Brasilia at 52
A commonplace statement, and maybe cliché, describes Brazil’s former capital Rio de Janeiro as a city of sharp social contrasts. This is manifested most visibly through an urban geography where poor favela dwellers live beside upper class residents of luxurious high-rise buildings. Brasilia is - by contrast - often portrayed as a model city where inhabitants have access to good social amenities and enjoy the highest quality of life in the whole country.
However, a closer look at Brasilia reveals a far less flattering picture. A recent article on the website of the influential Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo on the occasion of Brasilia’s 52nd birthday points out that Brasilia has high levels of violence and social inequality. These levels are well above the Brazilian national average. According to the article: “…the homicide rate amongst men living in Brasilia between the ages of 15 - 29 years is of 121 deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants. In Brazil, the average is 94 per 100,000.”
Despite the fact that Brasilia’s GDP per capita (US$50,000) is the highest in Brazil, the Brazilian Capital’s de facto economic potential is based on a Constitutional Fund. For every $10.00 that the government of the Federal District spends, $4.00 comes from that fund. According to Marcio Pochmann, President of IPEA (Institute of Applied Economic Research in Brazil), social and economic inequality in Brasilia is a direct product of a condition of disparity between high salaries in the public administration (made possible by the above-mentioned Constitutional Fund) and a growing population of underemployed and underpaid workers in the private and informal sectors.
Many of these underpaid workers and their families live in destitute conditions in informal settlements such as Community Sol Nascente (Brazil’s second largest favela) or in a belt of low-income settlements just outside the border of the Federal District.
Brasilia has also been repeatedly criticized for being based on an anachronistic modernist urban model, inspired by Le Corbusier’s Athens Charter, where different urban functions (commerce, residence, industry, and so forth) are placed in distinct sectors, and where urban mobility is extremely reliant on private cars or an underdeveloped and underequipped system of collective transport. One of the consequences of this urban model is a severe socio-spatial segregation, where the vast majority of jobs are located in the Pilot Plan (the administrative centre of Brazilia designed by Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer) and most low-paid workers live in remote satellite cities or informal settlements.
A central quality for a city is its ability to transform and adapt to new social, economic and environmental conditions. 52 years is very young for a city, but there is no doubt that Brasilia faces serious challenges if it is to reshape its economy, infrastructure, social make-up and spatial configuration in order to respond to increasingly critical economic, social and environmental conditions. Brasilia’s next 52 years of existence will be characterized by the city’s ability to implement crucial and comprehensive changes including restructuring its economic base, investing in a top-quality collective transport system, decentralizing jobs from the pilot plan to satellite cities, promoting mixed-function and socially diverse developments, and focusing on urban densification in the proximity of collective transport stations. Visionary political leadership and urban governance of a caliber such as that of Jaime Lerner’s Curitiba or Enrique Penalosa’s Bogota is a central requirement for effecting these changes.