Rio de Janeiro: the forgotten mix of city and metropolis or periphery of urban regeneration

Nowadays, the city of Rio de Janeiro is experiencing an important moment characterised by urban transformations that seem to reflect the overcoming of a period of crisis, which began at the end of the 70’s and became more intense in the 80’s. During this period, the city felt the nationwide impacts of unemployment, “informalisation” of labour, poverty, violence, increases in the number of slums, urban degradation, and violence. The neo-liberal political experiments of the 90’s maintained and exacerbated this situation.

The evidence of the city’s decline can be summarised in few figures: between 1989 and 1997, 22% of the industrial companies transferred to other regions of the country; in 1970, nine of the largest Brazilian banks had their headquarters in the city, but by 1991 only five remained; the Rio de Janeiro Stock Exchange transferred to São Paulo, joining BOVESPA; and in the 80’s and 90’s, the population living in the slums increased at the rates of 2.6% and 2.5% per year. This has been a long cycle of about 25 years of urban and economic decline, as well as the corrosion of the city’s social fabric. Fear and uncertainty became distinctive traits of the city’s daily life. The representation of “the marvellous city” almost disappeared as the metonymy of its inhabitants’ collective pride. Rio de Janeiro simply became a giant inner city of 6 million inhabitants.

Rio’s “miracle” took place by the second half of the 2000’s. As of 2005, a spectacular cycle of urban regeneration began, led by three factors: the awarding of Brazil and the city to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games; the return of national economic growth, allowing for more dynamic international trading; and the resumption of the State’s inducing role and the consequent expansion of public spending. At the same time, an urban coalition between previously conflicting parties emerged in the city, involving the different levels of government. This coalition implemented a governance model based on the design of urban entrepreneurship and set a strategy to transform the inner city into a global one, with the attributes of a city with the conditions to successfully participate in the interurban competition for global business flows. From a symbol of the structural problems of the Brazilian capitalist development and its crisis, Rio de Janeiro has transformed itself into the image of a successful Brazil, its economy takes-off towards an inflexion of its traditional standard of development combining economic expansion, formalization of employment, real increase in work income, decrease in social inequalities and poverty. Major public works trigger the expansion and upgrading of urban infrastructure, with the construction of new subway lines, new forms of urban mobility (BRT, LRT) and the renovation of the road system. Central areas hitherto degraded due to a long-term neglect by the government are subject to extensive urban renewal projects. Self-esteem, business and quality of life are regenerated. Thus, the city seems to resume its historical calling as “the marvellous city”, a myth cherished by the inhabitants of a tropical urban paradise. “Rio’s miracle” puts Rio de Janeiro into the current academic trend, as a successful experiment of the entrepreneurial governance model and urban policies guided by the objectives of the promotion of quality of life as a force that attracts business into the city.

It turns out, however, that if something is successful, it takes place in the shadows of a huge inner city shaped by the metropolitan periphery of Rio de Janeiro, with 19 other cities that hoard 5.5 million forgotten inhabitants. Rio de Janeiro is actually a mix of city and metropolis consisting of a densely urban territory, which is strongly unified by its job market and the urban needs of its inhabitants, but crisscrossed by artificial municipal boundaries. Among the 52 metropolitan areas in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro is the one with the highest degree of internal integration, according to the results of a study conducted by the Observatório das Metrópoles.

The map below shows this feature of Rio de Janeiro as a mix of city and metropolis. It conveys the functional territory of the metropolis, which in addition to being heavily integrated, is marked by extreme differences in quality of life. For example, in the municipalities of the metropolitan periphery only 46% of the population has access to sanitation services that are connected to the public sewage system.

Integration level of municipalities - According to Rio de Janeiro's Metropolitan Dynamic

Integration level of municipalities – According to Rio de Janeiro’s Metropolitan Dynamic

In addition to the urban conditions of life, the metropolitan region is also marked by the pronounced inequalities of present and future opportunities. Such is the case of children and young people’s access to basic education. The city of Rio de Janeiro has the most universal network of public and private schools in terms of meeting the needs of the population, in addition to becoming one of the most effective school systems. That is what quantifies the IDB-Basic Education Development Index. The interpretation of the graph highlights the asymmetry between the networks of cities that make up the metropolitan periphery and Rio de Janeiro’s.

IDEB – Index of Basic Education Development – (2005-2011)

IDEB1 – Index of Basic Education Development – (2005-2011)

Not only did we see the gap between the performance of the municipal systems of basic education, but rather their detachment from the cycle of regeneration of Rio de Janeiro.

The urban mobility systems, on the other hand, are being designed and implemented considering only the demands of Mega-Events, ignoring that 61% of the employed residents of the metropolitan periphery – about 740,000 people – travel to work daily in the city of Rio de Janeiro, where most of the job opportunities are concentrated. Housing appreciation, resulting from the intensity of private and public investment combined with the expropriations carried out for the construction of urban infrastructure, is increasing demand for mobility in the metropolitan scale, due to the migration from the city centre to the periphery. Indeed, more than 50% of the population that migrates from the city of Rio de Janeiro to one of the 19 other cities in the metropolitan area continues to work in central Rio. This is a classic case of spatial mismatch between housing markets and labour, with important impacts on inequalities in access to employment opportunities and income.

It is not possible to achieve the goal of increasing the quality of life without considering Rio de Janeiro as a mix of city and metropolis. However, the strategic plan of the city doesn’t even mention the existence of the Metropolitan periphery. This fact demonstrates the limits of the success of this praised urban regeneration experiment, via the model of entrepreneurial governance and focused on the goal of intercity competitiveness. This repeats itself in the case of Rio de Janeiro, the literature dedicated to the examining of the effects of similar urban policies has pointed out that the urban regeneration of the city takes place at the expense of increasing inequalities of real income of inhabitants measured by access to monetary income, urban welfare and opportunities. The forces that make up the urban coalition and the effects of its policies, based on the corporate design of the city, express a case similar to the historical events described by historian Barbara W. Tuchman as “The March of Folly”. We are not properly taking advantage of the historic opportunity created by the city’s preparation for the Mega-events of 2014 and 2016. The adopted development strategy, disregarding the mix of city and metropolis, tends to leave an even more unequal territory as legacy. This opportunity tends to be transitory due to coercive pressures of global economic flows, increasingly mobile, in increasing competitiveness among places, cities and regions. There are several examples of cities that achieved growth and regeneration cycles as a result of the adoption of these policies and, afterwards, ended up going through cycles of crisis and stagnation.

1 IDEB combines information on performance obtained by the students at the end of their basic education (the fifth and ninth years of fundamental education and the third year of middle level education) with an indicator of the promotion rate to the following school grades.