The Urbanization of Rio de Janeiro's Slums, a Model for Sustainable Development

"The one who likes poverty is the intellectual, poor people like luxury."

The quote is from Joãosinho Trinta, a late Brazilian 'carnavalesco' (artist who creates themes, infrastructure and costumes for samba schools' parades), and seems to summarize a key issue in the sustainable development dilemma: while humanity as a whole needs to reduce its consumption and become respectful with resources, segments of the population in developing economies are starting to get out of poverty and they don't want to know nothing about frugality.

More than how developed countries moderate their consumption of resources, it is the way these people are lifted into a healthy and purposeful life what's going to determine if we can find a way to live in this world in a sustainable way.

Rio de Janeiro's program to urbanize all of the city's famous slums (favelas) is an ambitious attempt to do this, which appears to be using the right concepts: retrofitting, green building, waste education, local economies building. Although still in an early stage, if successful this plan can be a model for other cities to walk the path.


Scenario to pop culture icons like Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Care About Us music video and the Academy Award nominated movie City of God, Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are the most famous slums in the world. Like most precarious settlements in Latin America, they spread when industrialization in the region drew country workers into town in the 1950s, and the lack of affordable housing in the city and good mass transportation to live outside of it made them settle wherever they could find a spot (here, on the slopes of the city's hills). They later stayed there as development generated wealth for the few who already had it, a constant in this part of the world.

By the 1970s 13% of the city’s population lived in slums, and the number kept rising until reaching 22% of the population now (1.4 million people from a total of 6.3 million, according to figures from the City Hall Housing Office).

Although failed announcements to eradicate settlements and to improve the living conditions of residents have been many, the trend seems to be changing not only in Rio but in the region, from Medellin to Buenos Aires.

However, the city hosting this year's RIo+20 Earth Summit, the World Cup final match in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 has the biggest challenge, not only because its slums are huge and on hills, but also because they used to be home to drug mobs which caused about 50,000 deaths in two decades from 1979 to 2000.

Pacification Leads to Urbanization

When the first Earth Summit took place in Rio in 1992, then governor Leonel Brizola ordered the construction of the first segment of the expressway Linha Vermelha to secure that official participants wouldn’t be hit by bullets when arriving from the airport. That year Rio had 3,547 murders, or about 10 a day. Facts which give an idea about the social climate reigning back then.

But Rio's streets are a dramatically different story now. Murders have been reduced to a third thorough the city, and while Rio was a regular in "Most Dangerous Cities of the World" rankings, it's nowhere to be found in 2011 reports by Mercer Consulting and by Mexican organization Seguridad, Justicia y Paz.

The Police Pacification Unit (UPP) at Santa Marta favela in Rio. Photo© Paula Alvarado

Part of the change was the installation of Pacifying Police Units (UPP, for its Portuguese translation) in favelas: a program which combines the entry and permanence of armed military police with the implementation of social services to reduce gangs' oppression in the population (above, the UPP at Santa Marta favela).

So far, 28 favelas in the South, West, Center and North of the city were reclaimed from drug dealers and gangs, and this has paved the way for the creation of the Morar Carioca urbanization plan.

Rio de Janeiro Living

Morar Carioca, portuguese for Rio de Janeiro Living, is the name of the plan to turn all favelas into neighborhoods by 2020. Funded by City Hall, the Federal Government and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the program combines interventions to provide public services and to improve people's homes, along with the construction of new housing and community infrastructure.

Workers at the Babilonia-Chapeu Mangueira favela project. Photo© Paula Alvarado

Interventions -which are executed by workers from within the community when possible- are varied and holistic, and they include installing sewage collection (grey waters run down on open gutters in most of favelas), running water, rainwater collection (to prevent slides), access and transportation facilities (stairs, elevators, cable cars, whatever fits, both for elder people and for workers to be able to provide services such as trash collection), and the relocation of families whose households are installed in risk areas.

“Our office is not focused on works, but on people: works are done to deliver citizenship to those families," said Jorge Bittar, Secretary of Housing, to TreeHugger in an interview in Rio. "As incredible as it seems, even the proper use of sewage is something that needs to be the subject of special care and education: people are not used to it and they may throw objects that block the pipes.”

The publicity the program received may make it seem like the process is advanced, but only works from the first phase are about to be completed. Still, an impressive achievement: more than 79,000 households are being attended and works such as new housing at Rocinha, a Child Development Center (photo below) and Work and Income Center at the Providencia favela, and a much publicized cable car system and a cultural center called 'Knowledge Square' at the Complexo de Alemao community (below, second and third) have been inaugurated.

Child Development Center at the Providencia favela in Rio de Janeiro. Photo© Rio International Press Office

Knowledge Square cultural center at the Compleixo de Alemao favela. Photo© Rio International Press Office

For the second stage the City Hall organized a public contest in partnership with the Brazilian Institute of Architects from which 40 studios were selected to work in 40 different areas of the city. Those will attend 40,000 households until 2016. The final stage should see all favelas integrated to the city by 2020.

“The ideal is that favelas become new neighborhoods, with different characteristics, but with all public services functioning," adds Bittar. "We don’t want the favela to look like the surrounding buildings, they have their own culture and history, their own architecture. We don’t care if houses are different, but we want them to be healthy, habitable. We want them to have quality of life.”


The focus on public space is a common one in these kinds of interventions, but Morar Carioca is different in that it also going indoors to improve the quality of built houses (both in structure and in quality of living). Just by looking at some constructions (photos below), one can see it is a monumental aim: it will take 10% of the total budget of the program and it’s not a set of pre-set improvements but a case-by-case plan for each house made by an architect and a social worker after a series of interviews with the dwellers.

Improvements include increasing the number of windows if ventilation is not enough, waterproofing of walls and ceilings, electrical and sanitary installations, etc. These can also reduce the impact of the house: if natural ventilation is improved, the dwellers will reduce the energy used for cooling the place. They’re calculating the budget for each conditioned home in around 18,000 Reais (about 8900 US dollars).

The precarious structure of a favela house in Santa Marta. Photo© Paula Alvarado

The precarious structure of a favela house in Santa Marta. Photo© Paula Alvarado

“The house interventions are the hardest. We know nothing about how the house was built and we have to go into people’s homes, interrupt their routines and mess with their lives and dreams," says Flavio Vieira Texeira, an architect in charge of works at the Babilonia-Chapeu Mangueira favela. "You have to think about architecture but also consider the history of each person.”

A harder subject, considering these communities were illegally installed, is land ownership, which will be addressed when the whole urbanization process is finished.

Testing Sustainable Building

Another interesting bit of the massive project is Morar Carioca Verde: a pilot program underway at the Babilônia/ Chapéu-Mangueira favelas, which serves as a laboratory to test green practices that can later be applied to other communities.

Rendering for the Morar Carioca Verde sustainable building project. Photo© Rio International Press Office

During the construction of new housing, a commercial center, a new cultural center (rendering above) and on the interventions that will take place in private homes, the project will incorporate responsible practices such as water and energy efficiency improvement (installing lower consumption equipments, LED lamps, solar water heaters, rainwater collection), use of sustainable construction materials, waste management control in the building process (reusing demolition materials, among other measures), household waste management and recycling, and reforestation of the surrounding environmentally protected areas, among others. Additionally, since the two favelas are next to an ecological reserve, the idea is that tourists can access the trails through the community and that locals are prepared to serve them as guides.

Trash for Light

If one considers that trash collection is usually carried away by big trucks that need flat streets to roll, it’s not difficult to understand why it is a difficult issue in favelas. One does not always grasp that these communities are literally built on hillsides (meaning their base is made with columns of different legs to achieve a solid ground) and therefore do not have streets or vehicles. In the small hallways from which you access homes there’s only space for pedestrians, bikes or motorcycles, but even those are not so popular.

Different alternatives for collection are being tested (although walking through the houses you can confirm the assumption that trash is tossed down anywhere), but an interesting approach is the Light Recicla program, in which the provider Light offers discounts on electricity bills in exchange for recyclable materials.

A collection point for the Light Recicla program, which takes recyclables in exchange for electricity discounts. Photo© Paula Alvarado

The aims are not only environmental: favela dwellers have only began paying for electricity a few years ago and not all of them honor the bills. So the discounts aim at people getting the habit to pay as much as helping reduce the garbage that stays up and the one that is collected.

Shaping Local Economies Through Tourism and Community Building

One of the most interesting programs aimed at developing local skills and creating jobs is called Rio Top Tour, which teaches locals tourism practices for them to become guides.

The subject of tourism in favelas is not easy from a moral point of view: it's complicated to say whether being curious about how poor people live is even acceptable, and harder still to tell when curiosity ends and voyeurism begins. But what makes the program interesting is that from its title (Rio Top Tour, very different from the "Favela Tour" some private companies offer) it invites visitors to go up to enjoy the view: a subtle detail which makes a difference. At Santa Marta, the tour revolved around Jackson and his hit video, one of the stops being a statue of him in a viewpoint.

The part about locals being the guides is important too: while visiting the Santa Marta community, my guide Salete told me she used to work in a kiosk at the favela entrance and was one of the first to enroll to receive classes and become a guide. When she realized there was business to be made, she encouraged her husband and other relatives to enter the program, and she didn’t stop either: she studied to get a State grade and she's not stopping. “Brazil is going to be small soon,” she said with a smile.

Works oriented to enrich the communities economies also include building infrastructure for cooperatives that have formed in favelas through the years. At Morro de la Providencia, for example, they set up a Work and Income Center (below) and helped a group of sewing women.

Work and Income Center at Morro da Providencia favela in Rio. Photo© Rio International Press Office

Additionally, a program called Rio plus Rio is acting as bridge between communities and companies. Since the new Brazilian "C class" lives in favelas, companies are eager to move in.

Earlier this year, the cover of Carta Capital magazine featured a Brazilian flag half crumpled and the title: "Growth is not development." The story exposed how the positive press the country was getting abroad didn't necessarily mean everything was ok (more than half households in all Brazil don't have access to the sewage system, for example).

Bringing this up is important because to talk about an urbanization plan in slums and show nice pictures of new buildings can give the wrong impression: the work is barely beginning. But the fact that words are turning into works is positive. And the fact in the city hosting the upcoming Rio+20 Earth Summit, those works are considering themes such as local development, green building and sustainable transportation is not small.

Follow our coverage of Rio+20 here.

The Urbanization of Rio de Janeiro's Slums, a Model for Sustainable Development
On the road to provide a healthy and rich life to everyone on developing nations, Rio de Janeiro's program to urbanize its famous slums is testing interesting ideas that could be picked by other cities.

Related Content on