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policy report

A Socio-Ecological Approach to Multi-Dimensional Inequality

24/10/2023| By
Larissa Larissa Müller

São Paulo, a city characterised by rapid urbanisation, long-term governmental neglect, and a widening societal gap, faces a complex challenge. Communities within the city experience extreme multidimensional inequality, marked by socio-economic vulnerabilities which stem from their marginalisation from society. In addition, the degradation of critical ecological systems and mounting climate change pressures intensify the risks of environmental disasters, creating a situation of extreme double exposure. This means that vulnerable communities in São Paulo contend with not only socio-economic vulnerabilities but also face heightened environmental risks. While Brazil’s policies took significant steps in the 1980s with the creation of the Estatuto da Cidade (City Statute in 2001) to address social inequality, current solutions are still unable to adequately reduce the multitude of vulnerabilities that marginalised communities face. In order to ensure a high standard of liveability and foster an environment of resilience for São Paulo communities, a comprehensive analysis that exposes the factors that contribute to the creation of multi-dimensional inequality is required. Firstly, recognising that inequality is not just a matter of income but is intricately linked to spatial and environmental dimensions. This policy brief calls for a holistic approach that recognises the interconnectedness of socio-economic vulnerability and environmental risks. By adopting the principles of a socio-ecological approach and conducting a comprehensive socio-spatial analysis, São Paulo can chart a path towards a more equitable and sustainable future for all its residents.

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Policy briefs written by staff & students at the Department of Urbanism of the Faculty of Architecture & the Built Environment of the Delft University of Technology

Series Editors: Roberto Rocco, Caroline Newton, Marcin Dąbrowski and Gregory Bracken (SPS)

Rising pressures from climate change and exclusive planning in São Paulo demand a refocus toward re-establishing principles of ecological integrity, social inclusiveness, and political adaptivity.


São Paulo’s historic growth, driven by industrialisation and waves of migration in the mid-1900s, transformed it into one of the world’s fastest-growing metropolitan regions. However, as the city expanded, it grappled with a confluence of factors: a surge in population, economic crises, and a lack of effective urban planning. These challenges gave rise to a deeply ingrained spatial segregation that persists within the city’s urban landscape to this day.

São Paulo, often dubbed the “City of Walls,” bears the scars of historical inequalities (Caldeira, 2000). Despite recent shifts towards social justice and equality on Brazil’s political agenda, São Paulo remains a city rife with tensions and conflicts. The backdrop of these disparities is further complicated by the mounting threats posed by climate change. Vulnerable communities, already burdened by socio-economic challenges, now face an increase in severity and accounts of environmental disasters due to the rising pressures from climate change. In February 2023, São Paulo experienced extreme rainfall over a 24 hour period, which led to devastating landslides in the south-eastern areas of the Metropolitan Region and caused the destruction of many lives and communities (Agence France-Presse, 2023). Simultaneously, mismanagement of critical ecological systems exacerbates water scarcity issues and diminishes the city’s resilience against environmental risks. Various factors of the effects of climate change, increased human water consumption, and the mismanagement of water resources like the reservoirs led São Paulo to experience its worst reported water crisis in 2014 which further amplified the effects of a very unequal urban landscape as those in the urban periphery that lack adequate water infrastructure experienced awful living conditions and were often left without water supply for days (Flores & Böhm, 2015).

In today’s globalised world, with an increase in urbanisation and climate risks, cities need to transition to a more sustainable and adaptive future. However, in a society with blatant socio-economic inequality, marginalised communities become disproportionately affected and left behind. In response to this, this policy brief aims to outline a series of strategic actions and practices that should be woven into São Paulo’s future trajectory, simultaneously catering to the needs of marginalised communities while charting a course towards a more equitable, resilient, and environmentally responsible city.

Research Overview

This study sought to unravel the intricate web of socio-spatial factors contributing to inequality in São Paulo, shedding light on the challenges faced by marginalised communities. The research unfolds in three interconnected phases, each serving as a building block towards a comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand.

 The first phase is an analysis of socio-ecological systems that delves into the critical ecological systems within São Paulo. To examine these system’s current state and future risks precipitated by climate change pressures, exploitative practices, and unsustainable human activities, this phase analyses data and information across various scales through mapping. Therefore, the aim of this phase is to expose the spatial ramifications of various risks and vulnerabilities that will be discussed later on in this policy brief.

The second phase focuses on the socio-economic aspects of vulnerability within the city. It aims to discern the areas most impacted by unplanned urban growth and exclusionary practices, which have contributed to urban inequality and the formation of marginalised communities. This phase draws from extensive data on social and economic conditions in the metropolitan region, pinpointing the spatial distribution of São Paulo’s most socio-economically vulnerable communities.

The third phase explores Brazil’s multifaceted governance systems and institutions, comprising both formal and informal structures. This phase of the analysis aims to untangle the intricate nature of Brazil’s governance landscape and to recognise the barriers that hinder the formulation of policies that promote socio-environmental equality.

The culmination of these research phases, encompassing socio-spatial analysis, online survey questionnaires involving key stakeholders, and policy analysis, provides a comprehensive understanding of the factors that contribute to multi-dimensional inequality. These results serve as the foundation to the formulation of targeted recommendations, tailored to address the complex challenges faced by the communities of São Paulo.

Key findings

In São Paulo, the multifaceted challenges posed by climate change, including escalating environmental risks and disasters, have garnered attention. However, marginalised communities often find themselves excluded from policy development or grappling with the adverse consequences of these solutions. These communities are constantly confronted by mounting environmental threats and a legacy of socio-economic exclusion which has led to a deep-seated mistrust in governmental institutions. With each passing year, these barriers perpetuate their exposure to the escalating pressures of climate change and ecological exploitation, rendering them increasingly vulnerable (Geneletti & Kato-Huerta, 2022).

Socio-Spatial Analysis

To effectively tackle this issue, the analysis of this research adopts the socio-ecological systems approach to understand the intricate nature of socio-environmental vulnerability. This approach shifts away from São Paulo’s current linear practices and instead frames the connections be- between socio-political and ecological forces within the city as part of a complex and interdependent system (Virapongse et al., 2016). As a result, the socio-spatial analysis conducted in the Metropolitan Region of São Paulo unearths the stark reality of communities subjected to extreme exposure to both socio-economic and environmental vulnerabilities, recognising the intersection of climate change impacts and the burdens of social inequality. Consequently, it formulates actions designed to reinvigorate natural systems and foster socially inclusive, sustainable urban development. These actions delve to the heart of the matter, addressing the root causes of multidimensional inequality.Moreover, this research led to the development of a comprehensive socio-ecological assessment tool that shines a light on the crucial societal and environmental factors that underscore multidimensional inequality in São Paulo. Anchored in the pre-ceding research analysis, this assessment tool addresses critical aspects of various conditions, providing a robust framework for gauging the impacts of interventions and tracking progress toward the overarching goals of ecological integrity and social sustainability. This tool enhances the analytical capacity of stakeholders, policymakers, and communities, guiding their efforts toward a harmonious coexistence between human societies and the surrounding ecosystems. Therefore, creating a potent instrument for informed decision-making and a vital guide for shaping a more sustainable, inclusive, and resilient future.

 Strategic Recommendations

Building upon the findings of the research analysis, three overarching strategies emerged, each encapsulating a set of strategic recommendations.

Socio-Ecological Assessment Conditions

Water Quality: Assesses the status of nearby water bodies, considering their suitability for drinking and public use, alongside their proximity to sewage and water treatment facilities.

Flood Safety: Evaluates the capacity of nearby water bodies to effectively absorb excessive precipitation, thereby mitigating the risk of overflow and averting potential flood hazards.

Capacity of Soil: Signifies the soil’s capability to withstand external pressures, such as heavy rainfall and increased precipitation, to prevent occurrences of soil erosion.

Healthy Forest Biome: Provides insights into the size, population density, and biodiversity of any contiguous forested areas within the vicinity. It also takes into consideration historical deforestation activities stemming from human actions over the past two decades.

Access to Water: Outlines the community’s capacity to consistently access clean and sufficient water for personal use throughout the year.

Urbanisation: Refers to the concentration of human occupation within the area, considering both the population density and the extent of human habitation within the area.

Economic Security: Assesses the state of financial security and the capacity to maintain a satisfactory standard of living, irrespective of external pressures.

Social Safety: Provides insights into the community’s capacity to withstand societal pressures and stressors.

Ecological Backbone Strategy

The ecological backbone strategy argues for the restoration and preservation of the natural systems by advocating for the re-focus of Brazil’s plans towards nature-based solutions. Which contains the following recommendations:

Rehabilitate the Atlantic Forest: The restoration of this critical forest biome, ravaged by deforestation, urbanisation, and agricultural expansion, is paramount. It involves the expansion of native vegetation and the reinvigoration of biodiversity.

Create Wetland Landscapes: The construction of wetland ecosystems offers an effective solution to mitigate flood risks by storing and absorbing excess water, enhancing biodiversity, filtering pollutants, and bolstering groundwater levels (Thorslund et al., 2017).

 Develop Ecological Connectivity Zones: The establishment of natural networks, bridging fragmented ecological landscapes, enhances urban permeability, acts as a buffer between urban and natural areas, and aids in the restoration of lost biodiversity James D. Olson et al., 2013).

Create Riparian Vegetation: Extending riparian vegetation along riverbanks and water bodies in densely urbanised regions fosters ecosystem stability, reduces flood risks, and safeguards biodiversity.

Increase Permeable Surfaces: The integration of more porous surfaces into urban environments reduces flooding risks, enhances water absorption capacity, and elevates pollutant filtration.

Expand Water Networks: The establishment of new river systems or expansion of existing ones alleviates water scarcity and bolsters the resilience of river ecosystems.

 Equitable Access Strategy

The equitable access strategy revolves around addressing the challenges posed by rapid and unplanned urban growth that led to widespread socio-economic inequality by emphasising for an equitable and sustainable model of urban development, with the following recommendations:

Expand Public Transportation: Broadening access to urban services and promoting social inclusion for communities in outlying areas is imperative. Expanding public transportation networks is central to this effort, recognising transportation’s pivotal role in socio-economic inclusion (São Paulo; A Tale of Two Cities by UN-Habitat, 2010).

Reinforce Education: Addressing deficiencies in education, a key indicator of social instability and exclusion, involves strengthening educational facilities and programs in socio-economically vulnerable areas, including initiatives like the CEAP program.

Increase Access to Affordable Housing: Providing adequate housing and improving living conditions for communities involves collaborating with existing initiatives to formulate policies and financial support for vacant land development. This includes the establishment of community land trusts (CLTs) in non-regularised settlements, consolidating land management responsibilities.Develop Water and Sanitation Infrastructure: Enhancing infrastructure or upgrading existing systems in informal urban areas is crucial for public health, curbing water- borne diseases, improving water source quality, and facilitating access to clean water.

Employ a Compact City Model of Growth: The reconfiguration of São Paulo’s urban development, with a focus on compact cities, promotes a sustainable living model by enhancing multi-functionality in existing urban centers, reducing urban sprawl, and densifying in environmentally sound locations (OECD, 2012).

 Adaptive Governance Strategy

The adaptive governance strategy is grounded in developing a more accountable and adaptive process of development as a response to the barriers of implementation in Brazilian society. Which contains the following recommendations:

Support Capacity-Building Programs: Strengthening capacity-building programs for organisations and individuals equips them with the tools to actively participate in resilient development processes (Virji et al., 2012).

Develop Monitor, Report, and Evaluation Systems: The implementation of a flexible and continuous Monitor, Report, and Evaluation (MRE) system enables ongoing assessment and adaptation to changing conditions (European Environment Agency, 2015).

 Promote Partnerships: Fostering collaborations across diverse sectors of society addresses issues related to accountability, power imbalances, and the inclusion of essential groups in solution creation.

Promote Social Learning: Disseminating knowledge concerning the impacts of climate change and relevant solutions creates a shared knowledge foundation across all segments of society, empowering vulnerable communities to prepare for changing environments.

These strategic recommendations serve as a roadmap for the ensuing policy discussions and advocate for an inclusive, resilient, and ecologically responsible future for São Paulo’s communities.

Key take-aways

1. São Paulo faces multi-dimensional inequality stemming from historical urban growth, environmental pressures related to climate change, and exploitative practices of ecological systems. These factors intersect to create extreme socio-environmental vulnerabilities in marginalised communities.

 2. Current approaches aimed at addressing social and environmental challenges predominantly involve limited-scale interventions and lack a comprehensive strategic framework for fostering sustainability and inclusiveness in the Metropolitan Region.

 3. A socio-spatial approach to tackling socio-environmental vulnerability is essential for gaining a comprehensive understanding of the various contributing injustice factors communities face.

4. Policies and designs should take a socio-ecological systems approach to understanding complex relationships between socio-political and ecological forces on the development of the city.

5. Utilising strategic recommendations that prioritise the creation of an inclusive, resilient, and environmentally responsible future for São Paulo’s communities can effectively promote environmental justice and address the underlying sources of inequality.

Submitted by24 Oct 2023
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Frederique Belliard
Delft University of Technology
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