Public Land Management

The Brasilia Experience
Pedro Abramo, November 1, 1998

Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, was inaugurated in the early 1960s as a “new city” that was to usher in a new era for Latin American metropolises, demonstrating how the government’s efficient use of land would allow for orderly urban growth. Two basic instruments were provided for this purpose: normative control of the use of land based on a master plan devised by Lucio Costa; and government ownership of land in the federal capital, which would permit the capital to be planned without the kinds of restrictions and conflicts that normally result from private land ownership. However, three and a half decades later, the problems associated with urban development in Brasilia do not differ substantially from those experienced by other large cities in Latin America.

Land Tenure Shortsightedness and Administrative Patronage

Brasilia presents a unique example of urban land management in Latin America because the administration of public land has always been the responsibility of the local government. Nevertheless, the city’s periphery has experienced an explosive rate of growth with its concomitant pattern of irregular land occupation, illegal subdivisions and lack of infrastructure. In Brasilia the possibility of steering the process of urban growth by means of an explicit policy of access to public land has been slowly and irreparably jeopardized by spontaneous (and illegal) land occupation. This shortsighted use of public land is generally dysfunctional for both urban density and public finance, thus hindering the local administration’s efforts to provide infrastructure to these irregular sites.

Furthermore, political influences on the development process have significantly compromised the chances of efficiently managing the supply of public land in Brasilia. In the early 1990s the government distributed about 65,000 lots in areas without any basic infrastructure. Besides reducing the stock of public land, this “land tenure patronage” created the need for new funding sources to finance new infrastructure. Since the main resource available to the Federal District’s Development Agency (Terracap) is the land itself, this patronage policy resulted in the sale of additional public lands to finance infrastructure in irregular settlements. This vicious cycle has caused serious distortions that the present local administration aims to solve by using public land as “capital” to create an effective policy to manage land tenure revenues and urban costs.

The Brasilia experience seems to confirm the arguments of Henry George and others that public land ownership does not per se lead to more balanced and socially egalitarian urban growth. The current local government strategy to define ways to manage revenue from public lands in order to manage the use of urban land indicates a new form of government interaction with the land market. In this sense, the government changes its role from being the principal landowner to becoming the administrator of land benefits.

Public Land as Land Tenure Capital

The core principle of Brasilia’s new strategy of administering land equity is the definition of public land as “land tenure capital.” The use of this land is submitted to a set of strategic actions that transform public land capital into a factor that induces the consolidation of the Federal District’s technological complex. This is the public counterpart in the process of reconverting land use in the city center into an instrument of social promotion in the land tenure regulation program: public lands are used as land assets through sales, leases and partnerships in urban projects.

The use of differentiated land tenure strategies lends more flexibility to the government in coordinating its actions. The search for a balance between initiatives of a social nature and others where the government seeks to maximize its income is now taking on the appearance of an actual policy of public land administration that breaks with former patronage practices.

In this context of exploring new approaches to the use of public land to control urban development in Brasilia, the Lincoln Institute, the Planning Institute of the Federal District and Terracap organized an International Seminar on Management of Land Tenure Revenue and Urban Costs in June 1998.

The program brought together international experts, government secretaries and local administrators with a view to evaluating international experiences in using public lands to finance urban growth in Europe, the United States and Latin America. Martim Smolka of the Lincoln Institute described the relationships between land market operations, land use regulations and the public capture of land value increments. Alfredo Garay, an architect and former planning director for the city of Buenos Aires, reported on experiences in the development of public land around the city’s harbor.

Bernard Frieden of Massachusetts Institute of Technology described how commercial activities on public trust lands in the western United States are used to raise funds for education and other local purposes. Henk Verbrugge, director of Rotterdam’s fiscal agency and The Netherlands’ representative to the International Association of Assessing Officers, described the country’s system of hereditary tenure, a legal regulation by which land can be used for full private use and benefit while remaining under municipal control and economic ownership.

The participants discussed how these experiences compared with the situation in Brasilia and concluded that the success of various strategies for the use of public land depends on the suitability of specific projects to the respective country’s business culture and the institutional practices in effect in the local administration.

Pedro Abramo is a professor at the Institute of Urban and Regional Research and Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.