Environmental and humanitarian disaster

Image: Blue Ox Studio


It is not for lack of research or warning that environmental catastrophes happen and victimize populations poor

“In short, research into the urban and the relations between the State and the urban requires essential research into these relations between the State and civil society and into the contradictions of interests that now form two blocs, in my view, which, in addition to the antagonisms from the point of view of the social production of wealth, they present an antagonism of how to direct and use the State apparatus” (Francisco de Oliveira. The State and the urban in Brazil.

The reaction of architects and urban planners to the catastrophe resulting from heavy rains on the North Coast of the State of São Paulo clearly demonstrates the importance of reflections elaborated over decades. Since the 1970s, with the explosion of growth in the main urban centers in Brazil, urban dispossession, socio-spatial segregation, and many other topics related to socio-spatial inequalities in Brazilian cities have been debated.[1]

More recently, studies have incorporated the so-called “social markers of difference”, to show how gender and race issues interfere in urban processes, to allocate the most precarious places to poor women and the black population.[2] There are countless texts, books, academic research and research groups that have focused on these themes for decades. Those who dedicated themselves to debating the contradictions in the field of planning, in marked opposition to urban plans from a reformist perspective, sought to highlight their ideological character, largely supported by Marxist criticism.

But the fact is that, even with the sharp criticism within the disciplinary field itself, architects and urban planners had a great influence on public debate, especially since the 1988 Constitution. It is true that at that time, no longer under the aegis of modernism, and grand totalizing plans, but placing great expectations on social movements and on so-called “participatory” processes.

Instruments such as the Statute of Cities and the Master Plan – which became mandatory for cities with more than 20 inhabitants – or the countless complementary laws, increasingly had the collaboration or direct involvement of scholars and professionals in urban and environmental themes. , and are irrefutable proof of his tireless dedication. One should also remember the permanent presence of professors and researchers in public bodies of housing and urban planning. We are well served and we are also a world reference in the debate.

As criticism has already attested since the 1970s, it is not, therefore, for lack of research or warning that environmental catastrophes happen and victimize poor populations. But it is important, yes, to understand why, in the face of a tradition of studies and such advanced instruments, tragedies happen with increasing recurrence and severity? How can we talk about the decisive role played by architecture and urban planning professionals, whether floods – such as the ones that devastate Jardim Pantanal in the city of São Paulo every year –, traffic jams – increasingly routine even in cities in the interior of the country –, or even fires – like What caused the Wilton Paes building, in Largo do Paissandu in São Paulo, to collapse – are they no longer sporadic events?

With the Covid-19 pandemic, doctors and epidemiologists dedicated to the public good were fundamental in the defense of life and, ultimately, of our species; and even with the political difficulties, his work proved to be essential. With the abuses of coup radicals, it seeks to point out the relevance of jurists and lawyers for the maintenance of democracy so violated, whose formal terms end up ensuring, to some extent, the legitimacy of the struggle for rights. In these terms, what is the place of architects and urban planners? How do they affect the reversal of territorial inequalities? And what about access to what is the minimum for life in urban environments – such as basic sanitation or access to housing, rights guaranteed by the Federal Constitution of 1988?

On the one hand, the public debate puts them in evidence in matters of urban regulation, with a more pronounced presence in the elaboration and revision of the master plans of large cities. When catastrophic events arise, it is also common to open space for the opinion of urban planners in the main media. On the other hand, the role of these professionals does not seem to be of great relevance in political decisions that could represent truly transformative effects.

It is a fact that part of the research and urban and architectural models developed end up having a limited scope, mainly due to the existing mismatch between urban planning and economic decisions. As Flávio Villaça well attested with regard to the intra-urban issue, the master plans, detached from the application of public resources, have little effectiveness, functioning more as an ideological apparatus.[3] We believe, therefore, that it is essential to recover some terms from the more critical literature of the 1970s in order to assess the current moment, proposing a reflection that also repositions and updates criticism itself.

The State and the Urban

From the perspective presented here, the text “The State and the Urban” by Francisco de Oliveira in the early 1980s, points to a possible path. In the wake of the already matured reflection that illuminated the structural character of Brazilian inequalities,[4] it then brought its specifically urban dimension. It showed that under the conditions of peripheral capitalism, the State never fully assumed the provision of essential services such as education, health and decent housing. More than that, by not facing structural issues of underdevelopment, such as land concentration under the domain of the elites, urban planning would always be doomed to become a dead letter, while the problems grew with the overwhelming urbanization of those decades, to the point of become major national impasses.[5]

Chico de Oliveira also anticipates that the relationship between monopoly capital and state action had contributed more to the formation and consolidation of urban middle classes than to the universalization of rights and public services that responded to the needs of reproduction of the workforce. Responsible for a type of intellectualized unproductive work, and privileged for being assured of new consumption standards, these middle classes come to have disproportionate political and social weight, with an extraordinary expansion of the tertiary sector. He highlighted that the State, from the point of view of its relationship with the urban, was largely determined by the demand of the middle classes within the cities.[6]

In the case of the last tragedy, it does not seem by chance that former residents, the caiçaras, were displaced from their possessions, giving up fishing or their subsistence bases, and attracted by precarious service jobs initially seen as advantageous, to reproduce in the same terms the previously drawn segregation.

If the urban planning of the XNUMXth century had been thought of in terms of a welfare state, as implemented in the so-called central countries, it was coherent to criticize its ideological dimension in a country where this construction had not been completed, and it seems even more evident to do so. it now in inclusive global terms.

If this criticism demonstrated that the oscillation between the presence and absence of the State in the urban question was part of the structural game of “unequal and combined development”, the situation was further aggravated by the economic deregulation of neoliberalism, which transformed a considerable part of of these urban middle classes on the basis of sustaining a financialized and rentier economy. The embarrassment of the State and a gradual privatization of public services in the neoliberal order took place simultaneously with the recognition of the social rights enacted in the 1988 Constitution, with some respite in the PT governments, and a more accelerated dismantling after the 2016 coup with the dismissal of Dilma Rousseff. A paradox emerges: we saw that incomplete welfare state crumble.

Finally, still in “The State and the Urban”, Chico de Oliveira highlighted that sectors of the middle segment suffered, to a greater or lesser extent than the poorest, from the consequences arising from uneven urbanization. Based on this observation, he indicated the need for a pact that recognized the proximity between workers and the middle sectors in what they expected from the State's action, as a strategy to dispute it in these terms, as per the epigraph of this text.[7]

In data recently published by the IBGE, the number of employees without a formal contract in Brazil reached a historic level of 12,9 million people in 2022. the urban middle classes, who align themselves with rentier practices typical of financialized capitalism, in the face of the intensification of precariousness in the labor market.

Representative of this new context are the “second homes” on the beaches and mountains of the North Coast of São Paulo which, if in the 1970s they responded to the standard of comfort required for vacations, now become a source of income in connection with the platforms real estate leasing, such as airbnb. By resorting to subterfuge to supplement the monthly income or to provide retirement security that social security no longer covers, they increase rent seeking, put upward pressure on real estate values, making them impractical for poor and precarious workers. This is one of the structural knots that condemn thousands to poverty and risk areas.

There seems to be in this process not exactly an aspect of irrelevance of urban and environmental regulation, but an implicit link with the prevailing neoliberal structure. In the apparent lack of political power to implement innovative proposals, there is the dominance of an economic agenda that continues to subjugate the scientific knowledge elaborated by architecture and urbanism professionals.

Architects and urban planners and the (im)possibilities of a social development pact

The pattern of uneven development, which was the reason for criticism in the 1970s and 1980s, was based on a tradition based on the construction and advancement of occupation of the territory. It was made from an expansive-centralizing movement, which concentrated wealth in the Southeast and made urbanization more dense on the east coast of the country. Despite the attempts to print a different model, betting on industrial development and progress towards the Midwest, whose paradigm was the construction of the country's capital, inaugurated in the previous decade.

On the other hand, it was exactly that model that enabled the conformation of social struggles that, at a given historical moment, brought the middle classes closer to the workers, making them converge in a struggle that defeated the military regime and advanced under the terms of the 1988 Constitution. To some extent, the agenda proposed by Chico de Oliveira was implemented, despite always being affected by the movements of international capital, and deeply shaken by the 2016 Coup.

With the neoliberal rearrangement that marked the last two decades, the population concentration in metropolises and coastal regions was accompanied by the emptying of entire areas for the expansion of monocultures, while some others were denser for predatory environmental exploitation, in the global movement that redefined Brazil as a supplier of raw materials with very low added value.

On a national scale, this pattern has only amplified the humanitarian tragedies arising from global climate change. The question is: in the face of the abyss of misery that lies ahead, how to look at the legacy of the planning field and also of the criticism made since the 1970s. More directly, what do the intellectualized middle classes, particularly the architects and urban planners, have to offer?

If the restricted welfare state promoted the artificial separation of the working classes within the scope of the expansion of monopoly capitalism, as Chico de Oliveira rightly observed, the neoliberal and rentier economy has only deepened the contradictions even more in the face of the climate emergency. It is no coincidence that families with higher incomes were affected by the intensity of the rains in São Sebastião, albeit to a much lesser extent, with flooding of their summer homes and exposed to dangerous situations.

Following the disasters in the cities of the North Coast of São Paulo, from the point of view of regulation, the creation of new legal frameworks for coastal tourism areas, the intensification of inspection and prevention capacities on the part of government, the construction of housing for workers in environmentally appropriate areas, and mandatory percentages of tourism developments for social housing. Now, what is offered to poor populations is, therefore, the right to remain in the place historically assigned to them by the class structure that defined the expansion of capitalism to that part of the globe.

The work of architecture and urbanism has a historical meaning. A city is designed, a house is built, a territory is occupied. It is a discipline based essentially on the future, and this future presents itself in the form of space to be occupied by man. However, the unequivocal responses to disasters have been the immediate demands of occupations already constituted, and directed by capital, whether spatial or social. They correspond to the same logic of an intellectual redundancy that affected the middle classes, as well pointed out by Chico de Oliveira. That is: the approach of architects and urban planners is predominantly in the context of consumption, to mitigate the damage of extreme events.

By actively dedicating themselves to debates on shapes and norms for parts of the territory, architects and urban planners fail to reflect on the causes of the environmental and humanitarian crisis. With few exceptions, it is excluded from the horizon of teaching in colleges and, consequently, from practice in offices and construction sites, a critique of materials, means and work relations contained in the production and reproduction of areas of consumption. The extraction and displacement of materials are not taken into account, in broader and more related economic terms, nor how much they increase the project of a world order that imposes the return of the country to a place of exporter of commodities. Even less is considered the displacement of population masses directed to fulfill the service orders of the bourgeoisie and the middle classes linked to it.

From this point of view, what does it mean to disengage from a more complete and complex territorial program, to defend the “right” to live close to the job, a worker or worker who performs domestic tasks at very low wages? Just to take the example of the last tragedy, many risk areas affected are inhabited by migrants who left their cities in the Northeast, to perform precarious and poorly paid work in a summer house in a condominium in São Sebastião.[8]

To this part of the intellectualized middle class, strangled by rent seeking, by precarious and intermittent work, what could fit? Supported by higher education admission programs promoted by the PT governments, its decision-making power today is inversely proportional to its growth as a professional class. Considering its new gender-racial composition, perhaps, more than voicing the demands of social movements, it should assume the role of a specific agent in the historical period we are going through. It is necessary to recognize its privileged place in political disputes, which allows it, at least for the time being, to think beyond the need for immediate survival.

Faced with the climate and humanitarian emergency, the challenges are gigantic and require the design of a structural socio-territorial transformation project. In the case of an approximation pact with the workers to outline a strategy for the dispute between society and the State, it is necessary that the field of architecture and urbanism has more to offer than the “right” to exercise precarious and poorly maintained work. paid out.

*Nilce Aravecchia Professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo.

*Eduardo Costa Professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo.

*Raul Ventura is a teacher from the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at the Federal University of Pará.


[1] Among the already classic works, in their different approaches, titles such as: KOWARICK, Lúcio are inescapable. Urban Spoliation. Rio de Janeiro: Peace and Land, 1980; SINGER, Paul. Political Economy of Urbanization. Editora Contexto, 1998; OLIVEIRA, Francisco de.“The State and the Urban in Brazil”. Revista Espaço & Debates, n.6, 1982, p.43; MARICATO, Erminia. Metropolis on the periphery of capitalism. São Paulo: Hucitec/Urban Studies Series, 1996; SANTOS, Milton. Brazilian urbanization. São Paulo. Ed. University of Sao Paulo, 2005.

[2] For more details on these aspects, see PACHECO, Tania; FAUSTINO, Cristiane. “The inescapable and inhumane prevalence of environmental racism in conflicts on the map”. In: PORTO, Marcelo Firpo; PACHECO, Tania; LEROY, Jean Pierre (Orgs.). Environmental injustice and health in Brazill. Rio de Janeiro, FIOCRUZ, 2013, pp. 73-114. SILVA, Joseli M. Gender and sexuality in the analysis of urban space. In: The geos, no. 44, 2007, 117-134.

[3] VILLAÇA, Flavio. The illusions of the master plan. São Paulo, author's edition, 2005https://bit.ly/39l6oND>.

[4] See: OLIVEIRA, Francisco de. “Critique of Dualistic Reason”. In: Cebrap Studies, no. 2, 1972;

[5] OLIVEIRA, F. Monopoly accumulation, State and urbanization: the new quality of class conflict. In: MOISÉS, J. A. et al. Urban contradictions and social movements. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra/CEDEC, 1978.

[6] OLIVEIRA, Francis. The State and the Urban in Brazil. Espaço & Debates Magazine. São Paulo: Neru, n.6, 1982, pp. 36-54.

[7] OLIVEIRA, Francis. The State and the urban…op. cit., p. 54.

[8] This is the case of Vila Baiana, Favela in Barra do Sahy in São Sebastião, which received its name due to the Bahian origin of a large number of its residents.

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