The open spaces system as a structural element of urban form: proposal for a new point of view

The open spaces system as a structural element of urban form: proposal for a new point of view

Sílvio Soares Macedo. E-mail: Prof. Tit. at FAUUSP, CNPq scholarship.

Eugenio  Fernandes  Queiroga. E-mail:  Prof. Dr.  at  FAUUSP  e  CNPq scholarship.

Jonathas Magalhães Pereira da Silva. E-mail: Prof. Dr. at FAU and POSURB-PUC-Campinas

Ana Cecília de Arruda Campos. E-mail:, LAB-QUAPÁ researcher at FAUUSP.

Rogério Akamine. E-mail: Prof. Dr. UNINOVE e USJT, LAB-QUAPÁ researcher at FAUUSP.

Fany Galender. E-mail: Prefeitura Municipal de São Paulo, LAB-QUAPÁ researcher at FAUUSP.

Helena Degreas. E-mail:  Profa. Dra. FIAMFAAM, LAB-QUAPÁ researcher at FAUUSP.

Fábio Mariz Gonçalves. E-mail: Prof. Dr. at FAUUSP.

Vanderli Custódio. E-mail: Profa. Dra. at Inst. de Estudos Brasileiros (Área Temática de Geografia) – IEB-USP.

Morphology studies cannot consider urban form without taking into account buildings and open spaces. These two elements are closely connected to physical support and pre-existing environmental dynamics. Therefore we see no sense in breaking them in any studies related to the urban form. This article begins to look at the city and its forms under  a rarely used way. The open space becomes the protagonist of the analysis. This approach considers both publicly and privately owned spaces. It evaluate the role of different types of retreats that shape backyards, enclosed yards, parking lots, parks and plazas, etc.. and through which passes part of everyday city life. Despite the natural connection links with others societies in the world like: similar neighborhoods and architectural forms, global urban habits, Brazilian cities hold a peculiar form coming from the specific process of parceling land, urban legislation, cultural habits and formal and informal actions that resulted as the contemporaneous Brazilian urban landscape. After five years of study, carried out by a national network of researchers, coordinated by LAB-QUAPA[1] – at the São Paulo University, it was possible to build a comprehensive overview of the characteristics, opportunities and constraints of the Brazilian cities open space systems. The presentation discusses the relationship between the open space systems and the urban form, checking the points in common: their process of constitution, the existing social and environmental conflicts, and their morphological structure and appropriation types of open spaces.

Keywords: stakeholders, open spaces system, urban form


This text is a result of a search that works with the concepts: space by reference to the Brazilian geographer Milton Santos, open space worked by the Brazilian architect and urban planner Miranda Magnoli, the public sphere derived from the political theory of Habermas(1989) and Hannah Arendt (1991) and notions of complexity and system proposed by the philosopher Edgar Morin (2008).

The research was developed through a national network known as QUAPÁ-SEL Network – Frame of Landscaping in Brazil / Open Space System – which currently has researchers from 17 Brazilian universities.

Networking aimed to build a theoretical-conceptual and methodological framework of the open space systems and the constitution of the public sphere in Brazil, through exchange and knowledge from the sum of specificity, methods and suggestions from each investigation that integrated the research.



The survey was designed and developed to deepen discussions on the existing open spaces in cities. We tried to check them as representatives of a condition of urban cultural life and to examine how Government acts towards them.

It aimed to build a referential interpretation of the Brazilian urban contemporaneity linking open spaces and public life evaluating and dimensioning the initiatives of institutions, enterprises and populations (plans, projects and management), in order to qualify public spaces.

The study also sought to understand the recent structure of open space systems in significant Brazilian urban formations, be they metropolitan, megalopolitan and responsible for diffuse urbanization. Aimed at critical review of thought and values dominant models ​​that guide the planning of open space systems, the implementation of its elements and the recent trends related to real estate. To do so it  was necessary to understand the interdependence and complementarity between public and private spaces.

The assessment of ecological potentials of the open spaces systems to conserve and regenerate urban natural resources was also needed to understand the contribution of different open spaces system for the constitution of contemporary public life environments in various Brazilian urban realities.

Finally, we tried to create theoretical and methodological bases for the elaboration of general principles for public policies, plans and deployments of open spaces, more attentive to the heterogeneity of the Brazilian urban reality and to environmental protection and urban ecology.


Working Standards

The working standards indicate the scope and limits for the development of the research. To reach the stated objectives it was necessary to establish weekly meetings with the researchers, perform field research, organize semi-annual series of lectures with professionals in the private and public sectors, develop an agenda  for workshops in all participating cities involved with the university, identify representatives from the local public and society, organize annual conferences involving national network of researchers and systematize photographic documentation and mapping carried out during the research.

With the collected material it was possible to develop graphical analysis of maps and aerial photos in addition to urban and environmental legislation resulting on the production of specific texts.

Follows the adopted concept for the open space system as well as the results achieved so far.

Open Spaces System Concept

The open spaces system is understood as the set of all existing urban open spaces, regardless of their size, aesthetic, attributes, function or location. We consider every open space, public or private.


The idea of system is constituted by full functional binding, since only public spaces are physically connected to each other, especially considering the road system. The drawings emphasize the buildings while the open spaces are considered as their negatives.

The land ownership structure affects the construction of the city and therefore of its public and private spaces. It also interferes in the form of these appropriations. So there are two categories of open spaces in terms of land ownership: the public and private.

The urban public open spaces are almost always linked together via the integrated network of pathways in which streets, avenues and alleys are physically connected and allow, in theory, the user access to both buildings and open spaces linked to them, but also for other public spaces such as squares, parks, etc.. Because of this integrative role, and considering the fact that much of everyday urban life occur in the set of routes, they can be considered as the most important public spaces of any city.

Public open spaces are unrestricted to all those within public ownership, with different degrees of accessibility and appropriation. In Brazil, using the property definitions established by the Civil Code, three types of public open spaces can be identified:

  • “Bens dominicais” – Dominicais – are public spaces suitable for transfer of ownership
  • “Bens de uso especial” – Special use – targeted to specific activities (school or a prison open spaces, for example).
  • “Bens de uso comum do povo” – Public use – spaces for public use (street, square, city park, the beach, etc.)

The public open spaces are a subsystem within the open spaces system. As stated in previous paragraphs, the main space is the street, a fundamental connection in the city, where important daily activities of urban society occur. Other types of spaces such as parks, plazas, promenades, boardwalks, urban forests, nature reserves, caves, informal soccer fields, lakes, beaches, etc.. complete this system.

The private open spaces are those embedded within particular areas with access not available or with special permissions granted for partial areas.

Such spaces form a subsystem inserted into the urban open space systems. Gardens, yards, parking lots, loading and unloading yards, private forest reserves, private soccer fields, business parks, etc.. part of this system, unlike the public spaces, only rarely are physically connected to each other, and are extremely fragmented and spread throughout the urban tissue. They are frequently isolated by walls and fences, usually inaccessible, trapped in the middle of city blocks, separated from the street by  building blocks.

The contribution of this subsystem to urban environmental demands varies but it is essential to confront the issues of drainage and slope stabilization due to the shortage of public spaces in the Brazilian cities.

They add up to the majority of private spaces as courtyards, corridors, between the existing buildings and crucial to the daily life of the population.

Sílvio Macedo, 2005

It is on these spaces that happen every day some of the recreational activities and domestic services such as washing and drying clothes, children’s games, the cultivation of plants, car parking, car washing, etc.. These activities are therefore complementary to the life that occurs inside the buildings.

We observed densely built lots and a high degree of land-sealing with excessive pavement of open spaces. For everyday conveniences, both owners and renters do not hesitate to reduce the existing open space on the lot. This behavior is independent of the use. It could be observed in residential, business, commercial or industrial uses. The private open space is handled as if it were only reserve for the future expansion of the building.


The landscape and the open spaces system

Landscape is understood here as the morphological expression of the transformation of physical space by the social and environmental changes within a given space-time.

The Brazilian city does not have a standard form and this fact can be determined primarily by the shape of the urban patches and for the insertion in these physical support that induce different landscapes.

Is defined as urban patches the built area contained within the perimeter of an urban sprawol, independent of the size and the extent of urbanization: village, city or metropolis.

Cities according to their urban patches can be presented in four different ways, namely:

I – linear – found within valleys embedded in middle of hills and high declivity slopes, sea and river borders and even along roadsides.

II – tentacular – structured by a compact core which irradiating arms of urbanization along street or water lines.

III – mixed – the most common type.

IV – compact – Elder cities, which originated from any of the three previously indicated ways, whitch growth will take a compact and continue form.

These denominations are mere references towards a more detailed classification in accordance with the open spaces systems and the whole of the urban sprawl.. They are:

I – Open spaces system within a compact urban spread, as in the cases of São Paulo and Belo Horizonte.

II – open spaces system within a fragmented and discontinued urban area, spread over two or more units, as in the case of metropolitan Campinas.

III – open spaces system within an urban area fully or partially discontinued by large scale natural elements, as the case of Rio de Janeiro and the Florianópolis insular territory.

IV – Open spaces system within a discontinuous urban area totally or partially fragmented by scattered natural elements, such as in Manaus and Palmas.

In the case of natural structures discontinuity, it results from the presence of various physical support elements such, estuaries, ponds and dunes or from woods or forests spreads.

Many of those formats may last as a result of growth impediments due to grades and water ways, even those modified by fast urban sprawl through areas with modest physical support elements, due to population growth and economic activities

Large metropolitan areas faced physical barriers to grow, like São Paulo dealing with the flooding of large areas along its river beds, or Rio de Janeiro, by means of landfills on the ocean shores, swamps and mangroves, altering its urban spread altered by technology, regardless of its physical support limitations

Each urban configuration presents a set of tissues and a specific open spaces system, with similar characteristics due to origins and cultural, urban, landscape and economic patterns. Previously mentioned images indicate systems components, with diverse urban tissues indicated as a blotch within a mesh of streets and traversed by green spots indicating parks and squares and blue strips for river basins.

Obviously, such schematic indications are simplistic, but provide available structural indicatives for a specific urban sprawl.

City boundaries format and its area are directly linked to access permeability of citizens to contiguous non urbanized spaces. It is easier to reach on foot open fields, wooded areas and neighboring hills in Santa Maria on Rio Grande do Sul due to its linear and narrow configuration than for a citizen of São Paulo, wide and compact, requiring several hours to do it.

Presented below are the maps resulting from the research of open spaces on target communities.

São Paulo-SP

Open Space Systems for the municipality of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo

Sea coast linear cities, with compact urban areas, equally allow for easiness of access to the beaches for its inhabitants, such as in Vila Velha (ES) and Praia Grande (SP). In the case of Rio de Janeiro, also linear in configuration, the Tijuca range of hills hampers easy access from inland to the beaches, requiring tunnels and freeways to conquer those barriers.

Aerial view of Vila Velha, Espírito Santo. Photo: Silvio Macedo, 2007


Systems modes

Every Brazilian city has an open space system, resulting from the growth of the urban nucleus. Usually open spaces result from local land parceling practices resulting in street webs and public spaces, rulling out the possibility to define a priori, when and where open spaces for parks and plazas should be planned for, increasing the prevailing dependence on market variables to do so.

Standards for the constitution of open spaces, streets, avenues, parks and plazas, are rare. That leads to a non-egalitarian distribution of future public open spaces, totally dependents on future decisions on land parceling and destination of public spaces.

Only under fully planned urban situations, together with rigid control over implementation practices, either under government or private rule, it is reasonable to expect an equitable distribution of proposed types of open spaces. This has been the case for Palmas, Maringá, Brasília and Boa Vista. Nonetheless this appropriate distribution does not allow for articulation and complementarity between open spaces, as a quality system requires.

Under contemporary Brazilian urban practices, large private enterprises assume the role of providing for open spaces systems usually adequately qualified, but as a common fact, introduce highly controlled low accessibility, weakening and even hampering general and public use. Such enterprises are coming to life not only on capitals and big metropolitan areas, but also in midsize cities such as: São Carlos, Ribeirão Preto, São José do Rio Preto, São José dos Campos and Londrina, between other examples.

Open Space Systems for the municipality of  Ribeirão Preto, SP.

There is a growing market dependence on the constitution of open spaces systems, especially for the high classes. More and more condominiums and fenced parceled land are offered on the second decade of this century, intra or peri urban enterprises for vast urban areas, offered and sold as “green, quiet and safe”. On an informal and illegal format their restrict use and access inhibit the production of true public spaces.

As a result closed condominiums allow for an urban and social status symbol and the disavowal of public life spheres for contemporary cities on the beginning of this century. Enterprises keyed on higher classes include some adequate green coverage, treated gardens, ponds and equipments like pet shops, golf courses, spas and even churches and markets.

The remainder of the system is filled by private property of intra parcel and intra block spaces for private or collective restrict access, that are really significant parts of the open spaces for each city, and we can affirm that private action on the production of open spaces in Brazil is vast and includes all social classes, leading to the creation and management of their own open spaces individually and disconnected from the remaining urban tissue.

Belo Horizonte                                                                       Belo Horizonte

Open Space System                                                             Income

Open Space System and distribution of income for the city of Belo Horizonte. Source: Income Map was prepared by Prof. Dr Manoel Lemes da Silva Neto the other map were drawn by the research team SEL-Quapa

Thus, the formation of each system is dependent on the mode of urban space production and follows three basic formats:

  1. Formal or forecasted – rare, it is the case of planned cities, with Brasília and its satellite townships as the complete and most emblematic example; historic nucleus of railway era cities of the State of São Paulo, coffee era cities on the north of Paraná State, Palmas, Goiânia, Belo Horizonte old Downtown area, etc.


Open Space Systems for the municipality of Palmas, TO.

  1. Informal – the most usual comes to life as the urban tissue constitution, resulting from social actions of diverse urban space, public or private entrepreneurs. It deals with proposing urban schemes by adding new streets grids and land parceling, with public financing of street implementations and construction of other open spaces as, squares and pedestrian walkways. The grid is promoted by private initiative, state regulated or not as in the “invasions” of public land by favelas and clandestine land parceling.

Silvio Macedo, 2006

  1. Parcial –   in a distinct way from the usual informal processes, answering to a specific demand of an urban segment, such as in Barra da Tijuca in Rio de Janeiro, Riviera de São Lourenço in Bertioga (SP), of Pedra Branca condominium at Great Florianópolis, etc.

Open Space Systems for the municipality of Rio de Janeiro – RJ.

Aiming at the urban as a whole, resulting from an Urban Plan or open areas plan, that is, on top of a consolidated urban network, studies are made on open spaces demand, a plan is prepared and from that position action are proposed to increment the system. That is the case of the city of Campo Grande, by means of a 1980 plan identified and preserved areas for a linear parks system executed 20 years later, on the first decade of the XXI century.


Open Space Systems for the municipality of CampoGrande – MS.

The qualitative increments of open spaces systems has been a reality for the first decade of the XXI century, expressed by the following points within the public sector:

  • Highlighting environmental issues on urban plans,      promoting a variety of open spaces dimensions, linked to the preservation      of natural resources. From those principles are created a number of      diverse linear parks, and preservastion and conservation areas.
  • Instituting urban environmental protection áreas      (APPs) as a sure fact. From the end of the XX th century the rules for the      implementation of rural APPs are validated for the urban environment,      inducing the recuperation of waterways, eliminating irregular occupation and      the return of vegetal border protections.
  • on amplifying actions on natural resources      conservation, like mangroves and urban forests, specially after the issuin      of 1988 Federal Constitution. Until them such actions were rare and      punctual and gear up for improvement since them. Considering the mentioned      facts under this item and the one before it, we have:
    • from 1990 on APPs and Conservation Units (UCs)       increase in numbers under various formats and sizes;
    • open spaces on a private       setting are upgraded in status under urban codes, on part of the       communities, with the resulting increase in demands to realize their       erxistence. Zoning legislation becomes an induction force on the creation       of private open sapces, specially os closed parcelments, as well as in       large scale horizontal and vertical condominiuns;
  • on setting up and maintenance of the integity      of conservation áreas and leasure systems, in order to protect hidric      networks;
  • on sizeble public investments for the      recuperation of áreas destined to house parks and environment protection,      invaded by low income population, specially those by the river      borderlines;
  • on various urban forestation projects and      programs, that nonetheless do not contribute in a more effective way with      the spatial and environmental constitution of spaces such parks and      squares and are limited by difficulties on finding adequate places for      tree planting on public spaces;
  • on the assumption that parks and squares have      become the most common public open spaces in Brazil, due to the growing      production of new parks, linear parks and treated seaside walkways or the      consolidation of a sport square as a standard for the investment in such      neighborhoods;
  • On seaside communities, beaches and seaside      lanes that might be attractive to domestic or foreign turism, receive makeover      efforts, bikeways and equipments for sports and gymnastics.

Side by side with all that, public spaces demand increases despite the existing “fear” syndrome. Urban space use conflicts abound on contemporary cities, highlighting dangerous areas and the exposure to physical violence and robbery on squares and beaches, but do not hinder the continuous increase in use of public spaces under new modes such as walking and skating, including in the poorest of the areas.

It is also noticeable the open spaces systems quality increase on the same period, considering the private sector production:

  • on the continuous increased presence of the      private significant actions on the production of urban open spaces in      Brazil involving every social substract, creating and managing their own      open spaces with a selfish approach and disconnected of the existing urban      network;
  • a large amount of open air activities occur      behind walls and it is very strong the presence of gyms, clubs and      shopping centers on dayly leasure;
  • decrease on intrapoperty open spaces;
  • On the introduction of low density, vertical      áreas, equiped with large áreas ocupied by colective leasure equipments;

Final Considerations

After 5 years of research it is possible to identify the theorethical-conceptual progress on the subject, primarily on the relationship between open space systems and the contemporary public environment. The research allowed for the stablishment of urban open spaces systems evaluation principles  together with the creation of criteria to propose rules and regulations on the open spaces systems qualification.

It is proper to pay attention to the fact that all procedures mentioned before were added to new others, perceived and processed by the national research network. The researchers commitement resulted in thesis, dissertations and involved a number of graduate students under scientific initiation programs;

Workshops as well as annual encounters of the research network, its researchers and public agents, promoted and allowed for the preparation of reference texts for the whole group and the overall Brazilian scientific community.

As a concrete result it was developed an evaluation process and a set of thematic maps on the subject of open spaces systems for the 25 cities included on the research. Concepts and methods were developed with and around the collective work incorporating regional nuances and dealing with cultural differences.

After the annalysis of brazilian cities we think that in order to reach urban spatial quality it is necessary the presence of generous urban open spaces, that is, beyond quantitative aspects, it is necessary that they be diversified, with good projects, answering to the variety of social demands as far as tree coverings, equipments and maintenance procedures. It has been identified that the public environment development is in need of easily accessible open spaces.

The research also considers that open spaces are essential to overcome the major environmental problems facing Brazilian cities and, simultaneously, open spaces are fundamental basis for the building up of a truly just and democratic society.


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[1] The Design Department Laboratory of the Architecture and Urban Planning Faculty, covers issues related to landscaping, as open spaces and landscape studies.

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