Price in Sao Paulo: housing, infrastructure, and questionable samba dancing

Written by Nicholas Busalacchi, MPL ’14 | Photo credits: Ginger Li

We stood on the rubble of a former squatter village in the Serra do Mar mountains outside Sao Paulo, Brazil, looking out toward freshly minted housing developments in the valley below. Out came several women from the remaining mountainside homes, presenting a delectable array of spongecake and refreshments for their wide-eyed visitors. Then the “media” arrived–a highly professional group of citizen journalists with video and sound equipment–ready to document the scene. These were not the favelas often depicted in the news–the informal settlements rife with squalor, crime, and desperation.

Getting their spongecake on

Getting their spongecake on

During the next few days, our hosts from EMPLASA–the metropolitan planning agency representing the State of Sao Paulo–introduced us to their extraordinary efforts to house the State’s 40-plus million residents. Our 25 student class, culled from Price’s MPA, MPL, and MPP programs and led by Professor Richard Green, toured new housing developments at Serra do Mar and Jardim Pantanal, connected with local government and community leaders, and listened to presentations from Sao Paulo’s top housing and infrastructure policymakers. We quickly learned the immensity of EMPLASA’s challenge.

Post-Brazilian BBQ bliss

Post-Brazilian BBQ bliss

While rapid urbanization brought millions into the middle class, it also put extreme stress on the region’s limited housing stock as workers sought “affordable” living arrangements. From 2002 to 2011, the amount of residents living in favelas increased from 37 percent to 65 percent. These informal settlements often lacked basic infrastructure and sanitation, were susceptible to mudslides and natural disasters, and fell outside the government’s regulatory framework–a situation that also deprived favela residents of government benefits. Furthermore, infrastructure did not keep pace with population growth and connect new settlements to job opportunities. Paulistas in the bottom income quintile commuted an average of four hours roundtrip to work.

Hard at work (and rocking those headphones!)

Hard at work (and rocking those headphones!)

To address these issues, EMPLASA was assembling the State of Sao Paulo’s first comprehensive housing plan and undertaking large-scale housing redevelopment projects. What set these efforts apart–at least to yours truly–were their emphasis on maintaining existing neighborhood networks and building social cohesion. In addition to installing electrical and sanitation infrastructure in the remaining favelas, EMPLASA’s social planners also initiated a public arts program to beautify the community. The Jardim Pantanal project included a greenhouse for local residents and a recycling center that employed 12 community members. One especially progressive initiative trained local residents in journalism and provided them tools (e.g., video and sound equipment, web access, etc.) to report on the redevelopment program. This not only encouraged participation and advocacy, but also helped planners identify problems with their approaches.

Jardim Pantanal Recycling Center

Jardim Pantanal Recycling Center

We also witnessed how big of a difference a small group of dedicated individuals can make to a community’s wellbeing. During a site visit to Campinas–a metropolitan region northwest of the City of Sao Paulo– we met the affable and inspirational Mr. Canario. After a succession of assassinations had decimated the leadership in his favela community, Mr. Canario stepped up to assume the lead role in his community council. Having previously organized a successful resistance movement against a government-led relocation initiative, his commitment and passion drew others in the community to his side to curb violence and rebuild. What we saw when we set foot in Mr. Canario’s favela was a tightly-knit neighborhood with a renewed sense of hope. Residents were making improvements to their homes, streets had been paved, and a new soccer field was being constructed. It was testament to the power that individuals can have in reshaping their environments.

Mr. Canario showing off his neighborhood

Mr. Canario showing off his neighborhood

To conclude the program, our class presented best (and worst) practices for housing and infrastructure policy to EMPLASA’s staff, drawing on case studies from New York, Chicago, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Seoul. But our adventure wasn’t complete without a Brazilian send-off–a wild night of samba dancing and revelry, compliments of EMPLASA. We joined thousands of Paulistas and hundreds of musicians in an expansive, warehouse-like community center on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, trying our best (and failing miserably) to keep up with their staccatoed footwork.

Samba train...where's Waldo?

Samba train…where’s Waldo?

We all left Brazil with an energized sense of purpose and much deeper appreciation of the State of Sao Paulo’s challenges and triumphs. A special thanks to EMPLASA’s gracious hospitality–especially to Dianna Motta and her staff–and the exceptional leadership of Professor Richard Green and the infallibly good-natured Ginger Li. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience!

Our fearless leaders (from left: Ginger Li, Richard Green, and Dianna Motta)

Our fearless leaders (from left: Ginger Li, Richard Green, and Dianna Motta)

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