Edge City:
Driving the Periphery
of Sao-Paulo

Justin McGuirk

This is the account of a 14-hour drive around the perimeter of the largest city in South America.

Exploring the edge condition of São Paulo, Justin McGuirk investigates the different forms of dwelling available to its would-be citizens, and meets some of the people carving a life for themselves on the verge of this unforgiving metropolis. Driving anti-clockwise, we take a journey backwards in time, moving from cardboard favelas and hastily built tower blocks, back to modernist social housing and the factory towns built early in the last century. Is this a tale, as the Brazilian flag attests, of “Order and Progress”? Are the citizens of the periphery better off looking after themselves than in the hands of developers and the paternalistic state? Part road trip and part urban critique, this drive-by portrait makes the case that the city is best understood not by its centre but by its edge.


Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator based in London. He is the director of Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow. He has been the design critic of The Guardian, the editor of Icon magazine and the design consultant to Domus. In 2012 he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture for an exhibition he curated with Urban Think Tank. His book, Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture will be published by Verso in spring 2014.

Edge City: Driving the Periphery of Sao Paulo

São Paulo, the largest city in South America, is an arsenal of statistics for the shock-and-awe urbanist. You might read that São Paulo is a megacity of 19 million people, and that it has grown 8,000 per cent since 1900. Does that help us understand the city? Does it reveal some essential characteristic? In a limited sense, yes, but it also reinforces what we already know. Speed has always been this city’s raison d’être. In Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote of his time there in 1935: “The town is developing so fast that it is impossible to obtain a map of it.” In the middle of the 20th century, when the city was the engine of the “Brazilian Miracle”, a popular slogan proclaimed “São Paulo must not stop” — it was “the unstoppable city”.

Today, despite the staggering statistics, São Paulo is slowing down. The population is not growing anywhere near as fast as it used to, but all of that growth is happening in one zone: the periphery. São Paulo’s sprawling fringes reveal a city that is still very much in the making, still somehow raw. It is a place where the sacrifices that people make for access to the city are written into the landscape, into the fabric of their homes. Cities that grow this fast grow in an unconsolidated way, and so while the periphery is full of pathos it is also full of potential.

This is the record of a drive around the periphery of São Paulo. In London Orbital, Iain Sinclair spent months walking the M25, the city’s ring road, in an attempt to understand and embrace the sprawl. I have no such inclinations, and not just because the distances involved are even more perverse. São Paulo is not a city for walking, it’s a city of cars — six million of them. In that spirit, this is emphatically a drive, and as such it is an unapologetically blurred snapshot of a city taken from a moving vehicle, with occasional stops here and there to stretch our legs. But while I doff my cap to Sinclair, in one respect he had it easier: São Paulo has no M25. There are plans for a ring road, the Rodoanel Mario Covas, a 170km-long four-lane motorway. Indeed, one section of it opened in 2002, but the project stalled. Instead we’ll be patching together our own orbital, a spaghetti of roads named Ayrton Senna and Presidente Dutra, Nordestino and Imigrantes — some of these names contain clues as to how this city grew so corpulent.

Our route will take us anti-clockwise around the city, which offers the irresistible conceit that this is a journey backwards in time. In telling the story of social and informal housing in São Paulo, we will start with the conditions that face its most recent arrivals, and work back through other forms of housing that previous decades have offered. As we work backwards through those iterations, a fairly clear picture will emerge of the different strategies the government has taken to house São Paulo’s ever-growing population — and I include favelas in that “strategy”. Our trajectory will cut roughly from the present day back to a paragon of modernist social housing, and, even further, to a first world war-era workers village, all the way back to one of the missionary settlements that first purported to bring civilisation — or at least the word of God — to this part of Brazil in the 16th century. But this is not just a survey of housing, it is a portrait of a city that is best understood by its edge condition.