The city shaped by community hope – Viva Rio, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

Rio de Janeiro is one of the most famous cities in the world because of the beauty and uniqueness of its landscape.

By Roberto Segre. Photo: Agustín Díaz / Unsplash.

Rio de Janeiro is one of the most famous cities in the world because of the beauty and uniqueness of its landscape. It might be the only city recognized by its natural icons – such as the Sugar Loaf Mountain and the Statue of Christ – instead of its architectural ones. Until the nineteenth century its city planning expanded slowly alongside the Guanabara Bay, where streets, plazas and buildings are intertwined with the morros, swamps and the surrounding forest. In the twentieth century, Rio grew rapidly and reached a metropolitan status with a population of over eleven million, the second after São Paulo.

Between the 40s and 50s, due to the expansion of the hygienism and the development of the body cult in modern society, Rio assumed a new iconic value because of the length and beauty of its tropical beaches. The district of Copacabana gained international fame – identifying the cidade maravilhosa -, and became a model for the urban hedonism in Latin America.

Nevertheless, Rio’s development was marked by insurmountable contradictions.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Julianna Kaiser / Unsplash.

Since the beginning of last century, precarious settlements known as favelas began to appear due to the extreme poverty of a large group of inhabitants. Installed in the morros and distributed all around the city, favelas became a universal symbol of the poverty-stricken habitat. Very soon, the uncontrolled expansion of the industrial facilities as well as working and lower middle-class districts, generated a low-quality, anonymous and impersonal urban context. From that time on, Rio acquired a ‘split city’ character – according to writer Zuenir Ventura -, reflected in the existence of the ‘solar’ city of the rich districts along the beach up to Barra de Tijuca, and of the ‘noir’ city of the endless suburban expansion.

Finally, the establishment of Brasilia as the new capital city in 1960 restricted Rio’s economic and urban development and increased the levels of urban poverty; currently there are 600 favelas with a population over one million.

During the 1990s however, symptoms of renovation appeared. The Eco/Rio 92 Conference suggested a series of infrastructural and city planning initiatives that in 1993 were materialized in the Prefeitura programmes intended to recover the social, functional and cultural identity of the city.

Such programmes were developed in two main areas:  the ‘formal’ city area – the Rio-Cidade project – and the precarious settlements – the favela-bairro project. Both initiatives still prevail. At the same time, social and economic antagonisms generated a strong citizen-based protest against the predominating situation, which took shape in the Viva Rio movement impelled by Cesar Fernandes.

Rising urban conflicts triggered off the Viva Rio movement. Right in front of the cathedral church of La Candelaria, located in Rio’s downtown, eight meninos da rua were murdered.  Afterwards, in the Viagario Geral favela, a police raid took the lives of over twenty residents. The presence of drug dealers on the morros, corruption among both the police and the organizers of the jogo de bicho (a clandestine lottery game), and the illegal carrying of guns – mainly in poor areas – encouraged a reaction from some citizens who, tired of the traditional political parties and state inefficacy, decided to put an end to the violence and social ruptures.

The participation of people from different groups – entrepreneurs, intellectuals, religious men, students, journalists, workers and people from the favelas – was coordinated under the leadership of Rubem Cesar Fernandes. Its participants set a number of goals which included: To achieve peace in the city and to end the war between the police, the army and the drug dealers; to integrate and articulate the urban ‘civilian population’; to support the development of the community; to strengthen the city security; to control the carrying of weapons and to impose respect for human rights; to promote education for young and adult citizens of low income; to transform the abstract conception of citizenship into a more real and visible one.

The mobilization against violence obtained general and specific achievements. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the downtown marches, shouting out slogans such as ‘Two minutes of silence’ (1993), ‘We’re all in the same boat’ (1994), ‘Stand up Rio’ (1995), ‘Disarm’ (1996) and ‘Traffic in peace’ (1997). Local government started to regulate the carrying of arms, confiscating over 40,000 illegal guns.

Viva Rio is a civil organization based upon the principle of individual voluntary involvement of its members. They don’t belong to any aspect of the government, or to any political party. Its main goal is the designing and development of effective solutions for the immediate needs of the community, so it can be possible to break down the segregation among social urban structures. The organization focuses its work on finding concrete responses to social problems that affect both the rich and the poor, an idea that is clearly manifested in its slogan, ‘We’re all in the same boat’.

The basic principle guiding the organization action is the ‘integration of the city’ in two senses: vertically, enhancing solidarity bonds between people from different social levels, and horizontally, enforcing the territorial tie between neighbourhoods and regions.

The organization was strongly rooted in the favelas by promoting educational development for the young and the adult population in over 300 communities statewide. Along with the intellectual improvement of the people, another initiative was developed, intended to protect human rights. Several ‘centres for the citizen’ were created, in order to help people settle legal, domestic, property-related and authority-abuse issues. At the same time, and thanks to the involvement of artists and intellectuals, local cultural groups started to appear, promoting self-esteem within communities and making people realize the importance of their very own ethical and aesthetic values.

Social development cannot be done without economic development. Well aware of that issue, Viva Rio has as one of its main purposes the generation of jobs and the establishment of productive and commercial structures, operated and managed by its own members. Consequently, civic society is consolidating by itself, through its own creativity, leaving aside the procedures and schemes of the paternalistic state, empty promises of the politicians, and submission to the financial parameters imposed by globalization.

Therefore, if community groups keep interacting, controlling the government initiatives and neutralizing the economic dynamics of the private sector, the emergence of sustainable development, urban peace and a generalized happiness for every citizen will finally come true.

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