Will Rio’s Development Surge Bring Social Integration?

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“I’m going to Rio”, “I just got back from Rio”, “I want to go Rio”. It seems that everywhere I go I hear Rio this or Rio that. But even before Brazil’s second-largest city became the supra hit it has become after the announcements that it will host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, it was known for its illustrative Carnival celebrations (that are about a month away), its famed neighborhoods Ipanema and Copacabana, and its Afro-Brazilian funk and Samba tunes. And the city is also well known for its favelas—a form of informal urbanism that has responded to the government’s failure to provide affordable housing to the poorest of Cariocas (Rio residents).

Rio is burgeoning with even more activity than before. In preparation for the upcoming mega-events, change abounds and big plans have started a transformation of some city neighborhoods. Some say that Brazil’s promises for more social integration coupled with the breath-taking beauty of the city was the key to Rio’s victory for the Olympic Games. However, as the transformations occur the change seems to be most drastically affecting favela residents, with revitalization projects that do not include the favelas as they are today or with the legitimization of favela properties that add new costs to its residents.

For instance, the future of Providência – established for over 100 years and Rio’s oldest favela – is uncertain. While the plan includes the favela as a whole, 800 homes are slated for demolition to make room for new infrastructure that will facilitate increased tourism. In other instances the concerns are not evictions, but rather the additional costs of services and taxes associated with legitimization—costs that may be too onerous for some families and will force them out to other favelas that are not yet legitimized.

Arguably, today the biggest challenge in Rio’s development plans is integration. Interventions should happen to avoid exacerbating current spatial segregations in Rio, but it is questionable if the government’s integration rhetoric is being followed-up with actual action. Favela residents are starting to organize against bulldozing government actions and demanding to be treated as first class citizens of the city that have a voice in the development process. While they welcome change and would like it to incorporate them, they fear that the plans for their neighborhoods will exclude and further marginalize them. As can be seen in the above video (in Portuguese), residents from the favela of Vila Autódromo are well organized. They have joined forces to challenge municipal plans and devise an alternative project with the help of academics and NGOs.

Beyond bureaucratic challenges, there are cultural challenges that are much more engrained in the perspectives of the Brazilian elite and that perpetuate subsistent inequalities. The cultural challenges for integration are many. Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery and it remains a highly segregated country. Thus, solutions for integration must keep in mind the cultural realities in Rio, but they must also challenge them. After all, slavery has been abolished for many years and the tones of the promises made to the Olympics Committee acknowledged the need to lessen social segregation. In the next four years and beyond, Rio needs to better facilitate the provision of adequate housing stock for all segments of the population and better incorporate the needs of all residents into the growth of the city. In its path to integration Rio should consider integrating market mechanisms to produce affordable housing with inclusionary housing policies that mandate new developments to be mixed-income and that can increase cultural tolerances that will support and compliment social integration.  As seen in other countries, the road to social integration, slum relief, racial tolerance and poverty eradication is a difficult path. But I believe the Rio of the 21st century is up for the challenge.

Image courtesy of Adam Reeder on flickr