Washington Fajardo

New Perspectives for Rio de Janeiro

Sugarload Mountain Rio de Janeiro ©Creative Commons

Rio de Janeiro’s long and colorful history gives it a special place among South-American cities, and possibly even globally. First a shining capital, then a depressed city, it is now undergoing renewal thanks to its unique assets, from the ubiquity of nature within its urban fabric to its cultural and social wealth. Washington Fajardo, who is in charge of urban planning and heritage at the municipality of Rio, analyzes the history and prospects of his city, including its impediments, but also its strategies to bolster attractiveness. He offers details on the novel private-public partnership system required for these projects as well as on the ongoing outreach efforts that are carried out in order to reinvent an urban policy for the city.

Washington Fajardo is an architect and urban planner. He is a special advisor for urban issues at the Rio de Janeiro city hall, and president of the Rio World Heritage Institute.

Roberto Cabot is a painter, sculptor and musician.

Roberto Cabot : As we are entering the era of the hyperdense megalopolis, we are questioning the future of cities conceived according to classical planning models. Given this context of profound change, what makes Rio an attractive proposition?

Washington Fajardo : There clearly is a phenomenon of urban densification at play. The demographic density in Rio de Janeiro is the same as it was during its heyday at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the 1960s—an important period for Rio as it lost is status as a national capital and because this postwar period saw the emergence of the neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca and the rise of the automobile—we stopped adopting any policies and conceiving Rio as a phenomenon of European origin, and fully embraced the model of American modernity. This explains the current low demographic density, which doesn’t provide a fertile ground for the flowering of ideas and encounters. 

Nevertheless, Rio de Janeiro has some unique characteristics linked to our history which shed light on our urban condition in the twentieth century. With its natural environment and the leisure opportunities it generates, Rio will have an increasing weight among the twenty-first century’s major urban conglomerations. In a way, we are reconnecting with the nineteenth century, when cities invented public space as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. Rio de Janeiro has some interesting assets but it needs to revisit the model which focuses on the notion of enjoyment in the city.

© World Heritage Rio, Service patrimoine, Washington Fajardo

Low density

Roberto Cabot : Regarding low density, you are talking about average values but Copacabana is one of the world’s densest districts—is this marked difference between low-density and high-density districts a specificity of Rio de Janeiro?

© World Heritage Rio, Service patrimoine, Washington Fajardo

Washington Fajardo : Rio looks like “Swiss cheese”: a territory riddled with empty spaces which historically correspond to granite peaks, large mountain ranges, forests—its urban fabric is therefore not continuous. If we were to leave Cinelândia in the direction of Copacabana, we would have trouble finding ways of passage: you need to go to Lapa, then through Gloria, then from Flamengo to Botafogo. The granite peaks, the tunnels—all these bottlenecks for spatial fluidity naturally lead to the fragmentation of the urban fabric.

Density is in fact very low today: in Copacabana, it is equivalent to that of Paris but that is a unique case among the city’s neighborhoods. Rio’s downtown has an extremely low density—nobody lives there! This is a problem. The deserted kilometer-long Rua do Ouvidor was once the symbol of the zenith of the Gilded Age in Rio de Janeiro—we shouldn’t equate the city center to the colonial period: Rio’s most interesting period is the Gilded Age, which is reflected in Cinelândia and Ouvidor.

Roberto Cabot : This is the result of a traditional model in Rio’s history: excessively sectorized and disconnected layouts.

Washington Fajardo : It’s a Latin-American model actually, in which urban space has two functions: one economic and the other political. The expansion of the urban fabric sets in motion some economic processes. In terms of urban development, the industrial model hasn’t been relevant in the case of Rio since the end of the 1970s. André Urani’s studies, such as his book Trilhas para o Rio (Paths for Rio, 2008), clearly show that during the 1980s, around eighty percent of jobs in the industrial sector disappeared. Rio hasn’t escaped from global trends and is experiencing the very same changes which are occurring in the rest of the world. However the fact that certain urban principles haven’t been implemented puts us in a bleak situation, especially regarding the important issue of mobility. You can be sure that abandoning the industrial economy wouldn’t have had such an impact on the city if its mobility had been higher and more aggregative. Rio has thus been more highly exposed than other cities to the negative consequences of this global paradigm shift.

Role of the state

Roberto Cabot : Brazil has recently experienced violent protest movements, particularly so in Rio de Janeiro. These protests are rooted in the issue of urban mobility. People aren’t protesting about housing issues anymore—we have moved on to something else: how should I go from home to work, to go and enjoy myself, to visit my parents or my friends. What is the solution to the issue of mobility in Rio de Janeiro, with all this fragmentation you mention?

Washington Fajardo : The city has made some planning investments in this regard. Its territorial integration plan dates back to 1965—emphasis was on the roads but this plan has since changed and the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system, which is its most recent outcome, has been operational for the past two years. Today, eighteen percent of the population is using this high-capacity transportation system and this figure is going to reach sixty percent.

I would like to draw attention to an aspect I find important and which is, for that matter, rarely discussed: the role of government in the city. These social movements and protests are the direct result of the inefficient management of Brazil’s urban territory, which is linked to the redefinition of the state during these past two decades. Political structures and territorial organization have indeed been carried out according to the principle of the minimal state, due to longstanding public opinion on the state’s inefficiency, but there can be no urban planning without government. Indeed, the free market will never assume responsibility for this function because the organization of the common good necessarily comes under the purview of the state, which generates its own planning. But although the Brazilian government is still interested in sectoral issues and in the social and economic agendas, since the 1970s it has abandoned territorial programs of metropolitan planning.

In Rio de Janeiro’s case, this question has been completely set aside. The mayor of Niterói recently called the mayor of Rio to ask him to postpone the demolition of the “Perimetral” by one weekend. This phone call from one mayor to another in the Guanabara Bay represents the first urban planning meeting in thirty years. Structural issues have been abandoned because we have focused on finding solutions to economic and social issues, the solution to the other problems of the city supposedly following suit. This was a big mistake. In reality, from the point of view of urban affairs, the issue of the state’s presence and of urban planning need to be urgently revised. In my experience of the public sector, as planning practices were gradually set aside, the planning mindset also started to disappear. Government bodies which carry out planning end up being weakened, not because of the people in place, but because of this kind of free market thinking. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, although the organization of transport can indeed be conceded to private operators, its planning can only be carried out by the government.

Roberto Cabot: Is the issue of public-private partnerships essential now that they have become one of the key practices of Rio’s urban policy?

Washington Fajardo: This is indeed the case due to the end of the welfare state, which also had an urban dimension. I consider that public-private partnerships are an excellent solution to give effect to decisions which were generated by public planning, even though the latter clearly remains a responsibility of the state. I insist on the fact that these partnerships and this model are good things, even though they were created by Thatcher’s government. They been adopted in different countries, in Scandinavia for instance, but if the government doesn’t know what it wants and doesn’t hold its operators accountable, this type of contract will always tend to failure.

 Roberto Cabot: Rio has a long history and some very “heavy” heritage. How can our city balance the need for growth and renewal with that of preserving its heritage and its leisure industry?

Washington Fajardo: I appreciate the fact that you talk about the “weight” of this heritage because it is interesting to think about its materiality and its density, which relates to the two very different historical epochs of Rio—that of the city as Brazil’s capital and that of the city as a simple municipality. Rio is 450 years old but it has only existed as a municipality since 1975, which is why I say that Rio is now an adolescent city, which is still learning to know itself.

 Rio had no autonomy—its function was to envision the country’s progress. The urban space itself was conceived and projected as lessons, as models destined to be adopted by other Brazilian cities. It was the city-as-a-standard, but after 1975 it had to become autonomous and to manage its problems by itself—a complete novelty in more than four centuries of existence.

 The city’s heritage institute, which I’m in charge of, became active in 1984 during the period of redemocratization. It was created due to the opposition to a project of a north-south avenue which would rip apart the Saara neighborhood and tear down the Real Gabinete Português de Leitura. Civil society reacted, which led to repercussions on the way the studies were carried out by municipal technicians. That is how the “cultural corridor” was born. Since that time this corridor has acquired some political legitimacy and has become the focal point of collective interests. It now conveys other values than that of federal heritage, i.e., the value of the urban ensemble, of public space and eclecticism, which were neglected by the heritage authorities up to that point.

Avenida Norte- Sul © World Heritage Rio, Service patrimoine, Washington Fajardo

Roberto Cabot : ... Those of premodern architecture.

Washington Fajardo : It is more than simply premodern architecture: it is a mestiço architecture seen through the lens of classical European erudition. The city’s heritage board appeared in that way, at the same time as the city was experiencing a rapid shift towards Barra da Tijuca. At that time a law—the last manifestation of a functionalist vision of the city—forbade new residential construction in downtown Rio, following a model which has long persisted in all Brazilian cities, that of the business center. Furthermore, the gradual shift away from tramway-based mobility continued. These are the three factors which have led to the loss of downtown density: the law proscribing residential use, the abandoning of the tramway system, and the shift toward the West. The law on residential housing was repealed in the middle of the 1990s (under Mayor Luiz Paulo Conde) but it left behind a certain culture and habits, and since that time the market hasn’t been able to produce more housing in the center. As a matter of fact, today, these three problems are about to be overcome, but there is another factor at play: the presence of land belonging to Brazil’s federal government within the city core, the famous “offshore land.” Promulgating incentivizing laws is of no use: no land which belongs to the federal government can be acquired. In the port area, sixty percent of real estate belongs to the federal government, but there is now an agreement which might make a difference.

Economics of culture

Roberto Cabot : In a recently published article, you contend that creativity forms part of Rio’s DNA. How is that expressed in the rehabilitation efforts of public space?

Washington Fajardo : This functionalist vision has governed the spatial organization of Rio: we now have a situation where its central districts are based on traditional retail and service activities—something specific to this city of hawkers of textiles, of plastic objects, and the like. However, there is a very limited presence of small and medium organizations linked to culture—what we call the creative economy. I don’t like that term very much and I prefer to talk about “knowledge economies” and “cultural economies”—I consciously use the plural form because I believe that a great many of these exist. Their presence is very limited in this area, even though there is an institutional presence: arcane museums with no visitors. We are seeking to stimulate these small and medium initiatives so that culture and knowledge return to the historical city center. Indeed, if we consider the way places are created, these professionals are forging bonds with these places, unlike retailers, who only create affects of a functional nature. I think that in the case of an architectural practice, a design firm, or an art workshop, you end up having varied relationships and connections, and that has strong repercussions in terms of urban affairs, which is why we must stimulate the initiatives which address this challenge. That being said, the primary type of infrastructure remains residential.

Roberto Cabot : What I find interesting in what you are saying is that through the redevelopment projects of the Rio Branco avenue, we are going back to the 1905 project, in terms of traffic for instance. For the past century, we have worked on reforming the center—something which basically proved inefficient. Now that we are trying to reinvent the city center, isn’t the original design proving to be the best option?

Porto Maravilha, Rio de Janeiro © World Heritage Rio, Service patrimoine, Washington Fajardo
Porto Maravilha, Rio de Janeiro © World Heritage Rio, Service patrimoine, Washington Fajardo


Washington Fajardo : Clearly quality of urban life in the twenty-first century should draw inspiration from the ideas and practices which were discovered at the close of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth: for instance, the coexistence of mobilities—carriages, automobiles, pedestrian traffic, tramways—which shared the same public space. When we learn about the studies on driverless tramways or on sensory remote control, we can see that we are moving towards a new form of coexistence of several types of mobilities within the public space.

Roberto Cabot : To come back to the issue of Rio’s competitiveness, what do you believe are the city’s assets now that the income level of Cariocas has recently overtaken that of Paulistas for the first time in decades?

Washington Fajardo : The reason why the fundamental aspects of urban planning persist is because heritage is also persistent. Rio was a city conceived as a model and it therefore is a lesson which is here to stay. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Rio de Janeiro should take on an international projection and position itself as an attractive hub for youth. I think that the opportunities for enjoyment, freedom, self-fulfillment, access to the city, and coexistence between different social substrates, are all very attractive for globalized youth.

Roberto Cabot : But why is it more interesting for a young person to go to Rio rather than São Paulo, apart from the obvious appeal of the beaches? In terms of the way the city and the economy function, what makes a young person suddenly return to Rio?

Washington Fajardo : People want quality of life and Rio offers it to them. Even after a year of protests, it is higher here and that’s a magnet for youth. I think that the centers of knowledge are more diversified here: you have the possibility of going from a technological field to a cultural one. The coexistence of two fields of excellence within a same city—now that’s interesting.

Roberto Cabot : Shouldn’t Rio have the ambition to become the largest cultural producer in the country? We indeed have some thriving companies in film production, audiovisual production, performing arts, as well as several museums.

Washington Fajardo : Indeed. We have to go back to the notion of weight, but with a possibility of lightness, of transition between different fields. There are certain difficulties to overcome to make the city more favorable to young people who are beginning a career, founding a company, or opening a workshop. We need simple procedures, with minimal bureaucracy, and that are accessible to a greater number of people. It is also important to offer more possibilities in terms of space. Life is becoming increasingly expensive as supply is going down and attractiveness and demand is going up, with a supply which is still low and integration through mobility which is still lacking. If we manage to achieve a satisfying level of integration between the districts of Madureira and the Jardim Botânico, as was the case in the middle of the 1950s thanks to the tramway, we could imagine having artists working in Madureira and living in Copacabana. It’s an interesting starting point on which to work. Rio has committed to several large international events and I think it is important to start working on these things given that the infrastructure which has been planned for these events is being built at a steady pace. We should be starting to talk about 2017—we can’t assume that the world will have disappeared on January 1, 2017, when Rio will step out of the limelight. No, the city will continue existing after the Olympic Games. We should be starting to prepare this next phase! It’s all about good planning, as it prevails in major institutions and which is a responsibility of the state.

Roberto Cabot : Another issue which would benefit from further elaboration: our very unique administrative system, with the overlap of the federal government, the state of Rio de Janeiro, and the municipality of Rio de Janeiro. Isn’t this an issue that is typical of Rio?

Washington Fajardo : I refer to this as the liabilities of the former capital status. The federal capital isn’t here anymore but it left this situation behind it. I will give you a specific example, that of the buildings which are in the vicinity of Plaza Tiradentes, in the city center, where we have worked on rehabilitating public space. We created the Carioca Center for Design, and then Studio X, which is set to become a hub of activity for this space. You can see that private buildings are starting to be rehabilitated over there, whereas in the case of public buildings, the restoration initiatives have been facing an unwieldy administrative system for the control of public accounts. It was acknowledged that these buildings, be they in a poor state, are valuable and of interest for the community—we aren’t considering their urban function anymore. These buildings are also undergoing a price valuation: the state government is organizing auctions (which is a sound practice), nevertheless some of these buildings aren’t finding any buyers, which I feel is due to the exceedingly high prices which have been set, not to any technical incompetence but because there is a set of rules and legal requirements relative to the management of public assets which make buyers reluctant and cautious. There are so many safety regulations to comply with that costs are driven up, which discourages potential buyers. I stand by a policy of selling these buildings for a symbolic real. That way, these buildings which have been crumbling for the past twenty or thirty years could live again, from an economic standpoint: the places will be inhabited, their new owners will pay taxes, and therefore contribute to rehabilitating that area. There are nearly five hundred of these buildings in the city center!

Informal and transitory

Roberto Cabot : There is also the issue of the city’s development and social inequalities: is Rio providing any solutions to this problem?

Washington Fajardo : We are facing many challenges. I will use the word “favela” but we should be talking about “informal areas” (or even “subformal areas” as the IBGE [Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics] calls them). Let us not forget that these are areas produced through informal methods. That’s where the challenge lies. I worked on the Favela-Neighborhood project when I was a student and then as a recent graduate with a few different colleagues. It was an important professional experience for me. Actually, many architects and urban planners were working on the informal areas but the emergence of violence and the withdrawal of government has put an end to that. I think we have achieved important outcomes in terms of security and the recent policies have proved wise.

To come back to the issue of public space, it strikes me that before it is considered in its physical dimension, it is considered in its material dimension. As a result, there is a political dimension to it, and urban planning stems from this. This raises some thorny issues, where dogmatic thinking prevails. Sometimes the municipality takes decisions which are within the purview of state planning—for instance when it shuts off high-risk areas, which implies having to evict people. This is a form of dogmatic thinking. Or when it creates a thoroughfare between a plaza in Jacarezinho and another in Riachuelo, which entails an urban development project as well as the construction of new spatial structures and some in-depth reflection about these spaces. From the point of view of urban design, these issues must be treated in a very rational and technical way, through clear dialogue, while retaining a high degree of freedom.

I believe this to be fundamental and I am worried when I see practices which took decades to develop, being set aside because of an ideological debate characterized by extreme and radical stances. These informal areas are the result of state negligence. We have practices which aim to offset budget deficits but don’t have a housing policy which would make it possible for everyone to have a roof. What the heck? Everybody owns a cellphone: there are prepaid plans and postpaid plans, smartphones and older generation phones, but what is important is that everyone is able to communicate and that there is an average of one cellphone for each Brazilian. The housing situation however, is completely different: only a small part of the population can afford to buy real estate and there isn’t even a market offer to satisfy this latent demand. I believe the government should be carrying out its regulatory function and stimulating an appropriate market offer. In large cities, even the most neoliberal, the most planned, the most structured, housing remains accessible, as is the case in New York, Paris, London. Everyone has been through this and this is a major failing of Brazilian cities! I think Rio de Janeiro will soon be able to initiate a similar policy in Brazil. We are at a turning point insofar as we are starting to produce a city with more fairness, more diversity, and where ghettos are starting to be whittled down.

City Perimetal, Rio de Janeiro © World Heritage Rio, Service patrimoine, Washington Fajardo

Roberto Cabot : Indeed, it’s an enormous challenge given that the accessible housing is situated in the favelas.

Washington Fajardo : This isn’t the result of a conscious policy but simply of an inefficient practice. We know that there are very pleasant and nice places in favelas and that they have genuine social life. But I like telling people: “Go shopping at the supermarket and walk uphill, you’ll see!” That doesn’t mean I think we should evacuate these areas but with all the technologies which are presently available to model the urban fabric (real-time data processing, ultra-fast 3-D modeling, remote sensing), we can no longer afford to be trapped by dogma in terms of physical configuration for the so-called informal areas. I believe that this way of thinking, this kind of exercise, should be undertaken with the utmost level of freedom, and applied to these realities. It is revolting to condemn a generation to live in poor conditions, even though it is true that there is a social fabric which dampens the physical hardships of these places. It is therefore important to implement real policies and to find technical solutions to set up ramps to ensure better accessibility, with cable cars for instance. It is necessary to use the instruments we have here, which are technologically possible, in order to rehabilitate these spaces. I am presently observing that these propositions are facing strong dogmatic barriers which make it impossible to implement these solutions in the favelas.

Roberto Cabot : And yet there are many success stories out there: Alfama in Portugal is a favela which has become a scenic neighborhood.

Washington Fajardo : Indeed, but consider that Alfama, and other places, have been transformed over the course of four centuries! I don’t want to wait five centuries for our favelas to improve! The truth is that there is no rule. The rule I’m suggesting is not having any rules. Each informal area is a specific case. I have cited Jacarezinho, Babilônia: they can all be improved but the improvements must be based on some fundamental values—the quality of the built environment, efficiency, accessibility, comfort.

Roberto Cabot : You put forward the concept of a nomadic architecture, a temporary and renewable architecture based on the use and optimization of preexisting spaces. What are your thoughts about this as an architect, and not as a civil servant working for the city?

Washington Fajardo : I believe that it is now time to talk about a transient and ephemeral architecture which can address the population’s expectations—an architecture which creates housing in the center, in those idle areas, for an entire generation. In reality, this architecture will emerge by itself, it won’t have to be initiated by the heritage authorities because it isn’t that transient. It will last twenty-five years at the most and then it will change. This phenomenon often happens due to the weight of historical heritage: this new architecture will end up being integrated as long as it is transformable. Indeed, why is it seen as the ultimate form of rapport with the historical environment, with the city’s heritage? It can be a hybrid, transient form.

Roberto Cabot : Within a transient context, it can lead to a form of hybridity.

Washington Fajardo : These are environments which must effectively be protected and preserved. The fluidity of public space, the possibilities of encounters, the quality of architectural spaces, materiality. That’s the challenge. The materiality of architecture must be conceived in another way, in a more transient fashion. I also think that this line of thought leads to the necessity of occupying cities and densifying them. I don’t have any answers to put forward—these are just a few impromptu thoughts on the matter.

In any case, we have managed to apply this idea in practice to some extent with the Olympic Games and this stadium project which shall be recycled in view of another use: a sixty-day event with huge financial means provides an excellent laboratory for this kind of experiment.

Roberto Cabot : Do you think an effort has been made in this direction for the Olympic Games?

Washington Fajardo : Yes, this project is now ready and it will be completed. The Olympic pool will be moved to another state, the handball venues will be converted into municipal schools in four already defined zones, etc. But this is a laboratory. As a matter of fact, I believe it’s a solution for the organization of the Games and I hope the Olympic Committee will pay attention to this. It’s an innovation put forward by Rio! In London, the main stadium was supposed to be scaled down but that will not happen in the end. The initial principle was the same but it was abandoned. I think it’s an interesting vision—we can think of the Olympic Games as we do a circus or a ship: it arrives, docks, and is set up like a marquee. It’s an ideal scenario, which is environmentally friendly and makes it possible to realize the Olympic ideal of the encounter of cultures. That’s the great objective. But note that this is another vision of urban planning, based on the possibility of more fluid architectures, with more audacious spaces, which aren’t meant to last. I think that the construction of a building which is destined to last, to have a long service life, is an important decision. We need to produce an architecture which is more centered on citizens.

Roberto Cabot : It’s fascinating to consider the need for an architecture in the classical sense, conceived ad aeternum as the Greeks did. The temple was supposed to be eternal. We aren’t building for gods anymore but for a world which is constantly changing.

Washington Fajardo : Yes, that provides another perspective and I think it’s a real challenge. We can use the now trendy term of sustainable development but few people think and talk about the biological dimension of territories. Urban densification is very important at an economic level but I don’t know if I would like to live in Hong Kong during a flu epidemic. The other key challenge is how to supply these high-density areas with fresh food.

Roberto Cabot : That is interesting: Copacabana and Hong Kong have similar issues, don’t they?

Washington Fajardo : Yes. They are high-density cities. To come back to the subject of active urban citizenship, we can imagine that these cities will develop farms or, in other terms, forms of transient and biological architecture with a limited impact on the environment. This could lead them to becoming embedded in an ecozone. From a biological standpoint, high-rise buildings will make it possible to conceive a city as an ecozone. Cities will thus be more livable for individuals and for humanity as a whole.

(This article was published in Stream 03 in 2014.)