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my city ISSN 1982-9922


The Favela Bairro Program, implemented in 1994, reflects the shift in policies towards informal settlements in Rio de Janeiro: from the bulldozing strategies of eradication policies, to the more gentle approach towards urbanization and slum upgrading.

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SCHETTINO, Luisa. Favela Bairro and the Modernism of Underdevelopment. Finding old discourses in the new strategies for slum upgrading. Minha Cidade, São Paulo, year 15, n. 180.04, Vitruvius, jul. 2015 <>.

The Favela Bairro Program, implemented in 1994, reflects the shift in policies towards informal settlements in Rio de Janeiro: from the bulldozing strategies of eradication policies, to the more gentle approach towards urbanization and slum upgrading, once democracy was restored in Brazil. While the program’s first phase emphasized the provision of new infrastructure and design elements to integrate the favela and the “formal”(1) city, Favela Bairro II (2000-2005) was more ambitious in its goals for provision of social services and community organization and development(2). Designed by the municipal government and with large financial support from the Inter-American Development Bank, the program is widely regarded as a successful project and a blueprint for developing countries in tackling urban poverty.

This paper looks beyond the apparent successes of Favela Bairro II and questions whether the program truly legitimizes the favela or if it deepens the stigma manifested in urban poverty. What seems to dictate the attempts of slum upgrading aren’t new strategies of city planning, but rather old discourses associated with the ideas of Modernity. By borrowing Marshall Berman’s distinctions of the modernity of underdevelopment vs. the modernity of development in 19th/20th century Europe, this research reflects on the types of spaces being produced (or perpetuated) by these contemporary interventions.

Through the writings of Baudelaire and Dostoevsky, Berman characterizes two fundamentally different spaces produced by the aspirations of Modernity: in 19thcentury Paris, new private and public configurations that reshapes traditional relations in the city(3) and in 20th century Petesburg, “an archetype of the emerging twentieth-century Third World”(4), where historic structures of political and social nature are maintained. The encounters between individuals of different social spheres provided by the new arrangements of space are crucial in understanding the outcomes of modernity and modernization. In bothParis andPetersburg, the social statuses of the characters in the narratives remain unaltered despite improvements to the physical qualities of the city. The poor family of curious eyes in Baudelaire’s poem and the poor clerk in Doestoevky’s anecdote remain to be found in the same social trap of poverty and inequality. What distinguishes both scenarios, however, is how these marginalized individuals become acknowledged or rejected as actors of a city under critical transformations, and their ability to move forward. InParis’ new boulevards, as poverty becomes exposed the poor are included in the picture that defines the modern city – their unusual visibility now allows them to demand their rights as citizens. Petesburg’s Nevky Prospect, on the other hand, confirms the marginalization of the underprivileged and inhibits their participation in a city that attempts to be modern – the poor patiently wait for their struggles to be noticed.

Evolving from Favela Bairro I, Favela Bairro II promises that through improvements in infrastructure and the physical aspects of favelas and by promoting social programs, Rio’s most marginalized communities will merge with the “formal” city and favela dwellers will gain access to the opportunities to which they have for long been neglected. Outlined by policy-makers with previous experience in Rio’s shanty-towns, the program is attentive to the needs and demands of such communities and encourages public participation in the designing of the site specific projects. Initiated in 2000 and with a 5-year time limit, Phase II is applauded for being “multi-sectoral”(5) since not only infrastructure and beautification are emphasized, but “income generation and training centers, the construction and operation of new sports and leisure facilities, the construction of commercial establishments (kiosks), and the construction and operation of social and urban advice centers”(6) are incorporated into the action plan. In this sense, the program is in concert with the Brazilian consensus regarding the global right to the city (7) and highlights the recent policies towards slum upgrading that condemns eradication. This paper aims at a critical analysis of what Favela Bairro II achieves and whether it produces new opportunities for social change or whether 21st century Rio de Janeiro is still embedded in the modernity of underdevelopment.

The multi-sectoral approach of Favela Bairro II recognizes that to strengthen these fragile communities, access to basic infrastructure and physical upgrading barely promotes the social changes needed for the integrating the favela and the asfalto(8). However, both tools remain the most successfully implemented strategies, for a variety of reasons: the visibility of such projects in the short-term (9), the emphasis on the work of the architect and the engineer to deliver the projects on the given time and budget (10) and the fact that contractors have little experience with social projects, but are very familiar with the management of public works. In this sense, despite its multi-sectoral program, Favela Bairro II perpetuates the modern utopian premise that good design brings upon social changes.

In her extensive research on Rio’s favelas, Perlman noticed that as the excitement around the new plazas, the paved streets and the absence of litter faded away, disorder slowly regained territory: The newly dredged, cleaned, and lined waterways with clear flowing water that I saw a few years earlier had reverted to the public garbage and sewage receptacles they had once been; the internal plazas were not much used, and the ones facing the street were not well maintained”(11). If modernity pushes modern men and women to feel more at home in their own world(12) communities reshaped by Favela Bairro seem to resist accepting improvements as part of what they recognize as “home”; hence failing to maintain the new configurations of space and returning to an environment that they can recognize as their own. The long-term failures of Favela Bairro are a reflection of the superficiality of a program that promises to lift communities without allowing them to take the crucial steps in their self-development. Again, the parallels with the Nevsky Prospect are inescapable; both attempts simply hide behind the dazzling improvements the urgent demands that remain unanswered.

But if favela dwellers aspire for modernity, their aspirations go beyond sharing the formal elements of the city. They understand that the development of their communities will come as a natural consequence of a greater participation in the formal jobs market and an increase in their households’ income, not the other way round.(13) While the transformations led by Haussmann in 19th century Paris produced new social relationships, the transformations carried by Favela Bairro simply confirms the distance between the underclass and the most advantaged, failing to produce new opportunities for interaction. Indeed, the interaction between social classes promoted by Favela Bairro II is limited to the exchanges of information between architects, engineers and favela dwellers during the designing process of site specific interventions - these interactions are not only short-lived but can also be questioned in its effectiveness of ensuring a democratic development.

One of the fundamental premises of Favela Bairro is the community’s involvement in the projects as a mechanism for sharing ownership over their development. Public participation, however, is inconsistent and selective. Although favela dwellers are encouraged to participate in public hearings with the architects and engineers to help decide on the strategies to be adopted, “the interest of residents is generally only aroused once the upgrading gets underway and directly affects their lives” (14). Furthermore, residents were excluded from the general outlining of the program itself, and had no say in the public competition that selected the architecture firms contracted for the projects.  As a result, big decisions were left to the hands of planners, and once communities understood that such plans were becoming reality, they had already been left out of the decision-making processes.  The strategy of “listening to the poor” (15) is therefore ineffective in its attempt to establish a bottom-up process, and translates simply as a marketing tool that advertises the best practices of the program.

What remains to be understood, however, is if the fact that the Favela Bairro repeats a top-down agenda (common in previous slum upgrading strategies) what accounts for its nonsuccess. If a program is by definition consonant with the city’s anticipated development, to what extent does public participation influence its positive or negative outcomes? In both Parisand Petersburg, the processes of modernization were induced by top-down approaches, rather than from grassroots, participatory initiatives. While one city thrived, however, the other remained backwards despite the modern image it attempted to convey (16). In the modernism of development found in 19th century Paris, participation is a component of the outcome, not the process – the poor family in Baudelaire’s poem might have been excluded from the planning of Paris’ new configurations, but once the city opened up its streets, they found themselves in the center of the processes of transformation. Favela Bairro therefore seems to exist in the context of a backward society, where the potentialities of slum upgrading are inhibited by inequality, hierarchy and centralized power. Under such conditions, the participation of favela dwellers in whichever aspects of the program are reduced to a naive sense of security that they are no longer invisible to the eyes of the government (17).

Ultimately, Favela Bairro II provides an innovative and interesting framework towards the construction of a more inclusionary city. It is the first program in Rio de Janeiroto outline such a broad agenda; where private contractors, NGOs, the communities, an international agency and the government co-operate in the attempt to reduce urban poverty. In practice, however, the program’s goals seem too ambitious for a society which despite economic growth and an increasing participation in global affairs remains backwards in its most fundamental aspects. In “promising all things to all people” (18), Favela Bairro II fails to address the most latent needs of marginalized communities: the access to opportunities that contribute to reducing the stigma of living in a favela. Embedded in what Berman describes as the “modernity of underdevelopment”, the program is “forced to build on fantasies and dreams of modernity” (19), rather than on a solid road to development.

In this context, it is worth questioning what exactly dominates the discourses of slum upgrading, and why strategies that should promote social change tend to fail to reach its full potential. Martin Oosterbaan supports the idea that favelas are “the product of a specific Brazilian modernity” (20), rather than an anomaly of a progressive modern society. If this is so, then what apparently takes place in Rio is a vicious cycle of a distorted modern dream where the same processes that produce inequality are used to regulate it. To move forward, policies should step aside from the old discourses of modernity and embrace an agenda that is tune with the real demands of the contrasting spheres of the favela and the asfalto. As in Dostoevsky’s Petersburg, “Great changes lie ahead of them – both self-transformations and social transformations – before they can come to be at home in the city they love, and make it their own” (21). 


In Brazil, as in most developing countries, the terms “formal” and “informal” city are used to describe the neighborhoods where housing, infrastructure and basic services are regulated and the areas where such elements are dependent on illegal and deregulated operations. (UN HABITAT. Global Report on Human Settlements 2009: Planning Sustainable Cities.London: Earthscan, 2009, p.142)

PERLMAN, Janice. Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, p.275.

BERMAN, Marshall. All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982, p. 148-155.

Ibid, p. 175.

RILEY, Elizabeth, Jorge Fiori and Ronaldo Ramirez. “Favela bairro and a new generation of housing programmes for the urban poor.” Geoforum 32 (2001): 521-531.Elsevier. Web. 8 Nov. 2012, p.526.

Ibid, p.526.

Brazil’s Federal Constituition of 1988 inaugurated a new framework for urban reform which led to the 2001 City Statute, a federal law that sets the basis for local urban planning and guarantees the right to private property and basic services. The statute attempts to legitimize favelas by providing new strategies for entitlement, hence preventing eradication.

Asfalto, literally translated as “asphalt”, is used to describe the formal neighborhoods where, in contrast with the favelas, the streets are paved and basic services are provided by the municipality.

PERLMAN, p.282.

RILEY ET AL., p.526.

PERLMAN, p.280.

BERMAN, p.232.

PERLMAN, p.282.

RILET ET AL., p.529.

Bottom-up model of development promoted by previous World Bank president James Wolfensohn in the attempt to establish a development agenda guided by communities, rather than imposed by external agencies.

BERMAN, p.229.

PERLMAN, p.280.

Ibid, p. 287.

BERMAN, p.232.

MAKEDONOPOULOU, Charikleia. “Tracing the Modern Paradigm in the Informal City: Cantagalo, Rio de Janeiro.” Building Brazil: The Proactive Urban Renewal of Informal Settlements. Ed. Marc Angélil and Rainer Hehl. Berlin: Ruby Press, 2011, p. 20.

Ibid, p.230.

about the author

Luisa Schettino holds a Bachelor of Architecture and Urban Design degree from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 2012, she received a scholarship by CNPq to study in the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley. The present work was developed for Professor Ananya Roy, Distinguished Chair in Global Poverty and Practice at the University of California, Berkeley.



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