Brazil is a rapidly growing economic powerhouse with a large and urbanizing population and a distinctive culture. Yet Brazilian cities are commonly associated with rampant crime. Travelers and locals alike are often left to the mercy of robbers and gangs, whose presence the police find hard to curb. São Paolo, the largest city in Brazil and the tenth largest in the world, has struggled with tremendous crime rates over the past decades.

A view of São Paolo with favelas in the foreground.

At the beginning of the 20th century, São Paolo began to industrialize and subsequently attracted a large number of both domestic and foreign immigrants to the expanding job market. This sudden urbanization was largely unplanned, with unprecedented population growth quickly outpacing the provision of services by the municipal government. Currently, the population of the São Paolo metropolitan area is ten times what it was in 1940. This growth has yielded several unfortunate consequences for the city, most notably the development of poverty-stricken favelas and escalating crime rates.

In the 1990s, Brazilian cities were widely acknowledged as some of the most dangerous on Earth. In São Paolo, some favelas claimed murder rates of over 110 per every 100,00 people. Robberies, muggings, car-jackings, and “quick-knappings” (in which victims are abducted for short periods of time and held for ransom) were commonplace in wealthy tourist areas and slums alike. Criminal conviction rates were extremely low as police struggled against the power of drug dealers and gangs. This level of notoriety led Brazilian officials to re-examine their policies on crime-fighting.

Gun control laws were the first measures to be implemented. A government buyback program took half a million guns off the street, and the following year noted the first reduction in the murder rate. Additionally, police have amped up their focus on crime-solving, which led to a drastic increase in the proportion of resolved cases. Natural factors such as the decline in a dangerous “youth bulge” and falling rates of cocaine use have also contributed to growing safety São Paolo.

The murder rate in Brazil is currently four times that of the United States, but this represents major gains. Crime rates, especially violent crime, has decreased unilaterally since the 1990s. Although misconduct is still common, the aura of lawlessness has lessened. Some São Paolo residents have  traded in their armored cars for less defensive models due to an increased sense of safety. As Brazilian cities burst onto the world scene in coming years, one can hope that trends in crime continue to fall.

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Mexico City is a megacity situated in a basin in the Distrito Federal (Federal District) in the southeast-central region of Mexico. It is the political, financial, and cultural capital of Mexico, and people from all over Mexico as well as the rest of Middle and South America flock to the city seeking economic opportunities and better public services. Mexico City is the third largest city in the world, with nearly one million more residents than New York City. These citizens are jammed into an area just over 40% of the size of New York City in a low-lying valley surrounded by mountains. A combination of these two factors makes Mexico City the 10th most polluted urban area in the world. The ever-increasing population is straining the physical infrastructure of the city, and officials are scrambling to find solutions for the pollution problem.

A view of Mexico City with the layer of smog evident.

In recent years, pressure to reduce pollution in the metropolitan area has mounted. Deforestation, wildfires, industrialization, and the presence of over 4 million cars on Mexico City roads have created a dire situation. Desperate officials have toyed with suggestions as varied as imploding the surrounding hills to disperse the omnipresent smog to installing huge fans to circulate the air. The government did attempt to limit residents’ abilities to drive on certain days of the week, a ban circumvented by the rich and resourceful, who simply purchased extravehicles for their personal use. Although a multitude of other regulations have been imposed, Mexico City leaders still struggle to contend with pollution issues.

Meanwhile, the people are suffering the consequences of the poor sanitation management. Estimates state that tens of thousands of Chilangos, as the residents are known, are sent to the hospital every year due to complications from the poor air quality. Chronic asthma, cancer, and premature deaths are common among Chilangos who grow up breathing this toxic air. Residents of surrounding provinces wrestle with the overflow from the waste that contaminates their water. The effect on public health has far-reaching economic and social implications, as children are forced to stay home from school and parents from work due to pollution-related health issues.

Cars on a congested road in Mexico City.

Despite this grim reality, Mexico City has made vast improvements to the levels of pollution since the 1980s and 1990s. Government commitment to bettering the environment has resulted in great gains for the air quality. Mexico City used to be ranked as the worst city for air quality in the world. It is now hovering on the fringe of the top ten. Ozone levels been reduced by 75% since 1992, and the amount of lead in the air has dropped by 90% since 1990. The number of air quality-related hospitalizations has also decreased.

These dramatic advances offer a model for other cities in the developing world that also struggle with managing pollution. Due to the commitment of the Mexican government on controlling auto emissions and reducing the adverse impacts of urbanization, Mexico City can now claim to have reduced most of its pollutants by at least half. This phenomenal progress has rightfully inspired praise and admiration from international leaders. Although Mexico City still has a long way to go, its example has uplifted the hopes of global warming activists worldwide.

Plan for Transformation

Link to a video by the CHA describing the progress on the Plan for Transformation.

In the late 1990s, the demolition of the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects on Chicago’s Near North Side began. In reality, the destruction of this complex had started decades earlier, as the project fell prey to the many structural issues that plague public housing. Subsequently, the local Chicago government, residents, and the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) initiated a ten year Plan for Transformation to reinvent the public housing set-up and abolish the stigma that had developed around the Cabrini-Green area. 12 years on, the plan continues to face challenges in its goals for successful completion.

The first buildings in the Cabrini-Green housing complex were constructed in 1942, and construction continued through 1962. The project included both row houses, which remain standing to this day, and the infamous high-rises, the last of which was razed in 2011. Originally, the houses were built to replace slums that had developed in the neighborhood known as “Little Sicily” for its high concentration of Sicilian and Italian immigrants. This neighborhood was adjacent to the so-called “Gold Coast,”a wealthy area home to many well-established families, in a stark socioeconomic contrast that would grow more prominent with time. The housing project was conceptualized with racial segregation in mind; only a quarter of the original residents were to be black. Once this quota was done away with, however, the complex became nearly all black by the 1970s due to a combination of racial tensions and crime.

From the 1960s through the 1990s, the name Cabrini-Green grew synonymous with the failure of public housing in America, an ignominy it shared with the Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis. White residents fled as the neighborhood demographics changed. Crime rates within the project skyrocketed as gangs tightened their rule over the region. Two police officers were gunned down on the outskirts of the project in 1970 by snipers. In 1992, snipers murdered a young boy as his mother walked him to school. The buildings were rife with physical and social structural failure.

A woman is pictured outside a chain-link fence in Cabrini-Green.

In 1994, Chicago received a federal grant to redevelop Cabrini-Green and revitalize its residents. Rising property values in the surrounding area spurred the city’s reinvestment. Demolition proceeded apace, with many residents being forced out of their homes before the CHA had built replacements. Although they were provided vouchers and some relocation assistance, many residents found moving difficult for emotional as well as logistical reasons. Residents scattered throughout the city and surrounding suburbs, as well as more broadly nationally. This mass emigration contributed to the fact that the whereabouts of 2,202 families were unaccounted for by the CHA as of 2011. The CHA promised qualified families the right to return to public housing when the Plan for Transformation reached fruition. After over a decade, however, the unfinished developments have stagnated due to a lack of funding.

The shortcomings of the CHA fostered a sense of resentment among former Cabrini-Green residents. Because the high-rises were replaced by mixed-income housing, many young professionals, especially whites, began moving in to the neighborhood. This has created tensions that highlight the racial and socioeconomic stratification that is salient throughout Chicago history. Gentrification continues in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood, but the issues created by the Cabrini-Green housing project are far from resolved.

A child peers through the blinds of her apartment in Cabrini-Green.

A man views graffiti in the Cabrini-Green housing project.