05 Mar 2019 Story Cities and lifestyles

Neighbourhood power: addressing environmental challenges in São Paulo

São Paulo is a sprawling metropolis, known for its finance, business and arts. This reputation can be deceptive for people from rural areas as they seek job opportunities and more in the bright lights. The urban population stands at around 12 million, and growth shows no sign of slowing down.

Such growth, more organic than planned, brings its own set of challenges. Take the neighbourhood of Jardim Helian, in the east of the city, which expanded as people came to find work in construction, commerce and as housekeepers for the middle and upper classes.

The area, built on the watershed of the Tone Stream, is fairly typical of informal settlements, with many self-built and often precarious homes. The population of around 14,000 people is made up of low- and lower middle-income families. The unplanned nature of the settlement has inevitably led to problems.

“One of the issues is when houses invade the river’s territory, leading to forced channelling [which causes floods during the rainy season],” says local resident Mohammed, as he stands outside a “bridge house”, under which the river flows. “Another is that sewage is thrown directly into the creek.”

The neighbourhood also faces challenges related to solid waste disposal, with garbage often collecting on the street or ending up in the river, and transportation, particularly with access to public transit.


Mohammed, one of the community leaders, was determined to educate himself on solutions to the issues faced by his neighbourhood. He completed classes in the Federal University of São Paulo. His enthusiasm and passion eventually led to further support through a joint project of the Sustainable Cities Programme and UN Environment, with the Cities Institute, at the Federal University of São Paulo.

The project aims to pilot innovations through a “neighbourhood [community] approach” that could eventually be scaled up at city and even national levels. Innovation, integration and replication are key words in the approach, where a community addresses multiple environmental issues at a community scale. It capitalizes on inhabitants’ perceptions of these problems, and then replicates the solutions through city planning. The participation of local residents ensures challenges can be identified and solved alongside technical experts within and outside the local governments.

In the case of Jardim Helian, the Sustainable Cities Programme and the Federal University of São Paulo co-created with the residents a sophisticated indicator framework that helped the community better articulate its problems to the local government. Using locally generated data, researchers from the project and residents analysed issues of waste management, biodiversity conservation, and vulnerability of their homes to flooding.

“The idea of the project was, based on indicators, to make a survey, establish priorities and, from these priorities, to think about projects that could help to improve the environmental quality of the region,” says Clara Meyer, Indicators Coordinator, Sustainable Cities Programme.

At the end of the project, residents were able to present a robust integrated physical and financial plan to the local government and potential external donors. The plan highlighted community concerns and linked them with local government priorities while keeping the aspirations within a reasonable budget. It covered a broad range of issues that looked at the community from a systems perspective—from the installation of waste-collection points to the recovery of bulky items and construction rubble, to urban forestry to maintain green areas, and the installation of bus stops and the creation of proper schedules.

It also considered creating a cooperative of waste pickers to generate income from recycling, and an environment education centre to promote more sustainable lifestyles. And, because residents helped design the plan, it is targeted and appropriate, as opposed to solutions imposed from outside.

“This possibility to move amongst the residents and listen to them was fundamental,” says Tiago Martins, researcher at the Cities Institute. “This is one of the most important things in the project’s result.”

The Sustainable Cities Programme is now supporting the community to discuss the plan with the local government, banks and other financial institutions to mobilize resources and implement the physical and financial plan. If this pilot is successful, and indications so far suggest it will be, the next step is to roll out the approach to cities facing similar problems, in Brazil and elsewhere. This will be essential, given the issues outlined in the International Resource Panel’s 2018 research,The Weight of Cities: Resource Requirements of Future Urbanization.


With the portion of the population living in cities set to rise from 54 per cent in 2015 to 66 per cent in 2050, there will likely be another 2.4 billion urban dwellers worldwide. The bulk of urban growth will happen across the global South, in countries such as China, India and Nigeria. Around US$90 trillion will be invested in urban infrastructure through 2050.

Accelerating urban productivity by restructuring neighbourhoods, investing in city-wide transit systems, building inclusive renewable energy grids and energy-efficient buildings, reducing waste to zero and resource sharing will depend on the emergence of appropriate modes of urban governance. As Jardim Helian is showing, the neighbourhood approach can help shape and improve this urban governance.

“The challenge that humankind faces in this century is to try to adapt to urban growth and solve the socio-environmental challenges it presents,” says Zysman Neiman, Management Committee Coordinator, Cities Institute. “It is time to solve these problems.”



Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly, 4 to 15 March 2019, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.