The city of 6.2 million people is alive with a constant buzz, the many sights, smells, and sounds drawing your attention every which way. There are thus many ways with which I could have approached this farewell piece (from this point on I'll be writing from Montreal, Canada) to a city which has been my home for the last four months. But I feel in addressing some of the stereotypes that plague the city and its residents, I can touch upon quite a few elements that lend to the paradoxical, chaotic makeup that is Rio de Janeiro.
Its impressive natural landscape boasts spectacular mountains, urban forests, lagoons and beaches that help it earn the title of the Marvelous City. Yet, the urban landscape depicts a different scene, one that is messier and far more contradictory. Extreme socio-economic inequalities are demonstrated in the city’s territorial divide that exists in the form of the favelas, or informal urban settlements, and the asfalto, or formal city. Rio’s favelas have faced a turbulent history due in part to governmental policies that have fluctuated between their support and removal as well as the stigmas and prejudices that are associated along with it.
Arising out of an unmet need for affordable housing, people began to build their own homes on public land. Fast forward to today and despite their common associations with poverty, violence and crime, many of Rio’s favelas are now, to an extent, pacified, urbanised and home to a sizeable portion of the middle class. Images of precarious, red-bricked housing may dissipate upon realizing that people spend more time, energy and money on improving the interior of their homes, supplying them with electricity and plumbing, as well as modern fixtures like flat-screen TVs. The dense and disorderly environments are admittedly confusing to navigate, but the low-rise, residential and commercial development centered around pedestrian activity lends to a vibrant street culture and facilitates a number of New Urbanist principles that many North American planners are trying to achieve. Moreover, rather than the sensationalized violent portrayals that may be seen in news headlines or in movies, the favelas I have visited are dynamic and vibrant, the residents engaging and welcoming. In most instances, people’s attachments to their communities are strong, with generational ties to a community.
The ongoing preparations for the mega-events have seen a renewed surge in favela evictions. In many cases, as with Vila Autodromo for example, people are fighting for the right to stay in them. Land speculation apparently trumps the existence of such communities that lie in the way of prime real estate development. Though some have moved willingly into the city’s housing projects, residential displacement can sever family and friendship ties, as well as affect employment and educational opportunities.
It appears as if the government is placing more importance on beautifying the city for the world’s eyes rather than fixing existing problems that continue to compromise the quality of life of their residents, including some informal areas that still require access to basic sanitation.
Will FIFA and the Olympic Games development exacerbate Rio’s legacy of inequalities? Will the stigmatized view of Rio’s favelas and its residents change as the layers of this urban landscape become better understood?
Credits: Images by Caitlin Dixon. Data linked to sources.