Learning displacement: self-building, educational infrastructure, and the politics of development in Brazilian informal settlements
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In the wake of mid-twentieth century mass urbanization and the inequitable access to education that ensued, people in consolidated informal settlements in São Paulo, Brazil united to self-build educational institutions and programs in their communities. Initially constructed to address severe gaps in educational access, the social and physical networks that advanced an educational agenda evolved to address a range of power and equity issues. While some charge that any form of self-building exploits the city’s most vulnerable, or that self-building operates at a scale too insignificant to impart significant outcomes, proponents assert that self-building in its contemporary form of autogestão (self-development) has galvanized communities through substantial spillover effects. Critically examining these positions, this dissertation analyzes how the social and technical dynamics of self-building have shaped education in three informal settlements and how self-directed efforts of communities to fill gaps in the educational infrastructure might inform current planning and development practice. In a context shaped by the political fluctuations characteristic of Brazil’s emerging democracy over the past twenty-five years, the cases reflect the unevenness wrought by São Paulo’s high levels of urban development and displacement, and contradictions between improved housing conditions and new challenges within informal settlements – from environmental degradation to organized crime. This study draws on data from ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2008-2014 among residents of informal settlements, community advocates, architects, planners, educators, and policy makers in São Paulo. These investigations reveal how the efficacy of self-building draws from its displacement by citizens from housing to an educational focus. The cases offer key insights into how the translation of self-building into new cultural domains of learning and action has begun to compensate for underdeveloped educational infrastructures provided by the state. These social and technical displacements challenge the centralized logic of planning and development with new forms of infrastructure that increase access to education, expand citizen participation, and contribute to broader urban networks. In the cases of successful displacement, actors have moved beyond the rote adoption of self-help’s in-situ development approach, and suggest how a situated lens might better account for the social contingency, experimentation, and transdisciplinary and inter-generational collaborations that characterize the ongoing planning efforts that communities employ to realize their aspirations.