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Brazilian Cities: Making cities the Centre of national renewal

AnaClaudia Rossbach August/2012

Brazilian Cities Today.

Brazil is now organizing to recover from the so called “lost decades” of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. This was 30 year period of economic recession, combined lack of policies and funds for city infrastructure, despite a dramatic urbanization process that saw many millions of Brazilians move to cities that were not prepared. It resulted in high density urban agglomerations with an extremely unequal society, facing immense poverty and social challenges. Since the country entered an economic growth pattern in recent years, cities are now adapting to the long needed infrastructure improvements, the challenge is to minimize the impact of growth on vulnerable urban populations, and reduce the inequalities in terms of access to adequate housing, services and jobs.

Brazil: Urban population in 2010:


Source: National Institute of Statistics, in http://www.censo2010.ibge.gov.br/sinopse/index.php?uf=00&dados=1

The Constitution and the City Statute – the big shift for Brazilian Cities.

In 1988, after 20 years of military dictatorship and top down policies for metropolitan management, housing, transportation, and land use, Brazilian cities and municipalities gained an unprecedented autonomy, with the approval of a new constitution.

The urban policy chapter of the 1988 Brazilian Constitution gives municipalities the competence to implement urban development policies in order to “assure the full development of the city´s social functions and the welfare of its citizens”. Additionally the law is very progressive since it not just empowers municipalities to expropriate under-utilized land, but also recognizes the right to property for urban dwellers living on unclaimed land for more than 5 years.

An interesting feature of Brazilian demographic data is that 15.3% of the population, or 29 million people, live in just 15 urban municipalities, each with more than one million inhabitants. These 15 cities are the key focus of Brazil’s urban dynamics. The map above highlights the urban areas according to 2000 census, which shows the concentration. São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Brasília, Fortaleza, Belo Horizonte, Manaus, Curitiba, Recife, Porto Alegre, Belém, Goiânia, Guarulhos, Campinas, and São Luís.


The main instrument provided by the 1988 Constitution for cities to achieve their goals is the “master plan”, which is compulsory for cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants. Brazil has 190 million inhabitants in 5,564 municipalities, but only 1,644 have a population this size (containing 17.8% of the Brazilian population)..

New Federal law in 2001.

Although the culture of urban master plans goes back to the thirties with a pioneer experience in Rio de Janeiro, it gained a new force building upon the 1988 constitution and the approval of another Federal Law in 2001, which formalized the 1988 constitution´s urban chapter into “The City Statute”. This law gives municipalities a series of urban and fiscal instrument to promote more inclusive urban land planning, and enabling the “right to the city” to all citizens, maintaining the right to dwelling locally for poor people.

The main instruments in the City Statute are: (i) social interest zoning, (ii) land regularization tools; (iii) progressive property taxes for under-utilized land, (iii) selling of building rights certificates; (iv) integrated urban operations; (v) land value capture mechanisms. Through the national urban policy framework the City Statute required the creation of a National Council, with representatives of government and civil society as a policy advisory board.

This law is the basis of our current approach to planning cities and dealing with the tensions between real estate market expansion, economic growth and social inclusion in the complex context of overcrowded cities lacking serviced land, and in metropolitan regions that lack any coordinated management and governance tradition.


A Ministry for Cities in 2003

When the Workers Party took over the federal government in 2003, one of the first initiatives was the creation of the Ministry for Cities, an electoral campaign promise.. Considering that 84.4%, of the population live in cities in Brazil: the idea was to concentrate the main policy areas of urban development in one single ministry. Housing, sanitation, mobility and urban planning; promoting  integrated planning and funding systems for these sectors previously disaggregated under different government institutions at the federal level, were brought together in the new ministry.

Since its creation this ministry carried out steps to improve planning capacity at city government level; one crucial goal was for municipalities to update their master plans, originally from the 80´s, 70´s or even not existent at all. The results are impressive: in 2005 only 805 municipalities had a master plan, this number increased to 2.318 in 2009 through the government´s efforts.

A more qualitative analysis recently carried out by the Ministry of Cities, evaluating 526 master plans, shows that these cities not just adopted master plans, but also incorporated the main instruments of the City Statute. The social interest zoning mechanism was active in 81% of the evaluated plans; other frequent instruments identified in the study are the progressive property tax for under-utilized urban land, selling of building rights and integrated urban operations.

In 2004, the National Cities Council was created, as a policy advisory body on urban policies, with 71 members, including city governments, private sector, social movements, NGO´s and academia.

Parallel to this important campaign for an inclusive approach to urban planning , another important law was approved in 2005. This law was also as a result of social mobilization, the first law in Brazil proposed by the people. It was the creation of a National System and National Fund  Social Housing. In this system, funds from the central government flow to municipalities or states for slum upgrading, infrastructure and social housing, with the requirement that local governments would also create their local funds and establish local advisory bodies with civil society representation.

Thus, the period from 2001 to 2005 was characterized by institutional change with a new legal framework and institutional arrangements at the national level to support and fund cities, directly and/or through state governments, with improving infrastructure and housing through a social inclusion approach. From 2006 to 2008 a participatory and open planning process took place in order to set up the basis and targets for the housing needs in Brazil, the first long term planning exercise in this field.

Curitiba—Innovation City



Growth Acceleration Programme I and II

The path was then set for the launching of the most robust infrastructure and housing funding programs in our history: the Growth Acceleration Program – PAC in 2007, and the housing subsidies program, the “My House, My Life” in 2009, the second one also an economic stimulus package,  as a response to the international financial crisis in 2008.

The PAC is now in its second phase for the period 2011 – 14 and it funds a basket of projects for transportation, sanitation, city infrastructure and slum upgrading, selected according to emergency and impact criteria all over the country. Funds come from National Treasury with priority to vulnerable and precarious areas, but programs are promoted and implemented by local governments according to their specific needs, policies and parameters. Local governments must also contribute matching funds that may vary from 10 to 40% depending on their own capacity to leverage tax revenues.

The housing program “My House, My Life” is a subsidy program for families, funded by both national government and worker´s provident fund and is complementary to the infrastructure programme, in the sense that local governments are in charge of identify land and organize the beneficiaries among the lowest income segments. For people in the middle income bracket the program operates according to market dynamics and individual options, in a sort of voucher system.

 Source: Jauregui Arquitetura. “Favela da Rocinha”, Rio de Janeiro.

 Metropolitan Futures.

The metropolitan level is now becoming a key focus for action in Barzil. There are about 38 metropolitan concentrations in the country which accounts for approximately 50% of the population. They are very diverse in size and character, with extremes represented by the metropolitan regions of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, with respectively 19 and 11 million inhabitants compared to the southwest region of Maranhão with less than 340,000 inhabitants. Metropolitan regions in Brazil are also where poverty is located, with 10 million people living in slums that represents 90% of the total of informal settlement dwellers in the country.

Formal Metropolitan Regions – 2010. Source: Observatório das Metrópoles.

 Although metropolitan regions in Brazil are now recognized in state and federal laws, and are the priority destination for federal government investments, they lack both management and governance frameworks. Investments have been made in metro areas according to planning and funding leverage capacity of municipalities, and to some degree through  state level interventions, not always supported by city level administrations.

The limitations of city boundaries will be increasingly more evident, with new metropolitan dynamics that will require a improvements the role of the states in urban planning and metropolitan coordination, in order raise investment rates and better manage scarce assets, such as land and water.