Anyone who flies over Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul in the south of Brazil, cannot overlook what seems to be a “green river” across one of the most traditional districts of the city below. That “green river” is in fact a short, picturesque street fully covered by tipuana trees. Called Gonçalo de Carvalho, the street has received the title of “the most beautiful street in the world,” which crowns a long fight by its residents for its preservation.
In a time when people use to feel so powerless and frustrated about the trends of their planet, the story behind Gonçalo de Carvalho is an example of how ordinary people are able to obtain great achievements. Starting with a simple concern, setting modest targets and adopting commonplace strategies, the movement for the preservation of Gonçalo de Carvalho has become a literal lesson that the change of the world begins with the change of the street where we live. It definitely reinforces how humble attitudes can be masterful when they are constant and persistent.
This story starts in 2005, when Gonçalo de Carvalho’s tipuanas, planted by German immigrants during the early 20th century, were under severe risk. Due to plans to build a new shopping center in its surroundings, and a consequent park lot, the small street would be paved and some of its trees removed. This news quietly spread by a local newspaper was enough to make Goncalo de Carvalho’s resident Maria Sinova Telles call her neighbor, Cesar Cardia, and express her concern with the future of her beloved street. That telephone call created a movement of friends and residents of Gonçalo de Carvalho.
The residents’ initial idea was modest: create a simple blog which should contain and popularize their concerns about the future of Gonçalo de Carvalho’s tipuanas. They also wanted to clarify that their movement was not against the new theatre for the Porto Alegre Symphony Orchestra (OSPA) – one of the dearest institutions of the city – which would also be hosted by the new shopping center. Furthermore, the blog also should be informative and constantly updated, which made Cesar Cardia ask for the support of his son, Rodrigo Cardia, to help him with what was a new kind of media at the time.
The passion of Porto Alegre’s citizens for its trees and their awareness of the environment did not begin with the residents of Gonçalo de Carvalho. Actually, Gonçalo de Carvalho’s movement fits into the pioneering and long held tradition of this city in the environmentalist movement in Brazil. Since 1971, Porto Alegre hosts the Gaúcha Association of Natural Environment Protection (AGAPAN), the first environmentalist organization in the country. One of its founders, the agronomist José Lutzenberger, Right Livelihood Award winner and Brazil’s former Minister for the Environment, is considered a precursor of the debate about the environment throughout Latin America. In 1987, Lutzenberger also founded the Gaia Foundation, an organization which began the discussion about sustainable development in Brazil.
“Climb the trees!”, Lutzenberger used to say to his Porto Alegre fellows when they expressed their frustration with the apparent fruitlessness of their actions. Inspired by this phrase, in 1975, three college students – Carlos Dayrell, Teresa Jardim and Marcos Saraçol – climbed tipuana trees which were to be removed for the construction of a viaduct. What was a simple, isolated mobilization against the cutting of some trees became an important political movement in the city during the tough years of military dictatorship in Brazil. Nowadays, anyone who is stuck in traffic on the busy João Pessoa Avenue still can see the tipuanas which, in the end, were never removed.
In 2008, the modest blog of the Gonçalo de Carvalho street residents was read by the Portuguese biologist Pedro Nuno Teixeira Santos, who then designated the street as “the most beautiful in the world”. The story reached the international media and led to Gonçalo de Carvalho becoming the first street that was deemed a place of historic, cultural and environmental heritage in the city, protected by law. This recognition is certainly because of its beauty, but also because of the fight of Porto Alegre’s citizens for its preservation.
Behind “the most beautiful street of the world” there is also a beautiful story. It calls us to look around, to talk to our neighbors and see how powerful we are when we work together. After all, this beautiful story, the most beautiful one, was made by ordinary people who simply create organizations, climb trees and write blogs.