Janice Perlman: “There are so many things in Rio that are never talked about and that are absolutely heroic.”

Janice Perlman: “There are so many things in Rio that are never talked about and that are absolutely heroic.”

For this month’s Special Report, Dr. Janice Perlman, founder and CEO of the Mega-Cities Project, joined us to share her wide expertise on public policy, mega-events and the Rio Olympics. Since her last book Favela. Four decades of living on the edge in Rio de Janeiro hit the shelves, six years have passed. It’s time to take a step back and have a look at what has happened.

SM: It is remarkable how you have combined academic and public policy worlds during your career. How did it all start?

JP: From an early age I had become very interested in how knowledge, research and participation in another culture can generate benefits for local communities. I believe this can be done by establishing a connection between these communities and the level of policy via a bridging person, or by giving a voice to people who normally don’t have one.

When I was an undergraduate at Cornell University, an experiment started by Alan Holmberg had disproven a popular theory that hypothesized that you could only change people through generations. For his famous Vicos Experiment, Holmberg had bought a hacienda in Peru and focused on a community which had a set of “non-modern values”: they thought more about the past, they didn’t plan for the future, neither were they interested in experimenting, etc. In a later stage Cornell turned the property over to the owners themselves. When they returned three years later, they saw that people had changed. They were experimenting, planning for the future, determining their own fate and benefiting from their work. It showed to me that the myths and folk tales of society are not as powerful as questions like: who benefits from your work, who’s in charge and who’s taking the decisions that affect your life?

How did you first get involved in Brazil?

During my first year as an undergraduate, I participated to a theatrical cultural exchange in Latin America. We also travelled to Brazil. When we arrived there, we found ourselves in the middle of political turmoil in 1963 right before the military coup. Students were discussing an alternative non-capitalist, non-communist, non-socialist model. They were looking for a new social contract that would be indigenous to Brazil and that would learn from the mistakes of the previous systems. Up to this day, I believe we still need to think about this and pose that very same question.

How did you start combining the academic with the grassroots level?

During the ‘70s, when UC Berkeley hired me at the graduate school of City and Regional Planning, I started studying social urban movements, which I called in a paper grassrooting the system. All across the US, I studied community based organizations. I had always been interested in how popular movements could generate an alternative to money and power, but the most important function had not been documenting what was going on in those times. In fact, I realized I was being the disseminator of what one group was doing to another in a pre-internet era. All these people were fighting the same struggles like rights to get loans for housing or to get better schools, but none of them knew that the other was doing the same or was facing the same challenges. By staying at and visiting all these groups, I was able to affect reality via my research as I saw the importance of empowering people by putting people in touch with each other and by creating coalitions.

And the policy level?

During the Carter administration, I was invited to be the coordinator of the Inter-Agency National Urban Policy within the area Neighborhoods. There I got to see how difficult it is to coordinate and to find a strong common ground – even at the national level when you have an official presidential mandate that covers all the different ministries and departments. It was a huge process but equally thrilling. People felt empowered because they were asked what they would do about the neighborhood themselves. The project itself was a big eye opener for me because I saw the commitment grow when people were given the chance to be heard and felt like they can make a difference.

The findings were published as a national urban policy, but it received heavy backlash. The word urban was not accepted. Back then, for example in the World Bank, the idea was still persistent that development equals rural development. Over the past decades we saw how an anti-urban bias, though belatedly, started to lessen. Back then, however, it was already clear that the world was becoming urban. The urban space was going to determine the country.


Four decades of research on Rio de Janeiro.

As you mentioned, you have also worked for the World Bank. How did you combine your anthropological experiences with World Bank initiatives?

In 1978 I was hired by the World Bank. I helped the new urban projects department and had to analyze why it hadn’t been as effective as intended. In Jakarta for example, the World Bank had implemented expensive dredging systems. Yet after a year the canals would turn back into sewage as the compounds would not be maintained. When I arrived there and spoke to the local community based organizations, I understood the problem. They told me they had thought the drainage was a service, not a onetime thing. The World Bank had neither contacted them, nor informed them about how to maintain the compounds. There had been a complete disconnect because the World Bank hadn’t thought about the human interface. Ultimately I experienced the World Bank to host many bright and creative people, but it remains difficult for them to be innovative or to reach the organization’s primary mission within its institutional boundaries.

The anthropological perspective served to be very interesting both within my work at the World Bank as well as at the New York City Partnership. In the latter I let people from big firms and companies meet community organizers from more distant communities. I let them meet on a bus that would tour through the communities and would allow the community organizers to show their projects. However, by bringing them together, though they differed in vision, they started to recognize each other as having common traits like dedication and creativity and it eventually caused them to change their prejudices towards each other.

Ultimately I experienced the World Bank to host many bright and creative people, but it remains difficult for them to be innovative or to reach the organization’s primary mission within its institutional boundaries.

Could you tell us a bit more about the scope and origin of the Mega-cities Project?

The initial question of the Mega-cities Project is: how can we apply the advances of science and technology over the last 100 years to urban infrastructure, in order to make cities more sustainable, effective, and able to reach the whole population? The solution is shaped in a combination of the different experiences I have had.

During the ‘80s, there was the prospect that by the year 2000 the world would count 23 cities with more than 10 million people each – a tendency of global urbanization which I had actually witnessed earlier during a field work stay in the rural interior of Brazil. To tackle this, I started to combine the idea of working in partnership with different sectors, with the idea of discovering on the grassroots level what is actually working and sharing it with other places which have the same problems. There is the fundamental idea that you can find common problems in places that seem very diverse because these problems are systemic in all low income communities.

Back then the mayors of these cities started to visit me at Berkeley because I had already written about mega-cities, but I didn’t have concrete answers to their problems. I realized, however, that if they’d come together and listen to each other, then they could learn from each other too. At the Mega-cities Project we focus on the grassroots communities in these cities one by one. We work with mayors, urban planners, the private sector and academia, and find out how to make these cities function better within the often limited financial resources they have and the environmental dangers they face. Yet their biggest resource is people.  I wanted to create a positive upward cycle that would spiral upwards and in which each moment would give more hope and optimism. I think that anyone who wants to be a knowledge creator within the topic of urbanization has to link public policy makers to grassroots groups and social change, which is unfortunately not happening enough in academia.


Dr. Janice Perlman speaking at the Third World Urban Forum in 2006.

Future plans?

My vision for the future is to create the next generation of the Mega-cities project. We coined it MC², short for Mega-cities/Mega-changes. This next step will combine the next generation of technology and young people and the global exposure that these young people share. The mere possibility for them to talk from and show their community through technology    like Skype is amazing and fosters so much potential.

What were your first thoughts when you started considering these Mega-events and Rio de Janeiro?

Initially I thought that, because the whole world would focus on Rio between these mega-events, there might be an opportunity to showcase Rio as an inclusive city. Perhaps we could show that the way the World Cup focused on impressing the larger public, is but one way to approach it. There could also be an inclusive one which praises the right to the city and which brings the mega-events to everyone.

Was this possible? What struck you the most when you arrived?

The title of my current study is mega-events, public policies and the fate of Rio’s favelas. I thought I could use my previous experience and access to bring the voices of the people in the favela and the NGO’s into the policy debate so that they could be heard. I started the study in 2015 and it will go on till one year after the Games. However when I arrived, the idea I had in mind was already impossible. There were neither debates nor dialogues about the policies.

Two promising projects really disappointed me when I arrived there. The first is O Pacto do Rio.  Initially it was intended to be a new kind of partnership between the city government, the nonprofit sector, UNDP and some private sector members to try to generate a real strategic plan for Rio. It would encompass not only the Olympics but would reach beyond it and would envision Rio as a unified city. It was supposed to be linked to UPP Social and was brought up in the same way as what Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes said about Morar Carioca. This was the second disappointment. Both started as great visionary ideas but didn’t continue their focus on inclusive sustainable cities. For Morar Carioca in specific, most of the grand investments ultimately went to the upper-class district of Barra da Tijuca and the harbor, Porto Maravilha. Similarly, when UPP (community policing) started, residents in favelas quickly lost hope and told me they expect for the drug traffickers to return the day after the Olympics have ended. The community policing will leave, switch power with the traffickers and all will return to the original status quo. However, we see that this has started more quickly than we anticipated – even before the Olympics have actually begun.

How did you cope with this disappointment?

I saw that many voices were merely criticizing what was going on in Rio. That’s when I decided the scope of my research. Though it is true that many policies have failed dramatically, some of them still are partly interesting. Just like parts of O Pacto do Rio and Morar Carioca, parts of the UPP project were promising. Similarly, there are things that are good and promising that are happening right now despite of the chaos, but that no one notices or talks about. I labeled these “promising initiatives under the radar”. I visit these places and try to visualize these initiatives across all sectors. Not just in favelas, but also in NGO’s, the governmental level, and even the private sector.

Can you give some examples of these initiatives?

I try to uncover what isn’t part of the sad story. The first promising thing I saw, was that young people in the favelas and young people in the suburbios, or more popular barrios, were making a common cause. They organized meetings sponsored by Casa Fluminense called Rio de Encontros. For me, it means that kids in the favelas expanded their constituency by recognizing that very often they face the same problems as the kids in some suburbios, like low income, no job prospects, etc. This recognition was returned and collectively they started to focus, instead of at the municipal or state level, on the whole metropolitan region. Together they created a vision for the post Olympics in 2017.

These types of meetings enable people of different neighborhoods and of different ages, skin tones or social classes to meet and raise their voice. In this movement, the youth is taking the stigma of favela and is turning it around. They voice their own ideas and state that they’re proud to be from the favela, that they don’t want to leave it and that they resist to this tendency of favela gentrification. Just like other forms of youth collectivization like Forum de Juventudes and Agência de Redes para Juventude it shows a new, vibrant youth that is ready to voice their ideas.

Secondly, there is a large movement of people recording the identity and history of their favela. They do this by using new technologies, posting interviews with older residents online or by founding a local museum. I do not see this as a causal reaction to the Olympics, but rather as the next level of awareness of this generation. When I talk to people in favelas they tell me the following: “For us it doesn’t really matter if Olympics happen or if the impeachment succeeds. I still need to put food on the table for my kids, I still need to manage and keep them in school as I work three different jobs. What difference is it to me?” To me that’s a good perspective when the city puts their focus on these mega-events. Daily life in the favelas is not going to be affected or changed greatly, except for the ones undergoing dire removals. Perhaps some will benefit marginally from improvements in transportation infrastructure, but in the end, most of them won’t.

Thirdly, I see an enormous flowering of cultural expression and the value of cultural production manifested in dance, theatre, etc. These expressions contest the city. Not only do they show people in favelas live their lives to the fullest, but they also articulate a new evaluation of what is valuable. By refusing to be removed to and housed in large, anonymous apartment buildings, they also appreciate the proximity, connection and close bond between people in communities themselves.

“Daily life in the favelas is not going to be affected or changed greatly, except for the ones undergoing dire removals. Perhaps some will benefit marginally from improvements in transportation infrastructure, but in the end, most of them won’t.” 

What about the promising initiatives beyond the favelas?

Rio has created a metropolitan governance council (Câmara Metropolitana de Integração Governamental do Rio de Janeiro (CIG)) run by Vicente Loureiro. This council is establishing new plans for 2017 and beyond. They are changing the legislation so the sub mayors of the 29 municipalities will have an increased incentive to participate in their neighborhoods and to intensify connections between neighborhoods. I believe we need to look at the other movement within the official formal society as well, which is definitely taking the right step here.

There have also been initiatives like Minha casa minha vida entidades. They’re collectives of residents that apply for the same amount of money per unit as Minha Casa Minha Vida construction companies and they do their own design, building or sub contracting. It is very much based on housing movements like Sem Teto and Sem Terra.  Within this spirit there are also initiatives like collective land ownerships, land banks and cooperatives.

Removals instigate solidarity and resistance?

The movement of protecting these communities was definitely incentivized by all these new removals. In Favela I wrote that I never expected to see housing removals again. These current removals have been very well documented so far, but it has also sparked a lot of solidarity. In hindsight, the largest solidarity movement occurred during the first round of removals between ’68 and ’78. Back then there was a huge strength in community organizations because they had a common cause.

Currently, in all of the communities, even if things aren’t necessarily perfect, new issues about the right to the city, the identity of the people in favelas and the role of youth are being brought up. Whether people are fighting against housing removals because of the construction of new roads or the Olympic stadiums, or they are fighting gentrification; in all these cases, they have shown to be very creative.

For example, look at the communication courses  given by  Oi  Kabum,  VozeRio  and  the Comitê Popular. They have given young people the chance to document and communicate via social media. This is and will become a very powerful tool.

When you look at the removal of Vila Autódromo; there was a large solidarity movement that neither would have been possible, nor would have become so strong without the availability of sophisticated communication technologies and platforms. Similarly, there is a community in Deodoro that fought against a road being constructed right through the community of 2000 houses.

To tackle this, they made an alternative video that shows how the road could actually go around.

In the end, through negotiations, they figured out how to spare the houses.

There are so many things in Rio that are never talked about and that are absolutely heroic. I’m going to try to identify them. It’s an ongoing inspiration when you see what people are doing. There is no reason for intellectuals and academics to give up and think everything is over or to say that “just because it’s a capitalist system, there is nothing to be done.” People’s lives continue. You might determine the macro narrative of the story, but that’s not the only one. I’m cheering for the other story.


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  • Dawid Rabie
    20/11/2017, 2:42 pm

    Thank you for the article,
    I would like to get in touch with Dr Janice Perlman whose work I have been following with interest since I was at the University studying Architecture in the 70’s
    Is she still involved with the Mega-City project?
    I believe that the solution to equipping the informal settlements that are sprouting up all around cities in the world lies in our history, there was a time when every city in the world looked like a little village with no infrastructure, basic management and very few building codes. The inhabitants had skills appropriate to their and the villages needs. from these humble beginnings they developed and evolved to what they are now.
    There is no government in the world that can afford to build everyone a house, not only is it foolish it is totally ignoring the fact that virtually every man can build a shelter for himself and his family and that doing so is rewarding. we need to equip the villagers with construction skills and building codes that will make it function in a town planning blueprint that is based on the principals of a renaissance town. There ware many benefits in these layouts, they were pedestrianised, kids and trade friendly, high in trade skills and food production and most of all offered a sense of security and identity. Most modern cities suburbs lack all of these attributes. Next we need to overlay it with a plan that will allow the villagers to learn the required skills to leap frog our current city planning phase, they must not spend 20 or more years to evolve to where we are now finding ourselves only to find out that we have moved on. For example: in terms of sustainability they must not follow the path we took to get where we are now, they must aim to achieve the solution and outcome we are now seeing as our cities future, if we can achieve this it will not only uplift entire generations it will make a considerable contribution to eradicate the backlog of accommodation and skills.
    Do you have a contact address for Dr Perlman?


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