In 1502 the Portuguese landed on the shores of Rio de Janeiro. However, decades passed until they began to colonize the area, and battles were fought over the natural resources like pau-brasil wood. The French, Dutch and English who reached the shores faced off over the treasures they found here.
The French were the first Europeans to settle around the bay, and were willing to fight for the region. The Portuguese governor, concerned with the invasions, decided to finally colonize the territory, sending an expedition in 1530. They fought against the French, who were expelled in 1576. The city of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro was founded on March 1, 1565, by the Portuguese explorer Estácio de Sá. On Urca beach, between Cara de Cão and Pão de Açúcar hills, Rio de Janeiro was born.
In the coastal region, the colonizers found villages with thousands of Indians. They were engaged in agriculture, music and dance, and knew the medicinal qualities of the local plants well. During the following centuries, the natives mixed with the colonizers and African slaves, giving rise to Brazil’s unique interracial population.
The center of the city, due to its proximity to the port, was the first area to be settled. Poorly constructed, precarious buildings led to the spread of diseases like yellow fever. The inland area of the state was settled by colonizers who planted sugar cane and produced sugar at the large mills. Until the end of the 18th century, sugar cane was the most important cash crop, characterized by large plantations, a powerful aristocracy and intensive use of slave labor from Africa.
The arrival of the Portuguese Royal Family in 1808, with an entourage of more than ten thousand people, among them Queen D. Maria I and the prince regent Dom João VI, boosted life in the city. Brazil became the only colony in the New World to have a reigning European monarch on its soil. Together with the entourage came artists assigned to portray the society and nature. The city underwent profound urban changes. It was during this time that the city’s great landmarks were founded, such as the Botanical Garden, the National Art Museum, Banco do Brasil and the National Library. The coffee plantations expanded to Angra dos Reis and Paraty, moving towards the Paraíba do Sul River Valley to the foothills of the mountains.
Rio de Janeiro developed because of its natural assets. It began with a strictly rural economy, first with the production of sugar cane, and later coffee, followed by cattle and other products. The port was very important, as it made exporting possible and was essential in the transfer of federal power to the city, making Rio de Janeiro the capital of Brazil. However, in 1889, with the abolition of slavery and poor crops, growth diminished, and there was a decline in the large and luxurious coffee plantations in Campos, Valença, Cantagalo and Vassouras. This period was marked by social and political upheaval, which led to the Proclamation of the Republic.
Until the end of the 19th century, the suburban area of the city was still mostly rural, with small villages being founded around churches and markets springing up, thanks to improved transportation of merchandise. With the arrival of the railway, in 1886, suburban centers grew. The large number of workers employed here played an important role in the occupation of this area. The railroad served the needs of coffee producers, who faced problems in bringing their crops to market on the backs of donkeys.
The shacks built alongside the train stops grew into small communities. All along the path of the railway, the first suburban centers began to emerge. On the other side of the city the railroads also transformed the landscape. With regular streetcar service and the growth of transportation, the upper classes began to move to outlying neighborhoods, in search of healthier and less dense areas than the center, mainly towards the Zona Sul. The middle classes, in turn, moved to the suburbs, occupying land along the railway lines. For the poorer classes, there was nothing to do but to remain in the center, living close to their work, in slums and houses with small rooms.
Between 1870 and 1890, the city’s population exploded due to European immigration and internal migrations of ex-slaves from the coffee and sugar plantations. In 1890, a quarter of Rio de Janeiro’s population was composed of foreigners. As the city grew, its population increased exponentially, and problems began to appear. The history of Rio reveals an ongoing battle to control urban population density that was caused, on the one hand, by geographic conditions, and on the other, by economic and social struggles in the occupation and use of space in the city.
At the start of the 20th century, many slums were demolished in the “Bota Abaixo” (Knock it down) reform conducted by Pereira Passos, who planned to rebuild Rio. A large number of people moved to the suburbs, expanding the urbanization process.
This intervention by Passos accentuated an unprecedented social stratification in the city’s history, definitively separating the more privileged areas from the suburbs. Part of the population that was expelled moved to the hills close to the center and in more upscale neighborhoods, cutting down trees on the hillsides and building wooden shacks on precarious land, giving rise to the favelas.
Rio de Janeiro grew and developed. On one side there was accentuated organized growth in the richer neighborhoods, and on the other, disorganized occupation of the hills and working class neighborhoods. During the first two decades of the 20th century, the population went from 631.000 to 1.2 million residents. It was in the suburbs that the city grew the most, with the growth of subdivisions, always concentrated around the railway crossings, following industrial expansion. In 1927, the administration of Antonio Prado Junior presented the Agache Plan, designed to reorganize Rio, stimulate a natural growth and meet future needs.
From 1920 to 1950 the city experienced its golden age with the inauguration of major hotels like Hotel Glória and the Copacabana Palace. Rio became a romantic and exotic destination for Hollywood celebrities and international high society. The Cristo Redentor statue was inaugurated, and became one of the symbols of the city. Three large landfill projects were made, creating Santos Dumont Airport, Flamengo Park and Copacabana Beach.
At this same time, industrial production quadrupled. In 1940, there were almost three industrial workers for each civil servant. But the consolidation of the urbanization of Rio’s Carioca suburbs took place between the Estado Novo period and the 1950s, with the explosion of highway transportation and the inauguration of the Avenida Brasil. There was a huge increase in the number of factories surrounded by working-class houses in cul-de-sacs or small workers’ housing communities. These facilities were built by the companies themselves to house their employees close to the workplace, and the workers’ housing communities were built by the government.
The population grew exponentially, exceeding three million inhabitants in 1960, when the federal capital was transferred to Brasília. With this move, the rhythm of industrialization in Rio de Janeiro accelerated again. The real value of industrial production practically quadrupled between 1959 and 1975.
In 1969, Lúcio Costa designed the Barra da Tijuca urbanization plan. Barra was one of the few regions in Rio that was truly planned, with the opening of the Lagoa-Barra Highway and Joá and Dois Irmãos Tunnels.
In 1975, Rio ceased being the capital of the state of Guanabara and became the capital of the state of Rio de Janeiro, due to the fusion of two states. The crisis began in 1986, and industrial activity in the metropolis declined sharply. In spite of these changes, Rio managed to maintain its economic, social and cultural center. Eco 92, the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development brought visibility to Brazil, as well as investment in infrastructure, like the construction of the Riocentro conference complex.
At the same time, the favelas grew in size and number throughout the suburbs. The many housing projects that had been built during the height of industrial expansion were unable to absorb the flow of immigrants who arrived in search of formal employment and the associated benefits. Without the activities that had been their raison d´être, the suburbs slowly became an industrial cemetery. Hundreds of thousands of families were left with few services and little hope, improvising life in an informal way, with scarce and precarious access to public services.
During the 1990s, things began to improve in Rio de Janeiro. There was a return of public investment, a “boom” in the real estate market and a proliferation of gastronomic, cultural and commercial centers. The private sector mobilized different industries to propose public policies.
Today, we are the second largest city in Brazil, with a population of six million people, or ten million if we include the entire metropolitan area. The climate of agreement and cooperation among the different levels of government brings back hope.
In 2007, we hosted the Pan-American Games and soon thereafter received excellent news, with the announcement that the 2014 World Cup would be held in Brazil, and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The population is celebrating these accomplishments like never before, working and dreaming of a more equitable Rio. The eyes of the world are upon us; there is a great deal of interest in our development and in sustainable development. We have to bring people together, all classes and races, and work in harmony to make this a more integrated and marvelous city for everyone.