Why would local residents rally against major investments in transport infrastructure meant to increase mobility within the favela when the press are acclaiming the very same projects?
I’m not an architect. I’m not an urban planner, an engineer or a transport specialist. Rather, I study human behavior, and I come to FAVELissues and studies about geographic informality from a rather unique history of public health and community activism. When it comes to the topic of favelas (read generally as informal settlements), I am interested in the political power dynamics between community residents, state actors and other political players (private corporations or international organizations, for example). I research questions concerning citizenship and democracy, participation and resistance. What are the socio-political conditions necessary for successful and democratic integration? How can favela residents organize in order to exercise the greatest possible influence over what happens to their neighborhoods, homes and livelihoods? As Brazil assumes an increasingly prominent international profile, how does Rio de Janeiro emerge as a “global city” and cope with the fact that one-third of its residents live in informal slums and squatter settlements? These questions will be central to my blogs on FAVELissues.
The above questions were also present in my mind when I recently visited Complexo do Alemão, a “complex” of 13 conjoining favelas in the city of Rio de Janeiro (zona norte). The purpose of the visit was to see the new teleferico, a cable-propelled transit system (a Gondola), funded by the federal government at a cost of around R$210 million (roughly 120 million US dollars). Running at full capacity, the system can transport up to 30,000 people a day in 152 cable cars between 6 stations, a total distance of 3.5 kilometers. Below is a short video of the teleferico with interview with residents (portuguese w/o subtitles, sorry).
Gondolas (also called cable cars) have been the subject of praise on this blog and many others. Steven Dale, an urban planner and researcher, even created a website solely committed to cable-propelled transit around the world called The Gondola Project. This often over-looked form of public transport can be a cost-effective means to transport people and goods over tricky terrain (both mountainous and flat, as it turns out).
The teleferico in Complexo do Alemão is lauded as a highly visible public works project that will have immediate and long-lasting benefits to residents. In the mainstream media and urban planning circles alike, the attention has been almost exclusively positive both in the national and international press. The focus is often on how the gondola cuts the commute-time to one’s home, saving residents lengthy and tiring climbs up the notoriously steep slopes upon which Rio’s favelas rest. It is reported that the time it takes to traverse Alemão has been cut from nearly an hour to a mere 16-minute ride.
Some journalists have also referenced the so-called psychological benefits of the project. They say the teleferico signifies that gondolas are no longer only mechanisms of leisure for the rich to travel to the top of ski slopes or (more locally) to Pão de Açucar. They argue that the infrastructure is an object of community pride and a source of self-respect, which will ultimately result in better education, entrepreneurship and less violence amongst other social benefits. Whether these claims can be substantiated by empirical data is beyond the scope of today’s blog.
What receives relatively little attention within the planning and architectural circles, not to mention the mainstream media, is that the telefericos in Rio have been the subject of debate and critique from activists and favela residents. Where some see highly visible public works for the betterment of the community, others see highly visible projects to convince outsiders (middle and upper class “formal” residents and tourists) that the government is adequately servicing the favela settlements, that the government is doing the right thing. You can’t see proper sewer lines (lacking in many favelas) from the highway, but you can see the impressive cable cars towering over the low roofs from quite a distance.
Residents protested against the construction of a new teleferico in Morro da Providência, a favela adjacent to the old seaport where the government is facilitating massive urban renovation. The project requires the demolition of dozens of homes, a community plaza and soccer field. The protestors accuse the government of building a spectacle for tourists.
Personally I find it difficult to rally against the planning or construction of telefericos that improves equitable access to public transport systems. Those that have the most to gain from the new service are likely to be the most vulnerable: folks with physical mobility issues (disabilities), the elderly, pregnant women or women with young children, the sick and those who live at the very top of the very steep inclines (who also tend to be the poorest in the favelas). But then again, I’m not a favela resident, my house isn’t affected by the teleferico construction, and I pal around with urban planners.
To draw broad conclusions would require a lengthy review of the debate. What I propose is to place myself in a conceptual position in which I presume that the critics of the telefericos have wholly legitimate objections, that their complaints rest on conceptually firm arguments. From there I want to work backwards and find an explanation for their resistance that might be acceptable to urban planners, architects and engineers.
I believe that we can read the criticism of the gondola projects as a reaction to the fetishizing of urban infrastructure . The telefericos are a transport network that represents an idea (or ideal) much grander that the product itself. The symbolic value of the product-commodity (the teleferico) usurps its actual use value (simple transport from point A to B), obscures the social processes that make the product possible—or perhaps more important in this case the social conditions that made the project necessary—and the gondola becomes exceptional and wonderful. (This is of course inspired by Marx’s commodity fetishism). Researchers have detailed how technological networks (such as gas, water and electricity delivery systems) were once prominently displayed as visual representations of the modern city. Engineers, politicians and cultural critics alike argued that these advanced technologies (delivery of clean water to the private home, for example) were social equalizers, bridging the gap between the rich and poor [1, 2].
I can’t help but draw a parallel to the reception of the teleferico in the media and urbanist cliques, in which the teleferico becomes symbolic of a solution to the formal/informal dichotomy. It is fetishized as an object of wonder, an object of economic promise and of justice. Its silhouette signifies the urbanization, the modernization and the integration of the informal favela with the formal city. Viewing public transport as the solution or even as part of the solution, to the favela problem is of course a fallacy; for the so-called favela problem is largely one of geographical stigma and socioeconomic discrimination. Those are problems that have roots outside of the favela, not within. It’s also not the first project meant to help residents reach their homes to be widely publicized as the right thing to do. Decades ago it became fashionable for charities to raise money in order to fund the construction of concrete stairs climbing up the wet hills of Rio’s favelas . At least with steps, the poor and marginalized wouldn’t have to trek up through mud and raw sewage. The projects made for great press in Life magazine, but had little long-term effects. Who’s to say that the teleferico isn’t just some really fancy concrete steps?
That is not to say that the teleferico solves no problems. It cuts down the time and energy that residents spend in their comings and goings, which allows them more time to work, study, rest and play. It also provides some people with mobility and economic opportunities previously out of reach. The transport network does not, however, solve social problems such as inadequate schooling and healthcare or employment discrimination, as hinted by previously mentioned journalists. I believe the critics and protests are reacting to this fetishizing of the infrastructure.
Where does that leave us? I have not resolved any rifts; and as I previously said, there are many complexities to the protesters’ positions. I have tried to give voice to dissent within the favela urbanization process and translate specific criticism of the telefericos into language that might be “academic-friendly” to those in the urban planning and development camps. I think the takeaway message is that the teleferico falls far short of a symbol of justice or social progress. A transit system does not solve structural poverty. The teleferico is neither the start nor the endpoint; but can only be seen as one item on a long list of massive public projects that the city owes the more than three million citizens that live in Rio’s favelas.
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- Kaika M and Swyngedouw E. Fetishizing the Modern City: the Phantasmagoria of Urban Technological Networks. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 24(1): 2000.
- Graham S. When Infrastructure Fails. In Disrupted Cities When Infrastructure Fails. pp 1-26. London: Routledge. 2010.
- Pearman J. Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro. NYC: Oxford University Press. 2010.