THE BLOG

A Favela Transformed

08/22/2013 12:12 am ET | Updated Oct 21, 2013

Last Fall, Urban Ecology Professor Stephen A. Goldsmith, Director of the Center For the Living City, led a group of University of Utah students on an urban innovation study tour to Curitiba, Brazil. I went along as visiting faculty and we shall be returning this October. The following is the second of what will be a series of reports on our observations.

Stand in front of the modest 360 square foot stucco house in the Brazilian suburb of Piraquara on the outskirts of Curitiba and watch the grin on the face of Josinete Gomes da Silva, known as Anna, and you begin to glimpse the full value of an extraordinarily innovative program that seamlessly integrates affordable housing with environmental and social values. Listen as she speaks of the dignity she feels directing the trash collection and recycling operation in this city of 93,000 that gives jobs to 30 low-income families. On average, the operation collects and processes 60 tons of trash per month with separated materials sold to industry. Profits are shared equally among the 30 families, an unbeatable combination.

Then watch the pride on the face of Wilma Miranda De Souza Da Silva as she shows her family's home of four months with its energy efficient refrigerator and lights, bathroom shower, terrazzo tile kitchen floor and her daughter's hand painted flowers on several walls. Until she first saw the house she was being relocated to, Wilma was quite angry that the city government was forcing her to leave her illegal and frequently flooded house along the Iguacu Canal that feeds the water supply of Curitiba. She had been building the house for her family of eight "with my own hands for 16 years." When you have almost nothing, what you have is of course everything; to lose it all is painful beyond words. But hers was one of 212 families to be removed from this fragile environment, location of the largest favela south of Brazil's second largest natural and planted forest with more biodiversity than a rain forest.

The families of Wilma and Anna are only two of the hundreds of families benefiting from a rare government housing program that uniquely integrates affordable housing, public health, new business creation and recycling, a potential model for any government that truly values the life of its citizens and not just the production of housing units.

Residents pay $40 monthly, can alter the floor plan, and expand outside. They own it after 10 years but can't sell it. So far 240 homes are built and occupied out of 694 in construction and more elsewhere. Already the streets are filled with children biking, flying kites and simply playing with a joyful dance in their step.

Involved government officials and representatives of Cohapar, the state-owned company developing the program, exhibit as much pride as Wilma and Anna when they speak more of families served than units built. They seem as astonished as visitors that it truly is possible and makes so much sense to integrate affordable housing, public health, infrastructure upgrade and social improvements. The overall program actually started in a limited way and grew unexpectedly into a powerful collaboration among governmental and social agencies with 100 churches and 20 neighborhood groups all playing a role.

This well-integrated program started with a simple challenge: improve the basic living conditions of numerous poor families. In 2004, the local public health department wanted simply to evacuate all illegal occupants where electricity, clean water and basic infrastructure did not exist along a canal bringing drinking water into Curitiba. The city of Piraquara then developed a plan that would fix sewage and water infrastructure, develop real streets away from the canal to accommodate new homes and create a greenway in its place.

But in 2007, a new federal affordable housing program called My House, My Life changed everything providing subsidies for utilities, social programs and home ownership. The city provides infrastructure and land. The state gives a $1,500 subsidy per house. Occupants take 10 years to pay for the dwelling with 10 percent of the family income.

What started as a critical need to remove squatters from a fragile, flood-prone environment evolved into a multi-layered strategy that can best be understood as a veritable community building strategy that weaves fundamental human needs and physical development into a finely meshed social fabric. Families are resettled not far from where they are moving from, still close to jobs and mass transit. Infrastructure is improved. Home ownership is advanced. Best of all, displaced family networks -- often a critical support system -- are kept together but away from a risky environment.

Occupants in each new house are assigned to a local heath clinic where regular check ups are scheduled. Both the health and education departments check on families making sure monthly health appointments are kept and kids are in school. If getting to the health facility is difficult, home visits are made. A program called Curitibano Mother provides monthly visits by a public health nurse if someone in the household is pregnant.

But this strategy is being applied both to the mile-long canal stretch and the adjacent much larger "irregular" neighborhood where occupants do not yet own their homes. Several meters in from the canal, deteriorated housing is being modestly upgraded, ownership deeds are being secured for occupants so they become property owners and infill houses are replacing the scattered homes too decayed to repair. Dirt paths are being converted to real streets with underground conduits for water, sewage and electricity and the whole neighborhood is being integrated into the larger city, especially through mass transit. Through these layers of change, people who never felt they were part of society are now integrated into it.

The challenge of favelas like this are a familiar story throughout the developing world. As with so many, this one is primarily populated by poor people from the countryside who came looking for work. The growth of favelas on the outskirts of Curitiba exploded in the 1970s with the construction boom in the city pushing poor people out and the rural exodus bringing farmers into the city looking for work and a place to live. "Irregular settlements" had no public services or infrastructure and in this case, they settled on the banks of the canal, thus contaminating it.

By 2010, an estimated six percent of the Brazilian population lived in such communities. Curitiba, with a population of three million, is the fifth largest city in Brazil in its number of slums and the fastest growing. It has become an international model of sensible, humane and cost-effective planning ever since Jaimie Lerner's three terms as mayor, starting in 1972, and two as governor. Known best for its creation of the Bus Rapid Transit system in the 1970s, Curitiba, under Lerner's leadership, has been an international leader in garbage recycling, employment of the homeless, flood plain conversions into parks, pedestrianization of traffic-clogged streets and, as shown above, wise strategies to deal with favelas.

Favelas around the world usually develop in areas unsuitable as human habitats. They are frequently subject to landslides, floods, infectious diseases, electrocutions, chemical contamination and other life threatening events. But methods to deal with favelas are rarely as humane and innovative as evidenced here. When they interfere with private developments, as they often do in places like Mumbai, bulldozing is the official solution with little thought to what is being destroyed.

Favelas evolve organically and often exhibit a strong sense of community, extraordinary innovation and extensive economic activity. Only on the surface do they appear to be hopeless slums. Insertion of streets and provision of running water and electricity would go a long way to steer the development into a reasonably normally functioning place. Bulldozing such settlements and either scattering the residents or offering them alien accommodations in high rise towers only atomizes the functioning social and economic networks.

It is always difficult to change a paradigm, even when a more suitable strategy reveals itself. How to deal with favelas in a humane way without social and economic disruption is particularly challenging. Curitiba provides a model applicable in variations worldwide. Maybe it will become the change agent for housing the poor like the BRT has been for urban transportation.