Case study - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro is a large city of 11.7 million people situated on the south east coast of Brazil in South America. It is the second largest city in Brazil (after São Paulo), and is the 39th largest city in the world. It was the capital city of Brazil up until 1960, when it was replaced by Brasilia.

Social challenges


Rio has experienced rapid growth in recent years because of rural to urban migration. Huge numbers of people have moved from countryside areas into the city, mainly in search of jobs. This has put a great deal of pressure on services and amenities.

Push factors (driving people away from the countryside) include:

  • few job opportunities
  • low wages
  • difficult and unprofitable farming
  • no land ownership
  • lack of social amenities
  • sense of isolation
  • natural hazards, eg drought

Pull factors (attracting people into the city) include the perception of:

  • job opportunities
  • higher wages
  • better schools and hospitals
  • better housing and services (water, electricity, and sewage)
  • better social life
  • better transport and communications


Rapid growth of the city has led to a housing shortage. Most of the rural migrants begin their life in Rio in shanty towns called 'favelas'. 19 per cent of the population live in around 600 of these shanty towns. They are found mainly on the edges of the city, on poor quality land that is not suitable for urban development. People here are squatters, with no legal rights to the land they occupy. They live in overcrowded conditions, often in home-made shelters constructed from scavenged materials like timber, tarpaulins and corrugated iron.

The shanty towns have grown spontaneously with no planning, and so have no proper roads, pavements or local services like hospitals. The largest shanty town is called Rocinha, in the south of the city - overlooking the beaches and main tourist hotels.


With the country undergoing rapid development, car ownership has grown and the central business district is very congested with high levels of air pollution. Mountains hem in the city on the coastline, so traffic is confined to a limited number of routes. Buses and trams provide public transport for the residents, and the city has two subway lines. Roads in the favela areas are often just dirt tracks, and most people living here walk to their destinations.


There are few schools in the favelas.

Health care

There is a shortage of hospitals and clinics in the favelas, and high levels of illness and disease prevail here.


High levels of crime, violence and drug abuse blight many of the favelas. Street crime is a problem in the tourist areas, although pacification has recently started to improve crime rates.

Economic challenges

  • Poverty - there is a massive gap between rich and poor citizens in Rio. Many wealthy people live close to the central business district - right next to the favelas.
  • Employment - there are few job opportunities in the favelas. Poor transport systems make it hard for residents in the favelas to travel to work. Many citizens of Rio work in the informal job sector as street sellers, shoe shiners, etc.

Environmental challenges

  • Urban sprawl - this is an issue as the city continues to grow rapidly, encroaching on surrounding rural (countryside) areas.
  • Pollution - from traffic congestion in the city centre, and from industrial zones. Litter is an issue on the beaches.
  • Waste disposal - a particular problem in the favelas, where there is no organised sewage or waste recovery systems.

Social opportunities

  • Ethnic and cultural diversity - providing a huge mix of different religions, foods and customs. 51 per cent of Rio's population is white (including the largest Portuguese population outside of Lisbon), 36 per cent is multi-racial, 12 per cent is black, 1 per cent Asian, and 0.1 per cent Amerindian.
  • Education - Rio has a number of universities and higher education institutions. It is the second largest centre for research and development in the country.
  • Community - the favelas demonstrate tremendous community spirit, co-operation and recycling of materials.
  • Culture - Rio is famous for its annual carnival, samba schools, and sporting events. The Maracanas Stadium is one of the largest football stadiums in the world. The football World Cup was hosted there in 2014, and the Olympic Games were held there in 2016.

Economic opportunities

  • Industry - Rio is a major trading port, with important oil refining and ship-building industries. The main exports from Rio are crude petroleum and semi-finished iron and steel products. Headquarters of major industries are located here, including Petrobras (energy company), Vale (mining company) and Grupo Globa (telecommunications). Favelas create their own economies, and recent improvements have allowed shops and restaurants to develop.
  • Tourism - Rio is one of the most visited cities in the southern hemisphere. Major attractions include the beaches (eg Copacabana and Ipanema), the statue of Christ the Redeemer (on Corcovado peak), and Sugar Loaf Mountain.
  • Sport - football is the national sport in Brazil, and major global sporting events take place here.

Environmental opportunities

  • Beaches - the iconic and crowded beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon face the Atlantic and are flanked by mountains in the background. This area, known as the 'Carioca' is listed as a World Heritage Site.
  • Urban forests - the Tijuca National Park and White Rock Forests are two of the largest urban forests in the world.

Sustainable strategies to improve the quality of life in the favelas

In the 1990s, the Favela Bairro Project was set up to help improve life in the favelas and upgrade them rather than demolish them, as has happened in other locations. This work has been carried out with government funding to provide facilities like electricity, sewage systems, rubbish collection and public transport.

Building work goes on in Brazilian favelas.
Construction of a dwelling in the favela of Rocinha
  • Self-help schemes have also been supported. Here, local residents are provided with building materials like concrete blocks and cement in order to replace home-made shelters with permanent dwellings. These are often three or four storeys high, and with water, electricity and sewage systems installed.
  • Legal rights such as granting the favela residents rights to own their own properties. Low rents have also been offered.
  • Transport systems have been extended to include the favelas to give residents the opportunity to travel to work in the city centre and industrial areas.
  • Law and order has been improved in the favelas by trying to rid these areas of crime and drug abuse. Several large favelas have been improved in this way through federal 'Pacification Programmes'.
  • New towns like Barra da Tijuca, built 20 kilometres along the coastline, have been built to relocate some residents from city favelas.
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