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The point of urban acupuncture in Brazil

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What happens if you have a third of your population living in favelas, many of which are on precarious land, many of which are polluting the water supply for the city, where the majority of people are migrants and have little or no education? How do you plan services, regularise housing and infrastructure and ensure that the people living in these communities have equitable access to education, health care and employment?

Our research project for the Norfolk Trust is all about how you plan and development successful and resilient communities, how you shape good place to live. To date, we’ve looked at many of the best examples world wide of “planned” communities.

Typically, the government plan the community out in advance before the residents move in. But what happens in the case of Sao Paulo where the community has already arrived having built their own houses? How can you re-plan that community in retrospect? As a local authority, how you introduce services such as health and education? How do you manage ensure a buoyant labour market with a lack of affordable housing provided by the state?

This is exactly the challenge facing cities like Sao Paulo where a third of their population live in informal settlements, known locally as favelas, on the periphery of the city. We often think of these areas as being separate and illegal, but in fact, given that such a large proportion of the population live in them, the city is truly a combination of the informal and the formal.

Crime is such a problem in Sao Paulo that its no longer against the law not to stop at a red light as the law recognises that you need to keep moving to avoid car jacking

Favelas are the biggest challenges that a government can face, but in Sao Paulo, they are tackling it head on. We visited a project in the city of 20 million people (fifth largest city in the world) called Parasopolis where the Sao Paulo city council have spent the last five years working to improve the area and support the development of a stronger community. These informal communities are among the most difficult areas to live and work in with high murder rates, low life expectancy, high infant mortality and largely controlled by the trafficos.

Crime is such a problem in Sao Paulo that its no longer against the law not to stop at a red light as the law recognises that you need to keep moving to avoid car jacking. The approach Sao Paulo Council have employed is programmatic, evidence led and has the political support to make it viable.

Crucially this recognises that favelas should not necessarily be perceived as a problem but recognise the richness of the social capital and that exists within and the vital economic role that citizens of the informal areas play in supporting the wealthiest communities that exist alongside them. It is not about demolishing the favelas wholesale and rebuilding but it is about providing infrastructure (including roads, sewage, schools), identifying those families most at risk from natural disasters (eg flooding and mudslides) and some providing new homes for families that require resettlement because their homes are at particular risk (eg flooding/mudslide).

This approach is known in planning circles within Brazil as “urban acupuncture”. The progress that Sao Paulo Council have been able to make in relation to the favelas has been underpinned by a number of characteristics.

Firstly, it has been evidence led which involved the council surveying and documenting the geography and social makeup of all the favelas in the city. The second problem was deciding what areas to redevelop first? This required the development of a system of prioritisation for the interventions, the basis of which was determined upon the risks to water catchment areas. It was a high priority for the city that the slum redevelopment helped to clean up the rivers running across the city in order to safeguard fresh drinking water supplies for Sao Paulo.

What was clear from the city council’s point of view was that in the traditional sense the council had no formal relationship with these communities, indeed no control whatsoever in the favela areas.

To this end, favela redevelopment has happened first in those areas which are closest to the source of the rivers, moving slowly down the catchment areas over time. This way, rivers running through redeveloped areas are not contaminated by favelas further up the catchment basin. At the same time flood prevention and sewage disposal infrastructure were also retro-fitted.

Community engagement and participatory planning was a crucial part of the intervention in the favelas. What was clear from the city council’s point of view was that in the traditional sense the council had no formal relationship with these communities, indeed no control whatsoever in the favela areas. What was needed was a long process of working with the communities to gain their trust and establish an accepted council presence in the community.

Over the course of the intervention in Parasopolis to date, more than 1000 meetings have taken place with residents in the course of one year. New housing has been provided where homes were needed to be demolished to deliver new infrastructure or to address precarious structural issues, new schools have been built, new open spaces for recreation and play have been created.

The interesting issues for us have been the care with which the interventions have taken place, and how some issues, such as the need for communities to be actively involved in the planning of their areas, are universal. The characteristics that shape good places to live do translate but what that means from place to place may be very different. It’s a far cry from working in West Suffolk, where you don’t need to wear a protective bib reminding residents that you are from the council and not to shoot at you.

Sarah Longlands, director of policy, Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES). This is written in partnership with Patsy Dell, head of planning at StEdmundsbury BC,

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