Building the Globalizing City With or Without Slums?—Exploring the Contrast Between City Models in São Paulo and Beijing

College of Resource Environment and Tourism, Capital Normal University, Beijing, China



This chapter is the international comparison between Beijing (a representative of one of China’s primary cities intending to clear up slums) and São Paulo (a typical Latin American primary city in an electoral democracy) in terms of slum landscapes and policies. The former is an example of one of China’s slum-free planned cities; the latter is representative of the Brazilian style with a spectacular spatial concentration of urban poverty in the primary cities. The study evidences some similarities in the inadequate supply of public housing, such as a shortfall in budget to fund public services and inequitable access to welfare among developing countries that experience a high speed of urbanization and city growth. The chapter identifies the features of both China’s land-based public financing and hukou-based public spending systems, within which the land reinvestment and leasing fees serve as a major source of municipal revenue. The function of city and property as a wealth generator explains the contrasting outcomes of space production and city life in Brazil and China.

7.1 Introduction

During the past three decades, during which urban governance in China has evolved from the traditional Soviet-style central planning to a more entrepreneurial form, its primary cities have become globally competitive development areas (Harvey 2005; Brenner 2001). As China turns to a market economy, it accepts norms and urban development ideas from North America and Western Europe. In an attempt to shake off its ‘Third World’ image, China’s primary cities and provincial capitals have increasingly transformed their landscapes to fit into the profiles of leading global cities, such as New York, London and Tokyo, which advocate high-end residences, consumption spaces, cultural and leisure amenities in order to attract investors, highly qualified professionals and experts in knowledge-intensive sectors, and tourists (Wu 2004; Cook 2006).

Beneath the property boom and substantial city-branding efforts offered as inducements to domestic and foreign investment and talents in China, there are conflicts between property developers and other investors and the low-wage urban workers who help generate high investment returns, which is a source of economic growth. Due to a widespread rise in living costs, low-wage workers, including migrants, are unable to enjoy the fruits of their labours. Their lives have been categorized by urban ‘informality’ and poverty. In contrast to Latin American cities, their dilapidated shelters at the outlying areas of cities are labelled ‘illegal’ and are seen as a great threat to the city-imaging and place-branding strategies. As shown in the migrant survey in Chap. 5, Chinese migrant tenants are forced out of prime sites, following urban renewals, and receive little compensation. Their resettlement sites force them to commute to work for longer periods. There are increasingly fragmented migrant enclaves, following demolitions in Beijing.

In China, clearing up of urban ‘informalities’ and ‘unwanted’ quarters of low-wage migrants is equivalent to the creation of anti-slum cities that are modern, compact and pleasant, conforming to European and North American models in physical form. In Brazil and other Latin American countries, city planners have understood from their experiences that imposing Western modernization measures upon the developing world is highly risky, whereby great and extravagant plans are bound to fail (see Watson 2009; Ananya and Nezar 2004; Ananya 2005). Contrary to China’s anti-slum practices, Latin America’s spectacular spatial concentration of urban poverty in their primary cities exemplifies how the Lefebvrian notion of the ‘Right to the City’ (based on the residency claims, service delivery and participation in the host city’s policy making) operates in the developing world. In particular, the role of government in mediating power relations has been redirected to support and finance the consolidation of housing and services in the slums, since Latin America’s electoral democracies were initiated from the 1970s. The mega-slums, as a glaring image of poverty, are usually located in the urban periphery in Latin America (e.g. São Paulo, Mexico City, Lima, etc.), Africa and the Middle East. Planners in these countries have shifted their mainstream developmental mind-set away from an emphasis on using urban land as commercial space and consumer markets, and have moved towards the inclusive policy of ‘rights’, regardless of the status, economic contribution or consumption ability of the residents (Holston 2008; Ngai 2006). Here, the city is viewed as a symbol of ‘hope’ for everyone, and the eradication of poverty as a progressive consolidation process through self-help, self-management and informal economic activities.

The two distinct city landscapes between China and Brazil are respectively described as being ‘slum-free’ and containing ‘mega-slums’. These are two contrasting urbanization paths taken between the Brazilian post-colonial cities and China’s transitional cities, both relying on their low-cost human resources in order to compete in the world market. This chapter reviews the different paths to agglomeration economies in the primary cities of Brazil and China. It reveals how their distinct socio-economic bases have formed contrasting development agendas and brought different socio-spatial outcomes along their respective courses of urbanization. São Paulo and Beijing, with almost 20 million inhabitants each, are two typical primary cities of developing countries experiencing rapid urbanization, globalization and de-industrialization processes (Cook 2006; Gu et al. 2005; Deak and Schiffer 2007; Morse 1992). By and large, the two cities have adopted a similar development strategy of ‘growth first, equity later’, and are now faced with the same challenges of poverty and inequality which have afflicted the ‘half-urbanized’ migrant workers and their families.

This chapter examines in particular the context, dynamics, and implications of two contrasting pathways of urban ‘informalities’ in São Paulo and Beijing, each standing for the broader urbanization patterns in Brazil and China. The two contrasting landscapes of São Paulo and Beijing present a set of differentiated governance modes, regulatory relations, and spatial orderings in order to handle their enduring socio-spatial inequalities, following rapid urbanization. Brazil is famous for its democratization of access to land and housing and participatory urban governance following the ‘Right to the City’ movement, initiated in the 1980s. By means of a comparison with Brazil, the following questions will be addressed:

  • How should the ‘Right to the City’ be conceived of and conceptualized in the particular context of China; and

  • According to Lefebvre’s political philosophies, what political exigency can this concept produce in contemporary China?

This comparative study would shed light on the challenges of China’s urban planning, which is merely the regulation of city growth by hukou control and land-use zoning, and is still lacking a more inclusive approach in order to solve land-use conflicts of multi-stakeholders. It proffers some new insights on the nature of urban ‘informalities’ in China, by reviewing the Brazilian social movements and China’s entrepreneurial form of urbanization since the pro-market reforms. Their contrasting views on the use of urban space and the resulting contrasting regimes of spatial ordering—one including the pressure of mega-slums, the other being slum-free—have raised a comprehensive critique of the notions of ‘modern’, ‘urbanized’, and ‘ordered’ in urban planning and management, as well as a reflection on the zoning technology that creates differently administered spaces (e.g. rural land forbidden for trade) and differential values for regulated and deregulated space.

7.2 ‘Overurbanization’ Versus ‘Underurbanization’ in Rapidly Industrializing Areas

Since the 1980s, Brazil (after years of import substitution industrialization) and China (after decades of a Soviet-style planned and closed economy) have begun export-driven industrialization by exporting goods for which they have the comparative advantage of cheap resources (such as abundant labour, land, raw materials and farm products). Through export, they aim to gain enough currency in order to import the technologies, skills and knowledge that they lack. China did not allow a free population movement from the countryside to cities until its integration into the neoliberal world and its restructuring into the ‘world’s factory’ (Ma 2002). Based on Lewis’s (1977) seminal observation, few countries reached an income level of US$10,000 per capita before reaching the 60 % urbanization rate. As shown in Table 7.1, Brazil’s urbanization level reached 60 % as early as in the 1970s when its production capacity measured around US$1,000 per capita. The urbanization pattern of Brazil and other Latin American countries is termed ‘overurbanization’ or ‘urbanization without growth’, driven by the rapid rural-to-urban migration, and not by relying on a sufficient supply of jobs in order to absorb a large pool of rural surplus labour. The ‘overurbanization’ has led to the reproduction of poverty in Brazilian cities, characterized by slums and the congregation of unproductive/underproductive economic activities and low-productivity employment in these areas (Gilbert and Gugler 1993; Germani 1973; Gugler 1988). In China during Mao’s era, state regulations on population movements and city growth had suppressed urban growth. The underurbanization in the context of China, which Zhang Li (2004) termed ‘China’s limited urbanization under socialism and beyond’, is therefore the outcome and legacy of the urban-restrictive policies.

Table 7.1
Urbanization and industrialization rates in China and Brazil, 1950–2010




GDP per capita (US$)

Urbanization rate (%)

GDP per capita (US$)

Urbanization rate (%)




































Data on urbanization rate from Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics (2011), Wong (2012), Mauro et al. (2007), Brazil’s National Census (2010), data on real per capita GDP from Heston et al. (2010)

Figure 7.1 displays a sharp contrast between Brazil’s high urbanization level, and China’s relatively low urbanization level, despite the latter’s fast urbanization process, initiated from the 1980s onwards, when internal rural-to-urban migration flows were permitted. Urban growth in Brazil is characterized by the concentration of poverty in big cities and the acceptance of the urban ‘informality’ as a way of life, whereas China has pursued a slum-free vision, despite a massive circular rural-to-urban migration into its cities. By holding to the hukou system, low-wage migrant workers have been denied the chance to settle down, or access to public services (including education, housing, and poverty assistance) in the host cities. These two contrasting urbanization modes each have their respective socio-economic and modernization backgrounds, and the following section will discuss them in turn.


Fig. 7.1
Urban growth by percentage in Brazil, China, India and South Africa, 1980–2010 (Source: United Nations 2012; Arnal and Fõrster 2010. Note: More developed countries include all regions of Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan)

7.2.1 São Paulo: A ‘Divided City’ with a High Tolerance of Slums Slum Boom During the Industrialization (1950s–1980s) and Post-industrialization Era

As reported by the United Nations, Latin America is the most urbanized region in the underdeveloped world. Its urbanization level had risen from 40 % in 1950 to almost 80 % in the 2000s, close to that of the United States, and much higher than that of Africa and Asia, which is reported to be around 30 % (United Nations 2010; see Fig. 7.1). Across Latin America, one quarter to one third of the rural population have flocked to the major cities. In this over-urbanization process, one of the most serious problems is that of vast slums and shantytowns encircling the housing areas of the more affluent. São Paulo is quite typical of the Latin American over-urbanization phenomenon that has produced social inequalities and a housing crisis (Haroldo et al. 2007; Earle 2011).

Brazil’s urban economies contribute to about 90 % of its national GDP, and 54.4 % of its population live in cities with populations of more than one million in 2000 (Deak 2001). São Paulo is Brazil’s foremost wealth generation centre, producing almost one tenth of the national GDP. São Paulo has witnessed severe urban sprawl as a result of migrant inflow. It is estimated that, during the industrialization boom from the 1950s until the 1980s, São Paulo absorbed 200,000 new people yearly, who left the countryside for major cities, in search of better jobs and living conditions (Haroldo et al. 2007). There were two intense migratory periods to São Paulo in history:

  • Between 1880 and 1930, four million immigrants entered and settled in the São Paulo State, for its coffee plantations, centred in the rich lands, which stimulated the commercialization of a coffee-based economy and food production, as well as railway and infrastructure constructions (Martine and McGranahan 2010)

  • Between the 1930s and 1980s, the import-substitution industrialization superseded the coffee-based economy as the new growth dynamism after the Great Depression in 1929–1932. As early as the 1950s, Brazil began agricultural modernization through the ‘Green Revolution’, and farm mechanization came at the expense of traditional labour-intensive farming and small-scale farming. Brazil’s agrarian structure is dominated by large land holdings. It is estimated that in the 1990s, 3 % of the population owned two thirds of all arable land in Brazil (Haroldo et al. 2007). This explains why the landless rural workers had to migrate to the rapidly industrializing cities, which provided the only prospects for them at that time.

Despite a large rural migrant intake, there were few slum settlements in the 1960s in São Paulo. In the late 1980s, favela 1 dwellers rose to almost one million, and in the 1990s, to more than two million (see Magalhães and Villarosa 2012). São Paulo, since the 1980s, has taken a sharp turn from a predominantly industrial to a service-based economy focused on financial services, knowledge production, information handling and tourism. As the industrial production flowed to other regions, its annual intake of rural migrants slowed down, and its urban growth has fallen from a high rate to about 1 % yearly (Deak 2001). During each economic downturn, from the late 1980s onwards, the slum dwellers are faced with a series of challenges, including high rates of unemployment and underemployment, a low per capita income, a high spatial concentration of destitute poverty, and an acute shortage of infrastructure in the slum areas (see Fig. 7.2). Table 7.2 summarizes the upgrading opportunities that are linked to tenure in the slum areas.


Fig. 7.2
Favela in São Paulo (Photo: Simone 2014)

Table 7.2
Summary of opportunities for upgrading, linked to tenure


Opportunities for upgrading

Communities sited legally on public land

Mainly owner-occupiers

Situated in the older and more central parts of city

Less likely to resort to community-based action if local municipality has provided a certain level of service

Overcrowded and the standard of provision of infrastructure is moderate, though much of it may be run down and in a poor state of repair

However, housing upgrade schemes could gain profits that are a driving factor of upgrading

Mainly tenants

Occupied by low- and middle-income households in walk-up flats

Tenants are unwilling to pay more in rent to improve conditions

Maintenance and services are the responsibility of local government but are likely to be inadequate due to low-rental income

Improvements are possible if the housing and community associations manage the common areas and coordinate upgrading and repairs
Mainly occupiers of own structures/houses only

Comprises a variety of locations and sizes

Communities are keen to obtain security of tenure and legal title to their homes, with some scope to buy their own title over time

Many such communities are able to remain on the land with a support from their powerful protector or patron

Usually very keen to upgrade
Mainly renters of structures/houses

Frequently, though not necessarily, made up of people who see themselves as temporary to the city—for example, seasonal workers

Residents have little incentive to upgrade due to transitory nature and level of tenure insecurity

Communities sited legally on private land

Mainly owner-occupiers

Consisting of middle-income households keen to make an investment

Less keen on managing services themselves

Prefer to ‘buy’ services

Mainly tenants

High demand for security of tenure and keen on a guaranteed period of rent freezes and no eviction

Landlords benefit from gradual upgrading of their property, though tenants may be apprehensive about resulting rent increase
Mainly occupiers of self-built structures/houses

Such squatter settlements are few but exist where there is a powerful patron, political leader or other intermediary to provide protection

Securing tenure is the primary objective in these cases with any upgrading possibility that security of tenure provides
Mainly tenants of structures/houses

Distinction to be made between tenants temporary to the city and those unable to acquire their own housing

Less likely to be interested in security of tenure without, correspondingly, more secure economic situation

Source: United Nations Human Settlements Programme (2003: 94)

As defined by the United Nations Expert Group Meeting (EGM) held in Nairobi in October 2002, a slum is an area that combines, to various extents, the following characteristics, although slums may vary in their disadvantages in different parts of the world, or even within the same city (Gulyani 2010; United Nations Human Settlements Programme 2003: 12):

  • Inadequate access to safe water

  • Inadequate access to sanitation and other infrastructure

  • Poor structural quality of housing

  • Overcrowding

  • Insecure residential status. Slum Consolidation During the Electorate Democracy Era

Since the 1980s, social polarization and inequality in São Paulo have been attributed to the highly stratified society, rooted in the colonial land grant system, as well as the failure of city planning to foresee and manage urban growth. The Gini coefficient for the São Paulo Metropolitan Region was reported to be 0.543 in 2006 (World Bank 2010; Earle 2011). The inequalities are manifest, above all, in the formation and sprawl of slum settlements as well as the fiscal inadequacy in upgrading of living conditions. The landscape contrast between the slum dwellers and the more affluent, living in walled neighbourhoods of private homes, is a form of ‘divided city’ or ‘dual city’ (UN-HABITAT 2010; Caldeira 2000). Half of the city is formal and intended for the middle and upper social classes, and the other half is peripherally located and illegally constructed by the low-income groups. As stated by Santos (1996: 231), ‘the housing situation is a visual reflection of what is happening in the rest of São Paulo society’.

Irregular and unplanned housing surfaced in São Paulo as early as the late nineteenth century, when the city area expanded rapidly and the underserviced lands of rural zones were illegally occupied and transacted at low prices. Self-built housing in the underserviced periphery exploded with mass transport developments in the 1920s (Holston 2008). The government had no incentive to provide infrastructure and services for the low-income residents of the peripheries, as these self-built areas had been branded ‘irregular’, cut off and disconnected from the planned and regulated upper-income zones in the city area. Such a poor-rich dichotomy between the centre and the periphery was derived from Brazil’s differentiated treatments of people (in terms of education, occupation, race, gender and access to property) that had forced the disadvantaged groups into the ‘segregated and often illegal conditions of residence’ and into a lower social stratum as ‘servile workers’ (Holston 2008: 7). The limited access to secure property and basic services, together with the evictions by property developers, is the substance of all these inequalities.

Brazil’s re-democratisation took place in the 1980s, in order to further a vision of ‘inclusiveness’, and address the long-lasting socio-spatial inequality and segregation in the cities (Earle 2011). The competitive political parties and their municipal governments took various different actions in order to address the favela problems, either by upgrading 10 % of all favela houses and improving the drainage, sewerage, water and electricity supply, or by ‘clearing up’ and relocating dwellers to ‘vertical favelas’ in multi-storey buildings (Deak 2001).

The favela improvement programs in São Paulo represented only a partial picture of the Brazilian participatory approaches to the slum and poverty problems. Since the 1980s, the electoral democracy in Brazil has introduced the concept of the ‘social function’ of property by redefining the slum dwellers’ ‘Right to the City’. The 1988 Brazilian Constitution, 2002 Civil Code, and 2001 City Statute offered favela residents a title to certain land and compensation for investments in their occupied land. This has demonstrated how the social function of property had been ‘exercised in accordance with its economic, social and environmental ends’ (Cunha 2011; Ngai 2008). Since this introduction, slum settlements were no longer treated as temporary and illegal trespasses. Instead, the squatters have been invited to participate in the municipal governance, including their involvement in the city budget.

As such, the Santo André Municipality of São Paulo metropolis pioneered the development of the participative budget (PB), whereby half of the members were chosen from the government side and the other half from the local population (World Bank 2003; see Box 7.1 from United Nations Human Settlements Programme 2003: 133). Additionally, Porto Alegre, in which one third of its 1.4 million people are slum dwellers, is recognized globally as an exemplary city, for having implemented a participatory method for favelas residents into its public administration. This model has been widely followed by other Latin American and European countries such as Spain, Belgium, Italy, Germany, France, Portugal, Denmark, Switzerland, Netherlands and the UK (see Andreas and Bernhard 2005; Sintomer et al. 2005). The participative budgets approach was first used by the Brazilian Workers’ Party in order to combat social and territorial exclusion, by transferring the power of public budgeting away from the technocrats in City Hall and the elected politicians, into the hands of the underserved population and neighbourhoods known as the ‘informality’ and ‘periphery’ (Iain 2004).

Before the reforms of municipal governance, the gulf between the informal slum dwellers and the ‘formal’, more affluent residents was wide. The slum dwellers constantly faced financial difficulties, whilst the municipal governments did not perform their social obligations. Poverty alleviation and slum consolidation were never chosen as top priorities in public investments, until the development of the participatory budget (see Baiocchi 2005; Cabannes 2004; Goldfrank 2007).

During the Workers’ Party administration of 2001–2004, the participatory budget (PB) created a participatory mechanism, incorporating the historically disadvantaged groups (‘socially vulnerable segments’) into the decision-making process. The PB model targeted nine historically disadvantaged groups in São Paulo: Afro-Brazilians, senior citizens, children and adolescents, youth, the GLBT community, women, indigenous groups, the homeless and people with disabilities (see Esther 2010). Table 7.3 showed that the ‘PB’ as a ‘mechanism of social inclusion’ has enhanced the participation of these segments significantly from 2003 to 2004 (with the exception of two segments, namely people with disabilities and the GLBT community, see Esther 2010: 522).

Table 7.3
Delegates by segment in the participatory budget (PB) in São Paulo 2003 and 2004


No. of Delegates 2003

No. of Delegates 2004







Homeless population






Indigenous population



People with disabilities



Senior citizens









Segment delegates as a % of total PB delegates

29 %

44.6 %



Source: Esther (2010: 522)

The urban movements, including the participatory budget, have advocated the inclusion of housing and full access to urban services as a social right for all city dwellers (Wampler 2007). The Lefebvrian notion of ‘Right to the City’ aims to redress the historical imbalance and inequalities, which resulted from the excessive emphasis on exchange values of urban space (Edésio 2007). Brazil’s budgetary reforms have changed the base for the distribution of tax revenues and public resources. In Porto Alegre, municipal spending on education, healthcare, social assistance and housing was only 23 % of the budget in 1989 and 1990, but then increased to 37 % a decade later following budget reforms.2 Additionally, municipal investment on housing grew fourfold from 1989 to 2000 (Iain 2004).

In summary, Brazil’s urban migration process was spontaneous, without any restrictions. São Paulo’s intense rural-to-urban migration progressed alongside Brazil’s agricultural modernization and its rapid industrialization. The urbanization level of Brazil had reached a relatively high level, and migration to primary cities has slowed down since the country’s de-industrialization in the 1980s. The concentration of irregular settlements in São Paulo has made explicit the tension between the exchange value of land and the social obligations of the city to all its inhabitants. Rural migration has created an intense social tension but has also inspirited a series of innovations (including participative budgeting) in order to redirect public spending to slum areas, thus redressing inequalities between the urban formalities and ‘informalities’.

Box 7.1: Social Inclusion in Santo André, Brazil

Santo André, with a current population of 650,000, is part of the São Paulo Metropolitan Area. Santo André has been undergoing a period of transformation, from its industrial past to an expanding tertiary sector. The economic gap between the rich and poor has grown, exacerbated by the slowdown of the Brazilian economy during the 1990s. As a result, living conditions have deteriorated and a number of favelas—areas of extreme poverty—have emerged.

The municipality is promoting an Integrated Programme of Social Inclusion as a strategy to alleviate poverty. The objective of the programme is to establish new ways of formulating and implementing local public policies on social inclusion. Fourteen principal partners, local, national and international, are actively involved in the programme. Four areas were chosen for the pilot phase, selected through a participatory budgeting process, resulting in a total amount of US$5.3 million, which has been invested in the provision of urban infrastructure and services.

The project has seen the improvement of basic services in some of the worst neighbourhoods. Micro-credit facilities have been made available to small-scale entrepreneurs, while health care has been made more accessible through community health agents. Other social programmes have been implemented including literacy campaigns for adults and programmes aimed at street children. Recreational facilities have been made available, serviced plots have been transferred to families and low income families rehoused in apartment buildings. An index has been developed to measure social inclusion and data collection is carried out on a regular basis. One of the most important results has been the engagement of a wide range of actors and the creation of effective communication channels. All activities have taken into account gender participation and mainstreaming. The administration intends to extend the pilot programme to all slum areas in the city, through differentiated slum upgrading projects while strengthening the approach towards regularization of land tenure. In addition, the programme will attend to all families facing situations of extreme economic exclusion through a revised minimum income policy and through the up-scaling of existing programmes. Three initiatives from Santo André on Good Governance, Traffic Management and Administrative Reform are featured on the Best Practices database (See www.​bestpractices.​org).

The effective reduction of urban poverty and social exclusion in Santo André is based on a number of key principles:

  • Well targeted government interventions in the urban sector can foster citizenship and enable people to create more productive urban livelihoods

  • The active participation of the urban poor in decision-making promotes effective formulation and implementation of local action plans

  • The participatory budgeting process, an innovative approach to urban governance and decision-making, provides a real voice for the urban poor in both the allocation and use of municipal and other resources

  • The Municipality of Santo André has shown that while effective leadership needs to be ensured by the local administration it, in turn, needs to devolve decision-making and implementation powers to the community

  • Inter-agency collaboration and effective channels of communication between various actors and stakeholders is critical to successful slum improvement and reduction of poverty and social exclusion

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