Bang goes the theory: Right to the City in Brazil

By-Kobra-in-São-Paulo-Brazil-portrait Oscar Niemeyer_on website Street Art utopia

Portrait of Oscar Niemeyer, by street artist Kobra in São Paulo – to be also found on Street Art Utopia website

In Brazil, 83% of the population lives in cities; 50% of the people living in cities have acquired their housing through informal processes, and all the cities with more than 500 000 inhabitants have favelas. These few facts set quite a sound basis for the population to claim a right to the city.

Background history

There are several reasons why the right to the city has been well-received in Latin America, whereas Europe has almost forgotten about it. I think that history has part of the answer. The history of urban development in Latin America reflects the very sharp inequalities of societies that started off as colonies. Today the “exclusionary nature of urban development in Latin America“1 is not only history, it is one of the most urging issues to be tackled, as it “brought about combined processes of social exclusion, spatial segregation, and environmental degradation“2.

More recent history also adds on to this point. One of the fundamentals of the right to the city is its democratic nature. After the dictatorships (1964 to 1985 in Brazil), Latin American countries have had to rebuild a whole set of democratic and citizenship rights. As they were undergoing important legal changes, “a new field of public law, namely urban law“3 was progressively created.

Legal definition of the right to the city in Brazil

The idea developped by Henri Lefebvre in his book Le droit à la ville, and in others such as Du contrat de citoyenneté, implied several interrelated rights: right to information, right of expression and participation, right to a healthy environment, right to culture, right to self-management 4, etc…In the end, the right to the city consists of “the right of all city dwellers to fully enjoy urban life with all of its services and advantages (…), as well as taking direct part in the management of cities (…)“5.


Illustration inspired by “De la démocratie de sable au nouveau communautarisme: le cas des plages cariocas” – an article signed by Paulo C.da Costa Gomes

Legally, the right to the city in Brazil is translated into the Law n° 10.257/2001, better known as “2001 City Statute“. It is based on the 1988 Constitution of Brazil – Art. 182 & 183 and it starts with 16 principal objectives or directives.

I – To guarantee the right to sustainable cities, meaning right to urban land, housing, healthy environment, urban infrastructure , transport and public services, work as well asleisure, for the present and future generations;

II – Democratic management through the participation of the population and of representative associations from various sectors of society, in order to design, implement and follow urban planning, and other urban development programmes or projects.

III – Cooperation between governments, the private setor and other stakeholders in the urbanisation process and services of social interest; (a dodgy translation here, sorry)

IV – Urban planning of cities, of population over the territory, and of the economic activties within the municipality and its metropolitan area, in order to avoid and correct the distortion and negative effect of urban development on the environment; (dodgy translation n°2, sorry again)

V – Urban and community infrastructure such as transport and public services matching the needs of the local population;

VI – Ordering and controlling land use in order to avoid (a series of 8 very interesting points that I will deal with later)

VII – Integration and complementarity between urban and rural activities, having in mind the socio-economic development of the municipality and its area of influence (which I translated “metropolitan area” earlier)

VIII – adoption of production and consumption patterns for goods, serviices and urban expansion, which take into account  environmental, social and economic sustainability criteria in the municipality and its metropolitan area;

IX – fair distribution of profits/advantanges and charges/inconvenients coming from the urbanisation process;

X – adequação dos instrumentos de política econômica, tributária e financeira e dos gastos públicos aos objetivos do desenvolvimento urbano, de modo a privilegiar os investimentos geradores de bem-estar geral e a fruição dos bens pelos diferentes segmentos sociais; (can’t translate this one for the moment, I’ll come back to that later)

XI – recovering public investment out of a valorização de imóveis urbanos; (couldn’t make it to the end, will come back to that later too)

XII – protecting, preserving, and recovering/regenerating/refurbishing natural and built environment, cultural, historical, artistic, landscapa and archeological heritage;

XIII – auditing from public authorities and the concerned population before the settlement of entreprises and activities, which would have negative effects on natural and built environment, and on the comfort and security of the population;

XIV – regularisation and urbanisation of land occupied by population living with less than the median wage, and establishment of special rules for urbanisation, land use and construction, which must take into account the socio-economic situation of the local population as well as environmental regulations; (we are talking about slums here)

XV – simplifying the legislation concerning urban zones, land use, occupation and construction, so as to reduce costs and offer for housing;

XVI – isonomia de condições para os agentes públicos e privados na promoção de empreendimentos e atividades relativos ao processo de urbanização, atendido o interesse social. (can’t find the translation of idonomia)

Some concluding remarks

– I consider (almost) translating the City Statute in English as an achievement in itself, at least for this post. Anywhere I looked on internet, I could only find it in Portuguese.

– I am very sorry to have truncated Point VI, but it is very long (8 sub-points). As it is especially interesting for the purpose of my research on land use in urban areas, the conflicts that it can generate and how to solve or avoid them, I will devote a whole post to Point VI later.

– An open question: after 12 years of City Statute, it is not all roses in Brazilian cities either. Therefore I wonder if it wouldn’t be useful to draw and share some lessons on the implementation of the right to the city. Especially now, as we are just before the World Cup 2014/Olympic Games 2016 and even World Youth Days 2013.

– Let me think aloud again: would we be so ambitious in Europe? I will deal with this question in another post too.

So many promises for just one post.


Read it!

Sources of inspiration

Là où le Brésil va, Manière de Voir n°113, Le Monde Diplomatique, Octobre-Novembre 2010

Constructing the “Right to the City” in Brazil, Edésio Fernandes, Social Legal Studies 2007

Which right to which city? In defense of political-strategic clarity, Marcelo Lopes de Souza, May 2010


1 p.210; 2 p.203; 3 p.204; 5. p.208 of Constructing the “Right to the City” in Brazil, Edésio Fernandes, Social Legal Studies 2007

4 It is precisely with the dimension of right to self-management that I see a link between Henri Lefebvre’s work, Elinor Ostrom’s and Cornelius Castoriadis’. For a refresher, please refer to my post on Elinor Ostrom.

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