The Science of ‘Livable São Paulo’

Whether or not their subject is human geography, development economics or sociology, urban complexity is a subject close to home for scientists making their way to and from laboratories or institutes located across the sprawling city of São Paulo.

As a super-conurbation of 19 million people with an inner city population of 11.4 million, São Paulo is a metropolis now vying with Shanghai, Mexico City or Mumbai for global influence. That makes the city an object of study in its own right for urbanists and cross-disciplinary social scientists.

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Gnarly traffic, shortages of drinking water made less comprehensible by sudden flash-floods that close off roads, a constant struggle with atmospheric pollution, and ever-present street crime are quality of life challenges facing São Paulo’s scientists and city-dwellers alike. No wonder Paulistas (São Paulo residents) are increasingly vocal about where they stand in the anxious trade-off between cost of living/quality of life.

In just the same way that holders of highly prestigious jobs in the finance, corporate and international administration sectors have for long been able to select the best global cities in which to live and work, the internationalisation of Brazil’s economy means its scientists too are increasingly able to vote with their feet.

To stem the tide of any “brain drain,” a would-be global city must make itself attractive to high-achieving residents – and to promote positive “brain gain,” it must present special lifestyle attractions as well as career enhancement for international scientists.

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Which is partly why in early October, the UK Science & Innovation Network convened its Latam Future Cities Joint Research Workshop in São Paulo. Key themes were transportation, water resources, energy use and community cohesion.

Bringing together experts from the UK, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil at the headquarters of the São Paulo Research Foundation, the workshop was one of a series seeking answers to the challenges posed by the world’s super-cities of the future.

According to Prof. Celso Lafer, president of the hosting organisation FAPESP (São Paulo Research Foundation), ‘livability’ is a common challenge for all super-cities in the world’s fast-emerging economies.

“The metropolis is a complex place, although many of the challenges of these distinct cities have common origins. To find solutions, we must study the origins of these problems,” he said. “Researchers gathering at events like the Latam Future Cities Joint Research Workshop bring shared experience that can help us address and overcome the multiple challenges experienced by cities in our region.”

Competitiveness in retaining – and even attracting – top talent is emerging as a key issue for the future success of super-cities, the São Paulo conference was told by Robert Rogerson, deputy-director of the Institute for Future Cities at Scotland’s University of Strathclyde. As well as attracting global capital, cities need to be agreeable places to live, said Rogerson.

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That means the quality of life indices measuring attractiveness of cities have become increasingly important not just for scientists born and raised in cities such as São Paulo – but also for international scientists who may be contemplating a move to accept one of the visiting professorships or extended periods of research now being offered by prestige Brazilian universities.

São Paulo is very far from making it into the top 10 of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual ‘livability’ rankings, and its sister publication The Economist places São Paulo on an equal footing with Johannesburg, in the mid-70s on its global ranking of top cities.

Brazil does rank quite well on the 2013 United Nations ‘World Happiness Report,’ at number 24 – just below the UK but above France and Germany. Overall, Latin America and the Caribbean rank higher than the world average for happiness, and the regional index of happiness has risen steadily since 2005.

Real estate developers, headhunters and management consultants regularly produce “quality of life” rankings aimed at expatriate executives who may be looking at global cities. While their data can be heavily skewed to reflect the needs of those who make use of helicopters and bodyguards rather than public parks or corner stores, some of their data may be useful. Mercer, for instance, in 2012 ranked São Paulo in 115th position, below Rio at 112th, and just above Mexico City in 120th position.

Another key indicator  of the stress of living in São Paulo came from the World Health Organisation’s  World Mental Health Survey – which ranked São Paulo top of a list of 24 cities for urban induced stress symptoms. You can read a Science for Brazil article about this  by clicking here. ‘Sick Megacity’ is a not a sobriquet any  conurbation  in the  competitive  supercity stakes should welcome.

Availability of well-designed, high-quality public spaces for the common good may not increase the municipal tax take or benefit real estate developers – yet it remains a key indicator of urban wellness.

In this respect, Mexico City has much to teach São Paulo. The Latam Future Cities Joint Research workshop examined Mexico case studies showing that local engagement and participation by populations at neighbourhood level is perhaps the single greatest contributor to “livability.”

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In its 2011 report Knowledge, Networks and Nations, Britain’s Royal Society highlighted the growing importance of Brazil and specifically São Paulo (where half the nation’s science is produced) as an emerging global hub. In its 2010 World Science Report, UNESCO highlighted São Paulo’s growing significance as an R&D hub.

Notwithstanding these learnings, Brazil’s experience of participation via grass-roots democratic decisions to address pressing urban issues, remains quite limited. Decades of military rule resulted in a highly technocratic and centralised culture of public service. This, together with close relationships between urban developers, transport companies and planning officials, have all contributed to forge a chaotic urban landscape dominated by the needs of investment capital or state-controlled businesses, rather than people.

São Paulo remains an exciting and addictive  place to live and work – but excepting the lifestyle of the very rich, it is not a comfortable one. The science of making São Paulo more livable will also make Sao Paulo a better place to do science.

Portuguese readers can study a detailed article  about the  São Paulo workshop  by Brazilian journalist Diego Freire  by clicking here.

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