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Acknowledge the existence and power of slums – the first step in designing a city

06/22/2020

Back in 2014, when Rio de Janeiro was a favourite venue for countless events and projects, the Slum Observatory (Observatório de Favelas) civil society organisation set up a branch in the sprawling Maré Complex shantytown called Inventive Territory (Território Inventivo) "We also want to be involved with the city," said architect Lino Teixeira, one of the project coordinators. According to him, the first step is to acknowledge the potential of grassroots communities. Check out his exclusive interview with UIA2021RIO.

In his interview with UIA2021RIO, he talks about strategies, describes the ping process of Maré Complex, and comments on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on poverty-stricken areas.

1) Exactly what is the Território Inventivo initiative? And how did it come about?

Today, Território Inventivo is the umbrella project of the Observatório de Favelas in the Urban Policies field. This Observatory works in four areas: in addition to Urban Policies, it also focuses on Communication, Art and Territory, and the Right to Life and Public Safety.

Across the board, as an institution, Território Inventivo addresses what we call the paradigm of power, which is a key concept for thinking about all actions in the city, in terms of surmounting social and spatial hurdles, particularly in terms of slum areas.

Basically, this paradigm of power is a strategic construct of new representations of grassroots areas, designed to subvert stigmatising logics that have firmed up during the XX century, with a view to carrying political weight and constructing public policies, in order to help surmount difficulties.

We are building up a set of actions intended to produce knowledge and train people for urban purposes and social mobilisation. The end-purpose is to wield political clout – we want to spotlight these processes and engage with the design for the city.

Set up in 2014 – at a time when the city was much in demand as a venue, with many projects and events underway – Território Inventivo also wants to engage with the city.

2) What has been done so far by the Território Inventivo initiative? And what are the outcomes?

We have already built up a track record. Our first line of action is acknowledgement of the power of the slums and the production of knowledge about them, understanding the territory in order to build up proposals.

When we started working with communities in the Maré area, there were no maps of this Complex. It was not shown on the official maps of the city – just as most of its favelas are still left blank. But how can Urban Policies be drawn up with no cartographic basis? So our first task was to prepare a map, bridging this cartographic gap. Places were shown as empty areas, translating an invisibility that was material as much as symbolic. If you're not on the map, you don’t exist.

This was no easy task: we are talking here about a cluster of sixteen slums that is home to 140,000 people. We set up this database, and then we mapped more than 3,000 points of use. This initial diagnosis reflected a very powerful territory, throbbing with life, with a vibrant economic and cultural life. Places that not only exist, but are packed with strengths and vocations, directly contradicting the usual view of favela slums.

In the Social Mobilisation Field, we hosted the Maré Forum in 2015, bringing together all sixteen residents’ associations and several outreach organisations working in this area, drawing up a collective urban agenda designed to influence the city. We also organised a Public Space Mobility Workshop that gathered together different players: the State (public administrators); the academic world, civil society and community leaders. This is an example of the outreach actions we have undertaken, as mediators.

In the Training area, we run a variety of courses and workshops that produce knowledge and intelligence on the area, in order to engage with the city. And in the Communications field, we organise seminars and design items that heighten the profile of this community.

3) Is there any intention of replicating these initiatives?

Yes indeed. Every project undertaken by the Território Inventivo initiative is designed for replication in other underserved areas. An example of its political clout is demonstrated by the fact that City Hall has already accepted this map through its official urban planning bureau (Instituto Pereira Passos), and is using its mapping methodology for other underprivileged areas.

4) How can the attention of architects and urban planners be drawn to favelas and poverty-stricken outlying areas?

All our efforts are undertaken specifically to urge architects and urban planners to think about favela slums, jointly with civil servants and community leaders. We are creating ways of heightening the awareness of architects and urban planners, in order to develop a new approach to these underserved areas, shifting away from their current status of absence, need and stigma. This is our initial goal: to trigger a new approach, thinking about low-income areas from a different representational standpoint.

5) The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the absence of essential services and basic emergency care in favelas and poverty-stricken outlying areas, together with an amazing capacity for grassroots mobilisation able to surmount all kinds of hurdles, ranging from the need for precautionary measures through to medical care and above all food and other resources needed for survival. What lessons must the city learn from this experience?

Urban problems are particularly harsh for the poor, because public policies focused on these areas are inefficient and often genocidal and urbicidal, with severe impacts on residents. Urban epidemics are historically associated with underprivileged areas. An entire series of academics have swept through poverty-stricken communities and actually help establish them. Epidemics have also shaped the stigmatising public policies that have been recycled throughout the XX century. In fact, COVID-19 is merely the latest outbreak, and the way in which the State is acting in response merely reproduces the same public policies that have always steered its actions in these underserved communities. Glancing back through history, the favelas appeared when tenements known as cortiços were torn down in an attempt to curb yellow fever. This was soon followed by Spanish flu, with the bodies of its victims stacked in heaps while these communities were still firming up their existence. Many other ailments flourished in these slums, soon becoming known as ‘diseases of the poor’.

This is still apparent today. There was an initial stage, when quarantine was adopted partially by the Brazilian people, mainly its richer segments. But as soon as infection rates plateaued in the wealthier parts of town – turning the pandemic into a problem of the poor, affecting mainly slums and outlying communities – there were calls urging a return to normal life, opening up the economy and easing isolation requirements. This reproduces the logic of stigma: favela dwellers are viewed as passive masses who can be shunted towards death. But this is nothing new. It merely reproduces public policies that have been in place for many years. What we have been studying already indicated that this would happen. And also what is appearing in response: when the government acts like this, through genocidal policies, local residents get together yet again to resolve their problems. Meanwhile, the State continues its police raids in these communities: in addition to thrusting entire communities towards death by coronavirus, violent police raids are still scheduled, under what they call a public safety policy.

Meanwhile, slum dwellers are using their powers to build up ways of surmounting all this. So this is the lesson that we must learn from the leaders of these communities, paying close attention to their forms of organisation. And this is the strength and power that we must use to shape public policies.



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