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City Life

Half of humanity today lives in cities. By 2030, that figure is set to increase to three out of every five people - drawn by dreams of prosperity and opportunity. But are cities really engines of progress? Or breeding grounds for crime, violence and disease? This summer, politicians from across the world will meet in New York to review progress since the United Nations City Summit in Istanbul five years ago. They'll debate how the cities of the 21st century should be run, what can be done to make them better places to live in - and how cities can share their prosperity with all their citizens, not just the elites. These are also the themes of this new series of Life.

Sao Paulo is the world's fourth largest city, with a population of over 10 million. The city's new mayor is Marta Suplicy. On the streets they greet her like a film star, though the only dream she's selling is of a better city. She's fifty-five, a mother of three, and a professional psychoanalyst. She used to give advice about sexual problems on Brazilian TV. Now her mission is to get rid of corruption and abandonment in Sao Paulo and bring hope and help to the millions who are excluded from the city's wealth. "My city has lived ten years of abandon, corruption," Marta explains. "And I thought I could help - I could be a fresh new thing there, that could help mainly the people excluded from everything that we have in the city."

According to Anna Tibaijuka, the new Executive Director of the UN Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat), globalisation is making the 21st century the century of cities. "The challenge is how to make cities a better place for the majority of the people," she says.

Marta Suplicy wants to do something about poverty and the inequalities that go with globalisation, but what most of Sao Paulo's citizens care about right now is not so much social justice as basic services. And over 400,000 Paulista families lack what the city authorities call even minimally decent housing. Marta faces an uphill struggle to turn things round before she stands for election again in four years' time.

She admits that there are 11 districts of the city which have virtually no government. These are the areas which have expanded through immigration, doubling in size over the last 10 years. And half the population is under 18 years old. If these young people have no education and no prospects, no wonder - Marta says - they turn to violence.

Du is one of the members of The Posse, a group of young rappers dedicated to community regeneration who featured in a Life programme last year. He's as keen as anyone that the new Mayor makes Sao Paulo safe, but he thinks the underlying problem is unequal distribution of the city's wealth.

Ed Glaeser, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, believes that the Mayor must concentrate on two things: providing basic services, and reducing poverty. And basic services include providing safe streets. "Having a flourishing drug trade that distracts you from actually going to school is a tremendous handicap that poor people face."

Everyone agrees that education is a key to a better city, not least the Mayor. Sao Paulo used to be an industrial city, and now it's mainly a service city which needs qualified people. "We have to have education," Marta emphasises.

But kids can't get an education if they're sick - they need health services too. Sao Paulo has good hospitals. But, as Sheela Patel, Founder and Director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), stresses, a city needs various basic essentials for good health: clean water, sanitation - and garbage disposal. "You have to clean garbage. You can't say I'll only clean garbage here and not here because the flies don't know boundaries."

Another serious health issue in many cities IS domestic violence. Shelters like the one in Sao Paulo the Mayor visits are signs that even "machista" cities like Sao Paulo can also become places of opportunity for women. Saskia Sassen, Professor of Sociology, University of Chicago, agrees: "The space of the city is actually enabling women, and this represents a radical departure from a very common image that the space of the city is dangerous for women, and they can emerge as political subjects in a way that they did not twenty years ago, thirty years ago."

But some of the women in the grim shantytown of Guananases don't have much faith in Marta. "I don't feel like a citizen of Sao Paulo, I feel like an animal - an animal that nobody feels sorry for. The government, Mayor, the local politicians, they never come around unless its election time. They are just worried about our votes," says Ester da Silva Pereira.

How can new mayor Marta prove that she is different? The message from Anna Tibaijuka, the new Director of Habitat is: popular participation. "First of all get to know the people and to listen to them - what are they saying? Because, you see, the poor of the cities are not just passive objects. Most often they are solving their own problems."

Sheela Patel believes that most people migrate to cities to improve their - and their children's - lives - and that cities can be a positive force. "If you talk to even the poorest person who lives in the city, they will tell you that ten years of living in the city has transformed the choices for their children - even if there are many more steps to go."

But Marta Suplice believes she now has a groundswell of support in Sao Paulo for social revolution. "People from all social levels are giving their hands and saying we want to help... I think we can make a difference in this city. Even with all the limits we have, if we have a competent administration, honest administration, that really cares for the people we can do it."

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