Rio is one of the most important cities in South America and also one of the most recognized in the world. During my last visit to the “Marvelous City”, Rio was in the final preparations to host the Summer Olympic Games, an event that would mark a before and after in its urban development and which legacy is still being questioned.
The second largest city in Brazil shows two types of images that constantly overlap. The first ones can be found in the famous beaches, the steep mountains such as the Sugar Loaf and the Corcovado and, of course, in the famous Carnival. The second ones, less glamorous but equally prominent, are represented with the favelas, recognized for their precarious and crowded housing, in which the poorest population of the city is concentrated (Shane, 2011).
According to the last census made in 2010, around 22% of the inhabitants of Rio live in one of the 763 favelas, forming an approximate population of 1,400,000 people. Although the existence of informal settlements or slums is common in many Latin American cities, what surprised me particularly was their proximity to the high-class neighbourhoods, creating a contrasting urban landscape, where wealth and poverty overlap.
Although it is currently possible to visit some of the favelas (in fact, they have become another “tourist attraction”), these neighbourhoods continue to be the scene of deep social conflicts. In recent years, the Government has made significant investments in terms of community facilities and public transport, which have helped to integrate better the population with the rest of the city. Although the violent image of the favelas is still far from disappearing, these actions are a first step to reduce the stigma and improve the quality of life of the inhabitants of these neighbourhoods.
The Olympic legacy
As I mentioned in the beginning, my visit to Rio de Janeiro was only two months before the start of the Olympics. As usual with these events, the city allocated a large amount of money for the construction of new sports venues, as well as an improvement in the public transport network, including a new metro line and other extensions.
Almost two years after the Games ended, it seems that the Olympics were not a fortunate business for Rio de Janeiro, with a approximate total cost of 13.1 billion dollars (almost three times its initial budget), in addition to abandoned stadiums or serious deterioration due to lack of maintenance. However, I will leave aside this unfortunate result and I will emphasize the urban transformation that the city undertook to mark this event and that I was able to see personally.
The first of these projects was the renovation of Rio Branco Avenue, located in the centre of the city, and which was transformed from a congested 6-lane road, to a semi-pedestrian street and corridor of a new light rail. My visit coincided with the inauguration of this system, which had the purpose of decreasing the number of buses that circulate in the central area of Rio.
Another place that was subject to urban renewal and that I had the opportunity to visit was Praça Maua. Inaugurated in 2015, this project included the demolition of Rodrigues Alves highway and the construction of Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow), designed by Santiago Calatrava and which is located on an old dock close to the plaza.
Despite the not so favourable economic results, the Olympic Games also meant an opportunity of urban transformation for Rio de Janeiro. During my experience in the city, I could see that the new public spaces were highly frequented by locals and tourists. I consider that this is the most important legacy left by this event. There are still many challenges for this city, but the Games were a starting point for a process that must continue.
Sources of images
- Figure 3. http://catcomm.org/pac/
- Figure 4. Image on the left from Google Street View
- Figure 6. Google Earth Pro.
- Other images were taken by the author.
CatComm. Growth Acceleration Program (PAC). (http://catcomm.org/pac/)
Galdo, R. 2011. Rio é a cidade com maior população em favelas do Brasil. In O Globo.
Lindau, T. 2016. Rio Olympics’ Legacy: Urban Mobility. In World Resources Institute. (http://www.wri.org/blog/2016/08/rio-olympics-legacy-urban-mobility)
Shane, D.G., 2011. Urban design since 1945: a global perspective, Chichester: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.
Watson, R.T. 2017. The Olympics Cost Rio at Least $13.1 Billion and Probably More. In Bloomberg. (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-06-14/the-olympics-cost-rio-at-least-13-1-billion-and-probably-more)