In a city like São Paulo, which in the name of progress has spent decades polluting its major waterways, joining these two nouns, River and Street, may sound a little strange. Most people would be inclined to oppose the two: Rivers versus Streets. But the ideal of harmonic coexistence inspires the name of the project now committed to rediscovering the importance of the springs and streams in the concrete jungle of Latin America’s largest metropolis: Rios e Ruas (River and Street).

Luiz de Campos Júnior, a geographer, and José Bueno, an architect and urban planner, are leading the initiative. Their motto “dream big, make small and start soon,” refers to the idea that, for ordinary citizens, changing the relationship of the city to its rivers must begin with simple actions, like finding unpolluted sources in their own neighborhoods, not with huge undertakings like cleaning the Tietê, one of the state’s main rivers. Surveys from the city government and Rios e Ruas indicate that there are more than 300 known streams in the urban area of São Paulo, most of them under avenues, bridges and viaducts. There are many more such waterways waiting to be discovered.

It was during an exploration through the streets of the Butantã neighborhood that the project began in 2010. “Jose already worked with urban issues, but he had no idea that no matter where you are in São Paulo, there is a stream 200 meters from you. To prove this, I proposed an urban expedition near the building where he lives,” Júnior says. In the first search, they found, in an empty lot, the origin of the stream called Iquiririm, now considered ground zero of Rios e Ruas.

Located on public property, its surrounding environment recovered, the spring is now part of a small stream that harbors fish and aquatic plants. Iquiririm is the favorite child of the project, tangible proof that a greener metropolis with healthy rivers is possible.

“Thinking about the problem at the macro level will not help to solve it,” says José Bueno. “But we can, through small actions, gradually make the impossible easier and do the easy things in a different way without creating major disruptions or conflicts with the rest of society,” he says, relating the idea to Aikido, the Japanese martial art he has been practicing for 30 years and from which he borrows some teachings that guide the project, such as harmony and non-aggression.

Since that first informal excursion to Butantã in 2010, Rios e Ruas has grown and gained important allies as well as national and international respect. The project has already been the subject of an exhibition in the Social Service of Commerce (SESC) named Rios Descobertos (Discovered Rivers) and a book (O Menino do Rio – The Boy of the River, by Gustavo Prudente), and has inspired a race through the city’s streets. The routes will correspond to the river beds, such as Ipiranga river. The event is scheduled for next month. Júnior and Bueno have also been invited to participate in lectures and debates in schools of engineering and architecture, fields previously closed to discussion about underground rivers.

Recognition has also come from overseas. José Bueno was invited to Porto, Portugal, to take part in September’s Water Innovation Lab (WIL) Europe, a forum bringing young global leaders together to discuss initiatives related to water management. (Water Innovation Lab (WIL) Brazil will be held in São Paulo next month.) Bueno took advantage of the European trip to see other projects, such as the cleanup and recuperation of the Isar river in Munich.

An aerial picture of a man looking upwards with open arms. He is surrounded by greenery (trees and plants).

Bueno at a recovered spring site. Rios e Ruas’ motto: Dream big, make small and start soon (Rodrigo Elizeu/Believe.Earth)

When Bueno returned to São Paulo, along with a renewed enthusiasm for Rios e Ruas, he brought back a small bottle containing the unpolluted water of Portugal’s Ribeira da Granja river. In a symbolic act, the sample was dumped into the source of Iquiririm.

In the following interview, held near the spring where the project started, the architect explains why starting small can lead to the fulfillment of great dreams.

Believe Earth (BE) – Rios e Ruas was born small and now has the support of important entities such as SESC. You have been invited to speak on the subject in engineering colleges, which previously did not pay attention to the scarcity of clean waterways. Is society ready to discuss this issue?
José Bueno (JB) –
In 2010, when we launched Rios e Ruas, we realized it was a good time to deepen this discussion. That is why we created a light and simple format that has been gaining people’s sympathy. The argument about the importance of preserving water sources has intensified since 2014, with the water supply crisis that occurred in São Paulo, which sensitized people to the problem more than any study had done. In early October, Luiz [de Campos Júnior] took part in a debate at the Brazilian Congress of Sanitary and Environmental Engineering and National Fair of Sanitation and Environment, the biggest meeting on the subject in the country. In the beginning, we were called dreamers and outsiders. Today, we are attracting interest in areas previously averse to the subject.

A close-up of leaves and plants and, passing through, a small stream.

Iquiririm is protected by plants and surrounded, in its first few meters, by a cornucopia of life not usually seen in the metropolis (Rodrigo Elizeu/Believe.Earth)

BE – How can you make sure that the sensitization inspired by Rios e Ruas resonates beyond the first contact?
JB – Working with the imaginary of the people, as they are the ones who will create change. Much is said about smart cities. I believe in smart people. In this city, when we talk about a river we mean sewage, which is a problem. We must bear in mind the importance of children putting their feet into water, even into a small spring. Talking about São Paulo, it is much easier to work with small streams than to take on the cleanup of the Tietê river, which will cost billions of reais. When we talk about springs, we bring the issue of clean water to a human scale. We did it in the Pompeia neighborhood [in São Paulo], where the community itself mobilized and recovered a stream, changing the small lot into a public square.

BE – Can we save the Tietê river? Or will we continue dreaming with the examples of the Seine in France and the Thames in London?
JB –
The Tietê river is something more complex. Luiz compares it to ‘holding the whole water of a river with your hands,’ as we only think about the end of the problem. The river does not get dirty itself. Pollution comes from the headwaters, streams such as Iquiririm and Sumaré. If Tietê was fully cleaned up today, it would be dirty again a month from now. Nothing will change if we believe that a river is the place to discharge sewage. But, talking about small streams, not only our children and grandchildren will see these unpolluted springs but so do we.

BEBut the current logic is that we need to give access to the collection of sewage to the entire population and then to think about cleaning up these sewers.
JB –
Both can be done together. We must expand the sewage collection and treatment network and turn contempt into a culture of appreciation for rivers.

BEIs it practical to tap the underwater sources in a city like São Paulo, which is overtaken by streets and buildings? Wouldn’t it be too costly?
– Let’s think about it in a simpler way. Now, we are not focused on the springs located under large roads or areas of intense urbanization. We work on the edges, in potential areas through quick and economic actions, with no need for great expropriation or inconvenience to the existing chaotic traffic of the city. Next year, we will uncover the Iquiririm 200 meters beyond its source, on a public lot. And, we can replicate the process in other streams. Europeans and Americans are releasing rivers that have been trapped for decades. It takes at least 10 years to restore that sense of belonging between the community and the waterways.

BE – Can uncovering these streams lead to the spread of mosquitoes such as Aedes Aegypti, which causes Dengue?
– This is misleading. Larvae are eaten by fish and dragonflies. Therefore, the spring is the safest place in the neighborhood in relation to this risk. Clean waterways are a natural trap for mosquitoes.

BECan we convince people in some suburban neighborhoods, who fear that the streams will attract rats and cockroaches, that keeping them open and unpolluted is a positive thing?
JB –
Yes! We have worked to change this perception of rivers as a problem, not only in the suburbs but also in industries, universities, and other communities. When they understand the benefits of a healthy river, people are willing to fight for it. No one defends what he/she does not know. I believe that communities in the suburbs, which harbor the headwaters of rivers, will become guardians of these areas, setting the example for the city centers. Perhaps it is utopian, but the Rios e Ruas began as a utopian idea.