U-M urban planning students work closely with low-income Brazilian families

Story by Fernanda Pires | Photos by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography | Video by Jeremy Marble | Em Português

SÃO PAULO—Hands in the same rhythm, working together. To mix the soil, to shift and prepare the earth. To manufacture the plant tables. To seed. It’s fall in Brazil and the weather is ideal for the community task force on the east side of São Paulo.

Dozens of people gather early in the morning at Parque São Rafael to build a tree nursery to help preserve a protected area of 5,200 square meters to ensure the well-being of about 700 low-income families who will live in the condominium.

University of Michigan graduate students Roland Amarteifio, Kira Barsten and Shanea Condon spend hours in the local shed helping to build the plant tables. They are part of a Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning project to work with low-income communities to help combat Brazil’s severe affordable housing deficit and promote environmental stewardship. Brazilians José Aguiar and his wife, Lídia, lead the production line.

Across the street, Florestal engineer Barbara Junqueira dos Santos guides all the participants and U-M partners on the plantation of native tree seeds, such as Pau-Brasil, Cambucci, Araça Roxo and Gabiroba. She explains all the steps—one by one—so the species can successfully germinate.

“One day, you will be able to open your apartment window, look at the forest and tell your children:

I planted those trees.

This is a very different project, part of a collective effort to recover and protect this area of environmental preservation that will guarantee the microclimate in the neighborhood.”

Barbara Junqueira dos Santos

Junqueira dos Santos explains that the project carries out a pedagogical and educational process for the three communities—Mutirões Dorothy Stang, Jerônimo Alves and Martin Luther King.

“It is essential for people living here to understand its importance,” she said. “This PPA will serve as an ecological corridor to connect it to other nearby forests. It will help in the cyclical and genetic process of the species here, such as birds and small mammals, helping the ecosystem as a whole.”

After instructions, the community volunteers and U-M’s Fanta Condé and Bryant Hepp put their hands on the ground and started planting the seeds. The plan is to build a dynamic green space with 1,000 trees in multiple phases over the next 12 months.

The nursery, with the capacity for 5,000 seeds, will donate samplings to other nascent projects, creating a sustainable network to source plants for PPAs, or Permanent Preservation Areas, serving other low-income housing projects and parks in the impoverished neighborhoods of São Paulo’s eastern periphery.

“It is so great to be part of this since the start and see all these small things coming together,” said Hepp, a graduate student in social work and urban and regional planning. “We are working on the groundwork of a project that will have a lasting impact even if it’s not even visible above the ground now.

“Working closely with the community, we’re trying to figure out ways to make the area of permanent protection usable by people. First, we are focusing on the conservation and then the regulation, so owners of the development get the legal framework right, so they can go out into the area, interact with the trees and feel ownership over it themselves.”

The team of graduate students is led by Ana Paula Pimentel Walker, an associate professor at Taubman College.

“The issue here is that low-income communities—usually communities of color—suffer from the inequalities in the city,” she said. “Their right to green and healthy housing is not enforced. They are exposed to contaminants. They have precarious infrastructure and live in precarious homes in São Paulo and different parts of the world. Our U-M students are learning how to tackle these challenges.”

Jerônimo Alves: Tribute to a leader

A future resident, Alessandra Alves dos Santos, gets emotional and can’t hold back the tears of joy as she plants the first tree seeds in the nursery.

Alessandra Alves dos Santos
Alessandra Alves dos Santos

One of the eight buildings to be constructed in the three communities is already named after her father, Jerônimo Alves, a former community member and co-founder of housing movements in São Paulo’s eastern periphery. He died 16 years ago, leaving his legacy to his daughter, who is now an active leader.

“One day, me, my husband and two kids will live in one of the units here,” Alves dos Santos said. “I am so proud to have been working closely with my community to make this happen and improve this native area for our children and generations to come. My father would be thrilled.”

Championed by the housing movements, autogestão (collective, self-management) is an alternative method of affordable housing production in Brazil that is produced and governed by democratic decision-making among residents.


According to Pimentel Walker, despite the success of self-management housing, the movement struggles to innovate in environmental sustainability and climate action because of the historical and persistent pattern of environmental racism and climate injustices.

Land available for low-income housing production is either on contaminated brownfields or in environmentally sensitive areas—and usually both. She explains that these communities become reactive rather than proactive in integrating green and blue zones into the fabric of the housing projects, given financial constraints. After they meet the expensive legal requirements for tree planting, nothing is left.

That is why, over the years, Pimentel Walker has worked with her U-M graduate students on projects and proposals that aim to change this reality. Her courses at Taubman align classroom learning with the real-time needs of these disenfranchised communities.

This year’s work, “Greening Low-Income, Self-Managed Housing Projects in Brazil,” received funding totaling $40,000 through the Dow Distinguished Awards competition, designed to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and engaged learning at the graduate level.

“More than joining forces at the nursery project, this year, we are partnering with them to increase environmental health and promote climate action while decreasing environmental compliance costs,” Pimentel Walker said.

“These community members have built, over generations, a profound knowledge about the cities (they live in) and combining that knowledge with the professional background of our students is mutually beneficial. So we’ll advance both: the struggle for adequate housing and the careers of our students.”

Global applications

A native Brazilian, Pimentel Walker has been taking U-M students to Brazil since 2015. Her students have worked in different states and projects, always focusing on participatory action research.

“It’s one of my favorite activities as a faculty, especially because of the opportunity to co-produce strategies that will advance the right to the cities and housing,” she said. “It does not matter whether or not Michigan students will work in their states, in Ann Arbor or São Paulo. They can apply what they learn on participatory planning during these trips anywhere in the world.”

Shanea Condon

“Our time with MST in São Paolo was a shining example, beyond what any textbook or theory could explain, of how powerful people can be when they stand together for dignified, personally designed, and collectively managed living. It was empowering to see this collective remind the government that it works for the people; and that the people are organized, thinking critically, and worthy of dignified housing.

“Each person has a skill, connection, or piece of wisdom to share that contributes to the greater goal. MST was so gracious to open their (literal) doors and arms to our group. Despite the linguistic barriers, it was so clear to see—and feel—the passion, pride, and persistence that they had in their completed and upcoming work.”

Pimentel Walker explained that her work builds knowledge through cooperation and co-production.

“My students and I gain and grow by collaborating with neighborhood associations, informal dweller unions, and, together, trying to construct a view of the city that incorporates their necessities and the realities of their territory,” she said. “It’s a territory that is either public land, next to ecologically sensitive areas or private land, and is what is left over from the private development, the for-profit real estate development of the city, because of expensive environmental regulations.”

U-M’s Kira Barsten has focused her graduate studies on sustainability and was drawn by the Taubman program because of Pimentel Walker’s work.

Kira Barsten

“I wanted to understand how we can use community engagement and participatory planning as tools to build more equitable, resilient and sustainable cities,” she said. “And do it with communities at the forefront of those decisions, rather than city officials and politicians of being the one driving decision making that may negatively impact more marginalized residents.”

Self-management lessons

When you step inside one of the 58-square-meter apartments of the under-construction Alexios Jafet complex, it’s hard to believe their future residents are building them. Located in the Jaraguá neighborhood of São Paulo, the development will have more than 1,100 units and will be the largest self-managed housing development in South America.

Besides working closely with the São Rafael communities, Pimentel Walker visited other projects under construction to show her students how self-managed projects come together and the challenges in the construction phase. She said these visits allow a first-hand look at the all-hands-on-deck mentality required to advance self-managed projects.

Fanta Condé

“One of the most tremendous insights I gathered through my time in São Paulo was the sheer efficacy and power of mutual aid, and the fulfillment of communal obligations toward one another. It was clear from the “all hands on deck” and “all skills to be leveraged” model adopted by our partners that many, if not all of them viewed their engagement as the necessary participation needed to move toward self-sufficiency, dignity, and community power building. 

The multi-pronged strategic skills and systems coordination, as well as the ideological movement building, reflects our partner’s ability to ideate, innovate, and cultivate the necessary conditions for transformative housing and infrastructure development. Though disheartening to see the weight carried on the shoulders of the community with little government assistance, it was heartening to witness the faith in vision and the faith in one another that the community holds.”

“The Alexios Jafet has 15 high-rise buildings and showcases the power of social movements to mobilize and achieve political change for improving members’ lives,” Pimentel Walker said. “Through resident-led processes, future owners decide on the unit layouts, materials they buy and all the designs for better housing conditions.”

Community leader Vera Eunice Da Silva of the Association of Homeless Workers of the West and Northwest Zones lives in a self-managed apartment building built 25 years ago, whose community still works collectively to maintain their quality of life.

“The movement’s goal is not only to give the key for the houses,” she said. “It is capacity building. It is about empowerment. Even after they get their homes, the families will continue to work together, be able to manage the condominium and improve the surrounding neighborhood.”

Women represent about 80% of the people in leadership roles in self-management projects, like in the Alexios Jafet complex, and in providing intergenerational housing security.

“It has been incredible to learn how these communities don’t take no for an answer and the power of their collective work,” said U-M’s Barsten. “To see people and families deciding together and moving forward. They are not waiting for the city, or anyone else, to say how something should be done. It’s amazing to witness these social movements’ absolute strength and power.”

Ongoing and strong

By the end of September, 51 families from Ocupação Anchieta, an eight-year-old land occupation also in São Paulo, will leave their shacks built from scavenged materials and move into new homes. They dwell in precarious and unsafe conditions, on land that can quickly flood, on steep and dangerous slopes.

The new one-room units, about 215 square feet (20 square meters), will be built of masonry with a solid foundation—to support the construction of additional floors—and have a bathroom. Each one costs 2,500 Brazilian reals—about 500 U.S. dollars.

The residents’ association, in collaboration with technical advisory firm ONG Peabiru and an extended network of collaborators, are constructing all of the houses.

“Besides paying (one-third) of the house cost, all families work about 12 hours per week in a collective effort to reduce labor costs,” said Leticia Souza dos Santos, a community leader, who has been involved closely with the neighborhood urbanization project to relocate families in their definitive lots, open streets and seek realistic alternatives to shelter her family and community.

Leticia Souza dos Santos
Leticia Souza dos Santos

“Among helping us with the air mapping and the analysis of our water and soil, the team from U-M gave us financial support to construct our cultural hub that serves about 2,000 children who live here. Today, we are 1,079 families.”

Since 2016, Pimentel Walker and her colleague, associate professor María Arquero de Alarcón, have been bringing multidisciplinary teams from U-M to understand this landscape, environmental regulations and the community’s barriers to acquiring tenured security and infrastructure.

Recent U-M alum Roland Amarteifio worked on São Paulo’s project for over a year before traveling abroad. He is also a participatory planning believer and focused his master’s program on understanding community engagement’s strengths.

“Preparing for this trip and being here, I’ve learned there’s so much more work that goes into community building,” he said. “I am learning to incorporate different sources from across the world, on different ideologies and put that together to create a personal, purposeful and productive project.

For Amarteifio, partnering with the communities from Parque São Rafael, Alexios Jafet and Anchieta made him understand that “the idea of working with and not working for people” can achieve more in urban planning.

Roland Amarteifio

“I am now certain that a top-down approach doesn’t work. Collaborating with people, taking their ideas, dreams and hopes and incorporating them into the projects is something that generally succeeds. I hope I can do that in the city of Detroit, where I work now, because many people feel unheard there.”

“The community is the most important and vital part of a project that is trying to help people to better their lives and have more access to resources,” Amarteifio said. “When we work together, we not only understand each other and have empathy for each other, but we learn to work cooperatively to push forward the progress. I’m taking more out of this than anything that could possibly be given.”