How São Paulo’s youth is occupying public spaces and reinventing urban dynamics
São Paulo has harboured extreme social disparity since the inception of its urban development process in the early twentieth century. The interest of the wealthy has always outweighed more democratic plans, making social inequality one of the city’s biggest characteristics. Today, urban mobility, housing, healthcare and public spaces have improved significantly and São Paulo is a very different city to what it was just a decade ago. We can thank a socially engaged and resistant youth for spearheading changes in urban dynamics that have transformed local mindsets, behaviours and how people experience the city.
The ’70s and ’80s saw the rise of politically participative social movement groups that represented the lower working classes that opposed the dictatorship in place at the time. Their individual objectives varied from lobbying for better infrastructure to more overarching themes such as women’s rights, but they were all understood as proactive initiatives opposing an autocratic government unable to attend to real social needs. The rise of these groups sparked the beginning of a more participative political sphere in Brazil, giving citizens a voice in the political arena.
Although space for this voice increased consistently, the decades that followed also saw a growth in social inequality and urban violence, which led to an increase in social prejudice and intolerance, making the city an ever more segregated space. People built higher walls – figuratively and literally – and the wealthy adopted private surveillance technology and security (cameras, bodyguards, bullet-proof car windows), which stood also as a symbol of status and lifestyle. With this, public urban spaces were abandoned, seen as areas of risk and social tension.
What’s happening today
Traditionally in São Paulo, the wealthy lived in more central areas, while its fringes housed the poor. Although in the city’s past they crossed paths in transit – the rich drove and the poor took public transport – they still occupied segregated public spheres. Today, a new generation of young adults born in the outskirts – raised during the country’s economic boom and in a digital era when more democratic social policies are shaping people’s lives – have become important agents in spearheading change in the city’s urban dynamics.
They do not play into the lifestyles of the past and are actively occupying public spaces, raising awareness to peripheral cultures and behaviours. This is a generation with greater access to information and that questions the status quo. For this socially engaged youth there are no territorial boundaries. They claim their rights as citizens and make public spaces their leisure areas, where they gather to make art, play sport and music. This may seem common to city dwellers from 'developed' countries, but not so long ago São Paulo was nowhere near as vibrantly occupied as it is today.
These peripheral lifestyles have gained traction in central areas through their activities and cultural artefacts: graffiti, skateboarding, parkour and street parties, to name a few. It took a while for these behaviours to become an acceptable part of the inner city’s social fabric, but now they are an important aspect of São Paulo urban lifestyle and its public arenas, where there’s a greater mix of social classes and cultures today. Skate-boarders cruise the ramps at Praça Roosevelt (a square in the old city centre) where just three years ago this activity was prohibited; street dwellers brush shoulders with high-brow artists and art-collectors when the soup kitchens open near a gallery neighbouring Patio do Colégio, in Centro; dancers meet to practice choreographies and vogue on the pavements of Avenida Paulista, one of the city’s postcard sites, and in the corridors of the multipurpose cultural venue Centro Cultural São Paulo – places that are reachable by public transport and are iconic to the city fabric.
This democratisation of space is changing the way of life in the city, contributing to a greater sense of proximity and equality between the social strata. While a large part of the upper and high-middle classes still dwell in fortified homes, they are now enticed to spend time in urban spaces. This socially engaged and creative youth has spearheaded change in urban dynamics because they have no expectation that politicians will open these paths for them and their (peaceful) resistance has slowly triggered new policies and structures that embrace and further enable these activities and the occupation of public arenas instead of marginalising them, which is what happened in the past.
Graffiti has been interpreted in many cities as a gateway into criminally marginal activity. Its pervasiveness in São Paulo has led companies and even City Hall to sponsor this bright and visual social commentary in high circulation areas where previously it would have been erased. In partnership with the local government 200 street artists painted the largest graffiti mural in Latin America – 5.4 kilometers in length – along 23 de Maio avenue, São Paulo’s main north-south thoroughfare. The documentary Grey City discusses graffiti’s transition from being understood as criminal intervention to acclaimed artwork. Nowadays the graffiti aesthetic is being embraced by mass culture and that has piqued the attention of local brands like Chilli Beans, which launched a recent collection of accessories, sunglasses and watches designed by street artists.
Greater exposure to street cultures like graffiti has raised awareness to how rich in culture the urban setting is and some of the high circulation avenues are blocking off traffic over the weekends so that these spaces become areas of leisure, with live music, parties, performance art, and this has attracted families and people from all layers of society. More than just free entertainment, these happenings reflect and raise the awareness of a wide range of different urban and cultural means of expression, which makes diverse local cultures more acceptable than they were in the past.
This new way of living in the city has also inspired changes in education. Groups like Cidade Escola, set on improving and updating education methodologies and experiences have developed programmes that engage members of different communities and neighbourhoods (central and peripheral) with each other, with different government-run schools as well as stimulating the use of public spaces as learning platforms.
The rise of this socially engaged youth and their reclaiming of urban spaces has become a mark of this generation in Brazil and is the legacy of the social movements of the 70’s and 80’s. Thanks to all these types of activities, members of lower income groups are less invisible in the city and their cultural expressions are understood as being more than carnival and mainstream popular Brazilian music. These agents of change are helping shape new ways of living in South America’s largest city and challenging society to rethink and adjust its values to the times we are living in. There is hope that everyday more people will embrace these changes, pique brands’ interests and help this culture to thrive.
This post is part of Fortnightly Youth Insights (FYI), a Lens series exploring emerging trends and currents in global youth culture
- Article by Ana Gabriela Fachin