São Paulo: Green in an Unruly Metropolis


Parque Trianon, Avenida Paulista, early morning. One clue to judging the safety of a neighborhood is the presence of women out walking dogs. Despite São Paulo’s high crime rates, you see them in many areas.

São Paulo has the reputation of being a very dangerous city. Its murder rate is phenomenal: 36.9 per 100,000 people in 2004, while London’s rate was 2.4 that year, Los Angeles’s was 14 and Chicago’s 16. I didn’t know that when I picked Brazil’s industrial powerhouse as one of the cities to consider in my book Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places, and that’s probably a good thing because I might not have gone, and missed seeing where the rest of the world may be headed.

One of the beauties of the Internet is the ease with which you can “meet” people ahead of time to ask what to see and hear when you arrive. I had lined up appointments with city officials and academics before I left Montreal, and I’d also exchanged e-mails with two British journalists who know the city well, and who offered to meet for lunch the day I arrived to give me some tips. But I’m afraid I rather surprised these guys, because as soon as I introduced myself face-to-face I could see them swallow and consider before they spoke: obviously I was a whole lot older than the woman they were expecting.

“You can’t go there,” one of them began, when I asked about housing developments I should see.

“Don’t ride public transportation,” his friend chimed in.

“People get kidnapped at knife point in their own cars at that intersection,” the first one added.

It was enough to make me worry for a couple of hours about what I’d got myself into. But I decided I had ignore their warnings if I wanted to get a feel for this energetic place. Yes, the middle- and upper-classes are afraid, but I found that the overwhelming majority of people were extremely nice to strangers as they go about their ordinary lives. In fact, I think I stumbled on a great indicator of a neighborhood’s safety — the presence of women of a certain age walking dogs. I found them all over the city during the day, at least, taking the cachorrinho out to do his business and patrolling the street at the same time.


The greater metropolitan area contains about 18 million people, some houses in highrise apartments but many living in low, often owner-built, houses.

Greater São Paulo has about the same population — 18 million — as Shanghai and, like the Chinese megacity, it wants to be a First World leader. Brazilians, however, may have lived under dictators in the past, but no one has ever wielded the power that is necessary to change a city the way Shanghai is currently razing, building and reorganizing in order to convert 35 per cent of its area into green space. In São Paulo, fifteen per cent of new development in São Paulo is slated for green spaces (along with 20 per cent for roads and services) but the rule is more honored in theory than in practice, even in legal developments. All bets are off when it comes to favelas, those clusters of tiny, thrown-together houses built illegally. Indeed, a report on environmental conditions around São Paulo says that 65 per cent of the city’s 200,000 substandard dwellings — which house more than a million people — are built on land which had been supposed to be saved for green space.

That doesn’t mean, though, that Paulistanos don’t care profoundly about where they live. The wealthy build luxurious apartment complexes set amid smooth lawns and gorgeous flowers. Almost everyone else seems to work furiously to have a small place to call their own, frequently built one Sunday at a time on lots with no more than a five meter frontage. The streets often wind around haphazardly, indicating that no planner oversaw the subdividing of the land, while sewer, water and electric connections may be inadequate. But frequently a flower box or a cosseted jacaranda tree in magnificent purple bloom will be visible inside the protective iron fence.

In a way, in fact, São Paulo is a garden city, although hardly of the Ebenezer Howard variety. Hundreds of sections are called Jardim — garden in Portuguese. Some of them are clearly filled with flowers and trees, like Jardim Europa, laid out in the 1930s by architects and developers who wanted to make a pleasant and green middle-class corner of the city. But there are far more Jardims — Jardim Ouro Preto or the favela Jardim Jacqueline on the city’s far edge, to name only two — where whatever green that exists has nothing to do with city planning or municipal efforts, and everything to do with the residents’ dreams and hard work.

Parque Ibirapuera, the city’s biggest park — “our Central Park,” people told me — wasn’t inaugurated until São Paulo’s 400th anniversary in 1954, but São Paulo actually has one of the oldest public gardens in the Western Hemisphere. The Jardim da Luz was founded in 1798 as a botanical garden on flat farmland at the eastern edge of what is now the Centro district. For decades Paulistanos passed their Sunday and holidays there, listening to music and enjoying the century-old trees, the lakes and the animals. But as the center of the city declined, the Jardim was almost entirely abandoned to prostitutes and drug dealers until the city recently decided to rehabilitate it. Now, with the refurbishing of a train station and the handsome Pinocoteca art museum next to it, the Jardim de Luz has regained some of its former panache.

São Paulo is full of automobiles, however. That is in part the result of the emphasis placed on steel and automobiles as a motor for the region’s — and Brazil’s — growth. The three separate municipalities south of São Paulo, called the ABC region because their names are Santo Andre, São Bernardo do Campo and São Cateano, have been home to much heavy industry for forty years. This has produced a relatively high standard of living for industrial workers, but also led to decisions with grave consequences for the region’s relation to nature. Little thought has been given to disposing of industrial waste safely, and much of it has ended up polluting the reservoirs. Furthermore, the road network was given priority over public transportation for a long time, since it was automobiles, not subway cars, which produced local jobs. Congestion has gotten so bad that cars are only supposed to drive on alternate days. The idea was that drivers would carpool or take public transportation on the days their car was supposed to stay at home, but some cynics say the measure has only meant that people are encouraged to buy another car.

Certainly, at 9 a.m. the Avenida Paulista, the city’s signature street, was bumper to bumper with cars and buses on weekday mornings when I was there. As I walked to my appointments — I found that unless I could take the subway, walking was faster than buses or taxis for distances under 4 kilometers — I kept wondering which kind of megacity was going to predominant in the future, Shanghai or São Paulo. Would 35 per cent green space created by reconstructing an entire city be the goal that cities will strive for in the future, or will places with an unenforced 15 per cent be the norm?

And then I realized that both of these models are predicated on relatively strong economies, that both Shanghai and Såo Paulo—for all their problems and mistakes—are success stories in the context of the whole world. From that followed two more thoughts:

Heaven help the cities that aren’t as well off,


Why can’t we do a better job in North America?

This is the last in a series of essays on cities and their relation to nature which are an outgrowth of Mary Soderstrom’s book Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places (Véhicule Press, 2006.) It is available from good independent booksellers as well as Chapters/Indigo and Amazon.ca and Amazon.com.

This entry was written by Mary Soderstrom , posted on Saturday September 01 2007at 11:09 pm , filed under Environment, Latin America, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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