While unable to solve all of a country's problems, progressive urban policy is nonetheless one effective way of addressing poverty and inequality. Brazil, a country notorious for its spatially segregated cities and concentration of money and power, is a telling case study not only for lessons on how to improve the quality of life of city dwellers through urban policy and planning but also for lessons on how such instruments can backfire or otherwise cause unintended consequences. On May 17th, 2007, the Comparative Urban Studies Project and the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center cosponsored a conference on urban development in Brazil, focusing on how participatory requirements in Brazil's City Statute has reshaped the way urban policy is formulated.
Director of the Brazil Institute Paulo Sotero set out the terms of the debate, acknowledging the salience of democracy at the local level—the level that matters the most to citizens. Studying the new generation of urban policies in Brazil, Teresa Caldeira, professor of city and regional planning at the University of California at Berkeley, analyzed the recent trend of requiring citizen participation in urban policy and planning through Brazil's Estatuo da Cidade and São Paulo's Master Plan. Initial data from São Paulo suggest that popular participation in urban planning has not brought about social justice, as was expected, but has instead legalized spatial inequality.
The Estatuo da Cidade (Law of the City) is the federal law mandated by Brazil's 1988 constitution requiring that 40 percent of Brazilian municipalities reformulate their Master Plans (MP) by October 2006 in accordance with the principle of popular participation in urban reform and municipal administration. The original objective of the Estatuo, lobbied by conservative, neoliberal congressmen, was to sabotage radically democratic constitutional articles concerning urban policy by imposing an impossible requirement to ensure that the articles never became law. However, these requirements have since been adopted and selectively adapted by center-left interest groups and political parties for strikingly different purposes: to create new forms of state intervention that would simultaneously combat urban inequality and injustice while promoting democracy and citizenship through popular participation in city planning and management. Even so, Caldeira's findings show that at least some of the predictions of the conservative congressmen have held true: to a significant extent, MPs have complicated the fight for social justice through progressive urban policy.
The two basic tenets of São Paulo's MP were to use urban policy to address urban dispersal and socio-spatial inequality by encouraging densification where infrastructure already exists and discouraging the growth of illegal settlements in the periphery. For the illegal settlements already in existence the MP provides measures to legalize holdings, set standards of urbanization, and improve infrastructure. In line with the progressive requirements and democratic ideals of the Estatuo, the MP stipulates that the planning, implementation, and control of urban policy be done in a participatory manner. However, Caldeira found that while popular participation in urban policy planning enforced the principle of social justice, in practice, popular participation actually contested social justice.
Three main coalitions of associations articulated their demands in these participatory debates. The Frente Popular pelo Plano Diretor (Popular Front for the Master Plan), representing popular movements and university-based researchers, successfully advocated the formulation of special zones of social interest (ZEIS). ZEIS are informal, low-income areas to be targeted for state intervention in order to formally legalize their existence and thus qualify for social services. This is done to protect areas from real estate speculation by establishing them as low-income neighborhoods—favelas. Likewise, it also subjects these neighborhoods to rules of occupation that differ from those of the rest of the city: ZEIS authorities may grant exemptions in land use standards in the interest of promoting low-income housing development. The more affluent social groups (the real estate industry and the upper classes) lobbied for higher land use standards in high-income areas, while poorer groups lobbied for ZEIS formulation (and thus lower land standards).
Whereas inequality was formerly expressed through illegality—the poor peripheries were informal and thus illegal; since urban laws were universal the de facto inequality was a product of extra-legal actions—Caldeira argues that now, inequality is expressed in legality. To be fair, these urban policies have also nonetheless provided powerful instruments to help foster social justice and improved quality of life within the poor periphery. Caldeira was quick to acknowledge that laws are now being implemented with the aim of improving the quality of life of low-income citizens rather than with the aim of expelling them from their illegal settlements to construct high-income housing developments.
Furthermore, numerous positive developments have come about from this growing trend of participation and the subsequent formalization of the ZEIS. Marcia Leite Arieira, senior social development specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), observed that Brazilian urban policies targeting these zones have recently undergone a significant transformation, particularly in São Paulo. The traditional approach to favelas was to target them with traditional physical infrastructure improvements, regardless of the needs and wants of ZEIS residents. Now, the slum-upgrading approach has given coherence to these improvements, with the concept of transforming the favela into a regular neighborhood. This is a step in the right direction. By focusing solely on public works, the state failed to tackle the key problem with low-income neighborhoods: they did not officially exist. To acknowledge their existence means also to acknowledge their needs for infrastructure and social services. With the formalization of informal neighborhoods, the parameters are set for sustainable growth with an eye to the needs and wants of the low-income residents.
Such success is less evident in Rio de Janeiro, according to Bryan McCann, associate professor of history at Georgetown University. As with many other urban policy initiatives, Rio's Estatuo da Cidade has led to unintended consequences or has otherwise not performed as planned. Even the best of laws are insufficient at engendering social change without the necessary political transition. Rio residents with informal or illegal living arrangements have not legitimized ownership of their residencies even though many are grateful for the new laws. Informal urban dwellers are not taking advantage of the opportunity to legalize their residence because their neighborhood associations have an incentive to retain informality. Such organizations, often linked to the drug trade and mafias, benefit from informality because they are able to take advantage of the power vacuum and lawlessness, and thus discourage their residents from pursuing land titles. Favela leaders elected to help rewrite Rio's new MP thus saw to it that their low-income neighborhoods either remained outside the realm of legality or in a form of legalized inequality exemplified through the ZEIS formulation.