"São Paulo Urban Garden," a Photo Essay

Posted on December 4, 2017

Story and photos by Zoe Zeitler '20

She yelps, the house is yellow just like her last urban gardener friend’s. Checking for cars peripherally, the flowers hung in halved bottles come forward. There’s a tension in the air, a sense of expectancy that we haven’t had in a few days. Our week has been saturated with a program of São Paulo architecture and contemporary art viewings. We’re here over fall break for our interdisciplinary design studio, exploring the intersection of architecture and urban planning.

Diego Lahóz seems excited to share his project, Orquídeas na Vila, with us, maybe to stroll around and soak up these charged streets. Does he want to exchange and build futurisms? How far into the space between us can my guess reach when it first became an overseeable distance five minutes ago…Soft air, cyclical drum tappings drift from another street corner…we bring our focus back to bottles, made matte and opaque with paint, earth, heat.

Along the first and largest road they hang every five meters from lampposts and poles, supporting seedlings. I also notice some orchids woven into tree forks. Diego tells us about his idea, its implementation – most of the time I’m diving into the swells and sway of Portuguese, curious how much meaning can come forth after a couple of immersive days. He loves that he can bring people together, help to heal the urban wound on the ecosystem, and enrich the neighborhood all in one action, Anna translates for me. He could see how his community and neighborhood would be improved by plants all throughout and just began putting flora on the sidewalk one day. The biggest challenge of the project is plants being pulled out by their roots or being covered with plastic debris. Diego’s response strikes me in its simplicity, it seems both foolishly and wisely so. He keeps replacing the saplings and cleaning up the containers, again and again.

“Making a positive social or environmental impact requires impulsiveness and spontaneity. I admire Diego and his urban gardening organization's capacity to not only identify ways to improve Sao Paulo's urban landscape, but to also take the initiative to do so.” said Anna Marsh '20, Princeton Garden Project manager. 

Anna had spent a year in Salvador, Brazil working with another urban gardening project in favelas, before she began university. Debora Didonê, who founded Canteiros Coletivos, gave her a few recommendations of projects she could visit, and so I ended up strolling through Vila Madalena with her on my balmy birthday afternoon.

Passing by a café, some older men sitting outside start to chat to Diego and maybe us too. A glimpse of distant block buildings and meter-wide graffiti faces frame the bending street.

Arrived, a building-sized plot of grass and weeds interspersed with trees and shrubs extends out of view. 

The group of gardeners has cultivated many diminishing rainforest species, a vegetable plot, and an herb garden. There’s a blobular winding pollinator chain, select species that shelter these vital insects’ multiplication…deep symbiosis. Bright flowers, palms, moss-covered deciduous trees, and a few orchids in their armpits. 

Diego invites anyone in Vila Madalena to take some herbs, as long as they take just what they need and allow the base of the plant to keep growing. 

The way he envisions it, every person who takes something could contribute a little to the garden while they’re there. That way it could thrive with minimal effort.

But that’s not what’s happening at the moment. I ask where he’s spread the message – through the garden and planters themselves. I wonder if indifference or aversion to self-promotion is inherent to grassroots philosophy or perhaps the personalities of those starting environmental initiatives.

I keep seeing it – on organic farms, in NGOs, small-scale businesses that are proposing more sustainable alternatives. They’re not spreading to the scale of similar organizations in other sectors. So I wonder what could motivate or facilitate these individuals, what method of expansion would suit them. Pragmatically and philosophically.

We go on to a spot of forest, learn that it was kept from development strategically. Endangered rainforest species were planted by the urban gardeners, which let them preclude the prison construction with a new conservation law. The stacked geometry of a bromeliad reaches upward, eliciting imaginings of repetition beyond itself. I can conceive such imagery driving the persistence of these kinds of ecological projects. The free-time farmers put pieces of themselves into this ground, most of it personally run and funded. Plants are regularly torn out, and yet a volunteer continually gives a new piece the next day.