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Sao Paulo is the largest urban agglomeration in Brazil. It is the largest industrial area in South America. Until the 1880s the area was a minor commercial centre. When Rio had a population of 500,000 in 1890, Sao Paulo only had a population of 65,000. It was coffee that brought an increase in the population. The plantations that were developed attracted people from the hinterland and other cities. The area was transformed by this frontier into a vibrant economic region. By the early 1990s the city had grown to 240,000 due to the massive influx of people, particularly from Europe. By 1950 it had become a major manufacturing area in Brazil. Today, Sao Paulo metropolitan area accounts for half of Brazil’s total industrial output.

The city faces many environmental and ecological problems associated with rapid industrialisation and population growth. More than 50% of the population lives in substandard housing and many residents do not have access to clean water or sanitation services. Air, noise and visual pollution are a major problem. Crime rates are high, congestion with traffic and overcrowding are evident. Despite rapid industrial growth the economy has not been able to absorb the labour force and as a result, unemployment and underemployment remain a consistent problem.  

The Brazilian economy during the 1990s linked with devaluation of the real in 1998 further weakened the economy. The situation of Sao Paulo is not unique. Most cities of the world have experienced dramatic growth since the 1950s as world populations have rocketed. Sao Paulo is a very good example of this type of growth. Today, there are 400 cities with populations of over 1 million people; Sao Paulo has approximately 17 million. Managing the change that has occurred and will continue to occur well into the 21st century is a major challenge for the planners in all Brazilian cities, particularly Sao Paulo. The success and failure of such planning will demand accurate demographic statistics.