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architexts ISSN 1809-6298


O arquiteto brasileiro, atualmente radicado em Londres, discute a nova postura do arquiteto e a importância do desenho urbano no plano urbano contemporâneo.

The Brazilian architect, now radicated in London, discusses the new position of the architect and the importance of urban design in contemporary urban planning.

O arquiteto brasileiro, actualmente radicado en Londres, discute una nueva postura do arquiteto e a importância do desenho urbano no plano urbano contemporâneo.

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BRANDÃO, Zeca. Strategic planning + urban design. The importance of urban projects in the production of contemporary city. Arquitextos, São Paulo, year 23, n. 276.01, Vitruvius, may 2023 <>.

Following a period of devaluation of planning — dating from the 1980s — when many urban projects were led by the private sector in several countries across the world, the turn of the century witnessed the international recognition of the relevance of the government having control of urban development. Many planning models claim the place once occupied by the Traditional Plans. Strategic Planning as applied to cities stands out as one of the most applied worldwide, including in Brazil.

Just like the plans developed in the second half of the 1940s to speed up the process of re-constructing the cities razed to the ground during the Second World War, this planning model also emphasizes the importance of urban projects in building a city. However, two factors involved in this question seem to differentiate these models, namely the relationship between the scales of plan and project, and the theoretical background behind such projects.

The first factor has to do with the dialectic relation between the plan and the urban project present in Strategic Planning, which formally rejects the hierarchy of conventional planning. The project is not seen as a mere product derived from planning, with impacts that supposedly obey a logic pre-established in the objectives of the plan. In this planning model, therefore, the project abandons its passive position vis-à-vis the urban plan, and may even re-direct it.

The second factor concerns the theoretical reference adopted by urbanist-architects in drawing up these two types of urban project. Whereas the projects developed in the post-war period were based on the modernist paradigms established by the International Congress of Modern Architecture (1), the more recent projects adhere to the principles developed by Urban Design, an autonomous discipline based precisely on the criticism made of modern urbanism.

This article sets out to discuss these two points: reclaiming the urban project and its new relationship with the plan established in the strategic planning of cities, and the importance of urban design as a theoretical framework in elaborating these new projects. The article is also aimed at considering the role played by the urbanist-architect, and the quality of the urban project in building today’s cities.

Urban planning in Brazil

Favoring urban planning has not been a constant concern of our public administrators. Generally speaking, Brazilian cities have been built in a disorganized and immediatist manner, lending priority to the individual rather than the community. The increasingly more inefficient planning in the process of building cities today have contributed significantly to worsen the urban crisis.

The excellent moment that our economy experienced in the recent past paradoxically aggravated this situation and made the quality of life of the population even poorer. If urban planning is important when the economy is stagnated, it becomes all the more important during the process of economic growth. The result of an over-heated economy unaccompanied by urban planning is explicit in the chaos our cities are witnessing today, with awfully congested traffic, blackouts because of energy failures, un-controlled construction density, overcrowding of public transportation and frequent flooding. In a word: the breakdown of urban infrastructures.

Many public administrators considered the protests of June 2013, which occurred in Brazil’s principal cities, to be diffuse and lacking in precise purposes. The truth is that these new urban social movements protested for a very simple cause: improvement of our cities. People finally understood that their quality of life is irreversibly linked to the quality of their cities. And that it matters little if the country is ranked the world’s seventh economy if this is not translated into the population’s quality of life. However, it still has to be understood that the instrument capable of carrying out this change is urbanism.

The better to illustrate the fragility of Brazilian contemporary planning, one can mention the opportunity lost when we hosted the World Cup in 2014. Experiences registered in other cities across the globe show the power of transformation that these major sports events have, in particular the Olympic Games and the World Cup. The best-known cases are Barcelona and London, which, as a result of a series of urban projects stimulated by the Olympics of 1992 and 2012 respectively, turned abandoned and decrepit areas into residential neighborhoods with first-class urban infrastructure.

In Brazil, the urban legacy failed to produce the same result. Works were undertaken that were not always necessary and many problems had to be faced, such as overbilling, work left unfinished or poorly executed. For example, the flyover in Belo Horizonte and the Tim Maia Bike Path in Rio de Janeiro, which both collapsed. What is the difference between the performance of Rio de Janeiro and that of cities like Barcelona and London? Simply that while those cities have a strategic plan administered by the government, which coordinates all the actions necessary to hold the event and guarantees its beneficial consequences, here the projects were devised in isolation and focused on private interests.

The rapid rate of growth of the world’s urban population has made planning all the more important. In the case of Brazil, cities have grown and proliferated at an astonishing rate. In the early 20th century, only 10% of our population lived in urban areas. The 1960s saw this same urban population already in front of its rural counterpart, and at the moment, over 85% of the national population resides in cities. It can be asserted that ours is one of the most urban countries in the world, which does not mean that we are among the most urbanized. Many Brazilian cities are still in need of basic infrastructure, such as sanitation, drainage and paving, essentials already provided for a long time in cities in the more developed countries.

Given the present political status of our country, we are suffering an economic crisis that — whatever the outcome of this impasse — will not be easily overcome, and might very well eventually see the real-estate market cool off and without any public resources available for urban infrastructure. Perhaps there is a positive side to this slowing down of urban development, insofar as it provides a pause for us to reflect on the role of planning in the building of our cities. We must face this crisis as an opportunity to think about the kind of city that we want and how to make it feasible.

One of the country’s main challenges involves adopting a more consistent model of urban planning. This planning, however, should not be just normative, as it was in the past, when cities were conceived exclusively by means of “Planos Diretores” (2). These plans identified the urban tendencies that were harmful to the city only to be avoided later on through a series of rules. A city was imagined that we did not want and then an urbanistic legislation was presented that was designed to (try to) prevent it from materializing.

Without detracting from the important (and still necessary) “Planos Diretores”, the dynamics and complexity of today’s cities call for a more “propositive mentality” on the part of the government. It is necessary to adopt what could be called a “propositive urbanism”, based on elaborating a strategic plan in which the city is idealized and then later materializing through urban projects and other pertinent urbanistic actions.

Strategic planning: the relationship between plan and project

For a long while the attraction of cities was attributed only to questions of an economic nature. In the late 1970s, information-technology professionals reached the point of prophesying the end of the city, claiming that the digital era would free people from the need to live in the stress of the urban environment; they would make their supposed dreams come true in the peace and tranquility of the countryside. But cities did not disappear, as a matter of fact they still attract (even more) people.

Today we know that cities represent far more than job opportunities, in fact they are a powerful stimulus to personal development by providing access to socio- cultural diversity, intellectual growth, creativity, innovation and productive leisure. The new generations in the developed countries now choose the city where they want to live even before deciding on what to do for a living. They choose the city first and then look for a professional activity to allow them to live there. In turn, cities have been trying more and more to offer their inhabitants a better quality of life so as to attract more efficient professionals. In short, competitiveness has grown between the globalized cities in their search for human and financial capital; indeed, cities often accompany one another in this endeavor.

According to Catalunyan planners Jordi Borja and Manuel Castells (3), if on the one hand the process of globalization has changed cities into major protagonists of the 21st century, on the other hand it has induced the development of a profound sense of competitiveness in the cut-throat dispute for their space in this international network. Based on this premise, the strategic planning of cities, the principal concepts of which were imported from entrepreneurial planning, proposes to adapt large metropolises to this new context. This model of planning, using the paradigm of the undeniable success of the city of Barcelona, suggests elaborating a “city project” with the general objective of achieving worldwide recognition.

Although some attempts to apply Strategic Planning in the country date from the mid-1990s — the city of Rio de Janeiro being the most ambitious of such attempts — none of them have really met with success. Brazil’s metropolises still lack an efficient transportation system, social housing, public spaces of good quality and many other urban infrastructure elements installed in the global cities last century. No matter how well-intentioned and competent our public administrators may be, it will not be possible to promote Brazil’s cities to this global network in the near future. The process of qualifying our cities must be done as soon as possible, otherwise we will remain definitively absent from the international scenario.

In terms of concept, there exists a large difference between the traditional “Plano Diretor” and Strategic Planning. The former is presented fundamentally as a normative plan more concerned with regulating any future urban interventions. As for the second, here the proposition is a plan of actions designed to solve current problems and concentrating on possible articulations of urban agents aimed at exploring the city’s real possibilities. A plan that defined not only what cannot be done, but also and especially what can be done, in other words a plan committed to making its own implementation feasible.

Aware of the ever-increasing limitation of public capital, Strategic Planning valorizes its promoting capacity and proposes that contemporary urbanism should be based on negotiations held with private agents, taking advantage of — or even creating — opportunities for local development (4). The idea is to join together the broad, collective vision of public planners and the agility and market sense of private institutions. In this sense, partnerships between the public and private sectors are indispensable to the success of this “city project”. This is perhaps our biggest limitation and obstacle to be overcome, seeing as we have no successful experience in this sort of professional alliance. Once again, mention should be made of the example to be avoided, namely the partnerships signed for the World Cup and Olympic Games held in Brazil.

In respect to this article, the most relevant characteristic of Strategic Planning is the return to the emphasis lent to the urban project and its new relation to the plan. Besides fulfilling an important role, urban projects are not presented as products originating in an already concluded plan, as in conventional planning. According to this model of planning, urban projects are generated and developed in a relationship that is open, flexible and above all stripped of any hierarchical sense with the plan (5).

The dialectic relationship between these two urban scales present in Strategic Planning allows the development of the plan to define the projects and priorities between them, at the same time that these projects, once designed and implemented, help to improve the objectives of the plan. This being so, just as the plan, on articulating a group of projects, can legitimize them, the opposite can also happen. Urban projects that are elaborated even before the plan begins can be incorporated with it, thereby lending it credibility and a sense of efficacy (6).

This model of planning proposes articulating urban projects strategically located in the territory so as to make their effects transcend the areas of interventions. The potential of such urban interventions depends on coherence between the projects and other interventions and on the power of generating benefits for their immediate surroundings, in respect to both socio-economic and physical-spatial aspects (7). Many urbanist-architects have attributed to this type of strategy a metaphorical image of “urban acupuncture” (8), where the synergy created by a series of specific localized interventions — like needles applied to the human body — has a positive impact on the territory as a whole.

It bears stressing, however, that the theoretical reference used by urbanist-architects when preparing these projects is no longer grounded in the principles of the modern movement. The dispersed, mono-functional and road-related city proposed by modernism has for quite a while been viewed as an outdated model. Current urban projects follow the concepts borrowed from Urban Design, that is to say, they suggest a city that is compact, multi-functional and privileging the pedestrian (9).

Urban design: the theoretical foundation of contemporary urban project

Although Urban Design has only recently been considered a specific activity, it contains practices that in some way have always been present in studies referring to architecture and urbanism. Focused on the tridimensional design of human settlements and their fragments, the discipline addresses questions considered to be relevant to any attempt to understand the built environment. In a certain way, throughout the centuries buildings have always been understood as being connected to the city space, even if this relationship occasionally presented different degrees of intensity.

Therefore, theoretical reflections on the functional and aesthetic aspects of urban spaces probably began together with studies related to architecture. It could even be said that current research aimed at a better theoretical understanding of these spaces really began with the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius (10). Although his work was focused not on the city scale but rather on the architectural, Vitruvius masterfully investigated the relation between the building and its immediate vicinity. On analyzing the performance of the buildings inserted in classic urban typologies, such as the Greek Agora and the Roman Forum, he not only established architecture as a discipline understood by means of rational and articulated principles, but also showed the relevance of the urban dimension in architectural studies.

Nonetheless, the contemporary version of Urban Design arose in the middle of the 20thcentury. The pressing demand to rebuild the cities of Europe destroyed in the Second World War exposed a series of urban spaces projected in accordance with modernist principles. Many urbanist-architects proposed a radical renovation of the traditional city by adopting massive road engineering and mono-functional development. The urban space was treated as a tabula rasa on which new architectural forms could be inserted at random.

The modernist city was gradually erected, with its buildings standing alone on the site and isolated in large free areas, replacing the compact blocks and the well-defined public spaces that characterized the traditional city. New neighborhoods were designed that prioritized the use of cars; this modernist city emerged with an urban landscape that was dispersive, composed of supermarkets, closed condominiums and shopping-centers, all linked together by large express avenues. What the Dutch urbanist-architect Rem Koolhaas defined as the “generic city” was born (11). A city that little by little is losing its own identity due to a rapid process of homogenization of the urban space.

Despite the stated objective of creating comfortable and functional urban spaces, most of the projects that emerged in the post-war period do not meet human needs in respect to the built environment. This led to gradual and constant dissatisfaction among the users with regard to the spatial quality of these urban environments; this dissatisfaction became stronger and stronger. The systematization of these critiques of modern urbanism developed into the theoretical structure of Urban Design, which has gradually established itself as a specialized professional activity.

In 1961, the American journalist Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities (12), which in her own words constituted “an attack on the fundamentals of modern planning and re-urbanizations currently in effect”, as well as an “attempt to introduce new principles of planning” which intended essentially to promote urban environments with more vitality. This book inaugurated a new critical view of urban life and presented an original perspective for planning, thereby becoming a sort of “bibliographic ground zero” of contemporary urbanism.

Since then, a large number of academic studies have been written on the relation between public and private spaces, and nowadays Urban Design is seen as a discipline different from architecture and urbanism, with an agenda of its own and a specific theoretical content. Situated between these two scales, the discipline aims precisely to fill the lacunas that exist between them, focusing on the public domain of urban spaces, but not involving only streets, sidewalks, patios, squares and parks. Some aspects of private domain that affect the public space, such as use, density and architectonic typology, are also part of the scope of Urban Design.

Although the specific relations between public and private spaces are still far from being totally understood, it cannot be denied that relevant information immediately applicable to the project process has been produced. A body of consistent knowledge is being consolidated in this area to establish one of the most significant concepts of contemporary urbanism: the concept of urbanity.

Finding an exact definition of the concept of urbanity is no easy task, since this term has been employed indiscriminately and with rather generic meanings. The concept is wide-ranging and extremely abstract. Nevertheless, in spite of the difficulty in defining it, it seems easily recognizable when we actually experience the condition of urbanity. Even though we often fail to understand exactly why certain urban spaces make us feel more comfortable and welcome than in others.

First of all — and as the term is commonly used — the degree of a city’s urbanity has to do with how its inhabitants adapt to living together, in other words, their civic sense. In this sense, urbanity is more related to human behavior than to the materiality of the urban space. Nonetheless, academic studies show that urbanity comes from certain physical conditions that, when properly applied, can create more hospitable urban spaces. It is precisely in the interface of the population with the urban space that we find urbanity, which in turn can be captured and re-produced as long as the specific features of the place are respected.

Despite the fact that urbanity presents variations of a socio-cultural nature, in general the city that is compact, multi-functional, polycentric and enjoys a qualified network of public space and an efficient system of mobility has proved to be the ideal model of today’s metropolis (13).

Final remarks: the projective attitude of the urbanist-architect

This article has set out to show that a new generation of urban projects has been treated differently from those based on modernist principles that appeared in the post-war period. Many authors claim that these projects have a more contextualized approach, one committed to the city’s socio-cultural and historical dimension. Their concern is with the identity of the place, and they connect with one another by means of an urban plan that is characterized as a “city project”.

Some of these contemporary projects, however, just like the modernist projects in the past, are de-contextualized and lacking a higher level of planning. Egocentric interventions, they convey the idea of large architectonic projects isolated in the landscape rather than actual urban projects integrated with the city. Some of them even present a strong visual appeal with the obvious objective of attracting the attention of the public and acting more like instruments of urban marketing.

The urbanist-architect’s unfamiliarity with the complex relations between plan and project in contemporary planning can lead to serious social repercussions. The most obvious would be to favor Strategic Planning being manipulated in order to legitimize a series of specific disarticulated interventions designed to benefit privileged real-estate groups interested in such urban niches (14). The formal consent of the government by misusing this model of planning would make these interventions even more harmful than those carried out in the 1980s and 1990s, when a series of isolated private-sector projects were implanted.

It would be naive to believe that the attitude of the urbanist-architect toward his/ her project is in itself sufficient to prevent Strategic Planning being deformed. Other urban actors involved in this process, such as public institutions, private entrepreneurs and the community itself also play important roles in this context. Nevertheless, the function of the urbanist-architect as responsible for the design project is decisive, and it is very important that priority has not only be given to the artistic aspects of his/her profession.

The focus here is on the intellectual nature of the discipline, developed according to the dichotomy that exists in practice as an artistic activity based on intuition and/or a quasi-scientific activity based on deduction. Here we are dealing with the difference between the project-related mentality centered on pure art and prioritizing the visual quality of the urban space by using aesthetic principles, and the attitude committed to actions aimed at improving the quality of life of people who use the built environment.

The truth is that all project-related actions always — and probably will always — contain an artistic dimension that is predominantly based on intuition. After all, every architectural or urban project, in addition to serving its use, expresses through its aesthetic nature a style that is nothing other than the materialization of the spirit of a people in a certain period of time. History has established clear relations between urban spaces, time and the societies in which theses spaces were built. Urban space, after all, is also a work of art in which a specific moment of human culture is portrayed.

Accordingly, as in any other artistic activity, a certain degree of personalism is indispensable in projecting these spaces. Nevertheless, it seems unquestionable that an excess of this component can complicate or even compromise the functional and aesthetic collaboration between the projects — since they are often conceived by different professionals — and how they articulate with the urban plan. It is in this regard that presents the great complexity of the relationship between the punctual interventions proposed by Strategic Planning. How can we guarantee individualizing the project-based action and articulating collectively the projects that result from this action?

In this sense, the rapport set up between social behavior and urban space, and which supports Urban Design so well, can act as a conceptual link between the proposals. This could be the theoretical foundation of the design process which, once added to the architect’s intuitive creativity, would ensure that qualified urban spaces would become a reality. In this way, Urban Design should be seen as a hybrid discipline made up of elements of a quasi-scientific basis plus the artistic intuitive dimension.

It seems fundamental that today’s architects should get over the self-image of the artist in a pure state and assume this ambiguity contained in conceiving urban projects, without being afraid that using the knowledge gathered in academic research will restrict their creative potential. After all, it is this very same ambiguity that prevents the development of precise theories that, if applied correctly, will guarantee that a quality urban space is produced. The mysterious component called “creativity”, which insists on remaining indecipherable, is the main factor that differentiates between an average outcome and one that is outstanding.

In closing, it is always wise to remember that the failure of the modernist urban interventions to attend to the needs of their users contributed decisively to the discredit of the urban project. The consequence of that was a sort of “de-spatialization” of urban planning, which then became normative and protagonized by the “Planos Diretores”. As a result, the image of the urbanist-architect was also compromised, in such a way that for a long time these professionals were seen as secondary in importance and only summoned at the end of the process to materialize graphically proposals already conceived.

In the Strategic Planning of cities, revalorization of the urban project presents itself as a great opportunity for urbanist-architects to regain their prominent place in the planning process. For this to happen, however, it is essential that their project-related mentality proves to be coherent with the new role fulfilled by the urban project in contemporary planning. Otherwise, we run the risk of once again being considered mere makeup artists of urban spaces.


NA — This article is a revised and expanded version of the paper written in Portuguese: BRANDÃO, Zeca. O papel do desenho urbano no planejamento estratégico:. A nova postura do arquiteto no plano urbano contemporâneo. Arquitextos, São Paulo, ano 03, n. 025.04, Vitruvius, jun. 2002 <>. It was originally published in Cadernos FGV Projetos, in March 2018.

The International Congress of Modern Architecture was a forum held in the 1920s to debate the development of the Modern Movement on architectonic and urban scales.

“Plano Diretor” is a model of normative urban planning that all cities with a population larger than 20 thousand inhabitants are required to have by national law.

Jordi Borja and Manuel Castells (1997) feature among the main theoretical mentors of Strategic City Planning, also known as the “Catalunyan model” of urban planning.

In some cities the social and political mobilization necessary to elaborate and implement Strategic Planning has been made all the easier by hosting major international events.

PORTAS, Nuno. Un nuevo urbanism. In BORJA, Jordi; CASTELLS, Manuel; DORADO, Roberto; QUINTANA, Ignacio (org.). Las grandes ciudades en la decada de los noventa. Madri, Editorial Sistema, 1990.

This was the case of the strategic planning of Barcelona; during the preparation of the 1992 Olympic Games, a series of urban projects already underway were incorporated.

It is precisely this capacity to extend benefits to the areas surrounding the interventions that legitimizes concentrating public resources invested in determined points of the city.

This concept was created by the Finnish urbanist-architect Marco Casagrande and launched in Brazil by Jaime Lerner, ex-mayor of Curitiba city and ex-governor of Paraná state.

SPECK, Jeff. Walkable City: How Downtown can Save America, one Step at a Time. New York, North Point Press, 2012.

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (1st B.C.), author of the treatise De Architecture, considered to be the first Western theoretical text on the discipline.

KOOLHAAS, Rem; Mau, Bruce. S, M, L, XL. Monacelli Press, New York, 1995.

This book was translated into Portuguese in 2000, under the title Morte e vida das grandes cidades (The Life and Death of Big Cities).

GEHL, Jan; SVARRE, Birgitte. How to Study Public Life. London, Island Press, 2013.

ARANTES, Otilia; VAINER, Carlos; MARICATO, Erminia. A cidade do pensamento único: desmanchando consensos. Petrópolis, Vozes, 2000.

about the author

Zeca Brandão holds a PhD from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. Professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco and at the Postgraduate Program in Urban Development, he developed design projects and studies in the area of architecture and urbanism, mainly in urban-space planning and architectural projects. Former Executive-Secretary of Cities in the State of Pernambuco, he was awarded 1st prize at the 10th Pan-American Biennial of Architecture (in the category of Urban Design and Collected Works), and at the 3rd International Biennial of Brazilian Architecture (in the category of Urban Intervention). He is the author of The Role of Urban Design in Strategic Planning: the case of Rio de Janeiro and Technical Nucleus of Urban Operations: studies 2007-2010.


276.01 urban design
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original: english



276.00 urbanismo social

Urbanismo corporativo ou urbanismo social

Qual proposta para o Brasil?

Nadia Somekh and Renato Balbim

276.02 arquitetura moderna brasileira

Turismo e arquitetura no “inferno verde”

A modernidade do Hotel Amazonas (1947–1951)

Ricardo Alexandre Paiva

276.03 conforto e ambiência urbana

Desvendando os outros

A dimensão oculta nos territórios de lazer

Sérgio Antonio dos Santos Jr, Maria Fernanda Wadt and Taísa Pavani

276.04 territorialização

Passinho do funk

Territórios da dança, práticas da cidade conectada

André Cavedon Ripoll


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