ratti19_Javier EtcheverryVW PICSUniversal Images Group via Getty Images_rocinhafavela Javier Etcheverry/VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Putting Rio de Janeiro on the Map

The majority of the world’s urban growth takes place in informal neighborhoods constructed from makeshift materials on the edges of major cities. Residents of these areas often lack access to public services, but new mapping technology offers new possibilities for connecting them to urban infrastructure.

BOSTON – The future of urban planning may be in Brazil’s second-largest city. But it is not along Ipanema’s glittering waterfront, overlooked by some of the most expensive real estate in Latin America. Nor is it in the Centro district, refurbished for the 2016 Olympics and now the focus of a major urban regeneration plan. To glimpse the future of cities, travel past the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon until you reach the Jardim Botânico neighborhood, and then look to the hills, where the boundless Rocinha district is perched perilously on the slopes.

The pace of urbanization worldwide has accelerated dramatically in recent years. Across the planet, the equivalent of a new London is built every seven weeks. This explosive growth mostly consists of “informal neighborhoods.” In Brazil, they are called favelas. Rocinha is the largest of the many favelas that dot Rio de Janeiro’s uneven terrain, home to 100,000-200,000 inhabitants, depending on which estimate you trust.

Favelas emerged in the late nineteenth century. Following the abolition of slavery in 1888, masses of freed people and discharged soldiers began to build their homes with makeshift materials on the edges of Brazil’s cities. The resulting neighborhoods took their name from the type of tree that surrounded them on all sides. Today, an estimated 12 million Brazilians live in favelas, where residents’ access to essential services such as water and electricity is limited, and health risks, including tuberculosis and leprosy, are severe.

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