Story and photos by Michael Kavalar, AICP, LEED AP ND
The streets of Rio de Janeiro are a lesson in abundance. People abound. Buildings abound. Slow-gliding flocks of seagulls float overhead, pterodactyl-like. So do great bureaucratic profusions of color—the trash collector's blue jumper, the utility worker's orange vest, the gray of the municipal guard. Even the variety in manhole covers — different shapes, logos, words, and images — is astounding.
History also abounds. Here and there, a weather-worn sticker proclaims "Brazil, Love It or Leave It," the faded mantra of a 20-year dictatorship that ended in 1985. And on most corners one still finds the faded orange and green of oversized orelhões, or "big ears" — the Brazilian pay phone in the shape of an eggshell sliced diagonally and into which one puts one's head. Today they lie largely abandoned, eviscerated of their coppery innards, their concave inner walls plastered with explicit sex ads.
Construction on Rio Branco Avenue for Rio's new light-rail lines, called the VLT (for Light Vehicle on Rails). Projected to cost a total of R$1.15 billion, the system will eventually comprise 28 kilometers and 32 stops, making it one of Rio's most ambitious legacy projects for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Infrastructure and more infrastructure
I'd returned to Rio to see first-hand an abundance of a different sort. Of the 39.1 billion reais budgeted for the 2016 Olympic Games — to be held in Rio this August — R$24.6 billion have been allocated for so-called "legacy projects." BRTs. Light rail. Subway expansions. Just to name a few. It's a dizzying bonanza, ballooning from a list of 17 projects in 2009 to more than 30 today. While the rest of Brazil sinks deeper into an economic malaise, spending for the games has largely kept Rio afloat. (The country's economic woes mean the value of the real fluctuates frequently. For simplicity, all amounts in this story are in reais. At publication time, one real was worth US$0.28.)
Additionally, according to Mayor Eduardo Paes, some 60 percent of costs are expected to come from private funds (although this claim seems murkier in light of recent corruption scandals). For legacy costs specifically, Rio is responsible for some R$14.3 billion spread across 14 projects related to mobility, the environment, urban renovation, and social programs. Rio State is responsible for an additional R$9.7 billion, including a new metro line linking the city to its western regions, with the federal government kicking in the remaining R$110 million for assorted projects.
On a balmy Wednesday morning last November, I wandered over from the Cinelândia stop on Linha 1 of the Metrô, through the dense, impossibly commerce-rich colonial streets of the old center toward the harbor. While the major streets are lined with taller structures, along the many narrow back streets stand one- to three-story colonial buildings, their open doors overflowing with a tropical effusion of wares. Visitors to the Games will likely find their way onto these same streets, and may feel the same release I did as they emerge, suddenly, onto the slate gray and brown expanse of Praça Mauá at the edge of Guanabara Bay.
By the time I arrived — during the city's much-feted 450th anniversary — a large crew was sliding the final granite pavers into place around the edges of newly laid rail tracks in the plaza. Bruno Bartholini Mançu, a press assistant with the Port Region Urban Development Company, or CDURP, had offered to show me around the area's extensive legacy infrastructure works.
From the plaza, Mançu led me north through an industrial stretch of low-slung warehouses in various states of renovation. A new streetcar, known here as the VLT (for Light Vehicle on Rails), will soon run through this space, the organizing principle of what is envisioned to be a world-class promenade. At a total cost of some R$1.15 billion, the six new VLT lines are expected to begin service by the end of this year. Not unlike recent trends in the U.S., VLT systems have begun to be proposed across Brazil, including a system in the nation's capital, Brasília, originally set to open for the 2014 World Cup but currently still in the study phase.
Had we been standing here just a few years ago, we would be looking up at the concrete underbelly of an elevated highway known as the Elevado da Perimetral. Demolished in 2013 and 2014, today its traffic rushes underground through the recently completed Rio 450 tunnel. It is estimated that the completed 1.5 km tunnel now carries some 55,000 vehicles daily, increasing traffic flow through the port region by 40 percent.
Among the many projects falling under CDURP purview are an additional 3.5 km of new tunnels, 17 km of new bike paths, 15,000 new trees, and the construction of three new sewage treatment centers.
Official figures put the total cost of projects for Porto Maravilha, including the VLT and Praça Mauá, at R$8.2 billion. While not technically part of Porto Maravilha, the recently completed Museum of Tomorrow — designed by Santiago Calatrava and lying the length of a formerly abandoned pier — also figures prominently in this restored urban landscape.
Construction here, though, has been complicated by a trove of formerly unearthed history, from former slave unloading grounds like the Cais do Valongo, to pottery from the city's imperial past. Alberto Silva, president of CDURP, is sensitive to the need to preserve the city's precious historical heritage.
"First you have to value what the region already has," Silva told me, "because what makes it an attractive place to live is its memory, its history." Speaking on the inauguration of the Rio 450 tunnel last year, and Porto Maravilha in general, President Dilma Rousseff similarly alluded to Rio's reclaimed status as national synecdoche. "Rio," Rousseff stated, "is revitalizing the historic core of Brazil."
'Pacification' in the favelas
Rio's rolling topography is marked by both granite peaks and lowlying marshlands spread along the salty apron of Guanabara Bay. Among its 6.5 million inhabitants, it's the poor who tend to inhabit the precarious high points — living in cinder block homes clustered higgledy-piggledy in a jumble of orange tile roofs, blue water barrels, and utility wires.
Of Rio's several hundred favelas, one of its quirkiest and least auspicious is Dona Marta, which a visitor might easily conclude had been settled by the King of Pop himself: Occupying the edge of an overlook is a bronze statue of Michael Jackson, arms outspread, shirt ripped asunder. (Jackson filmed his 1995 music video They Don't Care About Us here, purportedly paying local traffickers for safe passage.) Five hundred feet down, beyond the jumble of narrow, twisting stairways, the grid of the formal city begins again.
I had come to the top of Dona Marta with Mário, a lifelong resident of the community and a burgeoning entrepreneur who wanted to show me what "pacification" — an official government policy of structured military occupation of informal communities with the intent of fully incorporating them into the formal city — had meant for him and his family.
While pacification in its current form dates back to 2008 and the establishment of "Police Pacification Units," the policy has been massively expanded in the lead-up to the Olympics. It is also meeting with increasingly vocal opposition on charges of human rights violations. A series of high-profile incidents over the last year have sparked controversy and resentment not unlike that seen over police shootings in the U.S.
Outside Mário's home, his young son surveyed the construction of the favela's first hostel. Mário is not alone in anticipating a surge in tourism to these informal settlements. "This will be a restaurant for the neighborhood and for visitors," he told me. "You can't get a better view of the city." The vista before us extended from the outstretched arms of Rio's Cristo Redentor statue to the Pão de Açúcar rock formation and its touristy cable car.
While facially different from the formal neighborhood of Botafogo to which it is attached, functionally Dona Marta bears an uncanny resemblance to it. Much of this has come about since its occupation in 2008. Scattered among its 1,400 homes are three kindergartens, three police stations, 11 places of worship, a bank branch (really just an ATM in a cinder block structure), a minimarket, a sex shop, a resident's home-based clock museum — with nearly 300 specimens — and a gift shop featuring Michael Jackson swag.
With 6,000 to 8,000 residents (down from as many as 11,000 in 1990), Dona Marta is also one of the city's smallest favelas. Rocinha, the city and country's largest and most infamous favela, is home to an estimated 70,000 people. (Some 22 percent of Rio's population resides in favelas.)
Though most favelas show a degree of economic complexity, Dona Marta's is unique in its reach. Somewhat notably, it has become a go-to filming locale for musicians and artists seeking the appearance of eminent peril with none of the risk, an economic multiplier of Jackson's visit and pacification that has paved the way for the likes of Madonna and Beyoncé.
It was an oppressively humid day when I decided to head down to Barra da Tijuca, along the Atlantic coast and west of the towering massifs that separate this region from the city's iconic Zona Sul neighborhoods several kilometers to the north. A kind of inner-city suburban getaway when it was built three decades ago, Barra remains largely a bastion of middle-class affluence. It also happens to be the site of many of the Olympics venues.
Sprawling across a 2.2-million-square-foot site along Jacarepaguá Lake, the Olympic Village consists of 31 new residential buildings, all of a somewhat relentless modernist bent. Nearby is the Olympic Park, location of most of the Games' primary venues.
While getting there will soon be facilitated by the completion of Linha 4 of the Metrô — one of Mayor Paes's many touted "legacy projects" — during my visit it still required an hour-long bus trip.
Stepping off the bus onto Avenida Ministro Ivan Lins, six lanes of traffic rushed by beneath a bridge under construction for the Transoeste BRT.
On a map, the flat expanse that makes up Barra da Tijuca reads as deceptively urban, a regular grid of streets issuing out from a central plaza. (It was designed by Lúcio Costa, of Brasília fame.) In person, however, the streets and blocks surrounding the plaza are oversized, relatively empty of commercial activity or pedestrians (but plenty of cars), and lack the character that typifies the city to the north.
In a shady plaza at the heart of Barra, I met Kennedy, a gari, or street cleaner. A resident of one of the city's more sprawling, and dangerous, western favelas, Kennedy eagerly shared his view on the Games. While recognizing the value of some of the Olympics largesse — the Transoeste BRT linking the far west side to the city center, principally — he expressed doubts about what's happening in the favelas. "They pacified Rocinha, and guys still walk around with guns," he told me. "It's just makeup."
This kind of skepticism seems understandable in a country embroiled in a national corruption scandal of Amazonian proportions, reaching as deep into the political landscape as its current and former presidents, and implicating state oil giant Petrobras.
While Rio's pacification programs predate the Olympics, in the lead-up to the Games they have been particularly fraught with tension. A report appearing in The Guardian last year highlighted violent clashes between police and residents of Vila Autódromo, a favela located on the edge of the Olympic Park and for which the city allocated R$100 million for removal. "[The police] came with bulldozers and fired rubber bullets at the residents as well as percussion grenades," said one resident. "But it's our lives, our homes."
View from above
A few days before my departure, I received an unexpected invitation to coffee from Washington Fajardo, head of the Rio World Heritage Institute. Having spent months trying to schedule a meeting, I was happy to cancel other plans.
A seemingly universally respected figure in Rio, Fajardo treated me to a hang glider's view of the valleys and peaks of Rio's 450-year history. An architect by training, he carries that profession's instinctual use of the diagram into conversation, soon filling my notebook with figures and drawings.
Even as Brazil's economy falters, and an unpopular and defiant president occupies the Itamaraty Palace — Dilma Rousseff is now the subject of impeachment proceedings — Fajardo expressed confidence that the country will escape the political and economic morass of neighboring Venezuela and Argentina.
But how to compress into one image the volatile and redemptive nature of change in Rio? Driving around the streets of Rio's Zona Sul that afternoon, it would be the following point, relayed to me by Fajardo almost as an aside: "Two hundred years ago, Tijuca Forest," Fajarado told me, referring to what is now 12.4 square miles of rolling landscape and rainforest in the heart of the city — the wellspring of much of the city's potable water, home to a diverse range of wildlife, and a popular destination for hikes — "was a ravaged landscape of coffee plantations. All of it." And so change comes again to Rio de Janeiro.
Michael Kavalar is an urban planner and designer with the national consulting firm Clarion Associates.
Winning At Their Own Games
By Kristen Pope
After the Olympic fanfare leaves town, athletes, coaches, spectators, and media head back to their home countries to revel in their victories, mourn their defeats, and get ready for the next stage of their Olympic story. But what happens to host cities? Do they end up deep in debt with massive stadiums and structures that fall in disrepair, or are these facilities a boon?
Lake Placid, New York
In 1929, the lakeside city in the Adirondack Mountains began preparations for the 1932 Olympics (it did so again half a century later in 1980).
It started by voting in a new tax to fulfill its budget commitment for the event. The North Elba Park District was formed and the district, along with state and federal funding, began paying for the venues needed for the Games. After all the final calculations were tallied, the 1932 Winter Olympics cost around $1.2 million — a princely sum during the Great Depression — but a tiny amount compared to later Games.
By the time Lake Placid won its second Olympic bid, the facilities were in need of an upgrade. The city revamped the old venues and built new ones, while private investors spiffed up lodging properties and other facilities to welcome the crowds to come. All in all, the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid cost nearly $169 million, and the event ended up in the red.
"Lake Placid sustained a deficit from the 1980 Games of $6 to $8 million, which New York State covered," says Kim Rielly, director of communications for the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism. "They then created the NYS Olympic Regional Development Authority to manage the venues beginning in 1982."
But, thanks to the Games, the town’s tourism economy more than doubled, and hotel occupancy and visitation has increased since then, even in off-peak times. (This is according to Rielly, whose agency did not provide tourism revenue figures.)
The Olympics venues, including the Lake Placid Olympic Center, have found new life in hosting events throughout the year. The ice rinks draw huge crowds for Stars on Ice, CAN/ AM Hockey, and CHE Hockey, and skiers flock to Whiteface Mountain, the site of many 1980 events.
Park City, Utah
While Lake Placid uses its venues and facilities to lure tourists and meetings to town, Park City (just outside of Salt Lake City), has turned some of its former Olympic facilities into a unique vacation destination where visitors can fly down a bobsled track at over 60 miles per hour, try extreme zip lining, and experience other thrills.
Utah was able to create these facilities and tourist-pleasing activities as a result of the extra money it had left after the 2002 Winter Games (which cost $1.2 billion).
"In the end, there was a surplus of approximately $100 million, which was used to fund the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation, which maintains and operates the Utah Olympic Park (in Park City) and Utah Olympic Oval (in Kearns), which still serve as Olympic training and competition venues, as well as top tourism attractions for visitors to see and participate in Olympic legacy activities such as bobsled rides, museums, and learn-to clinics," says Linda Jager, director of communications for Park City Chamber of Commerce.
Utah Olympic Park offers guided tours, two museums (the Alf Engen Ski Museum and Eccles 2002 Olympic Winter Games Museum), a bobsled ride, snow tubing on the landing hill of a ski jump, a zip line that reaches 50 miles per hour, and a 65-foot drop tower, in addition to camps for kids and adults alike to learn Olympic sports.
People can also watch top athletes train at the official U.S. Olympic Training Site. The Utah Olympic Oval contains five acres of facilities, including the speed skating ice sheet dubbed the "Fastest Ice on Earth" for the over 100 speed skating world records attained there. These facilities are also used for meetings, events, and team-building activities and outings.
Each year, Utah Olympic Park brings in around 400,000 visitors and the Utah Olympic Oval draws 700,000 visitors. These figures include tourists, athletes-in-training, people participating in the sports programs, and community groups and others who use the facilities for meetings. However, these visitors don’t bring in the full $4 million the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation needs each year to run its programs and activities and maintain the venues. To close the gap, the foundation relies on portfolio investments from the funding they received after the Games as well as donations, sponsors, and other funding sources.
While the Olympic Games can be a boon or a financial struggle for the hosting cities, the events put once-hidden locations on the tourist map.
Kristen Pope is a Jackson Hole, Wyoming-based writer and editor who frequently writes about planning, conservation, science, travel, and the outdoors.