urban affirmative actions



Considerations on the situation of the vulnerable in the cities

The dismantling of public policies visibly worsened living conditions in cities. As soon as the course of history removes those responsible for exacerbating this crisis from the government, the prospect of rebuilding urban policies will require, in a broader sense, a reconstruction of social relations in cities. This is because the liberal-authoritarianism that took over the government in 2019, while concentrating the effects of unemployment and rising inequality in cities, spread the bad vibes of a social-Darwinist ideology that sharpened prejudice and violence. against blacks and the poor.

A major challenge is to seek to build, in cities, ties of urbanity, respect for rights and the fight against racism. Together with the actions to face inequalities in access to the city's resources, urban policies will need the support of educational processes, which face, in cities, practices that seek to make the dispossessed inferior. There is much to be done to get rid of an urban sociability that still retains traces of colonial hierarchies.

In the field of concrete actions, it is necessary to stop the processes that deprive the poorest of their self-defense capabilities in the face of urban risks such as floods, landslides, proximity to contaminated water, etc. Equitable environmental protection is a political responsibility of the State. For this, the decision-making processes must take care to protect, from risks, the social groups less able to make themselves heard in the public sphere – whether in decisions regarding the location of dangerous equipment or in the unequal impacts mediated by the land market. One should not, for example, admit the relaxation of urban and environmental norms in the name of attracting polluting investments that currently penalize already vulnerable groups.

The State, in its current configuration as a public machine, usually – today, we can say it used to – is interested in identifying, measuring and locating the so-called “vulnerable”. This was done by mapping static situations, portrayed at a given time, as is done in the hunger map. However, attention is not paid to the processes of vulnerability. Now, vulnerability stems from processes of vulnerability – the withdrawal of conditions that would allow certain groups to defend themselves against threats, risks and harms.

In the most current definitions, the condition of vulnerability is usually placed on social subjects and not on the processes that make them vulnerable.[I] A more consistent alternative, however, is to define the vulnerable as victims of “unequal protection”. This is, for example, the formulation of the Environmental Justice Movement, which seeks to focus on the State's deficit of responsibility and not just on the deficit of the subjects' defense capacity. Equitable environmental protection, from the point of view of income, color and gender, is, therefore, something due to citizens as a right, a principle whose respect would prevent the creation of situations of environmental inequality, in which urban ills affect more than proportionally black and low-income groups.

Affirmative urban actions must, in turn, seek to undo existing situations of environmental racism, which penalize non-white populations in particular - in the environmental conditions of work, housing and displacement. Afforestation programs, for example, should be encouraged to give priority to peripheral areas affected by heat islands. The ecological transition, which proposes to replace fossil energy sources, must be done with environmental justice.

It should not be limited to strictly technological expedients, but encompass social and spatial rearrangements that seek to decriminalize vulnerable groups and prevent the possibility of transferring environmental damage to them. Alongside actions to adapt to extreme weather events, those that prevent disasters should be highlighted, which implies relying on the population's perception of risks. Alongside the technical schemes of climatological and geotechnical observation, prevention must seek to value the ecological knowledge of residents themselves and launchers of alert through, for example, popular mapping of environmental, industrial and disaster risks.

Among the socio-territorial specificities to be considered in urban policies, the need to recognize quilombola territorial rights in cities stands out, through actions articulated with cultural policies and protection of historical heritage.[ii] In areas relevant to indigenous rights, notably in cities in the Amazon and in the Northeast, it is important to give visibility to the memory of places and places of memory.[iii] It is about highlighting the presence of what is culturally diverse, not reducible to consumer relations, which seeks to recover in the city the experience of the encounter between different histories and cultures.

The reconstruction of urban social relations also implies questioning the old boundaries between rural and urban, dialoguing with the different forms of presence of the countryside in the city and the city in the countryside. Space is socially produced under particular forms of “rurality” and “urbanity”: areas of urban-rural transition, pluri-functional spaces and hybrid land uses that present internally heterogeneous land and social structures.[iv] It is worth recognizing the existence of plurilocal spaces, associated with a diversity of identities, with the commuting of subjects carrying a memory that is transported in rural-urban-rural migration. The spatial displacement of people does not erase the memory of their material cultures and land uses.

This is because peri-urbanization has taken place through the expansion of cities over areas formerly dedicated to agricultural production, but also through the creation of localities where populations recently arrived from the countryside settle, who develop ways of experiencing the city that are proper to a rural culture. . Urban agriculture is an expression of these practices that trigger networks of interaction both in urban and rural areas.

The consideration of this presence of the countryside in the city – that is, the habits of workers who were compelled to leave the countryside – is part of this dispute to make the city a public space, with common areas shared by people who gain autonomy in relation to the centralized market – both in the agrochemical chain and in real estate. Disputes over the meaning of urban life therefore involve the affirmation of the diverse identities of a population that struggles not to be treated as refugees in its own country.[v] and to retake the historical territory of their rights.

* Henri Acselrad is a professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFRJ).

Presentation on the panel “Reconstruction and transformation of Brazilian cities; Dialogues for Brazil”, organized by the Perseu Abramo Foundation, on 16/8/2022.


[I] H. Acselrad, Social vulnerability, environmental conflict and urban regulation, The Social in Question, Ano XVIII, n. 33, 2015, p. 57-68.

[ii] JM Arruti, Quilombos and cities: brief essay on processes and dichotomies, In: P. Birman, MP Leite, C. Machado and S. de Sá Carneiro (eds.) Urban devices and the plot of the living: orders and resistances, ed. FGV, Rio de Janeiro, 2015, p. 217-238; F. Mota, The Voices of Samba: A Journey in the Sacopã Quilombola Community's Struggle. In: M.Guran. (Org.). African heritage itinerary in Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro: Casa da Palavra, 2018, p. 124-130. S. Rodriguez, Place, memories and narratives of preservation in the quilombos of the city of Rio de Janeiro, Doctoral Thesis, Institute of Geosciences, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, 2012. CEMarques, DSSimão, ALSampaio, Territories and rights among urban quilombos in Belo Horizonte: the case of Mangueiras, in Quilombolas: claims and judicialization of conflicts, Debate Notebooks New Social Cartography, vol.1, n.3, Manaus, 2012, p. 147-161.

[iii] AW de Almeida, The new “ethnic physiognomy” of Amazonian cities, in R.Marin and A.Almeida (eds.), Urban land and territories in the Pan-Amazon, PNCSA, Manaus, 2009, p.45-67. See, for example, the various issues of the New Social Cartography of the Amazon Project; among others, Association of Indigenous People in the Metropolitan Area of ​​Belém, Indigenous People in the City of Belém; Associação Poterika´ra Numiâ, Indigenous women and artisans from Alto Rio Negro in Manaus; Y'apyrehhyt Sateré-Mawé Community, Indigenous people in the city of Manaus: the Sateré-Mawé in Bairro Redenção; Wotchimaücü Community Association, Tikuna Indigenous in the city of Manaus; New Social Cartography of the Amazon, Belém and Manaus, 2006, 2007 and 2010.

[iv] Pedro Martins, Hector Ávila Sánchez, Tania Welter (eds.). Territory and Sociability – Latin American reports, Ed. UDESC, Florianópolis, 2012.

[v] Julian Fuks, The Occupation, Cia das Letras, São Paulo, 2019, p. 80


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