Urban Land and Housing Challenges in Brazil

Heather Boyer, Octubre 1, 2005

The Lincoln Institute has been collaborating with the Loeb Fellowship Program at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design since 1998. The Loeb Fellowship was established in 1970 through the generosity of Harvard alumnus John L. Loeb. Each year ten mid-career design and planning professionals are invited to study independently and develop insights and connections to advance their work in revitalizing the built and natural environments. In May the 2005 class of fellows traveled to Brazil on a study trip to exchange information with professional counterparts in the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. This article focuses on what we learned about programs to improve life in the favelas of those cities.


From the lush Amazon rainforest to the futuristic skyscrapers topped by helipads in São Paulo, Brazil is a study in contrasts. The country is rich in land, with a landmass slightly larger than that of the lower 48 U.S. states; it is the largest country in South America and the fifth largest in the world.

Currently 80 percent of Brazil’s 186 million residents live in urban areas. The City of São Paulo, with a population of 10 million, is the largest city in Brazil and one of the most densely populated; its metropolitan area encompasses 16 million people. The City of Rio de Janeiro is the country’s second largest city with 6 million inhabitants and a metropolitan population of 10 million.

The income distribution in Brazil is among the most unequal in the world. The top 10 percent of the population earns 50 percent of the national income, while 34 percent live below the poverty line. Although inflation-curbing efforts have helped to steady the economy over the last few years, the country is still saddled with considerable foreign debt. Faced with the challenges of extreme poverty, drug trafficking, crime, inequitable land distribution, and inadequate housing, the government has limited funds for social programs and often has used them inefficiently.

Life in the Favelas

It is estimated that 20 percent of Brazilians currently live in favelas, or informal, low-income housing settlements. Favelas were first built in Rio in the early twentieth century, when thousands of soldiers who had fought in a civil war received little government assistance and were forced to live in makeshift structures. They often settled in locations without public services where building was precarious, such as steep hillsides or swampy lowlands. These favelas grew and many others were built in similarly unsafe areas. Torrential rains in 1966, 1996, and 2001 resulted in fatal mudslides in many communities.

Favelas began to increase rapidly in both number and size during the 1970s, when rural workers flocked to the cities for better employment opportunities. In Rio many long-established favelas are located downtown, close to wealthy neighborhoods and tourist areas. By contrast, most of the favelas in São Paulo are on the periphery of the urban core, due to local geography, history, and other factors.

Alfredo Sirkis, director of planning management and a former city councilor in Rio, explained that the scale of these informal developments and violent crime are the two most pressing challenges to improving life in the favelas. Speaking about the prevalence of the drug dealers, he said, “They have weapons of war and become braver every day. Police can neutralize the situation, but as soon as gangs are eradicated, new ones are created. State police and the municipal guards patrol these neighborhoods, but the police force is riddled by corruption.”

Most of the homes in favelas are built by residents with scavenged materials and lack proper sewage and water systems. A study conducted by Brazil’s Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA) estimated that 28.5 percent of the urban population does not have access to public water, sewage, and garbage collection services (Franke 2005). Some large favelas house more than 60,000 people and have been built so densely that retrofitting them with roads and utility systems is extremely difficult.

Various attempts have been made to upgrade favelas over the years. In the 1960s, following the example of U.S. urban renewal programs, some favelas were razed, and families were relocated to large, often distant, housing complexes with infrastructure and services. As in the U.S., however, this method often failed, as communities were destroyed and residents were displaced from local jobs and had few options for commuting. Furthermore, the underlying social issues, such as lack of jobs, drug trafficking, and crime, were not addressed. In the 1970s and 1980s a period of benign neglect resulted in rapid expansion of favelas and deterioration of the quality of life. The award-winning movie City of God portrays the nearly hopeless life of favela youth in a large, 1960s-era housing project that had deteriorated and became wracked with crime by the 1980s.

More recent favela improvement projects reflect lessons learned from those past efforts. The Loeb Fellows visited two such projects that focus on improving conditions in the favela’s current location by upgrading the built infrastructure and creating social programs to address job training, daycare, education, and crime.

São Paulo: Diadema

Diadema was founded in 1959 to accommodate workers in the growing automotive industry, and is now a separate incorporated city within metropolitan São Paulo. A new influx of rural job seekers moved to the area in the 1980s, and by then approximately one-third of the population lived in favelas. Much of the city faced serious structural problems due to the haphazard nature of past growth, but the government responded to the infrastructure needs by building roads and providing lighting, water, and sewage systems. Some demolition and relocation programs were required, but it was recognized that a policy to integrate the favelas into the city would achieve greater success in the long run.

The economic crisis in the 1990s precipitated a new wave of unemployment and crime, however. Between 1995 and 1998, the population of Diadema grew 3.4 percent, but the number of homicides increased 49 percent, often averaging one murder per day. Mayor José de Filippi, Jr., now serving his third four-year term, began a 10-phase campaign to fight crime by gathering some hard data. His staff mapped serious crime locations and identified the times of heaviest activity. After determining that 60 percent of homicides occurred in or near bars between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., the city passed a law in 2001 that forced all establishments selling alcohol to close during those hours. That was the beginning of the sharp decline in serious crimes.

Another target of the mayor’s efforts to reduce crime was the youth of Diadema, who have benefited from several creative programs. The Youth Apprentice Project targets vulnerable young people from identified high-risk and socially excluded areas where drug trafficking is present. This project offers educational opportunities, sports and cultural activities, work placement, and a monthly income to those who qualify. These measures are aimed at giving young people other choices for using their time than crime, as well as new employment and social networks.

To deter crime by reducing the number of guns in favelas, the city decided again to focus on young people. The Disarmament of Fire Arms Campaign offered children a comic book in exchange for each toy gun collected, and approximately 27,000 toy guns were taken off the streets within three years. In the second phase of the campaign, collecting guns from adults, many children continued their activism and pressured their parents and neighbors to turn in their weapons. The program was far more successful than expected, with 1,600 guns collected in the first six months.

In addition to the crime-fighting programs, the mayor sought to improve the physical and social environment of the favelas. Citizens received training and free materials, and were encouraged to make structural as well as cosmetic improvements to their homes. In many areas they formed community groups that were effective in making neighborhood improvements. The city responded with a program under which residents in favelas located on publicly owned land can obtain a “right of use” of the land for 99 years at no charge. Those who remain for at least five years may begin steps to become the legal “lessee” of the land, and subsequently they are permitted to sell the structure.

Our visit to Diadema included a trip to a favela neighborhood where citizens had improved their homes and developed employment training and opportunities beyond those that the government program could provide. We gathered at a community center, which was also a place of worship and housed a classroom, to hear residents speak of their desire to take their community “to the next level.” They participated in the city’s “It’s Beautiful” program, which was created in 1983 with joint funding from the municipality and the community group. After the basic infrastructure was in place, they wanted the appearance of their community to match the pride they felt for their efforts.

Loeb Fellow Mary Eysenbach observed: “I was surprised how closely a self-organized neighborhood resembled a government-regulated one in form and organization. Whatever the solution is for the favelas, they must retain and even promote the creativity and entrepreneurship of the residents.”

Rio de Janeiro: Providência Hill

The Municipality of Rio de Janeiro created the Favela-Bairro project in 1993, when approximately one-fifth of the population lived in favelas. In its first two phases, the project has begun to integrate 620,000 citizens in 168 informal communities into the rest of the city. These settlements include 143 established favelas and 25 newer, irregular subdivisions. At least one more phase is planned, with the intention of reaching nearly 2 million people. The project is funded primarily by the municipality and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB 2003).

The main goals of the Favela-Bairro project are to make structural improvements in the homes; expand road access; and enhance and formalize urban infrastructure, including paved roads, water supply, and sanitary sewage. These physical improvements will integrate the favelas into the urban fabric with public spaces and other amenities. Social programs will provide assistance to children and adolescents (day-care centers, arts and sports facilities) and create opportunities for income generation (professional training and schooling for adults and youths).

One small but vital part of the project helps the favela residents obtain a street address, which enables them to receive mail and establish a client relationship with service providers. The project also provides “right of use” certificates to residents after their homes are connected to the sanitation and water systems, plotted on a map, and assigned an address. This land “lease” is usually for 100 years and allows the owner to transfer the buildings to an immediate family member; the land remains the property of the city. The hope is that, in addition to providing services, this program will provide the homeowner with security and a greater sense of ownership and responsibility.

We toured Providência Hill, one of the models of the Favela-Bairro project, with approximately 5,000 residents. As a grim sign that security remains a concern even in an improved neighborhood, we were escorted by armed officers. Our guide explained that the new staircase we climbed was an important part of the project, both for pedestrian access and as a means to carry water and sewer lines to the upper part of the favela. He also pointed out that education programs are offered to show residents how to use the new infrastructure and services, but it may take time for them to integrate these new systems into their way of life.

We were impressed by the creative ideas used to address day-to-day problems. For example, the limited number and accessibility of vehicular-sized roads make trash and garbage collection difficult. One solution has been an innovative exchange program: residents receive milk in exchange for a bag of trash, thus creating a healthier population, better trash collection, and a cleaner neighborhood.

We observed a heritage project that restored a historic chapel and imbedded a gold line in the cement to guide visitors on a walking tour past the highlights of the revitalization project. Our visit also included a presentation on the Favela-Bairro project at the new daycare center that will accommodate 220 children of the most needy families. As we witnessed throughout our visit in Brazil, both city staff and neighborhood leaders participated collaboratively in the presentations and discussions.

Fellow Robin Chase commented: “The whole Favela-Bairro concept of leveraging personal investments and realizing that housing close to downtown is better than a housing project in the middle of nowhere impressed me as practical and efficient. The quality of life is vastly improved with electricity, water, and plumbing. Fixing the security issues seems like a very difficult problem that needs to be solved throughout the country.”


We observed positive signs of change in the favelas we visited and were impressed by the dedication of citizens and officials to integrate these communities into the larger city, but many challenges remain, notably the need for substantial financial resources to implement further changes. An extensive study of favela residents in Rio confirms our experience: “While there have been notable improvements in consumption of collective urban services, household goods, and years of schooling over the past three decades, there is greater unemployment and inequality” (Perlman 2003). Crime, police corruption, and prejudice against those living in the favelas remain barriers to progress.

“At some level, local, national, and international leaders have realized that the relocation, marginalization, and segregation strategies of the past will not work,” noted James Stockard, curator of the Loeb Fellowship Program. “People have strong connections to the land where they have settled. Leveraging that commitment and energy is an important part of making these informal neighborhoods into healthier, safer, and more economically viable communities.”


Heather Boyer was a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 2004–2005 and is now a freelance editor in New York City.




Franke, Renata. 2005. Twenty-eight percent of Brazil’s urban population have no public water or sewage. Brazzil Magazine, June 2. www.brazzilmag.com/content/view/2641/49/

Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). 2003. Favela-Bairro: Ten years integrating the city. Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank.

Perlman, Janice E. 2003. The chronic poor in Rio de Janeiro: What has changed in 30 years?” Unpublished paper presented at the Conference on Chronic Poverty, Manchester, England.


Loeb Fellows, 2004–2005

Heather Boyer, former editor, Island Press, Boulder, Colorado

Robin Chase, founder and CEO, Meadow Networks, Cambridge, Massachusetts; founder and former CEO, Zipcar, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Maurice Cox, professor of architecture, University of Virginia; former Mayor, Charlottesville, Virginia

Mary Eysenbach, former director, The City Parks Forum, a program of the American Planning Association, Chicago, Illinois

Klaus Mayer, partner, Mayer Sattler-Smith, a multidisciplinary design firm in Anchorage, Alaska

Cara McCarty, curator of decorative arts and design, St. Louis Art Museum

Mario Navarro, former housing policy director, Chilean Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, Santiago

Dan Pitera, director, Detroit Collaborative Design Center, University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture

Carlos Romero, community organizer and community development advocate, San Francisco, California

Susan Zielinski, cofounder and director, Moving the Economy, Toronto