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In struggle to remake Rio, favelas should be embraced — not trampled

Brazil's World Cup and Olympics preparations reveal misplaced priorities and misunderstanding of civic needs

June 5, 2014 2:30AM ET

Rio de Janeiro is changing fast. In the run-up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, the city faces the prospect of having to build more infrastructure in half a dozen years than it did in the previous fifty. It’s not just the millions of dollars being spent on stadiums; whole neighborhoods are being re-imagined. In Porto Maravilha, the port zone, for instance, miles and miles of new streets, pavements, tunnels and rail tracks are being laid. And the property developers are on the march. In the port, Donald Trump has a multi-billion-dollar plan for five office towers that would form the heart of a new business district. On the other side of town, the wealthy suburb of Barra da Tijuca will be transformed by the Olympic Park. Developers are lining up to build luxury condominiums, while the area’s  favela residents are on the verge of being relocated. Across the city, tens of thousands of slum dwellers are being evicted from their homes to make way for World Cup and Olympic projects.

Following London’s example, there is much talk of an Olympic “legacy.” Can anyone really take this notion seriously? And why is it that the one and a half million citizens of Rio who live in favelas are always treated to “urban acupuncture,” while a two-week global spectacle warrants mega-projects  and massive infrastructural investment? Something is wrong here.

In June 2013, by sheer chance, I was in Rio during the largest popular protests Brazil had seen in decades. Triggered by a small hike in the bus fares, a million people took to the streets of the city. Both the pundits and the government initially struggled to pinpoint what the demonstrators were calling for — there were so many issues to choose from. Some decried political corruption, others the huge sums being spent on World Cup and Olympic stadiums at the expense of public services. It felt like half the city was at work designing placards: “We want FIFA-standard schools and hospitals,” was a common refrain.

President Lula had raised 40 million out of poverty, swelling the ranks of the middle class, and now the middle class was demanding its rights. It was like a collective political awakening. Even here, in the home of the beautiful game, football stadiums were being denounced as frivolities. It was a watershed moment, not least for Rio, famous for its laid-back, beach-loving cariocas, because it demonstrated for the first time in a generation that the citizenry is brimming with political potency.

The cidade maravilhosa, the marvelous city, has another nickname. Cidade partida, Rio is sometimes called — the divided city. Juxtapositions of extreme poverty and wealth are part of what make it instantly recognizable. The favela of Vidigal and the neighboring Sheraton Hotel, the favela of Rocinha adjacent to the condominiums of São Conrado — it ’s the stuff of postcards. This is not the standard center-versus-periphery dialectic; here, those living on the margins can be right in the center. The question of how to integrate these opposing pieces is one that Rio continues to struggle with. Mayor Eduardo Paes has said that he plans to upgrade every favela in Rio by 2020. Yet his key strategy, Morar Carioca, the most ambitious slum-upgrading program Brazil has ever embarked upon, is in limbo.

Architecture books will assert that the one radical city in Brazil is Brasilia. A capital built from scratch according to strict modernist principles, it is the very definition of the formal city. It is also rigid, misguided and outmoded. No: Rio, the birthplace of the favela, is far more radical. The favelas may not be modernism but they are the byproduct of modernity. In their spontaneity, energy and resourcefulness, they represent an aspect of urbanity that is only now coming to be appreciated. And in its varied approaches to tackling urban poverty, Rio has been a laboratory unlike any other in Latin America. Most of those approaches have failed but, in the failures and the successes alike, there are lessons that cities across the developing world could learn. Because the challenges Rio has faced, and continues to face today, are the challenges of urbanism in the twenty-first century.

Amid the maelstrom of competing agendas — the poor demanding a right to the city, the middle classes clamoring for public services, the gentrifiers in search of a better life, the developers hunting profit, the politicians chasing votes, FIFA and the International Olympic Committee — one question needs to be kept in mind: Who is the city for? Because, as we speak, Rio is engaged in a struggle for the soul of the city, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Squatters and favelados build more square miles of city than governments, developers, architects or anyone else.

The first favela

In his novel “The War of the End of the World,” Mario Vargas Llosa tells the story of a community of peasants in Canudos, in the northeast of Brazil, who fall under the sway of a mysterious figure called the Counsellor. Led by this saint-like character, they establish a utopian community in which all property is communal and money is forbidden. Canudos, revolutionary and autonomous, is considered such a threat to the new republic of Brazil that the army is sent north to destroy it.

It is certainly true that in 1897 thousands of people in this commune were massacred. The irony is that the remainder of the army that undertook this bloody campaign returned to Rio and founded a settlement that would, in turn, prove to be a revolutionary force in city-making. They founded the first favela. Named after a fava bean plant that happened to grow abundantly there, this favela was located on a hill just outside Rio, subsequently named Morro da Providencia. Morro means “hill.” As many of the original favelas were on hillsides, it ’s a term that has become almost synonymous with informal settlement, and is defined in opposition to the asfalto (asphalt) of the so-called city proper. This dichotomy between the hill and the asphalt has come to define Rio, and it is one that the city must address at all costs.

Today, Morro da Providencia is in the heart of the city. From this promontory you can look down on Rio’s Central Station on one side and Porto Maravilha on the other. It ’s one of the smaller favelas — about 4,000 people live here — but it ’s a microcosm of the challenges facing hundreds of others across the city.

The steep cobbled street that winds its way up to Providencia stops outside a brand-new and as yet unopened cable car station. Cable cars are not novelties in Rio — there ’s been one taking tourists up to the Pão de Açúcar for decades — but they are becoming a prominent feature of favelas. Providencia is the second to have one installed, and there is a third planned for Rocinha. It was the success of the cable car in Medellín, Colombia, that triggered this trend, but in Rio it is much more controversial.

I ask a lady leaning out of her window what she thinks of the new arrival. “We don’t need it,” she says. “They didn’t ask us if we wanted it, but since they destroyed our only plaza, let’s put it to work.”

As if to prove her point, a Sunday mass is taking place outside the cable car station, with the congregation packed together in what is left of the square. You can see why locals don’t exactly welcome this invasive structure. Eating up precious public space, and installed without consultation, this is not the way favela upgrading is supposed to happen.

So centrally located, Providencia is sure to be a hit with tourists, and people here suspect that that is the real market for the cable car. This favela was ‘pacified ’ in 2010, which means that it now has its own Police Pacification Unit (UPP). And though the drug dealers are still here (their guns just aren’t tucked into the tops of their jeans anymore), it is now one of the safest favelas in the city. Indeed, there is a metal trail embedded in one of the streets, marking the route that the tourists are supposed to follow as they soak up authentic favela life. There were even plans to build a hotel here, and dozens of houses at the top of the hill are marked for demolition to make way for it, but they may yet escape that fate. Following the demonstrations earlier this year, the mayor has put a hold on all evictions, fearing more popular unrest. But either way, the cable car risks turning Providencia into an open-air museum. The absurdity is epitomized by a new viewing platform, which projects out over one of the community’s garbage dumps. How can the city be investing in tourist infrastructure here when it doesn’t even collect the rubbish?

These are just some of the tensions that define the city’s relationship with its hundreds of favelas. The intentions behind its interventions are sometimes noble and oftentimes not. The strategies can be astute or crass, their advocates committed or corrupt. If any city has taken measures, good or bad, to tackle informal settlements, it is Rio. And yet it is as though those in power haven’t quite grasped the scale of what they’re up against.

There are 1.4 million people living in Rio’s favelas, accounting for 22 percent of the population within the city limits. Across Latin America, nearly a third of all city dwellers live in informal conditions. Across the world, 85 percent of housing is built illegally. In other words, squatters and favelados build more square miles of city than governments, developers, architects or anyone else. Some estimate that by 2030, some two billion people, or a quarter of humanity, will be squatters. So when are we going to recognize that favelas are not an aberration, but the primary urban condition? When will we come to terms with the fact that the favelas are not a problem of urbanity, but the solution? When will we accept that the favela is the city?

Editor’s note: This article is an exclusive excerpt from “Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture,” to be published by Verso Books on June 10.

Justin McGuirk is a writer, curator and director of Strelka Press. Formerly the design critic of the Guardian, he is the author of “Radical Cities: Across Latin American in Search of a New Architecture.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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