Beyond Bureaucracy: How prosecutors and public defenders enforce urban planning laws in Sao Paulo, Brazil
International Journal of Urban and Regional Research
Cities need law to thrive but it is not clear how abstract texts become tangible policy outcomes. Existing research on the role of law in urban affairs conceives law as either an algorithm that shapes urban life, or a reflection of political disputes. The former assumes that the meaning of law is obvious; the latter claims it is irrelevant. In contrast to these views, this paper argues that laws are multipurpose instruments that acquire a specific function when enforced by those government agents who operate at the frontlines of public service. To understand what these agents do and why, this paper conducts a qualitative study of the Ministério Público and the Defensoria Pública in São Paulo, Brazil. It finds that these government agencies are not cohesive bureaucracies but heterarchies composed of distinct internal factions with different evaluative principles. Moreover, officials within them are not isolated from other entities in society but tightly entangled with them, and these connections influences what officials do. Finally, enforcement agents are not always resigned to solving conflicts as they arrive. Rather, they strive to find acceptable solutions in the interstices of existing conditions or even change the circumstances that created the conflict in the first place.