Swimming in the Driving Lane: Sao Paulo Takes Over an Urban Highway

Simultaneously vast, dense and sprawling, Sao Paulo is a city of wild contradictions. It faces a water crisis so acute that it threatens the city’s long term viability; the traffic is unrelenting; and the social and economic inequalities are wide. And yet Sao Paulo is a metropolis of immense vitality and drive, the economic engine of Brazil, and home to great works by architects like Oscar Niemeyer, Lina Bo Bardi, Paulo Mendes da Rocha, and Marcio Kogan, and many others.


I recently visited Sao Paulo and was soon stuck in a huge traffic jam, on an elevated highway, in the middle of the city. This 2.2 mile long highway (here was a page torn directly out of the Robert Moses playbook!) was built during the dictatorship in the late 1960s. Constructed with no regard for the local residents, the road became known derisively as Minhocao, or “The Big Worm.” During the day, it’s a hellaciously busy road. And yet—Sao Paulo being Sao Paulo—the Big Worm has an altogether different identity at night. It’s closed to traffic from 9:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. and all day on Sundays and holidays. The surreal transition from roaring highway to makeshift urban playground is, I think, very much part of Sao Paulo’s special character.


If I had not been taken there by a friend, on a Sunday afternoon, I would have never discovered the Minhocao’s other identity. “Check this out,” my friend Victor said to me, as we walked up a pockmarked highway ramp not far from our hotel. “You’ll be amazed.” Emerging onto the elevated surface, I saw throngs of people hanging out, walking, eating, listening to music played over huge boom-boxes. These were not tourists. They were locals who had come to take daily (re)possession of the Minhocao.


Of course, I immediately thought of The High Line in New York City, but this was different. The High Line is a designed experience, which quickly became became an engine for investment and urban transformation. The Minhocao is simply a “playground for fun,” while closed to traffic. It’s a DIY-park, a remarkable example of urban appropriation, a case study in how easily people can seize space and create new settings for life. Local planners have long advocated that the highway be torn down. Maybe these celebratory closures are a step toward making this happen?




A 200 meter pool is made by laying a light blue plastic base on the highway. Filled with about 4 inches of water, this pool is an instant hit with people who want to splash around or simply cool down in the hot summer months. Surreal in its position, it makes perfect sense as an act of appropriation.




The pool is just meters away from apartment buildings that line the edge of Minhocao. Tents are installed, boom-boxes set up, dance parties begin, and food is served from stalls and improvised kitchens.




Lane markings are cheerfully ignored as people stroll up and down the new space of the highway.




The impact of the highway can be seen in how close these apartment buildings are to 80,000 cars a day. Imagine the noise and fumes! As people ride their bikes or walk on the highway, it’s not hard to imagine the potential transformation, should Sao Paulo follow the lead of other cities and take the road down.




Walking along the highway edge, you can see the city streets cutting below. Sometimes they connect to adjacent districts as if the Minhocao were not there. Most of the time, the structure is a divider, a barrier that prevents a more balanced relationship between cars and pedestrians.




During construction of the highway in the 1960s, the columns march along like the military dictatorship that built it. A grand boulevard once occupied the space.  


Historic photo via saopauloinfoco.com.br; all others courtesy of the author. 


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