The UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20 for short) kicks off this week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Next American City will provide daily coverage of the summit by way of dispatches from Editor in Chief Diana Lind and correspondent Greg Scruggs.
Theresa Williamson came to Asa Branca, a favela near the sites of Rio+20, a decade ago as a Ph.D. student. Yesterday, she took a tour of 15 people through this community where her long involvement in its development is readily apparent. Locals came and greeted her in her native Portuguese. Williamson, who runs the community blog Rio on Watch, explained that we were here to look at how Asa Branca has been urbanized.
Asa Branca sits behind acres of gated suburban communities about an hour and a half from the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. Suburbs in Rio de Janeiro are far more vertical than their US counterparts; here, they consist of 30-story residential towers separated by parking lots and green grass rather than a grid. While many of the gated communities have their own stores, much of the area’s commercial activity is concentrated in shopping malls along a massive 10-lane boulevard.
Unlike the isolated suburban structures nearby, Asa Branca was made from scratch by locals — the same people who often helped build the suburban developments. Asa Branca’s residents built their own houses using a completely off-the-grid sewage system and siphoning water off official lines running nearby.
Asa Branca’s community association is led by a resident named Alberto “Bezerra” Costa. For the past 20 years Bezerra has been fighting to make Asa Branca livable for residents, and this year the city of Rio is finally responding. Unpaved streets now have concrete sidewalks and sewage lines are being installed. The city picks up trash three times a week. A new program collects cooking grease that is recycled. For better or worse, a new bus rapid transit line is supposed to come to Asa Branca’s doorstep, widening a simple road into another 10-lane boulevard. Electricity that was once stolen from the grid is now delivered by a privatized electricity system. What was once a disconnected pocket of favela living is now nearly incorporated in the growing metro region. You can walk from Asa Branca to the future main site of the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Given that nearly half of Rio’s favelas are estimated to be run by drug traffickers, life in Asa Branca is probably as good as it gets for such a community. But it is still difficult: There is still a river with open sewage. Kids play soccer barefoot in development debris. It’s unclear if there is any place for education, either in terms of formal schools or informal institutions like libraries. And while there were plenty of joyful scenes, particularly among the young kids who we found setting up a trampoline in the middle of a street, I was less convinced the people in their late teens or early twenties were satisfied with the community.
Unfortunately, suburban towers and favelas are the two dominant modes of new development I have seen so far. And neither is sufficient. The favelas display what a friend on the tour called Jane Jacobs 101 — bustling street life, real community, a sense of authenticity and a way of living the seems less focused on material wealth than community. But the lack of basic comforts, such as safe buildings with good plumbing, are very real. The dearth of opportunity in the immediate environs is unfortunate, and the suburbs offer few advantages beyond air conditioning and a place to park a car.
It is still early in my trip, but I am eager to see the kind of mixed-use communities with good transit that we know can work here in Rio. With his dream of bringing infrastructure to Asa Branca realized, Bezerra is retiring from the community association. However, I am skeptical that the encroaching development nearby will halt at the favela’s gates.
For more on the continual redevelopment of Rio’s favela communities, check out this previous Forefront story by Greg Scruggs, NAC’s other correspondent on the ground in Rio de Janeiro.