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American Society of Landscape Architects


May 2006 Issue

An Aesthetic of Process
In Rio de Janeiro, a landscape architect heals 16 kilometers of degraded coastline.

By Peter Jacobs, FASLA

An Aesthetic of Process Custodio Coimbra

In Rio de Janeiro picturesque mountain peaks and the famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema create one of the most spectacular landscape settings in the world. Yet in Rio, as in other large urban areas in Brazil, the landscape is being radically transformed, and extensive areas of previously productive forests, farmlands, and coasts have been devastated. Continuing migration from the countryside closer to the city creates a patchwork quilt of official and unofficial housing; 600 or more favelas (squatter settlements) have populations as large as major towns. Not surprisingly, the spreading footprint of urbanization threatens the biologically diverse and socially dynamic landscapes of the coastal plain and the surrounding forests.

In an exceptional project led by Brazilian landscape architect Fernando Chacel, 16 kilometers of coastal lagoon shoreline have been reconstituted, repaired, and conserved. Chacel has instituted innovative design strategies that conserve areas of the original ecosystems of the coastal lagoons and restore other areas by mixing fragments of the original vegetation with new indigenous plantings. In areas closer to residential communities, he has added more traditional parkland to the mixture of wild and reconstituted coastal landscapes. And to assure that the project remains sustainable, Chacel has negotiated management strategies focused on the “adoption” of components of this system by resident associations and the development community.

Chacel addresses the ongoing debate as to whether landscape is art, social process, or support for nature by embracing all three. One of Brazil’s foremost landscape architects, he has spent the better part of the past 40 years rehabilitating and restoring the urban landscapes of Rio de Janeiro and other sites throughout Brazil. In his work he asks: How can we stimulate greater public understanding and appreciation for natural processes? How do we tell the story of an evolving landscape that is worthy of our respect? How do we create landscape settings admired as much for their beauty as for the processes they shelter? How do we render visible the complex web of life that links urban ecosystems to all others? 

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