Estudo do desacerto dos instrumentos de gestão tradicionais frente a problemas novos que apresenta uma megalópole de 16 milhões de habitantes, onde se avolumam 12 mil toneladas de lixo por dia, onde se acotovelam 4 milhões de automóveis que circulam a menos de 15 quilómetros horários, onde mil quilómetros quadrados impermeáveis formam uma bacia que transforma qualquer chuva em calamidade pública.


São Paulo, Space and Development



Ladislau Dowbor
São Paulo, May 1992


São Paulo belongs to this new group of megacities, where the sheer size of the problems and the rythm of growth make people worried. We look at the figures, and try to find points of reference to size up the situation. It is important to remember that we are the first generation to face such huge urban concentrations.


The municipality of São Paulo has 10 million inhabitants, and grows by more than 100.000 a year. This means a new big city within the city, year by year. This growth results from natural growth, and from immigration, in proportions that are roughly around 60% and 40% respectively. Since the immigration results dominantly from the rural crisis, and the city itself has about one third of its inhabitants in conditions of deep poverty, the demographic growth demands huge infrastructure investments.

The municipality is part of a larger metropolitan area, of about 16 million inhabitants, which grows by roughly a quarter of a million inhabitants every year. The metropolitan area is administered by 37 municipalities, and a number of administrations belonging to federal, state and local space, creating an impressive complexity of vertical and horizontal links, which result in what is commonly referred to as the “intergovernment management” problem.

The economy

São Paulo is a very rich city. If we consider that Brazil is responsible for about 25% of Third World industrial production, and that São Paulo concentrates about 40% of this production in Brazil, we conclude that the metropolis concentrates about 10% of the Third World industrial production. However approximate these figures may be, based on UNIDO estimates, the fact is that São Paulo is the main industrial center of the developing world.

It is also an important center of modern service activities, particularly in the banking and commercial areas. The present tendency is for industries to look for new sites, on the Rio-São Paulo axis (towards the East) and on the Jundiai-Campinas axis (North-East), while the city of São Paulo itself concentrates on services.

But São Paulo also plays a key role in the overall organization of the Brazilian economic space, with the positive and negative implications of this polarization. Thus the latifundia of the distant Nordeste (2.500 kilometers from São Paulo), find it economically more interesting to produce sugar cane and ethanol for the São Paulo automobile fleet, than to produce food for the local poor. Many agricultural products travel hundreds of kilometers to the São Paulo wholesale market, and back to the production regions for consumption, in what is called “product tourism” in Brazil, resulting from the heavy weight of the São Paulo economic groups.

Social imbalances

Although São Paulo is obviously a very rich city, it is a rich city in an underdeveloped country. Thus, while it’s per capita income can be estimated at around 5.000 dollars, this average figure means very little. If a man eats a chicken and leaves his wife hungry, in the average they had a very nice meal. In Brazil, where income concentration is probably the highest in the world at present, this problem is particularly important. The figures speak for themselves:

Income distribution of economically active population

Brazil 1960 1970 1980
50% poor 17,4% 14,9% 12,7%
20% richest 54,8% 61,9% 66,1%
10% richest 39,6% 46,7% 51,0%

Fonte: IBGE – Estatísticas Históricas do Brasil – 2a Edição revista, Rio de Janeiro 1990, p. 77

In 20 years, the part of income earned by the poorer half of the population dropped from 17.4 to 12.7 percent of total, while the richest 20 percent had their share raised to two thirds. The general image is simple: the poorer two thirds of the Brazilian population survive with about 20 percent of the social product, and no development can be balanced in this way.

The data we have for 1988 shows that income of the richest 1 percent of families reached 15 percent of total income, while that of the poorer half of the population was about 13 percent. In other words, about 1.5 million persons of rich families have access to more income than the 75 million poor.

Income concentration leads to growing difficulties of the population to satisfy basic needs, but since use of public funds is not decided locally, the general tendency is that population loses interest in development policies. This in turn leads to a stronger centralization of decisions.

The practical result is the gulf that presently exists between economic or social policy decisions, and the needs of the population. With growing political skepticism and cynicism at all levels, democratic control loses weight, and the regime gradually drifts towards a strange mixture of autocratic power and loss of governability.

In the city of São Paulo itself, these imbalances lead to grim figures: one million “favelados” (slum dwellers), three million squatters (“cortiço” dwellers, with many families per apartment in the central region of the city), an overall deficit of one million houses, dramatic sanitation problems.

A new generation of environment problems

Problems of poverty and demographic pressure are obviously not new for cities of the Third World. What is new is the size of these problems, and the way they interrelate, creating a dramatic environment situation.

The city occupies an area of around 30 by 50 kilometers. Of these 1.500 square kilometers, about 950 are impermeable. The result is that water flows very rapidly. For example, during six hours of rain in March, 15 people died: 100 mm of rain in such an urban basin represent 150 million tons of water in a few hours. How do you cope with this kind of volume of water? How do you make permeable urbanization?

Similar problems of size are present in the area of solid waste management. São Paulo collects 12.000 tons of waste a day. Some of the dumps have already more than 30 million tons of accumulated waste, with unknown effects for undeground waters or the local population. Given the size of the city, and the volume of waste, within-city solutions are dangerous, and distant dumps lead to prohibitive transportation costs. About 12 millions dollars are presently spent every month on waste removal.

Another key area is transportation. Since we have a clear cut option for individual transportation, people buy cars. Nowadays, there are 4 million registered cars in the city, of which more than two million are in the streets every day, as opposed to 8.500 buses. The underground is 40 kilometers long, compared to 10.000 kilometers of streets . The result is that people buy more cars, because it is still the less-bad solution for the individual, and the city is gradually reduced to a standstill. We manage to get paralized, in a way, because of excess of means of transportation, and pay ten thousand dollars for a car that will travel 12 kilometers an hour. The invisible hand is really quite invisible in this area.

Ths size effects are also present in what concerns human environment. More than 20 % of households are headed by women, who normally have to work, presenting serious problems for the children and difficulties of outright economic survival. The trend towards nuclear families, on the other hand, leaves the one million old people in a dramatic situation, since the pension system does not permit autonomous survival, not to speak of the problems of solitude and feeling of helplesness.

The erosion of social and family life is strongly felt by young people, since safety problems have made home a place of refuge, frequently with iron bars and electronic devices for security. Children are not allowed in the streets, and feel trapped in their own homes. The result is a cumulative process of loss of security, since finally young people form gangs, and children have growingly adopted drug consumption as a way of social relation. Others simply become bandits. São Paulo presently has about 600 violent deaths a month. In other words, we face impressive problems of quality of life.

The administration

To face these problems, the administration inherits a huge machinery of 127.000 public servants in the municipality alone, and a budget of 3,5 billion dollars in 1992.

The mayor, chosen for 4 years by direct elections, has ample powers, and leads a kind of a Ministry composed of 17 Secretaries (Education, Health, Public Works etc.). The 20 existing district administrations are very weak, and overall the system is very centralized, particularly if we consider the size of the city and the great number of small issues that should be solved at a lower level. No number of meetings can substitute the strong local structures that should work near the citizen, and with the citizen.

The city council is composed of 53 councillors, in charge of controlling the activities of the Executive, and of creating the municipal laws. Elected by the city as a whole, and not by regions, many of them tend to represent mainly coporate power, such as the building corporations, land owners and others, with very limited links with the population’s interests.

The metropolitan area has no organized power structure, and thus the problems that are by necessity metropolitan, such as the transportation network, sewage, water and environment in general are very poorly coordinated.

The public servants in the time of the military were chosen by personal affinities, and there is no systematic training system in the municipality. The main body of public servants has been trained in the culture of serving the rich and controlling the poor, to put it bluntly but accurately.

Overall, we have a large heavy administrative machine that is very little responsive, too centralized, poorly trained, and typical of an underdeveloped public administration.

The Mayor

The mayor Luiza Erundina de Sousa was elected in 1988 for a tenure of 4 years. Daughter of peasants, originary from the poor “Nordeste”, a woman and a socialist by political options, Erundina frequently says she only lacks being black. Political opinions apart, she is a typical representative of the poor peripheries, elected to head the biggest industrial center of the Third World, and her election was a shock to the traditional power structures of the city.

After three and a half years of very dynamic and vigorous administration, the city is gradually coming to order, or at least to a clear understanding of its dramas, and of the structural reforms that it needs.

In the following points, we shall describe briefly several actions and orientations that are changing the way São Paulo is governing itself. There are no miracles, and one cannot expect São Paulo to change in a few years, least of all if the dramas of the country as a whole are not attended. But São Paulo is changing the political culture, the way people view their own development.

Creating management capacities

The first actions were directed towards creating management capacity. Several simple measures were immediately taken: the salaries were raised, so that the public servants felt on the same professional level as the private sector; on the other hand, recruitment by other means than public tender was banished; finally, presence and productivity started to be controlled (electronic control in the mayor’s cabinet raised presence by 39%). A municipal management school is being created, with support of the french Ecole Nationale d’Administration.

Secondly, the financial services were oriented to ponctually pay all purchases made by the municipality. This permitted a very strong reduction of prices, since the administrative nightmare of getting paid by the municipality had led to artificially high “bureaucracy prices”.

Thirdly, to the general surprise of all the companies that work with the private sector, the “caixinha”, or side money that was normally paid to the high officials of the administration, was banished. This has been publicly confirmed time and again even by the most vigorous opponents of the present administration, and in itself represents a deep revolution in public administration in Brazil. This was important for the public finances, but most of all for the feeling of self respect of the public servants, and the creation of a new administrative culture and dignity.

Reorientation of priorities

The city had been traditionnally administered in favor of a region, the south-west district, where the comfortable families live. It is a curious phenomenon to see the reorientation of priorities towards the peripheries and poor regions of the city.

A first important measure was the rehabilitation of the real estate tax (IPTU – Imposto Territorial Urbano), which had sunk to about 4% of the municipal revenues. The tax was raised, the declared values updated, and the payments became progressive, in spite of the very strong reaction of certain political areas that considered it “unconstitutional”. In fact the Administration came to understand that anything that touches rich people in Brazil is “unconstitutional”. The tax reform included strong taxation on unused land in the city limits. This last initiative is important since São Paulo has about 26% of its space still unoccupied. Pushing the measures through the city council was based on accepting small initial aliquotas, but keeping the principle of progressiveness. The real estate tax presently represents 14% of the municipal revenues.

This small financial improvement permitted a series of activities in the poorer areas of the city, and raising the quality of municipal services, usually sought by the poor. This was all the more necessary, since the present economic crisis in the country leads more people, who usually resorted to private hospital, clinics, shools or kindergarten, to seek the free municipal services.

The reverse side of this orientation, is that the actions of the municipality became less “visible”, diluted as they are in the endless peripheries of the city, and opening political flank to strong criticism of richer people with more access to newspapers and media in general. Thus the alternative of inaugurating impressive bridges, or making sure aspirin is present in all the health centers, is very real, and brought to the understanding of the present administration the importance of communication, of systematic explanation to all people of what city administration and quality of life are about.

On the other hand, the clumsiness of the centralized administration to respond to the thousands of small-scale demands that are typical of the poor São Paulo, made it clear that the administration had to be brought nearer to the population.

The administrative reform

Broad negotiations with the city council and with key social actors in the city led to a global administrative reform project, which consists mainly of:

– 13 “sub-prefeituras” will be created (the number is not definitive), headed by deputy mayors chosen by the mayor, to avoid loss of coordination capacity. On the other hand, a council of representatives will be elected in each “sub-prefeitura”, to ensure that the citizens opinions are strongly represented in local decisions. The deputy-mayors will have budget autonomy, and in fact most of the problems of the citizen will be solved locally, and in one place. This should substitute the kind of “salami administration” we presently have, where the citizen has to solve a slice of his problem in each of the “Secretarias”, by global local solution, with public servants who have direct knowledge of the situation of the neighbourhood.

– the present 17 “secretarias”, in charge of the sectors, will be reduced to 5, in the line of “normative centralization and operative decentralization”. This “central circuit” of the city administration, headed by the Mayor, will govern the city, and hold its regular government meetings with the deputy-mayors and the 5 Secretaries. The final project should be voted by the city council in the next few months, but meets heavy opposition of traditional political areas.

Organizing participation

Besides coping with organization and infrastructure problems, the city also faces the problem of the particular political and administrative culture we inherited. The general attitude is that the citizen may criticize, but not participate, and even the right to criticism is very recent. And the fact is that it is impossible to effectively manage the huge problems if the city without strong support of the inhabitants.

One form of creating a participative culture is through the public discussion of the budget. The experience has been going on during these three years, with positive results, and a beginning of new citizen attitude towards the way the use of public resources is decided. Obviously this action will become really effective when the budgets are decentralized through the administrative reform.

Another typical action is the “health district” program: breaking with the curative health system tradition that prevails in Brazil (85% of health expenditures in the country go to curative actions), the health districts are being created in the poor regions of São Paulo, and work through health administration commissions headed by district residents. The identification of “homogeneous social levels” permits specific actions for the critically poor areas, and create a health environment culture in the most difficult regions of the city. Thirty two districts have been created at present.

A polemic program has been the “residential pockets” initiative. Some residential areas have been invaded by transit traffic: a natural result of the 4 million cars is that people try to escape the larger avenues and gain time racing through residential streets. The program consists of closing the streets with sidewalks or trees, leaving “pockets” with only a few entrances. The result is that security gets better, for a strange car is rapidly spotted; local traffic is more careful, and the children have been able to get back to the streets without forming gangs; elderly people have brought back the sidewalk bench, and a curious form of “re-socialization” of the neighbourhood is happening, in areas where neighbours usually didn’t even know one another. All decisions are taken by the residents themselves, with a minimum of 70% approval to avoid stepping on minority rights. The idea is catching, and there are at present more than 30 demands for similar actions.

Citizenship and human rights

In order to develop participative attitude, the administration is stimulating organized action by the traditionally discriminated segments of the population. An “Assessoria de Cidadania e Direitos Humanos” was created, linked to the Mayor’s cabinet, with specific actions for Negro movements, Women organizations, Old People Council, the Disabled Person Council, and the Youth Council.

São Paulo typically puts the negro in the favela, the poor in the periphery, the mentally ill in the asylum, the old in specialized houses, the woman in the kitchen and so on, in an attitude that tends to put aside anything that is not the white, rich, masculine and car equipped human being in active age.

Working in the line of social integration, instead of segregation, is a long job that is being faced with information, and direct intervention on the organization of the city space. Women organizations, for instance, initially centered on the abortion and other more traditional issues, now intervene in the overall organization of the health system, urbanization programs and so on.

Typically enough, it is being difficult to introduce the “social segment” perspective into the administration: people are used to think in terms of sectors (education, health and so on), and are gradually getting used to the space perspective (district intersector administration). But it is difficult for administrators to assimilate the woman, or disabled perspective, for example, which cuts both through the sector and the space perspectives. The dominating trend still is to think of the disabled person as a health problem, the negro as a security problem and so on, thus reducing the global citizenship problem to sector programming.

The Master Plan

Planners have got tired of writing the “Book”, and the illusions that the Plan will dictate how the city will grow have worn out. A city like São Paulo, at the present demographic rate and with the present economic problems in the country, grows as it wants, and seldom asks the planner’s advice.

In a surge of realism, the present Master Plan (under examination by the city Council) identifies the critical tendencies — such as invasion of the “mananciais” that threaten the watersheds — and works on the possible corrective actions. Since the key factor of space use decision by the population is land value, the corrective actions are usually linked to urban zoning and taxation of land use intensity, allowing for flexible response to critical tendencies.

On the other hand, a key factor of urban planning has become the participation of the concerned social actors in all the phases of planning decisions, avoiding the production of papers with no political basos for implementation.

A typical example is the creation of the São Paulo Tariffs Council, where the private groups, the municipal transportation company, the workers organizations, the municipality and specialized research institutes are represented. What was initially a recrimination forum — the municipality wants lower bus tariffs, the private and municipal companies want them higher, the workers want better salaries, the research institutes want to change the whole system — became a system of permanent adjustment to the changing reality of a dynamic city. The “municipalization of transportation”, a strategic victory for the rationalization of the transportation in the city, although distant from the initial propositions of the different actors, appeared gradually on a consensus basis, and is showing the way decentralized participative planning can work, leaving aside the “plan writing” attitude.

Nobody expects miracles or easy solutions. But the general trend is towards democratization, bringing the government nearer to the people, stimulating administrative transparence and modernization. In a certain way, before facing the more critical issues, the administration must create the more ample political and administrative conditions, and actually create a new administrative culture.


The author, Ladislau Dowbor, is an economist, Professor at the Catholic University of São Paulo, and adviser to the Mayor of São Paulo in the areas of international affairs, environnment and other projects.