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Becoming Atlantic Forest: 
territorial urbanisation, spatial justice and energy transitions in the landscapes of the Brazilian biome

Research proposal
Hugo López
In development

Abstract

This research proposes the forest as the new urban paradigm for Brazil. Socio-environmental challenges bundle in the need to restore ecological functions in varied landscapes inside the Brazilian Atlantic Forest biome. The region is home to over 125 million people, making up more than half of Brazil’s population and contributing to 70% of its GDP and 2/3 of its industrial economy. The looming challenges of agricultural and urban expansion, energy transition and forestry restoration only increase the pressures in the region, requiring territorial responses that address its interdependent character. To tackle these challenges, this study aims to compose a new plan for the region from the forest side, focusing on the sociospatial and environmental transformations that unfold in the wide-range fabric of urbanisation, reorienting spatial concepts to surpass the city-centric perspective. It does so by researching spatio-temporal projects of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest biome, investigating the pathways that led to the current social and environmental conditions, researching how to accommodate the predicted growth of urban regions and improving ecological functionality while reinventing the relation towards more-than-city landscapes. For that, it proposes alternative conceptual and methodological frameworks developing critical urban theory, urban and territorial design and landscape urbanism that go beyond the human and beyond the city in theory and practice. Through a combination of analytical and creative tools, the project will perform pragmatic and experimental transdisciplinary research, engaging with literatures and discussions across disciplines and amplifying intellectual experimentation through geospatial intelligence and textual and visual narrative. It examines waves of capital intensification, projections of sustainability transitions in landscapes, and proposes an alternative urbanisation paradigm through urban and territorial design. It emphasises the interplay between theoretical concepts, territorially grounded studies, and cartography to better understand and propose new urbanisation methodologies, concepts and geographies. The project builds an alternative urban and territorial design for the biome, exploring beyond current dichotomies between the urban and rural, conservation and intervention, and nature, technology and society. It develops hybrid landscapes where (biological and industrial) technologies for mitigation, restoration, and adaptation are grounded in the distribution of fair and equitable socio-ecological benefits for humans and more-than-humans. Instead of cities, this research emphasises the Brazilian Atlantic Forest’s operational landscapes as an object of urban attention. This perspective change provides a platform for speculative thinking to refresh the concept of sustainability and problematise the geopolitical project for the region into the geological age of climate instability. Simultaneously, urban and territorial design provides new spatial concepts in a synthetic view, inspiring and negotiating change in science, practice and governance.

Summary

In 1500, the Southeastern region of the American continent saw the arrival of the Portuguese merchants, who managed to establish territory, implement their colonies and exploit the region’s people and natural resources. The coastal forest began to be cleared for agriculture and logging, which started an extractive logic (Acosta, 2013) in the Atlantic Forest biome. These peoples and natural “resources” served as fuel for the establishment of the capitalist world-ecology and the period known as “the long 16th century” (Moore, 2015) of capital expansion and natures exploitation all over the globe. Over the centuries, successive waves of capital intensification have cleared forestry cover for sugar cane plantations, coffee and milk monocultures, and mineral extraction. Increasing industrialisation in the mid-20th century has diverged rivers for hydropower, searched the subsurface for fossil fuel potential and exponentially expanded urban areas. (Warren, 1996; Solórzano et al., 2021) These developments formed the current highly urbanised state and the socio-economical importance of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest’s biome. The region is now home to more than 125 million people, which figures more than half of the Brazilian population and is responsible for 70% of the GDP and 2/3 of the industrial economy. (Rezende et al., 2018; Joly et al., 2014)

Now, the Brazilian Atlantic Forest biome has drawn the world’s attention. The Brazilian Atlantic Forest is globally renowned for its diverse habitats, including rainforests, rare ecosystems, and high-altitude campos that support specialised biota. (Laurance, 2009) The biome’s restoration of biodiversity and carbon sink capabilities are critical to combatting climate change. Human activities have already severely impacted the forest, with only 28% of its original vegetation remaining. (Rezende et al., 2018) The region is predicted to experience a 160% increase in agglomeration zones from 2000 to 2030, which may threaten the forest’s ecological functionality and resilience even more when trying to support the needs of urban expansion. (Seto et al., 2012) 

The current state of energy-intensive urbanisation is possible because of the investment in hydropower generation in the Itaipú river and the investment in oil and gas reserves along the coast, both yielding energy supply at the cost of many social and environmental impacts. (Da Silva et al., 2016) Besides, the use of biofuels, particularly sugarcane ethanol, has also been a significant part of Brazil’s energy mix for several decades, particularly in the hinterland, where access to the energy grid is difficult. (Grassi & Pereira, 2019; Ise et al., 2020) Even though it is a carbon-neutral (net-zero) fuel, it pollutes the atmosphere and depletes soil fertility.

Still, such rich soil makes it Brazil’s most productive land, boasting more than half of the national land dedicated to horticulture, which leads the country’s economic growth. (Joly et al., 2014; Scarano & Ceotto, 2015). The increase in agriculture and the burning of native areas was the driving process of transforming former habitats of the Atlantic Forest and fragmenting landscapes since colonial activities. The land-use transformation began with the cultivation of sugarcane, coffee, and pastures, which still persist today and have resulted in the largest negative impacts (Solórzano et al., 2020; Ramos et al., 2022) This time, the expansion of planted forests is under pressure due to the impacts of climate change and increasing demand for food production. (Payn et al., 2015) This pressure is compounded by the need for land for other uses, highlighting the necessity for new frameworks to balance the sustainable development of forestry, agriculture, and urban landscapes (Ramos et al., 2022).

In light of that, more than adapting agglomeration zones, a significant redesign must occur on the territorial scale. While cities comprise only 2% of Brazil’s territory, the other 98% is constantly being restructured to support major cities’ material and commodity needs. Forest, agriculture, and energy landscapes are already the focus of many policies and disputes, and sustainability transitions further increase the challenges. Instead of the cities, this research proposes the current and historical forest (the biome’s operational landscapes) as Brazil’s new urbanisation paradigm. As mentioned before, the challenges of restoring ecological functionality in varied landscapes of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest require new territorial responses that address the region’s interdependent challenges, particularly in the face of the energy transition, forestry restoration, and agricultural and urban expansion. This research aims to investigate the Atlantic Forest in Brazil as a transdisciplinary spatio-temporal project, developing new frameworks to understand, represent, and propose a new paradigm of urbanisation in the biome. Now, the past and current Extractive practises and the envisioned sustainability transitions make the questions: How can we plan for the region from the forest side? What are the socio-ecological implications of sustainability transitions for the next urbanisation paradigm? How can operational landscapes of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest biome mediate an alternative socio-ecologically just urbanisation? And crucially, how can urban and territorial design partake shaping a more just urbanisation?

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