Cultivating the Field in the Global Hinterland
Community Building for Mass Housing in the Amazon Region

Of the 19 Brazilian fastest growing where population doubled over the past decade, 10 are in the Amazon region—the biggest linchpins for rapid urbanization in Brazil are major energy and industrial projects taking advantage of vast amounts of untapped natural resources. With the proliferation of hydroelectric dams, mechanized soybean plantations and intensive mining operations thousands of migrants have been lured from all over the country in search for jobs and economic stability. Soaring population growth has intensified urbanization in the last decade supported largely by forecasts of robust demand in China and other emerging territories turning the rapidly-growing cities in the Amazon into the world’s last great settlement frontier. While in Brazil most of the attention has been spent on how to organized large metropolitan centers, major challenges for future urbanization can rather be found in its rural hinterland. What are the models upon which the production of these new towns are based upon and how can architects and planners play an active role in the design of emerging rural territories?

The project ‘Eden’ by BAÚ Collaborative, an international network of urban design and participatory development is focusing on how community building can be integrated in generic, state-sponsored mass housing. Besides the involvement of the residents in the planning process on the basis of assisted participation, the project also claims that the design of communities in rural areas relies on 1–a solid structure of local social organizations who accompany the residents and give technical assistance during the planning and the post-occupancy phase; 2–the development of a new type of urbanity that can cope with the dispersed and fragmented nature of rural developments; 3–an incremental design strategy setting-up the framework for a sustainable urban growth in the future.

Based on an exemplary development on a test-site in the Brazilian mining town Parauapebas, the project is also serving as a proto-typical case for an investigation on how community building can be fostered through design strategies for upgrading newly built mass housing settlements by retrofitting them with infrastructure and community facilities.


Frontier Zone of Global Capitalism

There is nothing spectacular about Parauapebas. The torrid expansion of the mining town, located on the edge between the impenetrable jungle of the Carajás National Forest and deforested landscape, offers barely infrastructure and urban services for its estimated 250’000 inhabitants to be recognized as a city—but still, it’s hard to say how many people are exactly living in Parauapebas as the numbers are constantly changing. With a growth rate higher than 12% per year and an estimated annual increase of 30’000 inhabitants the municipal government can barely cope with the constant flow of incoming migrants from all over the country. In view of the massive demand for housing land prizes are skyrocketing leading to aggressive real estate speculation. As a result, prices for formerly agricultural land transformed into lot divisions are often as high as in metropolitan areas such as Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo.

“In the speculator’s dream lay the urban promise—and the urban imperative—of frontier settlement and investment.”¹ What William Cronon described as a theory of economic growth that dominated nineteen-century thinking about frontier developments, turned in the case of Parauapebas into a handicap for any attempt to organize the city according to good urban governance. Buildings here are being built for the market and speculation is not only impeding low-income population to find affordable rents in central areas—it is also promoting a fragmented and fractured city where the focus on surplus profits prevent the city to grow in a coordinated and compact sense.

In a place where as many as two homes have to be built each hour to meet surging demand for housing any great intentions to seriously plan the city might vanish. In view of the impossible task the solution of the Municipality for coping with the massive growth was found in the privatization of infrastructure. Hereby the developer gets the concession to divide the land in lots and sell it, if he guarantees the provision of basic infrastructure for water supply, sewage and road access. But what seemed to be a solution for an overburdened Secretariat for Public Works, proved to be the real dilemma on the way to a comprehensive planning framework. The lack of infrastructure and housing provision by public authorities ultimately leads to the proliferations of informal squatter settlements where the lowest segment of the population finds the only alternative for accessing central areas.

While favelas in these central areas are being gradually removed, they continue to grow along the riverbeds and in proximity to newly built infrastructure. Given the speed of informal development illegal building activity can be considered an integral component of speculative growth. The mechanisms of real estate speculation and informality are likewise pertaining to the principles of privatization. If both, informality and speculation are just different facets of the urban production in place, the frontier town also gives us a lesson on how urbanization in the global hinterland can be seen as a by-product of an economy that finds its interests somewhere else. While the mining activity is undertaken with advanced technologies and impressive mobilization of labor and logistics, urban development doesn’t cope with the sophistication of resource extraction. How can these kinds of cities benefit from these global flows of capital and instead of being just used as backend grow into sustainable livelihoods?


Generic versus Specific

For local authorities there is not much time left to think about the long-term impact of planning given the speed of urban transformation. In order to cope with the massive demand for housing and urban services, the government launched several developments of state-sponsored social housing in Parauapebas aiming at the production of new neighborhoods for income-population through generic and market-driven models.

The logic of generic housing production in Brazil was introduced on a massive, national scale with the launch of the social housing program “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” (MCMV) in 2009. Tailored to boost the economy after the global financial crisis of 2008, the program’s declared mission was to tackle the housing deficit in the country—an estimated six million units. Within a four-year period, “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” aimed to construct 3.4 million housing units; about half have been built so far. The largest social housing program in the world, it has been quite successful in giving low-income populations access to housing and, at the same time, attracting foreign investment for its implementation.

Developed by construction companies in remote locations where land is cheap, MCMV settlements stand for everything that goes against good urban planning. The mono-functional commuter settlements are poorly built; they lack public services, collective spaces, greenery, and even commercial units for local supply. As a consequence, the housing units are informally extended immediately after construction, turning into favelas or ghettos. Deficient infrastructure and unstable, bumpy roads have to be upgraded shortly after completion. What was meant to be a solution in many cases turns out to create even more problems. The program’s name—“My House, My Life”—represents the wish to create a new middle class of homeowner-consumers. With the emphasis on privatization all aspects concerning the formation of civic centers and collective facilities are neglected.

As an alternative to the marked-driven housing models of MCMV, 5% of the program’s overall budget is dedicated to ‘entidades’ (entities), social movements and cooperatives, who take care of the planning and construction of their own future neighborhood.

Even though the branch of the program ‘Minha Casa, Minha Vida–Entidades’ only accounts for a small portion of state-sponsored housing production, it gives the opportunity for design developments that are specifically tailored to the needs of the given group or community.

MCMV Entidades also serves as a test-bed for how to apply state-sponsored programs based on the residents participation and assisted self-help.


Test-Site Bairro dos Minheiros

In Bairro dos Minheiros, on formerly agricultural land at the periphery of Parauapebas, a new town for 10,000 inhabitants is on the way. The construction of MCMV houses is already contracted. Even here, in the middle of nowhere, land prices are high and despite the central location, public transportation to the work places is scarce. Bairro dos Minheiros represents just one extension zone in a city where urbanization follows a fragmented, piecemeal logic.

Would the provision of homes for low-income dwellers also provide a basis for building the city—for building an environment that offers civic institutions and public spaces, enabling the development of a local identity and a sense of belonging?

Like many other state-led social housing programs Minha Casa, Minha Vida develops standardized and mono-functional settlements that are lacking any kind of urban services. Besides that facilities for education, health-care and cultural activities are missing, even the integration of commercial uses within the units are prohibited. The public authorities argue that mixed-use programs are incompatible with subsidized social housing. While town building is exclusively driven by administrative protocols, the life-style of low-income neighborhoods has to adapt to the consumer patterns of a globalized economy. Lively streetscapes characteristic for popular neighborhoods in Brazil are replaced by large-scale air-conditioned shopping centers. How can these mono-functional commuter-settlements be retrofitted with social and ecological infrastructures that would allow low-income dwellers establish a communal life within a type of urbanity that is adapted to the conditions of fragmented urbanization of the rural hinterland?

Due to the fact that fragmentation in rural areas cannot be simply undone, local neighborhoods have to develop their own service cores that are operating independently of the overall logic of the urban system. However, if the self-provisioned environment as local node of poly-central localities is not integrated in the overall infrastructure network, there will always remain another periphery. While the city of Parauapebas operates in the periphery of the centers of global capital as an underdeveloped back-end, providing the world with the materials needed to cope with ongoing economic growth, each fragment creates its own underserviced hinterland. In Bairro dos Minheiros the periphery within the periphery acts as the final end of a chain that establishes income as a measurement for access to infrastructure services. By redefining infrastructure provision as a tool for social and ecological development, the picture can be reversed: instead of a dead end the periphery can be considered as the interface for the making the city and the making of nature at the same time.


Social Technical and Design Assistance

What exactly are the protocols and procedures that would guaranty the proliferation of social and ecological sustainability in low-cost housing developments? What are the challenges that we have to face for participatory design developments in rural areas?

Even though Brazil has a network of social organizations stemming from a long history of workers movement and class struggle, these networks do not reach remote areas like Parauapebas. Experience with participatory design that previously undertaken in the context of MCMV Entidades has shown that the only reliable anchor for social organization is represented by churches, charity organizations and a few independent NGOs. In order to hold participatory design meetings with up to 500 residents, social assistance is needed mediating between collective needs and individual preoccupations. Given the lack of education and fixation on individual property, participation of low-income populations requires particular attention on teaching how housing production works, how we can conceive the city as a collective project and what differentiates well designed from stereotypical settlements. As the task of mobilizing and instructing the future dwellers about the opportunities of communal living often exceeds the capacities of architects, only close collaboration with social workers enables an inclusive design process. What has been termed in Brazil ‘Social Technical Assistance’ should be extended as design practice that involves residents, architects and social workers equally. Participatory design then operates as an open framework that relies on the fact that architectural and urban design is conceived as an integral component of self-organization.


The Civic Center as a Field

In contrast to neighborhood development within highly densified urban centers, rural environments have to mediate differently between the private and public sphere. While urbanity in centralized cities is characterized by the polarization between introversion and public exposure, in rural contexts domestic life is immediately confronted to dispersed landscape and a scattered network of social relations. What would be the model that provides a sense of civic consciousness while at the same time copes with the fragmented nature of dispersed rural developments? What kind of urbanity can we imagine that doesn’t reproduce the density of urban agglomerations but still provides collective livelihoods with economic means and with respect to local resources?

The project for the community center in Bairro dos Minheiros seeks to overcome the undefined spatial conditions and sparsely established urban infrastructures by establishing a grid that operates as a matrix of public functions. Interspersed in between the loosely arranged individual homes and empty plots of neglected landscape, civic infrastructure is conceived as a layer that penetrates the private realm. The generic structure of the framework is programmed according contextual needs in order to enable places for celebration, for social gathering, for education and play, for production and for the cultivation of the natural environment. Community building in a place that is neither city nor nature is here conceived as a field of interactions and associations—as an infrastructure that unfolds the potentials of social organization and as a tool that blurs the boundaries between manmade and natural environment.


Setting the Frame for Future Urban Growth

In Parauapebas and in many other rural contexts the future remains uncertain. What if the mining activity will suddenly decrease? Will the city then loose its ground or will it find other alternatives that sustain future growth? While the new towns created by the federal program Minha Casa, Minha Vida only delivers access to housing the newly built settlements do not provide any kind of opportunity for income generation. What if the design of rural settlements also provides a backbone for commercial activities and services developed by the community themselves? Rather than establishing civic centers as punctual interventions throughout the dispersed landscape of the Amazon region the project ‘Eden’ is conceived as a matrix that covers the field and assembles the different fragmented parts to a whole. But instead of just being designed as ‘hardware’ the layer penetrating settlements and nature is conceived by anticipating activities: local agriculture, education, recreation and cultural programs form the ‘software’ that guarantees the collective cultivation of the field. The design of the framework is conceived as a process combining an open structure with practice of commoning by specific user groups and neighborhood associations. As a proto-typical device the structure only becomes active as soon as we anticipate and co-design the performance needed to produce local identities and cultures. And who know? By designing an open framework we might also lay out the structure that in the future will become a city.


Text by Rainer Hehl


¹ William Cronon refers here to the Booster’s economy of Chicago’s mid-west, who saw the engine of western development in the symbiotic relationship between cities and their surrounding country sides. William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis, (Norten & Co, 1992), p.34.