Four Decades of Urbanization of Slums in Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro is the place in Brazil where actions focused on the urbanization of informal urban settlements are highly discussed, proposed and experimented. This probably is due to the fact that, in our city, many of these settlements occupy a prominent position in the landscape, disputing the territory with other uses considered nobler. However, the presence of the slum not only manifests itself in the landscape, it is also strongly linked to the city’s identity.

The first census of slums in Brazil was held in Rio in 1948, when it was found that more than 6% of the city’s residents were already living in this kind of informal settlement. In the 62 years that separate that survey and the 2010 Census, the population living in slums has continued to expand, with its geometric annual growth rates always exceeding the overall growth of the city. Today, the slum’s residents are already 22% of the population,

Until the 60’s, the slums were basically located between the downtown, southern and northern areas of the city. Nowadays, they are homogeneously present in all neighborhoods, from the richest to the poorest.


Source: Secretaria Municipal de Habitação (Municipal Department of Housing)

By the early 80’s, several isolated experiments of urbanization of slums had already been tried out in Rio de Janeiro and other cities in Brazil, but it’s from that decade on that, in the wake of Brazil’s re-democratization process and the resumption of the role of the municipalities, that some Brazilian city halls begun to run, in a systematic and institutionalized way, urbanization and regulation actions in the informal settlements. The cities of Recife, Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro were pioneers in these actions. In the following decade, with the success of these initiatives, such actions were spread across the country, driven by international funding agencies (IDB and IBRD) and by the Ministry of Cities.

Projeto Mutirão (Joint Effort Project)

The institutionalization process of the urbanization work in slums began in Rio de Janeiro in 1981 with the creation of Projeto Mutirão under the responsibility of the Secretaria Municipal de Assistência Social (Municipal Department of Social Welfare). It provided technical assistance, building materials, tools and resources for hiring skilled labor to the slum residents’ associations. With these inputs, the associations organized task forces to implement the paving of alleys, stairways, water and sewage networks and drainage systems, and eventually daycare facilities. All services were supervised by architects and engineers in the public service.

Programa Favela Bairro (Slum Improvement Program)

The city of Rio made a significant leap forward in the pattern of their interventions in the slums when it initiated the Programa Favela Bairro in 1994. Deployed at first as part of the city budget, it soon relied on external resources, through a loan agreement established with the Inter-American Development Bank. Under the focus of this new program, the urbanization works were no longer performed in an amateurish way, through joint efforts, and came to rely on the support of companies specializing in the design, management and construction contracted by public tender or bidding processes, and on a specialized institutional manager, the Municipal Department of Housing.

The first action of the program was to hold a public tender of methodologies for slum upgrading projects promoted in partnership with the Rio de Janeiro Department of the Institute of Architects of Brazil – IAB/RJ. In the first phase, 17 architecture firms were selected and hired to prepare projects for the first slums to benefit from the integrated works of urbanization. In total, 147 settlements were served by the Programa Favela Bairro, with a total population of 710,000 inhabitants. The program invested US$ 650 million in urbanization works, provision of social equipment, new housing and actions of social promotion, employment and income generation.

The Favela Bairro was the most comprehensive program of integrated urbanization of slums in its time and has been a model of public policy replicated in several cities in Brazil and Latin America.

The PAC of the Slums

Beginning in the year 2007, the Brazilian Federal Government instituted the Growth Acceleration Plan (PAC) with the aim of boosting the national economy, having incorporated the urbanization of slums as one of its goals. To achieve this goal, the government created the “PAC of the slums”, providing US$ 5.8 billion for this action. Of this amount, US$ 0.85 Billion (12% of the total) was allocated to the city of Rio de Janeiro, which indicates the level of technical and methodological capacity achieved by the city and its employees, the result of continuous and evolutionary action in the urbanization actions of the slums.

Programa Morar Carioca (Rio Living Program)

Morar Carioca started in 2009, using all the experience acquired from the past initiatives, and with the hope of producing a relevant social and urban legacy resulting from major events on the city calendar, it took the bold challenge of urbanizing all city slums by the year 2020. In order to accomplish this goal, a new program of slum urbanization was initiated: the Morar Carioca – Municipal Program for the Integration of Substandard Informal Urban Settlements.

After the goals were set, the foundations and guidelines of the new program were established, the scale, breadth and scope were redefined in relation to the previous experience (Favela Bairro). The interventions to be performed would no longer cover isolated slums but should cover clusters of neighboring slums where possible, encompassing a minimum of one thousand households. The diagnoses and proposals should also cover the formal interstitial urban fabric that exists between settlements, in order to promote a true urban integration of formal and informal areas.

As in the Favela Bairro, the Morar Carioca also established the strategy of hiring architecture firms through the public tender of methodologies, conducted in partnership with the Institute of Architects of Brazil. Thus, 40 teams of architects were selected among the 86 that showed up for the event.

Simultaneously with the preparation of the public tender, criteria were established for eligibility and prioritization of slums and/or groups of slums to be benefited by the Program. The proximity of the settlements to the Olympic equipment or new transportation corridors (BRT) to be built in the city was taken as a relevant criterion for the choice. Such guidance was aimed at establishing a synergy between the investments made for the Olympic Games with the investments in the urbanization of the slums.

The operation of the Programa Morar Carioca was established on the basis of an action plan put together by the technical staff of the Municipal Department of Housing, which determined a set of actions that are described and quantified in the table below:

Cycles Settlements Homes (Census of 2010) Investments (jan.2012) Period of Execution
Cycle 1 68 75,996 US$ 1.05 Billion 2010_2012
Cycle 2 218 112,409 US$ 1.90 Billion 2013_2016
Cycle 3 300 120,706 US$ 1.85 Billion 2017-2020
Subtotal 586 309,111 US$ 4.80 Billion
Settlements in Analysis 141 19,861 US$ 1.20 Billion 2010-2020
Settlements <100
206 13,838 US$ 0.40 Billion 2010-2012
Totals 933 342,810 US$ 6.40 Billion

Source: Municipal Department of Housing

The territorial distribution is illustrated in the map below.


Source: Municipal Department of Housing

Due to several factors linked to local, national and international circumstances, it is impossible to effectively ensure that the goal of urbanization of all slums will be met by 2020. Nevertheless, we can say that today in the city of Rio de Janeiro there is institutional and technical expertise, as well as political and social support for coping with this challenge.

The chart below, which shows the volume of resources in US$ invested from the 80’s on, and the officially scheduled resources for investment up to 2020, shows the importance of the theme for the social and political agenda of the city.


Source: Municipal Department of Housing – data organized by the author.

Urbanizing and integrating all substandard informal settlements (slums and irregular settlements) of Rio de Janeiro within a reasonable deadline is an acceptable challenge and an urgent task of our society. In times of democratic mobilization of citizens who are demanding that the basic rights of the population are met, the right to the city and decent housing imposes itself as one of the most important social legacies to be pursued and achieved as a result of large investments that the city, the state, and the nation are performing in order to make the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics viable. Not performing this task means losing the opportunity to show the world that the large events in Rio can be more than just big urban operations to generate stratospheric profits for contractors, real estate companies and other characters of the “Circus” of major international events.