Casa Weekly

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

UNC in Asa Branca Year 3

Today marked the third year we've received visitors from the University of North Carolina's school of business (Kenan-Flagler Business School) during their quick Spring Break trip across South America. Finishing their trip in Rio, the group of 15-20 students often speak of their visit with Catalytic Communities as "one of the highlights of the entire trip" which includes visiting with some of the largest businesses in the hemisphere.

This was the first year that UNC students visited CatComm's Casa in Rio. Some 2/3 of the group spent two hours at the Casa touring the space, seeing a presentation of Catalytic Communities, and looking at slides taken over several years in Asa Branca, the favela in the city's quickly expanding West Zone where the Pan-American Games will take place later this year and which we then went to visit. The entire group of students and professor joined in for the Asa Branca segment of the visit.

As a city planner I always find this visit fascinating. Firstly because of the changes I've observed in Asa Branca over the 6 years I've been going there (normally 3 times a year). But also because of the development surrounding the community, and the impacts this has there. And finally, because we drive back through Barra da Tijuca, a newer section of Rio that shows what development looks like when led by developers rather than planners. Skyscrapers without shops. Traffic yet no pedestrians. Barra is the section of Rio that has devised a way to live with plenty, without having to coexist with those without.

Asa Branca is a 20-year-old neighborhood with roughly 8000 residents. This is very small by Rio standards. As such, the community has been able to develop effectively and keep drug traffickers out. Only recently has the President of the Neighborhood Association, Carlos Alberto ("Bezerra") stepped down. He did so, he explains, because as the community grows it is "harder and harder to get anything done collectively." He says that residents no longer work together to solve common problems, as was once the norm when the community was smaller -- and tighter. This was reiterated by a resident I ran into in the neighborhood's younger section, a part of Asa Branca that is only 5 years old where, just a few years ago, I was amazed at the common bathroom and kitchen spaces they'd developed to meet their collective needs while they worked on one another's homes.

As a result, Bezerra has decided to dedicate himself to creating a community library on a parcel of his own land that he can oversee and develop. He is also planning to run for the local school district council. As you peer away from Asa Branca you see the buildings approaching. With the Pan-American games have come millions of dollars in investment in this part of the city.

Residents of Asa Branca benefit from construction jobs nearby. Another reason this community is so different from others in areas distant from new and manual jobs.

At the end of their visit the UNC students gave Bezerra and his born-leader son Ciro gifts thanking them for the visit. Bezerra warned his son not to forget the people who believed in him when the group nominated little Ciro as Brazil's future president.