Brazil’s “Winter of Discontent”: What it says about urban planning and urban law

Edesio Fernandes
November 2013

Countless massive social demonstrations and street protests have taken place all over Brazil since late May. The phenomenon is continuing, although it has recently lost momentum. Initially, there was a widespread perplexity regarding the causes and timing of the social demonstrations - no one knew for sure who the actors involved, or their, goals were. Several lessons have gradually emerged for Brazil and countries everywhere, especially regarding on the relationship between urban planning, policy, management, and urban law.

It is not easy to explain what has happened, given the general lack of focus of the demonstrations, as well as the absence of clear leaders. The first demonstration in Sao Paulo was a specific protest against increased bus fares, fomented by violent police reaction. Since, the demonstrations have grown, spread to many other cities, and incorporated several other claims: quality of public services (especially health and education); costs of the 2014 World Cup, 2016 Olympic Games and several large projects funded by the public authorities; specific laws, situations and specific politicians; widespread corruption; etc.

The essentially diffuse composition of this social mobilisation has also been intriguing. Demonstrators have largely been young people, initially from the so-called “new middle-class” which has - ironically - emerged out of the social policies adopted by the Federal Government over the last 10 years.  They were later joined by the members of the traditional middle-classes and eventually by residents in shantytowns. They have all shared a profound discredit of the official institutional actors – political parties, powers of the state, governmental levels, unions, students’ organisations, civics and NGOs, media, etc. Especially given the repeated use of violence by the police, more recently this broad popular agenda risks to be taken over by radical right- and left-wing groups, the action of which seems to be based on unclear notions of acceptable forms of anarchy and vandalism, as well as the place of “symbolic violence”.  Moreover, the recurrence of both police violence and violent actions of such groups in the demonstrations seems to have led to the current declining popular participation. However, even when they have been violent, this social mobilisation process has thus far dialogued with the state and demanded overall, though still vague, ”political reform”.

Amidst all these uncertainties, two things are certain: the street demonstrations have an urban nature and they are ultimately about the so-called “urban question”, that is, the nature of the social process of production of urban space in Brazil. It is no wonder that the ideas of Henri Lefebvre and Manuel Castells are back in vogue among the demonstrators. Even when they are conveyed in specific terms, their claims ultimately address, and condemn, the general urban development pattern in the country: 85% people living in cities deeply marked by sociospatial segregation and informality; increasing peripherisation of the urban poor; concentration of public services, equipment, facilities and opportunities; growing taxation - and limited reach and quality of public services. For the last eight decades, Brazil has experienced an unparalleled process of urbanisation of risk and spoliation, with an enormous socioenvironmental impact. Given the unfair and unequal distribution of the costs and benefits of the urbanisation process, the poor have been greatly penalised – and paid for much of it. Cities in Brazil are the sociospatial expression of an exclusionary and perverse sociopolitical pact: a gigantic housing deficit co-exists with an equally gigantic stock of vacant built properties and serviced urban land, as well as thousands of informal settlements. Going to work for most people requires long, precarious and expensive commutes. Interestingly, “better housing” as such has not been a significant claim of the demonstrators: in some specific cases, people have opposed the eviction of favela dwellers; residents in favelas have made it clear that they want sanitation, not cable cars; but few people have directly questioned the official housing policy and the process of informal development.

It has become increasingly clear to all that the underlying question determining the social unrest concerns the increasing commodification of Brazilian cities, which have played significant new roles since the 1980s: if they were originally the place of, and provided support to, the urban-industrial economic development model, they are currently both the place and theobject of the post-industrial model, now within a globalising and highly speculative development model. Indeed, new, still largely ignored, powerful stakeholders working at the global level – developers and promoters, banks, pension funds, hedge funds – have increased their presence, thus leading to record breaking levels of land, property and rental appreciation and speculation. This new urban scenario has challenged many traditional notions, as well as traditional legal and political institutions.

Has this exclusionary urban development pattern resulted from the lack of urban planning, as many have argued? The answer is no! By action and omission, Brazil’s urbanisation has largely been a state-led process. What is at stake is the kind and nature of traditional urban planning – including theory, education and practice. Urban planning has long been viewed merely as “technique of territorial organisation”, as well as being “neutral” and “objective” vis-à-vis the sociopolitical processes. The fragmented approach to urban policy has been dissociated from land policy and housing policy, as well as from transportation, environmental, fiscal and budgetary policies. Traditional regulatory planning has not interfered in the concentrated land structure, as planners have no understanding of the dynamics of the land/property/rental markets they create and foment, and see themselves as poor hostages to such aggressive markets. They do not realise the economic implications of their proposals – technical requirements, standards, regulations, and obligations – and don’t take into account socioeconomic realities determining the conditions of access to urban land and housing. As a result, this elitist planning tradition has begot informality. Moreover, it does not even attempt to capture back for the community some of the gigantic surplus value resulting from state action (through public works, services, and urban laws) and, when it does, it reinforces sociospatial segregation rather than redistributing financial resources. Mistaking effects for causes, well-intended governmental actions have generated ill-effects: the My House, My Life National Housing Programme has built 2 million houses in precarious peripheries; costly, but isolated, regularisation programmes have led to eviction by the market and have further aggravated speculation, segregation, and informality.

Urban planning has also long been dissociated from urban management, and policies have not been supported by the necessary instruments, mechanisms, processes, and resources. Cumbersome, bureaucratic, excessively formalistic and lengthy procedures; lack of intergovernmental articulation and of a regional/metropolitan dimension; inefficiency, irrationality, duplicity, waste and corruption; lack of transparency and accountability: all these factors combined have significantly contributed to the current urban crisis. This has been the case especially at the local level, given the widespread lack of municipal administrative capacity to implement/monitor more complex proposals. Popular participation has not taken place in all stages of decision-making and it has often been manipulated, rendering the longstanding tradition of political patronage stronger.

The street demonstrations have also told an important cautionary tale: legal reform is not sufficient. Brazil is the land of the acclaimed, groundbreaking 2001 City Statute, internationally considered to be one of the most enabling regulatory frameworks for sustainable urban development. Since then, 1450 Municipal Master Plans have been approved nationally. However, there are still serious problems constraining the legal and social efficacy of the law, especially as policymakers and planners have failed to make full use of its potential and have not fundamentally changed the exclusionary nature urban of planning. The game has become more incongruent than ever, with timid municipal spheres now tackling aggressive global stakeholders.

It is in this context that the street protests have increasingly led to the revival of the urban reform movement which was very influential in the 1980s and 1990s, but which had lost momentum. There has been a concerted attempt to articulate all the specific claims defended by the demonstrators under the umbrella of the “Right to the City”, thus articulating the principle of the social function of private and public property; the recognition of social housing rights; the regularisation of informal settlements; the just distribution of costs and benefits of urbanisation and the capture of land values; better public services; and the democratic management of cities. Achieving this goal would require new political strategies way beyond representative democracy, involving direct participation, but also recognising the scope for confrontation, occupation, and radical action. Independent media and community planning strategies, with support from committed academics, have had a growing influence in this search for original collective emancipation processes aimed at promoting sociospatial inclusion in Brazilian cities.

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