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USC Price students apply urban planning lessons in Brazil

Grad students explore housing provisions in São Paulo

São Paulo, Brazil
USC Price master's students take part in the Brazil International Lab, led by Professor Richard Green, in São Paulo. (USC Photo/Ginger Li)

A class of graduate students from the USC Price School of Public Policy traveled to São Paulo in January to explore the housing provisions and make recommendations based on experiences of other major metropolitan areas as part of the 2014 Brazil International Lab.

The trip was an outgrowth of the memorandum of understanding signed by USC Price and the State of São Paulo last February to promote joint research and educational opportunities between the two institutions.

Professor Richard Green led the group of 25 Master of Planning, Public Policy and Public Administration students for a nine-day trip of intensive educational activities, including workshops and field trips to places such as the Port of Santos, housing development projects and informal settlements.

“The students took it very seriously,” said Green, who directs the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. “They asked great questions, were open-minded in learning from our hosts and learning from each other. It made it a lot of fun. We got an extremely positive response from São Paulo’s top housing and infrastructure policymakers.”

The host and client for the visit was Empresa Paulista de Planejamento Metropolitano (EMPLASA), the metropolitan planning agency representing the State of São Paulo. EMPLASA faces a formidable challenge to provide affordable housing arrangements for São Paul’s residents, with close to one-third estimated to live in favelas, or squatter settlements.

New surroundings

After arriving in São Paulo and having some time to take in their new surroundings, the students spent four days listening to presentations, going on site visits and touring the city, including the new housing developments at Serra do Mar and Jardim Pantanal. Prior to the trip, the class had broken into groups of five and worked for three weeks on reports analyzing various aspects of land use in five areas — New York, Chicago, Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul — and applying them to São Paulo.

On the fifth day of the trip, after having experienced São Paulo firsthand, the students overhauled the work they had done previously.

“We came to realize that some of the financing that worked in the U.S. wouldn’t work in Brazil,” said Nicholas Busalacchi, a second-year Master of Planning student.

In particular, Busalacchi explained that Brazil’s large, multilayered government and their capital markets, where it’s difficult to access to private capital, posed new challenges.

“Local government can’t bond, and that makes it difficult to run certain financing strategies on a local level to get these projects off the ground,” he noted.

On the sixth day, the groups each made 30-minute oral presentations to EMPLASA staff, including 10 minutes of questions and answers. The students addressed municipal structure, bulk requirements, infrastructure finance, formalizing housing and access to employment. One example of a recommendation made that could work in Brazil was that creating green space and parks in urban environments often raises property values — and therefore taxes — to a level more worthwhile than developing the land, as well as providing positive social benefits.

“Seeing what these very dedicated practitioners are doing to address one of the largest housing and infrastructure challenges showed me that there is no challenge that’s too large to take on,” Busalacchi said. “It left me with the impression that dedicated people really can make a difference in international development — and they were making a difference.”

Lessons learned

Diana Meirelles da Motta, projects director at EMPLASA, said lessons learned from the work done by the USC Price students will be used in the São Paulo Housing Plan for the metropolitan areas and the Plan of Action for the Paulista Macrometropolis, which are currently being formulated by EMPLASA.

“To have USC Price students and Professor Richard Green in São Paulo was a privilege and opportunity for São Paulo and Brazil,” Motta said. “This shows the importance of technical cooperation among these institutions and the commitment for the improvement of public policies. The presentations were exceptional, revealing the knowledge and competence of the students. In a short time, they were able to carry out comparative analysis of public policies on housing, transportation, social development and infrastructure issues.”

USC Price has held separate annual international lab courses for Brazil and China since 2007. Brazil — which boasts the seventh-largest economy globally, according to the International Monetary Fund — is home to more than 500 Trojan alumni. Last year, USC created its eighth international office in São Paulo.

“In my job as an ambassador for USC in Brazil, to host a group such as the one led by Professor Green is a great opportunity to make USC better known and makes the job so much easier,” said Paulo Rodrigues, director of the USC Brazil office. “In every field trip, meetings with Brazilian officials and scholars, students were highly praised for the knowledge displayed, their engagement and interest.”

For many in the class of 25, the trip was a life-changing experience that introduced them to career possibilities they hadn’t previously considered.

“The international lab was truly an incredible experience, and it was a real privilege to be able to participate in it,” said Brian Maekawa, a second-year Master of Planning student. “It was a great chance to apply the skills I had learned in the classroom and gain practical experience in the field of consulting.”

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USC Price students apply urban planning lessons in Brazil

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