The many protests across Brazil, often directed against the World Cup and accompanied by last year’s carnival hit and anthem Não Vai Ter Copa, show that the nation with the most successful soccer team in the history of the FIFA World Cup has something more serious on its mind that the upcoming sporting event. According to a recent survey by Datafolha, only 48 percent of Brazilians support the event, down from 52 percent in February. Now, the frequent violent and peaceful uprisings throw a spotlight on more pressing issues related to public transport, crime, education, healthcare, inflation, and sky-high taxation (Brazil boasts the highest rates among developing countries).

With Brazil scheduled to spend more than 32 billion reais (around 10 billion dollars) on the forthcoming games, the country’s general population expresses its dissatisfaction with the lack of obvious progress on public works – not even the stadium renovations seem to be on schedule. Instead, ostensibly to prepare for the expected influx of tourists and fans, Rio’s police last year embarked on targeted interventions to ‘pacify’ the city’s most infamous markers of social disparity, the favelas. And although several controversial occupations have reduced local crime and murder rates, many citizens doubt that these operations will have a lasting and profound effect.

Overview over the favela

Meanwhile, in São Paulo, the Public National Contest of Architecture and Urbanism: Renova SP, appears to pursue a different tack. The contest, launched in 2011, encourages architects and urban planners to transform 22 areas around São Paulo via integrated measures that eliminate high-risk zones, upgrade urban infrastructure, improve drainage, establish public spaces, and build new housing units to transform these unsafe areas into new thriving neighborhoods. Yet while the winners have already embarked on the planning process, realization is still a few steps away.

A proposition

Among the more than twenty successful contestants: a collaboration between Spanish architecture practice Idom and the Brazilian studio Daniela Ramalho. Together, these experts aim to tackle the region of Ponte Baixa 4, an area that encompasses the favelas of Jardim Felicidade, Jardim Ibirapuera, Jardim Sta. Josefina, and Jardim São Francisco. To find out more, we met one of the architects involved, Luciana Pitombo, on the project – and a generally controversial topic.

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“Favelas are found between urban agglomerations, where conditions are mostly hostile. They evolve naturally and on a familiar basis, i. e. everybody builds their own homes, so there is a strong sense of community that makes people want to stay.”

Against this background, favelas tend to follow an innate, idiosyncratic logic that cannot be neglected by the planning process. “Most of the time, the favelas’ borders are their real center, bustling with shops and activities, while the geographic center is more of a suburb. A lot of this depends on nature and topography, like flat streets versus hilly ones.”

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“Our first goal is to sanitize and modernize the extreme living conditions, i. e. by providing access to fresh water and plumbing, reliable electricity, decent natural lighting, landline phones, and safe waste disposal to eliminate the constant risk of infection and other nuisances.”

To elucidate her point, Luciana defines the project approach as ‘urban acupuncture.’ “We started with an on-site analysis of the favela’s actual conditions and most critical issues. This is a process of trial and error and one that culminates in an actual, tangible plan and project. Quite obviously, the local communities need to be involved since we want the people on the ground to embrace these changes, changes that can transform favelas into real neighborhoods in the long run. Such changes should never be imposed on the residents. Although it is widely known that urban design needs to have a participatory component, communication between architects and the population often ends up being moderated by public representatives and social workers – and a lot is lost on the way”.

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In order to create public spaces and establish a basic infrastructure, it will nevertheless take the temporary relocation of twenty percent of local residents to new housing units in the favela’s immediate vicinity. At the same time, new parks and rivers, for example, can only be sited in public areas – and these are not always obvious as some parts of the favela are actually privately owned.

Since the main users of such public spaces will be children, the planning process also considers how to convey a sense of belonging that appeals to these future citizens. Among the plans under consideration is an outdoor space inspired by a successful social project realized by the community itself, Blockdo Beco. The scheme offers kids a space to blossom and try their hands at musical instruments from Maracatu – a rhythm-based traditional music and dance from the Northeast of Brazil. “Such interventions are meant to stimulate public space and interaction, triggering a cause-and-effect reaction that, little by little, turns the area into a whole new and better organism in the spirit of our ‘acupuncture’ approach. Organic, incremental improvements here and there eventually cause sizeable transformations everywhere.”

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So, while the project is launching with careful baby steps, it expects to come into its own over the course of twenty years. Yet we will have to wait for the World Cup aftermath to see just how much of Brazil’s current public measures are successful – and here to stay.

Text: Marcello Pisu
All the pictures, incl. the header image: Idom and CONSÓRCIO DRA-IDOM