Urban Studies São Paulo
Raquel Rolnik, Adriana Marín-Toro, Fernanda Accioly Moreira, Marina Kohler Harkot
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0035


With over twenty million inhabitants, the São Paulo metropolitan region covers 900 square kilometers of urbanized area through thirty-nine municipalities, but its reach goes far beyond its boundaries. Its tentacles are present in distant locations in Brazil, in the continent, and in the whole world. São Paulo’s size and vastness comprise heterogeneous territories and social groups. It is a city connected to both real and virtual worlds of trade; it is an economic power, as well as a cradle for social movements and for Brazilian political leadership. But it is also a divided city crimped by both visible and invisible walls that rip its social fabric into ghettos, fortresses, and slums and besiege its public spaces. To be in the city is to be permanently exposed to its contradictory image of greatness, opulence, and poverty, with carts and armored SUVs, mansions and shacks, shopping malls and street vendors, and fancy food trucks and traditional popcorn sellers. At first glance, São Paulo looks like a fragmented city that does not seem to have originated from any kind of order. The city is in fact a child of chaos, of the wildest and ungoverned competition among individual projects aiming for social rise or simply survival, a product of the dreams of many generations of migrants and immigrants that came to the city seeking opportunities far from home. Urban plans and policy decisions have guided the city’s expansion over time, from the network of trains and trams in the 19th and early 20th centuries to the car-oriented grid of expressways from the 1940s to the present day. The bibliography on São Paulo is vast and has been produced by historians, geographers, architects, sociologists, and political scientists, among other disciplines, but is available mostly in Portuguese. In this selection, an effort was made to choose texts in English (when available), but also to cover essential readings from different disciplines, books or articles that have influenced generations of scholars, studies and authors that are considered classic works, being frequently cited, or, in a very few cases, are opening new paths and visions for the city today. The bibliography is organized by topics, starting with the city’s general and economic history, moving on to the political economy of its process of urbanization, and then covering specific themes.

General Historical Overviews

A broad look into São Paulo’s entire history can be found in Porta 2004. Reis 2004 presents the city’s history using old drawings, blueprints, maps, and pictures from the early times of 16th-century Vila de São Paulo. Prado Júnior 1989 is an essay on the city’s history and serves as an important historical document for understanding the urban development and the influence of geographic aspects of the city’s urban structure. Morse 1958 follows the paths that led the city to become the main Brazilian metropolitan region by the mid-20th century, pointing out a special link between historical moments and the paulista (gentilic born in São Paulo) ethos, turning this approach into a key for understanding the metropolis. Sevcenko 1992 begins its narrative on São Paulo in 1919, mobilizing anonymous columnists and newspapers of the time, and retrieves literary and artistic records in order to capture São Paulo’s identity in the middle of a tense process of accelerated urbanization. Rolnik 2017 revisits the city’s history from a political economy approach, looking into the urban policy choices that were made in the past.

  • Morse, Richard. From Community to Metropolis: A Biography of São Paulo, Brazil. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1958.

    Comprehensive work on the urban and social transformation that took place over the four centuries of São Paulo’s existence. The book points to the crucial moment of local urban growth, the 19th century, between two literary (or cultural) movements in the history of São Paulo: Romanticism and modernism.

  • Porta, Paula. História da cidade de São Paulo. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 2004.

    Three-volume work on São Paulo’s history, including chapters by different authors. Divided into three phases (colonial, imperial and republic), it covers the city’s history since its first days, paving the way to understanding how, while other Brazilian cities had thriving and dynamic economies, São Paulo remained a village for almost 400 years, but then suddenly went through an intense process of urbanization to become Latin America’s largest metropolis.

  • Prado Júnior, Caio. A cidade de São Paulo: Geografia e história. São Paulo: Ed. Brasiliense, 1989.

    A study belonging to the fields of history and geography. It describes the importance of geographic aspects on the conformation and evolution of the city.

  • Reis, Nestor. São Paulo: Vila, cidade, metrópole. São Paulo: Ed. Takano, 2004.

    A commemoration of the 450 years since São Paulo’s founding, presenting the city’s history from old drawings, blueprints, maps, and pictures. Describes the look and characteristics of its architecture and its streets as well as the factors that led to the building of public and private spaces in each period. Examines the lives of the powerful as well as the daily lives of ordinary people.

  • Rolnik, Raquel. Territórios em conflito: São Paulo; Espaço, história e política. São Paulo: Três estrelas, 2017.

    The book updates work on São Paulo’s growth and development from 2001 on, discussing main themes and political action that defined the city’s history from early years to the present. It also brings together contemporary discussions on the current issues of the city, resulting from Rolnik’s columns in an online platform, as well as debates on how peripheries were built, from the 1970s until the huge demonstrations of June 2013.

  • Sevcenko, Nicolau. Orfeu extático na metrópole: São Paulo, sociedade e cultura nos frementes anos 20. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1992.

    Documentary research on the history of the paulista culture and society. It analyzes the impact of new technologies on urbanization processes, using as its starting point the city of São Paulo, its literary and journalistic work in this period, its revolutionary impetus, and the growth of modern art and jazz.

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