The Statute of the City in Perspective: Between Theory and Practice in Brazil

(Excerpt from “The Right to the City: Theory and Practice in Brazil” in Planning Theory & Practice by Abigail Friendly).

Although Brazil is notorious for its spatially segregated cities and high levels of inequality, a number of urban policy initiatives have evolved there since the 1990s, providing insights into how cities might improve life for city dwellers. In the wake of a twenty-year dictatorship, social movements in Brazil gained force during the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in a robust urban reform movement. This process of re-democratization led to the promulgation of a new ‘citizens’ Constitution in 1988, which included, for the first time, a specific chapter on urban policy. During this period, Brazil underwent rapid urbanization – its urban population climbed from 44.6% in 1960 to 84.3% in 2010 – alongside growth in social inequality, socio-spatial segregation and unplanned development (IBGE, 2010; Maricato, 2008; Rolnik, 2001; Santos, 2002).

It is in this context – post-dictatorship, re-democratization and the forceful Brazilian social movements – that one new Brazilian urban policy has garnered international attention. Throughout the 1990s the urban reform movements maintained momentum, and on July 10, 2001 the Statute of the City was enacted.


Figure 1: The cover of a guide to the Statute of the City

This formal incorporation of the right to the city into national law is unprecedented and unique, deriving from the concept of French sociologist Henri Lefebvre on the right to the city as a process and a struggle in the realm of every day life and, from the right to the city movement, as a right to participate in the production of urban space (Lefebvre, 1968, 1996; Mayer, 2012). In the Brazilian context, the right to the city means the combination of the principles of the ‘social function of property and of the city’ and the democratic management of cities (Fernandes, 2011). This can be interpreted as a mandate to guarantee the well-being of all city residents and the democratic access to goods and services produced in cities (Bassul, 2005; Filho, 2009). The Statute captures a new model of urban planning and management, a huge change in outlook from the old planning model grounded in modernism that prevailed between the 1940s and 1980s in Brazil, which resulted in a structure of urban inequality and exclusion by governing without generating social equality nor including the population in the process (Caldeira & Holston, 2005; Maricato, 1997).

Among international observers, policy makers, academics, planners and activists, there is no question that the Statute is an innovative law from the standpoint of its legal and urban advances (Carvalho, 2001; Fernandes, 2007; Filho, 2009; Pindell, 2006; Souza, 2006). Certainly, the passing of the Statute inspired hope from both observers and participants. It has been called “remarkable in the history of urban legislation, policy, and planning not only in Brazil but worldwide” (Holston, 2008: 292) and an “inspiring example“ of action by national governments (Fernandes, 2007: 212). The literature thus far has focused on the legal and urban implications of the right to the city in Brazil as well as the social movements involved in this process (Avritzer, 2007; Caldeira & Holston, 2005; Fernandes, 2007; Pindell, 2006; Souza, 2001). However, the connection between this landmark right to the city legislation and an analysis of the practical on-the-ground implications of the Statute has not yet been evaluated.

This paper includes an overview of what the right to the city means in theory, followed by an exploration of the Brazilian experience in implementing the right to the city. Based on data from my field work in Niterói in the State of Rio de Janeiro (shown in Figure 2), I explore the challenges in the Brazilian planning framework; in particular, the lack of implementation of the Statute of the City. I use the experience of one city, Niterói, to understand the possibilities and challenges involved in implementing the directives of the Statute of the City. The goal of this paper is twofold: first, I argue that the incorporation of the right to the city in a legal framework such as the Statute is unprecedented and unique and thus deserves recognition; second, in reflecting on the poor implementation of the Statute of the City in cities in Brazil, I argue that a more nuanced approach is needed in understanding the changes that have taken place in Brazil’s urban policy and planning over the past twenty years.

Nit map

Figure 2: Niterói in relation to the State of Rio de Janeiro

Viewing the Brazilian urban climate since the period of military dictatorship in the 1980s, the country has come a long way with many advances; among them the Constitution, the Statute of the City and interesting experiences of urban policy in various cities. In that sense this story needs to be viewed as a process at one point along a long road. The approval of the Statute is only the first step. Its adoption on the part of the popular movements and local administrations was no small achievement and much more can be expected to result from this experience in future years. There have been significant changes in Brazil in terms of the role of planning, the production of urban space and the role of the state since the new Constitution. The results have significantly changed the planning model in Brazil to one focused on democratic spaces with “the potential to generate urban spaces that are less segregated and that fulfill their ‘social function’” (Caldeira & Holston, 2005: 411). Thus, Ermínia Maricato (2010: 22), a key policy-maker and academic deeply involved in the development of the Statute, notes that “regardless of the difficulty of implementing the City Statute, we believe that it is nevertheless the harbinger of a new and different future.” This suggests that what is needed is a nuanced approach to understanding the progress of the Statute of the City in Brazil. Combined with utopian Lefebvrian ideals, which do not fully explore how to practically implement the right to the city, such nuance is key.

In this paper I make the case for the unprecedented and unique incorporation of the right to the city as a key part of the fabric of the Statute of the City. Moreover, the role of civil society in pushing for the right to the city as a key component of the Statute is both compelling and educational for planning theory and practice, as it shows that bottom-up movements can produce policy change with the potential to affect the social fabric of urban life. In the paper, I outline some preliminary problems leading to poor implementation of the Statute of the City that emerged from my field work in Niterói. As a positive example of an innovative urban policy tool, both the Statute’s ideal – upholding the right to the city – and the results of its implementation, should be better known within the broader planning community. The Statute of the City captures a model of urban planning and management that is unique, not only in Brazil, but also worldwide. However, the implementation problems do not mean that learning experiences have not emerged from the Brazilian experience. Despite the implementation difficulties, this model of participatory planning may provide useful lessons for designing participatory planning, and it suggests ways in which the right to the city can be guaranteed for all. The planning model in Brazil is, indeed, a framework that could be applied in other locales. Despite contextual variations between countries, the Statute’s principles – based on the right to the city and the social function of property – could be transferred to other contexts with the recognition that policies, as socio-spatial processes, may actually change as they travel (McCann & Ward, 2011; Peck & Theodore, 2001).

Despite Brazil’s advances in law, guaranteeing planning and land use, in practice, the lack of implementation has been challenging, as the case of Niterói suggests. This paper explores the right to the city in theory and practice, arguing for due recognition of this landmark legal and urban framework.  Although in Brazil it has become common to argue that the Statute is still too recent to evaluate and address the clear problems in its implementation, criticism and discussion regarding the practical applications of the Statute are healthy and needed components of the debate in order to improve the practice of the right to the city. While the euphoria that surrounded the Statute during the 1990s no longer exists in Brazil, the climate is ripe for a new discussion about how to move beyond and to make the Statute of the City truly effective. Overall, the experience of applying the right to the city in Brazil takes the theoretical (and inherently utopian) concept as Lefebvre conceived it, forward, pointing to the challenges of implementing such policies in practice, but also pointing to experiences which could be used to inform planning practice elsewhere.

For the full text of the article, “The Right to the City: Theory and Practice in Brazil” in Planning Theory & Practice, see

1 Known as ‘Estatuto da Cidade,’ or Law No 10.257. See


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Caldeira, T., & Holston, J. (2005). “State and Urban Space in Brazil: From Modernist Planning to Democratic Interventions.” In A. Ong & S. J. Collier (Eds.), Global Anthropology: Technology, Governmentality, Ethics. London: Blackwell, pp. 393-416.

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Maricato, E. (2010). “The Statute of the Peripheral City.” In C. S. Carvalho & A. Rossbach (Eds.), The City Statute of Brazil: A Commentary. São Paulo: Ministry of Cities; Cities Alliance.

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Peck, J., & Theodore, N. (2001). “Exporting Workfare/Importing Welfare-to-Work: Exploring the Politics of Third Way Policy Transfer.”  Political Geography 20(4): 427-460.

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Souza, M. L. d. (2001). “The Brazilian Way of Conquering the ‘Right to the City’: Successs and Obstacles in the Long Stride Towards an ‘Urban Reform’.”  DISP 147(4): 25-31.

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One response to “The Statute of the City in Perspective: Between Theory and Practice in Brazil

  1. Pingback: Race, Color, and Beauty in Brazil | JAPANsociology·

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