Integrating Informal Cities: Prime Challenge for Megacities of the South

 Illegal favela in São Paulo, source: commons.wikimedia, licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

14. April 2011
Elisabete França and Fabienne Hoelzel
Elisabete França and Fabienne Hoelzel

Worldwide, more than 1 billion people live in so-called informal cities, and it has been estimated that this number will increase by at least another half billion over the next 15 years. Thinking about the future of cities means facing the challenge of those figures and the related problems of inequality, education, health, crime, governance, exclusion, and loneliness. Additionally, today’s cities have to face newly emerging problems such as scarcity of water, energy, and food, as well as air pollution and traffic congestion due to the increasing use of cars.

In Brazil, the 20th century began with an urban population of 6 million people – 100 years later there were around 160 million people living in cities. A population of this magnitude illustrates people’s preference for urban life. Cities in Brazil are seen as places of opportunity for access to education, health, employment, and even – to a large extent – a more fulfilled life. But just as much as the city is seen as desirable, it is often rejected, too. Over the course of the last century, above all up until the 1980s, cities suffered all kinds of deprivations and disruptions.

In the city of São Paulo, more than 30 percent of the inhabitants — which means around 3 million people – live in some degree of precariousness in areas designated as favelas – slum tenements or irregular settlements. Detached from the so-called formal city, they are unparalleled examples of inequality within the urban space. São Paulo has about 1,500 favelas, 1,000 irregular settlements, and 2,000 cortiços (slum tenements). This whole differentiated town occupies just 136 square kilometers of a city whose overall territory covers 1,500 square kilometers. In other words, 30 percent of the city population occupies less than 10 percent of the urban territory of São Paulo.

Faced with the complexity and the scale of this reality, the developers of housing policy for the city of São Paulo do not have the easiest of tasks. In the first place, it is necessary to know in depth and in detail what the problems are and to avoid generalized discourse on urban poverty.

Designing spaces of co-existence: The São Paulo Municipal Housing Plan

The contemporary urban space project presupposes an understanding of present-day society, with a view to overcoming the ideological barriers that has influenced urbanism since the 1920s. Taking the city itself as the source of a solution, the chief objective is to build quality public spaces that respect the existing environment and culture. Above all, it should lead to the dissolution of urban and symbolic boundaries between the “informal” areas and “formal” districts.

This new perception, reflected in the São Paulo Municipal Housing Plan, has provided a theoretical basis for a new way of thinking about the informal city. The Plan also incorporates the efforts previously made by the poorest people in their districts and incorporates these efforts as a starting point for future construction projects.
The informal city is an urban phenomenon set up within the city’s territory and is therefore an integral part of it – one of the elements of urban morphology that shapes its design. Nowadays, it is no longer possible to accept a concept of the informal city that is centered on negative parameters, which are sustained around ideas of absence, deficiency, and homogeneity. It is necessary to adopt as meaningful what the informal city is not, as compared to an idealized model of the city. It is important to start urbanization projects that are not just a “mirror of the conventional city.” On the contrary, projects for outlying regions with precarious conditions ought to opt for a definition based on relations of space, time, and distance and that take into consideration both the disruption and the order.

São Paulo municipality is working boldly to try and incorporate these areas into the formal city: by providing access, by connecting it to the infrastructure, by creating job opportunities, etc. We need to do this all at once so that the informal city may become more resilient, economically viable, and ecologically sustainable. In short, if possible, we need to make it more crisis-proof than the formal city.

The main objective of the Municipal Housing Plan is to highlight the importance of urbanization projects for the so-called informal city. The projects should not be shown as being out of the ordinary but rather as representing a new relationship that planners ought to establish with the population living in less-privileged districts. A population of today should expect creative solutions that answer the demands of a city in the 21st century. The São Paulo municipality seeks to achieve these goals because we believe that the city – recognized as a privileged space for human relations and an eminently democratic forum – allows for opposing values to coexist and be confronted, countering conservative ideas about isolated communities. This privileged role that the city has adopted – a space for democratic communal living – relates to the extension of access to opportunity for all of its inhabitants. The intention is to build a city where urban living, the terms of social interaction, and the exchange of differences may be permanently guaranteed.

City of the future: City of interaction

The city of the future is obviously in contrast to the city of ghettoes, the city of isolation, the city of closed condominiums. The example of urban projects in favelas is perhaps one of the most powerful instruments we have for assisting us in our reflections. The real challenge lies therefore not in upgrading the favela with infrastructure such as sewage, water, and electricity, but in finding sustainable spatial solutions to integrate these settlements into the “formal” urban tissue. Usually, favela inhabitants use the adjacent districts, while the common urban dweller would never enter a favela.

Urban and architectural projects – however ambitious and beautiful they might be – that focus only on the favela itself will hardly work in the long run. Therefore, we have to think about programmatic and spatial strategies of how those excluded districts can become attractive for everybody. We need to think about places, buildings, and programs for people who want to come together and share a common experience. To achieve a sustainable merging of the informal settlements with the so-called formal city, we need to address the borders of the favela and introduce some kind of “contact zones.”

Connecting isolated neighborhoods means implementing functioning, visually attractive networks of public spaces, green spaces, and public transport. In order to achieve this, the urban project should be used not only as a design project but also an instrument of integration. The urban project itself can act as a tool of dialogue for the stakeholder management, not only between public authorities, planners, architects, and the population, but also between the different planning institutions within the municipality, and between the state and the municipality. Considering the almost endless agglomeration of the São Paulo metropolitan area, ways should be found for systematic collaboration between adjacent municipalities. The solution to tackling the enormous challenges ahead lies in establishing a sustainable planning culture that goes beyond the political vanity and abrupt changes due to government. Therefore, the main investment should go into education and capacity-building.


Elisabete França and Fabienne Hoelzel, Secretaria Municipal de Habitação de São Paulo

Fabienne Hoelzel

Fabienne Hoelzel (1976) is an urbanist and architect and works currently as a urban design project coordinator at the São Paulo housing secretariat, responsible for the local slum upgrading program, land tenure and tenement housing upgrading in the central area. She was the assistant curator of the 4th International Rotterdam Architecture Biannual 2009 “Open City: Designing Coexistence” (curator: Kees Christiaanse) and worked as a researcher at the Institute of Urban Design at the ETH Zurich. She worked as an architect in international firms such as Herzog & de Meuron and as a teaching assistant at the TU Munich. She lectures and publishes on a regular base. 

Elisabete França

Elisabete França (1956), PhD, is an architect and urbanist and holds currently the position of the head of the social housing department at the municipality of the São Paulo housing secretariat, responsible for the local slum upgrading program, land tenure and tenement housing upgrading in the central area, and the development of the strategic plan for social housing in Sao Paulo (partnership with the cities alliance). França is a senior technical consultant for international agencies such as IBRD, IDB and UNCHS-HABITAT. She was a general coordinator of the urban recovery and environmental sanitation program of the Guarapiranga reservoir, conducted in partnership with the state government of Sao Paulo and the World Bank (1993-2000). In 2002 she was the curator of the “Brazilian Favela Upgrading Exhibition” at the Venice Biennale (Brazilian Pavilion).

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