Rio de Janeiro: a City in Transformation

The 2013 Urban Age conference took place in Rio de Janeiro on the 24th-25th October. The LSE Cities research team have spent recent months learning about Rio and the fascinating changes this city is undergoing. It’s a city right in the eye of the storm of current debates in urban studies, relating to poverty, urban regeneration, mega-events and informal housing. I summarise some of the conference research highlights in this post. For a more comprehensive picture you can download the conference newspaper here.

Photograph by Tuca Viera for LSE Cities
Rio is defined by it’s mountainous topography. Here we look east with Zona Central on the left overlooking Guanabara Bay, and wealthy Zona Sul on the Atlantic Ocean to the right. Photograph by Tuca Viera for LSE Cities.

Economic Boom and Poverty Reduction
Rio conjures up very contrasting images to the outsider. On the one hand there is the wonderful exuberant city of Copacabana beach, samba music and carnival. These inspiring images are juxtaposed with the ongoing challenges Rio faces in terms of poverty, gang violence and drugs, captured in popular culture through films like City of God. Much more recently, Brazil has been hitting the headlines because of widespread protests across the country, with citizens demanding better quality public services and the tackling of government corruption.

Brazil has in fact made admirable progress in social development in recent decades. Social welfare reforms, such as the Bolsa Familia pragramme introduced by former president Lula in 2003, have seen one of the world’s most dramatic reductions in poverty, with significant improvement in cities like Rio. Education rates have greatly increased, and the high number homicides that plagued Rio in the 1990’s has fallen significantly.


These social improvements have been aided both by progressive leadership, and by a booming economy. The State of Rio has received a huge financial injection from the extensive oil and gas fields discovered off the coast. It makes for an incongruous sight walking along Copacabana beach to see the far horizon dotted with oil platforms. Revenues from this windfall have boosted investment into the city, although supporters of the current protests would argue that it should be more fairly distributed.


Rio and the Favelas
Rio has grown rapidly into a city of 6.4 million people and 12 million in the wider metropolitan region. It is both defined and constrained by its spectacular coastal topography of steep slopes, forests and lagoons. Much of the expansion in population in the 20th century was housed informally, and 20% of Rio’s population still live in the favelas. These were built on the less accessible steep forest slopes, leading to the common distinction between the ‘morro’ and ‘asphalto’, the informal and the formal city. This is often a fine-grained division, as favelas are spread across the entire city, visible from the richest to the poorest areas.


Rather than demolish the favalas, Rio has worked to upgrade them with sanitation and electricity. Yet many remain isolated from public services and employment. The favelas have also been at the centre of drugs trade, controlled by gangs and armed militias. A high profile ‘pacification’ programme has been implemented over the last five years by the Rio government to reclaim these territories for the city. While this programme generally has public support, it involves serious use of force, with the army moving into favelas and disarming local gangs. After this initial disarming process, a network of police stations is set up and further efforts are made to made to reintegrate communities into the wider city, socially and economically.

As seen in the above map, there is a distinct geography to the pacification programme, with favelas in the city centre and around the Olympic venues given priority. Rio will host both the World Cup in 2014 and Olympic Games in 2016, and these megaevents have greatly accelerated the pacification process. It remains to be seen whether pacification will eventually reach the entire city, or if peripheral favelas will remain beyond the control of city authorities.

Complexo do Alemao is one of Rio's largest favelas. After pacification, there have been investments in new housing, and a new cable car transport system. UPP police stations are located at the cable car stops. Photograph by Tuca Viera for LSE Cities
Complexo do Alemao is one of Rio’s largest favelas. After the initial pacification phase, there have been investments in new housing, and a cable car transport system to aid accessibility. UPP police stations are located adjacent to cable car stops. Photograph by Tuca Viera for LSE Cities

Urban Integration and Mobility
Rio’s topography and sharp social contrasts make for a largely fragmented city. Wealthy residents are concentrated in Zona Sul, the coastal area to the south that includes Copacabana and Ipanema. The magnificent beaches in Zona Sul are a central attraction for wealthier residents and tourists, and this area is expanding westwards along the coast to Barra da Tijuca, defined by high rises and gated communities that resemble Miami. The rest of the city is much poorer. Residents in the periphery and isolated favelas can take hours to access services and work locations. This is exacerbated by Rio’s very limited public transport system, and the underdevelopment of the old city centre and port area.

Concious of this fragmentation and the need for better connectivity, Rio’s authorities have begun a massive investment in public transport infrastructure. The centre-piece is a city-wide bus rapid transit system, with 160km of lines covering the entire width of the city area. The challenging topography of Rio requires serious infrastructure investment in tunnels and bridges to construct this new network.


As can be seen in the above maps, the BRT routes have several aims. One is to make Barra da Tijuca a new transport hub, with the three lines converging near the location of the new Olympic Park. Another is to provide much better connections for the previously isolated western suburbs of Rio. And finally the TransCarioca line will improve links to the city centre. Arguably this latter point of better connectivity to the city centre should be a higher priority if Rio is to successfully revive its inner city. Olympic developments and real-estate interests are playing a significant role in this major public transport investment.

Find Out More
See the Urban Age Conference website for full details of the research and essays by local and international experts on urban transformation. Videos of conference presentations and discussions will also be going online soon. There’s also a good summary of the discussion on the Rio Real Blog.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s