By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

Worried about the future of London? Try learning from Brazil

Everything seemed to happen in London last week. As the long awaited Jubilee Line extension approached completion, the rest of the Underground network sank into anarchy. Meanwhile other anarchists stopped surface traffic in the City, invaded buildings and fought pitched battles with the police while baffled tourists looked on. Not bad eh? But not good for business either. No wonder the media played up the trains saga and played down the riots. You don't have to have Albert Einstein's brain to work out that stuff like this bodes ill for the vibrant metropolis of tomorrow. It makes it painfully obvious that no one knows how to rebuild decrepit 130-year-old underground railways without closing them down, and no one knows how to close them down without bringing the city to a standstill at the same time. In the same way, the surface action of the rioters showed that you can't trust people to campaign against cars and Third World debt without breaking into the LIFFE building and sacking McDonald's as well.

Where is the answer? Well, it's not in Downing Street or the Palace of Westminster. Just as we needed Americans to finish the Jubilee Line, so do we need Brazilians to show us how to run a big old city. Take Sao Paulo, for example. It sprawls over an enormous area that has already engulfed two airports and is encroaching upon two more. The population is at least 12 million rising to 20 million, depending how many squatter settlements you include. Even more remarkable is the little-known fact that the city has no heavy or light rail public transport system, but does have a street layout created by a century of stop-go planning.

Like Los Angeles without its freeway system, Sao Paulo with no public transport ought to be unworkable and ungovernable, but it isn't. The former Brazilian capital consists of innumerable self-contained districts, the difficulty of moving through which acts as a natural regulator of density. The safety valve for all of them is the enormous and unstoppable expansion of the city's perimeter - just as London's would be without the strangulating effect of the Green Belt.

In Sao Paulo, there is no obvious tidal flow of commuters from the suburbs to a great centre because there are so many centres; movement to and between them is so diffuse that it too has become self-regulating. The only evidence of a serious tidal flow is to be found in information technology (Brazilian telecommu-nications systems are very capable), and in the air, where Sao Paulo has the highest incidence of private helicopter ownership of any city in the world.

What other negative fact is positive about Sao Paulo? The effect of building Brasilia 500 miles to the North. Part of the creation of the new capital was the construction of a road-and-rail network linking it with the rest of the country. This was a tremendous feat of engineering in its own right but, like the new capital, it has not exactly served the purpose for which it was intended.

Instead of opening up the Brazilian interior to development, and thus easing population pressure in the south-east of the country, the railway network has deteriorated and the motorway system has become a conduit for migrants from impoverished northern Brazil, who, pausing only briefly in Brasilia itself, hurry on to the rich hinterland of Sao Paulo and Rio.

If you believe it, the lesson of Sao Paulo is that public transport is unnecessary - provided zoning is not restrictive and the boundaries of the city remain elastic. The lesson of the connecting motorways is that, whatever their original intention, they will act as conduits of economic opportunity.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters