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Crossing Streets: Social Divides and Urbanization in Brazil

Social Divides and Urbanization in Brazil
Brazil has experienced staggering urbanization in the last century with 80% of Brazilians now living in urban areas. Urbanization in Brazil unfolded so rapidly during the 20th century, that by 1950 it attained a level comparable to that of Asia and Africa in 2000. However, this rapid adjustment to urban living has left many of Brazil’s poorest behind.


A History of Urbanization in Brazil


Although a distinctly modern phenomenon, urban social inequality stems from Brazil’s past as a Portuguese colony and its economic history of slavery. Like many other South American colonies, the landed classes controlled Brazilian society and the economy during the colonial era. This aristocracy essentially wielded political power into the late 19th and 20th centuries. With the founding of the First Brazilian Republic in 1899 and until its dissolution in 1988, the right to vote revolved around literacy. By restricting the education of the poorer masses, the Brazilian aristocracy impeded the majority of the population’s political participation.

This enduring trend drastically affected urbanization patterns in Brazil throughout the 20th century. Brazil’s major metropolitan areas grew at an annual rate of 4.5% between 1940 and 1970. This rapid growth accounted for 34% of the country’s national growth. Migrant rural workers accounted for much of this growth, with 43 million Brazilians of rural origin moving to more urban areas. For these millions of rural Brazilians, the transition to urban life did not come easy.

As they attempted to settle in expanding metropolises, the rural poor once again found themselves relegated below the landed elite in a heavily stratified cityscape. While the elite occupied most of the areas with sufficient infrastructure, or nuclear cores, the rural poor resigned themselves to living on the cheaper periphery of the city, further from working opportunities. These areas, called “urban frontiers,” generally bear inadequate living conditions that lead to the growth of slums, insufficient infrastructure, gang violence and environmental issues.

The income disparity between urban frontiers and the nuclear cores of Brazilian cities is shocking. In São Paulo, the largest Brazilian city, the income differential reaches a whopping 65.4% with a 56.1% income differential average across Brazil’s major metropolises. What makes this disparity even more noteworthy is that most of the population growth in Brazilian cities occurs in these significantly poorer areas while the more gentrified areas remain stagnant.

All of this is worsened by the Brazilian housing crisis. Estimates place the housing shortage in the country at around 7 million units, mostly among those earning less than the minimum wage. Yet, Brazil actually has more than enough adequate housing to accommodate this shortage. The only problem is that this housing exists vacant in gentrified urban centers due to speculative real-estate practices. Despite this blatant disparity, real estate investment continues mainly in more wealthy areas where the population is decreasing, instead of where housing is actually needed.

As such, the urban poor are essentially forced to squat on the outskirts of the city. Haunting data from the World Bank attests to this issue. While the formal real estate market annually produces 200,000 to 300,000 properties, it estimates that around 1 million properties spring up each year. In other words, much of the new housing in Brazil is either self-construction or informal, unregulated construction.

Brazil’s urban development has become unsustainable. The neediest areas of its cities are deprived of resources that have been instead focused on stagnant and in some cases empty areas. Yet, for many, this is just the continuation of the historical status quo. As empty houses continue to rise in city centers, impoverished Brazilians will continue to suffer.

– Andrew Logan

Sources: Cities Alliance, University of California, Berkley
Photo: Beyond Intractability