In comparison to slums I’ve visited in other parts of the world, Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro looks streets above the rest – literally. Its position high on the hill is advantageous because there’s no flood risk, the view is magnificent and its residents paying 300 Reais ($148) a month look down on Sao Conrado, one of the most expensive bay-side neighbourhoods in Rio, where rents go for a considerably higher 5 million Reais ($2.5million) a month. This reversal of the usual social order gives Rio’s favelas a unique vantage point over other disenfranchised communities.
Rocinha is like most other slum districts or shantytowns, composed of densely packed housing cohesively integrated with community spaces, shopping and other enterprises. The 70,000 residents living here meet their day-to-day requirements within a couple of hundred metres stroll on foot. So, from a transport perspective, slums like these are the most sustainable of urban settings in the Anthropocene. However, getting here from Rio’s city centre means a perilous ride on the back of a motorbike, or more than an hour's trudge up steeply winding, dangerous alleyways. This is about to change, and it shows how important an issue sustainable transport is to the 21st century city.
Conscious it needs to smarten its image as soon-to-be host of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, Rio is stepping up its war on the heavily armed favela drug gangs, with police permanently occupying places like Rocinha under a new “pacification” programme. Rocinha is also undergoing a rapid regeneration programme in which residents formed mutiroes (construction cooperatives) and replaced their timber and tarpaulin shacks for brick and concrete – and the entire favela will be provided with free wi-fi, under the government’s new development programme. But what may prove far more effective at achieving a lasting peace and improving the livelihoods here is a government pledge to invest more than $58.5 million to build a cable car system and funicular up the steep hills of the favela.
Like the transport planning in Medellín, Colombia, I wrote about previously, integrating people in Rocinha with those of the established city can help to remove the stigma of living in a favela, by normalising transport links and connecting favela stations to urban and suburban trains, metros and buses. Instead of a dodgy ride uphill on the back of a teenager’s motorbike, and a risky, time-consuming journey on foot through meandering alleyways, residents and visitors will be able to access homes and services in this densely packed warren.
The Teleferico do Alemao, a gondola system linking the Complexo do Alemao (German Complex) favelas to the rest of the city, is already open and at 3.5 kilometres (2.3 miles), it’s one of the longest cable car lines in the world. The journey time from base to the top has been cut from at least an hour by foot to just 15 minutes. Each cabin has a solar panel installed, which powers the lighting, sound and video surveillance systems. And the stations host community services, such as job training, education, medical services, and legal advice, all helping foster growth and inclusion.
Reinvent the wheel
Innovative public transport solutions like this will be needed in the denser megacities of the new urban age. The planet is moving towards two billion cars. Commuters in Brazil's biggest city, Sao Paulo, can sit in traffic jams of up to 180km (110 miles). Americans currently spend an average of nine years of their lives sitting in their cars. China, meanwhile, is now the world’s biggest car market, with ownership going up 20-fold since 2000, and many of its cities’ new six-lane highways are already clogged with traffic and car fumes.