A man plants seedlings at the Sitie Ecological Park in Vidigal, Rio de Janeiro.
A man plants seedlings at the Sitie Ecological Park in Vidigal, part of a larger trend of community gardening in Rio's favelas. Pilar Olivares/Reuters

In the dense favelas of Rio de Janeiro, residents are turning scarce empty space into community gardens.  

RIO DE JANEIRO—Crawling up the side of the sweeping mountain that marks the end of Ipanema beach, Vidigal is one of Rio de Janeiro’s most distinctive favelas. When resident Carlos Augusto Graciano, an architect, got the chance to build a minibus shelter here a few years ago, he knew he wanted to do something different.

A woman stands on the terrace of her home in Vidigal. (Pilar Olivares/Reuters)

At the time, residents who rely on the minibuses to haul them up the steep hill and into Vidigal’s dense maze had to wait out in the open street, regardless of torrential rain or punishing summer temperatures. “I wanted to do something that could change residents’ lives and the city’s direction,” Graciano said. “Something that wouldn’t be common. That’s when I started thinking about a rooftop garden.”

Tourists visiting Rio’s wealthy South Zone, the home of its postcard vistas, often praise the city’s spacious streets, lined with cobblestones and trees that stretch gracefully skyward. But outside of the upper-middle-class area, greenery becomes far scarcer—especially in favelas, which house approximately 24 percent of the city’s 8 million residents.

Together with his friend and fellow Vidigal resident Graça dos Prazeres, Graciano implemented his plan with support from graffiti artists, biologists, teachers, local business owners, and garbage sweepers, among others. It was Prazeres who had the idea of growing herbs atop the minibus shelter. (Prazeres has worked alongside doctors most of her adult life, cooking plant-based, organic food for their patients; she now does this independently.)

The collaboration resulted in the Organic Rooftop and Living Gallery, which the city government has now classified as a heritage site.

The Organic Rooftop and Living Gallery (Carlos Augusto Graciano)

For its creators, the Organic Rooftop is about more than just greenery or shelter. Its painted walls tell the story of the favela’s origins, making it a space for art and history. But it’s also a symbol of community spirit: It was built by collective effort, with any interested resident lending a hand, and schoolchildren tackling the planting.

Prazeres believes that if people take advantage of the limited space they have, growing plants on rooftops and hanging them out of windows, they can attain better health and financial empowerment. Concerned by obesity rates and dependence on processed foods, Prazeres spent the first year after the Organic Rooftop’s completion showing residents how to cook healthy, homemade meals from scratch.

Organic fruit and vegetables shouldn’t just be for those who can pay a lot for them, Prazeres said: “This is something that can belong to the people.”

Graciano and Prazeres are not the only ones trying to foster healthier living in Rio’s low-income areas. In the nearby Cantagalo favela, resident Gabi Flor, an engineer, is a main organizer for the first community garden, founded in 2015 to help people connect with nature and feed themselves.* The Cantagalo garden has produced giló (scarlet eggplant), leeks, bell peppers, and okra.

The community garden in Cantagalo (Ciara Long)

Flor has been one of the key figures in Rio’s community garden collective Planta na Rua RJ, or “Street Planting,” during its two-and-a-half year history. In that time, she has helped people in 13 favela neighborhoods all over the city set up their own community gardens, hoping they will see how easy and cost-effective it can be to grow some of their own food.

It may well be safer, too, Flor said. “Brazil is one of the places that uses the most pesticides … the absurd quantities used here aren’t allowed in various other parts of the world.” University of São Paulo researchers recently found that Brazilian law permits farmers to use up to 400 times as much pesticide as European farmers, and Brazil allows some pesticides banned by the EU.

Among the other benefits of community gardening, Flor said, is that “[i]t would help the heat islands, for example, breaking up the asphalt, the bricks, the cement.” For Graciano as well, the Organic Rooftop is a way to soften the city’s hard landscape and help filter pollution from congested roads. “It’s a way of creating a reflection about environmental practices and principles that have been lost for a long time,” he said.

Kananda Soares, Prazeres’s childhood friend and a local entrepreneur, shares the dream of a visibly greener city. Soares and Prazeres are hoping to sell germinated seeds for residents across the city to grow in—or on—their own homes.

“Look at all of this,” Soares said, gesturing to the tightly packed buildings around her. “Imagine how beautiful it would be if all of these rooftops were filled with plants.”

Driven by residents from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds (including educated professionals), the community-gardening movement can be seen as a response to the gentrification of Rio’s favelas. These spaces represent an improvement in the quality of life in neighborhoods that have historically been underserved by the government. Neither the minibus shelter nor the Cantagalo garden receives any government funding.

“It’s so nice to have the plants,” said Lúcia Maria de Olivéira, who has lived in Cantagalo most of her life, as she helped Flor plant leafy shrubs. “The view is prettier. The plants make a difference: Our self-esteem is renewed. And it’s for everyone.”

*CORRECTION: The article previously identified Gabi Flor as a founder of the Cantagalo project; she is currently one of its main organizers, but did not found it. The article has been updated.

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