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Maligned by local elites, problematized by the state, and imagined worldwide as zones of exceptional, enculturated violence and poverty, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, sprawling informal settlements, are rarely represented as anything other than a cautionary tale for the future of cities. Yet the apparent popular-culture mystique of favelas, as well as the persistent adaptation of their aesthetic by global brands, not to mention their endurance as communities for over a century, hints at a more complex story.

Are there links between “favelization,” as design theorist Adriana Kertzer calls it, and the lives of those residing in Brazil’s many favelas? In seeking answers, I found an organization called Catalytic Communities, and began a correspondence with its executive director, Theresa Williamson.

A city planner of dual Brazilian and British citizenship who grew up in Washington, DC, and is now based in Rio, Williamson has spent the past fifteen years working with favela residents through CatComm. The organization researches the operations of favelas, including the way that they sustain themselves as so-called “informally housed” communities, and advocates for the full participation of favela residents in the life of the city. CatComm’s mission has become particularly acute as Rio gears up to host the global spectacle of the 2016 Summer Olympics. Preparations have forced tens of thousands of favela residents out of their homes, and the country at large finds itself in the grip of an ongoing political crisis largely spurred by corrupt deals in the city-making industries of oil and construction.

Williamson argues that favelas point to a number of possibilities for more creative and just cities, and that these possibilities derive precisely from their “informality”: from housing built and communities organized not so much outside the state as despite its neglect. According to CatComm, favelas manifest a self-organized solution to unaffordable housing in a city where landless farmworkers, young people without formal education, and former slaves have had no other option for seeking employment and shelter.

I interviewed Williamson via Skype about re-signifying favelas in the global imagination, re-casting the problem of affordable housing, and the dynamism of a need-based architecture.

—Ann Deslandes for Guernica

Guernica: Tell me a little about your background. Where did you grow up? How did you first hear about or encounter favelas?

Theresa Williamson: I’m originally Brazilian—my mother is Brazilian, my dad is English. I lived in Rio until I was six years old, and then we moved to Washington, DC. We would go back to Brazil on vacation every other year. My mother was from a family that had broken out of poverty, thanks to her access to a good education, so I was very aware of inequality in Brazil as a barrier to development. I grew up always knowing about favelas, and being aware that there were two sides to how Rio is perceived: there’s the side projected to tourists of the beach neighborhoods, the Christ, the stadium. The city is stylized around the tourist districts. You know, New Year’s Eve on the beach, Carnival, samba music—the city’s many great geographic qualities, from the beaches to the world’s largest urban forest.

Then there’s the side most often seen in international media: landslides, police incursions in favelas, high unemployment rates, City of God, the 1993 massacre of street children by police, buses set on fire by drug traffickers. So when people think of Rio, they think of these two extremes. And when they think about the extreme negative images, they associate [these] with favelas.

Guernica: When did your awareness of favelas deepen to become the focus of your work?

Theresa Williamson: In 2000, I was doing my PhD in city planning at the University of Pennsylvania, and I went back to Rio and started visiting favela communities to define my research topic. I came in knowing of the typically held preconceptions, but left inspired. What I found were basically communities working hard and self-organizing to manage and respond to all sorts of local challenges, whether it was fixing sewage systems, housing, day-care programs, after-school programs, soccer programs, dental hygiene, co-operatives—basically, any social, environmental challenge you can think of, there were communities actively addressing these challenges. When I saw this, I had an idea to create an organization that would support this side of the favelas, this kind of work that the communities were doing; an organization that would support these local projects, help to strengthen community assets, and bring visibility to these efforts and to favela voices. When I took this idea to my doctoral advisor, he actually said, “Why don’t you start the organization and write your dissertation about it?”

So I had this amazing opportunity to start Catalytic Communities, and that’s what I did.

There’s this assumption on the part of some people in the local elite here that favelas are by definition illegal and therefore their occupants are by definition criminal.

Guernica: What is the story that Catalytic Communities tells about favela communities in Brazil, and how is it different from the story that we are used to hearing?

Theresa Williamson: I don’t think there has ever really been a full story about favela communities; there’s just been a common, brief understanding—like, favelas are violent, or marginal, or should never have existed, or favelas are a public policy failure, or favelas should be wiped out. In particular, there’s this assumption on the part of some people in the local elite here in Rio that favelas are by definition illegal and therefore their occupants are by definition criminal, just by the fact of living in them.

We are trying to get people to think about the contexts that produced these communities. We look back at their history and say, well, who would choose to live in a way where society marginalizes you? Nobody! We say that favelas are there as a consequence of history. We look at how the favela communities were founded, why they were founded—out of slavery, and a lack of access to affordable housing—and look at the government policies that affect them now. Why are there criminal elements there? There is nothing inherent in them that produces criminality. The facts are that the state has neglected them, leaving them as easy targets for organized crime; that the citizens of favelas are criminalized so they lose their jobs and turn to organized crime; that we had a stagnant economy in Rio for much of the last forty years and now we’re back there again.

So we’re shifting the narrative by looking at these different stigmas and assumptions, putting the spotlight on them, thinking about them, criticizing them through channels such as RioOnWatch, our community reporting and media wire service. And we have various interns and other collaborators to help us look at these different issues—so when, say, an architect comes along, we look at the architectural qualities of the favelas. When housing policy grad students come along, they look at the favelas in terms of affordable housing. And so on.

Guernica: Can you explain some of the insights into favelas that these contributing perspectives have helped provide?

Theresa Williamson: Favelas are communities that were built in the absence of regulation in response to the lack of affordable housing. They are communities where people built their own homes; in every brick, in every tile, there’s this level of embedded history that you don’t have in other communities, and that we don’t often understand if we don’t live in them. Favelas evolved based on opportunity and access to the city, and what the history is, who their leaders are, and what their geographies are. So, in the end, we have this incredibly diverse assortment of communities, and if you lump them all together, you do them a huge disservice because, by definition, they’re all different.

We are not trying to idealize them, but as an organization we focus on the attributes of favelas, and we’ve been working to highlight the urbanistic qualities that these communities have: they are pedestrian-oriented and child-friendly in the sense that there is a high level of solidarity, higher at least than in other neighborhoods in Rio. We are taking an asset-based approach to their development. As long as these communities are seen as having no value, or as places that shouldn’t exist, or as temporary places, we’re not going to get policies that are really productive, and we haven’t, from the government. At present, there’s the public-housing program that moves people out of favelas, far from their jobs into low-quality apartments; or there’s the pacification police—a police force implemented to “pacify” drug traffic in the favelas, which ends up intimidating, torturing, and killing innocent residents. The truth is that on average favelas are better than the public housing being produced in Rio right now, and favelas are on average being impaired in their development through this policing. If we don’t see the qualities, we’re unable to plan in ways that strengthen and then build on these qualities. We do a huge disservice by dismantling and losing community assets through blind, stigma-based policies.

Guernica: Can you speak a little more to this idea of favelas having an “embedded history”? How does this manifest?

Theresa Williamson: This idea that favelas are slums, and slums are temporary, implies that there’s no history or memory. But in favelas, when you talk to people about their neighborhoods, nothing could be further from the truth. We’ve published several articles about this recently, that talk about how memory is preserved in the favelas in conversation, and funk, and feelings, which is so different from the way museums think of memory or how you might formally think of memory.

The “temporary” idea—it’s part of keeping people feeling precarious, feeling like their homes have no value, to imply that they’re temporary and have no roots, when actually, in reality, they have deep roots. Much deeper than I do! I am constantly moving and shifting. Many of us are. We’re the precarious ones, in that sense.

You can argue that it was a policy failure to allow the favelas to develop in the first place. Well, now the policy failure is to demolish them and pretend they don’t exist.

Guernica: It is often projected that by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, and that this will include a large increase in the number of people living in informal settlements. Many urbanists, geographers, and sociologists are currently debating the implications of this global urban acceleration. How does this relate to CatComm’s work?

Theresa Williamson: Rio’s favelas have been around for over a hundred years, and the government ignored them, neglected them, allowed them to prosper and develop. It wasn’t like in the Global North, in wealthy countries, where slums were torn down pretty quickly and alternatives were developed. Favelas have become such a core part of what makes Rio Rio. So Rio is a really good lab to see what happens when informal settlements are allowed to develop—for better or worse, that is; I’m not placing any value judgment on whether that action by the government was good or bad.

You can argue that it was a policy failure to allow the favelas to develop in the first place. Well, now the policy failure is to demolish them and pretend they don’t exist, because we’ve got established communities with histories, and people who have built and put a lot of investment—not just financial, but personal and emotional and physical—into these communities. If you ask them what their ideal future is, you’ll have people who’ll say, “I want to get out of here, sign me up for public housing!” and then you’ll have people in other communities who give up huge compensation payments because they love their communities. Ask people what they need! This asking also empowers people to think about what they need, and to be aware that they have the right to push for or seek out their rights.

Rather than denying that the world is urbanizing through informal settlements, or trying to wipe them aside, the lesson we’ve learned in Rio, through our history is: If you want to develop a solution for housing before these issues arise, go for it, but once these communities start, once people have established a community and invested in it, you need to discuss outcomes with residents. They have to be consulted in any solutions. And the more established a community is and the more residents find that community functional and useful to them and want it to stay, the more we have to think about how we can integrate that community into the city.

The other thing we’ve learned is that, because these communities unfold on their own with little outside involvement, we have to ask: Who should have a say in these communities? Does the government really have the right to come in and impose top-down policies in a community that’s been around for decades, developing its own ways of operating, its own ways of coming up with solutions?

CatComm is trying to tease out these kinds of lessons and open peoples’ minds to the possibility that there are other approaches. At the same time, Rio’s favelas are probably the most stigmatized urban communities in the world, so it’s all the more symbolic and emblematic if those are the communities that are used as the launch pad for this discussion.

Guernica: Informality has become a theme for other urban activities, from pop-up shops and other kinds of temporary occupation of unused commercial spaces to aspects of the sharing economy, such as Uber and Airbnb. I’m curious about the links between this kind of informality, which is looking increasingly like it’s here to stay, and the informality we’re talking about with regard to favelas. Are they linked? How could they work together in the city of the future?

Theresa Williamson: I think there’s absolutely a relationship. It’s funny isn’t it, when a business applies a principle that these communities have been [applying] for generations and are criminalized for, it’s considered creative and entrepreneurial and cutting-edge. There is a sort of frustrating contradiction there. Here in Rio, downtown, the same mayor who’s been removing people from favelas has provided rights to an abandoned factory that was taken over by artists in the same zone where they’re removing people, in the port area! So when is informality okay and when isn’t it? It isn’t okay when these traditionally marginalized groups do it because they’re not convenient to have around?

But at the same time, as a city planner and as someone who uses and values these different services myself, I think it’s more constructive to think that these are examples of the value of informality. That is what favelas teach us, in the way that they produce creative, community-based solutions to problems as they arise, such as an architecture where people develop their homes around their needs. So instead of building some big house with unnecessary spaces, you build a room when your baby’s born, you build another floor when your children grow up, you move upstairs when you become employed and have a business downstairs… Favelas have that kind of dynamism.

I’ve heard people compare favelas to ghettos, like the public housing in the US, but it’s actually the opposite. Public housing is the most regulated housing on earth, whereas favelas are the least regulated. They are two very different approaches to low-income housing, and what distinguishes favelas is their informality—the ability for people to respond to their needs with whatever resources they have available. Also, they’re mixed-use, with shops on the corners or downstairs in homes, so people are interacting; they’re low-rise, high-density, so people are not in isolated apartments. All of that fosters a high level of innovation and exchange and produces highly social, creative thinking. These are positive things about favelas that come with the informality of these communities, which we should be learning from as we design cities and housing and neighborhoods.

What makes a city exciting is spontaneity, and spontaneity comes from informality.

Services like Airbnb and Uber are completely structured, safe experiences, so you lose some of the element of risk that’s associated with informality, and the kind of laboratory experience. CatComm has had urban planners from Europe come to work with us who are concerned that cities in Europe are so planned now, they’ve lost their soul and are no fun anymore—and it’s true, what makes a city exciting is spontaneity, and spontaneity comes from informality. Uber and Airbnb provide some of the qualities of informality in terms of giving people access to new experiences and unpredictable interactions, so you get that sense of spontaneity, the opportunity for the unknown, but actually, the services are formal. “Planned informality,” I suppose.

Where can we find the overlap between formal and informal? Where we can bring the informal safely and helpfully into the urban environment? I think these kinds of questions are where a lot of the solutions are for cities in the future. Planners should observe what naturally happens in the space. Our job as planners is not to replace that, it’s to add to it, and that’s CatComm’s approach to our work in favelas. How can we take the assets these communities have and expand on those assets so we’re being true to the nature of the community, dealing with these challenges in heavily participatory ways where people feel a sense of ownership and respect for the process? When we detect qualities that come from informality, our job is to expand on those qualities, to strengthen them and invest in them, rather than to pave over them.

I studied participatory planning, but I think favelas have taught me that, actually, what we should be going for is community-led planning—so it’s not the government coming in and putting the stakeholders at the table, but the actual community coming up with their demands, and getting the government to meet those demands. The job of planners should be to listen to communities, observe communities, support the community in their development and then bring in public resources. This is especially true when the government hasn’t traditionally been present, like in much of the developing world, when you’re building in a context of resource scarcity where you expect people to take ownership to sustain the space at some level. In Rio, often, either the residents of favelas maintain the infrastructure of favelas, or nobody does. So if you’re expecting citizens to maintain something, you’d better have them involved in the process!

Guernica: What other sorts of cities or environments were you working in prior to founding CatComm?

Theresa Williamson: I was very lucky to travel a lot growing up. My parents did international work and I traveled much of Europe and all over Brazil on holiday through my childhood and teens, followed by a semester at sea, visiting South America, Africa, and Asia, and a semester in Madagascar in college. My university years were in Philadelphia, with summers in Belo Horizonte, followed by work in Curitiba, Brazil. I worked briefly in Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Belo Horizonte, and Curitiba over those years, but not as a city planner—I worked in a Washington nonprofit on sustainable economics and another on sustainable food, for the Ombudsman of Paraná in Brazil, and for the Philadelphia Recycling Office. But I think of my work [as] beginning at age fourteen, when I became a co-leader of a student environmental coalition in the Washington, DC, area, heading diverse organizing initiatives, including participating in the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio on behalf of the group.

It was my college major, biological anthropology, which took me to Madagascar to study lemurs, that led me to switch gears into city planning. I realized to make a real impact I’d need to understand a place deeply and immerse myself in it, that Brazil was where I could most be useful, and that protecting wildlife and the environment will only happen when people’s basic needs are met. After that semester, when I discovered the field of city planning in a course I was taking, I fell in love with its focus on solutions and communities and improving peoples’ well-being. Given that Brazil was already around 80 percent urban, I decided it was the field for me. I applied and entered graduate school a year later.

At the University of Pennsylvania, I was taught in the most progressive sort of American planning, which is very focused on community-based development, “the right to the city,” and public participation and bringing different people to the table. My focus was on participatory planning and community development.

Guernica: What sorts of things did you experience there? How did the experience inform your practice as a planner?

Theresa Williamson: I was able to take classes led by visiting community organizers who taught the history of tactics used by communities across US cities, environmental law, social welfare economics, and transportation planning from engineer Vukan Vuchic, who is well known for his research and textbooks on sustainable transport. We had visiting lecturers like Peter Newman, a sustainability urbanist from Australia, who made very clear some of the basic concepts that distinguish vibrant cities from lifeless ones. I also learned through my student colleagues. For example, Dan Campo, a friend of mine, is a New Yorker who was doing his doctorate in city planning at the same time as me and his dissertation became the well-known book The Accidental Playground. He researched a park in Brooklyn that had been abandoned for years until neighbors took it over and it became this amazing urban park because everyone just took ownership of it. People built a skate park, artists would come and set up temporary exhibits, families would come for picnics—everyone would occupy the space with different activities. Dan’s conclusion was that planners should observe what happens informally, strengthen the successes, and implement their lessons elsewhere, and I have reached the same conclusion through my work.

Because favela communities produce culture organically, somehow it’s not seen as belonging to them.

Guernica: In a recent talk at Kalamazoo College, you described the way that a certain “favela aesthetic”—colorful, “makeshift” houses and furniture; outdoor graffiti and murals; street and dancewear associated with funk—is starting to become popular in architecture and branding efforts. You mentioned that the upper classes in Rio are also quite horrified by the aestheticization of favelas.

Theresa Williamson: On the one hand, the idea of favela chic is incredibly disturbing, because it makes little of an incredibly difficult condition. Here in Rio, there are wealthy kids having parties that are “favela funk” themed, where they make the house look like a favela, play funk music… Inside a gated community!

People in favelas are being marginalized for being from favelas, while people getting into favela chic are actually valuing something about the favelas—and this is where it gets complicated, because I think people should value those things about the favelas. I do think there is an aesthetic value to the favelas. I do think there is value to funk music and to the cultural vibrancy in favelas. What bothers me is that people are valuing favelas without admitting it! Which is it? Are these communities with qualities or not? And if favelas are contributing these qualities to the world, then what are they getting back?

I don’t have a solution, but let’s admit that we’re valuing these communities. Let’s admit that they are cultural incubators, that there are qualities there, that there is something we can all learn from them. That’s number one. Number two is: How can we make sure that they’re benefiting from this, that they get some return on the value they have produced? It’s not even about the money, it’s more that there’s a certain responsibility on the part of anybody who’s making money or benefiting from the favela aesthetic to recognize that there are qualities in favelas, to be public about this and not deny it, and then to find a way for that value to make its way back to the community—talk to the community and find a way to do that.

This is related to the debate about informality, too. Because favela communities produce culture organically, somehow it’s not seen as belonging to them, because they’re not intending to produce culture for sale. Favelas are stigmatized around the world, there’s been a hundred years of absent public policy, there are evictions and mistreatment and police brutality—to extract from the culture without returning the value to the communities is just another layer of exploitation.

Guernica: You’ve referred to favelas as “Rio’s affordable housing stock,” re-routing the conception of favelas from neglected slum to affordable housing solution. At the same time, I wonder why affordable housing should demand so much from those who need it—their own materials and labor, as well as an ongoing fight for tenure and legitimacy. How, in your opinion, do we create an urban future where we don’t need affordable housing stock, because shelter is guaranteed and doesn’t need to be “afforded”?

Theresa Williamson: When we reframe favelas as Rio’s affordable housing stock, we’re not suggesting that it is the solution to the problem of affordable housing around the world, we’re just saying that it is the solution in Rio.

A few years ago I was in London, and we were observing the buildup to the Games there, talking to people who were affected by related changes to the city. I met somebody from the local housing agency in the City of London, and I got to hear about how London deals with affordable housing—like, community land trusts, social housing, social rent. She said 24 percent of Londoners receive social rent, not counting social housing and other policies. And it hit me that that’s the same percentage of people in Rio who live in favelas. I started doing some research and in every single city that we looked at, 20 to 30 percent of the population can’t afford the market rate, which makes perfect sense, because the market doesn’t build for them. So every city needs an affordable housing stock and Rio’s favelas have provided that, historically, here in Rio. I’m not saying that cities should encourage informal settlements by any means, but once they’re established, and from the moment the residents say, “This neighborhood has value to me and I want to stay,” that community needs to be treated differently, it needs to be treated as an integral part of the broader community that deserves investment. And then, yes, you can think of them as affordable neighborhoods that need to be invested in. But before that point I wouldn’t encourage informal settlements as a solution.

I think the solution needs to involve a combination of communities being able to build themselves to some extent, mixed with some of the things that guarantee safety—good-quality building materials, technical support for engineering—which in Rio’s favelas they basically obtained themselves over time.

As for having the solution involve so much from the people themselves, well, even though I don’t think they should bear the weight, I also think that these communities’ qualities come from the fact that people invested so much. Going down a road where people are respected, where there is basic support provided, with a guarantee of shelter, where housing is shelter before it’s an asset, where people are given permission and space and maybe even some sort of tools and support to expand, is a nice middle ground. This could be the big lesson for the world from Rio’s favelas.

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