Labeled “Brazil’s Miami Beach,” Barra da Tijuca is a rich and trendy beach-front district located in Rio de Janeiro’s West Zone, about forty kilometers from the city center. Known for its Americanized lifestyle, its urban development is seemingly modeled on North America’s wealthy suburbs, and is marked by its Floridian feel. It is considered one of the most developed places in Brazil, due in part to its high Human Development Index. Yet its urban form is far different from Rio’s well-known South Zone.
The district’s initial development took place under Lucio Costa’s 1969 Pilot Plan, which established new criteria for modernist urbanization and contemporary urban life. Costa, along with Oscar Niemeyer, was the architect and urban planner responsible for creating the Brazilian capital of Brasilia.
Costa’s goal was to curb urban sprawl while preserving the local ecology of the area by putting a limit to building heights and adhering to specific land use zoning, while also creating a new downtown separate from the city center. Costa thus divided the areas where residents would live, work, and play around main thoroughfares.
A sharp influx in population to Barra during the 1980s, which were marked by a period of high crime in Rio, prompted its rapid development in the form of a new cosmopolitan lifestyle. Rio’s middle and upper classes that relocated from the city’s traditionally wealthy South Zone neighbourhoods of Ipanema and Leblon thus differentiated themselves from the "other" Rio de Janeiro, which was seen as violent and chaotic. Adjustments were made to favour the business of real estate developers which saw vertical growth flourish and gated condominiums communities become widespread. These luxury islands sold a packaged lifestyle of safety, leisure and comfort.
The large avenues are thus lined with gated residential high-rises, large shopping centers, many surface-level parking lots, commercial headquarters, schools, hospitals, and parks. The wide multi-lane thoroughfares demonstrate the dominance of the private automobile while subsequently disfavouring pedestrian mobility. Furthermore, the plethora of gates and the separation between residential and commercial activity reduces the potential of the public sphere and the existence of a vibrant street culture. This stands in contrast to the more traditional pedestrian-friendly and mixed-use Brazilian urban form seen in the South Zone as well as in many favelas. As the district that is home to the 2016 Olympic park, Barra offers a Westernized image of progress, wealth and security, and is seemingly one that city officials are proud to display worldwide in contrast to the urban development of the traditional formal city.
Researcher Vinicius M. Nette claims that Brazilian Master Plans are moving away from the context-specific building model, which in turn, is changing the functional diversity of new neighbourhoods. Developers instead favour the replication of floor plans because this reduces construction costs while maximizing profits. Yet mixed-use neighbourhoods are something North American urban planners are striving to achieve in new developments.
Since the Olympic site’s legacy transformation calls for sixty percent of the land to be made available for real estate development, should Barra’s urban regeneration continue to build enclosed communities centered around car-oriented development?
In an emerging economy, can this be considered progress in urban planning, especially when the quality of public life might be compromised in these types of neighbourhoods?
Credits: Images by Caitlin Dixon. Data linked to sources