San Luis

The transformation of São Luís


Leia esta história em português aqui!


Behind the walls of what used to be an industrial complex, there was an empty lot covered with dry brush, rusty fences and cracked façades. Located in the heart of São Luís, the largest city in the state of Maranhão, in northeastern Brazil, this space seemed to have been left to its fate—more than 51,000 square meters were abandoned, unused. Simply forgotten.

Until August of this year, that was the reality of the Complexo Santo Ângelo. But today, you would not even recognize it: the space was chosen to be revitalized as part of an innovative project in São Luís’ old city, which is sourced from the citizens themselves.

Recently, the warehouses of this complex opened their tarnished doors to the neighbors for 21 straight days as part of the LAB SLZ initiative. This project was developed in association with the urban collective Translab.urb of Porto Alegre, the municipality of São Luís and the Cities Lab of the IDB’s Housing and Urban Development Division.

“The most beautiful thing was discovering that there is a population that actually lives around that space. That chooses to live there. And that has quite an outstanding empirical level of urban consciousness, which contributed a lot to the project,” says Leonardo Brawl, part of the Translab.urb team.

During these three weeks, são-luisenses participated in various activities supported by the Trapiche Art Gallery, which is located next to the complex. The residents and neighbors actively engaged in the decisions about what to do with the space, how to revitalize it and take advantage of it for the community’s benefit.

Slideshow: The Before & After of the Complexo Santo Ângelo


“It's different if I invite you to be part of this as a spectator. But no, we did it as a proponent. So that participation could become the master key to this whole project,” says Brawl.

Leonardo's team designed and implemented round tables for discussion, brainstorming sessions with neighbors, interdisciplinary panels, didactic workshops and artistic activities that could encourage discussion about what to do with the several warehouses located inside the complex. During the three-week period, the call was open to everyone who wanted to participate, so both residents and people working in the area could contribute in the activities of what was called the Ephemeral Urban Laboratory, given the fact the intervention was only available for 21 days.

In addition to the neighbors, discussion tables and activities of LAB SLZ’s Ephemeral Urban Laboratory also called on members of the private sector, social movements, urban activists, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, and technology schools to jointly decide on the future of the space.



“People had many questions. It was just great,” says Brawl. “In fact, next to the complex there’s the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the Universidade Estadual do Maranhão, and nobody knew the potential this space has. There were people who had been going there for years, but had no idea about the complex.”

This urban experiment collected all the ideas developed during those three weeks, and will eventually become the main foundations of the executive project that will define the future of this complex. This will happen within the framework of the Revitalization Program of the Historic Center of São Luís, which is promoted by the IDB, along with the local authorities.

Slideshow: Three Weeks of Civic Participation at the Complexo


Has it been done in other cities?

Citizen participation in processes of urban heritage revitalization is not something new in Latin America and the Caribbean. But, it is a practice that is not usually present in the programs of local governments when it comes to decide how to plan, revitalize or rethink public spaces. A successful case is one in Santiago, Chile’s capital city, where heritage-worthy spaces are being refurbished and reconditioned with the support of the IDB in order to fully integrate with the people living and working around them.

In this case, an old 19th-century patrimonial house was partially destroyed by an 8.8 earthquake that hit Central Chile in 2010. The space was consequently abandoned and uninhabitable. In partnership with Chilean institutions, the IDB opened a call for universities in the region to develop an integral urban project to recover this heritage site—known as Hermanitas de Los Pobres, in Santiago’s Matta Sur neighborhood. This project is already in its final stages and the winning project will be announced in December 2018.

The protection and revitalization of public spaces in our cities are a necessity, even more when the urban areas are experimenting a quick, sharp population growth throughout the region. The key is to include citizens in decision-making processes, and then develop proposals where the quality of life of those who inhabit and enjoy our cities become a priority.

See more about our work in São Luís here.


Improving Lives