Crash Course in Brazilian Urban Reality: thought after 6 days of co-creation workshop in Santa Marta, Rio de Janeiro

Segolene Pruvot

By Segolene Pruvot, on October 19th, 2018

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Most urban planners (and many travellers too) know that Brazilian cities are an extreme example of vicinity within the city between poor and rich areas. Brazil is well known for its gated communities and favelas, which reality has been exposed through the years in literature and films as reported on by Christina Horwath in her previous blog post. Recently, the urban reality of Rio and its social movements have been especially exposed to the world’s eyes in 2014 and 2016 when the city hosted the Football World Cup and the Olympic Games. The last sad world-spread new is that of the death of Marielle Franco, politician, feminist and human rights activist who grew up in Rio’s North Zone favela Mare. Her murder is not elucidated, but the existing lines of investigations suggest the implication of other politicians in the murder.

Most urban planners have some understanding of what a favela is and what life there can be. I had my ideas and conceptions, some of which were validated or challenged by the five days co-creation workshop I took part in in August 2018, as part of the co-creation research project.

Here I would like to share some reflections from an urban sociologist point of view about the city of Rio de Janeiro, Santa Marta and the co-creation process.

What is Co-creation?

One of the objectives of the co-creation research project is to define in more depth the co-creation method. Co-creation is understood as a process by which people, including artists, inhabitants and public servants, as well as private stakeholders, are able to get over differences and work together to improve the situation of what are considered as deprived neighbourhoods of a city, from an equal footing.

Co-creation, initiated by academics and NGOs in this project, is close to the URBACT method in its purposes. Like the URBACT Local Groups it is designed to allow participation of diverse stakeholders in thinking, designing and enacting the improvements of the neighbourhood. Co-creation is a method that allows to think and act strategically but also operates in a way that is embedded in people’s lives and practices of the neighbourhood and can bring in a variety of people and contributions. The project makes an effort to codify what the essential steps of co-creation are and applies them during workshops and case studies.

The project has worked on a preliminary definition of the process of co-creation, based on academic research and on previous experience of the project partners. Santa Marta workshop was the first one that was attempting to put the theory into practice, and it proved challenging.

Discovering Rio de Janeiro

Is Rio de Janeiro a walkable city? What is possible to do there? What is dangerous and what is safe? Where will the children be able to play? Can I take the toddlers with me to the workshop in the favela? Here are some of the questions that were in the back of my mind when I boarded the flight to Rio de Janeiro, my first trip to South America, for a one-month long research trip, in which my family was coming along.

Zona-Sul: an area of contrast

Part of the Zona Sul is one of the most affluent area of Brazil (Leblon is were the price of real estate per square meter is the highest in Rio and most probably Brazil, Ipanema follows closely). It is also the where the most famous beach of Rio – Copacabana – is located. The other part is composed of some upper middle class areas such as Botafogo, also famous for its football and rowing teams, and some favelas, including Rocinha, the most populated favela in Rio, with about between 150000 (estimations vary) living on less than a square mile of land and Santa Marta, where our workshop was taking place.


Our work partners – the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio (PUC-Rio) and the Grupo ECO of the favela of Santa Marta – a well-established NGO recognised for offering a summer program of activities to the children of the favela, are both located in Rio’s Zona Sul. It is where we decided to be accommodated. We were also attracted by the proximity of the sea and the reputation of safety of the beach-facing area.

I did not realise at the time how geographically spread the city of Rio is and how constrained it is by its steady hills, which form a clear barrier between different areas and neighbourhoods of the city. This means that Zona Sul felt in my opinion somehow separated from the other parts of the city, at least travelling overground in the packed traffic of Rio de Janeiro. However, the zone is well connected to the rest of the city by the metro, numerous buses and taxis.

Background information about Santa Marta’s favela[i]

Santa Marta is a relatively small favela, with about 6000 inhabitants. It also has a privileged location, as part of the Botafogo more affluent neighbourhood. It is just a short walk away from the metro station and is close to many of Rio’s city facilities. The favela occupies the slope of a hill and is among the steepest ones in the city.

The first inhabitants of Santa Marta arrived in the late 1930’s, coming from the Brazilian states of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo, north of Rio. Rural migrants sheltered at the top of the hill. Most of the men went to work in building industry in the suburbs of the south of Rio, while the women worked mostly as housemaids.

The land was initially used by people who worked in building sites for the catholic Church. Today disagreement remains to know whether it has been allocated initially by the Church to the workers or whether it has been inhabited freely. The land was probably chosen because it was protected by vegetation, and therefore the shacks to be built would not be seen from below.

Initially housing was made of stucco and board huts, erected with the experience of those coming from the countryside, paths were composed in stone and clay. There was no running water and no electric power.

In the 1960s a large number of people from the north and northeast of Brazil arrived in Santa Marta, greatly increasing the local population and imposing new challenges: sharing the scarcity of water and electricity and making room for new constructions. From the end of the 1970’s on a strong residents’ mobilisation fought for the improvement of the favela, housing, access to water and other facilities. This led to an ‘urbanisation plan’, improving streets and garbage removal, improving mobility in the neighbourhood, supported by the Rio administration in the early 2000’s. The urbanisation works of the favela were later put to a relative stop at the start of the ‘Pacification Policy’ (UPP), characterised by an increased presence of proximity police in the favela, aimed at putting drug dealing and violence in the favela on hold. The UPP started in 2008 and lasted until after the Olympic Games in 2016. Santa Marta was the first of the 42 neighbourhoods concerned by the policy.

Today, the favela is a fully build up part of the city with brick narrow buildings separated by narrow alleyways. Almost all residents have running water and electric power, allowing them to connect refrigerators, computers and even some air conditioners. Garbage remains a major problem. Open ditches that remain as drainage channels for rainwater continue to be garbage dumps, and disease outbreaks are common. The houses grow higher, further densifying the favela, which land is constrained. Buildings may look unfinished from the outside but many are good and comfortable housing units, with all facilities. The streets are paved with concrete, (very many) steps have been built to go up the hill. The poorest part of the favela is at the top of the hill.

The favela has 3 crèches, 2 football pitches, 1 samba school (big covered sports facility). Schools are down the hill in the Botafogo neighbourhood. At the bottom of the hills are concentrated most of the shops, but there are several shops and bars up in the favela. The inhabitants I have had a chance to discuss with sounded proud and happy of their neighbourhood and its strong community feeling, apart from the issues of rising violence and the inoccupation of the youth in the long afternoons after school. The residents are organised in a resident association since 1965 notably with the aim to improve life conditions.

An ‘exemplary’ and pacified favela?

Michael Jackson’s choice to make of Santa Marta one of the locations for the shooting of the music video for the song “they don’t care about us” definitely shed lights on Santa Marta. Until today it remains an element of pride for the neighbourhood.

This, and the relative success of the pacification policy (UPP), which was characterised by relative peace and safety in the neighbourhood even boosted tourism in Santa Marta, an effort supported by the government who provided training for tourist guides for a while.

The government financed the construction of a cable car, which (slowly) goes up the hill, linking up better those living at the top of the hills and those who have reduced mobility to the rest of the city. Numerous artistic and NGO projects provided coloured murals to the favela. The favela became an example of pacification policy and was integrated in tourism guidebooks.

This relative success is not without failures and step-backs. New challenges appear. One of the most striking element of the story was for me that there is some public intervention but always half-way through only.

Visual: map santa marta

The space of half-way through policies

Here are several examples of public and private policy interventions in the favela, which have been left incomplete.

One Cable Car Completed out of Two Cable Cars Foreseen

The most visible example of unfinished policies is the cable car. The residents’ association had worked, together with the municipality, on an urbanisation plan for the neighbourhood. One key element of this plan was the building of 2 cable cars, on each side of the neighbourhood. The cable car was successfully built, but only on one side! On the other side, the land that belongs to the prefecture was not made available and the cable car was not built.


Garbage collection

The cable car is also central to the garbage collection system in place in the favela. There is a specific space in the car to bring down garbage from the top of the hill and a garbage collection and sorting unit is located just at the bottom of the cable car arrival. People can also reduce their utilities bill by bringing back recyclable material in a small house built at this purpose. There is a built in and hidden drainage system for used water. Streets are cleaned up by numerous rubbish collectors.

On rainy days it is therefore puzzling to testimony how dirty the open air drainage system is and how much rubbish is left in the streets. The narrowness of streets certainly does not facilitate rubbish collection but there is a feeling of half finished, half organised system, which leaves residents live close to dirt and in unhealthy conditions.

The failure of a relocation project: Distrust in public operators, fears of gentrification and displacement

Half-way through policies and the general context of corruption in the State of Rio (with the ex-governor now in prison around corruption linked to public works for the Olympics) leads to strong defiance towards municipal and state policy.

In Santa Marta, one relocation programme of families from the top of the hills was defeated by the resistance of some of the inhabitants, who feared a displacement of the families to build more upscale units, or what they thought might even be selective ‘five-star-hotels’.

The relocation programme was planning to relocate families in better accommodation on another part of the favela (close to the unbuilt cable car), some families had accepted the scheme, some refused. The building for relocation was started but never finished. It stands decaying, half build, on the side of the favela. It was even briefly occupied as a protest by those who were supposed to be accommodated there, but the people were removed swiftly.

The return of violence

The UPP is another unfinished and unsatisfying public policy, which consequences are now bitterly felt. The UPP was based on an increased presence of proximity police with – at the beginning at least – the aim of stopping drug dealing, and of stopping drug be visible in the streets. During the UPP, most favelas were quieter; Santa Marta even became an example of the pacification policy. Unfortunately, that time is over and gangs have started again to use the streets for their own purposes. The police is present but in a way that is privileging direct combat with drug dealers, resulting in long and dangerous shootings in the streets between the two.

As in many neighbourhoods around Rio, violence is on the rise in Santa Marta. Residents hide away during shootings between the police and the drug dealers. Mobile applications that record and be aware of shootings in real time have been created, mostly to help people get out of the zones of confrontations, in which they may be hit. The UPP has kept drug dealing hidden and drug dealers relatively quiet, possibly in an agreement with them that they shall not operate in the open in some areas, but the halt to this policy has changed the ecosystem and the gangs restated their presence in the favelas, notably by exhibiting their weapons, for instance by attaching one to Michael Jackson’s statue, and this in a context of a gang wars at the national (and international) level.

Showing one’s presence in the neighbourhood is clearly a goal of the drug gangs. Everyday of our very limited presence I saw young men carrying enormous machine guns walking (more or less) quietly in the streets. There were sometimes just buying cakes in the bakery or more clearly preparing an operation and running around, speaking via with walkie-talkie, a behaviour that somehow felt like a replica of movies. Many many walls and rocks are tagged with the name of the drug dealing gang most present in the area.

Our hosts and interlocutors had different attitudes towards the young men from drug gangs, the police and shootouts, ranging from intense dislike and annoyance towards groups that put people’s lives at risk to almost indifference towards people one has to live with and who do not usually create disruption, apart when the police come into the picture. I had never been that close to machine guns and I felt very disturbed. Although I accepted the fact that the drug dealers had no interest in putting foreigners and resident’s people lives at risk, it seems to me that an accident may happen quite easily when people carry weapons. It is striking how the international market of drugs has an impact on the daily life of millions of people without them having much possibility of agency to act against the main actors.

In our discussions with the residents, it appeared clearly that many were striving for peace and for the end of violence, like apparently many residents of Rio (A 2017 poll, made at the peak of violence in the favelas, showed that 7 out of 10 residents of Rio would prefer to move away if they could because of the violence. Residents have to organise their lives to avoid being put at risk and this restricts their mobility in the city. For instance, one of the residents, a mother of two, told us how her daughter had to stop attending samba classes in another favela, because of rising violence in that favela.


Challenged narratives and stakeholders of the favela

Telling the story of the favela is clearly a real challenge. Part of the story was told to us by our fascinating hosts from NGO Grupo ECO, of which Itamar Silva is an unmissable figure. The activists of Santa Marta have been working hard since the 1970’s to get Santa Marta on the official map of the city, even by drawing themselves the first map of the neighbourhood and naming streets, with the aim to get the electricity company to come and provide electricity in the houses. But the story of the favela is also written by other actors, like for instance the Churches. In Santa Marta, a relatively small favela, there are not less than 8 different churches (Catholic and Adventist). Some actors are not present enough, such as the state or such as wealthier Brazilians, whose trajectories in the city never cross the favela.

The actors telling the story of the favela and fighting for deciding on its future are numerous and some are very powerful, it is clear that to bring them (or some of them at least) to collaborate in a common co-creation process that may have a long lasting influence on urban inclusion is not easy.

Building the co-creation process

This first international workshop of the co-creation project in Rio was a start. It was in itself a first introduction for the researchers – most of whom were new to Brazil and to Rio – to the urban realities of Santa Marta and of Rio, it was a first collaboration for many with grupo ECO and the occasion to build some trust and confidence, with some successes, like the photo elicitation workshop and the participation of a very committed group of inhabitants, with a larger reach out to other children and families.

There were also limits. I would just mention the lack of involvement of public authorities (local authorities, police, international organisations, church) or of some other stakeholders such as the inhabitants of adjacent areas of Botafogo. This workshop was probably not the best moment to set this up but it is a point to be taken into account in the follow-up activities in Rio: it may be possible to take advantage of the presence of international researchers to raise awareness of other stakeholders and involvement with important urban issues of Santa Marta and build trust and build a modified co-working environment at local level.

The workshops and case studies coming up in Saint-Denis (France) are being built at the light of Rio’s workshop’s learning points. The research goes on.

[i] Some of the description of Santa Marta used in this blog has been written by Grupo ECO and translated by Andreia Martins Van Den Hurk as part of the preparation of the workshop.

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