Favelas in the city : between fragmentation and urban inclusion

Michael CHETRY, 2012

In Brazil, favelas are strongly marked places in the social and physical space of large cities and are presented today as symbols of the fragmentation of large metropolises alongside closed and secure residential spaces. Four dimensions of urban fragmentation  are commonly distinguished: spatial, economic, political and social. In its socio-spatial aspect, the one of interest to us here, fragmentation establishes a link between urban society and urban space in the physical sense. More precisely, spatial fragmentation corresponds to urban situations characterized by a fragmented, heterogeneous and poorly articulated physical and visual aspect (discontinuity of the fabric, heterogeneity of landscapes, urban facilities and services, lack of articulation between fragments). Social fragmentation, on the other hand, describes the emergence of territories in which populations live inward-looking and where the absence of reference to global society is expressed1. This perception thus testifies to the permanence of a dualistic vision of urban space in which the favelas have been considered, since their appearance on the urban scene, as spaces alien to the city and their inhabitants are associated with marginal segments. Nevertheless, in more than a century of existence, the favelas have undergone numerous physical transformations and their inhabitants have not remained on the sidelines of urban society. Beyond appearances, the exploration of these spaces and the daily lives of their inhabitants show clear signs of integration into the city, which nevertheless remains marked, like Brazilian society, by profound inequality.

Discontinuity in urban form between the favelas and the city

In terms of the landscape, fragmentation seems obvious, as the discontinuity of the urban form between the favelas and the city contributes to crystallize the perception of two totally different spaces. At the origin of this discontinuity lies in particular the singularity of the urban landscape of the favelas. This is characterized by a high density of occupation resulting from a spontaneous and unregulated mode of occupation ; a characteristic morphology of the buildings in terms of the architecture of the constructions, the materials used and the level of finishing ; an irregular urban fabric resulting from a labyrinthine viaduct network in which the layouts were not planned but determined by the uses. All these urban planning elements give the favelas an unfinished and disorderly appearance, generally producing a strong contrast with the environment. In some cases, the discontinuity in urban form can also be caused by the existence of a physical separation between the favelas and the rest of the urban space, whether this is intentional, as with the construction of walls or barriers around some favelas by the public authorities in Rio de Janeiro, or caused by the implementation of developments designed to articulate spaces on a larger scale (expressways, railways, bridges, etc.).

However, this visual demarcation is far from automatically resulting in disparities or a lack of articulation with the city. Thus, even if the inhabitants encounter complications in their daily movements depending on the distance of the favelas from the city centre or the topography of the site on which they are located, on the whole, access roads and means of transport connect the favelas to the rest of the urban space. In some of them, access is further improved by an alternative transport network (vans, motorcycle taxis) that runs through the favela and provides a link to neighbouring neighbourhoods. There is also an ever-widening spread of communication networks in the favelas. The multiplication of mobile phone shops is a sign of this. The democratization of Internet access is undoubtedly the most revealing element of this trend. Cybercafés have developed spectacularly in recent years. They are now present in most favelas and take a varied and sometimes surprising form : from the makeshift cybercafé, where a few computers are installed in the living room of a house, in the corner of a hairdresser’s salon or at the back of a grocery store, to the more sophisticated connection centre where some thirty machines are available to users and various ancillary services are offered (printing of documents, creation of CVs or administrative procedures, etc.).

As for access to the various basic services (water, electricity, sewerage), it is generally well provided in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Almost all favela homes now have access to basic urban services : according to the data from the census carried out by the IBGE in 2000, 94.9% have access to running water, 82.8% are connected to the sewerage network, and 97% benefit from waste collection. These rates may be higher than those presented by certain districts of Rio de Janeiro and even by other Brazilian cities such as Recife, for example. However, there is a deficiency in the quality of the service provided, as the infrastructures encounter many dysfunctions due to the under-investment policy of the managing companies, which they justify by the frequency of clandestine connections in these areas. The situation is much the same as regards the presence of public facilities. Most of the favelas have schools and health posts, but the service provided is of poor quality due to a recurrent lack of human and material resources. This situation has led to the implementation of bypass strategies by some inhabitants who send their children to schools in neighbouring neighbourhoods or go directly to public hospitals for treatment, as well as the development of private services in the favelas where demand is high.

Thus, there is no doubt that the transformations undergone by the favelas over the course of time reflect a movement towards convergence with the city’s standards. Most of them have undergone, to varying degrees, a process of urbanization, either at the initiative of the public authorities or through the direct action of the inhabitants or their mobilization to demand intervention. From this point of view, although still present, the disparities between the favelas and the rest of the city, mainly in terms of equipment, infrastructure and even articulation, are diminishing.

Appearance of forms of urbanity

The same is true for the inhabitants who present forms of urbanity, albeit incomplete. Thus, their urban practices (of commerce, work, leisure) and sociability are not completely restricted to their place of residence and can be inscribed in many places in the city, even if they remain polarized in nearby areas. They can result in movement across the urban space, reflecting the search for shopping and leisure, such as the city centre or shopping centres, and public spaces such as beaches and parks. As a result, the inhabitants have the desire to access the various resources made available by the city, unfortunately limited by their low mobility, linked to the cost of transport but also to the strong feeling of insecurity felt in these cities, which in fact affects all individuals, all classes combined. It should be noted that this form of participation in urban life through practices is not the result of global or collective processes, but is above all the result of individual strategies, which then depend on the capacity of each individual to mobilise the necessary financial or social resources for this purpose. In this context, integration into the city certainly requires a minimum standard of living that the poorest do not always have, but regardless of whether or not they live in a favela.

However, this does not mean that processes of separation are not taking place in metropolises. There are also phenomena in the favelas that can fuel a more or less fragmented perception of the city. Thus, the location of the favelas in the urban space, the social profile of their environment, their size, their characteristics (degree of consolidation, presence of public facilities and shops, accessibility, domination by an armed criminal group in Rio, etc.) can all be factors that, more or less directly, contribute to a marginalisation of these spaces from the rest of the city. For example, the favelas are distinguished by the fact that they are frequented almost exclusively by their inhabitants, with outsiders most often hesitating to enter. There are also tendencies to retreat into the favelas. For some inhabitants, the favela plays a predominant, not to say exclusive, role in their daily life. These attitudes are determined at an individual level, depending on the characteristics of the inhabitants, according to gender, age, income or education level, or length of residence in the town. Thus, some people are more willing than others to live in a tight living space around their place of residence : the most deprived, who are forced to remain immobile, women because of their family responsibilities, or recent migrants who are not yet adapted to the urban way of life are some examples.

Unequal and asymmetrical integration

In the end, the processes of fragmentation can take varied and more or less intense forms, and if the integration of favela inhabitants into the city appears increasingly assured, it is an integration that remains unequal, asymmetrical, in a city traversed by increasingly rigid internal divisions, reflecting a society deeply marked by social injustice. This conclusion leads us to a twofold observation. Firstly, an analysis of the favelas in terms of fragmentation thus makes it possible to take account of the complexity of the processes taking place in metropolises, integrating both dynamics of separation and isolation but also of integration (the same imprint of domination). The second observation raises the question of the scale on which fragmentation phenomena are observed. The spectacular aspect of the presence of the favelas in the heart of the city conceals other less visible divisions that are inscribed on other scales. These divisions may reflect forms of withdrawal from daily life, which do not necessarily correspond to the limits of the favela, but which are most often inscribed on broader scales such as those of the neighbourhood or part of the city, thus reducing the relationship with the urban space as a whole (this is the case in Rio de Janeiro, for example, with the distinction between the South Zone and the North Zone of the city). From this point of view, fragmentation seems to be less the result of the internal characteristics of the favelas and their population than of the overall functioning of society and the city as a whole.


  • NAVEZ-BOUCHANINE, Françoise, 2001, « Des villes entre fragmentation spatiale et fragmentation sociale: une approche critique de la notion de fragmentation », in DORIER-APPRILL, Élisabeth, Vocabulaire de la ville. Notions et références, Paris, Édition du temps, p.109-118.