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It’s summertime where I live. And I get an extra dose of seasonal exuberance from my living room window into East City Park where the family reunions picnic, church groups play volleyball and horseshoes, and kids sell lemonade and play on the bright primary-colored structures. With the help of my little girls, off the top of our heads we counted eighteen total parks in town– most of them known by cute nicknames: The Bubble Park, Secret Park, and Triangle Park. Not too shabby for a town this small. We have attachments to these places because they represent release, play, friendships, festivities, and community. These locations, represent something else: a partnership of private and public partnerships in developing the civic living room.

While no one in my neighborhood is likely to have played a role in the formation of these places, we all use them and we are enriched by them daily, our friendships are strengthened and our sense of community augmented.

Courtyard Mural: Observatório de Favelas Office, Nova Holanda, RJ.

Observatório de Favelas describes lack of public investment in infrastructure as the first defining characteristic of favela morphology (2009). That lack of investment of course plays out in myriad ways, one of which is what Sérgio Magalhães describes as, “the ambiguity of public spaces for circulation, recreation and gathering due to the lack of formal definition and/or to use. The serious outcome is that often the public side is compromised” (Conde and Magalães 2010). As informal settlement advances, new homes are built with party walls or with walkways that become becos for circulation. The unfortunate byproduct of this process is of course, that not much account is made for shared urban public space for “sport or leisure” (Observatório de Favelas, 2009).

Reflecting on the notion of concrete jungle. Rua 3 sub-neighborhood, Rocinha.

Currently, as likely as anything because of its proximity to the Estrada Lagoa-Barra, Estrada Neimeyer, and of course its status of “favela-vitrine” (window display favela) Rocinha has become the beneficiary of significant public investment–through a government partnership called the PAC, a government coalition called Program for Accelerated Growth–most of it focused on public space.

While I was in Rocinha in 2010, I had just missed the inauguration of an enormous sports center across the highway from Rocinha. The Complexo Esportivo da Rocinha, like so many urban project in Rocinha, at first blush it could appear part of the whitewashing of Rio’s most prominent favela to favor tourism and provide a mitigated view for cameras during the upcoming Olympics. Two years down the road, however, even cynical intentions seem irrelevant since the Complexo has offered some 17,000 square meters of fertile ground for the seeds of interest in athletics of all sorts. Rocinha now hosts competitions and trains athletes in judo, MMA, tennis, water polo, skateboarding, freesyle biking, and something I’m planning on for next year: a footrace called Rocinha with Open Arms featuring a 10k, 5k and Minirace run through the stairwells and becos, beginning and ending at the front of the Complexo Esportivo.

Even from the time I was there last spring interest in sports seems to have exploded. But of course that interest may likely have always existed–only in the absence of proper facilities in which to explore them.

View of the Complexo Esportivo da Rocinha from the Passarela.

On the other side of Oscar Neimeyer’s pedestrian footbridge is a small plaza called Largo da Passarela by locals. I never saw this small gathering space in any state other than packed to capacity. As small urban spaces goes it’s operating exactly by the book: An urban space to be properly engaged needs to be in the path of foot traffic and include reasons to stop. It has those elements in spades.

The Largo da Passarela even acts in close cooperation with nearby informal urban spaces like Largo do Valão and Largo do Boiadeiro where at night a person could enjoy live music and then seek reprieve form the dancing and music in the Largo da Passarela to sit and chat, play cards, let the kids play in the playground, and grab a bite to eat.

Largo da Pasarela, Rocinha. About midnight on a Friday.

Up Street 4 from there, the PAC recently widened an area, inserting a series of concrete housing-project style apartments. There are complaints about how well the apartments themselves are working, but for as quickly and cheaply they were put together, one can only expect such results. However, even while O Globo reported on these problems, the camera passed the common area showing it loaded with kids playing. It seems completely full of people always for the simple planning of a public space: plently of places to sit, stand, watch your kids play, and run into your neighbors who is probably on their way through also.

Nearby, another PAC project was just opened last June. I had watched it under construction and thought I had a decent idea about how it would turn out. The Biblioteca-Parque da Rocinha. I expected it to have the standard multicultural rooms, multimedia rooms, and of course stacks of books implements of learning that will surely come in handy for many a morador. However I did not expect it to include an element that only makes sense when I think about the character of the best most thoroughly considered libraries: more small public urban space. More public living room. The library stands to provide public living space as equitably and accessibly as possible. It is no more than about a 15 minute walk from anywhere in the neighborhood. It will be interesting to see an effect take place similar to the Complexo Esportivo, but in scholastic terms rather than athletic.

Parque-Biblioteca da Rocinha: Gâvea Highway, Rocinha. Click through for more images and image credit.

Brazilians are notoriously social people and moradores of Rocinha are of course no exception. I’ll write another day about the way that Rocinha residents have carved out and maximized the most scant and sometimes surprising places to use for social gathering space. In true Sambinha fashion they have made do in the face of scarcity. And as delightful and refreshing as that process is to a person like me fascinated with the human texture of urban morphology, there is sometimes no substitute for a well executed top-down approach to urban space.

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Conde, Luiz Paulo and Sergio Magalhães. “Slum to Neighborhood” Lotus. 143 (2010) 61-65).

Observatório de Favles. O que É a Favela Afinal? Observatório de Favelas. Rio de Janeiro: 2009.

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