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Two Brazilian-born architects showcase some of Latin America’s most sustainable communities

To Carmen Vidal-Hallet, an architect and urban planner based in Chicago, a sustainable city revolves around the community.

“To me, what makes a sustainable community is a combination of working with professionals that deeply understand the subject, and the community. Without the community, nothing ever happens,” she says.

On Sunday, Sept. 14, Vidal-Hallet will join New York-based architect Leticia Wouk Almino for a presentation on the best sustainable practices in Latino communities across the Americas, providing examples from Brazil, Colombia and Chicago.

Both women are well-suited to the task. Vidal-Hallet was born in Brazil and spent the first 10 years of her life moving from Brazil to Spain to Venezuela and finally back to Brazil.

“I was there in Sao Pãulo until college ... Sao Pãulo is crazy — traffic is horrendous. It’s so difficult to be there, and even though I am from Sao Pãulo and I wanted to help, I didn’t want to live there,” Vidal-Hallet admits. “My parents moved for a while to Curitiba while I was in college and I saw that place as paradise. That’s how any city should be.”

The Brazilian city of more than 1.7 million people opened the world’s first bus rapid transit system in 1974, creating a citywide shift from individual car travel to mass transit. Curitiba uses about 30 percent less fuel per capita than other Brazilian cities of similar size.

Vidal-Hallet says that it was about 10 years ago, while she was working with former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, that she started researching sustainable communities in Brazil.

“Mayor Daley wanted Chicago to be one of the most sustainable cities in the U.S. and I thought, why not to get inspired by my own culture and the city of Curitiba in Brazil,” she says.

She and her husband used a Graham Foundation grant to travel to Curitiba to complete a multimedia comparison between Curitiba and Chicago.

“I’ve studied [Curitiba] since I was in college in Brazil and I went there looking for the specifics of what I remembered, but we found a lot more,” says Vidal-Hallet. “[Curitiba] is famous for the most rapid transit, and that is the core of sustainable cities — you want people to use mass transportation rather than their own car. How could that be translated into other American cities? We also looked into how they recycle and how they use land or zoning as one of the tools to preserve historic architecture, or even to get open space for everyone and to also create affordable housing. All those are the main components of a sustainable urban plan.”

But Vidal-Hallet says that perhaps the most important element to creating a sustainable city involves the environmental education of the community.

“You go to the school and you start with [children] and they bring then the priorities to their parents, and the children are the most important thing to their parents and that’s how you get to the parents,” she says. “I believe in youth and the community to help us do that, to transform a city.”

She also believes that pieces of Hispanic culture fit perfectly with the type of culture that sustainable communities promote.

“I find it interesting in the Latino community that we have life on the streets — walking, playing dominos on the sidewalk,” Vidal-Hallet says. “Those little activities on the streets show you how the communities live, and as a urbanist and architect we want to promote that kind of life that transforms the city.”

“Try to remember walking in front of a big-box retail store as opposed to walking on a street full of little vendors,” Vidal-Hallet asks. “If you think about the distance, you’re going to feel so much more tired walking in a parking lot than walking through an area filled with smaller stores — the mind, the body are all engaged. You don’t even notice you’re doing the exercise. That’s how the environment of Latino communities is.”

And here is where Leticia Wouk Almino’s expertise comes into play. Since her graduate school days at Yale, Almino has been studying public spaces in capital cities, or former capital cities — how those spaces are successful or not successful at promoting a center for public life. Almino, like Vidal-Hallet, is Brazilian, and has also spent her life moving from city to city.

“This research in a sense is very personal, perhaps even autobiographi cal,” Almino says. “I grew up in Brasília; Washington D.C.; San Francisco; Lisbon and London, and I’ve been living in New York and New Haven for the past eight years. So I have spent a lot of time growing up in capital cities of different countries. I’ve essentially grown up living through many case studies.”

Almino says that spending so little time in each city, she’s never had much time to get to know the places, so the idea of walking through the city and experiencing it through the eyes of a visitor has always interested her. Her research looks at public squares in four cities in Portugal and Brazil, with Lisbon as her primary study, then using Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and Brasília to show the transformation of public squares across Brazilian capitals. Her investigations focus on how pedestrians arrive in a space and what they experience while they are there.

Almino says that the public square is no longer a welcoming space, and she attributes this, much like Vidal- Hallet, to the introduction of the car. And again echoing Vidal-Hallet’s sentiments, Almino says that the Latino relationship to the outdoors — the tendency to use the outdoors as a gathering place — is a great basis for a sustainable community.

“Latin Americans in general use the outdoors as an extension of their homes. I think in the U.S. people … like their cars and they like their houses farther away,” says Almino. “It’s much more difficult to meet in the public space. Coming form Brazil, being outdoors is so much more important.”

Presentation information: Sunday, Sept. 4: Best Practices of Latino Sustainable Communities in the Americas: Built environment examples in Brasil, Colômbia and Chicago, Dairy Center for the Arts, East Theater.

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