Published on Sustainable Cities

Improving Slums: Stories from Sao Paulo

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Written by Fernando Serpone Bueno and Veridiana Sedeh, São Paulo

SÃO PAULO – Seventh largest among the world's metropolises and the linchpin of Brazil's booming economy, São Paulo presents a globally relevant case study of stepped-up efforts — but continued deep challenges — if cities are to correct the deep poverty and environmental perils of massive slum settlements.

Favela in BrazilClose to a third of São Paulo's 11 million people — in a metropolitan region of almost 20 million — live in slum-like conditions. There are some 1,600 favelas (private or public lands that began as squatter settlements), 1,100 "irregular" land subdivisions (developed without legally recognized land titles), and 1,900 cortiços (tenement houses, usually overcrowded and in precarious state of repair).

Government response has progressed light years from the brutal "eradication" — bulldozing of favelas — that began with Brazil's military dictatorship of the 1960s and continued for years as millions of rural families poured into São Paulo seeking industrial jobs. Today policy makers recognize that upgrading is a far wiser course — socially, economically and politically.

But the environment complicates the task: São Paulo has a monsoon-influenced humid subtropical climate with steep hillsides that create severe drainage problems, especially when storm water flows through sewerless slums, picking up loose debris that clogs drainage channels and can imperil local drinking water supplies. Environmental laws were passed in the 1980s to protect watersheds from construction projects — but settlements sprang up there anyway.

A toolkit for action — but key questions

Official Brazilian policy shifted in the 1980s toward slum upgrading instead of its eradication — recognizing it's easier and cheaper, not to mention more humane, to improve the conditions in a slum rather than try to remove it. But the new policy lacked much weight until the federal enactment, in 2001, of a "City Statute" requiring that cities enact master plans. It also provided a set of tools that municipalities can use to control land transfer and seek to assure legal tenure for tenants — a process São Paulo formally integrated into its own master plan a year later. One of the most useful tools is letting cities create "zones of special interest" for disorganized slums, formally recognizing their existence and qualifying them for social services. Another tool authorizes joint citizen-government management councils both in new and more settled areas.

Moving to more legal tenure, experts on Brazilian slum upgrading suggest, requires three elements to be workable. First, is the location OK for human settlement — not a water pollution risk because its location is too steep or on a flood plain? Second, is the settlement legally registered, or at least in the database of city properties? And third, do its residents have legal title to the land? And if not, what can be done to assure them secure tenure?

There are clear rewards if a full process of regularization — providing clear legal tenure — can be achieved. If families can have their land title confirmed, or at least secure a certificate recognizing their occupancy rights, some taxes can be levied. Rules can be set (and enforced) to prevent building collapse. Regular streets, schools and clinics can be brought in, attracting investment. And it's easier to reduce litter by organizing residents to bring their own household waste to collection points for city pick-up.

But going the whole way continues to be difficult. While the city government works hard to give land tenure, property rights are only conceded by law once this possession is recorded in a register office. According the Nelson Saule, an Instituto Pólis lawyer, the complete process has occurred only with a few properties. In most cases dwellers received a document without clear legal value.

Allies make a difference

São Paulo government has clearly become more activist and attuned to long-term slum upgrading in recent years. It's also been aided since 2001 by Cities Alliance, a global alliance of national and city governments, UN-Habitat and the World Bank, focused on scaling up urban poverty solutions.

The São Paulo Municipal Housing Secretariat in 2006 created a management information system that's now able to track the status of favelas, other precarious settlements and site/flooding/water hazard areas citywide. With a priority of serving the city's most vulnerable populations, the tracking (developed in technical cooperation with Cities Alliance) provides a basis for effective targeting of upgrading efforts and environmental clean-ups.

Before the system was implemented, notes Elisabete França, São Paulo's secretary of low-income housing, "data about our favelas and irregular private land subdivisions was unreliable, not reflecting the reality of these precarious settlements. The input of the new system resulted from a big field campaign, performed by our own technical staff in record time. The effort showed how people are as important as hardware and software. Now we can follow the dynamics of urban settlement. It is a new culture."

In 2008, São Paulo and Cities Alliance invited high-ranking officials from five other major cities — Cairo, Lagos, Manila, Mumbai and Ekurhuleni (South Africa) -- to convene in São Paulo, examine its efforts, and discuss the broad challenges of slum upgrading. "The passion of São Paulo's technical staff in the slum upgrading process was clear for all to see," Godfrey Hiliza of the Ekurhuleni delegation noted at the end of the sessions.


Still, São Paulo's reforms haven't come easily. Brazil's legal steps to establish clear land title are murky, unreformed nationally because of powerful rural land-holding interests fearing loss to squatters on their properties. Other pitfalls and barriers have included the high cost of land for building new housing, millions of families' lack of any credit history, and urban crime compounded by Brazil's notorious drug gangs.

And while the flow of new families from the countryside has subsided dramatically in recent years, São Paulo's deep social divisions and tenacious poverty, stemming from the late 20th century's immense in-migration of poor rural families. Still, the city claims that the housing issue in São Paulo can be "solved" by 2025 at current rates of city budget expenditure.

Islands of Progress

Sandra Regina, Jardim Iporanga's association president, says there is finally clean, treated water Sandra Regina, Jardim Iporanga's association president, says there is finally clean, treated water

One example that inspires hope that Sao Paulo's slum upgrading works is Paraisopolis (literally Paradise City), São Paulo's second biggest slum, with 60,000 people. Residents express a strong desire to stay, not be relocated, says Violêta Kubrusly, senior technical adviser at the Municipality of São Paulo Social Housing Department. Upgrading solutions are working and the city's long-term goals have shifted from 50 percent removal of the neighborhood's population to just 10 percent (those in risky areas like sharp slopes or drainage facilities).

One of São Paulo's goals is to bring electricity, sewage and clean water services to as many areas as it can afford. It is also seeking to enable "domicile swaps" so that the shack occupied by a family moving to a government-built apartment can be made available to a family living in a crowded, dangerous slum area.

There's a strong plus in Paraisopolis' location next to a high-income neighborhood that provides easy access to jobs (such as maid or watchman work).

Citywide, São Paulo is consciously seeking to recycle city areas left by relocated families into such common spaces as parks, playgrounds, soccer fields and skate parks -- ways to help people socialize and build a sense of citizenship for remaining residents. With luck, community leadership emerges.

For example, the Jardim Iporanga neighborhood is located in a protected watershed with a stream that feeds São Paulo's main water reservoir. Before slum upgrading, the neighborhood's scattered housing without sewage treatment had been causing pollution. Then, following the environmentally-attuned upgrading, one resident constructed a house on the newly-protected space. But he quickly heard from Sandra Regina, the community's association president, that he was threatening the common good. He agreed to demolish his structure.

"Nowadays it's paradise here," Regina says. "There is clean, treated water, while before it was all sewage." The main need now, she says, is jobs -- indeed across São Paulo, income generation is seen as a main challenges to a successful urbanization process. And there are some conscious job-creation efforts, with citizen groups playing a key role. In Jardim Iporanga, for instance, 30 women produce "ecobags" made of recycled rags; they are mostly sold to the city government which uses them for booklets at seminars and congresses.

Key to success: a voice for the community

There's growing agreement in São Paulo that local communities must themselves take part in the upgrading process, with a community leader acting as a mediator between the local residents and the government. Social worker Rosana Aparício says this mediation is crucial for slum upgrading to be successful.

Anaclaudia Rossbach, Cities Alliance regional advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean, reckons that to have a complete slum upgrading process, social work with the communities should continue after the construction and urbanization process is fully implemented.

There is a question: the array of housing and environmental cleanup policies in slum upgrading demand large investments. The outlays have been rising progressively over the past five years, thanks to combined effort of federal, state and city governments, as well as contribution from international organizations.

But will they endure politically — through one or more changes of municipal administration? Rossbach believes the answer is yes. And why? Because, she insists, there's a Municipal Housing Council, created by the city in 2002, which acts as a watchdog and also has a direct role in deciding how housing fund moneys will be spent. Its members come from government agencies, unions, from socially attuned non-government organizations and from the universities. They're popularly elected in polls open to all São Paulo citizens. "The council helps to guarantee the policies' continuity," she notes.

Fernando Serpone Bueno and Veridiana Sedeh are São Paulo-based freelance journalists. Bueno is also national politics editor at a news website; Sedeh is executive manager of Abraji (Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism).


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