historic city, many of them government owned, have become vacant. Increasingly, these units are being taken over by highly organized groups of poor urbanites who cannot, given their low salaries, secure decent shelter. At the major site we visited, more than fifty families are being visible assisted by University planning and design students to retrofit this building. Outside of the building, a beautiful multi-colored banner waves listing all of the university departments involved in this illegal occupation. The extra-legal nature of these building takeovers has created quite a dilemma for local municipal officials from the left. While they are sympathetic to the needs of the urban poor; they do not believe that illegal takeovers can adequately substitute for thoughtful urban policy. However, while this debate rages within the local municipal government, more and more building takeovers are occurring with the assistance of progressive planning and design students.

There were two concrete results of our trip to Brazil. First, the progressive planners and architects of Brazil have decided to form their own version of Planners Network. This new organization will provide left-thinking design professionals in Brazil with an organizational vehicle by which they can make their voiced heard on important urban policy questions. Second, a delegation of planners and designers from the Workers Party will be travelling to Montreal to participate in the 2000 Planners Network Annual Conference to be held in Montreal on June 22-25. Their participation in our conference should make this a very interesting and exciting international forum. If you haven't decided what to ask your parents for when you graduate in June -- NOW you know! Ask them to cover your registration, travel and lodging expenses for this years Planners Network meeting.

Respectfully Submitted by: Ken Reardon ESLARP's East Coast and South American Correspondent

PS:Those interested in copies of my paper, should drop me a short email message at: kmr22@cornell.edu.


Document Author: Ken Reardon
Last modified: 9 February 2000, Nidhi Tomar