São Paulo: The World’s Largest Progressive City Government

On June 6, the São Paulo Mayor’s Office announced that it hired a group of homeless people for one year to conduct qualitative research on homeless issues and policies. This is just one example of a series of innovations from the first Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) mayoral administration there in over a decade.  As the PT party continues to serve as a punching bag in the media it is worth looking at how it governs its cities. This is important because, aside from the occasional  article about participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre (which was systematically dismantled ten years ago)  foreign reporting on cities tends to focus on  corruption fetish and violence porn. Outside of the great city of exception, Rio de Janeiro, where most reporting is disproportionately focused, there are scores of places around the Brazil where left city governments have successfully deepened democracy, improved transparency, developed new social technologies and reduced inequality.  Most of the best cases have been run by the PT administrations, based on a  model of urban governance developed from the bottom up during the transition from dictatorship to democracy. In this article I will use an American concept, the Progressive City model of urban governance, as an analytical starting point. This is meant for the sake of comparison, not to imply that it influenced the Brazilian model.

Urban Planning professor Pierre Clavel coined the term “progressive city model  in the 1980s to describe a group of mayoral administrations in cities like Burlington, Oakland, Cleveland, Boston and Chicago where aging social movement and civil rights activists garnered enough political power to win elections.  In Activists in City Hall  he defines a progressive city government as one that successfully employs a two-pronged strategy of redistributive programs and popular participation.  A progressive city, Clavel says, has a strong social base of neighborhood, housing and human rights activists and labor unions. It has an alternative vision of the city based on equitable development spread throughout the neighborhoods as opposed to the common, growth coalition strategy of focusing investments primarily in downtown business districts. It is marked by administrative innovation and reforms that are undertaken through popular participation. According to Clavel, one of the highlights of participation in progressive city governance was the 1984 Chicago Works Master Development Plan, created collectively with the population through hundreds of neighborhood meetings spread throughout the city. This plan reaffirmed the city government’s redistributive functions against the business consensus that the main issue should be growth. At the time Chicago had around 3 million people and it was the largest participatory development plan ever produced (pp 128). As the force of the real estate industry grew, progressives lost power in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the progressive city model faded from view only starting to return recently in cities like Boston, Minneapolis and Seattle. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the equator the neo-fascist dictatorship came to an end and Brazilian social movement and labor activists developed their own, bottoms up model for city governance based on similar objectives, with deeper levels of popular participation.

PT and progressive city governance

During the late 1980s social movements and labor unions staged a series of street protests across the country to push for participatory provisions in the new constitution.  A national coalition of urban social movements, unions, professional and academic organizations formed to draft and successfully petition to insert articles 182 and 183 in the 1988 Constitution. These two articles declare that all landless citizens have the right to squat and build on vacant land, that the social use of property overrides the profit motive enabling governments to appropriate empty buildings and convert them to social housing, and that all towns of over 20,000 are required to produce master development plans as the primary tool for guaranteeing social development.  As the articles were approved, the coalition named itself the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). The FNRU spent the next 12 years using a joint strategy of legal action and public protests to pressure for ratification of the 2001 Estatuto da Cidade, or Statute of the City, which clearly defines and regulates articles 182 and 183.

The Statute of the Cities is a landmark document in the world struggle for the right to the city. Based on positive experiences in cities like Porto Alegre under mayor Olivio Dutra and São Paulo under Luiza Erundina it mandates use of democracy deepening mechanisms like voluntary councils, social interest zoning and participatory budgeting to guarantee citizens’ control over various aspects of public policy. It opens cities’ annual budgets to public scrutiny and approval, and guarantees that master plans happen at least every decade with full citizens’ participation.   Unfortunately, although over 1000 local governments have facilitated master plans, most have also been been unable or unwilling to implement them.   Most local governments either don’t have the technical capacity, ignore the constitutional guidelines outright or try to develop loopholes to minimize participation as much as possible in favor of top-down real-estate development projects. Rio de Janeiro is the largest example of a local government that has had serious problems producing an implementing a plan that meets constitutional guidelines, and there are hundreds of others.  On the other hand there are scores of  cases of towns and cities of all sizes across the country where citizen participation in public policies and budgeting has reached levels never before achieved in the so-called “progressive city” governments in the US. Notable cities that have had progressive governments include Recife, Belém, Porto Alegre, and Belo Horizonte. The vast majority of these progressive local governments have been governed by PT mayors although in recent years, their effectiveness has been hampered by technocratic president Dilma Rouseff’s bypassing  participatory processes while implementing huge, top-down urban development projects like PAC and Minha Casa Minha Vida

This brings us back to São Paulo.  Mayor Fernando Haddad was Lula’s Education Minister. He took office at the beginning of 2013 and immediately coordinated the largest participatory development plan in World history  with ample,  voluntary participation from thousands of citizens.  During the deliberations,  city residents introduced 117 amendments  42 of which were approved as part of the June, 2014 final plan.  Using the plan as a guideline, his government has gone on to create a series of innovative policies and spaces for public participation, including:

1) 32 Democratic, voluntary citizens’ councils that control public policies and budget lines with highlights including an immigrants’ council that actively encourages participation of undocumented workers and a homeless council that actively seeks out street dwellers;

2) Appropriation of of 41 vacant, tax scofflaw buildings in the city center for adaptation as housing for homeless families with guaranteed ownership after ten years of residency.

3) Inclusion of gay victims of violence, trans homeless shelter residents and indigenous people as priority for social housing ownership, along with the elderly poor.

4) Activities to reduce automobile dependance such as zoning changes, bike lane construction and construction of new express bus corridors.

5) A program called “with open arms” for crack addicts in the downtown area. Developed through participation of the users themselves, the program provides jobs, food, housing and psychological assistance. To date, 60% of the participants have stopped using crack.

As could be imagined with São Paulo’s large white, conservative middle class population, these measures have left Haddad widely hated. He recently polled at 20% and it is questionable at this moment weather he will be reelected. From the left, he’s been criticized for refusing dialogue with the Movimento Passe Livre, or free pass movement, for letting a new 20 cent bus fare increase push through and for moving too slowly on public housing construction.

São Paulo, which produces 11% of the National GDP, is a political war zone where former military death squad leaders are regularly elected to public office. It may be hard for Haddad to be re-elected but for now he is in charge of the largest progressive mayoral administration in history, governing a population of 11.8 million in the city proper. As left mayors rise to power in smaller cities around the world like New York and Barcelona, the time is right for sharing knowledge between them. Ethnically diverse, cosmopolitan São Paulo would be a good place for these mayors to look to for inspiration.

By Brian Mier

Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.