Dr. Andreza de Souza Santos: Reflections on migration, urbanisation, and informal settlements

A favela in Rio de Janeiro  (Photo by Sergio Moraes/Reuters).

A favela in Rio de Janeiro (Photo by Sergio Moraes/Reuters).

Dr. Andreza de Souza Santos, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS), sat down with Luciano Mateo Rodriguez Carrington, the Latin America Coordinator for the Oxford Urbanists. She describes her research on urbanisation in Brazil, the mechanisms of migration to and from city centres, and the importance of collaboration for addressing related challenges. (This interview transcript has been edited for clarity.) 


Lea este artículo en español en LA Network. 

This article also appears in Spanish on LA Network

Can you tell me about your research and how it relates to migration and urbanisation?

I look at issues surrounding the restoration of city centres in Brazil, and in particular, why they need to be restored or renovated. This has a lot to do with migration. In São Paolo and many other capitals, middle and upper-middle class residents have increasingly looked for houses in the periphery of cities, where it tends to be safer.

So safety issues, not gentrification, have driven migration of middle classes to the periphery?

Yes. Safety, exclusivity, and peoples’ desires for privacy all contributed. But even though middle and upper-class residents have abandoned city centres, central areas haven’t become empty. Poorer residents have migrated inwards. This has created a wide-spread housing phenomenon that Brazilians call “cortiços,” whereby several families live in the same housing unit.

Municipal governments have responded by restoring central areas – cultural and artistic enclaves in particular - to make them more attractive to upper classes and tourists. So, in a sense, one can understand the return of middle and upper classes to city centres as the product of somewhat planned gentrification. My research looks at the national relevance of these patterns, since the restoration of historical city centres happens in many Brazilian cities. I explore the aims of these initiatives, as well as their associated problems and costs.

Do you think that challenging stigmas and preconceptions about ‘migrants’ and ‘informal settlements’ can inform policymaking?

Absolutely. “Informal” and “formal” settlers are very connected. For example, the city of Ouro Preto has a well-preserved city centre that generates a lot of tourism. But it very much depends on the informal city that is connected to it. The “formal” city needs the “informal” city to house the people that run it and its heritage site. One survives off of the other.

The issue of rural-to-urban migration is often completely unmanaged. Cities fail to prepare policies and strategies. But this is no longer acceptable. Now more than ever, cities need plans for improving transportation, social inclusion, job opportunities, and housing situations

In Brazil, do different stakeholders hold different opinions regarding how to address informal settlements?

There are both conflicting agendas and similar interests at play. For example, residents have an interest in gaining legal ownership over their house (except when they are renting, in which case gaining ownership might mean incurring additional costs). This would require cooperating with the state. However, some residents fear that, any time the state comes in, it might expel them. To move forward, more and more grassroots movements are mapping informal areas and conducting surveys with inhabitants, so that they can demonstrate to government authorities how many people live in these neighbourhoods. They hope this will enable them to demand that the government provide streetlights, water, sewage, and other necessities.

In 2017, over 60 per cent of the world's refugees were living in urban areas, and climate change is likely to accelerate rural-to-urban migration. How do you think cities can best prepare for this?

The issue of rural-to-urban migration is often completely unmanaged. Cities fail to prepare policies and strategies. But this is no longer acceptable. Now more than ever, cities need plans for improving transportation, social inclusion, job opportunities, and housing situations. This will be crucial for informal settlements, such as favelas in the case of Brazil, since these spaces tend to absorb new migrants. But governments should also design land regulations and policies that will help slow mass migration to cities.

What do you believe are the global, overarching challenges facing informal settlements and the creation of policies to address them?

There is a need to understand how migration patterns shape informal settlements, as well as how infrastructure can help manage these processes. One of the greatest challenges will be the management of formalisation. In any case, it will be crucial to analyse and act according to specific contexts, since the composition of local economies helps determine patterns of in-migration.

In my own experiences, I have witnessed the usefulness of networks in dealing with issues of migration, urbanisation, and informal settlements. Collaboration between communities, academics, and different levels of government can greatly enhance policy outcomes. In addition, such cooperation can help break down the stigmas governments sometimes hold about informal settlements, while strengthening communities’ trust in government. Collaboration is indispensable for urban planning in Brazil and many other parts of the world.

Dr. de Souza Santos is a Post-doctoral Research Associate for the Urban Transformations portfolio. Her research interests include participatory politics, modernity, social memory, heritage, housing, and infrastructure. She has lived, studied and worked in Brazil, South Africa and India, interacting with universities, international organizations, municipal governments, and grassroots associations along the way. She obtained her PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of St Andrews, an MA in Social Sciences at the University of Freiburg, University of KwaZulu Natal and Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a BA in Political Science at the University of Brasilia.