On Planning Capabilities: Disconnections between planning objectives and implementation in Rio de Janeiro

Rafael Alencar Saraiva

On Planning Capabilities: Disconnections between planning objectives and implementation in Rio de Janeiro


Rafael Alencar Saraiva,

BA UFRJ, MsC Urbanist by TU Delft

Urban Planner at Raiar Engenharia,

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 


In recent years, Rio de Janeiro has experienced considerable changes in its urban structure due to the upcoming 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games: a rapid bus system, large sports facilities clusters, the regeneration of its old harbor, new cultural facilities, social housing projects and massive real estate developments. These changes, despite delivering services, new homes and many jobs to the city, cause many negative effects – such as unbearable traffic jams, a threefold increase in rents, and widespread corruption. So much that even the hosting of these mega-events is being questioned by citizens, as seen in the street protests of June 2013 onwards.

FIG_1 FIG 1: “I would give up from World Cup to invest in education” says this poster in one of the street demonstrations in Rio.
FIG_2FIG 2: on the right shows Rio’s largest avenue, Avenida Presidente Vargas, packed with protesters. Sources: www.cstpsol.com and www.rededemocratica.org. Both taken in July 22 2013

These negative effects might not be a surprise in a city which lacks effective planning system. The city’s main planning tool, the Plano Diretor1 (whose literal translation would be “leading plan”), is a legal document composed of praiseworthy articles, which are, nevertheless, not often enforced.

Before we analyze recent developments, it’s important to note that Rio’s Plano Diretor is only a textual document: it doesn’t contain maps or other visual representations that could locate its proposals in specific places in the city. This makes it difficult to use the plan as a legal tool to promote accountability and efficiency within the city government and private companies. The cases of Rio’s harbor regeneration proposal and the main Olympic area are the main examples of this.

The absence of maps does not seem to be without purpose, but a consequence of the lack of interest from the most powerful stakeholders – the municipality, state government, real estate and transportation companies – in having any effective transparent planning tool, as this tool would possibly restrict the actions and profits of these groups. Architect and urban planner Fabiano Sobreira, when analyzing a similar situation in Brasilia, called this a “non-planning strategy”: when there is a discourse on the importance of urban planning, a guiding plan is developed together with stakeholders from civil society, but in the end only specific actions benefiting powerful groups are implemented.2

Rio´s harbor: true regeneration or simply real estate paradise?

Rio´s harbor regeneration plan, called Porto Maravilha3, is a prime example of this lack of an effective sustainable urban plan being put into practice. This plan doesn’t establish, for instance, a land use map or allocate any percentage from the future developments to social housing. Because of that, the entire area of five million square meters is slowly being converted into corporate uses, while the area seriously lacks housing developments. The development of housing in the harbor could help make the central area more sustainable, as future inhabitants could easily commute to the nearby Central Business District.

FIG_3FIG 3: A map of Rio’s central area. My scheme over a Google Earth image.

The reason for this preference for corporate uses is rather simple. Commercial developments are currently being negotiated in Rio´s harbor for around R$ 12.000/square meter4, while residential developments are sold in the nearby neighborhood of São Cristóvão for merely R$ 7.400/square meter5.  Profits are much higher for commercial buildings. Besides, as plot prices are negotiated as 25% of the total development sales volume, the landowners wait for corporate tower proposals in order to sell their plots. Thus, even if construction companies wanted to build housing there, they would find it difficult to buy plots at feasible costs. A land use map could have avoided this situation, but certainly developers did not want that restriction.

The fact that the Porto Maravilha project does not establish a minimum quota for social housing developments is politically unfair and unjust, especially because most of the plots there are owned by State companies.  Rio has 22% of its population living in slums and other precarious conditions6,. It is therefore fair that citizens living in informal urbanization would benefit from the development of land owned by the State.  In fact, the Plano Diretor states that the city should “promote an adequate use of its voids and underused plots, prioritizing their use for housing…”7 and should also “enlarge the supply of social housing through the production of affordable homes and urbanized plots, and the conversion of empty units situated in areas with infrastructure in the city…”8.  Once more, the text of the plan is not being followed when it comes to implementation.

Another questionable issue of Porto Maravilha concerns future mobility in the area. The plan allows for an extremely high-density development with buildings of thirty to fifty floors high9, while a mobility plan accounting for all those future users has not been released. There is, indeed, a planned tram line linking the harbor to downtown, but because such a massive densification is allowed one might wonder if it will be enough.

This lack of an effective mobility plan, calculating expected future flows of people in the area goes against Plano Diretor´s article 3, guideline XIV: “to orient urban expansion and densification according to the provision of sanitation, the road system and transportation and other facilities and urban services.”1

If the city government were really interested in promoting Rio’s sustainability it would not only reserve most of the harbor plots for housing developments, it would also limit car parking in future buildings, like London did with its new skyscraper The Shard, which provides only forty-seven parking places for its 110,000 m2 of office space10. Currently, in Rio’s harbor developments, the rate is one parking place for each 50 m2, resulting in around five or seven underground parking levels. Just for comparison, if The Shard were to be built in Rio it would have 2,200 parking places! Therefore, corporate buildings under construction in Rio’s harbor represent an upcoming environmental disaster; going directly against the principles of sustainable development included in Rio’s Plano Diretor.

On the lack of maps and other visual representations

After showing the case of Porto Maravilha, a striking example of the ineffectiveness of Rio´s main planning tool, it seems important to elaborate on how this ineffectiveness actually takes place in the daily routine of Rio’s Secretariat of Urbanism.

As I mentioned in the beginning, Rio´s Plano Diretor is simply a textual document, lacking maps and other visual representations that could show what its articles actually mean in terms of spatial impacts. The lack of spatial representation seems to be the premise for the workings of a corrupt system where the public sector doesn’t restrict the actions of the private sector – such as the case of Porto Maravilha. In short, the Secretariat of Urbanism does not establish a framework for Rio’s urban development.

Councillor Aspásia Camargo commented recently about this lack of maps in Rio’s current Plano Diretor, and noted that it was also the case in the plan of 2006: “there was a lack of basic premises, such as evaluations, diagnosis and even maps that could allow deputies to visualize the proposed urban parameters”11 (urban parameters refers to the FAR, the floor area ratio, the index of densification for each plot).

This lack of proper mapping of the articles listed in the Plano Diretor makes coordination between secretariats – such as housing and mobility, for instance – extremely difficult to realize. It also makes it very difficult to assess how the city plans and projects contribute to sustainability. In addition, this makes it almost impossible for civil society to understand the plans and how citizens are affected by them. Therefore, participation and checking on public and private parties becomes an arduous job. This fact prevents a democratic, transparent process from taking place, which is included in article 3 of Rio’s Plano Diretor: “to promote democratic city management…”1

An actual mapping and graphical explanation of proposed articles could lead to a preliminary spatial framework for each neighborhood, over which civil society and a variety of stakeholders could discuss and propose amendments. The final version of such a framework, encompassing all issues claimed, would certainly lead to a more democratic and effective tool in fostering accountability from public institutions and private developers.

As an illustration of the point above: high density developments, such as mass housing and shopping malls, could be approved by the Secretary only in areas within 400 meters from train and metro stations (5 minutes by foot), while middle density developments could be allowed within a 800 meters of these stations (10 minutes by foot or 5 minutes  by bike). Together with a restriction to car parking and a stimulus for mixing uses, these high density developments would foster public transport use and walking, thus contributing to Rio’s sustainability. This kind of strategy has been called Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in planning literature.12

FIG_4FIG 4: Madureira station area showing a proposed “minimal” framework for sustainable development: dense developments contained in the 800m radius. My scheme over a Google Earth image.

 Rio’s ongoing revision of the Plano Diretor

As Rio´s Plano Diretor is currently being revised, it seems important to take a look at its main novelty: the definition of four macrozones: one where urban development should be controlled, another where it should be encouraged, another where it should be conditioned (according to infrastructure provision from public and private parties) and yet another one where development should be assisted by the public sector (through zoning and new public infrastructures).13

FIG_5FIG 5: Rio’s revised Plano Diretor aims to define four macrozones where urban developments should be controlled, encouraged, conditioned and a`ssisted. Source: http://www.camara.rj.gov.br/planodiretor/executivo_09.php

At a first glance, this macrozonic categorization seems reasonable. Restricting development where it’s already too dense and encouraging development where there is space left, according to infrastructural provision. However, as the plan doesn´t establish more detailed guidelines for the neighborhoods or other sub-areas, it is ineffective in guiding the city towards a sustainable future. As I showed before, binding densification to mass transport station areas could be a more effective way to discourage private car use, diminishing air and noise pollution.

An example is Barra da Tijuca. Barra is the main expansion area of Rio. It is envisaged for “conditioned” development, which means that its growth can only happen according to infrastructural upgrading to be implemented by the public sector. The municipality is, indeed, implementing a Bus Rapid Transit line (BRT) linking Barra to the rest of the city. However the area is experiencing extreme traffic jams due to the many new high density developments in the area, which offer plenty of parking places.

As it seems, a BRT system is unlikely to make upper and middle class people leave their cars at home when commuting to work. Besides being more comfortable to use one´s own car, Barra’s urban morphology is defined by a modernist masterplan which defines buildings too far apart from each other and from the main mobility routes to really encourage public transport use. Therefore, if the city allows the densification of Barra based on the fact that there is a new BRT system being implemented, the population will certainly suffer even worse traffic jams and pollution in the near future.

If we look at the neighborhoods selected by the Plano Diretor as encouraged and assisted development, due to a recent loss in population and availability of land, one could doubt if these areas are really ready for densification either, as the railway system is precarious and there is no binding of future developments around the stations. Hence, the most probable scenario is the appearance of new high-density developments that stimulate car use.

Thus, current “macro-planning” without more detailed frameworks for sub-areas is certainly insufficient and perpetuates Rio´s “non-planning strategy”. In order to foster this debate and indicate possible directions, I will briefly discuss the main planning tools used in Rotterdam – the Structuurvisie – and Singapore – the Concept Plan, in order to show how much is missing in Rio’s Plano Diretor.

What effective planning means: the cases of Rotterdam and Singapore

Rotterdam’s main planning tool is called Stadshaven Rotterdam Structuurvisie16, which means “Structural Vision Rotterdam Harbor City”. From the title, it is very focused: a harbor city. That´s what makes Rotterdam special: it´s one of the biggest harbors in the world. The harbor generates jobs, identity, culture, etc. Thus, it´s an element the administration wants to highlight and build on.

FIG_6FIG 6: Diagrammatic map showing Rotterdam’s broad intentions for its harbor, but in a very spatial manner. Source: www.bds.rotterdam.nl/dsresource?objectid=213480

The plan contains many maps that illustrate issues such as important future mobility connections (tram lines, bridges and boats), new housing and industry developments, water management, a sustainability checklist, all in a very spatial, localized manner. It goes from schematic intentions to specific interventions for key areas.

FIG_7FIG 7:  A map showing Rotterdam’s main interventions for the future: mobility, new housing and industry developments, their relationships, etc. Source: www.bds.rotterdam.nl/dsresource?objectid=213480
FIG_8FIG 8: A zoomed-in plan for a site in Rotterdam Zuid, allocating housing developments within an environmentally upgraded area. Source: www.bds.rotterdam.nl/dsresource?objectid=213480

Singapore’s Concept Plan is in many ways similar to Rotterdam’s Structuurvisie. It starts with a strategic vision, “a city that is dynamic, a thriving business hub that can hold its own in the global playing field”. It then lists key proposals: “an extensive rail network, new homes in familiar places, high-rise city living, more choices for recreation, etc.”19 It is a long term plan used to guide Singapore’s physical growth, the foundation upon which planners will draw up more detailed plans afterwards.

Singapore’s urban development has traditionally been transit oriented (TOD), since the city started re-planning itself to solve urban problems in the 1960s. This strategy is shown in the following map, which demonstrates the main rail mobility axis and a hierarchy of densification nodes.

FIG_9FIG 9:  Map showing Singapore’s main mobility routes and its densification nodes. Source: Singapore’s Concept Plan 2001.
FIG_10FIG 10: A picture showing Singapore’s housing states well connected to the train system. Source: en.wikipedia.org

It’s important to note that the government of Singapore discourages car-use and car-ownership18, while making public transport coverage extensive throughout the island, thus creating a well organized, efficient mobility system which really contributes to the city’s sustainable development.

Final remarks 

Effective urban planning systems are crucial in delivering quality of life and fostering sustainability. To develop such a system, Rio de Janeiro needs a better legal framework, a Plano Diretor composed not only of ‘good intentions,’ but maps and visual representations, which contextualize and spatialise those goals.

Corruption seems to be a major difficulty in achieving this, as private parties probably perceive that any real framework offered by the public sector could constrain their actions and profits. In this way, they generally exert a strong influence over public decisions through lobbying and often through corruption and bribery. This perception by the private sector should be corrected by showing that a spatial framework can also offer good market opportunities, such as Rotterdam and Singapore do, when they allocate future development nodes in their plans.

The current polarization amongst two opposing groups – actors interested in sustainable development on one side and private parties and corrupt public officials on the other – is certainly not going to help. Society as a whole needs to be prioritized, above individual desires. Consensus and trust must to be built.

The recent protests in Brazil seem to have brought a renewed interest in urban planning. This new interest should be seen as an opportunity to broaden civil society’s participation in the planning of Brazilian cities. The use of graphic tools seem crucial in coordinating the task.


1-             http://www.rio.rj.gov.br/dlstatic/10112/139339/DLFE-229591.pdf/LeiComplementar1112011PlanoDiretor.pdf

2-    Published in Vitruvius website, March 2013 http://www.vitruvius.com.br/revistas/read/minhacidade/13.152/4691

3-    www.portomaravilha.com.br

4-    This is the selling price of Port Corporate and Porto Atlântico developments, in September 2013

5-    This is the selling price for Neo Life development, in September 2013

6-    Source: IBGE, Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, census 2010

7-    http://www.rio.rj.gov.br/dlstatic/10112/139339/DLFE-229591.pdf/LeiComplementar1112011PlanoDiretor.pdf , article 3, guideline XV

8-    Idem, article 3, guideline XX

9-    See page 38 from http://portomaravilha.com.br/conteudo/eiv/III.%20Caracterizacao%20do%20Empreendimento.pdf

10- http://helsinkidesignlab.org

11- http://www.camara.rj.gov.br/planodiretor/pd2009/desafiosplano.pdf

12- http://www.transitorienteddevelopment.org/

13- http://www.rio.rj.gov.br/web/smu/exibeconteudo?id=159HYPERLINK “http://www.rio.rj.gov.br/web/smu/exibeconteudo?id=1594315″4HYPERLINK “http://www.rio.rj.gov.br/web/smu/exibeconteudo?id=1594315″315

14- As Hanly-Ford, Homsy, Lieberknecht and Stone showed. Source:  http://www.mildredwarner.org/gov-restructuring/privatization/tdr

15- Dale, O. (1999) Urban Planning in Singapore: The Transformation of a City, New York: Oxford University Press. P.90

16- Rotterdam Structuurvisie: www.bds.rotterdam.nl/dsresource?objectid=213480

17- Dale, O. (1999) Urban Planning in Singapore: The Transformation of a City, New York: Oxford University Press. P.79

18- The Concept Plan 2001. Published by Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority.

19- http://vejario.abril.com.br/especial/rio-tem-o-terceiro-pior-transito-do-mundo-760153.shtml

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