Deep in northeastern Brazil, far from Rio’s famous beaches and São Paulo’s bustling business district, a battle is underway to protect one of the country’s most unique urban habitats. The Cocó Ecological Park occupies nearly 3,000 acres of land in the heart of Fortaleza, Brazil’s fifth largest city. Established in 1991 after a push from local conservation groups, the park now provides important space for recreation and connection with nature for the city’s 2.5 million inhabitants. It also serves as a critical protected area for one of the world’s few urban mangrove parks and the Cocó River, a key water source in the drought-ridden state of Ceará.
But recently the park has come under serious threat. In 2013, city officials announced plans to build a highway overpass that would cut through the heart of the park, prompting massive outcry among citizens in Fortaleza. In what’s been billed as a classic juxtaposition of nature versus progress, the city was faced with choosing between protecting its natural resources and providing infrastructure to meet growing mobility needs.
Two years later, what started as a demonstration against one specific project is still raging as Fortaleza’s citizenry fights for mobility solutions that don’t compromise environmental preservation. So, what lessons can we learn from the city’s struggle?
Urbanization Leaves Little Room to Grow
City officials originally cited efforts to reduce traffic congestion as its primary reason for highway expansion through the park. While environmental advocates sensed ulterior motives, there’s no denying the role Fortaleza’s rapid growth and mobility needs play in this debate.
The city grew its population by 38 percent between 1991 and 2010, at the same time that car ownership rates skyrocketed across Brazil. With growth set to continue, the World Cup around the corner, and no end in sight to the city’s traffic woes, city officials needed a solution fast.
But local advocates questioned whether this solution really needed to cut through the city’s most valuable ecological resource. They proposed multiple alternatives centered on building more comprehensive and sustainable urban mobility options, focusing on an expansion of the city’s bus system and building additional cycling infrastructure. Pointing to the environmental consequences of the planned overpass, opponents succeeded in getting a federal district court to block the project in August 2013. But just one week later, that ruling was overturned and construction was cleared to continue. At the same time, nearly 200 protesters that had been occupying the park were forcibly removed by police, leading to a violent confrontation that raised flags for Brazilian human rights advocates.
With the legal path cleared, the city proceeded building the overpasses as planned, and the project was completed in November 2014.
In 2015, A More Balanced Approach to Growth
Fast forward to today, and the city is faced with the exact same issue. Population growth and an increase in car ownership are once again clogging the roads near the park. But this time, city leaders are taking a different approach to addressing the challenge.
History has proven the opponents of the original overpass project correct in their claim that expanding road space for cars would only encourage more driving and would not solve the long-term problem of traffic congestion. With advocates of protecting the park quick to point out this logic and officials eager to avoid another series of high-profile protests, the city is now exploring more holistic solutions.
Rather than building additional highway space through the park, the city began construction on two new tunnels that will run under the park in late April 2015. The tunnels will be constructed in a way that minimizes impact on plants, animals, and water quality in the park. More importantly, the city is looking beyond infrastructure for cars in its quest to provide better mobility. Space on the existing overpasses and in the new tunnels is now dedicated to bus rapid transit (BRT), a wave of renovations to the overpasses in January 2015 expanded pedestrian infrastructure, and built new cycle lanes linking the park to the city’s beaches.
While the city could have saved millions of dollars and significant civil unrest by pursuing a more balanced mobility strategy from the beginning, Fortaleza’s experience holds valuable lessons for cities worldwide. For long-term growth and sustainability, it’s not an option to trade environmental preservation for development. In the end, people-oriented cities must achieve both.