I’ve been visiting Brazil every few years since the late 1980s, and the favelas, the large, informal settlements where the poor cluster in and around the major cities, were until very recently uniform scenes of heartbreaking poverty. Millions of poor Brazilians lived without basic city services like sewer and electric power, and the only order was provided by the residents themselves, over time leading to the domination of many slums by armed thugs in the narcotics trade.Over the last decade, that has been changing. As city and state officials stopped ignoring the settlements, life slowly improved. The residents themselves drove much of the change — turning temporary housing into more permanent structures, developing ways to get power (not always legally) and water into their neighborhoods, developing informal transport networks where the official bus lines dared not go and so forth. As the city paved roads and awarded land titles, things got better still in many of the older favelas.Now the next stage has begun. According to the Washington Post, Brazil’s favelas are getting a facelift, at least in Rio, and the gentrification process may be setting in.
Rio is carving out tunnels, re-engineering highways, adding subway stations and redesigning its port and city center, part of a feverish statewide infrastructure development program that will cost nearly $9 billion ahead of the Olympics, the governor of Rio de Janeiro state, Sergio Cabral, recently announced.But Ricardo Henriques, president of the city’s urban planning institute, said there is also a strong push to incorporate the city’s favelas into the fabric of the rest of the city. It means loosening the grip of brazen drug gangs that had run favelas as their fiefdoms, introducing city services and legalizing businesses that had operated as part of a vast, unregulated underground economy.“It’s a huge experimental stage. Everything is new,” said Daniela Tavares, director of economic strategic development for the city. “It’s a new environment for all of us, for the community, the government, all of us.”
The gentrification of the favelas has begun — and that’s not a bad thing. Gentrification elsewhere has helped improve the livelihoods of millions. Higher real estate prices have allowed many urban poor unprecedented access to capital, improved sanitation while better services have helped to lower crime rates.It’s an open question whether this will be the case in Brazil. Most of Brazil’s favelas are off the grid in terms of services, institutions, and rule of law. And in the US, slum improvement projects often led to the displacement of the original residents, leading urban advocates in the 1960s to say that “urban renewal” really just meant “Negro removal.”One of the biggest mysteries in Rio has always been why the rich left the poor to the enjoyment of the high mountains with their stunning views. The wealthy neighborhoods are clustered in the lowlands, and the poor are stuck on the peaks. Los Angeles works in just the opposite way; Hollywood stars gaze down on the teeming millions from their mansions in the mountains. That may be the future of Rio as well, but in the meantime the steady improvement of life in Brazilian favelas is something that cities like Capetown, Nairobi and even Bangkok could study with profit.