Architect Kelson Senra is showing how older city center neighborhoods can organize through community-led efforts to resist characteristic patterns of decline. He is creating mixed cooperatives that can provide new housing and commercial and social service activities and build a self-renovating capital fund.
Raised by a family with scarce resources in rural Brazil, Kelson remembers his home as a center of community activities, with its doors always open to neighbors and friends. He also recalls that his mother, a primary school teacher, was a community organizer responsible for many neighborhood improvements in social services, particularly education.When Kelson moved to the capital to pursue a university education, he continued to be involved in social and community-riented work as a volunteer in the favelas of Rio. These actions eventually led him to become deeply involved with Catumbi as a resident and community leader.His leadership abilities were also recognized at the professional level, when Kelson became president of the Architects Union, shortly after graduation.
Five years ago, Kelson started working with the Catumbi neighborhood association as part of a college research project. His ideas, combined with the enthusiasm of the residents, resulted in significant improvements of living standards in the homes and in the community.Catumbi had been declared a conservation area, and although this title protected it from deliberate destruction; there was no provision in the law to help rebuild the run-down neighborhood or prevent further decay. As Kelson relates, "The residents wanted to turn their neighborhood around but didn't know how; yet I had scores of ideas." Kelson started with small renovation and addition projects that allowed many families living under the same roof to have more space and privacy. Then he and the neighborhood association expanded their efforts to the whole Catumbi area. Their aim was to revitalize the community by better utilizing the space.Enthusiastic about its initial success, the neighborhood association created a cooperative that helps finance construction materials at low prices, and provides jobs. As a center for training, the association creates cottage industries whose profit is returned to the community for continuous upgrade and maintenance projects.Once Catumbi's program is fully under way, Kelson wants to extend the community revitalization program to other neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro and, later, to other cities in Brazil. By creating strong community organizations based on Catumbi's successful formula, neighborhoods can substantially improve themselves.
Over the last twenty years, Brazil's population changed from being seventy percent rural to seventy percent urban. The cities were ill-prepared to receive the huge influx of immigrants. The immigrants who came seeking better job opportunities often remained unemployed. This massive shift in demographics has resulted in a shortage of more than two million housing units and the emergence of shanty towns and cortios (overcrowded boarding houses).The problem has been especially acute in metropolises, such as Rio de Janeiro, where land pressure and speculation have driven property prices sharply up and out of reach for blue-collar workers. The citizens are forced to relocate to the city's periphery, far away from their jobs and convenient transportation.It was during the fast growth period of the 1960s and 1970s that many of the historic neighborhoods in Rio were destroyed in the name of progress and modernization. Architectural treasures were lost and with them old neighborhoods whose sense of tradition and community were the pillars of a more stable and safe society.Catumbi is one of the few neighborhoods near downtown Rio left standing. It has around 3,500 lower-middle-class families, some of which have been living there for generations. Catumbi has a tradition of strong community activities and one of the oldest community associations in Rio. But like everywhere else, Catumbi is suffering from severe economic pressures: its one- to three-story houses are not considered a good use of land; its run-down buildings and stores are not profitable; it is very difficult to get a loan to build or restore property; and many of Catumbi's tenants are unemployed.
Catumbi's strong community association was able to convince the government and absentee landlords to donate empty lots and abandoned buildings, as well as to waive property taxes and inspection fees for future community center and recreation areas. The cooperative also set up a cinder block factory that produces and sells blocks at one-half of market price and provides jobs. As a by-product of providing training in masonry, carpentry, and plumbing, as well as for making pottery, carpets, and clothing, the neighborhood association is able to market its products to local stores. As these projects take hold, any profits they generate go into a community fund whose main goals include construction of a home for older people, a soup kitchen for the poor, a daycare center, and a sports complex. A library with 7,000 donated books is already open."With governments bankrupt and public services collapsing, communities will have to increasingly take their management into their own hands," says Kelson. He adds that some communities are ready to start, particularly those with strong resident associations and a history of creative action. Kelson's strategy is to identify these communities and work with them to define the problems and alternative opportunities they face, as he is doing in Catumbi. He expects that after working with three or four "ready" communities, they will develop a series of options and examples of what can be done that other communities can utilize without Kelson's direct involvement.Kelson is also working with Rio's government to promote a mutually beneficial partnership that will reduce bureaucratic red tape and better facilitate the association's work.