Urban Brazil: An Olympic Opportunity

By He, Tianhao | Harvard International Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Urban Brazil: An Olympic Opportunity


He, Tianhao, Harvard International Review


In June 1996, the Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements recognized that the challenges of urban development around the world had reached "crisis proportions." Growth in developing countries and the concomitant wave of urbanization have resulted in asymmetrical distributions of economic and social outcomes. Though aggregate trends reflect upward macroeconomic trajectories in many parts of the developing world, disaggregated data reveal considerable intra-national and intra-city nuances in living conditions. Specifically, urbanization provides a useful lens through which to examine the uneven processes of economic development around the world.

Widely recognized as engines of economic growth, burgeoning cities and metropolitan regions nevertheless exhibit symptoms of socioeconomic segregation along spatial lines, resulting in differential access to resources and services. This phenomenon has implications for economic development, governance, public health, education, and environmental sustainability. In recognition of this emerging challenge, the United Nations made urban revitalization a priority in its Millennium Development Goals discourse by devoting Target 11 of Goal 7 to improving the living conditions of at least 100 million urban slum dwellers by 2020.

In particular, Brazil is a critically important manifestation of this trend. As a BRIG country and one of the top ten largest economies in the world by gross domestic product, Brazil's growth has accelerated while remaining resilient in the face of recent global economic turbulence. Despite these national growth trends, Brazil is notorious for its rampant inequality, which is starkly evident in its major cities. According to the World Bank, Latin America and the Caribbean is the most urbanized region of the developing world, though close to a third of all urban residents in the region live in slums. As of 2010, approximately 87 percent of Brazil's population lives in urban areas. With an income Gin coefficient of 0.59, Brazil also features one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the region. As Rio de Janeiro prepares to host the 2016 Olympics, efforts to upgrade the slums around the metropolitan region have accelerated and been brought into the national spotlight. Brazil must seize the political impetus created by the 2016 Olympics to create a long-term and holistic strategy for sustainable and inclusive development not only in Rio but also in major cities across the country.

With a population of 11.836 million, Rio is a bustling metropolis of immense cultural and economic significance. Yet Rio epitomizes the stark ironies and contrasts characteristic of many urban centers in Brazil. The environs of Rio are filled with favelas, or informal slum settlements for the poor. Due to the lack of affordable and accessible housing in the city, poor residents are excluded to the periphery of the city, where they build precarious housing structures on land that is unregulated. These favelas are notorious for rampant crime, lack of infrastructure, nonexistent water and sewage systems, inadequate educational opportunities, and lackluster employment prospects. In 1995, Rio launched Favela-Bairro, a project supported by US $600 million in loans from the Inter-American Development Bank dedicated to upgrading its slums and integrating them into the city. The Favela-Bairro model incorporated a suite of services including water, sewage, garbage collection, education, and recreation through a framework that emphasized citizen participation. This project reached 120 of Rio's 600 favelas and was widely regarded as a successful model to be replicated in other urban centers.

The tremendous success of the Favela-Bairro model is attributable to its recognition of the unique needs of different favelas and its repudiation of harsh and ineffective band-aid solutions like forced removal of slum residents. Citizen participation and consultation in project implementation and design allows city officials to tailor specific projects to the specific needs of a favela. …

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