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São Paulo: Population and Slum Housing

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small globe iconThe changing location of income groups

  • In the last decade or so, condominiums have emerged at the periphery of São Paulo because of limited space near the centre.
  • At the same time, corticos have expanded and become more dense in the central region.
  • Different social groups now live in close proximity, separated by walls and other security measures. For example, in Morumbi favelas coexist with luxury condominiums.

small globe iconThe slum housing problem

It is estimated that substandard or slum housing occupies 70% of São Paulo’s area – approximately 1,500 square kilometres. Two million people, 20% of the population, live in favelas, while over half a million people live in converted older homes and even factories in São Paulo’s inner core, which are known as corticos. Often whole families share a single room, which may lack electricity and plumbing. Rat and cockroach infestations are common. More than 60% of the population growth in the 1980s is considered to have been absorbed by the favelas.

By the beginning of the 20th century, São Paulo was socially divided between the affluent who lived in the higher central districts and the poor who were concentrated on the floodplains and along the railways. The rapid acceleration of urbanisation between 1930 and 1980 built on the existing pattern of segregation. However, by the late 1970s this pattern was beginning to change, with growing numbers of poor migrants spreading into virtually all areas of the city. The ‘lost decade’ of the 1980s witnessed the rapid development of shanty towns (favelas) at the urban periphery, and inner-city slum tenements (corticos).

Until the early 1980s, the cortico was the dominant form of slum housing. Then the favela broke out of its traditional urban periphery confines and spread throughout the city to become the new dominant type of slum. This happened as the newly arrived urban poor sought out every empty or unprotected urban space. It is estimated that favela residents now outnumber those living in corticos by 3:1. The rapid spread of the favelas in the 1980s mixed up the pattern of centre–periphery segregation in São Paulo. However, public authorities constantly removed favelas in the areas valued by the property market. The action of private property owners regaining possession of their land has driven favelas to the poorest, most peripheral and hazardous areas (floodplains, hill slopes, etc.). Few favelas remain in well-served regions, although the largest two, Heliopolis and Paraisopolis, are located in these areas.

Heliopolis is São Paulo’s largest slum. Established about 30 years ago, heliopolis means ‘city of the sun’ in Greek. People first came to this location to play football, but later they began to build shacks and the favela was established. A population of 100,000 people live here in a mix of absolute and semi-poverty. Access to facilities is very limited. For example, there is one library with about 300 books for the whole community. In Paraisopolis, almost 43,000 people are crammed into an area of 150 hectares near the CBD and elite residential areas. Figure 9 gives a charity worker’s impressions of the area.

Figure 9 - Extracts from the diary of an NGO volunteer worker in the Heliopolis favela.

Most corticos are located in the central districts, in areas that have deteriorated but are near the city’s jobs and services. However, the increase in corticos in the periphery is a recent phenomenon. This has usually been due to residents building other rooms on their lot to rent out and increase income.

People who live in favelas are known as favelados, and those from corticos are called encorticados. They do not like to be referred to by these terms, fearing prejudice in job applications and other aspects of life.

The problem of slum housing affects every continent but it is heavily concentrated in LEDCs. As in MEDCs, the relationship between poverty and poor housing is very strong (Figure 10). The poor quality of housing is a considerable hazard to the safety of residents (Figure 11).

Figure 11 - News report – Fire devastates São Paulo shanty town.

small globe iconThe location of favelas

The location of squatter settlements is strongly linked to the city’s physical and environmental situation (Figure 12).  A large number are found in municipal and privately-owned areas:

  • near gullies
  • on floodplains
  • on river banks
  • along railways
  • beside main roads
  • adjacent to industrial areas.

These are frequently areas that have been avoided in the past by the formal building sector because of building difficulties and hazards. In recent years, local government has been particularly concerned with:

  • Uncontrolled occupation close to watersheds in the southern zone (concerns about flooding and water contamination)
  • The rapid growth of favelas in another environmental preservation area, the Serra da Cantareira. The concerns here are the destruction of the original Atlantic forest and landslides.

Figure 10 - Inequality, poverty and slum formation.
Figure 10 -
Inequality, poverty and slum formation.
Click here to enlarge.

Figure 12. A favela on the edge of central São Paulo.
Figure 12 -
A favela on the edge of central São Paulo.
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