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Debate on Land Use in Rio de Janeiro Asks: Where Should the City Grow?

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On May 24 Rio de Janeiro’s City Council hosted a public debate titled, “Land Use and Occupation Law: Where should Rio de Janeiro grow?” The debate was organized by City Councillor Renato Cinco and featured Silvia Batista, quilombola and the director of Agrovargem; Fabrício Leal, a professor with the Urban and Regional Planning and Research Institute (IPPUR) at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ); Ludogero Silva, president of the Federation of Residents’ Associations of the Municipality of Rio de Janeiro (FAFERJ); and Henrique Barandier, representing the Brazilian Institute of Municipal Administration (IBAM).

The proposed Land Use and Occupation Law (LUOS) aims to simplify and unify the laws that regulate the use of urban land, in addition to establishing zoning for the whole municipal territory. According to City Councillor Renato Cinco, this simplification is extremely necessary since the laws in force currently are not accessible. “Today we have an encyclopedia of confused legislation that makes it difficult for the population to understand.”

One of the main questions of the debate was “where should the city grow?” According to the speakers, current legislation already confers huge potential value on construction, allowing the market to determine where the city will expand. LUOS, proposed by Mayor Marcelo Crivella’s administration, would stimulate urban sprawl through high construction indices (which allows more development) in green areas and floodplains, such as the Vargens region, potentially causing environmental damage. The speakers therefore questioned the reasons for not reducing those construction indices and directing urban growth towards already consolidated areas with better infrastructure. One option, for example, would be to provide more housing in the city center and the North Zone.

Another worrying point is the municipality’s agricultural activity. Proximity of agricultural regions and urban centers facilitates the population’s access to products. The current diesel crisis highlights how relying on agricultural regions that are very far from cities can put the population at risk. Panelist Silvia Batista, a member of the Rio Urban Agriculture Network, expressed concern with the proposed law because it assigns higher construction indices to the West Zone Vargens region, allowing for real estate speculation in areas of urban and family-run farms. As such, many families could be pushed off their land if they’re no longer able to support themselves there. 

According to one audience member from IBAM who spoke at the debate, another major consequence of LUOS would be an increase in the size of buildings that could be constructed on a given plot, because the proposed law removes certain parts of a building from the calculation. For example, common areas in residential buildings, like elevators or entryways, would not count toward the building’s area. The IBAM member said this will allow a 10-15% increase in construction, and in the case of shopping malls with large amounts of common space, the increase could reach 75%. This will increase the land’s value because the value is determined by what can be built on it. The audience member worried that the result would be socioeconomic segregation and more people seeking to live in favelas, due to the housing deficit.

The proposed law seeks to revoke Decree 322, which regulates all zoning and construction in the city. This decree benefited large construction companies and, according to urban planning professor Fabrício Leal, is elitist and fails to recognize the city’s diversity. Thus the professor is in favor of completely revising the city’s zoning laws and, as a result, revoking the decree. However, he believes the changes proposed in the new LUOS were rushed, authoritarian, and contrary to citizens’ interests.

There was discussion of the lack of popular participation in the LUOS. “There’s no such thing as a good law without the participation of the population. It’s not just a question of democracy, but of efficiency too. Residents are the ones who know the city—they have the solutions and proposals that technical experts take years and still don’t figure out,” Leal said. According to the professor, at the last public hearing on LUOS, real estate sector representatives expressed enthusiasm for the proposed law while residents’ associations put forward countless criticisms.

Another point Leal raised in the debate was the inconsistency of LUOS with the city’s Master Plan. The Master Plan is in accordance with the federal constitution and defends and guides the municipality’s urban development. Laws on the use and occupation of land should not propose development plans that are different from what is laid out in the Master Plan. However, the new proposed law contradicts the plan in a range of aspects, despite land use laws being “one of five instruments the Master Plan identifies for urban, building, and environmental regulations.”