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Urban Planning in the context of Social Conflicts: autonomous initiatives in

contemporary Brazil
This paper is part of a research project of the Centre for Contested Planning Experiences, of
the State, Work, Territory and Nature Laboratory (ETTERN), of the Institute of Urban and
Regional Research and Planning (IPPUR), of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro
(UFRJ). The Centre researches planning experiences conducted by social movements,
popular organizations and organized communities against urban projects or the threat of
eviction. In face of conflict, civil society organizes to propose a different way of conceiving
the urban space, as a means to defend their right to housing and to the city.
The research is based on the proposition that it is in urban conflicts and not only in
disturbances and crises, that can be found and seen the social dynamics through which our
cities speak. The study of urban conflict, therefore, offers a rich key to reality and urban
dynamics readings. And more than that, they can inspire new ways of conceiving a
democratic and just city.
In the face of conflict, main stream points to participatory and businesslike processes, whose
core and primary purpose is to avoid, bypass, mediate or resolve conflicts that are seen as
dysfunctional, costly, threatening. Civic peace and harmony would constitute, in this
perspective, the condition through which the city-enterprise realizes its competitive potential:
the polis submits itself to the city, politics gives way to business. Contested Planning, on the
contrary, points to and bets on the creative potential of conflict, from which emerge
collective subjects that rescue the city as political arena, as a place in which citizens face and
confront each other to discuss and arbitrate the citys fate. (VAINER, 2011)
In this paper we will present four cases from different parts of Brazil, where urban planning
was a central strategy in struggles for local communities rights. Throughout the surveyed
cases of autonomous planning practices in the context of social conflicts, in contemporary
Brazil, we intend also to promote a dialogue with the academic literature on progressive,
radical, insurgent and alternative planning experiences in central countries, or the global
north, pointing out differences in Brazils context.
Community Planning and Social Struggles
The development of alternative projects, using technical language and instruments, has been
a resource used by urban social movements in its struggles for the right to the city at least
since the 1960s. Through counter proposals, organized groups contest real estate projects
and urban interventions that threat poor families of displacement.
Important references of community planning come from the civil rights movement in the
United States. Organized social movements in the 1960s, against racism, for womens and
immigrants rights, for the freedom of political organization, became important political
forces and achieved important victories. The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 represented a
landmark for the protection of social and political rights. In the same period, the government
promoted large urban interventions, in the name of economic development and the fight
against poverty, resulting in increasing spacial segregation in most large north american
cities. Community planning emerges then as a strategy to face real estate and official urban
renewal projects, and defend peoples right to remain in their communities. With the advance
of the social movements, demands for basic rights turn in to struggles for social
transformations. Activists organize not only to defend communities and local businesses, but
to plan for their future and in the scale of the city (ANGOTTI, 2008). Grassroots
organizations become bases for the construction of social change, and radical planning
emerges as a political strategy to contest the system. (FRIEDMANN, 1987)
In Brazil, since the 1970s, autonomous technical advisory offices support urban social
movements in the development of social housing projects, to face economic and political
powers in their struggle for the right to the city (BONDUKI, 2011; USINA, 2008).
During the 1960s and 1970s, Brazilian cities experience rapid urban growth, without any
formal housing solution for the poor. New informal settlements grew without any
infrastructure or support from government. Community organizations in the periphery of
urban areas and slums, start to organize to demand basic urban services. New proposals for a
just city were drawn as a result of the convergence of peoples organizations: local
neighborhoods organizations that sought for improvements and basic services; Christian
churchs base communities; and leftwing activists that fought against dictatorship and were
searching for a sphere of action that would lead to changes in society. (SADER, 1988)
In So Paulo, such initiatives led to self help and self management housing provision
experiences, oriented by autonomous technical advisory offices, organized by housing
movements. In Rio de Janeiro, local communities, along with architects, proposed slum
upgrading projects to confront slum evictions. The case of Brs de Pina (Rio de Janeiro), in
the 1960s is emblematic. In a context where the dominant solution for urban slums was
eradication, it is the one of the first cases of slum upgrading. Government developed a
participatory urban project, as a pilot for a new treatment for what was then considered a
social problem (BLANK, 1979).
The urban social movements, born from those autonomous organizations of the 1970s and
80s where seen as a seed for social change. Their grassroots organizations and potential to
challenge the capitalist city, where seen by some as potentially revolutionary. In the 80s, the
construction of the Workers Party congregates the main movements for housing and the right
to the city. In So Paulo, as a result of the housing movements organization, in the 1990s,
the local administration (first progressive local government 1 ) starts a official housing
program to promote social housing through technical advisory for self management housing
building by organized communities.
The ascension of progressive political parties in Brazil in the 1990's, and the inclusion of
social initiatives in official governmental programs, combined with many community leaders

Workers party wins election for So Paulos city government, for the mandate from 1989 to 1992.
becoming governmental staff, is seen by some authors as cause of the loss of the
revolutionary potential of the organized movements (GOHN, 1985; KOWARICK, 2002;
BAIERLE, 2012). The late 1980s and 90s were also a context of the ascension of
neoliberalism, urban and social crisis.
This brief contextualization of the first experiences in Brazil of what we are denominating
autonomous experiences in the context of social conflict, brings us some elements for
reflection. The historical context is important to understand the recent cases presented in the
following section.
Autonomous Planning Experiences in the Context of Social Conflicts
In the neoliberal city of the 21st century, regulated in accordance to standards of corporate
governance and focused on the attraction of (especially foreign) investments, there is no
place for the poor and the urban conflicts are intensified. Social movements and community
organizations seek for strategies and means to resist and challenge such imposed city project.
Popular and alternative projects and plans for the urban space emerge as possible instruments
to defend the right to housing and to the city; to claim for their right to decide about the
future of the urban space; and to fight against corporate forces allied to political power.
In the Brazil of the 21st century, social conflicts triggered by urban interventions related to
mega projects and mega sports events, are giving rise to new autonomous organizations.
From outside of the government, and questioning its practices, they elaborate alternative
proposals. Brazils cities are historically marked by extreme inequality in the distribution of
urban goods and services. Also by the lack of housing and land policies, that consider the
major part of the society, leaving people with no other option but to build their homes in
informal settlements.
In such context, the claim of the right to the city must refer not only to authoritarian
processes of urban renewal (as some cases in cities of the global north, for example), but also
to demand profound changes in the social production of the urban space.
The cases selected here are related to a urban development project associated with a mega
events (2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics), in the mark of strategic urban planning. Mega
events and mega projects in the past years in Brazil were presented as an opportunity for all,
in a moment of economic growth, big urban investments in selected parts of the city would
promote development and economic opportunities for the whole society. The real impacts of
such projects and the people directly affected were never officially measured or presented for
democratic debate. Those who contested such models were considered to be going against the
citys, and the nationals, interests (VAINER, 2000). But in many cases people affected
organized and found a way to claim for their rights.
Dandaras Insurgent Territory in Belo Horizonte2
Since the 1980s in Brazil, urban social movements, inspired by rural movements, carry out
occupations of urban empty land as a means to fight for their right to land and housing in the
city. The land occupations in the last decade in city Belo Horizonte (State of Minas Gerais)
accounts for 10,000 families and mobilizes a network of resistance to eviction that counts on
independent activists, catholic church, universities, and a block of carnival. Since 2008, none
have been evicted. Dandara is one of theses land occupations, promoted by the social
movements Frum de Moradia do Barreiro, Brigadas Populares and Movimento dos
Trabalhadores Rurais Sem-Terra - MST, in 2009. The people of Dandara, and the
organizations and movements that supports them, defends their autonomy to determine their
way of occupying land and their living conditions. As a way to organize to resist eviction and
organize the occupation, the people o Dandara elaborated their Master Plan. The elaboration
of the plan revealed tensions from the interests of the families to have a bigger parcel of
private land, and community leaders and technical advisory that defended larger parcels for
common space. The final plan was democratically built, conciliating common spaces -
collective spaces for production, political formation, cultural activities - and private lots for
each family.
The community resisted intense pressure for eviction, political and legal actions from the city
hall against them, and has consolidation itself as a popular insurgent neighborhood. The plan
for its occupation, as presented by technical advisors of Dandara, "is not ideal, pure, because
it also reproduces social, political and urban practices of a social order still subjugated to
private property, competition, individualism, oppression, fear and selfishness, but represents
an insurgent territory, where people refuse the official housing program and demand for the
recognition of their way of life. It also opens space for contestation of the political and
economical forced that try to build the city in the interests of real state market and private
Comunidades do Trilho in Fortaleza
In the city of Fortaleza (State of Ceara), small communities grew in the remaining area of the
railways that crosses an important part of the city. With the advance of the urbanization,
theses areas became of interest of the real estate market. As part of the 2014 World Cup, an
urban renewal project was proposed, including a Light Rail Vehicle (LRV) that was
intentionally designed to evict as many communities as possible on its way.
The people of the Communities of the Rails (Comunidades do Trilho) began to organize
initially with the attempt to obtain information. The project had not been displayed to the
people, and the threats of evictions started with the lack of information and even lies from
governments officials. The many small communities affected got together with support from
the Federal University of Ceara and the Committee for a People's World Cup. The main

See MAYER and LOURENO, 2016.
initiative held was to map the affected areas, report the history of each community, the data
on the people living there, and the rights that were being threatened. The communities united,
created a new social movement - MLDM (Movement in the Struggle for the Defense of
Housing), which organized local meetings, conducted political demonstrations, and fought
for the peoples rights, against the State Government. The communities denounced the
problems with the proposed LRV project, and showed that there were other technical
solutions that would decrease significantly the affected households. In the Lauro Vieira
Chaves community, for example, of 203 families that would have to leave initially, only 66
were affected. The number of evictions was drastically lowered, and for many families a
better housing solution was proposed - resettlement in a nearby area, ou rebuilding the house
in the remaining areas of the same community. Most of the families remained in their homes
after the World Cup, but the threat of eviction persists, as the interests of the Government
allied with the real estate market is still to evict the poor from that part of the city. A new
project for the widening of an avenue and creation of bicycle lanes was proposed, and the
families are again organizing to contest it.
Vila Autdromos Popular Plan
The struggle of the people of Vila Autdromo against eviction mobilized traditional social
housing movements, new political and human rights organizations, and new urban activists.
Vila Autdromo is a poor community as many others in Brazil, an informal settlement that
struggled to be recognized as part of the city. Vila Autdromo differentiates from others by
its political organization to defend their rights.
Vila Autdromo is located in the area of the construction of the Olympic Park, for the 2016
Olympic Games. The eviction was justified by urban interventions for Olympics, but the
main interest was of social cleaning of an area destined for high income occupation.
The main strategy adopted to resist eviction was the elaboration of the Popular Plan for Vila
Autdromo, a Plan for Urban, Economic, Social and Cultural Development. The plan was
built by the people, with advisory of two universities. The development of a participatory
plan was also a strategy to mobilize the community, led by the peoples community
organization. Elected by social movements as an emblematic case in the fight against eviction
in Brazil, Vila Autdromo achieved visibility also by a media campaign - Viva a Vila
Autdromo (Long live Vila Autdromo) - and political mobilization. The city hall was
forced to present a counter-proposal, where Vila Autdromo could stay and be urbanized.
Most of the residents of the community, though, did not resist the violent pressure from the
city hall, and was evicted. A few families resisted and achieved their house in their original
place. For those families, it was a great and unexpected victory of the people against a
political project for the city and the stablished political and economic power.
Alternative Plan for Vila da Paz3
Threatened of eviction by the urban development project associated with a new soccer
stadium for World Cup 2014, the community of Vila da Paz in the city of So Paulo,
organized to resist. The main instrument of resistance was the proposal of an alternative plan,
in reference to the experience of Vila Autdromo. Residents of Vila da Paz looked for
political support from the coalition Committee for a Peoples World Cup, which was fighting
against the human rights violations related to the mega events. In a context of dozens of
evictions happening in the city, as shown by the Evictions Observatory of So Paulo
(https://www.observatorioderemocoes.fau.usp.br), the political organization helped to give
visibility to the case. The Committee brought together the community with two technical
advisory offices, Peabiru and Instituto Polis 4 , that supported the community in the
development their plan. The plan showed it was possible to conciliate the infrastructure
projects for the World Cup and the urbanization of the community, and showed also other
public housing solutions possible nearby. The struggle against eviction of Vila da Paz gained
new ground and opened space for a critical view of the city and the impacts of mega sports
events. Creating an invented space, as would say Miraftab (2009) refering to insurgent
planning practices, or maybe a forged space for political negotiation, Vila da Paz resisted
to the World Cup. The community is still threatened by the project of a park, planned in the
citys Master Plan, but is now much stronger to resist.
Contested Urban Planning
The autonomous planning practices in the selected cases were triggered by urban social
conflicts, that opened space for social creation. Oppressed population armed themselves with
an urban plan to confront corporate groups supported by political power, and to affirm their
right to the city. The official urban plan is used as an instrument of power, presented as a
rational result of consensus, for the development of the society. When appropriated and
transformed by people in affected communities and social movements, it becomes an
instrument to contest power, recognized and legitimated by the technical knowledge
mobilized. The urban plan is also a resource to strengthen the popular mobilization, oriented
to build a collectively produced vision of the city, founded on the defense of social rights.
The plans, though, are directed to the State. They press for negotiation, in extreme unequal
conditions of power. The feasibility of alternative projects depends on government
investment, and require, in many cases, radical changes: in political alliances with economic
agents who historically benefit from public investments; in taxes and urban standards.
The autonomous planning experiences in Brazil must be considered in its specific historical
processes of urban development, and its limits. Miraftab (2009) refers to Insurgent Planning
as transgressive, counter hegemonic, and imaginative. The question that comes to us is how

See AMORE et al, 2016.
Advisory offices that comes from the struggles for the right to housing in the 1980s in So Paulo.
to draw a line on those which are just reproducing social conditions, and the radical ones?
Considering the extremely unequal (in terms of resources) and hostile environment (political
repression and direct violence) in which they happen, the experiences can be considered
successful. Many resist and even change the course of specific urban processes. But can the
paths to the necessary rupture in relations of power and the distribution of social goods in
urban space be seen? Furthermore, planning decisions made in context of social conflict can
be guided by short-term issues that do not necessarily remain and are consolidated over time.
This way, both victories as defeats can be ephemeral.
In fact, the conditions for radical (as opposed to the a pragmatic) approach and for social
transformation are, in Brazil, very different from those addressed in the global north
literature. It is necessary to read the experiences of autonomous planning in the social
struggles in progress in Brazilian cities.
Starting from basic demands, as the right to information, communities create spaces of social
organization with an important symbolic dimension, creating spaces of hope. The struggles,
however, can be inscribed within the limits of local action. Means for social transformation,
processes of rupture in relations of power and the distribution of social goods, rarely can be
found in alternative processes of management and planning.
The local struggles mobilize communities, social movements, political organizations in
specific contexts, as forms of resistance. The interpretation of the processes, the paths and
potentialities of this action need to be constructed considering the social and political
struggles that take place in the cities in Brazil, in a broader way, considering the ongoing
movements in society. In a broader perspective, they dispute the sense of city by demanding a
city of rights. They can become struggles against a development model that is being imposed
to people, confront power and be a source of creative new forms toward democratic and just
cities. The challenge is how to overcome the limits of local action and build movements with
greater social and political reach.

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