Rio de Janeiro Spearheading in Social Place Management

by Valentin Schipfer

Since Brazil and especially its cidade maravilhosa Rio de Janeiro have become the second half of my soul (and my master thesis) some years ago, I’ve been keeping an eye on its urban development. Lately a new Brazilian blog has caught my attention. I am convinced of its socially innovative content as a best practice example for social place branding. It is about the Unidade de Polícia Pacifacadora, abbreviated UPP – the Pacifying Police Unit of Rio de Janeiro. A new type of police which literally pacifies gang-controlled favelas in long-term mediation processes.

The law enforcement program UPP, inaugurated in the state of Rio de Janeiro in 2008, was implemented by and is associated with Governor Sérgio Cabral Filho and State Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame. The establishment of an UPP in a favela is spearheaded by Rio de Janeiro’s elite police battalion, BOPE. At first they announce their mission to the local drug lord and then invade the favela. By doing so no single gun-shot was fired by reclaiming the biggest favela of Latin America Rocinha, paradoxically located next to the luxury districts Leblon and Ipanema. Then it’s the turn of the UPP. The members of the UPP have received special education in mediation and human rights. They aim at establishing peace and return full citizenship to these long-neglected sections of the population.

Being the host-country of the Soccer World Cup 2014 and two years later of the Olympic Games, it is more than time to polish Brazil’s image. The country and especially Rio de Janeiro sees itself confronted with its notorious image for relentless violence in a war on drugs. The doctrinal and operational departure from usual police strategy marked by the UPP does indeed stimulate this image in a positive manner. And as the author of this article states, the UPP program moves away from the heavy-handed approach, and instead establishes a permanent, peaceful police presence in the community.

In other words, rather than raiding and leaving, the police enter to stay. The real innovation in the UPP strategy, then, is the claim to community-based policing. Members of the Unit are able to draw on sound intelligence, using their physical proximity to the community to gather valuable information to better combat crime. UPP police officers are highly visible, as they establish a base in the strategic heart of each favela – usually in the same place from which drug dealers formerly staged their operations. Moreover, they conduct frequent patrols on foot, and organize skill development workshops for residents. In some favelas, the officers even create youth sports clubs and schools to encourage the replacement of drug-related violence with a more peaceful form of socialization or initiate urban farming projects.

What does this program have to do with place branding, though? It’s place branding’s aim to create positive associations with a place with an unwanted image. From my perspective the following projects depict possible steps towards this goal: Babilônia, one of the first pacified favelas, in Rio de Janeiro’s wealthier South Zone, has been offering eco-walks  through the woods to the top of the hill. Leading the expedition, which gathered tourists as well as citizens from the community and from other districts, were first time guides Captain Felipe and Tenant Coque, both from the local UPP. The place is only now being rediscovered. In a not so distant time, the hill was considered to be dangerous ― the woods served as a hiding spot for drug dealers who oppressed the people.

Furthermore a reforesting cooperative has been doing work on the area since 2001. The council representative for the Babilônia community and president of this cooperative says: “We take advantage of the eco-walks to spread the word about the reforesting work we’ve been doing at the community, as well the environmental education classes, the eco-tourism project, the community council and its partners. When we reach the top, we invite people to join in a symbolic hug for environmental protection. The presence of the police has helped a lot with the security issue.”

In the favela City of God, which gained international attention through the movie of the same name, infrastructural slum-upgrading can finally take great strides forward. Now the city hall invests in the renovation of the street lighting system, including its extension to places where people are still living in the dark. The money will also be used to dredge the river running through the community. All of this is made possible by the so-called “kite-strategy”  which aims to promote interaction between UPP members and the local community. Officers therefore win the kids’ trust by donating kites of thin paper and bamboo sticks. Until 2009 they have had distributed over 250 kites among the kids.

In order to communicate the turn of the favela’s image, the program also makes use of filmmaking. The Nova Brasília Cinema Club, at Complexo do Alemão, Rio’s North Zone, welcomed a special preview: the documentary 4 X UPP . The film was directed by four young filmmakers who live in pacified communities in Rio, and the project was coordinated by one of the most prominent Brazilian filmmakers. Divided into 25-minutes short films, the documentary shows different aspects of the UPPs. Each episode investigates a different social group involved in the project: the criminals, the residents, the police officers and the residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the favelas.

Even though first doubts exist concerning the long-term funding of the permanent police presence and its turn into a quasi-police state, I think that it helps to improve 1) the urban living quality of the favelas‘ residents and 2) their social prestige and self-esteem as well as 3) Rio de Janeiro’s international image.  As I’ve already suggested in this post’s first comment, place branding should focus much more on what types of innovative social policies yet exist in their cities. This would be a way of taking into account what Anholt(1) suggested: Brand management for countries should be treated as a component of national policy, not as a discipline in its own right, a “campaign”, or an activity that can be practised separately from conventional planning, governance, economic development or statecraft. […] If brand management is treated as a separate discipline from statecraft, and put into a separate silo of “communications”, “public affairs” or “promotion”, then there is very little it can do. When, on the other hand, it becomes implicit in the way the country is run […], it can speed up change in the most dramatic way.” Further Rio de Janeiro’s UPP policy goes along with Anholt’s idea (2) that cities should find clearer domestic agreement on societal goals and a climate where (social) innovation is prized and practised.

The UPP definitely is one of the most fitting examples and could even be copied to other problematic urban areas.  In addition Rio de Janeiro understands how to make use of it on an international level. Many projects, described in the blog, intend to attract tourists to peaceful favelas – like renting a room with special view. They’ve also installed this interactive timeline where  they keep record of all the UPP’s actions.  Even United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon or politicians  like Obama’s Housing and Development Secretary, Israel’s Public Security Minister and other celebrities like Alicia Keys have been invited to visit UPP’s projectsI am convinced that by investing in this social program, Rio de Janeiro is on the best path to change its bad boy image and even something in the academic place branding’s discourse. We’ll see if it’ll cause some ripples in the water. Until then, I wish them all the best!

(1) (2) Anholt, Simon (2007): Competitive Identity: The New Brand Management for Nations, Cities and Regions. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. (p.32), (p.28)

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1 Response to Rio de Janeiro Spearheading in Social Place Management

  1. Pingback: A voice for best practices in the informal city « Places.

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