Finding your way through Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro is not easy. The buildings are densely and turbulently arranged in a manner that defies traditional identification systems like street names and numbers. Rocinha is a favela, one of the largest among hundreds of unplanned settlements that have sprung up on the outskirts of Brazilian cities since the 19th century. More than 5% of the country’s population now lives in communities like these, with 100,000 people in Rocinha alone.

The challenge of navigating Rocinha has birthed creative solutions, such as the “friendly mailman” program: companies deliver parcels to a central drop-off point, and a team of Rocinha residents—the only couriers familiar enough with the area to navigate its maze-like streets—take them the rest of the way.

With little formal aid or administration and scant economic opportunities, favela residents have struggled to contend with unhealthy living conditions and frequent violence. A thick wall of social segregation means that resources from the city—including electricity and clean water—must take twisting, uncertain paths to make it inside. Life expectancy in favelas is just 48, which is 20 years below the national average.

Much has been made of the dizzying growth of the world’s cities, but few people are aware of what most urban growth actually looks like. Births and migrations are concentrated in the developing world, and with the exception of China, most new urban fabric is informal—more shantytowns than skyscrapers. For all our futuristic reveries, the city of tomorrow probably will not look much different from Rocinha.

In the 20th century, the Brazilian government attempted to eradicate favelas and replace them with more formal public housing, but the bulldozers could not keep up with the massive urban migration that made these settlements swell.

For all our futuristic reveries, the city of tomorrow probably will not look much different from Rocinha.

Other governments and urban planners have also tried to prevent such settlements from forming or to dismantle them when they do, but that’s proved a losing strategy. More than 2 billion people worldwide are now estimated to live in them.

In the early 2000s, the city of Medellín, Colombia, started a reckoning process that would inspire the world. Settlements had taken shape in the mountains, and the city committed to serving these communities as it would any other. It began by constructing a network of cable cars, soaring above the terrain that had long divided the city.

Efforts to eradicate these communities gave way to incorporation; the government chose them as the sites for new libraries and public parks. The Medellín model, despite some shortcomings, has since become the gold standard in Latin America and around the world.

Twenty years after Medellín began to take this innovative approach, new technology is equipping us with

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By: Fábio Duarte, Carlo Ratti, Washington Fajardo
Title: Rio de Janeiro is making a digital map of one of Brazil’s largest favelas
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Published Date: Wed, 28 Apr 2021 11:00:00 +0000