In this blog post Ben Spencer from Oxford Brookes University reports on aspects of mobility highlighted during the CoCreation workshop in Rio de Janeiro and how CoCreation approaches are being used more widely in the city.
Exploring Santa Marta
Spending a month in Rio for the CoCreation workshop in Santa Marta gave me the opportunity to explore the challenges of getting around in a favela, and the wider city, at first hand. My visit to Santa Marta started with a tour from Sheila Souza (a resident and founder of Brazilidade).
As Segolene explains in her Crash Course in Brazilian Urban Reality blog Santa Marta is in the Botafogo neighbourhood of central Rio and runs up a steep hill. We met Sheila in the Praca Corumba at the bottom of the hill before heading to the ‘bondinho’ – their funicular railway which travels up the East side of the favela.
Santa Marta’s transport hub
The Praca has many bus stops on the busy Rua Sao Clemente and the area between it and the bondinho also contains a moto-taxi point, pick up points for school buses, vehicle and cycle repair workshops, garbage and recycling collection areas and masses of parked cycles, scooters, motorcycles and cars – they can get no further up into the favela. This is the ‘transport hub’ for Santa Marta and main connection to the rest of the city – apart from one road at the very top of the hill. Santa Marta is one of the closer favelas to the city centre where the bulk of jobs and services are located, and this relative proximity is appreciated by Santa Marta residents who have cheaper and shorter journeys than those in more peripheral locations.
The end of ‘the asphalt’
We discussed with Sheila where Santa Marta began, and she talked about the end of ‘the asphalt’ – literally the place where tarmac meets cobbles. Earlier in my visit I had met Theresa Williams, Director of Catalytic Communities, who had explained the use of the term ‘asphalt’ to describe the formal city in contrast to favelas. She explained how how this reinforced the subconscious message that roads = progress (for a broader critique of the ‘asfaltização’ process see Mapping Current Trends: The Asphalt Frontier).
In many cases in the past, Theresa explained, road building schemes in favelas had gone unquestioned by residents due to aspirations for car ownership and the assumption that roads would bring benefits. Theresa thought that this was starting to change in some cases. For example, in the Cantagalo favela in Copacabana an elevator was built in 2010. The construction of a road was abandoned after resistance from the community following the demolition of several homes.
Continuing our tour with Sheila, the bondinho took us slowly and steadily to the top of the favela. Here were stunning views of the city, showing the contrast between the low-rise favela and high-rise wealthier parts of Rio. We started walking down the vehicle-free streets and experienced how challenging it could be moving around the favela due to the narrow, steep, passageways with many, often uneven, steps and irregular surfaces, overhanging buildings and channels containing rubbish and sewage.
Getting around is particularly hard if the bondinho is broken or if residents are old, disabled or need to carry heavy loads. One solution are the carregadores (porters) who carry loads on foot and on the bondinho – but their charges further increase the cost of living, including the expense of home building.
The construction of the bondinho had been voted the winning idea in a design competition by Santa Marta residents. Despite this, it was initially resisted by some in the community as it meant destroying a small number of homes; however, these residents were re-housed within the community. Now the bondinho’s role in improving access to the favela is recognised and ‘if it doesn’t work now for half an hour people want to kill me!’ said the President of the Residents Association, Jose Mario Hilario dos Santos.
Along with the topography, the security situation in Santa Marta has an impact on use of the streets. We heard how some parents want to keep their children off the streets and prevent them travelling to locations outside Santa Marta due to concerns over their safety. This can cause difficulties with boredom during long afternoons after school, often when parents are away working. Sheila felt that there was a deliberate pacification of citizens by the police, restricting their access to street life and the city. In contrast, later in the week we heard how some residents felt protected by the drug gangs operating in the favela who administered extrajudicial punishments. This meant some felt safer inside Santa Marta than in the wider city.
One CoCreation workshop activity included meeting a family (read our Whose leisure is it anyway? blog) and we got the chance to talk about their mobility. The parents take a four hour round trip to buy cleaning materials that they then sell door to door, travelling by bus and foot carrying the heavy liquids. The mother has very limited leisure time and prefers to stay at home with her children or visit her nearby church. In later discussions this was seen as typical of many residents who didn’t engage with the wider offers of the city. Their expectations revolved mainly around work. For example, free museums are not seen as welcoming, the local indigenous museum in Botafogo is not visited by many Santa Marta residents or nearby public schools, an art gallery close by is seen as forbidding, and the community feels that more needs to be done by such organisations to reach out to them.
Racism also affected residents’ right to the city. This is felt most strongly by young black men; favelas have a higher proportion of black residents, so racism is most intense there. For example, one evening we saw police stopping and searching people as they left Santa Marta – all were the young black men. Some apparently public spaces, such as Ipanema beach, are also seen as ‘white’ spaces.
Creating mobility solutions in the world’s worst city for commuting
During the rest of my time in Rio I met many other people doing work on mobility issues in the city. Vitor Milhessen and Ines Alvarez-Gortari from Casa Fluminense explained how their organisation had been established in 2013 to link civil society organisations together to think about the future of Rio beyond the Olympics. They address the whole of the metropolitan area of Rio, a city which has chronic inequalities and which, since the growth of private car ownership in the 2000s and with the concentration of formal job opportunities in the centre of the city, now has the longest commuting times in Brazil and by some measures the worst commuting conditions in the world.
From the perspective of CoCreation it was fascinating to hear how Casa Fluminense bring together expertise from organisations across the metropolis to diagnose problems and agree policy proposals. Their Forum Rio meeting is held twice yearly and had just culminated in the Agenda Rio 2030 document. This contains eight themes, which align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The urban mobility theme highlights the many problems, both in and outside the asphalt, and has five proposals including modernisation of the suburban train system and prioritising active travel.
This approach was endorsed by people I met who had taken part in the process. These included cycling campaigner extraordinaire Ana Luiza Carboni (member of the Brazilian Cycle Union and co-founder of Mobilidade Niteroi) and Joanna Almeida and Tiago Leitman of MobiRio. I even had the chance to see the policy development process in action at a MobiRio/Casa Fluminense forum at the Carioca Design Centre where a vociferous group were developing proposals on mobility for candidates in Brazil’s upcoming October elections.
Moving around Rio, whether in the asphalt or not, has many challenges. Let’s hope the creative energy and ideas being put into mobility solutions, and recognition that asphalt is not always the answer, provide the chance for more residents to access all that the Cidade Maravilhosa – Marvelous City – has to offer.