San Francisco | New York, NY | Copenhagen, DK


A New Heart for São Paulo

Brazil has a proud architectural history. In the 1970s its largest city São Paulo was at the forefront of visionary urban planning, with car-free zones and places where people could sit, relax and enjoy the city. But with the end of the dictatorship in the 1980s, city planning ceased to function. The river that had once run through the main square of Vale do Anhangabaú had been driven into a tunnel to build a highway, and as in so many BRIC nations rapid development had resulted in random urban sprawl.

In November 2012 the people of São Paulo elected Fernando Haddad as their new mayor. On taking office one of his first initiatives was to set the ambitious goal of rejuvenating a city that no longer functioned for its people. Gehl Architects were commissioned to facilitate a dialogue process to develop the concept design for Anhangabaú Square and best practice projects in neighbouring downtown areas.

Getting People on Board

São Paulo is the economic driver of Brazil, generating 1/3 of the vast nation’s GNP. The downtown areas of thriving economies are usually prosperous and in high demand, but in São Paulo exploding traffic had driven people and businesses out of the city centre, leaving empty buildings, discount outlets and parking lots in their wake. The main square sits above a highway and is bypassed by pedestrian flyovers, and there’s nothing to invite people to come down to the square. It’s run down, there’s nowhere to sit, and very little to enjoy.

Gehl Architects conducted a series of workshops with city agencies, local universities and a whole series of NGOs and community representatives. In April 2003 we got everyone – from the head of city planning to the local mayor’s office – around the same table and on board to identify the problems and potential of their city.

At Street Level

In addition to this knowledge sharing, we also provide cities with surveying and mapping methods to improve public space and public life. Being at street level is at the heart of our approach to design development, and just 3 months later we returned to São Paulo to do the first Public Space/Public Life survey. Talking to people and watching how and where they move gave us an on-site basis for defining the qualities we were aiming for. The resulting design of Anhangabaú Square is based on 4 goals: to improve access, create smaller human-scale spaces, make a more flexible city space for big events and everyday life, and activate the edges of the square by opening its building facades.


Engagement process

Piloting Change

Different elements and strategies of this concept design have been incorporated in 4 carefully designed pilot projects to give the people of the city the chance to experience change on a 1:1 scale. Their reactions and responses can then feed directly into the design of more permanent projects. ‘Before-and-after’ surveys of pilot projects provide a way to evaluate and measure the effects of change. In our work in cities worldwide this measure-test-refine method has proven key to the long-term process of creating sustainable urban design. It also creates a sense of ownership, engaging local people in political decision making and building a foundation for commitment to future change.


Places for People

All four of the pilot projects in São Paulo focus on temporary spaces and solutions that can improve the relationship between the built environment and people’s quality of life – turning places for cars into places for people. In the university district São Francisco, the pilot project design turns a parking space into a park, with outdoor workstations, workout areas and nighttime activities. Pateo do Collegio,

The resulting design of Anhangabaú Square is based on 4 goals: to improve access, create smaller human-scale spaces, make a more flexible city space for big events and everyday life, and activate the edges of the square by opening its building facades.

downtown’s historical museum square, is transformed from being yet another parking lot into a playground with places to learn and play for school children and families. The pilot project at Avenida São João includes temporary bike tracks, priority bus lanes and good crossings to test out different ways to improve mobility in the city. And the final project, on the bustling shopping street Rua 25 de Março, closes the area to traffic and uses colourful road surfaces to designate different areas, including newly designed places to sit and rest.

A Global Role Model

These pilot designs are ready to be implemented by local design teams in early 2014. The first step is the pedestrianization of Rua 25 de Março. The street is usually closed to traffic at Christmas, so the design builds on a local tradition, just as Gehl Architects’ continuing urban consultancy in São Paulo builds on the history of the city and the needs of its people.


Pilot: Rua 25 de Março

To address the large-scale issues facing the city and its people, both the pilot projects and design of Anhangabaú Square need to be embedded in an overall strategy for the entire downtown area – a masterplan with people in mind. In the meantime, they can help people see what their city can become and envision the historic downtown of São Paulo as lively, safe and attractive to people. Something that can be a source of local inspiration, but also a global precedent for the rapidly developing and expanding cities of the new world economy.

Read more

Status: Under Construction
Location: São Paulo, BR