Vila Autódromo in Rio de Janeiro: The big, the bad, the ugly

Picture 1by Daniel Wagner

The scenery: a wild and isolated lagoon about 40km west from the centre of Rio de Janeiro. This was what the first dwellers of the favela “Vila Autódromo” encountered when they first settled in the region about 40 years ago. Back then, far away from the urbanization, the community lived without many problems on this Rio da Janeiro’s wild west. Mostly fishermen, dwellers of the Vila Autódromo manage for decades to healthily coexist with the neighbour motor racing circuit built at their side, where the Brazilian Formula 1 Grand Prix took place until 1989.

But the west region of the city soon became the most important vector of the urbanization sprawl in Rio. At a blink of an eye, tall buildings, upper class gated communities sprouted even before the municipality manage to lay down the asphalt of the streets. But then again, Vila Autódromo resisted with not many difficulties. Situated in a narrow strip of land between the circuit and the lagoon, its presence represented no great conflicts with the booming real estate developments in the area, and in 1995 they was granted permission by the state governor to stay in the land. For the new inhabitants of the neighbourhood living in beautiful new towers, this ugly piece of the city was out of sight, hidden by the tracks.

Then, in came the big. As the city will host the 2016 Olympic Games, the area of the circuit, with it’s 1,2 million m² will give place to the Olympic park. Three major construction companies won the bid for the building and further development of the area. After the games, the place will be transformed into more upper class neighbourhoods to be sold by these same companies. The original architectural project for the Olympic park planned no evictions for the 583 families of this small favela. However, the following feasibility study made by the construction companies urged for the little slum to be removed for the construction of a big by-pass viaduct to access the Park.

The community was sceptical about the necessity for them to leave the area, so they called for help. In 2013 a joint force of urban planners from 2 major universities in Rio made a different study proving the viability of the community to stay, alongside with the Olympic buildings and accesses. This study: Plano Popular da Vila Autódromo, won a Deutsche Bank Urban Age award as a most relevant project to the people of the city. ( But the mayor Eduardo Paes seemed already convinced on removing the ugly slum away from the big event.

Then, suddenly as a Wild West shootout, the fight begun. Dwellers didn’t want to leave, the mayor wanted them out. They were at first offered money. Some took it – but not many. Then they were offered new apartments, but after visiting the new blocks and its conditions, many gave up. About half of them still resist, claiming they have the right to stay. Altogether, by this day, the municipality of Rio de Janeiro has spent more than US$ 30 million on compensations for the ones who agreed to leave. However, the plan made in 2013 by the universities estimated a cost of US$ 4.5 million for the complete urbanization and upgrading of the area. So, with only 15% of all the money already spent to try to evict the community, it was possible to improve the place and at the same time maintain the Olympic Park as its original plan.

Luis Geraldo dos Santos, and his half house

Luis Geraldo dos Santos, and his half house

On the third of June the police came again escorting bulldozers determined to demolish more houses. After a bloody conflict with the people, more houses were torn down. The situation became so absurd that when Luis Geraldo dos Santos, 52, came home from work he found only half of his house still standing. His ex-wife shared the right of ownership of the house and accepted the compensation money, when he didn’t. As a result, his house was literally cut in half.

As in several other areas being developed in Rio now, evictions, forced or not, seem to be the mainstream policy. Allocating people far away from their original homes and pushing the ugly out of the new beautiful city happens in a regular basis. Most of the areas being renovated in the city (and the Olympic park is no exception), are under a Public Private Partnership. For the big developers that are investing in these places, increasing the already high real estate prices is a way to maximize profits. The fewer the slums and poor people living in these areas, the better for future prices. The map below shows the original places of residences of slum dwellers, and where they have been allocated, only in the last decade.

Map of Rio showing evictions and relocations on the city, courtesy of Lucas Faulhaber

Map of Rio showing evictions and relocations on the city, courtesy of Lucas Faulhaber

In this scenario, Vila Autódromo is just one among many. But it’s maybe the more symbolic one. Most importantly, the presence of this small favela doesn’t represent a conflict with the happening of the so expected Olympic Games. The real conflict here is between interests of big developers – who want to maximize their profits and for that are willing to bulldoze everything in their way in a wild west-like atmosphere – and an ugly slum. As for the municipality, it just chose to stick with the big companies over the people, and in a bad policy, lost the opportunity to show the world during the Games, that urban development in Rio could integrate private investment with social development.

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