Brasilía: from utopian city to today’s urban agglomeration

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Brasília represents the most complete example of the form of urban planning prevalent until the 1970s. It was built in three years, from 1957 to 1960, following a government initiative to create Bra-zil’s capital, at a time when cities played a crucial role in the construction of national territories, espe-cially in Southern countries. The project’s objective was to improve the distribution of the country’s wealth by attracting population and business activity inland. Until then, people and industries had been concentrated in two competing coastal cities: Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Brasília was built accord-ing to a precise development plan devised by Lucio Costa and the architectural project designed by Oscar Niemeyer, based on a socially egalitarian and functional vision of the city. Awarded the status of World Heritage Site by UNESCO only 27 years after its creation, Brasília remains the symbol of an what Brazil considered ideal and avant-garde in a city at that period.

Fifty years later, the city is at the center of a divided and sprawling city of 3 million, which is threatened by many environmental and social problems: degradation of water resources, inadequate waste water management, poverty, inequalities in the distribution of urban resources, and consider-able geographical distances between the different social classes, all potential sources of conflict. The urban agglomeration includes 16 satellite towns and extends to the neighboring district of Goiás. The organization of the Plano Piloto, the initial urban perimeter, classified and preserved in its clearly de-lineated compact structure, contrasts with an environment that is becoming more and more open, divided, and disorderly as people move away to the outskirts of the city, where the poorest populations are concentrated.

Under these circumstances, where and how is social life organized? How has a project for a clearly delimited city resulted in such spread-out urbanization, cut-off from the regional environment? In an attempt to explain the reasons for this evolution, geographers from the IRD and University of Brasília have been examining the development of the city and its repercussions on local and regional levels since 2001 (1). Their approach, which takes into account the built and natural environment, as well as the social dynamics at play, makes it possible to come up with solutions for preserving the heritage of Brasília while ensuring the sustainable development of the city.

The conservation and closing-off of the city’s “monumental” sector has generated an increase in property prices and a considerable social cost. In Brasília, where 80% of the country’s formal employ-ment is concentrated, populations have continued to gather—encouraged by their strong attachment to the image of an ideal city—and have been forced to settle in the outskirts of the urban center in areas of unoccupied land surrounding this growing agglomeration. Geographical distancing between the preserved and fixed “monument” city and the city’s dense and poorer outer neighborhoods has thus resulted in social distancing.

This form of urban development goes against the initially planned development, which structured the city in a compact manner, according to four principles harmonized to guarantee the balance of both the city and society: social (housing), monumental, bucolic (landscape), and functional (work, services). Indeed, the recent development of Brasília shows an imbalance between the distinctly de-fined principles of the original plan.

Researchers used this observation as a basis for devising a new urban project, founded on a new reading of the original plan and founding articles. The new proposal favors a return to balance be-tween the different principles—for example, reincorporating local stores in districts devoted to serv-ices—but adapted to the real city, in other words the entire agglomeration. This entails viewing the city as a homogenous delimited regional territory, whose management—based on the founding utopian ideals—would favor access to housing, the creation of jobs, and improved living standards. This new urban project should reconcile the city’s heritage conservation and economic development, and thereby encourage people’s involvement in the future of their urban environment and thus reducing social gaps.

Brasília’s future now lies in the hands of those responsible for urban development and of its inhabi-tants. The city remains the only case of a total planning approach, an extreme example that is a valu-able point of reference. At a time when 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, comparing this city’s development with that of other cities of the South—largely or completely unplanned—can in this regard offer a different perspective on their development, and the social and natural risks it can create.

(1) This research work was conducted jointly by the IRD research unit UR 029 and the University of Brasília. It is part of the UR 029 programme, co-financed by UNESCO and entitled “Bra-silía, la question environnementale urbaine et la préservation du patrimoine de l’humanité,” planned to run from 2005 to 2008.

Brasilia, de l’utopie initiale à l’agglomération urbaine actuelle


“Actualité scientifique” – IRD, factsheet no 264, April 2007

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