In June 1996, the Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements recognized that the challenges of  urban development around the world had reached “crisis proportions.” Growth in developing countries and the concomitant wave of urbanization have resulted in asymmetrical distributions of economic and social outcomes. Though aggregate trends reflect upward macroeconomic trajectories in many parts of the developing world, disaggregated data reveal considerable intra-national and intra-city nuances in living conditions. Specifically, urbanization provides a useful lens through which to examine the uneven processes of economic development around the world.

Widely recognized as engines of economic growth, burgeoning cities and metropolitan regions nevertheless exhibit symptoms of socioeconomic segregation along spatial lines, resulting in differential access to resources and services. This phenomenon has implications for economic development, governance, public health, education, and environmental sustainability. In recognition of this emerging challenge, the United Nations made urban revitalization a priority in its Millennium Development Goals discourse by devoting Target 11 of Goal 7 to improving the living conditions of at least 100 million urban slum dwellers by 2020.

In particular, Brazil is a critically important manifestation of this trend. As a BRIC country and one of the top ten largest economies in the world by gross domestic product, Brazil’s growth has accelerated while remaining resilient in the face of recent global economic turbulence. Despite these national growth trends, Brazil is notorious for its rampant inequality, which is starkly evident in its major cities. According to the World Bank, Latin America and the Caribbean is the most urbanized region of the developing world, though close to a third of all urban residents in the region live in slums. As of 2010, approximately 87 percent of Brazil’s population lives in urban areas. With an income Gini coefficient of 0.59, Brazil also features one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the region. As Rio de Janeiro prepares to host the 2016 Olympics, efforts to upgrade the slums around the metropolitan region have accelerated and been brought into the national spotlight. Brazil must seize the political impetus created by the 2016 Olympics to create a long-term and holistic strategy for sustainable and inclusive development not only in Rio but also in major cities across the country.

With a population of 11.836 million, Rio is a bustling metropolis of immense cultural and economic significance. Yet Rio epitomizes the stark ironies and contrasts characteristic of many urban centers in Brazil. The environs of Rio are filled with favelas, or informal slum settlements for the poor. due to the lack of affordable and accessible housing in the city, poor residents are excluded to the periphery of the city, where they build precarious housing structures on land that is unregulated. These favelas are notorious for rampant crime, lack of infrastructure, nonexistent water and sewage systems, inadequate educational opportunities, and lackluster employment prospects. In 1995, Rio launched Favela-Bairro, a project supported by US $600 million in loans from the Inter-American Development Bank dedicated to upgrading its slums and integrating them into the city. The Favela-Bairro model incorporated a suite of services including water, sewage, garbage collection, education, and recreation through a framework that emphasized citizen participation. This project reached 120 of Rio’s 600 favelas and was widely regarded as a successful model to be replicated in other urban centers.

The tremendous success of the Favela-Bairro model is attributable to its recognition of the unique needs of different favelas and its repudiation of harsh and ineffective band-aid solutions like forced removal of slum residents. Citizen participation and consultation in project implementation and design allows city officials to tailor specific projects to the specific needs of a favela. Instead of evicting slum dwellers and demolishing favelas, this initiative takes a holistic approach in transforming these existing pockets of poverty into neighborhoods of opportunity. This initiative’s efforts transcend the mere construction of physical infrastructure and emphasize the empowerment of people, which is the real key to sustainable development. In preparing for the 2016 Olympics, Rio faces a unique set of challenges and opportunities. The construction of the so-called “Olympic Park” and new transportation systems will entail significant capital infusion, but these new investments must be managed in a sustainable and equitable manner. Many Olympic venues are planned for places in which settlement communities already exist, and so people like those living in the settlement of Vila Auto?dromo have been fiercely resisting forced eviction. Instead of dislocating current slum residents, Rio should seize the political momentum afford by this opportunity to transform existing favelas. Thus far, there is promising evidence that rio is beginning to take this neighborhood empowerment approach. The government has sent in Pacifying Police Units to remove drug traffickers and build an environment of security in favelas like the infamous Cidade De Deus. In other shantytowns like Chape?u Mangueira, local utilities are rehabilitating the electrical infrastructure and promoting sustainable energy practices.

Brazil is at a critical juncture of its development where it has an unique opportunity to renew its approach to urban development. It is imperative for Brazil to seize the political momentum generated by the 2016 Olympics and to devise a national strategy of sustainable and inclusive development for all of its metropolitan areas. The Sa?o Paulo metropolitan region has a population of 19.96 million, eclipsing Rio as the most populous city in Brazil. As an economically robust region, Sa?o Paulo suffers from the same problems of inequality as Rio. A steady of influx of migrants from the northeastern regions of Brazil has created a network of slum settlements around the periphery of the city that contains 30 percent of Sa?o Paulo’s population. The favelas are built upon fragile, unregulated land, resulting in significant environmental ramifications. the Guarapiranga Water Basin in the northern part of Sa?o Paulo, for example, supplies drinking water to millions of residents in the metropolitan region. However, approximately 190 different slums settlements have sprung up on the land near the reservoir. Lack of adequate infrastructure in these settlements has resulted in the discharge of chemicals and waste into the streams and creeks that feed into the larger water basin, which in turn contaminate the city’s drinking water. State and local authorities, in collaboration with the World Bank, launched an environmental Sanitation Program to address these pressing problems. Under this program, over 264 kilometers of sewer networks have been built and 13 square kilometers of urban areas have been restored.

One policy lesson that can be extrapolated from this initiative is the necessity of viewing cities as dynamic systems embedded in an intricate network of interdependency. The effectiveness of an integrated approach to urban development is derived from its ability to address the underlying structural factors that caused the problem in the first place.

As Brazil embarks on a new era of economic growth and rising international prestige, it must not neglect the crucial challenges of urban inequities at home. Urbanization is a rapidly accelerating trend that is likely to continue for some time, and so it is essential for Brazil to find strategies to place urbanization on a sustainable and equitable path. In pursuing this goal, Brazil must engage with international institutions like the World Bank and the Inter-American development Bank in addition to grassroots civic organizations that have a unique understanding of the nuances of urban experience in Brazil. The political momentum created by the 2016 Olympics has truly created a much needed “olympic opportunity” for the development and implementation of proactive, vigorous urban development policies.

Brazil has reason to take advantage of this moment. By seizing this opportunity, Brazil will ensure that when the torch is lit at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the glow of the torch’s flames will illuminate a city and a country in which, in the words of the 1996 Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements, “human beings lead fulfilling lives in dignity, good health, safety, happiness and hope.”