Rio de Janeiro’s Mayor: His Vision For Cities


Eduardo Paes, mayor of Rio de Janeiro, gave a TEDTalk recently about cities. Using Rio as an example, he listed and expanded on four “commandments” that govern the creation and sustainability of cities of the future in general. The talk is informative and to the point, but it has also stirred controversy.

A few brief notes on the controversy. There has been a lot of negative commentary surrounding this talk, which you can view in the comments sections on TED. It presumably comes from people who are familiar with (or disaffected by) local politics, and who have something to say about how Rio was presented and represented by Mr. Paes.

I view their reaction with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I see no particular politics in this presentation and do not consider it some sort of political propaganda. Perhaps it’s a puff piece, but no more. There are a lot of informative and inspirational points one can take from it.

On the other hand, where there is smoke there is fire. For some individuals to react so strongly, it means that things are not as simple as we would like them to be. There are clear indications that some people have strong opinions about the subject matter.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It steers the debate where it ultimately matters. What that point is I am not yet sure.

But I can wager a guess. Brazil is a country rich in resources, an emerging market with an increasingly big role to play in global economics. It is a nation rocked by a murky past, political oppression, and violence. Social tension, disintegration and injustice have been plaguing it for decades, if not more. People are disgruntled by politicians and power brokers, whom they deem contentious and controversial by nature. Intense criticism is a natural byproduct of Brazilian reality. Hence the reaction to Mr. Paes’s talk.

To be honest, this presentation does come across as a little self-indulgent at points. It appears too cleaned up and preppy. Perhaps this comes down to Mr. Paes’s personality, perhaps not. Perhaps there is an agenda behind the presentation, leading up to the Olympics, part of a PR campaign if you will. Perhaps there is simply an attempt on his part to impress a savvy audience in a celebrated venue, an effort to appear professional and up to speed with the rest of the TED world.

What’s more, culture plays a role in presentations and how they are received. Language affects how points come across. Notice for example the term ‘Commandments.’ It is a little authoritarian for the times. ‘Principles’ would have been more apt, in English anyway. The same goes for the term ‘govern,’ which Mr. Paes uses more than once to describe his administration of the city. ‘Administer’ would have been a better choice.

Does this mean that Mr. Paes was lost in translation, or that he is a closet authoritarian? Or is there something else in play? Let’s see. Political correctness aside, the merit of which is a whole other topic, the meaning of the words Mr. Paes chooses may be more innocent than their direct English equivalents make them sound. They may be just words. On the other hand, they may be reflections of the Brazilian mindset. They may be indicative of the general Brazilian culture, the overall zeitgeist. Bearing in mind the actual situation of the place, its past, its circumstances, its raw reality, one may take these terms and their meaning at face value. Brazil and its politics may be a little more authoritarian-based than we are comfortable with. Cities may very well still be ‘governed’ there, and guiding principles may be regarded and referred to as ‘commandments’ from above, which need to be obeyed.

Thus the issue at hand may transcend the person of Mr. Paes, revealing a bigger dynamic in play. A Brazilian situation. Culturally and socio-politically.

None of this is conclusive, of course; it is just indicative of various factors that may be taken into account when dealing with Brazil’s rise to prominence. With both the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics coming to the country in 2014 and 2016, and with a reputation for urban violence, police corruption and favela politics, there is plenty of room for optimism as well as cynicism. How we process what is presented to us will determine what happens, how Brazil introduces itself to the rest of the world as the limelight greets her. The process will be layered and often contradictory. It may indeed be an opportunity for barons to make their case to the world, as they prepare to set the stage for two of the globe’s most popular events, or it may be a time for grand restructuring from the bottom up, and from the top down, an overhaul that will help a rich but traditionally mismanaged nation and its struggling citizens to rise to new heights. It may be a bit of both. Time will tell, and so will we – tell, that is – as we observe from the sidelines, or interact with the developments on the ground.

As an afterthought, here is some food for thought: in favelas, people live in irregular housing, with no planning, no public services, no rights of property ownership. i.e. they are not part of the official grid. So when the authorities move in on a favela to make space for its people to enjoy more “quality of life”, do you think they are guided by the same legal and moral principles followed on the grid? Do you think they observe the same due process?

Food for thought 2: if Rio is to restructure itself in a lasting way, alleviating the urban tension and hardship of millions of people by affording them with certain services, how efficiently can this process be carried out if every move has to pass through the nightmarish Brazilianbureaucracy? Are there perhaps acceptable corners to cut, at least when taking into consideration the good of the entire city?

Food for thought 3: is there a price to pay for improvement, and if so, where does one draw the line? How does the good of the individual relate to the good of the city? How does one decide in whose favor to act when city and citizen are at odds?

[Source: Urban Times]

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