top of page
  • Writer's pictureIHS Alumni

The Hidden Rivers of São Paulo

After a year in The Netherlands, it is unavoidable for IHS alumni to rethink the role of the water in our own cities. Therefore, it is interesting to share and compare how water is treated in different cities and what can be learned from one another. São Paulo, my hometown, is not a city known due to it’s water system – differently of most Dutch cities – but it is surprisingly full of hidden rivers which are beginning to be recognized and valued as well as the two main open rivers: Pinheiros and Tietê.

“There is no place in the city of São Paulo where one is more than 200 meters far from a watercourse.” (Luiz de Campos, geographer and founder of the project “Rios e Ruas”)

Original shape of the Pinheiros River in the 1930´s before it was straightened. (Picture: "Rios e Ruas")

Nowadays only São Paulo´s hydric crisis is famous worldwide while the around 300 buried rivers are still out of the knowledge even of the local population. To get to know the existence of this underground water system leads to the comprehension of the innumerous cases of flooding among other urban details such as street names that actually are the name of the former river on the same location.

The documentary “Entre Rios” / “Between Rivers”, from 2009, tells the history of the city of São Paulo based on It´s Rivers. Therefore, it is possible to begin to understand the paradox of the simultaneous case of lack of clean water and the excessive cases of flood and pollution of the rivers. Unfortunately, the video is only available in Portuguese.

“The water isn´t missing, what it missing is the perception of the water.” (José Bueno, urban planner and founder of the project “Rios e Ruas”)

Besides all the water problems in São Paulo, there are still reasons to celebrate The World Water Day (march 22th 2016) such as the initiatives “Rios e Ruas” / “Rivers and Roads” and “Rios (In)visíveis”/“(In)visible Rivers”. Both projects intend to increase the visibility of the hidden rivers of São Paulo trough mapping and different activities to raise the affective relation between the citizens and the water.

The project “Rios e Ruas”, created in 2010, acts in many Brazilian cities promoting workshops and expeditions to explore the cities and recognize the existing occult headwaters and waterbodies. Besides, the website is full of interesting content regarding the water and nature in Brazilian cities (in Portuguese). The idea of the project is to create an affective comprehension of the urban space, modify the way people see the water in the cities and acknowledge citizens about the importance of the nature and about what city we will leave for the next generations.

Expedition in São Paulo organized by the project "Rios e Ruas". Sign: “What if all the people leave São Paulo? Will It´s rivers be clean again?” (Picture: "Rios e Ruas")

The project “Rios (In)visíveis” was created in 2014 by the group Coletivo Escafandro, after their participation on the event EcoHack World, which focuses in innovative ideas to promote environmental awareness in the urban space through mapping, data collection and other organizing tools. The group focused in mapping the – unknown by most of the paulistanos (people from the city of São Paulo) – 3500km of underground watercourses and the first result is available in this link.

The success of the mapping experience led to a collaborative website where people can share and read personal stories related to these rivers resulting in closer reflections about the relation each person has with the water in the city of São Paulo. The project “Rios (In)visíveis”, thus, is a way to reduce the affective distance between the citizens and the unseen hydrographic system in São Paulo.

Map of the hidden rivers of the city of São Paulo (Source: "Rios (In)visíveis”)

Bottom-up  initiatives such as the documentary “Entre Rios” and the projects “Rios e Ruas” and “Rios (In)visíveis” highlight and motivate changes on the interactions between people, cities and nature, specially water. The exploitation of the hydric resources saturation and the raise of the environmental awareness gradually change these relations towards a more sustainable use and transformation of the city and it´s rivers.

Image of the project "Aqui passa um Rio" / “Here flows a river”, another great initiative to expose the hidden rivers of São Paulo by writing down on the streets that cover former rivers. (Picture: "Aqui passa um rio")


I am Camila Cavalheiro, from São Paulo, Brazil. I recently graduated as an architect and urban planner at the University of São Paulo (USP) and I am an UMDSU2 IHS alumna. Besides the formal studies, the main influences in my formation in the urban field were the voluntary work at the NGO TECHO and my own experience in cities.

Simultaneously to my graduation studies, I participated of some projetcs of TECHO as a volunteer. During this experience, I had close contact to real urban issues in the brazilian cities and mainly in the slums. Thus, this was a practical approach that complements the knowledge learned at IHS and USP creating an important basis for my formation as an urban planner.

In 2015, I worked as an intern at the São Paulo Environment Secretariat where I could understand more about the brazilian public sector dynamics and how the public needs are approached and  addressed combined with the interests of various actors. And in 2016 I will contribute to the following research at USP: “Public accountability to residents in contractual urban redevelopment (PARCOUR)”.


bottom of page