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Sao Paulo: The City of the Future?

My first night in the city was spent on the forty-second floor of the Edifício Itália, the second tallest building in the city, but the highest place in town to get a drink. Overcast as it was when we arrived, the view from the floor-to-ceiling windows was somewhat unremarkable, but as we finished our caiprinhas, the cloud began to lift and the city unfolded beneath us.

I have always found the idea that there are billions of people in this world unfathomable. Despite having travelled around Brazil for the previous two weeks during the height of the World Cup, spending hours in stadiums packed with thousands of people from all over the globe, the idea of the world being populated by seven billion people remained incomprehensible. This all changed after just a few short hours in São Paulo.

My first night in the city was spent on the forty-second floor of the Edifício Itália, the second tallest building in the city, but the highest place in town to get a drink. Overcast as it was when we arrived, the view from the floor-to-ceiling windows was somewhat unremarkable, but as we finished our caiprinhas, the cloud began to lift and the city unfolded beneath us. On a clear night, São Paulo from above is unbelievable as a scene from the wildest sci-fi imagination. Looking east, you can just about make out the mountains, barbed on the horizon, but every other direction offers only skyscrapers as far as the eye could see. Red lights blinked through the darkness, only adding to the bizarre sense that we had somehow jumped forward in time. São Paulo's elite has adopted an indulgently futuristic approach to urban transportation, as anybody who is anybody travels by helicopter rather than brave the traffic, and car-jackings below. In contrast to cities like London or New York, São Paulo's skyline is remarkably uniform: hundreds of tall square buildings. Their flat roofs are necessary, I suppose for all those helicopters to land on.

A few days in town shows that, on the ground too, the city has relatively little to offer in the way of landmarks. In fact, São Paulo's most notable attraction seems to be its people; the city itself is a rather characterless sprawl of concrete, and with cars as the dominant form of transport, there is not much street life to speak of. But, especially on a sunny weekend, little pockets of life could be found. The Mercado Municipal was perhaps the most notable of these: a vast indoor market built in the 1930s, adorned with art deco domes and stain-glass murals of idyllic rural landscapes. The market gave a comprehensive review of Brazilian cuisine, stocking everything from the most obscure Amazonian fruits to kits to make your own feijoada - a traditional pork stew - complete with pizzle. More surprising were the stalls selling the São Paulo 'staples' of sushi and mortadella: São Paulo's hugely diverse population has led to its status among the culinary hotspots of the world. Despite being a nation conceived by immigration, Brazil's cities don't exude 'diversity' in the same way as many in the developed world. Assimilation is the name of the game here, as a unified Brazilian culture combines the Catholicism of the Portuguese settlers, the food and music brought over from Africa by the slave trade, and the language of the indigenous peoples. But the later waves of immigrants brought to São Paulo during the coffee boom of the mid-19th century from Germany, Italy, Japan and Korea have retained their distinct cuisine and culture. The downside to this is that the city feels distinctly less Brazilian, as the ghettos of immigrant communities add to the sense that São Paulo could be anywhere.

Leaving the market and walking down the bustling streets packed with people of all colours and backgrounds, one thing does seem to bind the "Paulistas". The young people newly arrived from the less prosperous Brazilian interior, the Eurasian immigrants whose ancestors arrived a hundred years ago: they all look busy, purposeful. The saying about Brazil's largest cities seems to be true: people go to Rio for play, they come to São Paulo to work. Market life is no mere performance for tourists, but a way of life for residents who have to graft hard to afford to live in a city more expensive than New York. In the streets surrounding the Mercado Municipal, the pavements are packed with people, spilling out of temporary stores selling distinctly unglamourous wares, bartering loudly in Portuguese over microwave ovens and bed linen: a world away from the shiny storefronts and designer labels that line the Avenida Paulista in the heart of the business district. This scene, while hardly the grubby underbelly the city - that title is reserved for the favelas that line the drive out to the airport - does serve as a reminder that financial success does not always trickle down.

Venturing a little further out of town I arrive in a very different sort of market. Praça Calixto Benedito, a square set in a quiet suburb of quirky shops and cafés has been taken over for the day by a lively open-air antiques market. Watching vendors in 60s throwback outfits hawking retro telephones and packs of vintage buttons to hip twenty-somethings, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in San Francisco or Shoreditch. A four-man neo-folk band plays on the pavement to young families sipping espressos al fresco and, in this artsy oasis, for the first time since I arrived in the São Paulo, I feel at home. While this is clearly a fashionable hangout, the crowd is a diverse group. Unkempt youths shop alongside the stylish middle classes after a bargain. Bahian Aunts in traditional dress sell bowlfuls of steaming moqueca stews beside families of artisans flogging their wares. Here, where the buildings are considerably shorter, the people are much less hurried, there is a sense of community and togetherness that has otherwise seemed absent in this divided city.

The domination of high-rise is not just to be feared by the architectural buffs among us. Skyscrapers are not conducive to community building. With no chats over garden fences or ambles down the local high street, how do we get to know our neighbours? Oscar Niemeyer, one of the past century's most prolific architects had aimed in to make tall buildings in São Paulo conducive to social integration. His leftist beliefs led him to design tower blocks that housed beautiful penthouses and cramped studios, in the hope that people with radically different incomes would be encouraged to live side by side. It is hard to make such a dream reality in the ever more expensive urban centres of the world, but it's necessary if we want our cities to retain that which makes urban living so exciting: the dynamic creativity and enterprise that is generated when people with different roots share a space.

Leaving São Paulo, I worry what the future holds for my own city. As I fly into Heathrow, over the iconic buildings that line the Thames, I wonder whether the London skyline is condemned to be overwhelmed by the bland tower blocks that dominate the 'megacities' of the developing world. 230 new skyscrapers are planned for London over the next decade. Until now, real pains seem to have been taken to ensure new builds are landmarks in their own right, with buildings like The Gherkin, The Cheesegrater and The Shard cutting their own unique shapes into the London skyline. But as the demands of population and business continue to grow, keeping the city's architectural and, more importantly, human character may prove unsustainable. London, despite being packed with some eight million people, doesn't feel mammoth. It somehow retains a sense of place, as a series of joined-up neighbourhoods rather than the single explosion of people São Paulo appears to be. This Brazilian megacity forces me to believe there are seven billion individuals in this world, because individuals are all I see. Millions of them.

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