A neighborhood-city where cars are not welcome. Photo: Cacalos Garrastazu
Pedra Branca, a planned neighborhood 18 km from Florianópolis (SC), in the South of Brazil, looks like a city in the contraflow. Thankfully.

How many times have you asked yourself how would that be to walk from home to work, or by bicycle, to have lunch at home, maybe even take a nap after it? People who live in big cities cherish this utopic dream of a daily reality, which remained in the past. Well, it’s exactly there, in the past, that some people are meeting the future. Look:

While families look for pieces of land and houses to live quiet lives in properties or residential condos away from the big cities’s noise, and therefore far from their work, business administrator Carlos Eduardo chose to go the reverse path: he transferred his company to an area where he would like to live, in Pedra Branca neighborhood. When he noticed that the experience had been successful, he bought a house nearby and became a neighbor of his own company. “Most people choose their homes close to their work places. I did the other way round. I suited my work place to the home I imagined for myself to live in”, says Carlos, a former partner of a company in the electronic industry, who, on moving with his family to a sustainable neighborhood, managed to fulfill another dream: go to work by bike. Like in the old days.

Having lunch at home in working days, a true luxury in big cities, is an old-fashioned routine. Engineer Ramiro Nilson regained this right after moving to Pedra Branca, where he lives and works. And he celebrates: “I can have lunch at home every day”. Like in the old days.

Engineer Ramiro Nilson, who has lunch at home daily; psychologist Taís Mazzola works 150 meters from home and goes on foot. Photo: Cacalos Garrastazu

Against the tendency of citizens to stay home, privileging comfort and internal security, the streets regain their space in urban conviviality. In a scenery where landscaping, furniture and even the width of the sidewalks favor social interaction, buildings of Pedra Branca neighborhood don’t have sophisticated leisure areas or playgrounds that remind us of amusement parks. The idea is to stimulate bonds between neighbors. Like in the old days.

The celebrated concepts of residential building and commercial building are meaningless at Pedra Branca: in the same building functional offices and comfortable apartments coexist, like it used to be one day.

The swimming pool is shared by the tenants of more than one building in order to promote neighborhood relations. Photo: Cacalos Garrastazu.

Everything seems paradoxical in this project, built at the foot of a beautiful mountain, and exhibiting the official seal of sustainability granted by the Clinton Foundation. But not that paradoxical after all: the idea that future can be in the past makes a lot of sense at Pedra Branca. Differently from residential projects in which life around the homes is the center, in this community everything spins around the concept of little locomotion: the goal is to work, study, have fun and live in the same area.

The idea that the future can be in the past makes all sense in the neighborhood-city

The charter of principles of the enterprise, written in the analogic decade of 1990, summarizes it all in a short sentence: “A place where urban amenities live together in harmony”. Entrepreneur Valério Gomes, the author of the project, summarizes it like this: “It’s kind of a fruit salad style: the more mixed homes, shops and services are, the better”.

Everything is based on the principles of New Urbanism, a practice that emerged during the 1980s in the US and was spread to European countries. Inspired in patterns that already existed in some cities before the predominance of automobiles, it is a concept that gives the city back to persons, instead of cars.

New urbanism preaches that cities have been molding, deforming and spreading themselves out with highways, large avenues and huge parking lots, therefore losing the mixed condition and keeping their inhabitants apart from one another. People’s daily lives became disconnected, homes were located far from work and the dependence of cars, even for ordinary activities, only increased.

The area, that used to be a cattle farm, is surrounded by mountains. Photo: Cacalos Garrastazu.

It all started in 1999, when entrepreneur Valério Gomes — one of the heirs of the family that rules Grupo Portobello, whose ceramic company is a national famous brand — was going through a legal dispute of a 250-hectare area, which was in a growing conflict with neighborhoods of the city of Palhoça. Either he fenced the area and built a private condominium there, or he ventured the construction of a planned neighborhood, with no walls and grids.

Perhaps it is the first time that the anchor of a neighborhood-town is a university. The first action was to donate 15 hectares to Unisul (University of the South of Santa Catarina) and thus settle, with life, movement and culture, the cornerstone. “A city that is born around a university campus is born different”, states architect and ex-mayor Jaime Lerner, one of the project’s consultant and a Brazilian urbanism guru.

“A city that is born around a university campus is born different”

Pedra Branca estimates a population of 80,000 people up to 2030 — half of it living, half working or studying in the neighborhood. This means building a city with 1.7 million m2 of constructed area in 47 blocks and about 12,000 units: apartments, offices, commercial centers and light industries. In Brazilian real estate jargon, all this represents a VGV (Valor Geral de Venda de Imóveis — General Value of Real Estate Sale) that adds up to something like R$ 6 billion, in current values.

The area donated to the university was the starting point for the conception of the neighborhood-city. Photo: Cacalos Garrastazu.

The programmed gross density is of 160 inhabitants/ha, for the whole area. In the 70 hectares of the central area, it should reach 450 inhabitants/ha to generate enough concentration to enable commerce, services and leisure supplying.

In this dream, the automobile is an invader who is invited to stay in the garage. Sidewalks are wider than the traffic lanes. And the bicycle paths are located in the sidewalks, not in the lanes, following the principle that a bike has more to do with pedestrians than with cars. Sidewalks are a constituent part of the buildings, and the apartments have neither front nor back.

The core of the block is the convivial courtyard, permanently monitored by the tenants themselves or by two-wheel electric surveillance vehicles, the biciclos. The leisure areas and facilities, such as swimming pools and squares, are shared by more than one building, so as to promote integration between neighbors. “I like this neighborhood concept”, says Irma Osello, a retired lady who left São Bernardo do Campo (SP), a busy town in the surroundings of São Paulo, in 2013, to live in Pedra Branca and “make a new friend each day”. “People just like me, who run away from the big cities.”

Sidewalks wider than lanes; squares, swimming pools and bike paths integrated to the conviviality of Pedra Branca dwellers. Photos: Cacalos Garrastazu.

In the area that once used to be a cattle farm, technology and science are at the service of high performance and sustainability. The infrastructure includes a water treatment station and a sewage treatment station, one of the few in the region. The buildings incorporate items like the reuse of rainwater, power generation with photovoltaic plates, kitchen oil collection and the use of materials such as recycled steel and certified wood. The street lighting is designed with LED fixtures, whose energy consumption is equivalent to about 80% of the conventional sodium lamps.

Pedra Branca is one of the 18 founder projects of the Climate Positive Development Program, of the Clinton Climate Initiative

All of this contributed for Pedra Branca to cross the borders of the country and be elected by the Clinton Climate Initiative — a social organization founded by ex-president Bill Clinton, an apostle of planetary sustainability — one of the 18 founder projects of the Climate Positive Development Program.

From now on, Pedra Branca will start to use its more offensive and definitive strategy: attracting companies. “In modern world, job positions attract people”, explains Renato Lemos da Silva Neto, business manager at Pedra Branca. Today, there are more than 40 of them installed in the area, which generates 5,000 job positions.

Medical doctor Raul Strattner with his son Victor and his wife Claudia. Photo: Strattner family archive.

One of these companies belongs to carioca entrepreneur and medical doctor Raul Strattner, who, on taking the center for medical supplies distribution to the city-neighborhood, wished to take his family there too. “I immediately identified myself”. A few days later, he arranged to purchase an apartment at Pedra Branca, even still living in Rio. “When I go to Pedra Branca I conciliate work and leisure. I walk from home to the center of distribution, and experience a mental relaxation I’m not able to have in Rio”, says the doctor, whose company — a non-polluting industry — generates 35 job positions.

The identification of carioca artist Claudia Ramos, Raul’s wife, with the neighborhood-city was transmuted into a song she named Pedra Branca. “In the lyrics, I translated my family’s feeling of ease while we are in the neighborhood”, recalls Claudia, whose first composition emerged at the edge of an opposite mood: amidst a huge traffic jam in 2009.

Market test, so important for this kind of dream not to remain only a dream, is being surpassed. People who bought a piece of land for a little more than R$ 20,000 and invested another R$ 180,000 in the construction a decade ago or so, today can get at least R$ 800,000 for the residence — that is, four times more.

A 500 m2 plot of land acquired a decade and a half ago for R$ 15,000 to R$ 18,000 is currently purchased for something around R$ 200,000. About 70% of the residential units were sold out, many of them by investors that bet their chips in local real estate valuation.

Buildings, with no difference between fronts and backs, shelter residential apartments as well as offices. Photo: Cacalos Garrastazu.

Entrepreneur Valério Gomes is now seeking for partners to build a theater, an event center and a private hospital that can serve the neighborhood and its surroundings. Although it’s a world apart, Pedra Branca maintains a relationship with its surroundings and their social problems.

The area is surrounded by low-income (sometimes very low) families, to whom the community itself offers courses of workforce qualification — either for them to work in the construction business in the project, in the service provision that is already in progress within the neighborhood, or in the sophisticated technology industry that is being attracted to Pedra Branca.

“Creating a planned city doesn’t mean dissociating from the rest of the region, the state, the country. Quite the opposite: it means planting a seed of permanent conviviality among neighbors”, says Gomes. Like in the old days.

A reflecting pool reflects the new building, conceived to attract companies to the compound. Photo: Cacalos Garrastazu.

The baptism of the Gomes family in the church of New Urbanism was the book Place Making — Developing Town Centers, Main Streets, and Urban Villages, by Charles C. Bohl. Dazzled by what he had read, Valério converted family members and business partners. Since then, they participate in congresses, seminars, lectures and workshops about the subject, in Brazil and abroad.

Next step of the Gomes clan and its partners was hiring DPZ Latin America, in Miami, one of the mentors of this movement that proposes a mixed city, where people can live, work, study and have fun in the same place.

Local supermarket, on the left, has its own vegetable garden, on the right, where in natura goods are cultivated. Photos: Cacalos Garrastazu.

The translation and publication of the book Cities for People, a bible of contemporary town planners, by architect Jan Gehl, helped translating the concepts utilized in Pedra Branca project. The Danish urbanist states that a gap is formed when one thinks first about the buildings shape, the skyline, the city seen from the plane, “forgetting the persons and urban life”.

According to Ghel, there is a lack of studies and of vision from the urbanists about what he calls the ground floor — the ground level, the street level, a space more and more neglected. “For the first time in the history of humanity, cities are not built as mere conglomerates of urban space, but as individual edifications”, he defends. Against the model of modernist cities, the architect — who mentions Brasília as an example — seeks the city created for people, for conviviality in the eye level, for quality of life.

In this scenery, the enemy is the priority given to automobiles. “The car squeezes urban life towards outside public space”, affirms. It’s not a coincidence that Jan Gehl graduated in 1960 in Copenhagen, a city that’s the living proof that, with political will, it’s possible to transform the quality of urban mobility. Currently, 37% of the daily travels in the Danish capital are made by bike, and the goal is to reach 50%, still in this decade.

Nature that surrounds the neighborhood-city, with the light of dusk framing Pedra Branca Hill photo: Cacalos Garrastazu.

This story was written by journalist Ricardo Stefanelli, Eder Content partner in Florianópolis (SC), with text edition by journalist Andréia Lago, photos and image edition by Cacalos Garrastazu, graphic design by Juliana Karpinski and translation by journalist Deborah Dornellas.

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