Shift Happens! – A community story

A story of how a community came together to literally build the city they wanted.

I. BEFORE

This starts as a familiar story in many urban centres around the world. An abandoned public space in the downtown core that becomes a breeding ground for drug abuse, sexual exploitation and gang violence. Curitiba, a city in Brazil with a population of two million people, is no exception to that rule.

Meet Curitiba

Some of you might know Curitiba. It is famous worldwide for its innovation in urban planning. The Bus Rapid Transit system was invented there in the 70’s.

During the same period, a pedestrian street was opened where several blocks of one of the main streets downtown were permanently shut down to cars. During the 90’s, many of its multi-functional parks were intentionally designed to serve social, economic and environmental purposes. Those innovative transformations made Curitiba part of the select group of world-class cities and turned the architect-mayor-governor, Jaime Lerner, into a celebrity among urban planners. He is actually listed as one of the top 100 most influential urbanists of all time, along with Jane Jacobs, Frank Lloyd Wright, Naomi Klein among others.

After decades, Curitiba continues to be a reference in urban design and one of the best places to live in Brazil. However, it faces new challenges. The local urban planning institute became more rigid over time and lost some of its experimental risk-taking personality, giving way to car-centric planning, transforming the city landscape and putting Curitiba as the second most motorized city in Brazil. Transit ridership has been steadily declining over the last decade and public spaces throughout the city took a serious hit.

Seeds of Change

In one particular square, a group of community activators posed the usual question to local authorities: “Can you do something about it?” and got the usual response: “Of course, but not right now. We have other priorities“. But this group knew that they couldn’t just wait, so they posed a different question: “Can WE do something about it?“. The reply this time was different too: “I don’t know, no one ever asked that question before?

After a period of negotiations, the City agreed to let them build a public square by themselves. The city had plans for a “smart-city” space. Very high-tech and futuristic. But this was not business as usual. This group was not hired to build what the city wanted. They were not working for the money. They were driven by something bigger than that and they had their own plans. It took another few months of negotiations to decide what the square would look like. It became known as the Cyclists’ Pocket Square

II. DURING

Finally, the work started. To help launch the project, Mona Caron, an artist from San Francisco who was in the City for a conference painted a flower mural that was three storeys high. At the same time, a small and very enthusiastic group started working on the square every weekend. When I say work, I mean laying bricks, paving, digging, painting… They were doing everything!

A few interesting things started to happen. That unusual construction crew started to draw attention from neighbours, business owners and passers-by. More and more of them started bringing their families. Kids were part of the crew from the beginning. Not everyone wanted to work on the construction but they definitely wanted to help. So they started organizing cultural supportive activities including childminding, snacks, craft workshops, musical performances, book clubs and many more. In a few weeks, hundreds of people were gathering to participate in city building.

Diversity and Inclusion

Even ethnic groups that tend to have a harder time to become part of the local community were joining the ride. That was the case for a Chinese family and a Syrian family. Each ran a successful small restaurant. Each received a constant flow of people in their business. However, each failed to go beyond the commercial transaction and engage in meaningful human relationships with customers and the neighbourhood. Soon after the building phase started, kids from these families were drawn to the vibrancy of the construction site and their families soon followed suit. Unstructured and spontaneous interactions in a public space are the perfect setting for building a community.

We mean business

The Pocket Square sparked an overhaul of the Syrian restaurant. Its entrance faced the main commercial street that had much more foot traffic but also had super heavy traffic. The noise pervaded the restaurant and most purchases were quick takeouts. It wasn’t a pleasant experience to be in the restaurant. As the work on the square progressed, the alleyway, once a dark, deserted and sketchy place became a vibrant and inclusive space. The restaurant owner decided to close the entrance to the main street and build a new entrance to the side street, making the restaurant more inviting. Customers loved the change so much that they were spending more time and, of course, making bigger purchases. Needless to say that it became the go-to place for many of the hundred volunteers working on the square.

Other private businesses took notice and they were eager to see their names associated with the project and tap into an ever-growing, very loyal and passionate group. This brought the project to a whole new level where companies started sending employees to volunteer or donating all sorts of supplies.

Emerging Leaders

The cultural supportive activities that began to spring up around the project were less structured than the construction plan. An environment where you can find a healthy balance between structure and flexibility fosters collaboration, creating a safe space for creativity and for voices that usually don’t have a chance to be heard.

Lourenco Duarte was one of the emerging leaders. Lourenco struggled with homelessness, unemployment and drug addiction for many years. But he had many skills that no one in the group had. He was a seasoned construction worker in a group of middle-class activists that had a very different skillset. For the first time in many years, he had a whole community looking up to him. He was a role model for adults and kids alike who wanted to help and needed his guidance.

A short documentary about the Pocket Square

Grand Opening

On World Carfree Day, Sep 22 2014, six months after the project was started, the Mayor himself came to the big opening.

Yes it took way longer than a traditional project. But what was being built was much more than benches and walls. They were building community. And that takes time!

III. AFTER

Public Life

A year after the grand opening so much had happened. The square became a stage for outdoor movies and all kinds of musical performances including local pop bands, an ensemble from the local orchestra and even thrash metal (the last one was not very popular with the residents). Students from all levels engaged in their own way. Elementary students came to play. High school students came to volunteer to clean the space. College students researched how the transformation was impacting public life. A pilot mini organic market ran weekly for months.

Haitian Festival

Brazil received a huge influx of Haitian immigrants in the years that followed the earthquake in 2010. In 2014, thirteen harassment and assault episodes were reported in Curitiba. The general consensus was that those numbers were much higher. Typically, many of those tragic episodes go unreported by vulnerable populations that fear to lose their jobs and even their right to stay in the country. When that information became public, a group of PSL (Portuguese as a second language) teachers from a local post-secondary institution contacted the Pocket Square to organize a public festival in Celebration of Haitian Culture. The event was called “We are all migrants”. The event included Haitian music, dance and food. We wanted to send a strong message to say “You are welcome and we are very glad to have you here.”

The event not only brought some joy in their lives and dignity but it provided them with a safe space. They knew that that square was a safe haven to make new friends and they would come back.

The business case

The Pocket Square revitalized a 100-meter-long street. Within a year, along with all the free public events, the new square brought:

  • Five new restaurants/cafes
  • Ten small businesses related to art, fashion or bikes
  • Additional monthly revenues of hundreds of thousands pumped into the local economy

IV. A few lessons learned

Gentrification

More than the tangible outcomes like the new benches, green space, and bike racks. This is a story about the willingness to work together to create something meaningful and the courage to try new processes.

But it is not a happily-ever-after story, it is incomplete if we don’t mention the constant tension among many stakeholders before, during and after the square was built. Until this day drugs and violence still exist, there are some upset neighbours who preferred when it was much quieter and even though they tried to replicate the model in different parts of the city, it wasn’t an easy thing to do.

Systemic Change

Charles Duhigg in the book The Power of Habit shows that there is a pattern of successful social movements:

  1. They start with a core group that has strong social ties. A cycling community that tends to be very aware of the quality of public spaces. 
  2. Then it grows because of the weak ties. An idea, or a value that resonates with lots of people. An inclusive and vibrant urban space.
  3. Finally, it endures when we create a new habit. A new way to interact with the world. The collective work with disperse leadership and self-led initiatives.

To solve old problems we need to use new tools. If we are open to trying a different approach, a collaborative approach, we can get unstuck and it can create substantial benefits – social, economic and environmental.


This post is the third of a five-part series entitled Shift Happens! To read the second part, please visit A Corporate Story.

Shift Happens! was a talk delivered on May 6, 2019 at the City Symposium Series – Sustainable Cities and Communities. You can watch the original recording here and access the presentation.

The story about the Pocket Square really sparked some good conversations and an “expanded version” was also presented at the EconoUs 2019 Conference.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.