Patrick Braga ’17 would have made Ezra Cornell proud. Braga is an undergraduate in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning and College of Arts and Sciences, pursuing a triple major in urban and regional studies, music, and economics. Despite his broad interests, he pursues each with a fervor, often to uncharted depths through his independent research endeavors.
“What got me interested in urban planning was the idea that we could design cities to be inherently walkable and in doing so make them more equitable to people,” says Braga. His passion could be traced back to high school: using Google Maps, Braga would identify empty lots in his current hometown, Sarasota, Florida. He would then come up with site plans for those lots, sometimes designing entire neighborhoods. Braga eventually met and shared his ideas with real estate developers who owned most of these plots. One developer challenged him to study why some walkable communities work better than others, and Braga held on to that challenge.
As a Cornell freshman, initially Braga approached the question mainly though observation. Through school-arranged and personal field trips, he took note of the design of walkable cities and began to come up with a possible framework that can link his observations to the walkability of a city. His framework divided cities into different scales of analysis. At each level he had a list of common properties that he had observed in walkable neighborhoods.
Braga tested his framework against case studies of neighborhoods that were less successful in managing walkability. His framework identified specific physical design issues that prevented these cities from being more walkable. During his sophomore year, he presented his findings at the Congress for the New Urbanism in Buffalo, New York.
“It was really exciting. That really encouraged me to keep doing research,” he says. With his research and recommendations from professors, Braga became a Hunter R. Rawlings III Cornell Presidential Research Scholar in his junior year, with funds for any research topic that he wanted to pursue.
Rio de Janeiro: Urban History versus Urban Planning
Originally from Rio de Janeiro, Braga is intrigued by the historical patterns of demolition of old heritage buildings that were constructed prior to the twentieth century in the city. He wanted to know why was this happening culturally and whether any insight could be gleaned about the city’s future development.
Using old photos, maps, and documents, he discovered two distinct periods of demolition: at the beginning of the twentieth century, when many of the older buildings were demolished to give way to European urbanism; and between the 1950s and 1970s, when a strong attempt at redevelopment and urbanism was driven by peculiar development ideologies. He presented this topic at the Cornell Undergraduate Research Board’s Spring 2015 Humanities Showcase. He titled the talk “Ideologies of Modernity and Urban Form.”
Braga was able to apply his Rio de Janeiro discoveries to part of Cornell’s Geospatial Forum. Focusing on an area of Rio de Janeiro, he and colleague Jensen Cheong used Google Street View to walk the entire neighborhood and identify every building that has some historical significance. He marked those buildings on a map, along with all residential and commercial activities in the neighborhood. He then drew a certain radius around each commercial property and from there determined if any historical building was under threat of demolition. He based his methodology on the assumption that commercial property development often places less emphasis on historical attachments. He was so close; a historically significant building just one block south of his determined radius was later demolished.
Braga laments these demolitions. “It’s a shame, because this late Neoclassical-style building could have been preserved to build this new office complex. It could have been an integral part of what made the building a special place. But the developers didn’t see it that way.”
“It’s a shame, because this late Neoclassical-style building could have been preserved to build this new office complex. It could have been an integral part of what made the building a special place.”
Braga also conducted another study on Rio de Janeiro, this time regarding the construction of new cable car stations on what used to be bustling street markets. Published in the Journal of Urbanism (November 2016), the study applied a methodology called Equitable Transit-Oriented Design, developed by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University in order to evaluate the decision to build the new stations.
Braga discovered that, although economically the project made sense, the way it was planned and carried out resulted in a significant loss in commercial activity from the dislocated street markets, now relocated to a new modern shopping mall that was neither strategically situated nor designed to preserve the street life and activity that once sustained the markets. He suspects that twentieth century modernist notions of development encouraged the construction of these single-use buildings, even though mixed-use buildings would add more value to urban development, which he proposed through alternative development plans.
As a third project in Rio de Janeiro, Braga has been studying archival suburban site plans from the 1930s. The materials he has worked with are currently on display in an exhibition in West Sibley Hall—Suburbanizing Rio de Janeiro: 1928–1939. “Some of these photographs and maps are really beautiful and tell intriguing stories,” he says.
Bicycling in Boston
From the Rio de Janeiro research, Braga developed an interest in modernist architecture and urban planning during the middle of the twentieth century. Boston was heavily influenced by that movement and caught Braga’s attention next.
Using some of his Rawlings Scholar funding, Braga worked at the Boston Cyclists Union with urban planners and civil engineers. They designed a feasibility study for an East-West protected bikeway in Boston that would be physically separated from the main roads.
Braga documented his experience in a forthcoming book, Bicycling in Boston, which he divided into three parts. The first part is the pragmatic process of designing a physical bikeway, along with the political entanglements involved. The second is the engagement of community members by the Boston Cyclist Union, which is crucial and interesting, considering that bike lines are often seen as white lanes in other communities; but in Boston the union operates out of a predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhood. The third part is a “personal mobile ethnography,” as Braga terms it, in which he writes about his personal experience cycling in Boston in a mixture of poetic and analytical terms.
He later found that there is a trend toward the mobilities turn in human geography that sees social systems as changing, at least in part due to the experience of moving. Braga’s experience as an exchange student at the University of Oxford, where he studied with the director of the Transport Studies Unit also influenced a lot of his thinking in his book.
During his Boston study, Braga became interested in how urban planners’ understanding of the walking experience in a city was shaped by the strong academic influence of modernism. He came across a comprehensive city plan of Boston from 1965 and decided to contrast it with that from Washington, DC from around the same period. He found that some underlying beliefs related to planning for pedestrians were actually myths that are still held onto by some of today’s planners. He presented these findings at another Congress for the New Urbanism, this time in Detroit, Michigan.
Active in local Ithacan politics while at Cornell, he was for some time a mayor-appointed voting member on the City of Ithaca Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Council. He still writes letters to newspapers and municipal decision-makers in response to community issues.
Operas: Eyes That Do Not See and La Tricotea
Like different movements of a musical work, Braga’s passion for music portrays a different side of his student life, without missing the fervor found in all of his pursuits. In the Fall of 2016, Braga premiered his second opera Eyes That Do Not See. In it, he explored the brutalist architectural approach of Le Corbusier through the Greek myth of Prometheus.
“I struggled a lot with Le Corbusier,” says Braga. “On the one hand, I have come to love brutalist architecture and how he used raw concrete as a beautiful material expression of our times. But at the same time, many of his ideas were very destructive when applied to cities around the world like Rio de Janeiro and created a lot of dissonance with the social and environmental fabric. I wanted to personally explore this person that influenced a lot of what I study.”
His opera had a successful premiere at Cornell with more than 150 people attending. It incorporated choreographed singers, contemporary ballet dancers, and videos of urban renewal—all to depict specific ideas in modern architecture. He borrowed from Greek mythology, specifically the story of Prometheus, to tackle the topics of the unintended consequences and the introduction of light into space. He also explored the depiction of women in architecture by referencing the use of caryatids, stone carvings of female figures, on Greco-Roman buildings.
His first opera La Tricotea also premiered on the Cornell campus. Braga wrote it comically to make fun of prevailing opera themes in history, particularly European colonial themes as depicted by Italy’s excursion into Ethiopia.
Making the Most of Cornell
Braga makes full use of Cornell’s interdisciplinary emphasis to pursue his passions. He realized how often this aspect is taken for granted when, during his student exchange experience at the University of Oxford, he struggled to convince his college to let him study geography and music simultaneously. “It’s funny because at Cornell, we take interdisciplinary studies for granted, and it is such a rich intellectual gift that people need to appreciate more.”
“I want to seize as much as I can out of my time here,” he says. “And I love it.” The work he has built over his five years speaks volumes to that.