IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics (Fall)

Sao Paulo & Curitiba, Brazil Letter Home

By IHP Trustees Fellow Dan Woodard with input from Hillary Clark, Eva Warren, Jessica Nunes, Teddy Kent, Rachel Collens, Zoe Chaves, Bo Schlagel.

Beginning the next phase of our journey, we stepped off a plane and into São Paulo, Brazil. We received a warm reception from our country coordinator, Glenda de la Fuente, before boarding a bus to the center of the city. Along the ride, many were struck by the scene around them. “When I arrived in São Paulo,” said Hillary Clark, “I was quickly overwhelmed by the size and structure of the city. Coming from a city of 700,000 people to one of over 10 million is quite a rapid change.” Looking out the bus windows at South America’s largest city, we also saw the visible manifestations of the urban issues that we would cover throughout our time there, including informal settlements built on public land, the polluted Tiete River, and the relentless traffic congestion.

We met our homestay families the next day. While many of us are used to the freedom and convenience of living independently, all were excited not only to begin the process of understanding the city, but also to begin developing relationships with our hosts. Eva Warren reflects on her family experience: “My family has been essential in my understanding of São Paulo's culture.  They guide me to new places around the city, answer my never-ending questions, and cook delicious traditional foods. The families show a great sense of pride in their city and provide a warm welcome to me and the other students.”

While homestay families provided an insight into life in São Paulo, visits to neighborhoods outside the city core provided a different perspective on the stark dualities that exist in the metropolitan area. In a single day, we visited both the Complex Ciudade Jardim, a gated all-inclusive residential complex which contained a high-end spa and private mall, and two of Sao Paulo’s largest favelas, Paraisopolis and Heliopolis. Jessica Nunes comments on the day’s effect on her: “The proximity and extreme contrasts between the favela communities and private-gated developments became a stark image for me. I also became obsessed with the favela culture – their means of creating their own resources and seeking their own happiness served as a lesson for me about the importance of community.”

Of the 127 square kilometers of land and 3.3 million people that make up the favelas, we only saw a small sampling. However, visits with community health board leaders, school teachers and government housing directors, helped us learn about the different opinions and interests that contribute to the struggle over favela legitimacy and upgrading. Teddy Kent recalls his experience of visiting one favela near Jurubatuva: “I was able to witness the political struggle between residential developers who wanted to remove the favela residents and use the land, and the favela residents who wanted to stay on the land despite the environmental risks.  Many residents were passionately engaged in resisting their removal from the area. For them, they know a culture and sense of community that exists only in their favela.”

“To me, the hippo in the bathtub serves as an excellent metaphor for São Paulo’s ballooning need for affordable housing and need for more comprehensive urban planning.” – Rachel Collens

Not only in favelas, but throughout the whole city, lack of housing has pushed many citizens to find their own solutions. For some, housing cooperatives and the occupation of vacant buildings provide viable alternatives. We met with Associaςao de Trabalhadores Sem Teto, or the Roofless Worker’s Movement, and saw two of their 24 completed cooperative housing projects. Through the Movement’s system, residents receive guidance and permission from the government for obtaining land, materials and expertise but ultimately they must collectively construct their own houses.

Christine Hsu looks out from a cooperative apartment to a favela.

We also heard from lecturers and conducted case study projects on a variety of other topics such as waste management, water resource management, green spaces and transportation. Lourenςo Gimenes, architect and urban planner from the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of São Paulo (FAUUSP), explained that traffic congestion in the city results in a net loss of 33 billion Brazilian reais each year. A group of us investigated this statistic further by conducting a survey, asking Paulistanos to map their daily commutes. The result showed various combinations of bus and metro rides, some taking over  two hours. These long commutes create a less efficient work force and have real economic consequences.   

Taking to the road ourselves, we traveled outside São Paulo and stayed at a cooperative for the Rural Landless Worker’s Movement (MST). Since 1984, the MST has been using land occupation techniques to secure large tracks of farm land. As stated in Brazilian law, land which is not meeting its potential social utility may be occupied and, if left uncontested, redistributed to the occupiers. The land for this farming cooperative, acquired through occupation, currently held 32 families and was granted a one hundred year lease for use by the government. Many of us were struck by the political activism and civil organization of Brazilian citizens. “We’ve encountered a myriad of group organizations,” said Zoe Chaves, “from organized trash gatherers in Paraisopolis to the Sem Terra (MST) movement. I’ve really been struck by the way that various peoples form coalitions around shared interests.”

Although civil society and public participation play a major role in Brazil’s current politics, our week-long visit to Curitiba showed us a different story about the power of autocratic rule in shaping the form of the city. Heloisa Jorge, architect at Jamie Lerner Arquitetos Associados, provided us with an outline of how Jamie Lerner, former governor, mayor and city planning president, has implemented bus rapid transit corridors, strict zoning laws and other planning policies to mold the city into his plans. Although his methods are controversial in today’s political context, the results have been hailed as a success. Curitiba has won numerous awards for urban planning and sustainable practices.

One area in particular in which Curitiba has received praise is in the active preservation of its green spaces. Boasting 34 separate public parks and woods, Curitiba has resisted pressure from both contractors and residents to build on open spaces. In his guest lecture appearance, Reinaldo Pilotto, explained how Curitiba’s parks, such as Parque São Lourenςo and Parque Barigui along the Barigui River, contain lakes and low-lying areas that control flooding in the city. Instead of filling rivers in with streets and highways (as was done in São Paulo), Curitiba planners and city officials have kept these spaces open for public use. Park management has also taken on creative solutions in Curitiba, such as using a herd of roaming sheep to maintain the grass landscaping. These lessons taught us how the natural environment can be maintained and used to provide real benefits to city inhabitants.

Students in a Bus Rapid Transit tube in Curitiba.

Whether experiencing public participation or exploring top-down planned cities, our time in São Paulo and Curitiba taught us about the role of citizens and the state in securing rights and services for the people. We appreciated the diversity of Brazil for creating a complex and intriguing country for study. Bo Schlagel provides his account of his time here: “Sao Paulo is very diverse and has a lot of different flavors. With my time here in São Paulo I have attempted to do Capoeira, ran on a closed-highway-turned-park at night, shopped at the municipal market and seen many fine art galleries all within the same space. These flavors have mixed to create a chaotic but mesmerizing Sao Paulo experience.” As we move onward to South Africa, we are all very excited about the different flavors and experiences that lie ahead.


Request Information
Apply Now
Continue My Application

Credits: 16

Duration: Fall, 16 weeks

Program Sites:
New York, NY, USA; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa; Hanoi, Vietnam.

Prerequisites: Previous college-level coursework and/or other preparation in urban studies, anthropology, political science, or other related fields is strongly recommended but not required. Learn More...

Student Evaluations

View Student Evaluations for this program:

About the Evaluations (PDF)

Fall 2012 Evaluations

Fall 2013 Evaluations


Connect With Us

Connect icons

888.272.7881 (toll-free in US)



Mailing Address:
PO Box 676, 1 Kipling Road
Brattleboro, VT 05302 USA

Contact us by email.