Brazil’s favelas need environmental upgrades

Urban design can improve light and ventilation in settlements and give inhabitants a better future

Out of 190 million Brazilians, 11 million live in informal communities. Their numbers are equivalent to the population of Brazil’s biggest city: São Paulo, in which three million people live in such communities. Of that total, 1.6 million live in shantytowns often called ‘favelas’.

Favelas are a reality in the city of São Paulo and their existence can’t be denied, concealed or simply wiped away.

One of the largest favelas, Paraisópolis, is striking for its size (approximately 80 hectares) and population (100,000). Paraisópolis also hints at the contradictions inherent in Brazil’s high levels of social inequality since its name translates as “Paradise City”.

But the reality of unplanned, informal settlements is that they include few communal spaces and often have poor access to natural light and ventilation.

Choosing Paraisópolis as the subject of an architecture and urban studies master’s degree research project was a major challenge. The aforementioned problems jump out at anyone who lives or happens to go into the favela. Another, more important challenge faced by the favelas is making the most of the huge, but invisible, potential posed by existing relationships within the community.

My research aimed to understand the reality and diverse dynamics of the community and to propose ways of improving the environment and social life in the favela.

Over a year, I conducted field work consisting of weekly visits to the community and discussions with its inhabitants. After measuring variables including temperature, humidity and wind speed, I put forward some alternative ways of ventilating and cooling the neighbourhood.

One such proposal was changing how and where ceramic and concrete building blocks are laid during construction of houses in order to improve ventilation and protect the dwellings from direct sunlight. This wouldn’t even require changing these building materials, which are typically used by the community. Housefront design is also important because it constitutes a membrane between internal and external spaces, and between public and private life. Housefronts should allow access to sunlight and ventilation for indoor spaces and also consider how they impact outdoor urban life.

Another discovery was that each story of a favela house is unique. Ownership, building and finishing materials, and access (both vertical and horizontal) are often not consistent across houses. They can also be built, rebuilt, sold or rented separately from the rest of the building.

Such settlements would also benefit from more open areas to allow ventilation and access to sunlight. With the creation of small parks these areas could transform public spaces. This strategy would make the favela’s built-up mass more penetrable and allow for a substantial increase in building height, thereby allowing residents to maintain their lifestyle and structurally reinforcing their community.

A  favela’s narrow streets, often called its ‘arteries’, function according to the everyday practices of the community, as they adapt them to their needs. The proposal acknowledges this interaction and seeks to both strengthen the behaviours and develop new ones.

Some of the tools used to upgrade the appearance and function of these passageways are street art, newly painted housefronts and standardised number plaques which can create a stronger sense of permanence and belonging to the neighbourhood. This can also be achieved by shared spaces and resources including a library, recycling centre, urban agriculture area, bicycle racks, projector screens, or simply places to sit, talk, play and interact. Open areas could also assist in the collection and reuse of rainwater by accommodating stretches of vegetation called bio-ditches or rain gardens.

Aside from alleyways and narrow lanes, formal streets are also great opportunities for urban repurposing – even if temporary – which can promote a variety of different communal activities. Streets could accommodate a farmer’s market, a mini football pitch, a space for artistic and cultural events, or even a reserved area for bar and restaurant tables during lunch or late in the evening. The goal is to give these streets back their essential sense of being public, with better sidewalks, benches, shaded areas and urban vegetation.

The proposed redesign seeks to extend the spaces between buildings, and then try out new guidelines and strategies for effectively transforming them into an improved urban environment.

Finally, the proposal calls for new rights to be granted to the favela, not only rights for the poor, but a right to urban life and landscapes, a better environment and adaptability. This becomes much more meaningful if we acknowledge that the favela is not something apart from the city but part of the city. The favela is the city.

The proposal does not romanticise favela communities. Instead it encourages architects, urbanists, academics, public and private sector actors and society in general to learn lessons from them and consider them and their communities as part of the new future of the city as a whole.

The master’s degree research was conducted at the School of Architecture and Urban Studies at the University of São Paulo (FAU-USP) and the Architectural Association Graduate School (AA, London), advised by Prof. Dr. Joana Carla Soares Gonçalves and funded by FAPESP.