By Peter Bate
For decades, Rio de Janeiro’s slums appeared as blank areas on city maps. At best, these favelas, which house nearly one-fifth of the city’s inhabitants, were ignored by residents of richer neighborhoods and abandoned by local authorities. At worst, the favelas were vilified as social pockmarks that marred one of the world’s most beautiful urban settings—scars that had to be removed, by force if necessary.
However, after Brazil returned to democratic rule in the mid-1980s, a new attitude toward Rio’s favelas began to take shape, blending the hopes of its poorest citizens and the ideals of architects, urban planners, engineers, anthropologists, sociologists, economists and grassroots activists. Starting with a pilot program of small, self-help community projects, by the end of that decade the municipal government crafted an innovative strategy to deal with favelas. Rather than raze these settlements and cram their population into public housing, the city would seek to upgrade their basic infrastructure and provide much-needed social services.
In 1995, with the support of the IDB, Rio de Janeiro launched the Programa Favela-Bairro, an initiative that seeks to turn forlorn shantytowns, home to more than 1 million people, into proud neighborhoods, and to knit them into the formal city’s fabric.
Despite monumental challenges, Favela-Bairro has achieved remarkable success. The program, which has been hailed as a model for cities in developing countries, quickly gained popular support in Rio de Janeiro, to the point where two top politicians have battled publicly over who fathered the idea.
“Favela-Bairro is one of the most ambitious and forward-looking neighborhood upgrading programs that any city has ever launched to deal with marginal settlements, not only in Latin America but in the world,” says Dr. Janice E. Perlman, president of the Mega-Cities Project, a transnational network of specialists who analyze urban problems.
Under the program, the municipal government and the IDB have committed more than $600 million, the bulk of which will be spent on public works in some 120 of the city’s 600 favelas. These investments include opening streets and creating parks, playgrounds and other public spaces, as well as bringing essential services such as potable water, sewerage systems, storm drainage, garbage removal and public lighting to places where not even mail was delivered.
The program also offers beneficiary communities a menu of social services that are provided by civil society organizations. During Favela-Bairro’s first phase, which concluded in 2000, the program built daycare centers, indispensable to accommodate working mothers. For the second phase—and in response to demand from the residents themselves—other services were added such as school retention and reinforcement programs, youth leadership activities, counseling on domestic violence, sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy and drug and alcohol addiction. An income-generation component offering adult education and job training was also included in the menu of options.
“We did not have to look far to find what was needed. The people told us what they wanted,” says IDB project team leader José Brakarz, a Rio-born urban planner who has worked on Favela-Bairro since Brazilian officials first proposed the plan almost a decade ago.
The IDB provided much more than financial resources to support the program, Rio officials say. Working closely with their counterparts, the members of the IDB team helped the city organize an executing unit and develop a implementation methodology that included indicators to determine the order in which favelas would be upgraded and cost controls to keep the project within budget. Government engineers who once supervised small community-improvement projects became managers of programs to upgrade whole neighborhoods.
From the start, Favela-Bairro shunned one-size-fits-all solutions. “Different favelas have different needs and demand different solutions,” says the program’s manager, Marcia Garrido. During the first phase, the city held design competitions for proposals to upgrade favelas containing between 500 and 2,500 homes. The contests drew creative entries from established architectural firms as well as from young professionals eager to make a difference. In subsequent stages, competitions were replaced with public tenders.
Community involvement. Under the program’s participative methodology, proposals are discussed in detail with each community’s residents, who decide the location of physical infrastructure projects and what social services will be provided, based on the program’s limits for how much can be spent per beneficiary family. Community involvement helps smooth the way to make tough decisions, such as relocating families to make room for wider roads or removing homes from high-risk areas.
The results of the infrastructure projects have surprised even the beneficiaries. “Our quality of life has improved a lot,” says Sandra Nogueira, president of the neighborhood association of Grota, a community of 3,500 people on the Morro da Serrinha. “We no longer walk in mud because our streets are paved. We no longer drink polluted water because we have our own water tank,” she says. “And when people see that the community improves, they start to take care of their own homes.”
Such outcomes are similar in other favelas around the city, where small piles of sand and bricks can be spotted outside individual homes. In Ana Gonzaga, a low-income subdivision with some 3,700 residents in Rio de Janeiro’s western zone, Favela-Bairro helped turn around a neighborhood that had no water service, no paved streets, no public lighting and no sewers. By providing infrastructure that the original developers failed to build, the program will allow Ana Gonzaga residents to apply for legal title to their properties.
Jaciara Padilha dos Santos, president of the neighborhood association, points out that Ana Gonzaga now has five public squares and a pedestrian street that doubles as a playground, garbage pickup three times a week, a daycare center serving 150 infants and toddlers, afterschool programs for children and adolescents between the ages of 7 and 17 and access to counseling services for domestic violence. “Frankly, before the project started, most people here did not believe that these things would actually happen,” she adds.
The program has also had measurable impacts on the real estate market. House prices have doubled in neighborhoods that have benefited from Favela-Bairro, while prices in nearby areas have risen about 20 percent, according to Aderbal José Curbelo, technical coordinator at Rio de Janeiro’s Housing Secretariat. A survey of 34 favelas included in the program found that businesses were also mushrooming, almost doubling to 2,250 enterprises.
Mounting challenges. As Favela-Bairro matures, the program faces increasing challenges. It began in settlements where it was most likely to succeed, in order to gain experience and build momentum. As the program expands, every new community presents more complex problems than the previous ones. Plus, neighborhoods that have been upgraded require maintenance. Physical infrastructure can deteriorate, community-based programs can be bogged down, high-risk areas can be resettled. And then there is crime, a major and growing concern for citizens across Rio de Janeiro.
People commonly refer to the drug gangs that operate in some of the largest favelas as o poder paralelo (the parallel power), a shadowy force that challenges the government. Rio de Janeiro officials have long been aware that crime thrives wherever public authority is absent. However, the city’s law enforcement options are limited by the fact that municipalities in Brazil do not control the police, which answers to state and federal authorities. As a result, the city must rely on tools like the Favela-Bairro program to fight the conditions that foster violence.
Marcia Garrido, the program’s manager, mentions the case of Vigidal, a favela in the southern zone of Rio de Janeiro. A public space with a playground, a daycare center and kiosks was built right in front of a house used by a gang to peddle drugs. “Today there are 120 kids in the crèche, 100 more in afterschool programs, soccer games are going on all the time, dance classes. (The drug pushers) didn’t stick around, they moved somewhere else,” she says. Other neighborhoods, nonetheless, have not been so lucky.
Favela-Bairro officials put great hopes in the program’s income-generation component, which is aimed at raising productivity levels and creating more economic opportunities for the poor. While a majority of adults in these communities work, their income levels are far below those of their better-off neighbors. According to data from Brazil’s 2000 census, the average monthly income for a head of household in Barra da Tijuca, one of Rio de Janeiro’s toniest districts, was 5,175 reais. In the nearby Favela do Angu Duro, it was just 382 reais. In contrast, drug gangs reportedly pay youngsters around 600 reais a month to act as lookouts at their sales points. Under Favela-Bairro, a voucher system was devised to help self-employed workers and microentrepreneurs gain access to vocational training as well as technical assistance for the establishment of cooperatives. Adult education courses were crafted to address the relatively high levels of illiteracy among older residents in the favelas. André Urani, an economist who was Rio de Janeiro’s labor secretary when the income-generation component was designed, stresses that integration must go beyond physical infrastructure and public services. “Providing running water and public lighting is all very good, but if people remain illiterate and unemployed, they won’t have money to pay their utility bills,” he says.
Spreading development. Acknowledging the challenge, Rio de Janeiro’s authorities are taking stock of what Favela-Bairro has achieved and of what lies ahead. Among the program’s officials there is talk of a possible pilot experience to try to furnish the full menu of services in one community, as opposed to limiting the choices. The Housing Secretariat is carrying out many initiatives to tackle other urban problems: Bairrinho, a program to upgrade the smallest favelas; Morar Legal, a land titling and property regularization program in informal subdivisions and Novas Alternativas, an urban renewal program that promotes the recycling of old buildings to bring back businesses and create low-cost housing.
The city has also started to address the problems of some of Rio de Janeiro’s largest favelas. In Jacarezinho, a community with nearly 60,000 inhabitants, former Favela-Bairro manager Maria Lúcia Petersen is working on the Célula Urbana (urban cell) project with Germany’s Bauhaus Dessau Foundation. The project seeks to open up public spaces or “cells” within the congested favela in order to provide places for recreation, education and commerce, while at the same time upgrading the neighborhood’s physical infrastructure and social services. “The idea is that the urban cell will spread development to other parts of the favela,” says Petersen.
Favela-Bairro has generated many lessons that will be applied to places like Jacarezinho, she added. The most important one, in Petersen’s view, is that these programs demand continuity, especially in terms of budgeting—a major challenge when dealing with complex undertakings involving numerous agencies. But the most radical lesson, she said, is that it is possible to turn around slums and capitalize the investments made by their inhabitants. Rather than uprooting people from where they have built their lives, Rio de Janeiro is providing solutions to a century-old urban problem at a fraction of the cost of building new neighborhoods. “When we first came up with the idea, everyone thought we were crazy,” Petersen says. “But it works.”