Monday, November 14, 2011

The Organic and the Infrastructural in Rocinha Favela

Rocinha Favela



Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

I was surprised to wake up yesterday and see the police and military had taken over the Rocinha favela. I visited Rocinha during some design research for a project last year, and we were told even back then that the Rio government had begun systematically installing peace patrols in the favelas, but in order to establilsh the peace, they first had to take over the neighborhoods by force. Even back then, the NGO guide that took us through his neighborhood said tensions were heightened because the drug dealers knew their days of controlling Rocinha were numbered. The day finally came on Saturday.

The government has taken a decidedly more hands-on role in the management of the favelas given that Rio will host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. With so much of the favelas becoming solidified with more formal infrastructure, I am struck by the neighborhoods' origins in organic growth and how there can be the right balance between this new insertion of organization within the seemingly chaotic in these dense neighborhoods (Rocinha has estimates of 300,00 people in this small valley and hillside). After all, the favelas were orginally founded by former slaves who did not own land and relocated to uninhabited hillside jungle to cultivate crops. Over the years they've become gradually more formalized and permanent. Ultimately, I went to the favela to be inspired by what cities could learn from an organic settlement that grows with the intentions of the crowd that occupies it but I left wondering what the right balance of top-down and bottom-up is right for urban development that meets the evolving demands of the inhabitants.


So what is the critical amount of infrastructure that is provided in a top-down system, and what can grow with the will of the occupants and adapt to changing demands over time?


Upon my visit I was struck by how permanent everything was as my naiveté led me to assume we would be visiting ramshackle houses. While there are a few sections of new housing that look very informal and unsafe at the very tops of the hill which have been recently built on some very unstable, steep hills, the vast majority of the housing is multi-story concrete and terra cotta brick construction that looks like it's been there for some time. The two houses we visited had full kitchens, running water and electricity. Most people have lived in their home for several generations.

So while the government has largely ignored the favelas, the residents were busy building up their own infrastructure organically. Every phone pole in the neighborhood has dozens of power lines spliced into it. And there is even an informal address system and mail delivery that operates in the neighborhood. Trying to find a residence without a guide would be nearly impossible for a non-resident as there is only one paved road (which the government added several years ago) and all of the houses are stacked on top of one another on stair-ridden curving alleys.


Rocinha Favela

Young men play soccer in an alley that is being carved up through Rocinha to prevent tuberculosis and provide better circulation.



Rocinha Favela

Power and phone lines are spliced in a beautifully, chaotic mess.


While we were there, the government had also begun a process of clearing some larger pathways up the hillside. The favelas are so densely populated that tuberculosis has been a problem because air cannot circulate properly, and the pathways will help alleviate that problem. This also provided a much faster way for us to get to the homes we were visiting. The residents who are being displaced by this project are being relocated in a more formal concrete housing complex close by. While you can see, it's decidedly more orthogonal than its neighbors, the new complex is a similar density and won't force people to move far from their support network.

The neighborhood will no doubt be a better place without a drug trade that rules it like a mafia and offers no positive opportunity for the young men and women who live there. And most of the infrastructural improvements will be very positive, but we should be wary of the displacement of residents for what may in some cases be ulterior motives. Some of the residents we spoke to near the top of the hill in Rocinha said they are going to be moved almost 40 miles away to another neighborhood because they believe the government wants to use their property, which has 2 stunning views of the city and Leblon beach, to build bed and breakfasts during the World Cup. Such a significant move from the support network of family and friends that is such a vital part of favela life would be critically disruptive to a household here.

Rocinha Favela

An informal water system stretches from rooftop to rooftop since there are no primary and secondary roads to run a water main.

Rocinha Favela

New housing that is being built within the favela for those who are being displaced by the new pathways carved into the dense neighborhood.


AfroReggae
Some of the more sprawling favelas of Vigario Geral have a new gondola system that connects hillside residents with grocery stores and neighbors that are hard to get to by foot.


But not all of the improvement of the favela is provided, top-down, from the government. In the absence of the government's intervention in many of the problems of the favelas, the communities took action as well. And we saw a bright spot example when we visited the AfroReggae Cultural Center in the Vigario Geral favela and had the honor of meeting AfroReggae's charismatic leader, Junior, who has grew up there. AfroReggae provides an infrastructure for young people of the nighborhood to thrive in arts and culture providing education and state-of-the-art performance facilities in the heart of the favela.

It will be exciting to see how the favelas evolve with a genetic code of organic, chaotic growth as they face new challenges that come with the addition of formal systems hopefully striking the right balance between the two.


AfroReggae
The AfroReggae Cultural Center in the Vigario Geral favela.

AfroReggae

The arts and community center built by AfroReggae has a vibrant public courtyard and performance venue.


AfroReggae

AfroReggae

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