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Rio de Janeiro on building spree for Olympics, World Cup – but at what cost?

Brazil has lifted millions out of poverty in the past decade. But Rio's transformation in the lead-up to the Olympics and World Cup may be hurting those left behind.

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Today the informal communities have taken center stage during Rio’s preparations to host upcoming mega-events, as police forces, called Pacifying Police Units (UPPs), have been sent into two dozen favelas to root out drug traffickers and militias, bringing down crime rates. At the same time, under both city and federal initiatives, new cable cars are connecting isolated communities to the main transport system and public housing is being built. Jorge Bittar, Rio's municipal housing secretary, says that 20,000 families have been relocated, the far majority because they are susceptible to natural disasters like landslides. By 2016, 100,000 new housing units in total will be constructed in Rio, Mr. Bittar says.

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Many residents say that attention on their communities is overdue. In the vast network of favelas called Complexo Alemao, in the troubled northern part of the city, dozens of children line up outside the doors of a state-of-the-art community center, opened in January, which houses 24 computers, two tables of e-readers, and a popular Xbox. Next door stands a new, government-funded 3D movie theater. Up the hill, a massive cable car traverses the neighborhood.

David Amen, a resident, says he was first suspicious of the additions. “We were wondering why there was so much change,” he says. Yet today he works as the press coordinator at the community center and says the development has been a boost for his community. “Even if this is just for mega events, who cares? As long as they do something real.”

But change has not been welcome everywhere. Closer to the center of Rio, in Providencia, Mauricio Hora, a community leader, says he worries the government is “cleaning up” his favela to turn it into a middle class enclave, as housing prices have soared and even favelas are under threat of gentrification.

Providencia sits adjacent to Rio’s dilapidated port, undergoing its own massive redevelopment project. Outside the subway station that leads into the community, a new cable car is under construction, and farther up the hill a road and covered soccer field are being built. When it is all finished, a third of the community is going to be relocated in order to accommodate the new structures, says Theresa Williamson, the founder of Catalytic Communities, which advocates for favela residents. The lack of transparency as to where they may be moved is part of the problem, activists say.

Ms. Williamson says that while some upgrading has been good and necessary, she worries the city is at the same time hammering out the spirit of the favelas, exacerbating divides between rich and poor. “What really worries me is the lost potential. So much of our popular culture comes from these communities,” she says, like graffiti art or samba music. “And ultimately, the underlying social problems in Rio, the built-in inequality, is not being addressed.”

Greater scrutiny

Rio is not alone in trying to find new ways to upgrade its slums, nor is this the first time it’s been tried here. Many of the initiatives underway take a page from successful models touted in other cities, such as Medellin, where gondolas and libraries designed by prize-winning architects are cited as among the reasons for the city’s drop in crime.

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