* South America's largest metropolis is a big city, but not as big as everyone thought, according to census figures released last week.

Urban planners were pleasantly surprised. "The data are a bit heartening," says Carlos Eduardo Zahn, a planner at the state subsecretariat for regional integration, whose main purpose is to decentralize Sao Paulo state to better administrate the city. "It may be possible to better match demand to the services you can offer."

Greater Sao Paulo's population today stands at 15,198,000, with 9,480,000 of these inhabitants living in the city proper. Previously, metropolitan Sao Paulo was thought to have a population of 17 million, with about 11 million living in the city proper.

The differences, census officials say, come largely from an unexpectedly large outflow from the city center to its periphery, and from the metropolis to other locations in the state of Sao Paulo and elsewhere in the country. Migration to this city from rural areas has also slowed. The current recession, the high cost of city living, and poor security are the main factors in these trends.

"Even I would like to leave," says Domingos Elias Schanoski, Sao Paulo state census coordinator, who moved here in 1976 from the countryside. "There's no safety for families. On my street, which is two blocks long, mine is the only house with people living in it. The others are all empty, and their owners have moved to the interior or to other states."

Mr. Schanoski says the census found a surprisingly high number of empty and one- or two-person homes and apartments in the city center. The city outskirts grew 3 percent a year over the last 11 years, as residents sought lower-cost housing. In the next decade, he predicts a return to central neighborhoods as rents drop to affordable levels.

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