On my way to meeting Brazilian colleagues from all three Universities for a workshop in Porto Alegre I took up the kind invitation of the Brasilia team to visit their city.
Arriving in the Capital on a Sunday I had a tour of the central area to get orientated and see some of the famous architecture by Oscar Niemeyer and urban planning by Lucio Costa. We travelled by car on the large highways of the Monumental Axis and Residential Axis which create the distinctive ‘dragonfly’ form of the capital which was created from scratch in the 1950s.
Although the main road of the Residential Axis was closed to vehicles on a Sunday as usual and available for use by cyclists and pedestrians it was clear that in the centre of this city the ‘car was king’. This was emphasised the next day at the extensive University of Brasilia campus with its fine architecture but vast car parks to accommodate students and staff travelling by car due to long distances from home and expensive, crowded buses.
In the afternoon we visited the first of the case study sites in Brasilia. The Vila Planalto community was originally the place where the builders of the new city lived. The intention had been to clear it away but the residents had resisted eviction. After lunch in one of the restaurants popular with civil servants escaping their limited eating options in the central government zone we explored the community.
The wide range of income was evident in the variety of building size and quality, from well-appointed detached homes, through apartments to very recent informal homes.
As in the rest of Brazil pavements were the responsibility of the plot holder and so varied hugely in terms of materials and maintenance – often with barriers to mark boundaries, making continuous use of the pavement for walking along challenging in places. This was not such a problem as most people simply walked in the road. While I was there traffic was very sparse and slow moving, making walking in the road safe and pleasant. Although I saw only a little cycling there were two local bike repair shops.
My next case site visit was to ‘superblocks’ 409/410 in the south wing of the Dragonfly’s planned residential zone. Designed as self-contained and self-sufficient neighborhoods with local commerce, schooling, recreation and churches, the blocks in this area were restricted to three stories. The feel here was calm and leafy with people walking short distances to the temporary greengrocer/fruiterer, gas canister sales point and playgrounds. But always in the background was the hum of the highways which made walking between the superblocks either side very difficult.
My final visit in Brasilia was to Varjao, an informal settlement to the north of the city centre that had grown up from the 1970s onwards. More recently it had been formalised through the provision of electricity, water, sewerage and community facilities including schools, a health centre and police station. Again residents were moving around the community on foot during the day. In the evenings the open spaces apparently hosted large, convivial, social gatherings. A very large pedestrian bridge had been built to address the severance of the main road and to help with access to work locations further away – it wasn’t obvious how well this was being used.
Moving on to Porto Alegre in the far south of Brazil the weather changed to heavy rain and a coolness more familiar to the UK.
Our methods workshop took place at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. We explored the theoretical basis and links between mobility biographies and mobile methods – but most importantly tried them out in practice.
Firstly, we tested the process of carrying out a mobility biography interview. We each completed our own Lifetime Mobility and Health Grid before passing this to a partner (example Grid). They reviewed the grid, looking for key events relating to changes in mobility and health, and used this information as the basis of an interview exploring residential locations, mobility practices and their relationship to health and wellbeing. Afterwards we reflected on how this approach could be adapted for people with different levels of literacy and how the interviews could best be recorded and analysed.
The second part of the workshop involved reviewing different methods that we could use to understand people’s experience of moving around their neighbourhoods in different ways. We split into five teams with colleagues taking on the role of participant, researcher and observer. Two walking teams, a bus team and a cycle team spread out across the city using a GoPro Hero 5 video camera on a chest harness to record their journeys. The walking and bus groups conducted their interviews on the move as they experienced the city. The cycling group focussed on riding safely and thinking about questions for the end of ride review.
A further group used a ‘Photo Voice’ approach – taking a series of still images on their phones to use as the basis of a discussion about the experience of walking from the hotel to the University.
After re-gathering at the University we reviewed the videos and photographs and tried out questions which could be useful in getting a deeper understanding of people’s experience of mobility in Porto Alegre. Finally, we agreed the exciting potential of using biographical and mobile methods together and started creating an action plan for using these approaches in each of the three Brazilian cities.
The next day we visited the case study sites in Porto Alegre. The first two of which, Cruzeiro and Tronco were more deprived.
We visited a community centre in Cruzeiro which was doing fantastic work providing food and other support to local families despite minimal government funding. It was shocking to see a road programme, initiated before the 2014 Football World Cup, which had been abandoned, after the demolition of housing, due to funding being fraudulently taken from the City authorities. There were no further funds to complete the scheme.
Our final stop was Menino Deus, a more affluent neighbourhood closer to the centre of the city which mainly had apartment blocks along tree-lined streets which were laid out in a grid system. Colleagues from Brasilia commented that this street could almost be part of one of their own superblocks.
So, overall I had a fascinating week visiting a wide variety of neighbourhoods and discussing how different biographical and mobile methods could be used to understand them better. Many thanks to all my Brazilian colleagues for engaging so enthusiastically with the workshop and for the city and neighbourhood tours.
It will be highly informative to reflect on the combined results of these methods and the residential surveys carried out in the communities of Brasilia, Porto Alegre and Florianopolis. This will give us a rich understanding of the ways residents travel around these communities and the impact on their health and wellbeing.
More on the case sites can be found here.