Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Brazil’s Little Platoons

Residents of Rio's famed slums are tougher and more self-sustaining than the Olympic games displacing them.
Favelas flag

Nearly a quarter of Rio de Janeiro’s population—1.4 million people—lives in informal settlements known as favelas, where their legal rights only theoretically apply. In these communities, residents don’t even have the right to occupy the houses in which their families have lived for generations, and the whole city is following its country into economic and political crisis.

As the Olympics shine a spotlight on the tin roofs of Rio’s favelas, the settlements are currently famous for the violence between their gangs and police, and their endemic poverty. But just a decade ago, favelas were the promising playground of New Urbanism and an incubator for Brazilian civil society.


Favelas share the informal status of shantytowns (that is, residents lack legal land title) but they have a far more permanent character than that term implies. Favelas have reinforced structures, longstanding businesses, and community organizations much like the formal city, but they lack public services like water, sewage, and pavement. As such, favela residents, or favelados, have long been self-sufficient. Most construction, maintenance, and sanitation work is done collectively by neighbors, actions referred to as the mutirão. The collaborative, improvisational nature of favelas is also evident in their architecture, as described by longtime Rio anthropologist Janice Perlman:

Ownership is a relative concept in the favelas: less like a designation, more like a continuum. Favela dwellings typically started out as small shacks (barracos) made of wattle and daub or wood, cardboard, and other kinds of scrap materials. … Bater um laje, adding another story to one’s home, is almost a constant process. The house is the main, often only, family asset and provides sources of income from rentals, commerce, and services (day care, hair and nail salons, equipment repair) to small-scale production.

Today, there are over 700 such favelas circling Rio de Janeiro, ranging from relatively compact communities like Santa Marta (4,000 residents) to enormous neighborhoods like Rocinha (70,000 residents). While the first favelas were constructed in the now moneyed city center and South Zones, historically most of them are located in the industrial, working-class North Zone. These days, the area with the fastest-growing favela population is the peripheral but glamorous West Zone—where the vast majority of the Olympics, and therefore anti-favela scrutiny, is taking place.

Historically, the state has treated the favelas as a threat, whether to public health, peace, or tourism. They were razed wholesale for much of the 20th century. Much like slum eradication programs in the United States, the government was much more effective at destroying favelas than safely rehousing their residents. In the U.S., organic low-income housing options were regulated out of the market for the most part. The availability of mobile homes is inherently limited, while zoning requirements vastly increased the cost of self-built homes. Public housing, often at a low quality of living, was the only remaining option for most of the displaced and their children.

Meanwhile, when favelados were rehoused at all, they were put in totalitarian public-housing experiments like the gated Parques Proletarios, where an evening loudspeaker would broadcast moral lectures. But such projects were short-lived, and Rio’s zoning demands only mattered insofar as they could be enforced. So self-built, communal favela living went on, merely shifting from area to area on the outskirts of the city. After favelados organized to fight forced removal in the 1970s and 1980s, official policy shifted from eradication to “urbanization,” upgrading and integrating favelas into the city proper.


In 1992, the city of Rio de Janeiro passed Plano Diretor, a master plan for urban design that established an explicit goal of “integrating the favelas into the formal city” and “preserving their local character.” As Rio-based journalist Catherine Osborn pointed out, this was a far cry from the 1937 city building code that referred to favelas as “aberrations.” Osborn further explained that this mandate formed part of a wider demand for urban integration in city politics. After Cesar Maia barely edged out favela-born Benedita da Silva in the 1992 Rio mayoral elections, he prioritized neighborhood improvement projects in an attempt to address her destitute voters’ concerns.

The most significant of these new initiatives was Favela-Bairro, the brainchild of architect and Municipal Secretary of Urbanism Luiz Paulo Conde. Unlike past urbanization projects, Favela-Bairro would prioritize public spaces rather than private homes. Its goal—reflected in the program’s name, which means “Slum-to-Neighborhood”—was to integrate the informal city into the formal one, both legally and in terms of infrastructure and public services.

The first phase of Favela-Bairro ran from 1994 to 2000 and reached 38 favelas. It focused on basic infrastructure: installing water, gutter, sewerage, and lighting hardware; improving roads to connect the favelas with surrounding areas; and expanding access to garbage collection. Of the public works originally proposed, 90 percent were eventually implemented.

The second phase of Favela-Bairro ran from 2000 to 2005 and reached 62 more favelas. While infrastructure continued to be a priority, this phase focused on social development. Child-care centers were built, a land-titling program was implemented, and favelados were trained to assist in sanitation projects.

Though Favela-Bairro was by far the biggest expenditure in the city budget, it was met with wide popular support as well as international acclaim, which helped secure renewed funding for an extension of the program. Notably, the program continued without disturbance under three different mayoral administrations—Cesar Maia served nonconsecutive terms as mayor, interrupted by Luiz Paulo Conde himself.

The program’s popularity over the years was largely due to the savvy of the architecture firm that won the competitive contract to carry out Favela-Bairro, Jorge Mario Jáuregui Architects (JMJA). JMJA’s approach has been described as “working within the logic of the favela, recognising that established neighbourhoods have their own organisational and support structures, which should be enhanced and protected whenever possible.” While the fundamental policies of Favela-Bairro were top-down (something for which the city government was roundly criticized), JMJA mapped out designs with favela leaders, embracing the informal, improvisational, idiosyncratic character of favela architecture. For instance, existing impromptu paths were paved and formalized, while relocation housing for residents in precarious areas was styled after nearby houses. Favela residents like community organizer Deley de Acari appreciated the reinforcement of existing roads, a choice that preserved the “beautiful” design of favelas, so “reminiscent of old, high-density European cities.”

When Jáuregui’s work on Favela-Bairro was awarded Harvard’s Veronica Rudge Green Prize in Urban Design in 2000, jury member Rodolfo Machado lauded the “this-is-not-a-manifesto” attitude of his team, which “embraces the site specificity of its work and does not claim universal value for its actions.” Moreover, he said, the architects “realize that their architecture serves a social purpose, that it cannot afford to be disliked by the community, and that it must be understood to be accepted, maintained, and kept functioning by the population.”

As Adrian Parr wrote in Hijacking Sustainability, this philosophy was underpinned by “some of the principles common to New Urbanism’s approach to development.” That is, JMJA went beyond the basic requirements of infrastructure and tried to establish neighborhoods. Parr further observed that New Urbanism strives “to overcome the social alienation and physical disintegration of the modern city by creating an environment defined by human scale,” and that socially alienated, physically disintegrating favelas are primed for this design approach. Indeed, Favela-Bairro’s proposals of increasing transit via improved roads, building public spaces, and legitimizing ownership in order to preserve mixed-use buildings were right out of the New Urbanist playbook.

Ultimately, though, favelas already have what New Urbanism aims to foster: a sense of belonging. Favela-Bairro was unable to blur the boundary between favela and asfalto in part because of a simple failure of commitment to infrastructure and in part because favelas have a cultural identity that resists erasure. Even full beneficiaries of Favela-Bairro like Acari—a favela in the North Zone with 27,000 residents, making it a mid-size community—remain favelas rather than bairros, or formal neighborhoods. As Acari resident Da Cunha told Catherine Osborn:

‘A favela is not the physical form of a neighborhood … but rather the people who live there”—where they come from, and especially how they socialize and relate to each other. Da Cunha told the story of Cidade Alta, one of many housing projects in the city to which a favela population was relocated. He said as soon as it was populated with favela residents, Cidade Alta stopped being a condominium and started being a favela. He emphasized this is hardly a bad thing, pointing to cultural elements of favela life that have become famous throughout the city. Here in Acari, for example, there is a monumentous Escola de Samba (samba school) rehearsal and baile funk (funk party) every weekend. ‘Culturally, you know,’ he added, ‘we have a favelada city.’

Bruce Douglas once aptly wrote that “Rio’s favelas exert a complex, dual influence on the city’s imagination … fetishised as seductive, authentic engines of popular culture and abhorred as ugly vectors of violence and disease.” Neither the idealization nor the marginalization of the favelas serves their residents well, but integration as citizens should not entail erasure as communities.

The biggest obstacle to integration with the city was and remains the legal land title. Favela-Bairro utterly failed to regularize land ownership in favelas, largely because it did not account for the scope of such a project. Without the resources to adjudicate ownership parcel-by-parcel, the project left favelados with fragile claims at best, at the mercy of a government with a fondness for eminent domain.

Moreover, Janice Perlman noted, “the long-sought dream of land title had become largely irrelevant by the time the government began to deal with it.” As long-term residents of high-value properties in favelas become the legal owners, Perlman explained, they often sell immediately to the highest bidder, face difficulty in obtaining a comparable property elsewhere, and squat again in a more remote favela once the money runs out.

As such, the program did not live up to its lofty aspirations of integration with the rest of the city, but it did manage to make the favelas slightly better places to be stuck in. According to their financiers at the Inter-American Development Bank, favelas who were beneficiaries of Favela-Bairro experienced lower risk of disease and landslides; increased access to water, sewer, garbage collection, and power supply; increased access to the city on improved roads; and increased supply of nurseries. Furthermore, Favela-Bairro set the standard for all future projects of its kind. It illustrated the usefulness of working with locals, the efficiency of all-private contracting, the plausibility of implementing improvements even without regularized ownership, and the need for higher infrastructure standards.


Current Rio mayor Eduardo Paes is theoretically overseeing a third phase of Favela-Bairro, often called Morar Carioca (“Living Rio”). On paper, it’s “an urban planner’s dream” that takes the best of Favela-Bairro’s legacy—participatory, preservational design, valuing favela-style development as an integral part of the city—and renews the focus on integration and physical infrastructure. It would also expand from Favela-Bairro’s rather limited scope to reach every favela in Rio.

In reality, this program is nowhere to be seen, except for the occasional survey followed by threat of removal. Instead, the city government is slapping the Morar Carioca label on leftover upgrading projects and slowly dismantling the actual project. It seems to have been a mere campaign tactic for Paes, who since securing re-election in 2012 has simply subordinated the favelas to destructive federal and state policies.

The state of Rio de Janeiro runs the only program with any real presence in the favelas: the Police Pacification Unit (UPP, in Portuguese). Since 2008, UPP forces have been sent to retake favelas from drug traffickers or off-duty police militias, and since the program’s implementation, homicides and robberies have fallen overall. But in some communities, the police have been a force of chaos, whereas the traffickers’ and militias’ rules were understood. Civilians who are caught in the crossfire—almost always young black men—rarely receive any kind of justice: crimes within the favela, even homicides, have historically been met with impunity.

UPP eventually occupied a quarter of the city’s favelas. The pacified areas mainly include favelas near Olympic sites (such as the giant Rocinha, sandwiched between the Barra and Copacabana Olympic zones), or else those that cater to tourists (like Vidigal, also near Copacabana and popular among visitors to the beaches there). This selectiveness leaves open the question of whether or not the forces are there to protect residents or to maintain appearances while the cameras are on. Ultimately, it may not matter. Now that Brazil is in utter economic crisis, police and firefighters across the city are hardly getting paid. They told tourists outright that “whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe”—nor, it follows, will residents.

The Olympic athletes and tourists who did overcome fears of crime, Zika, pollution, the utter failure of the state, etc. to descend upon Rio this summer will likely see nary a favela before they leave anyway. Since 2009, over 22,000 families have been resettled, using environmental factors as a pretext to clear the edge of the new Olympic Park. Entire communities like Vila Autódromo have been demolished, despite great resistance. Favelas have been sealed off from public view with concrete walls styled as “ecolimits.” Vanity projects like the now-infamous Prôvidencia cable car have displaced more families for no obvious reason beyond Olympic tourist shine.

The only real outcome of Morar Carioca has been a rapid rise in favela home prices. As communities have been zoned as affordable housing, rent has gone up drastically, in some cases over 300 percent. Local leaders and academics refer to this state-led gentrification as “remoção branca,” or “white removal.” For them, gentrification is the third phase of favela policy, combining the previous two—eradication and upgrading—to the detriment of residents and the convenience of political elites.

Where do favelados go from here? The Olympic aftermath remains to be seen, but there’s a Brazilian term that comes to mind. They call their way of doing things jeitinho—street-smarts and survival, getting things done despite lacking resources. One gets the sense that long after the tourists leave town, that century of community-building, suffering, and resistance will come to bear fruit.

The Brazilian state may be falling apart, but the favelas are the only communities that know how to survive without it.

Catherine Addington is a Ph.D. student in Spanish at the University of Virginia and is a former Freda Utley Editorial Fellow at The American Conservative. This article was supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.




Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here