The first destination of my Norman Foster Travelling Scholarship (NFTS) was Sao Paulo, Brazil. This was quite daunting city to go first – I had never travelled alone in my life, I was 20 years old and in a city with few English speakers and a huge population. I arrived in the city, got scammed within an hour (common train scam) then arrived at my ‘pod hostel’ and burst into tears at the sight of the hole that was to be my home for the next few days. Yet, this became one of my favourite cities and most incredible experiences.
Why have so many people migrated to Sao Paulo?
This started off as a small village, which grew rapidly due to an influx of migrants - from other parts of Brazil, but also other countries around the world. Sao Paulo was originally inhabited by the Portuguese in order to convert the locals to Catholicism. The city became the hub of coffee trade in the 19th Century, attracting migrants from 1860, from Italy, Germany, Greece, Japan and Korea. Into the 20th Century, the city grew in other industries as well as coffee, growing physically and financially at a rapid rate. Sao Paulo began to expand and connect to neighbouring cities, through railways and this encouraged economic migrants from within other areas of Brazil, as well as other countries. This has led to a very diverse city, but has also created problems with homelessness, as there are now over 12 million inhabitants, making it the largest city in Latin America.
Many Brazilian families are forced to leave their homes every day, as land and real estate are becoming more and more expensive. There are housing programs, such as ‘My House, My Life’, which creates jobs and access to services, etc., allowing the lower income families to access what would previously have only been available to the high-income population, although these housing programs are usually placed on the periphery of cities.
Sao Paulo is full of pockets of homeless people, as well as large favelas. Any area of unwanted space, such as grass verges and beneath bridges – these nearly always contain a community of the homeless. This ranges from pavement dwellers who move on day by day and long-term communities, looking for shelter and resorting to begging. The homeless population has been growing at 2-3% per year, with the latest figures showing 16,000 people live on the streets and an estimated up to 2 million live in favelas.
But what is the government doing to help this situation?
In July 2017 (not long before I arrived), 100 families were evicted from beneath an overpass in Sao Paulo as part of the Mayor’s revitalisation project. Although these people have been placed in temporary shelters, many events like this simply result in the squatters moving to a different location.
This is not a new way for the government to treat the homeless, as there have been many incidents in the past, including the idea to take away homeless people’s belongings to try to force them off the streets, called ‘urban care taking’. Julio Lancellotti is a Catholic priest who supports street dwellers – he said that ‘taking away a street dweller’s blanket is shameful, unethical, immoral, that’s sheer torture’. In June 2016, this led to 6 homeless people dying from the cold weather as they are not given adequate support, and their means of keeping warm in the Brazilian winter is often taken away from them.
How can sustainable urban planning prevent this from happening?
Revitalisation and development programs need to think about the future, with long term solutions. This involves economic and social aspects, by proving schemes to allow homeless people to afford their own homes, such as payment plans or schemes like My House My Life. Connectivity is a key issue in social housing and shelter development, as putting people on the edges of a city can exclude them from key employment areas, discouraging them from wanting to participate. In a city with excellent infrastructure, this would be reduced, but the cost and hassle of transport would also need to be considered.
Sao Paulo brings attention to many theories and concepts, such as rapid urbanisation, pedestrian orientated planning, and strict development schemes. On a city of this scale, sustainable development and planning is vital is creating a harmonious community with equal opportunities and social connectivity.
Experience and conclusions
My time in Sao Paulo taught me so much about the development of the city, a range of urban projects that aim to reduce homelessness and poverty, and the impact this has on the communities. I also learnt so much about myself and my own confidence in navigating a new city and country. I was extremely fortunate to meet a lot of incredible people in Sao Paulo. Despite being a solo traveller, I was very rarely alone – it was one of the friendliest and most welcoming cities. There was so much to do in the city, like spending Sunday morning at Paulista Avenue, a pedestrian street with activities going on – sports, dancing, music, etc.
One of the best experiences in Sao Paulo was going to a free walking tour – here, I met a group of lovely people who I then spent the day with, going to museums and getting to know everyone. One of the most exciting ways I met people was the media coverage from winning the scholarship. I was contacted by a few architecture students before or during my trip, who offered to meet and help with my trip and my research, making me feel so welcome and encouraged.
I would highly recommend visiting Brazil – I will probably say this in every one of my posts, but Brazil was probably my favourite country I went to on my trip. I’ll come to the other Brazilian cities I visited in future posts, but they were all amazing. I loved everything, from the culture, food, language and architecture. This actually surprised me to begin with as I had some (misconceived) perceptions of Brazil being very dangerous, which I feel is something we are told a lot, but in fact I felt so safe and supported.