The sunset in front of Guaiba River, Usina do Gasômetro, and Mauá Port are iconic symbols of Rio Grande do Sul’s capital, Porto Alegre (“Porto” means port in Portuguese). Porto Alegre is a city full of life and history, and its famous port contributes to the local culture. However, this important piece of public space has been closed since redevelopment began in 2013.
The local government solicited bids and hired a developer to revitalize the area, leaving out a critical factor: citizen participation. Porto Alegre’s residents were excluded from the entire planning process, despite being the people most affected by development and changes to the port.
In response, the citizen-driven movement “Cais Mauá de Todos” is leading a campaign for social engagement, representing the voices of Porto Alegre’s residents. Cais Mauá de Todos understands that an equitable city must include the local population in decision making processes, as they are the ones who use—and depend on—public spaces on a daily basis. Everyone benefits from an inclusive planning process, because when citizens and local government cooperate, the process is perceived as legitimate, gaining social and legal support to move forward without major barriers.
There have been two proposals to revitalize the port. One came from the city and private developers without public consultation. The other, proposed by Cais Mauá de Todos, has widespread support from technical experts—like architects, sociologists, historians, lawyers—as well as the general public.
Rather than criticizing the city-led proposal, it’s important to take a look at how each proposal was developed and the consequences of their plans. By examining the debate around Porto Alegre’s port from a variety of different perspectives, we can better understand how various types of planning processes contribute to the revitalization and transformation of public spaces.
Cluttering the Port with Malls and Office Towers
Through a public bidding process, the city chose a proposal that integrates the dock area with the river. But there have been two controversies surround the selected proposal. The first is that the population was left out of the planning process. The second is that the proposal included plans to construct two 14-20 floor office towers near the road to city hall. At the other end of the space, the proposal included plans to build a hotel 20 floors tall, a 13,000 m² shopping center, and a convention center.
Community organizations and activists argue that the historic center around Porto Alegre’s capital building doesn’t need this kind of infrastructure, and that investment should be directed to other parts of the city. The proposal would keep the pier’s nine warehouses for bars, restaurants, and shops. The proposal even suggests establishing a university in the area to keep the pier active at all times of the day.
There are important questions surrounding this proposal: does Porto Alegre need another shopping center in a place that is famous for its sunset and views of the river? Discussion of this unsettled question continues, as development has been stalled due to issues with the project’s environmental permit.
An Urban Port for All
Architect Maria Helena Cavalheiro designed a rival proposal, called “Manifesto Mauá”. Endorsed by Cais Mauá de Todos, Maria’s proposal was presented during a debate on April 17, 2015 at the Architecture Department at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. Her proposal prioritizes public spaces, and integrates the redeveloped port into the broader urban environment without sacrificing its historical and cultural characteristics. One example of this is the flood retaining wall that was installed between the docks and the city in the 1940s–leaving the port vulnerable to flooding. In Maria’s proposal, this retaining wall would be relocated to protect the docks from the Guaiba River as well.
The road along the port has already been taken over by cars and high-speed buses. Many of the buildings have parking lots on their ground floors. Maria’s proposal would expand walkable public space where there is currently a road. This pedestrian section would go all the way to Gasômetro and integrate with the city’s historical center, where the Public Market, Church of Sorrows, the Customs Square, and Casa de Cultura Mario Quintana are located. To ease traffic, a tunnel would be constructed as well as two secondary roads. Additionally, Maria would close down the last stretch of the train in the heart of the city, and replace the tracks with a bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor that would connect the Port to Gasômetro.
Porto Alegre’s story offers critical lessons for cities looking to revitalize public spaces that are central to local identity. No matter the end result, it’s crucial that planners and city leaders ensure citizen participation in their decision making processes so that development is equitable and consistent with local needs.