The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Vila Autódromo: one community taking a stand against Olympic gentrification in Rio de Janeiro

Sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup are touted for sparking local economic development but just as often displace large numbers of urban poor to achieve it. Maureen M. Donaghy visits the community that is challenging the government's redevelopment plans for the Olympic Park site with its own People's Plan that promises to be more cost effective.

Maureen M. Donaghy

Maureen M. Donaghy

Cities: Rio de Janeiro

Topics: New cities and special projects, Property, rights and evictions, Participatory governance, Community organisation, Global cities

When the Cidade Maravilhosa, Rio de Janeiro, was awarded the 2016 Olympics, cheers broke out on the city's iconic Copacabana beach. Love of sport was clearly not the only motivation for these cheers: the Games are billed as an opportunity to showcase the city to the world, attract investment, increase tourism, and build infrastructure to be used for years to come. The costs of the preparations, both human and financial, however, are now evident in the city and across the country. Not only will Rio host the the Olympic Games, but it will alsy play a large role in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, for which the 80,000-seat Maracana stadium is underogoing a half-billion-dollar renovation.

As part of the city's preparations for these two events, thousands of families are being removed from their homes to make way for new bus lines, roads, sports complexes, and parking garages. Where it is offered, compensation is generally in the form of relocation to new public housing units in the periphery of the city, or monthly subsidies to rent elsewhere. Human rights groups, including Rio's Popular Committee for the World Cup and Olympics, are taking to the streets and the courts, fighting to save residents' homes and livelihoods.

But while memories of the London Games--during which the stands sat empty for many of the competitions--are still fresh, we have to question, do sporting events really justify the dislocation of 200,000 families?

Across Brazil an estimated 200,000 residents are threatened with removal for the World Cup or the Olympics. But while memories of the London Games — during which the stands sat empty for many of the competitions — are still fresh, we have to question, do sporting events really justify the dislocation of 200,000 families? The government of Brazil is betting on these events to boost long-term economic growth, but in the present, the return on investment for low-income families appears to be largely negative.

Resisting removal in Vila Autódromo

One community in Rio de Janeiro, Vila Autódromo, encapsulates a number of issues related to mega-event planning, ongoing gentrification processes, and the impact of participation on development. Housing approximately 500 families, Vila Autódromo is threatened with removal as the city prepares for 2016. The community sits next to the proposed main Olympic Park, to be constructed on the site of the historic speedway in the upper and middle class area of Barra de Tijuca with its bright new condominiums, shopping malls, and gated communities.

The government of Rio claims that the land is needed to widen the highway for a new BRT line, but the Olympic development is really just one in a long line of justifications presented to residents for their removal. The community has been fighting the government for over twenty years, as the government has alternately claimed they pollute the nearby lagoon, they were living in an environmentally fragile area, and they were in the way of development for the 2007 Pan American Games. According to residents and social movement actors in the city, the real reason the government wants the community to move is that the land has become increasingly valuable in a rapidly-growing real estate market. Unlike many areas in the city threatened with eviction, however, over 60 per cent of residents in Vila Autódromo have legal possession of the land on which their self-constructed houses sit. Still, the municipal government insists that the residents of Vila Autódromo must give up their homes and leave voluntarily or be forcibly removed.

Over the years the community of Vila Autódromo has relied on Brazil's system of civil public defenders (Defensoria Publíca) to challenge the government's right to evict them, particularly without legitimate cause or compensation plan. But now residents have staked their fortunes on a proative approach by providing an alternative proposal to removal. In coordination with urban planners from the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF), the community association held a series of assemblies over the course of a year to prepare a detailed needs assessment and a proposal for urbanisation of the community. The resulting Popular Plan makes comprehensive recommendations, including cost estimates for re-housing residents currently living along the lagoon within the community, sanitation infrastructure to provide environmental and health benefits, and new areas for leisure and educational programs. In mid-August the residents' association presented the plan to Rio's Mayor Eduardo Paes, arguing that its implementation would cost only 35 per cent of the expense of removing residents and relocating them to newly constructed apartments.

Implementation of Vila Autódromo's proposal is feasible from both a financial and urban planning perspective. The plan is cost effective, and given the availability of federal funds for urbanisation should not cost the city government much in terms of investment. The municipal government has already acquired other land on which to build and re-house residents, but they have not yet begun reconstruction. Regardless, social movements charge that the site for relocation is environmentally unstable and that resettlement to 2-bedroom apartments is not comparable to the large self-constructed homes in which they currently live. As the photograph above demonstrates, Vila Autódromo is not situated in a congested urban environment, but rather is surrounded by highways, green space, the autodrome, and the lagoon. Several urban planners and the company involved in constructing the Olympic Park have publicly stated that the transit line could be diverted to avoid removing the community. Though the land would no doubt be a lucrative site for high-end residences and commerce, there are many empty parcels nearby that could be developed without disturbing existing residents.

The resulting Popular Plan makes comprehensive recommendations, including cost estimates for re-housing residents within the community ... its implementation would cost only 35 per cent of the expense of removing residents and relocating them to newly constructed apartments.

Three tests for the city of Rio

The case of Vila Autódromo presents three critical tests. First, the fate of the community can and will define the image that the governments of Rio and Brazil show to the world. If they support a process of urbanisation rather than removal, broadcast footage of the Olympic Games will include a narrative of positive progress and sense of inclusion rather than massive highways, fancy condos, or protests by alienated citizens. This case and others have been widely publicised internationally. Social movements oriented towards urban reform in Brazil are increasingly professionalised and linked to international rights organisations, and are likely to continue to put forward their own narrative of human rights violations and increasing subjugation of the poor. The purpose of these mega-events is to elevate the image of the city in the eyes of international investors and potential tourists. If the government of Rio wants to capitalise on the attention received during the Games, they must decide now to listen to alternative proposals and consider the impact of wholesale evictions on the city's future reputation.

Second, the case will demonstrate the effectiveness of legal protections for the poor, not just for this community, but for the 22,000 individuals spread out across 24 communities in Rio and the hundreds of thousands threatened caross the country. Brazil has been at the forefront of developing countries in providing legal rights to protect those living in informal settlements. The Brazilian Constitution provides for the right to housing, the Charter for the City defines processes for regularising land tenure, and the system of public defenders generally represents the rights of poor residents in court. But, as Brazilian planner and UN Special Rapporteur for Housing Raquel Rolnik (featured in last week's article) has charged, regularisation of tenure is increasingly viewed by local officials not as a right of citizenship, but as subject to the discretion of the city administration. The scale of removals, whether of residents living formally or informally, is a test of the systems put in place to ensure the right to housing and that the voices of those affected are heard.

Third, Vila Autódromo will provide evidence for the impact of strategic choices made by communities and social movements. The community association has explicitly chosen to say no to any and all removals. They reject any proposal that allows even one family to face eviction. In addition, the community has very consciously decided to develop their own plan rather than take part in established participatory governance institutions, in which they feel the government would control the process. They have chosen to seek the advice of university professors over alignment with specific social movements or NGOs. The end result of their actions will be a case study of either success or setbacks for future grassroots movements.

The city government must now decide whether they will accept the plan to invest in the community, or relocate residents and sell the land to private sector developers. The country as a whole is in a critical moment — poised on the precipice of international recognition as a 'developed' nation, yet stuck between the reality of deep pockets of poverty and the increasing wealth of those who have access to international capital. The city can continue on the path of removing residents from their homes, relocating them to the periphery where they will lack infrastructure, jobs and community ties, in order to present a 'cleaner' image to the world. Or they can choose to use existing housing programs to invest in communities through infrastructure, social services, and credit for entrepreneurial activities. The choices Rio makes now will determine the images of the country that people around the world will see in 2014 and 2016.

Maureen M. Donaghy is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Political Science and Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers University, Camden. She has done extensive research on Brazil's social movements for housing and is the author of the forthcoming book Civil Society and Participatory Governance: municipal councils and social housing programs in Brazil (Routledge Press). Dr. Donaghy travelled to Rio de Janeiro in July 2012 to see first-hand the effects of mega-event development on the lives of low-income residents in the city.