These are the characteristics of São Paulo, which impressed me at first! I wrote them down in the first weeks knowing that in a few months I would not write in the same manner. Even though I have had the chance to travel through, among others, Europe, Venezuela, Mexico, Nigeria and the States, this mega polis is one I have never experienced before. The endless verticality gives an impact.

Infrastructure and transit  The 5.4 million vehicles circulating daily in São Paulo, in a city with a registered population of 17 million, need a large infrastructure. Avenues and highways all throughout the city: above and beneath the people and through neighborhoods almost touching the buildings.

Because of the predominance of the automobile culture, infrastructure gets a priority.

Even though the infrastructure is tremendous, it is insufficient for the amount of cars and busses riding through the city. Traffic is congested almost every hour of the day. That is why São Paulo is the second city in the world in number of so many helicopters and heliports on top of office buildings, banks, hospitals, etc. It is the fastest way to transport politicians or seriously ill people. There are even new building axes where it is required that there be one on top.


The public transport is insufficient. There is a perfect metro, but far too small to reach the whole city. Plans for the extension of the subway have been made long time ago, but the public transport doesn’t get the priority (private cars do).

Busses create incredible congestion because of their large quantity and uncontrolled planning. There are moments when you see 5 relatively empty busses behind each other going to the same destination. There also exist many small clandestine busses, which are more comfortable and faster but a little bit more expensive.

I live 12 km from the architecture faculty of the University of São Paulo (USP) and getting there takes me an hour and a half by bus. Busses do not have a time schedule; congestion makes it useless! It is difficult to make an appointment at a certain hour!


The vehicles are creating a polluted air I have never felt before (not even in Mexico City). Because of the winter the smog is even worse, it hangs above the city. Funny though to see meters checking the air pollution and indicating ‘medium pollution’. I have been told that none of them are working and they all give the same measurement the whole year through.

Urban planning All urban process is a social one, not a spontaneous one!

In this city there exist a general urban planning, but money rules and overpowers the governments plans. The drawn proposals stay often on paper, corruption takes it all. São Paulo is an example of how extreme it can get when the government doesn’t have the city planning under control. A nice example is a neighborhood of Morumbi where rich city-dwellers took a green open space for themselves, put an amount of guards on it and started using it as their own ‘park’ (kind of club). The City Hall first wanted to stop this action, but the money again succeeded and the permission was given.


The decades of the 30’s till the 70’s was characterized by its ‘chirurgic urbanism’. Much infrastructure was made trespassing like scars through the city and the making of the metro meant the restructuring and demolition of big areas. You can still see these huge interventions in the city.


Chaotic it may be, but I like it! The city looks as a big laboratory of urbanism! The verticalisation is extensive throughout the whole city. It seems as if the city lives above the ground. All the functions: sleeping, working, shopping and recreating are occurring mostly in high buildings. The ground is for the parks, cars, parking and marginalized people.

I almost could not believe it when I heard that the average density in the city is 70 inhabitants/ha. The verticalisation misleads. Most high buildings consist of luxury apartments and big areas. New urban projects want to increase the Paulistan density.



Political and economical situation      The country is holding the elections in October of this year. Cardoso has governed for eight years now and it is time for a change. The eternal left candidate named ‘Lula’ who has been competing for 5 elections (every 4 years) has a good chance of winning this year. He will be the one in charge of doing something about the inflation, which is worrying the population. Everything is getting more expensive and salaries are staying intact. People are buying dollars and euros and are keeping them in their homes. Banks are losing the confidence of the people. Grandchildren and great grandchildren of Italians are standing daily on a queue in front of the Italian embassy to get their correspondent passport.

The bad situation in Argentina scared this business and commercial city. The neighbor country was the biggest importer of Brazilian agricultural and industrial products and many Argentineans are immigrating to São Paulo looking for work. The unemployment grade in the city is 30% and 20% of the population is living in favelas (slums)!



Criminality       São Paulo is known as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. You are confronted to this at the first moment you step out of the airplane. When I first opened a newspaper, I saw a list of the 24 most dangerous and searched ‘traficantes’ (drug dealers) and kidnappers together with a description of their terrible history and the number of committed murders. The article also indicated in which favela they live in and in which region of the city they are active. The worst thing of all is that many of them were police officers or soldiers before. Policemen earn very little and misuse their power turning it into corruption and pacts with the traficantes. The article also explained that kidnapping is becoming popular. Not only the upper class is a victim of it. Kidnapping middle class is getting appealing because it earns fast money and less danger is involved for the delinquents.

Traficantes do what they want and the police cannot do much about it. They even have a representative in the national congress (everybody knows, but it s not really declared). To come in a favela you have to have permission of an inhabitant you have approached before. When you enter, fireworks are thrown to announce that strangers are coming into the area. Some oblige you to leave the area before 15:00, time when the traficantes come to store their drugs. An agreement has also been made with the municipality, which sends workers to improve the roads and infrastructure. They work from 8am to 3pm.

There exists the ‘law of silence’, everybody knows everything about each other but nobody talks. While visiting you see stolen cars and products everywhere but if you happen to bring it up you are a dead man.


Last week there was the première of a movie called ‘Cidade de Deus’, filmed named after a known favela in Rio de Janeiro. The producers had to ask permission to the biggest traficante of the favela to be able to film. He was one of the guests that night and was caught by policemen while watching the movie! Now there is a big fuss about it! What is going to happen to the filmmakers and the staff?


Because of the criminality people are becoming prisoners while living in their own city: guards in all buildings, gated communities, blinded windows, armored cars, controlled shopping malls. Without authorization you almost cannot enter any building. I feel the eyes of the guards in almost every place I go. One of the biggest things I have to get use to is the reduction of my liberty. Specially compared to my life in Holland! I cannot go anywhere I want to and by night I am not allowed to walk on the streets. There are rules, which I have to live with now!


How did São Paulo grow to what it is now - a melt pot of insufferable traffic, chaotic urbanism and uncontrolled danger? None of the tourists I met outside São Paulo were passing through this city. How did its reputation get this far? I’ll hope to give answers to these questions.



Aura Luz Melis
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