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Hillside slum in Rio de Janeiro
Urbanisation

Co-designing green infrastructure in the slums of Rio de Janeiro

Upgrading, retrofitting and regreening informal urban settlements – more commonly known as slums – will be key to meeting net zero obligations across the developing world.

Prof. Samer Bagaeen & Dr Silvio Caputo
7 January 2020

In the world’s informal settlements, climate change is worsening existing shocks and stresses, and creating a multitude of new challenges. Climate and disaster-related risks in cities cannot be addressed without upgrading informal settlements; likewise, upgrades will be not be successful unless the impacts of climate change are incorporated into imaginative design solutions.

Upgrading involves a process of improving living conditions in informal settlements – often through the provision of shelter and essential services – while supporting economic development via stronger links with the “formal” city. Interventions can range in scale and levels of community participation, and may vary in scope from single-sector projects. Some actions, like the one outlined below in Rio de Janeiro, cannot be successful without the engagement of the right actors at design, financing and implementation stages.

Brazil is a middle-income country with a growing economy. Rio de Janeiro’s informal settlements, home to 27% of the city’s population, are starkly representative of the country’s profound income disparities. High levels of inequality and unjust distribution of resources persist, with more than a quarter of the national population living below the federal poverty line.

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Rio de Janeiro’s informal settlements, home to 27% of the city’s population, are starkly representative of the country’s profound income disparities

There have, in the past, been formally stated commitments on the part of Rio’s administrators to provide infrastructure to all favelas by 2030. To date, however, the favelas remain largely lacking in vital public services and connectivity. Obstacles to the design and implementation of effective infrastructure are not merely related to cost, but also to the misgivings of local inhabitants, who are often sceptical as to the genuine importance of such schemes. This is, in part, a consequence of insufficiently participatory approaches to decision-making. It is the authors’ belief that high levels of local resident engagement must be sought in the design and testing of new solutions.

The challenge of improving living conditions within informal settlements through the provision of infrastructure and public services is multifaceted. Issues of cost and land ownership are complicated by the unplanned nature and extreme density of slums and favelas. In Rio de Janeiro, the unregulated growth of some favelas resulted in the loss of large forest areas at the fringes of the city and generated a built environment lacking the vital benefits that infrastructure, and in particular green infrastructure, can provide. Slums, or favelas, are in need of urban retrofit solutions so that they contribute to national efforts towards de-carbonisation. Such seemingly intractable problems can only be solved through radical thinking.

The challenge of improving living conditions within informal settlements is complicated by their unplanned nature and extreme density. Such seemingly intractable problems can only be solved through radical thinking.

In January 2019, we submitted a bid to the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), a £1.5 billion fund launched by the UK Government in late 2015 to support cutting-edge research addressing challenges facing developing nations. The project focused on green infrastructure as a catalyst not only of improved health outcomes but also economic opportunity – namely through food production. We looked at establishing alternatives to current industrial food systems which rely on production and distribution methods that are particularly carbon intensive.

As part of the project, we ran a week-long workshop in Rio in May 2019 building on our shared expertise in innovative urban agriculture models and co-design and urban resilience. The workshop was also an opportunity for us to advance our understanding of urban design and planning in emergency areas and in high density urban environments – a longstanding area of concern in South America, and increasingly relevant in Europe.

In Rio de Janeiro, the unregulated growth of some favelas resulted in the loss of large forest areas at the fringes of the city and generated a built environment lacking the vital benefits that infrastructure, and in particular green infrastructure, can provide.

On Monday 6 May 2019, Professors Fabiana Izaga and Lucia Costa from PROURB – UFRJ (the Urban Design and Landscape department within the School of Architecture, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro), 16 students, Julio Cesar Barros from the Municipality of Rio de Janeiro, and representatives from the local community met together in a courtyard of a local health centre in Morro da Formiga.

Julio Cesar Barros leads the programme Hortas Cariocas, which aims at starting community gardens in the informal settlements of the city, in order to promote healthy food and lifestyles, while re-greening environments with limited public space.

Our discussions with the local community enabled us to better understand their public service requirements and priorities, as well as how they utilised existing communal zones. Inadequate and infrequent waste collection and disposal, and a lack of public areas for social interaction were identified as major issues of concern. A walk through the favela helped the group to immediately identify areas suitable for transformation into much needed public space.

Lettuce growing in an allotment
Starting community gardens is one way to promote healthy living and re-green areas with limited public space

During the three following days, students – divided into four groups and supervised by Professors Izaga, Costa and Bagaeen, and Dr. Caputo – designed a masterplan for the favela, with a common “regreening” strategy.

From this masterplan, projects for public spaces were developed. During the last day of the workshop, students presented their work to the community and their ideas were debated.

The feedback was encouragingly positive, with a specific request to build on the initiative and bring the ideas to a further stage of development and ultimately, hopefully, to implementation.

One immediate outcome was a renewed awareness, within the community, that the favela already possesses features that can be used to strengthen its identity and quality of life. A key element of the masterplan involves the cleaning and enhancement of existing, but poorly utilised, green and blue corridors. The idea that these corridors can be transformed to become defining features of the settlement generated positive reactions and a sense of hope.

The project fits under Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. Its aim is the co-development of approaches to improving living conditions of informal settlements through nature-based solutions. It furthermore prioritises innovative conceptions of green infrastructure, thus augmenting liveability standards. More importantly, it does so with the direct involvement of residents, empowering them by encouraging their ownership of the solutions.

It also fits under Sustainable Development Goal 3: Good Health and Wellbeing, in that establishes a model of integrated new green infrastructure in a dense and polluted environment, thus improving the quality of the environment through augmented ecosystem services.

The workshop built on the expertise of the applicants and their academic partners, enabling the creation of solutions responsive to the real needs of local communities, thus being perceived as advantageous at many levels and for a varied range of stakeholders.

The result was a series of innovative, co-designed solutions, capable of integrating green infrastructure within dense informal settlements, while ameliorating poor health, environmental and economic conditions afflicting inhabitants. They were well received by the local community following the presentation.

At the core of the proposals are models of green infrastructure which produce food, renewable energy and more; the objective is to provide multiple motivations for the creation of green spots and corridors within favelas. More importantly, the involvement of local stakeholders has ensured that the proposals are sympathetic to the particular social context of the settlement. Nonetheless, all recommendations are fit to inform wider planning and urban policy decisions regarding informal settlements.

Prof. Samer Bagaeen is Thought Leadership Relationships Manager at RICS. He set up the MA in Urban Planning & Resilience at the University of Kent in 2018.

Dr Silvio Caputo is Senior Lecturer and Director of Research & Innovation at the Kent School of Architecture & Planning.

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