São-Paulo, Brazil

by Mariana Fix, Pedro Arantes and Giselle M. Tanaka


São Paulo, a small trading town until the mid 19th century, slowly grew in importance through coffee exports. By the turn of the 20th century, the city was socially divided between the geographically high and low areas, with the
wealthy in the higher central districts – the places of formal urban interventions – and the poor on the floodplains and along the railways.

Between 1930 and 1980, urbanization accelerated greatly, with an intense process of migration from the countryside, building on the existing socio-spatial
segregation. At the end of the 1970s, the pattern of a wealthy centre and poor periphery began to change with, initially, different urban social groupings living in adjacent areas as a result of steadily growing numbers of poor migrants in all areas of the city. The ‘lost decade’ of the 1980s saw spiralling growth of shantytowns in the urban periphery, known as favelas, and inner-city slum tenements, known as cortiços. The cortiço was the dominating São Paulo slum type until the beginning of the 1980s, when the favela broke out of its traditional urban periphery confines and spread all over the city to become the new dominant type of slum. They did so by occupying just about every empty or unprotected urban lot and on lands where building is difficult, or of limited interest to the formal market. Favelas and corticos have the following characteristics:

Favela: these are agglomerations of dwellings with limited dimensions, built with inadequate materials (old wood, tin, cans and even cardboard) distributed irregularly in lots, almost always lacking urban and social services and equipment, and forming a complex social, economic, sanitary, educational and urban order.

Cortiço: this is a unit used as a collective multifamily dwelling, totally or partially presenting the following characteristics: (i) made up of one or more buildings constructed on an urban lot; (ii) subdivided in several rented, sublet or ceded units on any ground whatsoever; (iii) several functions performed in the same room; (iv) common access and use of nonconstructed spaces and sanitary installations; (v) in general, precarious circulation and infrastructure; and (vi) overcrowding of persons.

The favela is, in general, squatter settlement accommodation – an owner-occupied structure located on an invaded lot and without security of tenure – while the cortiço is, generally, inner-city, dilapidated rental accommodation. The cortiço’s origin dates back to the 19th century as the legal, market alternative of popular housing. The favela is a much younger phenomenon and represents the illegal market alternative, utilizing invasion and squatting of open and unprotected lands. Unlike the cortiço dweller, who is subject to the laws of the market, rent and payment for services, favela dwellers are seen as having ‘an easy life’, not paying for anything.

The favela is largely owner-occupied, albeit often on squatted or invaded lands, whereas the cortiço ispredominantly private-sector rental accommodation. Although figures depend upon the methodology applied, favela inhabitants now roughly outnumber cortiço dwellers at a rate of 3:1.

The industrial deconcentration of the 1980s caused medium-sized Brazilian cities to grow at rates much above those of the metropolises.15 In large metropolises, this caused lower central area population growth rates or even decreases. The peripheral areas, however, continued to grow at almost double the national urban rate. São Paulo’s transformation from an industrial into a service metropolis was responsible for considerable further economic and social polarization and a rapidly growing income gap between the richest and the poorest. This process continues to fuel the growth and emergence of favelas and, as a whole, tenure patterns are therefore changing accordingly.

Both favelas and cortiços are popularly seen as a space for the city’s ‘shady characters, bums, troublemakers and dirty’. The medical metaphors ‘cancer’ and ‘wound’ are recurrent. The prejudice is quite ingrained, especially among neighbours, who see their property devalued by the slum. The image of the São Paulo favela dweller is confused with that of the ‘marginal’ and not so much with the crook or trafficker, as, for instance, in Rio de Janeiro.

The year 1971 saw the establishment of the first overall master plan for São Paulo, intended to establish guidelines for all municipal policies and urban zoning. The plan, however, did not cater for the peripheral areas, effectively excluding thousands from planning and public investments. A 1988 constitutional amendment expanded municipal decentralization and autonomy. However, in the face of insufficient national and federal fund disbursements to the local level, this had comparatively little impact. The latter is, moreover, the case as highly polarized local-level politics – with often opposing public policy priorities – tend to cancel each other out.

The favelas, however, had emerged during the 1970s as a target for limited public policy. Nevertheless, this largely involved cheap voter-drawing attempts rather than structurally addressing the issues. During the early 1990s, the favelas for the first time became the target of widespread action with a programme that served 41,000 families in its first two years. In the programme’s ten-year existence, some US$322 million was invested. The cortiço, however, did not see any similar attention until recently when the central area real-estate price recovered and profitable activities started in these areas.

Currently, a new action plan for favelas is being implemented, which aims to reach 52,000 slum dwellers in the next three years with legalization of tenure and upgrading of slum areas, and to network with other social programmes.

The impact of all of these efforts is multiple, although not always convergent, and very little evaluated. It is therefore difficult to find out what their real impacts are. Programmes are frequently paralysed by changes in public administration and subsequent policy swings. Additionally, neither state nor federal investments in poverty reduction reach São Paulo for technical reasons. Public policies conducted in highly unequal and polarized countries such as Brazil produce their own conflicts, tensions and impasses, since a common development project for all social classes is no longer easily visualized.

This summary has been extracted from:

UN-Habitat (2003) Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, The Challenge of Slums, Earthscan, London; Part IV: 'Summary of City Case Studies', pp195-228.

top page


To read the full report, choose & click on one of the pdf icons below.

Document size: 2.1 MB

Document size: 1.3 MB (b&w)




2003 Development Planning Unit | Anna Soave | Khanh Tran-Thanh