Lessons from favelas to transform the world’s cities

by Richard Register, President, Ecocity Builders

It’s closer than you think to the UN Rio + 20 Conference! (June 2012) We in Ecocity Builders see this as a time of immense importance. A time to rekindle and uplift spirits of the possible, desirable and creatable. That of course depends on having the right ideas and the energy to pursue them. And we think we are on board in exactly that way. There is an enormous opportunity there if we can grasp it and inspire others.

We bring two especially strong solutions:

First – and this is very particular to Rio de Janeiro – the world is growing slums faster than cities, and that’s saying something frightening, but also something in a strange way hopeful in that at least some of the favelas hold lessons for the sustainable future while we in the ecocity movement hold complementary lessons of our own.

If we can help answer the problem of slums and if it turns out to answer a range of other crucial urban issues – and it does – then we are accomplishing something truly profound. Bringing the two together in Rio – favela solutions and our own solutions from the ecocity movement – could be a move to cross over the threshold of resistance and glumness we see pervading most attitudes toward the United Nations recently, especially disturbingly exhibited in the way negotiatios for climate solutions have been stonewalled. But the solutions at the confluence of the Rio/Ecocity confluence could be a breakthrough.


the ecocity movement has been refining the notion of what an ecocity actually is and how it could contribute essential insights, principles and guidelines to urge, shape and assess city policies and actual physical form and function in a transformation toward a sustainable future. The new tool on the block is the International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS), guided by Ecocity Builders and a committee of international experts from the US, Canada, Australia, Bangladesh, China, Brazil and expanding in other places. Notably, its development involves the leadership of ecocity movement veterans in Vancouver, Canada centered around the British Columbia Institute of Technology and the University of British Columbia.

Solving the problem of slums and sustainability at the same time

Low income areas of cities – perhaps especially slums or favelas – hold lessons for genuine sustainability and any favela or other similar area, brought to attention as clearly on its way to becoming an ecological town, holds powerful lessons and cures for the poor areas of the world. In the marriage of a place with the ideas of ecocities the potential for transformation is tremendous.

The UN Rio + 20 conference, with its intended focus on solving the problems of the poor in cities, provides the challenge and opportunity to create a new approach to reinvigorate both the environmental and developmental enterprises on a troubled planet. The following describes a means to launch such a new approach.

Call it “favela + ecocity = sustainable city of the future.”

Merely to identify what the favelas have that is genuinely green and what they are missing that fits the ecocity list of features for a healthy and more prosperous future provides the template for a new concept of what we need to build for human civilization – at least its built manifestation – for success in the human enterprise on our planet in trouble due to us.

What many favelas have:

  • Breezes, sun, views
  • Adjacent natural areas
  • Very small ecological footprint
  • Youth unemployed, workers available
  • People hoping for some sort of change
  • Some productive food production
  • Some restoration of native species
  • Pedestrian environment
  • Some have partially mixed uses
  • Relatively high density of population
  • Recycling
    • Potential plazas in parking areas
    • Geographic coherence

What ecocity concepts add:

  • Ecocity economics, some job creation
  • Eco-tourism in small, significant degree
  • Temporary work teams (mapping, design charrettes) leading to employment
  • Continuity and commitment if returning
  • Attention for their contribution with international outreach and influence
  • Ecocity features such as
  • –       solar passive orientation, – terrace and rooftop uses, – view of “keyhole” plazas, – bridges linking buildings for pedestrian permeability, – depaving, – more intensive food growing and nature restoration

Add the above elements and basic services often missing in poor areas and we see communities with real potential for world sustainability leadership.

One way things might go for a world model project, my own idea of a good scenario in any case:

We might have a strongly youth involved workshop and charrette including a mapping of a favela and discussion of facilities to be created, buildings to be remodeled, new ones to be added as an expansion of the favela, vertically and/or horizontally, and policies that would relate such that employment would be created.

Then we would actually build something and plant something the local people decide is appropriate and make a commitment to come back and work with them a year later to advance the project toward building out the future-oriented map, with adjustments according to what everyone is learning.

For example, we might engage a favel’s residents with strong youth involvment in mapping their area. They might decide to adopt some ecocity suggestions and decide a parking lot of twenty places could be reduced to 8 spaces and the rest turned into a plaza with a small community food garden and some native plants to attract native birds, largely symbolic/educational, and from there we’d have a view to the sea or other parts of Rio. We might include a small hotel or bed and breakfast that was an expanded existing building or a new one, with past residents moving to a new place expanding the favela minimally.

The new building could be, say, four stories, have terraces with a view and attached solar greenhouse and rooftop functions accessible to visitors and small hotel staff. The whole ensemble would lower the already low ecological footprint while creating jobs and advancing the “green economy.” Our collaborator Janice Perlman (author of “Favela – Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro”) mentions that in some favelas there are good cafes and other public shops and services available – we’d be augmenting what already exists, adding items from the above right hand column to the above left hand column, headed firmly toward eco-town status as portrayed in the sum of the two columns and confirmed as a serious advance by our IEFS.

The project would amount to a very hopeful and meticulously thought through answer to “how to solve the world’s problem of slums” and “how to rebuild cities for a sustainable future” all in a piece.

This would become a powerful focal project for our events we are currently planning for the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and the old fortifications we have reserved for special events on the spectacularly located rock rising out of the ocean called Moro do Leme. It could become a major touchstone for the whole series of the events of Rio + 20 helping transform cities – slums leading the way – deep into the future.

Richard Register is founder and president of Ecocity Builders and can be reached at ecocity@igc.org