Brasilia as Low Density Living

I wrote this for a discussion on ILM about HighDensityLiving

where David Holl had linked to a paper by AlainBertaud (not sure what it was now)

Interesting paper. I live in Brasilia, and although I can see that there are serious problems, it's also got a lot of good design features. I guess I'm responding to both Bertaud and Momus here. And their assumptions about density of living. Bertaud's equating dispersion with polution may need to be modified by a lot of awkward detail. (Though I can't say for sure it isn't true of Brasilia)

Brasilia is entirely built around road transport. You can't go to the shopping centre, cinema or CentralBusinessDistrict without driving or taking the bus. On the other hand, driving is very quick. You can drive from the edge of the city to the centre in about 10 minutes. There are very few traffic jams. (So no cars pumping out pollution while idling in them.) Brazil also has a largish proportion of cars using alcohol instead of petrol, and alcohol is available in all gas stations. So the pollution per mile travelled is probably less than for many more densely packed, conjested, petrol using cities.

Although it's a long way to downtown, the design mixes residential superquadras with "commercial districts" basically a row of shops containing bakeries, pharmacies, cafes and bars, supermarkets and other shops and offices. You're never more than 5-10 minutes walk to your local commercial district, and it can supply most basic necessities. And most have some activity at night including late bars and pharmacies. Driving to the out of town hypermarket or to a specialist shop or club is as much a matter of choice here as anywhere. And the shops are closer than in British suburbs where I grew up, or the suburbs of American cities I've seen.

Superquadras have spaces for churches, primary schools, children's play areas and sports. The roads within them are very quiet, so children can go to school and play areas with little danger from traffic. Each is made from 11 three or six storey apartment blocks, each of which has it's own function room. So each superquadra is able to support most everyday social life and requires very little driving.

Family life is localized and distributed. Because all supequadras mix a lot of green space and shading trees, the effect of living in one is rather like living on a greenfield university campus.

But Bertaud is probably right that the problem is work. The majority of people work for the government in the centre of the city. People who work in the superquadras (shop-workers, porters, cleaners, plumbers, electricians etc.) can't actually afford to live in the city, as planning restrictions prevent lower cost, higher density housing. That means they commute in by bus each day from satelites around 30 KM out of town. Meanwhile, those who live in the superquadras drive into the city centre.

Q : huh? Phil! Defending planning over organic growth ... what's up here?

A : It is an interesting question. Brasilia does seem to work, at least as well as the suburbs in places I know. I think that's because of good design. I wish I could understand why it's good though

Update, actually I think there are a lot of things wrong with Brasilia. Recent trips to Argentina and the extremely pleasant and cultural cities there, make me realize Brasilia lacks a lot of things.

  • It's entire economy is based around the government. Everyone with any talent aspires to be a civil servant.
  • Although there's a lot of green, open space, it's dead space. Often you spend ten minutes walking across a piece of dry grass to get from one building to another, for no reason.
  • It's utterly dependent on cars
  • Not much in the way of good clubs / places to go at night.
  • Compared to Argentina, not so good book and music shops.
  • Art galleries and theatres all owned and run by banks!

Quora Answer : Why don't cities and governments, who already plant and manage trees, simply plant fruit-bearing trees to help with the food supply and welfare?

Oct 11, 2014

In some places they do. Brasilia is full of publicly planted mango and jack-fruit trees along the roads and in the superquadras. And at the appropriate time of year you'll see many people, of all classes, picking and eating the fruit.

Update : nobody worries about attracting pests or the other problems people mention. This may be because Brasilia is a fairly low density "city in a park" with a lot of green. And this absorbs, say, fallen fruit. And keeps small wildlife out of sight. Nature is here anyway. So it might as well be fruit-trees.

I normally criticize Brasilia for lacking density and being too dispersed. I think there are many ways it's bad urbanism. But it may be that it's an advantage in this context.