This month, as our planet’s population jumped past 7 billion, our focus on population density –people per unit of land, and per natural resource—seems appropriately more acute.

In the short time I’ve studied Rio’s Favela Rocinha I have yet to encounter any sources willing to estimate its urban density. And reconciling the density of an informal community is a pretty sticky business. For one thing, the population in and of itself is extremely difficult to estimate in a community that is defined by geographic and migrational flux, not to mention political self-administration.

Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro showing figure ground relative to natural vegetation.

Of the two figures that comprise the density ratio, population and land area, calculations range from decent guess to shot in the dark. If you were to visit Rocinha today, almost uniformly people would tell you tales of its population dominance among Brazilian favelas; some people will even include all of Latin America in their claims of favela rankings. They may claim that there more than a million people living in Rocinha’s narrow valley. But, from the more reliable sources, however, you’d hear that there were more like 200,000 to 250,000 residents.

After crunching a few of the figures I ran across (from the Resident’s Association, the 2010 Census, the local utility company, Light) I estimate that Rocinha houses roughly between 239,000 and 690,000 people per square mile (ppsm)—the latter figure I consider more accurate. For context the most densely populated city on earth is Manila, Philippines with 111,576 people per square mile.

I live in a small town. By the standard of western US towns and cities it could be considered pretty liveable: it’s quiet, it’s relatively walkable even to some degree having avoided some of the pitfalls of suburban sprawl. Sometimes to explain it to people where I live, I tell them to picture western towns before the interstate highway system (an image that’s increasingly difficult to conjure).

Rocinha's and Moscow's respective commercial centers.

Some people where I live cringe at the thought of cities: the congestion, the pollution, even just the numbers of people are enough to give some folks in the rural west fits of claustrophobia. Having been raised in the rural west I can sympathize. But also where I live the Bible, you could say is a commonly referred to text. Even so, there’s a thought in the book of Isaiah that may elude many Sunday schoolers: “Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth.” It’s a sentiment that was echoed by Buckminster Fuller a couple thousand years later: the Earth is not infinite. Its space and resources have limits.

But the thing of it is, in the western US no one seems to notice. We develop land like we have it to spare. We’re literally throwing it under the pavement of suburban sprawl. Even my quaint little town is currently fighting itself over whether to sprawl along peripheral highway corridors or keep its downtown healthy. The city’s master plan currently includes a ring road, the tried and true sprawl promoter if there ever was one.

So why this juxtaposition of Moscow, Idaho to Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro? Certainly I can’t prefer the cramped and suffocating density of Rocinha to the auto-oriented idyll that is Moscow. Certainly I can’t believe that given the choice residents of Rocinha wouldn’t choose to live in Moscow over Rocinha. The prevailing wisdom is says that what America has the rest of the world wants. And after all, how dare I hold up Rocinha when its residents are forced into their situation, they wouldn’t choose it, right?

Rocinha Rio de Janeiro overlayed at scale to Moscow, Idaho. Rocinha is home to roughly 10 times the population.

The fact is whether or not moradores of favelas would choose the urban density they live in or not, is quite beside the point. And of course it isn’t without its real and significant problems (ventilation, green and public space, etc). But remember Sambinha? The concept that says we can make do and still be happy. Americans are terrible, about that. And in the west we are extra terrible about moderating our use of land and space. We have so much and yet it’s never enough. At the rate we expand, our McMansions’ rafters will never have a high enough vault, our parking lots will never be large enough.

We have far outstripped our fair use of resources and are eroding away those of the rest of the world. It must stop before we reach the planet’s already stretched limits. No morador will ever need to face that choice. And they will stay good neighbors to each other.

Density has its virtues in terms of resource. But the less obvious benefits build community as well as conserve energy and land. In Rocinha individual homes are closer to bedrooms as treated in my town. The shared public space acts as a common living room. People connect more. People know each other more, watch out for each other more, share more.  Even with the limited resources they have they share. Urban density, as any adherent to Jane Jacobs or James Kunstler will tell you lends itself to a more generous community outlook.

9 thoughts on “The Sambinha of Urban Density

  1. Hi Andrew,

    Would love to get in touch, I’m studying Rocinha as well (totally different viewpoint) and it would be great to exchange ideas! Hope all is well.


    • Pamela,I’d love to talk. Is the email below the best? Mine should come up in this message as well. The @vandals.uidaho.edu.


      • Hi,

        I couldn´t see an email, so please get in touch with me at whatever email it says and I will track it down! Looking forward to hearing from you!


  2. Hi Andy,

    I am doing my thesis project for my Bachelors in Architecture on Rocinha. After looking at the diagram above showing the figure ground relative to natural vegetation, I noticed that you had detailed topo lines. I have found overall contour lines that are less detailed, and was wondering where you found that resource.


    • Mike, Sorry that I didn’t see your comment before. I got it from an architect in Rio who got it from the City. I’d love to get you a copy of it if you haven’t found one yet. I have the original cad file and a few versions that I cleaned up–kind of a lot. Best of luck with your thesis. Let me know how I can help.

      • Great! That would be extremely helpful. Its quite difficult trying to make an accurate model/representation of the favela when the most crucial aspect, the topography, is inaccurate. If you would be able to pass those cad files along that would be great. My school email address is Kehoem@rpi.edu, however if the files are too big to send through email, I also have a Dropbox account that is linked with that email as well. Thanks again!

  3. hi Andrew,
    Like Mike I am also studying Rocinha looking at how the landscape has informed the architecture if i could also get a copy of the contour lines for Rocinha it would be fantastic, my email is njrog1@student.monash.edu

  4. Hello Andrew,
    I guess this is a popular topic for architecture Thesis proposals, as I am also working on an intervention into Rocinha. Would you happen to still have a copy of that topography map? My email is rharvey@pratt.edu. Thanks again for the post, great stuff!

  5. Hi everyone ! I’m working on Rocinha for my architecture diploma (in France) but i can’t find any map or topography in CAD… Did someone have it ?? My email is moronicaroline@gmail.com, and believe me these maps would save my life !! (or just my diploma..)
    Thank you, Caroline

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