Work, Slums And Informal Settlements Traditions


  • Ana Rosa Chavas Cavalcanti TU Delft, Architecture and the Built Environment



This report proposes patterns, guidelines and principles for use in the design of social housing, derived from the existing “self-help” context of slums in Brazil. It is based on findings from seven years of ethnographic field observation in the Favela Grota de Santo Antonio (2008–2015). The research revealed that the presence of work activities (which generally happen within residences) has greatly modified architectural space within the favela. From a post-neoliberal point of view, the report also offers a global critique of the planning of social housing with regards to issues of labor.

This report seeks to offer a new interpretation of informal settlements and the design of social housing based on an analysis of the labor practices of the residents of Brazilian favelas observed extensively in the field over the course of seven years. Following the framework developed in past IASTE publications, these practices will be considered open-ended traditions, which may serve as a “foil for exploring the contested subjectivities involved in producing and/or occupying space” (AlSayyad, 1990, p. 6).

The report is based on a case study in the city of Maceió (in Alagoas state, Brazil), but as will be demonstrated, its conclusions may be extended to informal settlements around the world. In fact, the report aims to address a range of assumptions and paradoxes surrounding current theories related to informal settlements. It also reflects on the way the architecture and planning of such settlements are being taught and conceived. In this regard, its primary intent is to link an analysis of systems of labor to the design of the informal city, a connection that planning and design literature has yet to adequately explore.

The field-observation phase of the research started in 2008, with the aim of exploring the dynamics of life and the daily practices of inhabitants in some of the poorest slums in Brazil These included the Favela Sururu de Capote (FSC) and the Grota do Telegrafo (GDT), also known as Favela Grota de Santo Antonio, both located in Maceió, the capital city of Alagoas State. Of the two sites, this report will mainly focus on the Grota do Telegrafo (fig.2.1-2.2).

The first residents of these two favelas migrated to the city from surrounding rural areas, where many had worked as sugar-cane cutters. This migration continues today and is fueled by various motivations. Some interviewees said they decided to move to the city after becoming unemployed; others said they had run away out of misery; and a few claimed to have accepted new jobs in advance of moving, or to have simply decided to explore a different place. However, in all cases residents reported they had come to the city looking for better work opportunities and services.

Within Alagoas, Maceió is commonly regarded as the “big city.” To reach it, migrants generally travel by pau-de-arara (irregular transportation on the back of a truck). Sitting uncomfortably, side by side, under a canvas cover that supposedly protects them from the harsh tropical sun, the journey may last for days. At its end, migrants hope to find a city of opportunities; however, their dreams are often dashed. On arrival, they immediately find that renting living space in formal areas is too expensive, even if they use all their savings. Needless to say, they cannot afford to buy a house or a plot of land. Housing is also not their only financial challenge. The cost of food, transportation, and other services involved in living in the city are typically far beyond what they can afford. Left with few settlement options, many seek space in an existing favela, where they are likely to encounter relatives and friends.

Overall, the slum thus becomes their passageway to the city. In terms of employment, a number of interviewees revealed that many favela residents do not even work in the formal city, but within the borders of the slum itself. Their activities may include fishing, crafting, running a business, trading, collecting garbage, recycling, farming, hawking, or offering services such as sewing, hairdressing, or nursing. Favela inhabitants who find jobs in the formal city, by contrast, may work as maids, carters, babysitters, masons, hawkers, drivers, cleaners, secretaries, or clerks in supermarkets and shopping malls.

Previous scholarship on economies of informal settlements, such as that of Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Benjamin Marx, Thomas Stoker and Tevneet Suri, has typically considered the particular labor activities of residents to be secondary to the larger economic forces driving the creation of slum economies (Banerjee&Duflo, 2011; Marx et al, 2013).

Likewise, work activities have rarely been accounted for by architects and planners in design and planning proposals related to such places. Based on field observation, this report argues, to the contrary, that labor must be part of the planning rationale for slums. In Brazil, these practices can represent a valuable tool in the design of space and buildings within favelas. Analysis of work activities may also offer lessons for formal housing strategies and help fill a general gap in literature related to informal settlements.


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