Sunday, November 22

The walking paths of Brasilia

The City of Brasilia, conceived and built in the 1950's and 60's, is the exemplar of modernist urban planning. It's got it all: extreme separation of uses, access only by motor vehicle, mid-rise boxy buildings set in vast open spaces, and a conspicuous absence of any history before the mid-twentieth century. There are no traffic lights or sidewalks in the city (at least in the original design), and almost every four-way intersection is a cloverleaf interchange. The design ensures that motorists will never have to inconvenience themselves by stopping, and pedestrians don't mind because they theoretically don't exist. It all fits together like a machine - actually an airplane, by resemblance.

But when the city is viewed from above we can see incursions of organic human life superimposed on top of the plan. The picture below is near the center of the city, where the wings meet the fuselage of the plane. A network of paths are clear evidence that pedestrians have crossed the open field where they are not suppose to.

These rogue pedestrians don't have an easy task. Virtually the only way to access this space is to cross at least six lanes of traffic and then cross another six lanes to exit. The width of the open space is 1/4 of a mile, which is exactly twice the width of the national mall in Washington D.C., and there is no shade or amenities whatsoever. They still make the journey.

Drawing the human use on the map reveals a complex network of activity very different from the plan.

This is the network of function over geometry. The paths are trodden out of convenience, but they also gently meander. Lewis Mumford recognized this unviersal tendency back in 1961, just as Brasilia was under construction.
"the slow curve is the natural line of the footwalker, as anyone can observe as he looks back at his tracks in the snow across an open field."
Not only do the curves shift the field of view slightly offering some aesthetic variation, because of topography they can even be the most energy-efficient route. (Unless, that is, you have a bulldozer to eliminate all preexisting topography.)

Although it's hard to prove conclusively, it looks like safety concerns played a part in determining where the highways were crossed. Several paths seem to converge at points where on-ramps and off-ramps are separated from the main flow of traffic. Crossing at these points allows the pedestrian to have breaks of median before having to make the next step. It looks as if some people have been willing to sacrifice a certain degree of time in order to cross a little more safely at one of these points.

Interestingly, these points of convergence are analogous to the forces that led to the origins of medieval Paris. The only difference being that Paris was formed at the easiest crossing point of the Seine river, where an island reduced the distance, and residents of Brasilia are attempting to cross a river of automobile traffic at a breaking point. If I were in the hot dog stand business (and it were allowed) I'd know exactly where to set up shop.

Lewis Mumford explained further what he admired in medieval cities,
"Organic planning does not begin with a preconceived goal; it moves from need to need, from opportunity to opportunity, in a series of adaptations that themselves become increasingly coherent and purposeful, so that they generate a complex final design, hardly less unified than a pre-formed geometric pattern."
yes, this happens even in Brasilia.


Seth said...


This is one of the most insightful posts I have seen in a long time. Brasillia is an interesting case study indeed.

Jarrett at said...

Excellent post. Brasilia also exhibits, on Google Earth, the clear tendency for planned cities to form a negative or "Other" city just outside its borders, where everything that a city needs but the plan excludes naturally comes to locate.

Steven Vance said...

Where should cities build bikeways? Where people want them.

And how might we figure where people go, aside from a stated answer survey, we could tag 1,000 random bicyclists with GPS and track where they go. It would probably give us an image like the second one in your post: with yellow lines criss-crossing the city's street network.

Anonymous said...

good post. J. Holston writes a lot about these paths in his classic anthropological study of Brasilia.

kvnbklyn said...

This particular area of Brasilia is in the center of its downtown. The masterplan of the city is symmetrical and there are two commercial/hotel districts on either side of the monumental axis in the center, which is the grassy area in the picture. Also, the main bus station, which is the Grand Central of Brasilia, is just to the right in these photos, so lots of people are walking from there to their jobs or the shopping malls to the left.

I've been to Brasilia and it's a strange place. The city really is designed with the assumption that everyone will have a car, but most people don't, so there's lots of pedestrian activity even though the physical form doesn't accommodate it. When I was there I felt you always had to walk through parking lots or through large empty grassy areas to get where you want to go. The weird thing is everyone is doing it, too.

That being said, the residential districts were surprisingly pleasant. And the bus system quite useful and extensive.

Eric Orozco said...

Nice... I love the breadth of this post. That's all I have to say. :)

Kevin said...

Interesting Brasilia fact - *everyone* there will tell you not to walk across that grassy expanse after sunset. Far too dangerous.

Brasilia itself, despite the nice architecture (Dom Bosco, especially) is a disaster of a city. The separation of uses means that the entire center of the city is utterly dead after the end of the workday. Eerily dead. The only relevant third places appear to be malls. When I tell Brazilians I went to Brasilia, their first response is inevitably, "Why?" This is surely not what the planners had in mind.

Michael said...

Anyone who has not read James Scott's Seeing Like A State" should check it out. Fascinating chapter on Brasilia & the history of its design.

Anonymous said...

Just a correction: yes, Brasilia was intended to have no traffic lights, but nowadays it is full of them. Maybe it has fewer than some cities, but it has plenty.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps folks here can help me with this. I swear that at one point I heard a story (which was possibly apocryphal) about a newly built school where they had not put any paths between the buildings. Instead they let people walk where they wanted until paths were worn down in the grass, at which point they laid down walkways along those routes.

Anyone know what I'm talking about?

Daniel said...

Steven, this study from Portland last year gave GPS to some cyclists and made maps with it. Back in Missoula, MT I made a Google mash-up where people could draw their regular routes (with varying results), and I know that's been done in other places. Wouldn't it be cool if every city had an idea of where people ride? I'd love to hear more from your experiences with bike planning in Chicago ...

Correction duly noted about the traffic lights... I heard that somewhere, but I should have verified it.

As far as the campus path design goes, I've heard that as well but never where it happened. This blog calls it an urban myth but it's not implausible that someone has done it.

Seth said...

The San Francisco Transportation Authority just launched an iphone app that records your bike route via GPS and sends it to them for data collection.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and also, there are sidewalks. There are many places where there aren't any and other places where they end suddenly, but there are a lot of them and they keep building more.

pupelho said...

Great post and comments, I agree completely with Kevin. One contribution to the sidewalk planning debate: the absence of sidewalks is a trademark of the city's 'monumental axis' -- much in line with Lucio Costa's reading of Le Corbusier's modernist vision of a "ville radieuse". The residential axis is centered on paved pathways internally criss-crossing the mega-blocks.

LH said...

Daniel, fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

The school that allowed students to walk for several months before putting in sidewalks was Florida Southern in Lakeland, Florida. It is mostly a Frank Lloyd Wright designed campus. A couple of years ago I heard they were working on new paths and were doing the same process to see if anything has changes.

Anonymous said...

those informal paths are called desire paths see wiki entry.

urban planners i have worked with in the past have said that the geometries in many of the planned parks and squares are paved desire paths. Though this is unknown for sure, it seems right.

Stephen Gross said...

Great post! I didn't know anything about Brasilia. It's quite a disaster to see these modernist planned cities. Wow...


Steven Vance said...

Thanks for posting this article.
Right after I made my comment, I ended up blogged your article. I added my own photo of the same situation: people walking the direct route, across the grass and mud.

Prakash M Apte said...

We planned Gandhinagar, new capital city for the state of Gujarat in India in the 60s. Before constructing the cycle/pedestrian tracks, we observed and mapped the most preferred routes by the people. Later, tracks were constructed along those alignments. That is one of the reasons why the city is pedestrian friendly

Placemaking Institute said...

I've spent a lot of time acquainting myself with desire paths across the USA, and this blog posting reminds me of what an nasty job the highway infrasture has done to pedestrian and bicyclist mobility by being so auto-centric. Downtown American, much like Brasilia, is dead after the workday ends...Le Corbusier, anyone?:

Fedor Novikov said...

Great post!

In Moscow (Russia) that was planned under simililar modernist philosophy, the paths are all over the place.

We created an advocacy movement to preserve these paths:

Anonymous said...

Great post! I'm looking for a location to open a store in Brasilia, preferably not in a shopping mall...any ideas of where that could be???

Anonymous said...

Great post! I'm looking for a location to open a store in Brasilia, preferably not in a shopping mall...any ideas of where that could be??? said...

Great post! I'm looking for a location to open a store in Brasilia, preferably not in a shopping mall...any ideas of where that could be???

Anonymous said...

Great post! I'm looking for a location to open a store in Brasilia, preferably not in a shopping mall...any ideas of where that could be???

Myriam Mahiques said...

Hi Daniel, this is a great post, I copied the reference in my blog Thoughts on Architecture and Urbanism. Congratulations,
arch. Myriam Mahiques

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Chuck said...

I lived in Brasilia for almost a year, back in the '80s. My first day there, I took a long walk. I never did that again!
There were underpasses that connected across the six lane streets and grassy areas, but they were filthy and no doubt very dangerous. So at least the planners were thinking a little bit about pedestrians.

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Adult Tricycle, Laura said...

I happened to visit there once. It is a true Brazilian jewel.

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