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Finding a Sense of Place: U-M Students and Brazilians Working Together

By Fernanda Pires

Community planning. Credit: Bruno Kelly

SÃO PAULO—Residents and volunteers are busy working overtime cleaning the debris caused by a recent storm that destroyed dozens of homes and the association headquarters of Ocupacão Anchieta, a four-year-old land occupation in Brazil once used as an illegal dumping site.

As soon as they finish cleaning the area, a construction crew will start building a cultural shed, a place for learning for 1,000 kids. This new space will touch the lives of more than 650 families who live below the poverty line. They are victims of a common social problem in most developing countries: unchecked urbanization.

The occupied property comprises 220,000 square meters of land—136,000 of which were Primary Atlantic Forest. Pushed to the periphery, its inhabitants live in shacks built from scavenged materials. Lack of sustainable infrastructure and deforestation polluted water and soil.

Families securing shelter by deforesting peri-urban zones corresponds to most population growth in cities like São Paulo. These young land occupations do not receive much research and policy attention, compared with urbanized favelas. Informal dwellers, like Elizabeth da Silva, suffer the human costs of neglecting early public intervention.


“Our children live in the streets, without having a place for leisure, to play or to meet their friends,” said da Silva, who moved to the community with her 12-year-old son and husband four years ago when it was created.

The culture shed will offer daily educational, leisure and cultural programming. It’s a safe space where youth, women and unemployed residents will engage, interact and have companionship throughout activities.

“We have to prioritize our kids,” da Silva said. “They need a space for themselves and for their activities so they stay away from drugs and prostitution. If children have knowledge, they have a higher chance to become a better adult.”

As more residents claim space, the occupied development highlights the extreme clash between environmental protections and the right to housing of informal settlers. Poverty, precarious housing and substandard infrastructure threaten public health and degrade natural resources.

As such, informal dwellers and landowners welcome the partnership with the University of Michigan to address conflicts between the right to dignified housing and a healthy environment, led by faculty and students from U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

Ana Paula Pimentel Walker, a native Brazilian and assistant professor of urban and regional planning, and María Arquero de Alarcón, associate professor of architecture and urban planning, first visited the community in October 2016. Since then, they have returned with multidisciplinary teams to meet residents and the larger network of partners, and to collect water and soil samples. They’ve used a drone for air mapping and to aid an infrastructure improvement framework.

The U-M team collaborated with partners from Instituto Anchieta Grajaú, a local nonprofit organization and owner of the property; the dwellers’ association; and an extended network of collaborators. They developed and executed comprehensive household surveys, held meetings with residents and identified community necessities and goals.

Population Demographics

Housing Demographics

“The traction our team has been able to achieve is impressive and inspiring,” said Laura Devine, a  U-M master of architecture student who spent two months in São Paulo last summer. “Helping to implement our designs to have a real, lasting impact in the community has been a challenging but rewarding experience.”

Devine says the project has kept her engaged through multiple semesters because it will have tangible benefits.

“The dedication of the team and Brazilian partners shows me that we can achieve real impacts within communities with patience and persistence,” she said.

“This capstone is important for our U.S. students and for the graduates who came from different parts of the planet because they are learning how private property and housing rights work in a different country and how communities acquire land and secure shelter,” Pimentel Walker said. “They are also learning about environmental justice consequences of unplanned neighborhoods, and are being able to compare it with the similarities and differences from their countries.”


Based on the community requests, U-M students developed a project that includes:

  • Creation of a cultural hub with environmental programming and a playground to serve about 1,000 children who live in the occupation.
  • Alternate housing prototypes and decentralized, communal sewage infrastructure. The goal is to co-develop this technology with local partners that have the potential to catalyze both external funds and a micro-savings plan among residents to impact 650 families.
  • Small, educational green infrastructure prototypes to clean the water and reforest the creek and springs areas. Creek restoration will be measured by the level of trees and vegetation planted; water and soil testing before and after restoration.
  • A waste management plan: Implementation of educational programming and recycling plan for profit has the potential to impact all families that will benefit from a cleaner environment and those that will earn money by selling the recyclables.
  • A communication plan to collect and disseminate strategies for environmental stewardship in younger occupations.

Charisma Thapa says this project was a perfect fit for her. Born and raised in west Michigan, but with family originally from Nepal, she concentrated her studies in global and comparative planning.

“My favorite part of the trip was meeting and engaging with the residents and learning their needs,” she said. “I also enjoyed working with architecture students, which was a first-time experience for me. I understand a bit more about their thinking and approach. It was such a good learning experience.”

According to the students, 19 percent of households visited use septic tanks and the rest of the site discharges human waste directly into water bodies. The waste management system is deficient, with dumpsters over capacity on a daily basis, litter in the roads, trash in the water, waste burned in open spaces and residents’ yards, and very rudimentary recycling.

Water pollution is a major risk for the area’s seasonal creek and natural springs. It is aggravated by poor infrastructure and the residents’ limited capacity to properly discharge wastewater and solid waste. Most of them have a toilet inside their home, but sewage systems are inconsistent.

Direct observation surveys


The students had to think globally, understand the cultural settings, listen carefully to their clients and local partners, and find a way to balance solutions with the customers’ wishes, according to Arquero de Alarcón.

“We bring technical expertise but we need to learn from the way they develop projects in that specific country,” she said. “It was a big challenge for our students, but really rewarding.”

Three out of the five recommendations received funding from a Ford Community Challenge Award (culture shed) and Dow Sustainability Award (housing prototypes). Both grants, which total $65,000, will also fund the decentralized sewage and a communications plan.

“With these combined strategies, we want to work with community members to increase resiliency, inspire other occupations, benefit the watershed and reflect on the relevance of instigating more sustainable urban practices in the Global South,”  Pimentel Walker said.

U-M graduate student Antonela Sallaku says her experience in Brazil was more than she could have imagined.

“I learned about the culture, the people, their lives and how different to ours they may be,” she said. “I experienced one-to-one connections with people in search for solutions to their problems. The community had been through many troubles in the hope that they finally gain tenure where they had settled to live years ago. I hope they do.”

Read more and view photos on Global Michigan.