Brasília turns 60: how the utopia became a monument to inequality

. Apr 21, 2020
Brasília turns 60: how the utopia became a monument to inequality Landfill just 35 kilometers from the presidential palace. Photo: Wilson Dias/ABr

Founded on April 21, 1960, the capital city of Brasília was planned and built from scratch, following the principles of modernist urban design. In its landscape and scale, visiting Brasília is a unique experience. A monument to Brazilian euphoria and hope for the future straight out of the 1950s, the city is also planned to within an inch of its life. But in many aspects, the modernist utopia — which believed that every dimension of urban life could be organized — has failed.

Many have called its monumental distances “inhuman” and “suffocating.” And it is one of the least pedestrian-friendly cities in the world, an aspect of the capital that is now being put on trial.

When Brasília

was planned and built, the <a href="">auto industry</a> was a state-of-the-art symbol of modernity. And naturally, the city was designed to prioritize transit by car. Currently, its estimated 3 million people own 1.7 million vehicles — and the capital faces an imminent collapse in urban mobility. Still, governor after governor insists in building more highways, instead of investing in public transportation.</p> <p>A subway system wasn&#8217;t even planned for Brasília before the late 1980s — before finally being inaugurated in 2001. Two years later, a bifurcating metro line became operational, but the subway doesn&#8217;t reach the vast majority of residents.</p> <p>But perhaps the biggest failure of the Brasília utopia is how its design —&nbsp;intended to mix all social classes in the plane-shaped Plano Piloto —&nbsp;ended up becoming a monument to inequality and segregation.</p> <p>Apartments in the Plano Piloto were occupied by the middle class, with lower-income families being thrown into poorly-urbanized satellite cities, which are drastically different from the capital in almost every way: in landscape, colors, infrastructure, and income.</p> <h2>Inequality capital of Brazil</h2> <p>The Federal District, which encompasses Brasília and its surrounding cities, is today the most unequal part of the country. It has, at the same time, areas with income on par with Western European countries, and others as poor as some African nations —&nbsp;with as little as 1 percent of households having access to the sewage system.</p> <p>According to the most recent official data, Lago Sul — the richest neighborhood of the capital, with mansions peeking onto the Paranoá Lake —&nbsp;is home to business owners, politicians, judges, and many authorities. The area has an average yearly per capita income of BRL 91,848 (USD 17,274), or 5.5 times higher than the national average.&nbsp;</p> <p>That&#8217;s higher than in Portugal.</p> <p>One 15 kilometers away, the region known as Estrutural has an average income 1,475 percent lower, of only BRL 5,831 per year (or USD 1,096) —&nbsp;lower than citizens in Zimbabwe.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-bar-chart-race" data-src="visualisation/2025556" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <p>Brasília also has the country&#8217;s largest favela in terms of area, the <a href="">1,000-hectare</a> community of Sol Nascente, located just 35 kilometers from the seat of Brazilian government. The latest estimates count roughly 100,000 people in the area, which was created just 12 years ago. Despite being so close to the home of all power in Brazil, residents of Sol Nascente only enter the city&#8217;s <a href="">palaces and listed buildings</a> to perform low-paying jobs as maids, vendors, or doormen.</p> <p>Experts from Brasília claim this stark contrast is explained in part by the high number of civil servants in the capital — who earn, on average, twice as much as private workers —, but also by land occupation policies. &#8220;Migration towards Brasília has been constant since the beginning of its construction, in the 1950s, when the city was deemed &#8216;Hope Capital,&#8217; or &#8216;Job Capital.&#8217; Over decades, local administrations launched several home-owning programs — not without electoral goals,&#8221; <a href="">wrote</a> researcher Fernando Negret, of the University of Goiás.</p> <p>&#8220;Satellite cities should never have sprouted like peripheral neighborhoods to the city,&#8221; says urbanist Henrique de Carvalho, a researcher at the University of São Paulo. &#8220;These cities began housing workers who built the city — and imagined they would later live in the Plano Piloto. But after the inauguration they continued to be segregated —&nbsp;which entailed a typical process of marginalization.&#8221; He believes growth should have been planned, with smaller cities of no more than 200,000 people each — in respect with the city&#8217;s original plan.

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Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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