Can Brazil’s favelas offer inspiration for the development of smart cities? Adam Yang discusses the immense potential of favelas towards creating liveliness, sociability and serendipity in an increasingly urban world.
It is not uncommon for slums to be depicted as sites of misery, degradation, and despair. Cataclysmic narratives of an ever more somber urban future in the developing world abound and are best exemplified by Mike Davis’ provocative Planet of Slums. However, there is a different side of this story, at least in the case of Brazilian favelas.
Strangely, favelas naturally possess features that are strongly desired by architects, planners, and policy makers when imagining the ideal forms of urban environments.
First of all, favelas are dense. If density and compactness are crucial for a more convivial, sustainable, and prosperous city as argued by Ed Glaeser in his excessively optimistic Triumph of the City favelas dramatically demonstrate that humans are capable of living very close to each other. Surely, the conditions under which this happens are far from satisfactory, but the spontaneous formation of dense slums does counter the North American model of overly spacious and anti-social suburban sprawl.
Second, favelas are actual communities. While the rest of the city defensively withdraws from public life, hiding in fear behind gates and walls, favela dwellers frequently use the streets for socialization and recreation. In other words, the publicness of favela streets is much more vivid and authentic. Local residents often refer to their community in kind and warm ways, such as “paraíso” (“paradise”), as in the case of Paraisópolis one of the most populous slums in São Paulo. There is clearly a sense of belonging, something that is absent in most neighborhoods of the city. This generates trust, cooperation, and playfulness amongst citizens, certainly key elements to help coping with the hardships of daily life.
The Failed Generation?
Third, favelas are multi-functional spaces. When visiting Paraisópolis, it is possible to observe a variety of small businesses and services, as well as areas used for recreational purposes. In other words, favelas are not just a collection of crammed residential shacks. Pharmacies, clothing shops, Internet game centers, supermarkets, beauty salons, electronics shops, and erotic boutiques are some examples of what one can witness when exploring the vibrant streets of Paraisópolis.
Finally, favelas are anti-car use. Though many local residents possess vehicles, it is extremely difficult to navigate smoothly through a favela’s congested narrow alleys. Parking space is also a rare privilege. In contrast, getting around by foot or on a bicycle can be much easier and faster, relatively speaking.
Favelas are messy places, but they are not necessarily sites of hopelessness and desolation. In fact, most favela dwellers in Brazil have been upwardly mobile throughout the past decade and are now well inserted into consumer culture. But most importantly, favelas generate an alternative urbanism by spontaneously attaining density, community identity, multi-functionality, and an anti-car form – all desirable features of a lively, livable, and sustainable city.
Needless to say, the living conditions in favelas are nowhere near adequate. There is much to be done to improve, amongst other things, the quality of sanitation, water supply, and waste management. Additionally, there is still substantial social stigma attached to those who live in them. However, favelas do show that ‘city-making’ from below can unexpectedly achieve what city planners often fail to.
This message from favelas is especially important considering the current obsession with the so-called ‘smart cities’. The ‘smart city’, in essence, is a technocratic, top-down, and soulless vision of how cities should look like. Urban environments that are planned merely for the sake of functionality tend to require little cognitive interpretation they are usually uninteresting, dull, and stupefying, as sociologist Richard Sennett vehemently argues.
If we aspire liveliness, sociability, and serendipity for our increasingly urban world, we must rethink the vision of what future cities should look like. Planning will certainly need to play a key role in the betterment of cities. However, top-down interventions should not come at the expense of what makes cities interesting in the first place, that is, the people and their dynamic involvement with the space around them. Interestingly, in this sense, favelas could be a source of inspiration for planners of the future.
To actively engage in city-making in São Paulo and Rio, take action here. If you are interested in innovative grassroots solutions in Brazil.
Adam Yang, MSc Urbanisation and Development, London School of Economics (LSE).