Lúcio Costa, the architect and urbanist who died in 1998, creator of Brasília’s pilot plan, would applaud wildly. For him, it was a sort of Manifest Destiny that the city of Rio de Janeiro should expand westward and occupy the West Zone flood plains. The city center was fated to move to the ample 64-square-mile territory of Barra da Tijuca, where everyone would drive in ease along wide new avenues.
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Jane Jacobs, author of Death and Life of Great American Cities, guru of today’s most progressive urbanists, would be turning in her grave, since she preached dense and diverse pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods as a recipe for safe and healthy cities.
Costa designed the occupation of Barra in the 1970s, but it was only in the 1980s, as violence increased and Rio turned decadent, that the area began to take shape.
This was the carioca version of North American 1960s white flight, when white post-war families fled cities to the lawns and picket fences of the suburbs. They left behind blacks who had migrated north from the southern U.S., in search of industrial jobs.
Twenty years later, in Barra da Tijuca, towers and gated communities blossomed, built by workers who made their own homes on the edges of the ubiquitous lagoons, into which everyone’s sewage flowed. Since then, the floodplains have quickly been taken up with human occupation. The Grota Funda Tunnel, inaugurated in 2012, spurred continuous westward growth, to the neighborhoods of Guaratiba, Campo Grande and Santa Cruz.
When the city of Rio won the competition to host the 2016 Olympic Games, urbanists questioned the plan to put most of the Games in Barra. They said this would perpetuate and further feed the error of having created Barra, contributing to urban sprawl, which increases the cost of city services and the demand for investment in long-distance public transportation. They recommended that the Games take place in the decadent Port Zone, full of underutilized space — sitting right next to downtown.
Those who believed in Barra won the debate. In 2010, the region was home to 301,000 people, a number which must have increased significantly over the last four years. The figure represents 5% of the city’s total population – – but when the population of other West Zone neighborhoods is added in, the area’s population comes to almost 20% of the 6.3 million city total in 2010.
And, as our mayor Eduardo Paes tells us, these people aren’t going to migrate to the Port Zone or the North Zone, areas with potential for densification. They’re already spread throughout the West Zone– where land is cheaper — and they need transportation and housing.
In come the Carvalho Hosken real estate development company and the construction company, Odebrecht, two of a small group of companies who are making the most of the opportunities of Rio de Janeiro’s transformation.
For someone who doesn’t live in Barra, such as this blogger, the visit to the Ilha Pura launch last Saturday (which isn’t an island, but “a piece of land surrounded by natural beauty on all sides,” acccording to Ricardo Correa, marketing adviser to the president of the Carvalho Hosken real estate development company) was like arriving in another country. The strange sensation was reinforced later that day during a walk through downtown Rio, followed by a 70-minute trip to a real island, Paquetá (where cars are banned and bicycles reign), in Guanabara Bay, to hear a little samba.
While most of the thousand clients expected for the launch and the 1,800 real estate brokers already present were white, many of the passengers on the Saturday afternoon subway ride from Ipanema to Largo da Carioca sported darker skin and sand on their feet. Their destination, after a beach day in the South Zone, was the North Zone.
At Ilha Pura, clients and brokers climbed out of their cars (handed over to a valet service), to see the beautiful project, drink some bubbly, nibble snacks and hear comforting live music.
Meanwhile, a quartet played choro at the Arlequim bookstore in the downtown eighteenth-century Paço Imperial, which housed the royal family, fleeing from Napoleon.
Across the square, beneath the Telles Arch, a circle played Angolan capoeira. Further ahead, in a corner of the Travessa do Comércio, musicians performed samba for lunch customers squeezed in among the cobblestones; other groups livened up the city center with conversation, drink, food and music in the Rua do Ouvidor. On the other side of the Praça Quinze, near Mestre Valentim’s eighteenth-century fountain, kids did skateboard tricks. The new space in Praça Quinze (in front of the decrepit ferryboat station) now empty after the removal of the Perimetral elevated highway, triggered ideas for urban activities in this renewed location that links the Center to the waters from which it sprang.
Asked about cultural diversity in Ilha Pura (which has a promotional video narrated by veteran actress Fernanda Montenegro, featuring a single darker-skinned family), Ricardo Correa, the marketing exec, said that Carvalho Hosken is a sponsor of the Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira, whose new home is the Cidade das Artes, a short drive from the development. He also spoke of shopping malls, cinemas, nearby beaches, and the large park winding around the buildings, in theory open to the public (as required by law). He said that each condominium in the complex will have a small home theater. He mentioned the culinary center and the outsized sculptures in the gardens of another Carvalho Hosken project, the Península (an actual península) — that last year held an art nouveau and art decó exhibit.
“Barra is a great cultural cauldron,” he said. “Where tribes meet, like in New York. It doesn’t yet have its own identity because it’s new.” Even so, he added, Barra has changed. “The Barra of the emergentes (nouveau riches) no longer exists. The people who live here produce a lot, they work hard. There are traffic jams at building exits, at rush hour.”
The idea of life at Ilha Pura, he adds, is that the resident “park his car on Friday after work and only take the wheel again on Monday, to go to work”. Barra “is another city”, he explains. “No one will need to go to the South Zone any longer.”
The typical Ilha Pura buyers, according to Correa, are young families that already live in Barra and are looking for a “nest”. The 4,000 clients who visited the site in the last six weeks seek safety and space for their children to play. They like the contact with nature and the concern for the environment (treated sewage is sent to the Barra underwater pipe) and the sustainability, which won LEED ND certification, the first in Latin America for a new neighborhood. The seven condominiums will offer transportation to the nearest articulated dedicated bus lines, and will probably also have transfers to the beach and the Line 4 subway. The apartment layouts are modern and flexible, and take into consideration the current move away from live-in domestic help.
And the prices are relatively affordable for middle class buyers: the smallest apartment, at 807 square feet, costs about US$ 300,000 equivalent. The largest, at 2,476 square feet, is about US$ 837,000 equivalent.
None of this has any direct relation to the fact that there’s a small favela in the neighborhood, the battered Vila Autódromo. Cariocas of different social classes have a great deal of experience in shared geography. But the mayor is very sure of the need to remove Vila Autódromo from the edge of the Olympic Park, though the community received the Deutsche Bank Urban Age Award in 2013 for an urbanization plan it developed in conjunction with UFRJ and UFF specialists.
The indirect relation is that Ilha Pura is one of several real estate developments in the area that, for market reasons, are making it difficult for Vila Autódromo residents — many of whom hold title to their land and built their own homes — to stay there. When relocated, they face two alternatives: taking a Minha Casa Minha Vida federally-funded apartment or receiving the value of the construction materials used to build the house slated for demolition.
The expansion of the city to the west brings to mind the expansion of the United States in the same direction, in the mid-nineteenth century. “A new city is born here,” Correa exclaims. “Rio de Janeiro is growing a great deal, there was nowhere else to go.”
It was the decision to hold most of the Olympic Games in Barra da Tijuca that has spurred a new wave of investment, construction and growth in the region. The plan is that the subway extension, along with the three dedicated lines for articulated buses, the BRTs, will not only serve the local population but will complete the integration of the city as a whole, just as Lúcio Costa foresaw.
Yet, in light of Jane Jacobs’ teachings, it’s our duty to ask ourselves: what will this city be like as a whole, with some people living in pure islands and others trying out the variety inherent in human coexistence? With the occupation of areas that force the departure of those who can no longer pay for them? With the cost of the low density of one region being paid for by everyone? Probably, it will be much like many other cities in the world, facing the same issues and challenges.
For today, in the United States, a growing number of people are fleeing the suburbs toward city centers, more lively places. And those who had stayed there — the poor– are now being pushed out.