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Rio de Janeiro City Profile


Rio de Janeiro also referred to as Rio is located in Brazil and is the capital of the state Rio de Janeiro. It is located on the southeastern coast of Brazil. Rio de Janeiro is home to the famous statue ‘Christ the Redeemer’ and hosted the 2016 Summer Olympics. It is home to many gorgeous beaches that attract tourists from all over the world. Rio de Janeiro also hosts the Rio Carnival which is a yearly festival held during the five days before Lent. It is considered the biggest carnival worldwide. There are parades, dances, are extravagant costumes. Despite the festive culture and beautiful landscaping, Rio is home to a monstrous slum population. I chose to study Rio because I am interested in this urban issue and its solutions.

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City Background

Portuguese explorers arrived on the bay on January 1st, 1502. The city was not established by the Portuguese until 1565 and it was named Sao Sebastiao do Rio de Janeiro. In 1763 Rio became the Portuguese colonial capital. During this time sugarcane was the main crop being cultivated until gold and diamonds were discovered in the surrounding areas. Because of Rio’s proximity to the bay and coast, it became a port to ship the precious exports back to Portugal. In 1822, Brazil became independent from Portugal and Rio de Janeiro became the new capital. During this time Rio de Janeiro became the cultural, political, and economic center of Brazil. Rio remained the capital of Brazil until 1960 when the capital was moved to Brasilia.

Rio de Janeiro has a diverse landscape containing seas, mountains, and forests. Directly to the east lies the Guanabara Bay which contains many islands. It has close proximity to the Tropic of Capricorn. Rio has an area of about 485 square miles (“Rio De Janeiro Population 2019,” 2019). Because Rio is located in the Southern Hemisphere summer falls from October to January and winter runs from June to August. However, because of its tropical climate temperatures are relatively warm year round. Rio sometimes gets cold fronts from the Antarctica region. Rio is loosely divided into four different zones: the north, south, central, and west zone. The north zone is where a majority of the favelas are located. It is commonly associated with poverty and crime. It is also home to the Sambadrome. The south zone is known for high income and lots of tourism. It is home to Copacabana Beach, many high-end hotels, shops, and restaurants. The west zone is the biggest of the zones and is where Olympic Park is located. Because of this many new hotels have popped up in the area. The central zone is considered to be the economic center of the city. It is where the Port of Rio is. It has recently been revitalized and has many historic buildings and museums.

Rio de Janeiro is the second largest municipality in Brazil. In 2016 its population was estimated to be around 6.5 million people while the metro area had an estimated population of around 12 million residents (“Rio De Janeiro Population 2019,” 2019). About 25% of Rio’s population lives in favelas (Ortiz, 2016). Brazil is a representative democratic country and is divided into three branches, the executive, legislative, and judicial. Some of the main political parties are the Workers’ Party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, and the Social Liberal Party (“Brazil: Economic and Political Outline,” 2019). The current president of Brazil is a member of the Social Liberal Party. Rio de Janeiro is ruled by a mayor. Marcelo Crivella is currently serving as Rio’s mayor (Charner, 2017). His election meant a shift from Brazil’s socialist left ideologies to the conservative right. He won by a margin of almost 20% and promised to bring improvements to public services (Charner, 2016).

Rio de Janeiro is considered to be the cultural capital of Brazil. One of the main reasons it is considered to be the cultural capital of Brazil is because of the Carnival. It is a five-day carnival held before lent in the Sambadrome. The samba dance is a big part of the celebration and there is a samba competition between Rio’s samba schools. It is judged by a panel of forty judges that closely scrutinize the technique of each dance.

Figure 1: This image shows a float in the Carnival parade located in the Sambadrome.

There is also a large New Year’s Eve celebration on the Copacabana beach. Rio is also the primary place for cinematic production in Brazil. The residents of Rio enjoy a relaxed lifestyle, and they enjoy sunbathing on the beach, playing sports, and going out to bars and restaurants. Soccer is the primary sport in Rio, the city actually hosted the 2014 World Cup. Other sports people enjoy playing are volleyball, basketball, and tennis. Rio is home to the ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue, it was recently elected as one of the new wonders of the world. Rio has a wide variety of architectural styles including art deco, colonial, neo-classical, French renaissance, and modernist.


Around a quarter of Rio de Janeiro’s population lives in favelas which is roughly 1.5 million people. There are around 1000 favelas in Rio (Ortiz, 2016). Rochina is one of the most well-known favelas in Rio and is home to about 100,000 people (Glenny, 2017). Between the 1940s to the 1970s many migrants came from the countryside to Rio in hopes of finding work. Unable to afford proper housing these migrants had no choice but to find refuge in the shantytowns. Favelas are overcrowded, illegal low-income housing settlements typically built on the outskirts of town on the hillside. Homes built in favelas fail to follow building codes, lack infrastructure, sewage/ waste management, and potable water. The informal settlements are typically made from scrap material. They are so densely populated that it is hard to install modern roads or utilities. This has created a variety of health hazards, environmental challenges, and high infant mortality rate. Due to the lack of government control, they have become a hotspot for crime. Gangs and drug cartels have overrun the streets. Despite the negative conditions, favelas have a vibrant culture and many unique businesses.

Figure 2: This is the Rochina favela, it is one of the largest favelas in Rio.

Dealing with favelas is a problem the Brazilian government has been faced with for decades. For years the government wanted to demolish the settlements leaving thousands of people homeless. By the 1980s the government realized that upgrading the slums was more cost-effective and humane (Logan, 2015). In 1995 the first ever slum upgrade program was completed. It was called ‘Favela-Bairro’ which is translated to ‘slum into neighborhood’ (Brakarz, 2001). This program received a budget of 180 million USD for the first stage and the same amount for the second stage (Brakarz, 2001). This project was important because it was the first time the government used its resources to max capacity in order to try to tackle the slum problem. One goal that did not work out as expected was training residents of the favelas for employment. Due to lack of education in the favelas many people cannot read or write, so what the people really needed was literacy training. By the end of the program, 100 favelas and 24 informal subdivisions were upgraded with infrastructure, childcare centers, land titling, and hygiene training.

In 2016 Rio de Janeiro hosted the Olympics. They won the bid to host the Olympics in 2009. This meant that for many months leading up to and during the Olympics the world would be focused on Rio. The government decided to take action in order to cover up the favelas and make room for the Olympics. One way of doing this was to build a five-mile-long and ten-foot tall wall between the favelas and the south zone so when tourists would come in they would not see 
the favelas (Bowater, 2016). This wall is conveniently placed along the motorway leading out of the airport. Another solution Rio’s government came up with was to completely demolish some of the favelas. This came with tough backlash because it would mean the government would be displacing thousands of families. Very few families were allowed to stay in their homes and others were relocated to low-income housing projects 25 miles outside of the city. Many of the favelas that were cleared were to make room for new roadways and buildings. Vila Autodromo was an example of this clearing practice. It was located between Olympic Park and the Athletes’ Village. In 2010 it was decided that it would be demolished in order to make new roads connecting the two Olympic locations (Bowater, 2016). Demolitions of favelas for the Olympics has been some of the most recent campaigns to try to ‘fix’ the housing issue.

Figure 3: This is a portion of the wall that was built to hide the favelas from tourists when coming for the Olympics.

Favelas or illegal housing settlements are a common problem throughout other cities in Brazil and in many other developing countries throughout the world. Currently, in Sao Paolo, one-third of the city’s population lives in a slum. Over the past six years the rent in the Sao Paolo metro area has increased by 97.5% (Logan, 2015). In Cape Town slums there is one toilet to every five households (“The World’s Largest Slums: Dharavi, Kibera, Khayelitsha, & Neza,” n.d). These informal houses do not have running water so people have to go elsewhere. This is so hard to comprehend because in America most homes have at least one toilet, and a majority have multiple bathrooms. The slum problem is not limited to just Brazil, it is estimated by 2030 one in four people on earth will live in some form of a slum (“The World’s Largest Slums: Dharavi, Kibera, Khayelitsha, & Neza,” n.d).


Rio de Janeiro is faced with an astronomical crime problem. The highest crime rate is in the cities favelas. They are overrun with gangs and drug cartels leading to high homicide rates, high consumption of illegal drugs, and gun control problems. Favelas are essentially unregulated by the government which creates the perfect environment for violent criminals to take charge. In Brazil, in 2017 there were about 64,000 homicides and law enforcement is only able to solve a small percent of these crimes (Darlington, 2018). Rio de Janeiro reported in 2017 that for every 100,000 residents there were 30 murders (Darlington, 2018).

War on Drugs

Starting in the Eighties, drug dealers began appearing in the favelas. They started out with moving marijuana and eventually ventured into the cocaine world. By the mid-eighties, Rio became the hub for illegal drug trafficking in the Andean region. The three largest gangs in Rio are the Comando Vermelho, Terceiro Comando, and Amigos dos Amigos (Salgado, 2018). Drug gangs are involved in fatal turf wars and sometimes force businesses to shut down. The gun violence also commonly forces schools in the favelas to shut down, which interrupts the education of students. In 2008 the government decided it was time to take back the city using police and military force thus beginning the ‘urban war on drugs.’ Brazil’s government launched a program called the Pacification Police Unit (UPP) (Nolen, 2017). The goal was to have an elite force of officers trained specifically in reducing drug-related violence. There was an incentive program for officers where they would receive a monetary bonus when the number of drug-related homicides and robberies was reduced (Nolen, 2017). This unit was to stay in the favelas and try to reduce the territorial hold cartels had on the neighborhoods. Another part of the initiative was to improve social programs in the favelas by improving child care, health care, and sanitation (Nolen, 2017). This program slowed down the fighting between gangs until Sergio Cabral who was the former governor of the state was jailed for corruption. Once he left office the state was left in a poor financial state, which meant funding and political backing to the UPP was cut causing gang-related homicide and violence to rise again (Salgado, 2018). Violence and homicide are common between law enforcement and cartels, and many residents of the favelas do not trust law enforcement. Today, the drug cartels violence is as rampant as ever with no foreseeable end in sight.


Homicide rates in Rio de Janeiro are extremely high, especially in the favelas. It is reported that there were 408 homicides in July of 2018 (“Rio de Janeiro Sees Thefts Decline, but Homicides Increase,” 2018). Recently, police killings have become an increasing problem. From January 2018 to November 2018 1,444 people were killed by the police (“Brazil: Police Killings at Record High in Rio,” 2018). While some of the killings are justified self-defense, many more are believed to be the result of unnecessary use of force. In July 2018, someone died every six hours from conflicts with the police (“Rio de Janeiro Sees Thefts Decline, but Homicides Increase,” 2018).

Figure 4: Rio’s Military Police standing patrol in a favela.

The current governor of Rio has order police to follow a ‘shoot to kill’ policy, even in situations when this type of force is not necessary (Kaiser, 2019). The problem with this order is that it puts everyone at risk of being caught in the violence and makes people not trust the police because they are not being held accountable for their actions. In March 2018 Marielle Franco and her driver were murdered in a drive-by. She was the only black woman serving on the city’s council and she was a political activist known for condemning police brutality and supporting LGBTQ and women’s rights (“Brazil: Police Killings at Record High in Rio,” 2018). Two former police officers were arrested in connection with the murder, and many people suspect the attack had been planned for months in advance because of her political involvement. Many people were shaken by this attack because she was a loud voice for the people in the favelas. General Walter Braga Netto is the commander of public security operations in Rio released a plan to reduce crime and increase security. However, this plan had no goal of reducing police killings as was promised by the military police at the beginning of 2018 (“Brazil: Police Killings at Record High in Rio,” 2018). With government officials doing nothing to reduce these killings it seems that going forward police killings will continue to be a violent problem that plagues Rio de Janeiro.

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One of the biggest environmental issues Rio de Janeiro faces is pollution. The city struggles with water pollution, waste management, and air pollution. High traffic rates lead to air pollution, while lack of proper waste disposal in favelas pollutes the land and water. Beaches are covered in trash and the sand is greasy. When Rio de Janeiro won the bid in 2009 for the 2016 Olympics it was hoped that one of the legacies from the games would be an improvement of environmental conditions. Rio has a long way to go when it comes to fixing their beaches and water, they have made great strides in the right direction.


Water Pollution

Rio de Janeiro has had water pollution issues for decades. Rio’s water pollution problem was exposed at a global level because of the 2016 Olympics. Many of the summer Olympic sports revolve around water, so having contaminated waterways posed a huge threat to tourists and competitors. As part of winning the bid to host the Olympics, they promised to clean 80 percent of the trash and debris out of the lake and bay. Guanabara Bay, where rowing and sailing were held, is home to tons of raw untreated sewage, trash, and hundreds of different bacteria and viruses. Officials have even found body parts floating in the waterways, which is not surprising considering the violence that is plaguing Rio. Athletes were advised to spend the least amount of time on the water as possible and shower immediately after to avoid catching anything. The main factor leading to this issue is inadequate sewage networks in low-income areas. The government has not given enough funding to these neighborhoods for water and sewage treatments. The favelas are disconnected from the city’s proper sewage network, so the sewage is flushed into surrounding streams which flow directly into the bay (Nolen, 2017). Since favelas are on the side of steep hills and mountainsides and severely overpopulated it can be nearly impossible to lay sewage pipes.

Water pollution has not only hurt the aesthetics of the city, but it also poses a huge environmental threat. Local fishermen have seen a huge decrease in fish and wildlife in the coastal area. Fishermen have reported that where they used to catch six fish an hour, they are now lucky to catch one (Lacey, 2018). Thousands of families rely on the fishing industry for food and income. With a reduction of fish in the bay, many families are left hungry or struggling to make ends meet. There have also been mass fish killings in the bay, believed to be caused by toxic microalgae. In November 2014, 80 tons of dead fish were removed from the bay (Lacey, 2018).

Figure 5: Trash and debris covering the beach on Guanabara Bay.

Brazil and Rio de Janeiro’s government have tried to come up with solutions to fix the water pollution problem. When Rio won the bid for the 2016 Olympics it was hoped that they would finally be dedicated to cleaning the waterways. The Rio Olympics Organizing Committee promised that it would capture, treat, and clean 80 percent of the water entering the Guanabara Bay (Bemiller, Graham, Trendafilova, 2018). However, this goal was unable to be met. Eco-barriers were placed along 17 rivers that flow into Guanabara Bay (Lacey, 2018). Eco-barriers are wide nets meant to capture trash and 
debris from floating into the bay.

Figure 6: This is an eco-barrier placed in a stream in Rio catching trash and debris.

City garbage teams would then come to clean out what was caught in the eco-barriers. A second solution was to have Eco-Barcos patrol the waterways and collect and remove the trash. Eco-Barcos are specialized boats placed in the bay to find and collect trash (Lacey, 2018). Helicopters were brought in to locate large pieces of trash like furniture or appliances and direct the boats to pick them up. In Rio’s favela neighborhood of  Providencia Hill, trash and litter have piled up on the already slim and overcrowded streets. Waste management trucks struggle to pick up the trash. A new program in the neighborhood has incentivized local trash collection by letting residents exchange one bag of trash for a gallon of milk (Logan, 2015). This program benefits the environment and the people of the community. These efforts were relatively successful in clearing surface level debris out of the bay, it did nothing to reduce the harmful bacteria and virus populations in Guanabara Bay. There is one initiative that is aiming to clean up the water with short and long term goals. The Clean Urban Delta Initiative is a collaboration between Dutch businesses and Rio’s government to come up with solutions to the pollution problem. Some of their sustainable solutions include more eco-boats, construction of wetlands, and litter catching and sorting devices. They would provide low-cost plastic shredders to maximize the value of plastic waste (Lacey, 2018). The Clean Urban Delta Initiative provides more eco-friendly solutions to the pollution problem and has the potential to help rid the waterways of harmful bacteria and viruses. Rio de Janeiro has a significant water pollution issue, but if they continue to come up with solutions to tackle the issue at hand the results could yield great improvements to the situation.

Air Pollution

It is thought that air pollution is more dangerous than water pollution in Rio. While locals know to avoid swimming in toxic areas, they have no choice but to breathe in toxic air. Low air quality kills thousands every year and makes thousands more suffer from respiratory illness. The Rio de Janeiro metropolitan area has a population of around 12 million people, every day around two million cars hit the roads (Brooks, 2016). Exhaust fumes from traffic congestion are one of the biggest contributors to pollution. There are two main types of particles in the air that contribute to pollution known as PM 2.5 and PM 10. PM 2.5 are fine particles in the air that are produced from motor vehicles, forest fires, agricultural burning, and other types of combustion (“Particle Pollution (PM),” 2017). PM 10 are coarse dust particles in the air from grinding operations and dust stirred up by vehicular traffic (Particle Pollution (PM),” 2017). Since 2008, Rio’s air has been two to three times above the World Health Organizations limit for PM 10 (Brooks, 2016). From 2010 to 2014 Rio’s average PM 10 reading was 52 per cubic meter of air, the WHO’s limit is 20 per cubic meter of air (Brooks, 2016). Rio de Janeiro is considered to be the most congested city in South America, with average travel times increasing by 50 percent during peak hours (“Management of Urban Change,” n.d.). Motor vehicles give off both forms of particle pollutants and with over two million cars on the road each day it becomes very clear how cars are such a big contributor to the low air quality.

Rio’s other air pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide are well within the World Health Organizations limits (Brooks, 2016). However, PM pollutants cause the most severe effects on the well-being of humans which is why high levels of PM is a problem. Those exposed to pollutants have higher risks of asthma, heart attacks, decreased lung function, chronic bronchitis, and premature death from lung cancer (“Spare the Air: Health Effects,” n.d.). In 2014 it was estimated that 5,400 people died because of air pollution-related health complications (Brooks, 2016). That is more people killed by air pollution than by murder in 2014.

Rio de Janeiro’s government has decided to take action to improve public transportation and encourage more people to ditch their cars. One of the projects is the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The city builds special bus corridors that are specifically for bus use only. This makes traveling on the bus more effective than riding in a car because the corridors aren’t affected by traffic jams caused by cars. The first BRT corridor was opened in 2012 and linked two neighborhoods, Santa Cruz and Barra da Tijuca together, this slashed travel times between the two by 50 percent (“Management of Urban Change,” n.d.). Rio also has over 90 miles of bike paths in the city with plans to double the paths in coming years. There are 600 bicycles available to be rented across 60 different stations in the city (“Management of Urban Change,” n.d.). A reduction of personal car usage is a good start for minimizing PM levels and improving air quality. Overall, Rio has been taking positive steps towards improving public transportation which will, in turn, have positive results on air quality.


Overall, Rio de Janeiro is a vibrant city filled with great cultural experience. It hosted the 2014 World Cup, the 2016 Summer Olympics, and is home to the world-famous Carnival. However, it is plagued by many problems including favelas, crime, and pollution. Favelas are a serious problem for Rio because they lead to problems such as crime and pollution. Because of the lack of government interference in favelas drug gangs were able to flourish leading to a huge war on drugs and increasing police brutality. They also lack basic sewage lines leading to destructive water pollution in the streams, lakes, and bay. Almost a quarter of Rio’s population lives in a hazardous environment that comes along with favelas. Because of this, there is a high infant mortality rate, low education rate, and tons of violence in favelas. Air pollution is a silent killer that poses a threat to the health of all of Rio’s citizens. Rio’s government is taking some action by working to clean trash and debris out of the waterways and improving public transportation to improve air quality. When it comes to favelas and crime the government is not doing enough to reduce violence and improve living conditions in favelas. Rio is faced with many complex issues but it is doing what it can to reduce the impacts of these issues and increase the quality of life for its residents.



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