‘We managed to kick off a paradigm shift in São Paulo,’ mayor says on leaving office

São Paulo is "a few steps closer to being a city for all social classes," says outgoing Mayor Fernando Haddad, seen here in August. (Rogerio Cavalheiro/Shutterstock)

In a year of global political turmoil, Brazil can boast about its upheaval. The impeachment of two-term president Dilma Rousseff polarized the country, and a corruption investigation involving the state-owned oil company has taken down dozens of high-profile politicians, all while the once-booming economy sputters.

In October, municipal elections reflected deep voter discontent with the left-leaning Workers’ Party and cost São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad his job. The trained academic and former national education minister was elected in 2012 and quickly embarked on an ambitious reform agenda to tackle inequality in Brazil’s largest city through mobility and affordable housing.

This megacity of 12 million is the country’s economic powerhouse but also beset by poor urban planning. It’s significantly behind on the build-out of its subway — in 2013, the BBC calculated it would take 172 years for the Brazilian metropolis to catch up with the fabled London tube. Massive traffic jams have long been the norm, to the extent that in a 2009 race, a bike beat out a car, a transit rider and even a helicopter.

The working poor, meanwhile, often endure grueling commutes on overcrowded buses from neighborhoods far from job centers. Long journeys and poor service triggered nationwide protests over even a small increase in fares. In the affluent urban core, the sprawling landscape is dotted mostly with gated high-rises, sapping street life. The New York Times characterized Haddad’s efforts as a battle against “dystopian sprawl.”

[See: Lessons from Johannesburg’s new plan to fight sprawl]

Haddad sought to tackle these seemingly intractable challenges via a much-vaunted new master plan, dedicated funding and zoning for affordable housing, and aggressive implementation of exclusive bike and bus lanes. Citiscope sat down with the outgoing mayor this month in Mexico City at the C40 Mayors Summit to reflect on what he has accomplished during his time in office.

This interview, conducted in Portuguese, has been edited for length and clarity.

Gregory Scruggs: What is your biggest legacy?

Fernando Haddad: I believe we managed to kick off a paradigm shift in São Paulo. São Paulo is a very tough city. It’s a city where self-interest is put over collective interest, and this is incredibly difficult to reverse, because people think they’re losing when in fact they’re winning. I tried to make it a more friendly and inclusive city. The problem is that this is not a change that takes only a few months. People have to get used to thinking that relinquishing a few quirks here and there makes the city work better and everyone wins.

When you create a bus lane and don’t allow the buses to get stuck in traffic, that’s a paradigm shift: The new way of thinking is that buses shouldn’t be in traffic jams. People aren’t used to thinking like this. They’re used to thinking that buses and cars have the same rights. When you protect cyclists’ lives by creating bike paths and reduce speed limits so that pedestrians don’t suffer the consequences of violent traffic, it’s very difficult to get used to that in such a short time.

“There are a significant number of people in the city — up to 20 or 30 percent — that already have a different mindset. And 20 to 30 percent of a paradigm shift is a lot.”

[See: Lessons for a ‘cycling megacity’]

Despite the challenges, though, I think the society is maturing. My defeat made some people question the real motives for not handing me a second term. They want to know if it was caused by the Workers’ Party, by my public policies, by my persona, what would be at stake in these elections. It’s a gradual process. Since there’s a great overlap of crises in Brazil, it’s difficult to isolate factors. But I believe there are a significant number of people in the city — up to 20 or 30 percent — that already have a different mindset. And 20 to 30 percent of a paradigm shift is a lot.

Q: What are some projects and policies that you are most proud of?

A: I wouldn’t say that it’s what I’m most proud of, but the restructuring of São Paulo’s finances, the public works plan and the reform of urban planning law are all great things. They’re also things that sometimes ordinary citizens don’t have much of a sense of, but time will show the results.

What was most visible and impacted this change of behavior was the urban mobility plan, through which we created sidewalks, bike paths … the regulation of carpooling applications, which is a trend that São Paulo will lead in; reduction of speed limits, which means reduction of traffic violence. The mobility plan is a plan that had a very strong and immediate impact.

Q: São Paulo pioneered the use of value capture to finance urban redevelopment through CEPACs [Certificates of Additional Construction Potential]. How did you tweak that tool during your administration?

A: I participated in the creation of the first CEPAC in São Paulo during [former mayor] Marta Suplicy’s administration. I was part of the team that designed the CEPAC for Faria Lima Avenue. But there’s a downside. CEPACs are applied locally to areas that are already well-developed with basic infrastructure. What we did during my administration was create a basic coefficient equal to the land area of the site benefitting from the CEPAC, whereby you have to pay the corresponding value into an urban development fund. And that fund can be invested all over the city — unlike CEPACs, which can only be invested locally. This is the first advantage.

[See: How São Paulo uses “value capture” to raise billions for infrastructure]

The second advantage is that we took Fundurb, the urbanization fund, and set 30 percent for low-income housing and 30 percent for mass transit. So 60 percent of the fund goes to the lowest-income people. And in the case of CEPACs, which used to have this flaw, 25 percent of CEPAC sales now go to affordable housing. Thus we corrected this flaw in CEPACs. That’s why this was the largest urban reform São Paulo has ever been through. São Paulo had never had its territory democratized like this before. It’s a few steps closer to being a city for all social classes.

Q: Your strategic master plan eliminates parking minimums in residential buildings and prohibits the kinds of setbacks that allow for gated condominium complexes. These are typically very profitable for the real estate sector, but groups like Secovi-SP [a real-estate-industry trade group] were fairly supportive. How did you convince the real estate industry?

A: The real estate industry is not homogeneous. There are many progressive people in real estate who want a better city and understand the difficult concept of externalities. In a city, you have to take externalities into account as much as you do the direct benefits of any development. Every undertaking has externalities, and it’s very easy for the negative externalities to outweigh the positive direct effects of a project.

“The order I gave to my administration was: ‘Wherever there’s a wall, try to build a fence in its place. Wherever there’s a fence, try to remove it.’”

A mayor who’s not aware of this can’t be the mayor of a metropolis. A metropolis has to learn how to do this kind of math. The master plan calls for investment, and it sets up an investment profile that will correct the imbalances that the city suffered for 50 years. All our strategic plan does is encourage precisely the type of development that is missing in São Paulo in order to ensure the necessary territorial, social and ecological balance to make people feel at home.

Q: São Paulo’s gated condos helped generated the infamous nickname “city of walls.” Is that name still applicable?

A: The order I gave to my administration was: “Wherever there’s a wall, try to build a fence in its place. Wherever there’s a fence, try to remove it.” São Paulo doesn’t need the walls and fences it has. The permeability between residential areas and the city is important for people to complete the cycle of this paradigm shift via active ground floors and active facades rather than the sterilized city that was built in São Paulo through unproductive garages and ground floors. There’s a lot of unproductive land in São Paulo … If we know what to do with it, we can change the concept of what’s possible.

[See: The Quito Papers: An intellectual counterpoint to the New Urban Agenda]

Q: When the press talks about São Paulo, they like to use extremes, such as that the city’s executives go to work in helicopters or that income inequality is through the roof. After four years of Haddad, what should be the city’s new positive stereotype?

A: Unsegregated neighborhoods. The middle-class youth of today is already seriously considering every alternative to using cars. These are middle-class young people who take the bus, ride bikes, walk and carpool. From a generational point of view, this is the legacy that will live on. My generation dreamed of having a car, but my son’s generation doesn’t share that dream. There’s a young middle class that’s already embracing a different city. From a mobility standpoint, there’s now a perception that a good city is not one where poor people have cars but one where the rich use public transport.

The second thing is the land plan. The implementation of ZEIS [Special Social Interest Zones, where affordable housing is required in any new development] in São Paulo made neighborhoods go from poor to mixed. That is, we offered decent housing so low-income people could have a decent standard of living in a proper neighborhood. São Paulo’s ZEIS are a very interesting paradigm shift because they bring down prices and allow the real estate market to produce housing that hadn’t been in their original investment plan.

Today in the city of São Paulo, most of the real estate projects being approved are the ones that were shaped by the master plan. They’re low-cost properties in the USD 60,000 range or cheaper, allowing low- to middle-income workers to live in neighborhoods with infrastructure, with access to public transport, etc. That’s why the construction industry in São Paulo has weathered the economic crisis.

Q: What aspects of your legacy are at risk under your successor? For example, mayor-elect João Doria said he will halt the creation of new bike paths and will not reduce the speed limits on city highways.

A: Unfortunately, the vulnerable situation of the Workers’ Party made a more open debate about city planning impossible, and that favored arguments that speak to common sense but are extremely poor and populist. It’s not a debate that talks about urban themes in depth and puts science to all that has been learned about cities’ public policies. But I like to believe that the minority that has this new awareness, which is still only 20 or 30 percent of the city, is a very vocal one. Even though they’re not a majority, they’ll be able to put the brakes on very serious setbacks.

[See: Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa on making better cities]

The affordable housing movement won’t let ZEIS go away or let them take away the money linked to affordable housing. Cyclists and public transport users won’t agree to stand in traffic after they had an exclusive lane available to them. I sincerely believe that society will react to regressive policies. It’s easier said than done.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary

Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.