Work has only just begun

In Brazil, change has always come slowly, while inequality has weighed heavily. In this context, Rio de Janeiro developed with informal settlements scattered among middle- and upper-class neighbourhoods. The rich didn’t want to live on hilltops without electricity, water or rubbish and sewage collection, but they didn’t mind if their servants resided conveniently close by.

Such geography led to a symbiosis that produced rich interconnecting webs of personal relations, Carnival, samba, funk, beach culture, art, and much else worth celebrating. At the same time, those webs, unchecked by government or the press, together with a phase of liberalisation following the departure of the 1964–85 military government, allowed criminal gangs to take over and run informal territories, or favelas.

As kidnappings and other crimes spread, and the economy foundered, in the 1980s Rio lost banks, the stock market and much else, to São Paulo. Factories closed. The city’s downtown and its contiguous port went into decay and lost its residential population.

Due to the ensuing safety issues as well as the daunting complexity of urban renewal, residents, commerce, investment and real estate developers turned westwards to rural and empty beachfront areas within the city limits.

This exodus was particularly devastating for the industrial and working-class North Zone, close to the port and the international airport (which then became assets for those who went into the drugs and weapons businesses). But even the glitzy South Zone – Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon – suffered private- and public-sector neglect and depreciation, with residents dodging bullets flying off drug-dealers’ hilltops.

And, although there are few hilltops in the expanding lagoon-dotted West Zone, a similar pattern emerged there: construction workers and other unskilled labourers were relegated to the edges of mangrove swamps, while their employers swarmed to beachfront property, gated communities and shopping malls. Ultimately, the city had allowed developers to build what amounted to a Brazilian Miami – without a sewerage system or effective public transportation. Traffic jams, favelas and clogged lagoons ensued, with the city’s poorest section in its furthest reaches.

The 1990s and 2000s saw the rich building ever-higher walls in the entire city, hiring ever-bigger armies of security personnel, and keeping close to home and work. The city withered. In the latter decade, the Rio’s state-run police force, largely corrupt (partnering with the drug and weapons trade), kept an uneasy peace by way of periodic incursions into North and South Zone favelas. In the West Zone, off-duty and retired police and firemen organised milícias. Welcomed at first, these groups evolved into violent extortionist gangs with their own wheeling and dealing in the areas of transport, bottled cooking gas and infrastructure – and got themselves duly represented on the city council and in the state legislature.

With the election of Sérgio Cabral as governor in 2006, the Rio police took a new approach to public safety, which gained continuity with his 2010 re-election. Dubbed pacification, the largely successful policy focuses on retaking territory from drug traffickers, mostly in the North and South Zones. Reducing daily gun violence directly, so far, for about 500,000 favela residents, the policy has halved Rio’s homicide rate (to 24 per 100,000 a year, although numbers seem to fluctuate slightly between sources), raised real estate values, drawn investment and allowed citizens greater mobility.1

Thus began an urban turnaround that now faces huge challenges. Rio has become in effect two cities. The sprawling West Zone, riddled with milícias and new construction, will host most of the 2016 Olympic Games. The degraded, more densely populated North and South Zones, safer than in decades past, are starting to integrate both formal and informally settled areas into a single vibrant fabric.

Then there is the Centre, where tunnels and open areas will replace an elevated motorway, augmenting access to the Bay. Light rail transportation will connect new office buildings in the renovated port area to the traditional centre. A cable-car system will take residents and tourists up and down to Rio’s oldest favela, Morro da Providência. What the expanded downtown will look and feel like in five or ten years is an open question.

It should be noted that all of this takes place in a context of nearly full employment, the result of local petroleum and gas investment, a series of mega-events, federal funding for local initiatives, significant national economic growth (starting to ebb now), and the widening of Brazil’s socio-economic pyramid, with thousands of Rio’s 1.4 million favela residents joining the formal economy and the lower ranks of the middle classes.

The challenge is basically to transform a two-tier system (public, for the poor, and private, for the better-off) of transport, education, public safety, housing and health into something more democratic. Added to this are the inefficiencies of a state-run public sanitation company that provides water to just about everyone, but collects and adequately treats the sewage of only 30 per cent of the city.

The transformation requires changing the priorities, the mindset and the standing of a host of entrenched interests, political and economic. These interests have long called the shots in Rio. Elected representatives rubber-stamped the mayor and governor’s wishes, with little initiative or accountability to voters, perpetuating and strengthening the power of urban players, including the milícias, bus and construction companies, and real estate developers.

The elected city council is apparently so useless that Mayor Eduardo Paes, a modern-minded, yet authoritarian young politician voted into a second term last year, appointed a new City Council of 136 members to advise him on two strategic plans. Notably, none of its illustrious, mostly white, mostly male, members live in a favela.

Meanwhile, citizens have traditionally shunned what they consider to be ‘dirty politics’, with the upper classes simply pulling strings when they need to. Local media, virtually monopolised by the Globo empire, have only this year begun to report on how Rio truly functions.

To further close the inequality gap, preserve diversity and hasten lasting social change – in other words, to realise its enormous cultural and economic potential – the city of Rio proper (population 6.3 million) must now provide full-blown city and state services to both formal and informal areas, address transportation issues stemming from urban sprawl, and bring together North, South and West Zones into a workable territory that, at 1,182km2, is an enormous challenge even without the neighbouring towns that double the population to a metropolitan area of twelve million souls. In comparison, New York City, covering 1,213km2 and London, at 1,572km2, are each home to just over eight million. But these megalopolises are set in more highly developed democracies, with many more checks and balances on urban development.

Governor Cabral and Mayor Paes, supported by ample federal funding, have achieved much. Yet the progress seems diminished by the long roster of what remains to be done:

  • Coordinate with neighbouring cities around metropolitan issues such as harbour clean-up, inter-municipal transport, employment and long-term public safety policies. Greater Rio accounts for three quarters of the state’s total population of 16 million.
  • Demilitarise and unify Rio’s several police forces, with better training and efficiency, to reduce abuse and improve pacification efforts. Although public safety officials have arrested growing numbers of drug traffickers, they must also address criminals’ flight within the metropolitan area.
  • Focus on housing, particularly low-income, and particularly close to jobs. Housing policy centres on the federal low-income Minha Casa Minha Vida (MCMV, My House My Life) programme, plagued by corruption, bureaucracy, shoddy construction, and a lack of community participation and vision as to where and how low-income families should live in dignity. The MCMV programme contracted the build of 90,211 homes in the state of Rio de Janeiro, and by last July had only delivered 16,216 units. Other efforts have produced even smaller results.
  • Further improve public health and education, while increasing coordination between state and municipal levels.
  • Make good on a widely heralded programme, Morar Carioca, to upgrade all favelas by 2020, now scaled back to provide infrastructure only – due to lack of government funds and market incentives.
  • Further improve public transport. This has focused on connecting the West Zone to the rest of the city, with dedicated bus lanes and an extension to a line of the state metro concession. Experts call for upgrades of existing North Zone train lines, to keep residents closer to the centre and add value to a region in decline. The city has noticeably reorganised and improved bus service but this still falls far short of passenger demands, at the centre of constant pressure on the city council.

The constant pressure on the elected city council demand has arisen from street demonstrations that erupted last June, settling in downtown Rio and outside the governor’s South Zone offices and apartment building.

Before June 2013, it looked as though Rio’s transformation would undermine the unusual symbiosis among its diverse groups, gentrifying the South and some North Zone hilltops and pushing westwards those unable to afford these areas. It seemed as though the historic port area, almost wholly restricted to office buildings, museums and cruise ship services (including tourism), would remain mostly dark and silent at night and on weekends.

This may still happen. But politicians have demonstrated increased sensitivity to voters. Some backtracking has occurred, and new dialogues are under way. Growing foreign interest and pressure, together with better access to information and a sense that real change is possible, are fuelling the process.

Notably, significant give and take, particularly on the subjects of mobility and housing, has begun between city hall and the local chapter of the Brazilian Architects’ Institute, which represents the city’s top architects and planners. The mayor’s July decision to allow urban renewal for residents of Vila Autódromo, an informal settlement previously in the path of Olympic Village bulldozers, indicates the possibility of preserving, in some cases, the positive features of informal settlements. And the governor is rethinking plans to privatise the renovated Maracanã football stadium, set to exclude less prosperous sports enthusiasts and slated to demolish a public school, a swimming complex and a building used by Brazilian indigenous groups.

Rio’s citizens and media (and, perhaps, the politicians themselves) have begun to understand that politics need not be quite so ‘dirty’. In fact, what’s occurring in Rio de Janeiro is a transition away from a favour-exchanging populist system towards a more complete participatory democracy. And this, though messy and unpredictable, can only bode well for one of the world’s most charming and unique cities.

1 United States Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, OSAC. Brazil 2013 Crime and Safety Report: Rio de Janeiro. Available at

Julia Michaels is a journalist and produces the RioReal blog.