The view of public luxuries from Brazil

Issue 122

Paris Marx

Hey urbanists,

We’ve been discussing public luxuries from the perspective of the Global North over the past few weeks, but Luìsa Gonçalves emailed me to give us some perspective from Brazil, where the situation and issues that need to be considered can be quite different.

I want to recommend the pieces on automation by Aaron Benanav, Berlin’s rent freeze, North American transit projects, car advertising, climate apartheid, “sustainable” tourism, and Jim Cramer declaring fossil fuels are “tobacco.”

I’m in New York City and Boston this week, and will be in Montreal next week. I checked the survey that I sent out last year about setting up some meet and greets, but not many people left name and contact info — only two of those who indicated NYC, for instance. If you want to grab a coffee while I’m in town though, send me an email.


P.S. — Click the heart below the headline or at the end of the email if you like the issue.

Can Brazil have public luxuries, too?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the need to have more communal spaces and public luxuries, and followed it up with a further reflection on what that might look like after receiving an email from Sverrir Bollason in Iceland. However, our perspectives — from North America and the Nordic countries — provide a very specific lens through which to view that discussion. Thankfully, Luìsa Gonçalves reached out to provide her view from São Paulo where the urban challenges are different from those we face in the Global North.

Luìsa notes that discussions about public luxuries are “kind of a tabu in Brazil,” in part because of the significant inequalities that exist in Brazil’s major cities — not just Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. American culture is very influential in Brazil, but Luìsa noted, like Sverrir, that there are aspects of American life that simply are not relatable.

This suburban life is what I called “not-Brazil,” both by its urban form and by what I think is due to the public security issue (which itself comes from social inequality). In almost every show or film if there is a “poor people” you can be sure his or her house is three times the size of a middle-class apartment in Rio or São Paulo.

Also, the habit of jogging in the night in those suburban streets with no one walking around is never something a Brazilian would consider doing, because of the risks of being robbed. Nightlife is basically resumed in private places for the richest/middle class and public but crowded places for middle class/poorest.

Another thing on security is that in Rio, it’s bad enough that all buildings have a metal high gate/fences in the front, with employees designated to guard it 24/7; but in São Paulo there is a double gate, actually forming a kind of “cage,” that gives people the feeling of being more safe. In architecture school we used to call it “architecture of violence.” Also, if a pizza guy comes for delivery, in São Paulo it is forbidden for him to go up to your apartment, you have to come down and get the pizza through a “pizza hole” in the gate (yes, very bizarre).

Luìsa was kind enough to provide a photo of the gates and “pizza hole” that is common outside buildings, though the criticism of the size of ostensibly “poor” people’s homes in American film and TV isn’t just a Brazilian one — it’s also made by Americans and Canadians. There are gated suburban communities in the United States, but I’m not as familiar with this kind of gated residential building (though I could be wrong). I have read about them in Singapore and parts of Israel, however, though I’m not sure if they also have pizza holes.

But these security measures feel necessary to people because of the perception that cities are unsafe, a product of the massive social inequalities that exist within them (and which I imagine will get even worse under President Jair Bolsonaro). Luìsa explains that the perception is worse in Rio than São Paulo because the favelas are far more visible in the former, being built on the hills that surround the city.

But what does this mean for communal space and the investment in public luxuries? The high degree of poverty and precarity “imposes sharing everything,” which has the result of ensuring that “‘growing in life’ is synonymous of privatization” and “symbols of status that mostly refer to private assets: cars, clothes, expensive and very small restaurants, schools, hospitals and so on.” There is also a feeling that urban life has robbed people of the community they had in rural areas, and “we all feel the damage that makes to community, to loneliness, to raise children, to waste food (that we could perfectly offer to someone), to ask for help, to make friends, network and so on.”

As a result of the focus on private spaces, “public squares are occupied by homeless people and considered dangerous places to be,” but there has been a movement to reclaim public space.

I have a theory that since the sports events (World Cup and Olympics) everything got so ridiculously expensive that people not only realized they didn't have to spend a lot money to “stay”/ to occupy the urban space, but they didn’t have to spend money at all. From then there has been a great growth in public neighborhood markets, public festivities and even increase in restaurants that have tables on the streets (very parisien) rather than in shopping malls.

This is undoubtedly a positive development, but Luìsa ends her email with one final (yet crucial) point. The left-wing government under Lula da Silva was transformative in many ways, but the main criticism was that “his way to give people some power is that it went though consumption and not culture, so when the economic crises hit and those people lost ‘buying power’, little was left to middle classes in the sense of importance of what you call public luxuries.”

By boosting incomes through the Bolsa Família, not enough was done to improve and expanding public programs, public spaces, etc., so when the crash hit, these institutions didn’t exist to help people when their stipend simply wasn’t enough. This is precisely why I became critical of the basic income and favor investments in transit, public communications, healthcare, public housing, libraries, community spaces, etc. instead. The basic income relieves short-term financial pain, but doesn’t address the structures that put people there in the first place.

It’s great to have this perspective from Brazil, where poverty still forces people to do things collectively, but social pressure makes people feel that social progress of mobility is achieved by moving toward a privatized existence. Yet, in the face of that, there is a movement toward improving public spaces, but the government hasn’t done enough to help it along and provide the key public funding that would be necessary for a significant expansion of public luxuries.

Stories of the week

🇧🇷🙄 Architect-to-the-tech-industry Bjarke Ingels got caught chatting up Brazil’s fascist president Jair Bolsonaro, and responded he was there to talk about “sustainable tourism” and that “great ideas transcend political parties.” I think Jeremy Till nailed it: “It’s a fantasy that by doing a nice greenwash project in the north-east of Brazil, you are going to save the nation from fascism.”

Tech dystopia

🤖🤔 Aaron Benanav explains automation isn’t primarily to blame for the reduction in manufacturing jobs, but rather slowing growth rates. Countries with the some of most manufacturing employment — Germany, Japan, etc. — have the most robots, not the least, but if we don’t figure out a way to recognize the real problem and share the work that’s left, “beggar-thy-neighbor politics really will tear our societies apart.”

😬 Vice asked for stories from people who’d been scammed on Airbnb. It received more than 1,000 responses. “Scammers all over the world, it seems, have figured how best to game the Airbnb platform: by engaging in bait and switches; charging guests for fake damages; persuading people to pay outside the Airbnb app; and, when all else fails, engaging in clumsy or threatening demands for five-star reviews to hide the evidence of what they’ve done. (Or, in some cases, a combination of several of these scams.)”

▶️ New research supports the argument that YouTube is radicalizing people. “The findings suggest a pipeline effect over a number of years where users who started out commenting on alt-lite/IDW YouTube content shifted to commenting on extreme far-right content on the platform over time.”

🚮 “Apple’s commitment to diversity when it comes to its highly paid technical staff is about on par with the rest of Silicon Valley – which is to say, execrable. […] But I would never doubt the $1.4tn company’s commitment to diversity when it comes to overpriced accessories.”

🇺🇸 50 U.S. state attorneys general are conducting an antitrust investigation into Google’s business. Next week, some of them will meet with federal antitrust officials, which could see them work together.

💰 Your antivirus software and your surveillance doorbell are tracking you and distributing your data

Critical urbanism

🇬🇧🚫🚗 Brighton joins cities and towns across the U.K. implementing or considering car bans in the city center. “The trend has led some transport analysts to argue that the 2020s could herald an end to the supremacy of the motor car in the minds of the public and planners.”

🇳🇿🏠 There are about 40,000 vacant properties in Auckland — 7.3% of all private dwellings — and the government is considering a plan to get their owners to let them be used to house the homeless or low-income workers. It seems they may need a more forceful approach than simply sending a kindly worded letter though.

🇺🇸🎬 Los Angeles is considering a plan to overhaul Hollywood Boulevard “with wider sidewalks, more shade trees, more space for sidewalk dining — and far less space for drivers.” Why can’t it go all the way and ban cars?

🇩🇪 Berlin passed a five-year rent freeze that will apply to 1.5 million apartments, after which rent increases will be capped at 1.3%. Left-wing politician Harald Wolf said, “Housing must not be an object of excessive profit maximization.”

🇳🇬 In Lagos, poor people living in slums are frequently displaced to make way for well-off residents who want to live closer to the sea

🇦🇹🎭 A new experiment in Vienna will reward car-free travel with free admission to museums and concerts

🚌🚇 Yonah Freemark details the transit projects slated to open in North America in 2020 and beyond

📺🚙 Car ads promote driving habits that make our streets less safe

🚫🚗 San Francisco’s Market Street is now closed to private vehicles

Climate crisis

🇦🇺🔥 “The harrowing and apocalyptic scenes coming out of Australia are only the beginning of a new normal in which climate change will result in climate apartheid. Those with the means and the resources will leave climate catastrophe zones or otherwise protect themselves from the worst effects of climate change, while poor communities and nations of the Global South, indigenous people and people of colour will bear the brunt.”

✈️ The rise of “sustainable tourism” is just the travel industry’s latest way to assuage our guilt about the climate impact of our travel habits, and it won’t change without a full-scale restructuring of our transportation systems

🇻🇳☀️ Vietnam expected 850MW of solar capacity to be added after it implemented a feed-in tariff, but actually got 5GW — more than sunny Australia. It’s nearly hit its goal of having 10% of power from solar and wind ten years ahead of schedule, and will likely need fewer coal plants as a result.

🇪🇸📉 As part of its new plan to cut emissions in half by 2030, Barcelona will close more streets to cars, set the speed limit at 30 km/h on more than half the city’s streets, create new parks, and will invest more in expanding urban solar power.

🛢📉 Jim Cramer, host of CNBC’s Mad Money, said oil companies are in the “death knell phase” and fossil fuels “are tobacco”

🇦🇺👩‍⚖️ New South Wales launched a six-month inquiry into its handling of the bushfire response and the role of climate change in fueling it

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