Sandra Regina poses for a photo at her home at the Vila Autodromo favela in Rio. Vila Autodromo has now been largely destroyed to make way for an access route into the Olympic Park. Silvia Izquierdo/AP

A Brazilian research project details development in Rio since it won its Olympic bid seven years ago. It doesn’t paint a very positive picture.

This article was originally published in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.

In 2009, when Rio de Janeiro was named the Olympic host city for the 2016 games, Governor Sergio Cabral was full of promises. The residents of Rio, he told The Guardian, will “gain more metro lines, more trains, more sewage treatment, more in terms of the environment, social services, in terms of sport and culture.”

Pretty much none of those promises were kept; at least, they weren’t kept for everyone equally. The development spurred by the Olympic Games (from its new Metro line to its ‘smart city’ investments) has been heavily criticized by residents and international media alike for perpetuating the city’s already vast inequality. A new website from Brazilian architecture professor Ana Luiza Nobre documents every development project started in Rio from 2009 to 2016, providing a detailed look at construction and how concentrated (or frankly nonexistent) its benefits have been.

RioNow is the culmination of years of research conducted by Nobre and a team of students at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. On the site, users can find an interactive list of projects launched over the past seven years, a timeline of the projects in conjunction with major national events, a topographic map that shows where the majority of projects are located, and a series of academic papers about Olympic-spurred development. You can also look at each project side-by-side with different economic indexes, like unemployment, the fluctuation of the dollar, and the behavior of the Brazilian stock market.

It’s all objective information that doesn’t offer any obvious opinions. But Nobre definitely has them. “There is nothing worthwhile that’s going to stand in 10 year’s time,” she tells CityLab. “All the projects are so bad, and all the work has been done so badly. It’s really striking, the low quality.”

There is no shortage of examples. Four months before the games started, a bicycle path constructed specifically in preparation for the games collapsed and fell into the sea, killing two people. Working conditions on construction sites were so bad, says Nobre, that 12 laborers died on the job over the past seven years. The Olympic Village buildings have continuously struggled with construction and maintenance issues, from flooded floors to moldy walls to holes in the ceiling.  

Apart from the numerous infrastructure and safety problems, says Nobre, is the lack of respect for Rio’s traditional aesthetic and architecture. She points to the lauded Museum of Tomorrow, a large oblong building designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, as a prime example. “It’s a bad project. [It’s] badly constructed, and it has nothing to do with the landscape. It’s this very aggressive, iconic type of building that we are trying to get rid of,” she says. Nobre is also perturbed by the city’s choice to contract Calatrava to build the structure, given the repeated controversy over the quality of his past work.

The Museum of Tomorrow in Guanabara Bay. (Leo Correa/AP)

But perhaps the most striking observation Nobre has made about construction in Rio is just how unequally it’s been distributed. She says that various Olympic projects, to her mind, have simply functioned to create a specific image of Rio for the rest of the world, much to the benefit of richer citizens. In 2014, for example, the city initiated a plan to install now-iconic favela cable cars in Rocinha, the largest favela in all of Brazil with nearly 70,000 inhabitants. But residents rejected the proposal, asking instead for more basic (and less glamorous) necessities to be fulfilled first.

“They said, ‘No, we don’t want cable cars, we want a sewage system,’” says Nobre. “But this [type of infrastructure] isn’t as visible as a cable car, which has become very iconic.” The favela eventually ended up with neither one of the improvements.

And then there’s the problem of displacement. Nobre says that 22,000 families total have been displaced by Olympic work, totaling nearly 100,000 people (other sources give lower numbers, around 60,000). The most notable case is that of Vila Autódromo, a small favela where about 600 families were violently forced from their homes at what would eventually become the entryway to the Olympic Park. After brutal confrontations with police, only 25 families managed to stay, in new buildings constructed by the government. “[The favela] was right near the entrance. They didn’t need to displace people, but it looked bad having these people there [in such public view],” Nobre says.

A majority of the displaced went to live on the west side of the city, in a group of large government buildings called Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My Home, My Life). “This place is very far, about 50 or 60 kilometers from downtown, and it has very little infrastructure,” Nobre says. RioNow’s topographical map shows the concentration of Olympic projects on one side of the city, and a totally empty west side, where the government housing is located. “They made an investment in one half of the city, and the people who got displaced were moved to the other half,” Nobre says.

For her, the legacy of inequality left in the Olympics’ wake is a microcosm of Brazil’s problems as a country. Inequality runs rampant (it’s one of the 25 most unequal countries in the world), and no one knows what life in in Brazil is going to look like in 10 years, she says.

“The situation in Rio is a good example for people who want to understand Brazil. [It is] like this all over the country.”

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: San Diego's Trolley

    Out of Darkness, Light Rail!

    In an era of austere federal funding for urban public transportation, light rail seemed to make sense. Did the little trains of the 1980s pull their own weight?

  2. Equity

    What ‘Livability’ Looks Like for Black Women

    Livability indexes can obscure the experiences of non-white people. CityLab analyzed the outcomes just for black women, for a different kind of ranking.

  3. photo: Developer James Rouse visiting Harborplace in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

    What Happened to Baltimore’s Harborplace?

    The pioneering festival marketplace was among the most trendsetting urban attractions of the last 40 years. Now it’s looking for a new place in a changed city.

  4. Design

    Before Paris’s Modern-Day Studios, There Were Chambres de Bonne

    Tiny upper-floor “maids’ rooms” have helped drive down local assumptions about exactly how small a livable home can be.

  5. An aerial photo of downtown Miami.

    The Fastest-Growing U.S. Cities Aren’t What You Think

    Looking at the population and job growth of large cities proper, rather than their metro areas, uncovers some surprises.