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Romancing the city’s rivers

  • Urbanist and architect Felipe Correa’s study of São Paulo and its rivers has lessons for Mumbai’s water management
  • Correa set out to understand how São Paulo can transform its relationship to its rivers from a utilitarian one to a cultural one

The architect and urbanist Felipe Correa.
The architect and urbanist Felipe Correa. (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

To think about the future of cities, you need to experience cities and enjoy cities," says Felipe Correa. On his first visit to Mumbai, Correa has chosen to land on one of the dampest weekends in the city this year. It is hard to imagine how Mumbai—swamped as it is every monsoon—could be enjoyable, but it is not surprising that Correa would be at ease in an urban environment such as this. For the New York-based urbanist and architect is invested in finding out what works in megacities, what doesn’t, and the most feasible ways of fixing what is wrong.

A view of commercial buildings and the Pinheiros river in São Paulo.
A view of commercial buildings and the Pinheiros river in São Paulo. (Photo: iStock)

His most recent book, São Paulo: A Graphic Biography (published by the University of Texas Press), is just that kind of mission. The outcome of a “very intense" study that lasted for more than a year, São Paulo is a bildungsroman with the Brazilian financial centre as its protagonist. It explores how São Paulo grew over the years, especially after World War II, when it hit a puberty of sorts. The city expanded rapidly between 1940-90, its landscape aggressively transformed by engineering and hydrological changes, emerging as Brazil’s connection to the rest of the world. In Correa’s words, it became “a manufacturing Eden".

This Eden was manufactured from floodplains, by controlling the Tietê river and its tributary, the Pinheiros. The city is built over a system of 300 streams and creeks that have been canalized and buried beneath the city. Correa notes that the relentless paving of ground surfaces in a city built on a floodplain has made it impossible to handle average volumes of stormwater run-off. He writes, “This problem is evident to the naked eye when travelling on a rainy day through any of the flood-prone freeways that flank the Pinheiros and Tietê rivers, the area of discharge for most of the canals."

São Paulo—A Graphic Biography: By Felipe Correa, University of Texas Press (Bilingual edition), 348 pages, $65 (around  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>4,600).
São Paulo—A Graphic Biography: By Felipe Correa, University of Texas Press (Bilingual edition), 348 pages, $65 (around 4,600).

Correa, who has served as the director of the master of architecture in urban design programme at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, is currently the chair of architecture at the University of Virginia School of Architecture. He was in Mumbai to release São Paulo and deliver a lecture on it, given the parallels that can be drawn between the two cities. Apart from the obvious—both are state capitals and have a multiplicity of economies, cultures and tastes—Correa notes that they have a similar relationship to water. “In both cities, water management has been the point of departure—in different ways—to open land for development," he says.

São Paulo studies that city’s many urban forms but the running theme is its hydrography. Correa actively set out to understand how São Paulo can transform its relationship to its rivers from a utilitarian, technical one to an ecological, cultural one. “The rivers have always been put to work in the service of the city but have never been the life of the city. The architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha has often been attributed as saying that São Paulo has a pornographic relationship with its rivers and it’s time we changed it to a more romantic one," he says.

A flooded street in Mumbai earlier this month.
A flooded street in Mumbai earlier this month. (Photo: AP)

Mumbai and other Indian cities are no different, as is evident from the changing patterns of the monsoon season and its management. In Mumbai, land reclamation created a city out of seven islands, directly impacting its economy and sanitation. It was made possible through sea walls, causeways and other infrastructure projects that started in the 18th century. This continues today, in the form of the Coastal Road (permission for which was quashed by the Bombay high court in July) and the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project, set to tear down acres of flood-preventing mangroves.

São Paulo, unlike Mumbai, did not reclaim land but worked on a similar principle—land belonging to the river was used by the city, creating a challenge with flooding and wastewater management.

Mithi, one of the four Mumbai rivers that has been reduced to a large sewer, faces a similar fate. Activists have recently argued that its riverbanks, which should rightfully act as buffers against monsoon flooding, have been encroached upon by informal settlements and huge construction projects.

Journalist Krupa Ge’s recent book, Rivers Remember, is a reminder that cities built on rivers need to work with them rather than tame them. Ge recalls the Chennai rains and “manmade floods" of 2015, viewing them as a symptom of climate change. The mismanagement of water bodies is ultimately what leads to cities sinking because rivers remember their old routes.

At the end of Correa’s book are drawings of how the rivers were changed 1842 onwards, from free-flowing floodplains into channelized figures. At one point, São Paulo even reversed the flow of the Pinheiros for hydroelectric power.

São Paulo does, however, also offer solutions. A comprehensive water management plan must be built primarily on these elements: Increase the space allocated to the riverbed; provide cleaning and daylight for the many small rivers and streams channelized and hidden beneath roads to reduce water pollution; and designate inner-city land for the construction of new water detention pools.

São Paulo is not just a criticism of urban mismanagement. It also charts the incredible urban lessons that the city has to offer to South America and urban centres across the world. Correa says the city has done a lot for water management, by introducing water detention basins (an excavated area to collect flood run-off), for example.

Correa adds, “There are some cities you can’t learn any lessons from." Mumbai, fortunately, is not on that list.

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