Urban reform and the Right to the City in Brazil

Today we had a seminar here at the African Centre for Cities by Brazilian lawyer and researcher Nelson Saule Júnior. He is from the Instituto Pólis and has been working with urban reform and policy for at least the last 20 years. This is just a short note based on my seminar notes, which cannot by any means give justice to this organization or Nelson's detailed presentation.

Instituto Pólis—urban reform since fall of dictatorship

The Instituto Pólis has since the shift from military dictatorship, to a democratization process of brazilian institutions since 1986, been able to institutionalize rights-based urban polices into political forums and into the Legal Constitution of Brazil. The institute and the movement it belongs to has also aimed to culturally re-frame how we think about cities - arguing that "the city is not a business", but the "the city is for all". This is important, Nelson argues, since in cities with a history based on exclusion and segregation the notion of the city for all can help to change how people appropriate and use the city, as well as changing urban policies.

The Urban Reform Movement
He is part of the "The Urban Reform Movement" that argues that cities are developed for just, democratic living, and united on the principles of equality, and social justice. The Instituto Pólis has been part of this movement since its beginning. Key for their ability to institutionalize dimensions of the right to the city for all was to form alliances with various popular movements, but also with with local councilors and national parliamentarians that became "defenders of the urban reform platform" within representative forms of Brazilian democracy. 

At the end of the seminar, during the questions, he also emphasizes how important the relations were between university scholars and popular movements. In developing their research they had to present their findings and thinking to communities and activists which pushed them to become relevant for the realities of those they shared their commitments. 

Exercise of citizen's rights, as a democratic achievement, is the central theme linking the Instituto Pólis different activities aimed at constructing cities that are just, sustainable and democratic.

Institutional integration in phases
The first phase of their work was the "Urban Reform Popular Amendment" to the the Brazilian Constitution process at end of the 1980's. This recognized urban rights, including the right to housing, urban services (transports, sanitation, security), and political rights, the right to participation and information. It also mean the adoption of the principles of social function of urban property and the social function of the cities.
The right(s) to the city
The concept of the Right to The City is part of the Cities Statue and is a mix of human and political  rights. It is a collective right of the inhabitants of the cities that contains elements of civil, political, social, economic, cultural and environmental human rights. These are: 
- The full excersize of citizenship. A city in which all people (children, youth, adults, seniors, women and men, who live permanently or temporarily in cities) realize and enjoy all of their fundamental human rights and freedoms, by constructing the conditions of a collective well-being based on dignity, equality and social justice.
- The social function of the city, land and property.
- The democratic management of the city. A city in which inhabitants participate in decision-making
- The democratic production of the city and in the city.

Social function of property
Social function of property is a view of property enshrined in Brazilian law that means that the state in granting property rights, gives this right with the condition that the use of this property, this land, needs to be used with the social in mind. If land is not used, for instance, the property can be taken back by the state. And also if it is used in a harmful ways. Alexandro dos Santos has a 2011 paper in Fordham Law Review for background reading on the history and integration of the social function of property, see here. This right has been used, and contested, in land claims by urban squatters with the argument that they have used and invested in land not used by the owner—and their use is a recognized social function. Nelson mentions that this can give recognition to those that have lived for a long time in the city, but with no property — if you use an area during 5 years, you can be given the right to live there. 

Lula as president—The Council of the City
Nelson describes how important it was that before Lula got elected President he had committed to the Urban Reform Platform. As he was elected he came to institut the Ministry of the City in 2003, and subsequently also the Council of the City at the national level (with 60% representation from society and 40% from public sector and government), and the Conference of the City, which is a national conference with preparatory municipal and state conferences.

Next phase
One of their current projects is to organize an International Observatory about the Right to The City with partners through their international urban networks and national coalitions and organizations. More information at http://www.forumreformaurbana.org.br/.

Information about the Institute
From their website: The Instituto Pólis work with: Social Policy Studies, Training and Advisory The Institute is a Non-Governmental Organization active throughout Brazil, incorporated as a non-profit, non-partisan, pluralistic civil society organization, recognized as being of public utility at the local government, state and federal levels. Founded in 1987, it has been closely identified with issues related to cities and activities in the field of public policies and local development. Exercise of citizen's rights, as a democratic achievement, is the central theme linking the Instituto Pólis different activities aimed at constructing cities that are just, sustainable and democratic.

The Polis Blog has a blog post here about the Institute.

Alexandre dos Santos Cunha, The Social Function of Property in Brazilian Law, 80 Fordham L. Rev. 1171 (2011). Available at: http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/flr/vol80/iss3/7


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