Favelas of Sao Paulo: Part 1, Cingapura

June 9, 2008 | Brazil, Local issues, Pictures, Sao Paulo, Slums

A while back I spent 4½ days in Sao Paulo – my first time in Brazil – getting an immersion tour in why and where and how the municipality and state of Sao Paulo have tackled slum upgrading and urbanization. 

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The biggest city in South America, with 10,000,000 people in the city limits and over 18,000,000 in the metro area,

 

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it’s a fascinating place, with great people, but it’s almost enormous:

 

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As you get driven around the city (completely lost, at least in my case), you pass through neighborhoods reminiscent of New York, Chicago, Miami, and San Francisco

 

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From downtown Sao Paulo, point your camera anywhere and you’ll see high-rise apartments.

 

— and then, half a mile later, through favelas reminiscent of Mumbai, Johannesburg, or Cairo. 

 

Sao Paulo’s been through two major slum upgrading programs – they call it ‘urbanization,’ a term I am coming to like because, as I’ve previously posted, one attribute of slums is where housing and private investment have far outstripped public investment in infrastructure.

 

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Then World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz visiting a Sao Paulo favela

 

Sao Paulo has a two-decade-plus history of municipal involvement with slum upgrading.  As with most cities, the first response was complete neglect.  When that failed, the municipality evicted people, demolished the favela, and developed something high-end on the newly valuable property.  Meanwhile, the displaced residents were economically lubricated with modest relocation payments, and encouraged to move ‘somewhere farther out,’ usually onto low-lying or poor quality public land.

 

That strategy works – at least in the sense of real estate, if not public policy – until the human tide becomes so overwhelming something has to be done.  About twenty years ago, the municipality developed a slum demolition-and-redevelopment program, nicknamed Cingapura (the Portuguese pronunciation of Singapore). 

 

Cingapura draws its architectural inspiration from the same thinking that spawned US public housing — a sense that what’s wrong with the neighborhood is the grotty houses people have built for themselves, and the solution is in new, proper, publicly constructed mid-rises and high-rises. 

 

Under Cingapura, the Municipality of Sao Paulo cleared out favelas abutting on channeled rivers, railway lines, and highways:

 

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A Cingapura project as most Paulistanos see it: whizzing by the highway

 

The idea was new-construction walkups, with enclosed courtyards (and play areas), all brightly painted:

 

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Vila Nilo, a Cingapura property in northeast Sao Paulo

 

Each building has its own gated entryway that closes and locks automatically:

 

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Building entry, Vila Nilo

 

Inside, the apartments are large by southern-hemisphere slum redevelopment standards – a reflection of Sao Paulo‘s relative wealth.  A two-bedroom is 48 square meters, or about 525 square feet.

 

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She let us photo in her apartment, “even though it’s a mess”

 

Apartments have electricity – note television in the preceding photo – cooking gas (normally propane from individual tanks in the basements), water (metered and sewer).  Bathrooms are small but serviceable:

 

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Bathroom: shower on the left, toilet on the right, all ceramic tile

 

Kitchens are small but functional:

 

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Small stainless steel kitchen sink, and refrigerator with the ubiquitous magnets

 

But the high-rises are unpopular, compared with renovating people’s current informally built homes, so in the second phase of Vila Nilo, the existing homes were left in place, and the streets were urbanized with paving, drainage, secure street lighting, and metering.

 

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High-rises in blocks on the left, low-rises in lettered clusters around urbanized streets

 

The result is a less institutional and more neighborhood street —

 

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Streetscape in Vila Nilo, with informally built houses that are under continuous renovation and expansion

 

— where people can provide small-scale commerce.

 

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The sign says, Popsicles for sale

 

The neighborhood is an insular community, where outsiders are unusual, and while little kids and the elderly are always happy to send most anyone, young men are more wary:

 

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Street scene in Vila Nilo, with management staff in the background

 

As part of improving the community, the municipality sponsors extensive social programs (in a community center built into the new-construction high-rise part), with adult literacy

 

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Notice for adult literacy class

 

… and family counseling programs …

 

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The caption translates roughly as, when you hit a woman, you hurt a family.

 

No matter how quickly Sao Paulo builds or renovates its favelas, the people keep coming, and they gravitate to the outlying areas of existing favelas:

 

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New self-build land invasion (as it is called down there), favelas under the power lines

 

Yet the desire to improve one’s home is universal.  These little boys, when questioned, told us they were off to build a house:

 

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Builders three, Sao Paulo

 

[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]