I spent most of the past ten days in Rio de Janeiro for work. It’s always nice to visit one of the most beautiful cities in the world… and spend nearly the entire time inside a sterile, windowless conference center in the ugliest part of the city. I traveled to the meeting from my hotel via subway, so much of each day was spent out of the sun. Had I been at the South Pole or 1000 meters beneath the crust of the Earth it would have felt little different.
My hotel was located in Copacabana, the world’s most glamorous neighborhood (if you were alive in the 1930s) in the south zone of Rio. Before arriving I had imagined Cobacabana to be a kind of Portuguese Miami Beach — art deco buildings, all-night bars, women walking the streets in bikinis. Instead, I found a very dense and built-up neighborhood of 10 to 20 story apartments and hotels. It was less Miami and more like the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a long beach attached. Not that I consider this a bad thing… but it was different than I expected.
I did have a little time off, which I used to go to the beach and hike a bit around the city. I took the train up to Corcovado, the mountain with the huge statue of Christ, and walked down with a couple of people to the bohemian neighborhood of Santa Teresa (hippies!). Looking at Rio from the top of Corcovado, I was surprised by the size of the city, with every available spot in the south covered by apartments, and a huge grid of streets, factories, and port facilities stretching north and west. At the same time, the city seems insubstantial as it clings to the huge granite cones that define it. I was impressed by the view and the evident industry of the inhabitants, but couldn’t shake the feeling that it would easily be washed away by a big storm.
I am hard-pressed to think of a more vertical city in the world. I refer not to the high-rise buildings near the beaches but the incredibly steep granite hillsides poking up through the city. Unlike most places in the United States the wealthy of Rio do not live on the high ground; instead they are concentrated in the low areas near the city center and in the southern districts of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. It’s the poor who live up in the hills in the extraordinary patchwork of squatters’ towns (favelas) which cling to the mountainsides like lichen on rock. The favelas are beautiful in their own way. While one can tour them they are affected by drug violence and are generally not safe for well-off and clueless white people like me.
While reading about the city I found that the origin of the favelas is a testament to Brazil’s historic corruption and the unintended consequences of its laissez-faire attitude toward the poor. The first favela in Rio was created over a century ago by soldiers returning from a “war” waged by the federal government against a charismatic preacher and his followers in the Brazilian jungle town of Canudos. According to the internets, it was actually less a war than a massacre. The preacher had collected a following of tens of thousands of freed slaves and castoffs, frightening the provincial governer and local landowners into sending in a militia in the hopes of controlling them. The militia, and two subsequent small federal expeditions, were easily repelled by the machete-wielding townspeople. With its credibility at stake, the federal government raised an army which invaded Canudos and killed nearly everyone inside.
When the veterans of Canudos returned to Rio for discharge they were essentially left to themselves with no commission and no property, so they formed a squatters’ community knicknamed Favela Hill after a hillside settlement in Canudos. (A favela is a tree that grows in northeastern Brazil.) As Rio became inundated by the rural poor in the early 1900s, eventually all of the hillside slums came to be called favelas. The government attempted to clear the neighborhoods several times in the 1970s, but the alternative housing they provided was so substandard and the flow of people to Rio so large that they only succeeded in creating more slums.
Hence the geography of the modern city: rich people in highrises near the beaches, and poor near the port, on the hillsides, and in huge areas west of the mountainous Tijuca Park. The favelas have been somewhat integrated into the city with limited electricity, running water, bus service, and garbage collection. What happens to those neighborhoods 10, 20, or 50 years from now as the lowlands get invaded by the South Atlantic is another story.
Since I was in a morbid mood when writing this post I decided to look up the vulnerability of the city to climate change. The images above are taken from an LOICZ report on the vulnerability of coastal cities to climate change (top) and an interactive mapping tool from the University of Arizona showing the effect of rising sea levels on coastal regions. The good news for Rio is that rising sea levels will “only” cost the city parts of the ocean beaches in Copacabana, Ipanema, and Barra de Tijuca. That and the airport, harbor, city center, and big chunks of the northern city. This is good news because much of the city is on high ground, and if Brazil can get its act together perhaps large parts of Guaranaba Bay can be protected (at immense costs). For a real horror show, see the images of the south Florida, or the Chesapeake Bay, or Bangladesh, or the Mekong Delta.
The bad news is that most of the city is vulnerable to flooding produced by increasingly extreme weather events. The only safe areas are the rain forests (the blank spots in the map) and the favelas. What happens when all the high-value property in Rio starts to get regularly flooded? Do the rich abandon the city to move inland? Do they start buying up plots in the hills, reversing the historical definitions of valuable and marginal property? Do the poor get forcibly moved as the edges of Rio turn into an archipelago? It’s awful to think about, but I hope someone is doing it.