The formation of the landscape in the city of Sao Paulo outskirts – ISUF – OURO PRETO

Since the Village – later on City – of Sao Paulo underwent its first major population growth, one of its main characteristics was being disperse and scattered – and the center was always more equipped than the outskirts. This is a very important feature to understand the formation of the modern city outskirts (2).

Until the first decades of the 19th Century, São Paulo was still quite the same upon the hill of its foundation. From this period onwards, as soon as the Anhangabaú Valley was bridged very slowly towards West, the urban settlement began to assume a different shape, a more modern and concentrated one, different from its original nucleus. The population growth during different intervals shows the speed and intensity of this process. In 1560 a total of 240 inhabitants were counted in the Village. In 1822 – the year of the Independence – 6,920 people lived there. When the Republic came, in 1890, the individuals reached 64,934. The one million people limit was broken around 1935. As for the growth of the city, it had always the same scattered shape previously mentioned.

Population in São Paulo 1560-1935


1560     >20 (Portuguese)                      80 NR

30 Portuguese and

30 mestizos                                           240 NR

1585     120                                          480

1589     150                                          600

1700     210                                          840

1776     534                                         2.026

1816     –                                            5.382

1822     –                                            6.920

1826     2.298                                       26.020

1890     –                                            64.934

1893     –                                            130.755

1920     59.584                                     581.435

1935     –                                            1.060.120.

Population Growth in São Paulo (3)

To understand the modern shape of the city it is important to relate its growth speed and intensity. During all the periods of the city growth it was the periphery which accommodated it, especially the population’s housing needs.

The radio-centered shape is a characteristic which had persisted from one period to another, although some other characteristics of the suburbs changed, in response to some specific events.

The aim is to identify these events and their consequences in the development of Sao Paulo urban landscape, focusing on the present situation and challenges facing urban and housing schemes in the area, the most important demands in São Paulo of the 21st century.

Brief history of popular housing

Since the beginning of its implantation, the city of Sao Paulo has always been characterized by two large areas: its center and its outskirts. The spatial features of these two areas are clearly different and this is not a question of periods, when architectural concepts and expressions change, but mainly due to the social differences created in the city, a common characteristic in all Brazilian big cities, as shown by Flávio Villaça (4).

Due to the dimension and the very few economic activities of the city, in its early days, different social groups shared the center of the city. The economic development and the consequent increase of the population caused physical changes in its organization, transforming the relationship between center-outskirts somewhat more complex. At the beginning, the expansion took place basically in the periphery, reinforcing the concept of the NEW – the outskirts – and the OLD – the center – without a distinctive economic separation. However, this phenomenon has prompted a different kind of settlement that reflects the social gaps existing in the Brazilian society at the dawn of the 21st century.

The population in Sao Paulo was diverse and complex, mainly comprised by the old inhabitants that settled after the ‘bandeiras (*)’ campaigns, the former African slaves, and the immigrants who began to arrive in the late 19th century due to the coffee economy.

The perspective of the different dwellings should be analyzed here. At the beginning the rich and poor dwellings were quite different as for the domestic structure and the superposition or not of functions. The building techniques employed in their construction were virtually the same and the urban location followed a topographic logic, in which the supply and the simplicity of technical resources forced the distances between employers and employees to be shortened. As the society became more complex and as technology permitted the identification of the social groups, its spatial dissociation became more evident. The last decades of the 19th century and the first of the 20th century prompted an urban problem: the settlement of the growing population, following the economic development of the city. This was never faced as urban planning problem, but occasionally as an economical one. An example of alternative dwellings for the immigrants, who had come to the coffee plantations and the ever growing urban services were the tenement-houses: minimal constructions privately erected for rent, consisting of small units located near the city center and shared by many families and individuals.

Despite being supported and stimulated by the State, the immigration, as far as the Strategic Planning was concerned, was so intense that there were no schemes or projects that could have sheltered all those foreigners under the urban point of view. The city expansion took place without any State arrangement. The social differences were becoming more and more evident in the urban daily life.

During the 1930s the city reached its one million inhabitants and the housing schemes for the growing urban population appeared in different forms: there were estates built by the companies for their workers – like Vila Zélia, terraced small houses made by small contractors, and other housing and living facilities for rent.

Those private ventures were always built close to the industrial areas, as public and commuting transport were close to none those days. The productive industrial areas, supported by the wealth of the successful coffee trade, were located in peripheral and radial belts around the consolidated urban settlement and usually near watercourses for the main industrial activities. The workers’ housing areas, derived from private ventures, were located close to those industrial areas, and carried on the urban characteristic of the landscape. At the same time of the modern city, its city center was developing, understood not only in a geometric and geographic sense but also as the center of power, political decisions and public investment. All the other activities were physically located and circulated around this center.

During the following two decades – 1940s and 1950s – for the first time the Social and Pension Services introduced in the housing estates the Modernist concepts of housing. These states contributed to the usual sprawled expansion of urban growth, which in fact met some ideals of the Modernist Movement for Urbanism. The below mentioned concepts, which had been used in these estates, deal with a certain aspect of the common outskirts landscape in one of the peripheral belts of urban growth.

  • Isolated housing states built independently from the existent urban plan;
  • Construction of apartment buildings;
  • Height limits for housing blocks;
  • Use of ‘pilotis’;
  • Adoption of the duplex flat;
  • Rationalization of the construction processes and the construction of independent housing estates;
  • Articulation of the housing estates with urban plans;
  • The appearance of the rationally furnished house (5), which left examples of the quality of the Brazilian architecture, built for renting purposes .

Up to this moment, we have witnessed a growing logic and urban organization based mainly on the private constructions of popular housing, with the offer equally balanced with the demands and with its foundations laid on the renting scheme. There was no emphasis on the house property, but on the availability of dwellings built according to urban criteria established by the State, though never planned or funded by it, and only accessible through rent.

However, the Tenant’s Law, dated 1942 – that inhibited private ventures in the construction of housing estates and thus freezing the rise in rent, – had a negative effect in the construction of new units for renting, as the profit margin was deeply hurt by the new scheme. This Law inaugurated a new era of a strong crisis in the housing sector. The State did not give any other alternative to the issue, and the population had then to purchase their own home according to their own resources, which pushed them further from the urbanized metropolitan center, where the properties were unaffordable, accelerating the sprawl tendency of the city but adding now another characteristic: the urban precariousness.

The home ownership dream, which would be built in plots of land in the perimeter areas, became a major force that brought to the outskirts the offer of affordable popular dwellings. This movement and practice created many unoccupied spaces inside the urban fabric, which became elements of great real-estate speculation, as the basic infrastructure now provided to link the centre to the outskirts helped the rise in the value of these unoccupied plots of land located between the center and the far outskirts. Bonduki classifies the Law as ‘an instrument of defense by the working classes; an instrument of the economic policy, a pact between classes and wage reduction; an instrument to shake the property investment, which resulted in evictions and homelessness’ (6).

The Tenant’s Law was in force between 1942 and 1964, when the Sistema Nacional de Habitação (National Housing System) was implemented. At this point some slums had emerged in the urban landscape – a clear evidence of the inefficiency of the peripheral localization of the popular housing, in a situation without any connection between the territory and the services or public transport. The outbreak of the slums – ‘favelas’ – showed that the trouble laid more in the housing offer than in a problem related to theincome for rent (7).

The self-construction housing system became then the only alternative of housing production, since the State not only omitted itself from the role of urban ruler but also did not encourage the private sector to build rental dwellings. In the end, it was the dweller’s responsibility to find a solution. On the other hand, the businessmen and the private investors found out that to subdivide larges areas of land in parcels was the only way to make any profit, as rental housing did not provide any return to their investment due to the very low rates ruled by the Law.

Of course, this is the perfect picture, when the things happened via the legal way. Many illicit plots of land came to sign, in order to provide a cheaper option, usually invading public or environmental preservation areas, where the State could not intervene due to its lack of technical resources – since it should have provided an alternative to the housing issue, and it had never done. These acts reflect enormously in the different kinds of housing typology within the different social strata, with great disproportion as far as urban and architectural living quality is concerned inside the Metropolis. Different terms have come up these days: the formal city, the informal city, the city for everyone etc. which shows the existence of two different urban worlds, not parallel but distant from each other, diverging, but with many intersections.

Civil Engineering and Architecture have failed to accomplish their role in the special configuration of the outskirts. It was due to the residents and their own cultural background to plan and configure the landscape to be built, leaving to the government the infrastructure and the arrangement of streets. As a consequence the urban quality in these areas is poorer than that of the consolidated city, because the demands always come first and only afterwards the infrastructure is implemented.

From 1942 on, the Government withdrew from the densely populated periphery of São Paulo. Only in 1953, the mayor Jânio Quadros launched the emergency plan which “expected to tackle simultaneously the most crowded districts in the outskirts of the city to provide some benefits to each one of the 200 districts or villages surrounding this city”, including “wastewater piping, arrangement and paving of streets, sewerage and canalization of streamlets, parks and tree planting and provision of public services connected with commuting demands” (8).

Even though there was neither urban planning nor an urban project on these outskirts, giving them a suggestion of poverty, necessity, deficiency, insalubrities, and danger. We observe then that the development of the social deprived outskirts has not been based on a matter of the population’s economical resources (or lack of them), but mainly due to an issue of housing availability.

In the city of São Paulo, until 1950 we can find the following alternatives of dwellings:

  • The owned house (legal)
  • The rented house from private owner (official contract)

From the 1960s on we have:

  • The owned house (irregular) – built-it-yourself
  • Tenement Houses – substandard dwellings
  • Slums – substandard dwellings

In 1964 the Federal Government aiming to implement a new national housing system launched a new organism: The Sistema Nacional de Habitação (National Housing System), in which the BNH – Banco Nacional de Habitação (National Housing Bank) – would play a major financial supportive role. “From 1964 onwards the Government financed an important portion of the urban Brazilian space. The number mounted almost 5 million people; more than 20% of the units built in the cities in that period. In some cities, almost 40% of the dwellings built in the period have been – one way or another – funded by Governmental agencies” (9).

But the Country’s economic reality could not afford this national housing scheme since it counted on the payment of the dwelling units, following certain financial rules. From that moment on the BNH truly started to finance housing for the middle class and in some cases a construction and formal research was employed, as is the case of the building companyFormaespaço. This company attempted to provide rational solution from the architectural design.

This initiative is praiseworthy, but unfortunately the Government did not use it as an example. Since the Tenant’s Law, the renting never returned as a housing alternative and dwelling itself became a question of access to the property, not an access to an urban residence, which considers its relation not only to the single dwelling but also its relation with the city – health, education, transport: having a place to live in was to have a property, no matter where and how it was; it was a property. A perverse idea, reinforcing the social and spatial segregation, but that was now official: the informal city started to be legal, and to the Government that issue was solved.

The Zoning Law and the Municipal Disctrict’s outskirts

The government intervened again with the creation of the Zoning Law. In doing so it has restrained verticalization in the most central areas (10), hence, in the smallest portion of the city and also avoiding this same phenomenon to happen in the outer regions, thus increasing the price of urban land. On the other hand, in the more peripheral belts of the municipal district it created areas that received gigantic housing estates, disconnected not only from urban network but also from urban life. “ The Zoning Law (Law no. 7.085 from 1972) established different city zones and, in general, restricted the rate of exploitation […] in only 11.5% of the city it was allowed an index equal 4 (four). In the other 88.5% the maximum index established was 2 (two). This Law created a demand for land and verticalization in the most peripheral areas, in far out and empty pieces of land” (11).

This law (7805/72) also created the Z8-100, a rural zone that could take on housing estates financed by the BNH, the social-scope housing, built by the State. Those areas, being rural, did not have any infrastructure and were also worth very little in the market. The Public Housing Companies installed their huge estates there; since 1970 they have built something around 210 thousand dwelling units, expanding the urban network and increasing the need and demand for better infrastructure in the outskirts.

As far as we can see, the State Housing Companies adopted then a typology which was strongly influenced by the 1967 experience when Fábio Penteado, Vilanova Artigas e Paulo Mendes da Rocha designed the Zezinho Magalhães Prado Housing Estate, in Guarulhos, in the outskirts of the Greater São Paulo. The project had been commissioned by CEPAP – Caixa Estadual de Casas Para o Povo (State Fund for Popular Houses) – and it was intended to work as a model of the State of São Paulo’s housing policy.

It was planned for a population of 55 thousand inhabitants in an area of approximately 322 acres of land provided with infrastructure (schools, hospital, health centers, stadium, movie theatres, hotel, commerce, transport etc). “Brazil went through a change of scale exactly in that moment and era. The scale was multiplied by a thousand. The country was small in terms of economy numbers and shyly administrated. To the world, Brazil was very small …. And so that project in Guarulhos was seen as absurd or unfeasible. A project comprising 12 thousand dwelling units was something no one had ever imagined, nor even seen before in a project. It was a project of romantic ideas and fantasy. At first, it had not been approved in the first instance, but after some interesting episodes they granted permission for a project of 400 units” (12).

Nevertheless, neither the middle nor the working classes housing demands were provided with the creation and running of the BNH. “The context of the economic crisis throughout the 1980s had a great impact on the real-estate market in São Paulo, especially with the extinction of BNH in 1986, which had completed the inoperative picture and crisis in the housing construction panorama ” (13).

The crisis within the BNH and the impoverishment of the Brazilian middle class, in São Paulo, forced the lower and also the middle classes to look for ‘popular’ smaller and smaller flat units, situated in peripheral areas, not supplied and not connected with the operating infrastructure systems. Some tools were used to reduce the price of the flats, including: absolute standardization; reduction in the net area with consequent reduction of the program; landscape and architectural treatment of the ground floor as a differential; reduction of costs of maintenance by increasing the number of units per block (splitting the costs amongst residents); due to high inflation no technological research on building innovation was developed during this period, as the investment did not bring any lowering in prices.

All these actions led to a situation of total loss of quality, both of the units and the buildings themselves; the urban space has also suffered the consequences of such actions, losing quality with the distribution of a few of these buildings around the city.

“The high cost of the land, its scarcity and the lack of resources are the most common arguments used to justify the difficulty to produce popular housing in the structured and more central areas, as well as to explain the diversity of public sector housing programs. These programs went from the State policy of offering housing units in public estates, a characteristic of the 1970s, to the acknowledgment of both this task difficulty and the need to offer a diverse range of programs” (14).

Meanwhile inhabitants from the outskirts, facing this picture, searched for alternative paths to solve their problem. During the 1980/1990 decades we witnessed the appearance of entities representing popular housing movements. Many are the examples of housing estates built under the scheme of mutirão (collective working party where the families and future residents help to build, overseen by a technically skilled group).

These collective constructions could be either managed by the Government or indirectly managed, and in this case, a technical support team had a major role not only formulating the programs but also organizing the communities. One example of public management along with a group of technical advisors organizing the dwellers is the Fazenda da Juta (Juta Farm), in Sapobemba (a peripheral borough in the city of São Paulo), coordinated by CDHU – Compania Habitacional de Deenvolvimento Urbano (Urban Development Housing Company).

From the 1980s onwards, an enormous population increase can be verified in the São Paulo Metropolitan region, without any investment in the service and infrastructure central capability, which affected the distribution of those services, causing an apparently universal net, though full of many supplying problems and connectivity difficulties.

The ongoing construction of the metropolitan landscape

The phase begun in the early 1980s – of outskirts expansion and deficient ´urbanification´ – “is the carrier of a clear tertiary profile, and marked by an intense modernization impulse in distinctive sectors where the productive activity is going to be place in the metropolitan territory” (15).

Consequently from the 1980s onwards there were two great definite forces in the metropolitan territory of São Paulo: on the one hand the impoverishment of the middle and lower classes, and on the other hand changes in the production cycles, bending strongly towards the growth and installation of the tertiary sector, still within the logic of spatial social segregation and of the impoverished peripherization.

We have been noticing new forms of intervention, such as the slum urbanization (or amelioration), in a scale never seen before in the city; or as the Pantanal Project from the Government of the State of São Paulo, in the borough of São Miguel, where the slum has been acknowledged as urban reality and the infrastructure aims the integration – both physical and functional – with the urban network around, treating the whole slum as a completely new borough.

The analysis of the housing issue in São Paulo should not be faced as a municipal issue, but as a metropolitan one, given its urban complexity. The role of the Government was fundamental for the current situation, and in not giving conditions to create new homes to the urban mass population the State Government stimulated the appearance of a spontaneous city, which was formed the best possible way. The absence of architecture and engineering in the building process of this landscape is directly related to the importance given by the State to the physical construction of the city, in other words, next to none. What today is seen as luxurious – organized boroughs, good quality residences – it is only a public duty denied to the population. All the conditions of a third world country permeating Brazil do not explain the lack of good quality housing projects in the outskirts of Brazilian cities, let alone in a city like São Paulo.

The major interest on this research project was to verify which agents have intervened in the urban construction in the outskirts and why architecture was virtually denied in such a cruel way. We do hope to contribute to bring housing issues to the kernel concerns of architecture.


ISUF – XIV International Seminar on Urban Form. Ouro Preto, ago. 2007. ISBN 978-85-98261-03-4.

REIS FILHO, Nestor Goulart. São Paulo: vila, cidade, metrópole. São Paulo, Bankboston/PMSP, 2004.

Idem, ibidem.

VILLAÇA, Flavio. Espaço intra-urbano no Brasil. São Paulo, Studio Nobel / Lincoln Institute, 2001.

PORTO, Rubens. “O problema das casas operárias e os Institutos e Caixas de Pensões”. Rio de Janeiro, s/e, 1938. Apud BONDUKI, Nabil. Origens da habitação social no Brasil. São Paulo, Estação Liberdade, 1998.

BONDUKI, Nabil. Origens da habitação social no Brasil. São Paulo, Estação Liberdade, 1998.

Cf. SILVA, Ricardo Toledo. “A conectividade das redes de infra-estrutura e o espaço urbano de São Paulo”. In: Luiz Cesar de Queiroz Ribeiro. (Org.). O futuro das metrópoles: desigualdades e governabilidade. 1 ed. Rio de Janeiro, Revan, 2000, p. 407-432.

BONDUKI, Nabil. Op. cit.

Idem, ibidem.

Cf. SOMEKH. Nádia. “São Paulo anos 30: verticalização e legislação urbanística”. Espaço & Debates, Revista de Estudos Regionais e Urbanos, n. 40. São Paulo, ano XVII, NERU, 1997. Apud ANELLI, Renato; GUERRA, Abílio; KON, Nelson. Rino Levi – arquitetura e cidade. São Paulo: Romano Guerra, 2001, p. 46.

IMBRONITO, Maria Isabel. Três edifícios para a Formaespaço: Modulares, Gemini e Protótipo. Dissertação de mestrado. São Paulo, FAU-USP, 2003.

Extracted from and interview with the architect Fábio Penteado to Maria Isabel Imbronito. View IMBRONITO, Maria Isabel. Op. cit.

VILARIÑO, Maria do Carmo. Habitação verticalizada na cidade de São Paulo dos anos 30 aos anos 80. Investigação acerca da contribuição dos Arquitetos Modernos ao Tema. Estudo de Caso. Dissertação de mestrado. São Paulo, FAU-USP, 2000.

MEYER, Regina Maria Prosperi; GROSTEIN, Marta Dora; BIDERMAN, Ciro (Org.).São Paulo Metrópole. São Paulo, Edusp / Imprensa Oficial do Estado de São Paulo, 2004.

Idem, ibidem.

[translation by Arturo Pasquale Viola]

[revision: Anita Di Marco]

about the author

Assunta Viola, architect and urbanist, researcher from Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo da Universidade de São Paulo.


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