During my formative years I remember one of my friends remarking that it’s impossible to ever be lost in London because most of the time you never know where you are in the first-place.
Back then I was inclined to agree because despite living just ten miles from Central London I only sporadically ventured there, and when I did I often found myself feeling slightly disorientated by its relentless bustle and vast mazy topography.
Later though, as I worked in and around London, and travelled more outside of the UK, I came to appreciate London’s randomness as being part of its endearing charm; the ability to amble aimlessly around its meandering streets far preferable to the irksome intermittences walkers suffer on the streets of obsessively gridded cities like Buenos Aires.
Moving to São Paulo though, I found that my initial experiences of its own ‘chaotic morphological tissue’* led me to suffer somewhat of a relapse of the topographical disconcertions I’d encountered as an adolescent – something that left me to ponder whether my friend’s evaluation of London might be more appropriate here instead.
Like London, São Paulo experienced intense spurts in both its population and urban territory, although whereas London’s began in eighteenth century as a result of it being the capital of the world’s first industrialised nation, São Paulo’s occurred during the twentieth century following the explosion of the coffee industry. Similarly, both cities experienced their growth with little planning, the results of which are the incongruous landscapes we encounter today.
São Paulo’s problem was the intensity with which it experienced its growth and the process of urbanisation. For example, its inability (unsurprisingly) to provide housing for all of its new inhabitants saw an informal expansion (favelas) of its peripheries. Secondly, the city’s development was heavily influenced by the car industry, and this brought both a neglect of public transport and a dependency upon cars. Thirdly, policies which favoured demolishing and rebuilding rather than preserving pre-existing parts of the city means that today it is rare to find many buildings that pre-date the 1950s.
In contrast to this, whilst London grew prior to any modern notion of urban planning it did so by largely adding to what came before; much of what has been built since the Great Fire of 1666 remains (despite the best efforts of those pesky Germans), with the current fad of erecting tower after phallic tower in worship of the City merely continuing this trend.
For walkers this means that it’s actually much harder to get lost in London than my friend and I had originally thought; you commonly only have to stroll a short distance before you’ll chance upon some landmark or Tube station by which to gather your bearings.
In São Paulo though, the domineering hodge-podge of identikit high-rises has left relatively few obvious points of reference by which to orientate yourself. Additionally, the city’s ban on outdoor advertising – whilst absolutely commendable – does tend to leave many neighbourhoods feeling fifty shades of beige, and so unless you are somewhere like Avenida Paulista, wandering from one neighbourhood to the next can often leave the uninitiated with a distinct sense of déjà vu.
Fortunately, São Paulo’s prefeitura (local government), which is not exactly known for implementing straightforward solutions to the city’s problems (like its inability to provide a time table / route map at bus stops), ensures that neither Paulistanos nor visitors are entirely left to fend for themselves.
Slightly banal you might think, and the least Paulistanos should expect from their civic authorities. However, since 1915 the prefeitura has, incredibly, enacted over ten pieces of legislation that directly and indirectly influence the way São Paulo’s street signs should be configured – and I’d imagine these meticulously crafted regulations surely means that São Paulo possesses the most comprehensively inscribed signage of any city in the world.
Whether or not this is actually true, on one corner at either end of every street in the city you’ll find a pristine blue*** guardian of incredibly detailed local information – the type you might ordinarily only expect to find in a encyclopaedia or recited on demand by C-3P0.
For example, each sign includes: the full street name, the abbreviated street name, the range of property numbers within each stretch of a block / street, the CEP (equivalent of a postal or zip code), bairro (neighbourhood), a coloured bar of the street’s zona (zone), and, finally, a box in the bottom right corner which details the distance in kilometres a street is from the central area of Sé.
Basically, they’re boss.
To conclude then, were you to be randomly dropped somewhere within São Paulo’s vast labyrinth it’s unlikely it would be immediately obvious where you might be. Most likely, you’d probably feel disorientated by the surrounding chaos. But, rest assured, for São Paulo has the most impeccably well administered chaos you’re ever likely to see.
**For example, its population exploded from being 70,000 in 1890 to 10 million by 2000 (11.8 million in 2013). To put that into context, London’s grew from 1 million in 1801 to 7.1 million in 2001 (8.3 million in 2012).
***In 2007 1,100 new signs with white backgrounds and black typeface were installed in the city’s historical centre.