This article was originally posted on FUTUREPERFECT and written by Carol Ramos.
Active citizens in West São Paulo have revitalized a square to create a small oasis in the middle of the city.
The increase in real estate speculation, resulting in the quiet erasure of the history of neighbourhoods and transforming them into a sea of large buildings, has led São Paulo natives to imagine a friendlier city that is more intimately connected with nature and whose people are united in solidarity. And just like that, almost incidentally, Ocupe e Abrace (Occupy and Embrace) was born in São Paulo in 2013: a collective that has made itself known for its revitalization of Praça da Nascente, a 12,000 square metre public square in West São Paulo.
Not far from a main thoroughfare, the small oasis still remains unknown even to many residents of the neighbourhood. But it is welcoming more and more children, youth, adults and elderly who – delighted by the pond filled with fish raised by the collective – enjoy sitting down and listening to the babbling water. Or they sit in silence and reconnect with days gone by when life was slower paced and the sounds that filled the air were those of honking horns and idling engines. Owls, bellbirds, butterflies, bees and a dozen other pollinators have also returned to frequent the place, for the square has also turned into a vegetable garden for those who have decided to spend a few hours of their day revitalizing it.
How the idea arose
We met at the competition for proposals for the project A Pompéia que se Quer (A New Image for the neighbourhood of Pompéia) promoted by the initiative Cidade Democrática (Democratic City). The project for the square was one of the projects with the most votes. And even though some of them had proposed other things at the competition, a group began to meet and think about how to occupy the space, which at the time was mostly abandoned”, actress and musician Roberta Soares remembers. She was the one who had initially proposed the project. “Our idea was to occupy the space, but we wanted that to sound caring rather than frightening. Thus the name Ocupe e Abrace.”
One of the first to “embrace” the group was the architect Luciana Cury. She hadn’t even known that the square existed, but had been very discontent with the disappearance of family homes in the neighbourhood and with the groundwater constantly spilling over onto the sidewalks of the new multi-story buildings. “I was born in Assis, in the southwest of the State of São Paulo, and I spent my childhood and a good part of my adolescence walking around barefoot and exchanging seasonal fruits for jellies with my neighbors,” the architect recalls. “In the capital, few things have made me feel as good as being able to grow my own food at home, even though I only live in an apartment. The square has come to be an extension of my private space – this space now being lived collectively,” she continues.
In the beginning, the neighbours looked on with scepticism as the group got together in this dirty, abandoned place. “More than once we heard that the space wasn’t good for anything, that it wasn’t going to work out, but we did not give up,” Cury relates.
In one of those meetings, the idea came up to create the 1st Festival of Praça da Nascente in June 2013. “We were humble in planning the event, but it turned out wonderful. There was ciranda and other dances, and we were pleasantly surprised to see how much the people were enjoying the festivities,” Soares reports.
Since then, there have been six more festivals borne out of solidarity, improvisation and creativity. People pooled their money to rent port-a-potties, microphones and speakers. “Now you see children and families in the square at night. There was none of this before,” says Soares. “The urban dweller needs to restore balance and return to community life. Trust has to be re-established. It’s a way of re-conquering [the city]“, the actress points out.
Changing the image of the city
The personal transformation that the intervention has brought about for each individual involved in Ocupe e Abrace is undeniable. Throw in a few pinches of learning, a serving of debate, new professional perspectives and self-knowledge. As a result, all those involved have transformed into more committed citizens.
Video artist Andrea Pesek, who joined the collective and provided support for the revitalization of the water source, says that it was only here that she learned to handle water sources: “Learning about it together with the people, with the reality of the squares,” she emphasizes. She is convinced that it is this type of activism that changes perspectives on the city significantly, “because you feel like you’re playing a central role alongside other people.”
Quality of life is key for Luciana Cury. “On Sundays all I think about is going to the square to plant, breathe that air, meet up with people and light a fire. It has become a program I do not want to miss,” she says.
The water revitalization story has also brought Andrea Pesek to other collectives. “Ocupe e Abrace has inspired many similar projects,” she tells us. “We will collaborate with other projects because we want to restore the city’s water sources,” she concludes.
Carol Ramos is a journalist and environmental activist. She is a member of Slow Food and of MUDA SP, a network that supports urban agriculture.