Now reading

A Day at the Brazil’s Largest Favela, Rocinha in Rio de ...

A Day at the Brazil’s Largest Favela, Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

I am in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for a 6-week long program, and my next two posts will be on the urban planning issues of Rio. Rio de Janeiro is known, among other things, for its urban poverty and squatter settlements (or in the Brazilian case favelas). I have had a chance to visit the

Rocinha from the top of the hill

I am in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for a 6-week long program, and my next two posts will be on the urban planning issues of Rio. Rio de Janeiro is known, among other things, for its urban poverty and squatter settlements (or in the Brazilian case favelas). I have had a chance to visit the largest favela in Brazil, called Rocinha, and this post will share the observations made in this visit.

Located on a hill between two rich neighborhoods of the Rio’s richest zone, Rocinha has become a lot more than a squatter settlement; it is now considered a neighborhood. It is the favela that gets the greatest help from the government. Rio Municipality undertakes construction projects within the favela, as well as bringing services such as churches, post offices, and kindergartens.

While strolling around Rocinha, an occupant invited us to his home to show the view from his terrace. The terrace looked down upon the whole favela, which gave us a sense of the massiveness of this chaotic agglomeration of tenements that cover the whole hill. The occupant was also kind enough to answer some of the question that we had, and he provided some valuable information.

First of all, he admitted that he was better off than most of the occupants in the favela, because he works at one of the most famous hotels in Rio, but he simply chooses to live there as he has been there for 33 years and has a human network. So, not everyone living in squatter settlements are poor, both in terms of World Bank’s poverty line measures and the approach that evaluates the ability to access basic services, confirming the literature written on this issue.

Also, when we asked about the infrastructure and services, he told us that the water is free but they have to pay for the electricity, after the favela was turned into a legal neighborhood. Interestingly enough, the sewage system is not controlled by the municipality, and he said there was no way for it to be because the system was built by the locals when the favela itself was being built. This gives an idea about the complexity of solutions, both architectural and infrastructural, that the poor can come up with their limited resources.

A Street in Rocinha

However, he said that there is a general belief in the favela that the government support will decrease dramatically after the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. There is a city-wide development going on for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, which also deals with some favelas that are ”strategically located” close to rich neighborhoods.

Is the Rio municipality helping the favela residents as a part of the overall development project to look good in these two major international events, or does it aim to integrate the largest favela into the rest of the legal city in the long run?

Credits: Data linked to sources, both images by author.

Become a Patron of The Global Grid
Intern photo

Erman Eruz is a graduate student at Rice University where he is pursuing a Master's Degree in Architecture. He graduated from Princeton University with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering, along with certificates in Architecture and Urban Stud...

  • Despite the success of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) again in Brazil, it is hard to believe that real change will be made in the majority of the favelas for a long time to come, despite the pending international events. I’m reminded of the Brazilian police strategy in the film “Tropa de Elite” in which the police are told to “clean up the favelas” because the Pope is visiting. Not that I agree, but it seems like a more realistic approach than redevelopment: quicker and easier. I think that governments have a hard time helping communities who seem to be self-sustained, capable of building infrastructure, and pirating utilites. Due to the complexities, both architectural and in terms of infrastructure in the favelas, re-building or attempting to alleviate these issues seems like a goliath of a project (also considering the number of favelas and their size). I believe that the PT has been making strides in helping the poor and working classes through reforms in education, social programs, and hopefully in the increase both numberically and in quality of the housing stock. If these classes have more opportunities in terms of education, job training, and housing options then maybe the need for favelas will decrease. Unfortunately, I think this may be a longer process, but potentially more sustainable than “fixing” the favelas.

    Thanks for the interesting post! Your fellow Grid blogger, Patricia

  • Selin Mutdoğan

    While i was reading this post i thought about Turkey and squatter settlements alled gecekondu. In Ankara Turkey, municipality destroy all these areas around the airport and construct multi-storey residential building. I think this approach is completely wrong both social and architectural point of view. It is socially wrong because in gecekondu areas inhabitants live one-storey home with small garden and their animals but municipality construct multi-storey mass houses with no place to plant vegetable or to keep an animal. It is architecturally wrong because new buildings has no respect environment, nature and social relations between inhabitants.
    In my opinion favelas like gecekondu’s is a important part of cities and they are unique with their architecture and living style. These areas are incredibly respectful to environment, people and neighborhood. These areas should be preserve but municipality do something for better living conditions.

  • Kaner

    I believe the residents of the favela will be moved to another area which will chosen by the Rio municipality, building vertically. All eyes will be turned to Rio between 2014 and 2016. No one wants to take risks or have negative exposure during international events, not only for the aesthetics and the view of favela, but also for the people who are living there.

  • Thank you very much for all these comments. Pretty much all the conflicting views on the issue of favelas are presented here. I will try to respond in order.

    First of all, Patricia, the two ways to deal with the problem of urban poverty is relocation and in-situ upgrading. Both have their own merits, but when you lay them out, the number of positive aspects of upgrading is considerably more than that of relocation. We have to understand that there is an immense need of housing in our time in the developing countries that did not go through a similar process compared to that of the developed countries while making the transition to an industrial economy from the rural-based. This process had to happen much quicker in the developing countries, and this radical shift created a huge and immediate need for housing in cities where the industrial activities are focused. Squatter settlements therefore, emerged as a way for the people to fulfill this need that could not be provided for at the time by the state. This was also a favorable development for states because it was cheap and it helped them find the labor force they needed. Since the housing need is still intact, demolishing these colossal number of settlements and making new apartment buildings for each and every one of them is everything but cheap and sustainable. Finding a way to provide satisfying living standards for the people in these settlements where they already have a social network, some sort of a job, etc. makes more sense than moving them completely to a different environment. Of course there are times when you just can’t upgrade a given settlement due to certain reasons (such as being located on a ridiculously steep hill), then relocation is necessary, but again in those cases, it is again favorable to place them somewhere else within the same community.

    This is quite similar to what Selin is saying. However, there is one thing I need to point out. It is true that apartment buildings are completely different than the environment the people are used. There is no chance to raise animals and grow your own food which put an economic burden on these people. The main point here is that these squatter settlements usually act as grounds for transition to the urban life from the rural. So the ultimate aim must be to integrate the urban poor into the urban life and economy. The common misconception I see, especially in the projects in Turkey is that, improving the physical environment alone will achieve this integration that involves many dimensions that need to be addressed. I have pointed out in my earlier posts that spatial improvements should go hand in hand with social ones. Unless you create job opportunities, possibilities for these people to provide for themselves, then putting these people in prettier buildings won’t solve anything; they will remain poor, but under a prettier roof. Doing upgrading without addressing other aspects is also wrong because when you upgrade a settlement, the land prices go up, and people can’t afford to live there anymore, and this doesn’t help community. I believe Patricia is absolutely right to point out that education and job opportunities are essential in integrating the urban poor.

    Lastly, I want to talk about the view on the favelas both of the government and the international audience, as Kaner mentioned. I had a chance to observe this when I was there, and the two major international events are bringing a lot of infrastructural investments to the favelas. People are happy with these undertakings, but they believe this will stop after the Olympics. It is hard to tell now whether this will be the case, but the government is definitely trying to polish up the look. There are some video-advertisements made for the Olympics by the government that shows no sign of the favelas; they are erased from the hills that appear in the video. However, there is also another side of the perspective on favelas: romanticizing urban poverty and their living spaces, and thus overlooking the real problems that are dealing with. Favela Tours that are geared towards tourists were a product of this romantic interest, a contemporary type of Exoticism if you will. However, the bottom line is that one should be aware of the problems in the settlements, and try to attempt to solve them in cooperation with the people living there with correct interventions. Olympics and the World Cup are great opportunities to work towards this goal.

    Thank you very much again for your comments, and feel free to write whatever comes to your mind.


Tuesdays, in your inbox.

Tuesdays, in your inbox.

Weekly local urbanist news and jobs. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!