Diagram focusing on the central area_ SP's Metropolitan region


Sao Paulo is located on a plateau that is part of the Serra do Mar ( Maritime Range) with an average elevation of 800 m( 2000 ft) and at a distance of 40 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. The Tiete River and its tributary the Pinheiros River, both flow through the city. Although once a source of recreation, these waterways are now extremely polluted. It is also important to note that the city is reliant on the Guarapiranga and adjacent, Billings reservoirs used for power generation, water storage, and some recreation.

Fluvial System_image taken from MMBB's "Watery Voids" presentation


The initial settlement pattern in Sao Paulo, or in any other Portuguese colony, is quite different from that of the Hispanic colonies. Where the Hispanics sought a formal expansion in their countries in their colonies, the Portuguese settlers where purely opportunistic about the land. In Spanish colonies, every city would follow the Laws of the Indies: a central plaza, church, government building were the key establishments, setting the proportions and orientations for the urbanization to grow around it in a orthogonal manner. In contrast, Sao Paulo’s Patio do Colgeio formed by the Jesuits rough buildings, were important landmarks or nodes, but not placed in any particular manner with no apparent spatial logic.


City growth + expansio_ image taken from MIT's briefing book for the SP studio

Sao Paulo began to develop as a mining town. In 1771 there was a shift to Agricultural production (coffee) until 1822 where The Brazilian Imperial Period began and the construction of the first working railroad took place. It is important to note that the railroad (and later the city’s highways) were placed along the rivers since this is the flattest land, the cheapest and the easiest to construct.

[As a quick parenthesis and flash-forward, since most of the land along the rivers became, from very early on, public land, it also became subject to invasions.  These are some of the primary areas where the favelas are located in the city. That said, the infrastructural developments in addition to the recent densification, has made these lands- which are important fluvial plains- extremely impermeable. Consequently, environmental problems have emerged, including vast floods, water contamination, etc.]

During this period, the economic growth brought by coffee and the railway, made the city growth much more prominent and visible. The population went from 65000 inhabitants in 1890 to 13100 in 1893. The city expanded substantially southward during this period, with industrial zones mostly located near the railroads.

Beginning in the 1930s, the focus was placed on automobile infrastructure. The largest highways located themselves, once again, parallel to the river and the existing railroad. The connection between SP and Rio as well as the Northern part of the country (Bahia), brought a strong migratory movement from the northern rural areas.  With this population expansion came a massive need for low-income housing, which the city was not able to attend, thus marking a shift in the city’s urbanization and an expansion and dispersion to the peripheries.

Example of development along the river_photographs taken from Watery Voirds Presentation (architectural firm MMBB)


In is important to note that until this moment, Sao Paulo had been a concentrated city where different social groups lived in a small urban area segregated by the type of housing. Around the 1940s, the urban shift implied that higher income groups continued to live in the central neighborhoods, where the best infrastructure and services existed, while the lower classes began to settle in the peripheries.

From the 1960s on, Brazilian modern architecture flourished bringing an impressive vertical development to the city, leaving the old center was slowly left for the lower economic classes. In parallel, the favelas, in the peripheries of the city, continued to grow. For the most part, favelas sprung in most vacant spaces in the city. For the most part, these spaces were leftover spaces from large development. (The 6766 law of 1979, required any development to donate 30% of the land for institutional use-community centers, schools, etc.- Nevertheless, since the government never enforced strict measures nor inspected the “donated” territory, most of this land was un-developable– be it because of the topography, the soil conditions, etc.). It is now estimated that close to 2 million people live in the favelas.

Diagram of urban development (the boundaries are purely diagramatic and do not corespond to the actual limits and borders of these zones)


Location of informal settlements (favelas) in Sao Paulo State_ image taken from MIT's briefing book for the SP studio

Most of the informal settlement units are locating in the south quadrant of the metropolitan area, close to the water supply sources. More specifically, they are located in the on the banks of the waterways (close to the railroad and highway systems). Environmentally speaking, this has been problematic as the residents in these areas are now subject to constant floods, and the watersheds, which now receive their sewage, has become undrinkable and polluted. As such, emphasis has been on sanitary upgrades to settlements surrounding the city’s reservoirs to improve public health in both formal and informal communities.

Zones of Interest_ image taken from MIT's briefing book for the SP studio

Teresa Caldeira talks about a third shift in the urbanization of the city, which emerged around the 1980s: “Different social groups are often close to each other but separated by tall wall and security technologies, and tend not to circulate or interact in common areas”. Vertical condominiums became the solution for many of the high-income population, who due to the increase in violence opted for new housing options offering security and comfort. As part of the solutions to respond to the discourse of fear and violence in the city, these condominiums have opted for tall walls, metal fences, high security systems, leading to not only a physical and visual separation but a strong social segregation and social class distinction.

Along with the democratic consolidation of the country (which began in the mid 1970s), the city experienced a widening of the social gap in regards of social services, income and the democratic process itself. With that, the de-industrialization and transition to a service economy has brought about a high percentage of unemployment (particularly due to the elimination of jobs in the automobile sector). The majority of these problems are seen in the periphery of the Municipality of Sao Paulo, where the favelas lies.

2 thoughts on “Brief Overview of SP’s Urbanization

  1. Pingback: BORDER STRADDLING :: The urbanization of Ciudad Juarez + El Paso | {FAVEL issues}

  2. Pingback: Dazed and confused on the streets of London and São Paulo | the book is on the table

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