Brasilia’s Uneven Development

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

The city of Brasilia took shape on a relatively isolated plot of open land in 1956, becoming the capital of Brazil in 1960. The city was planned by Lucio Costa, winner of a competition called by President Juscelino Kubitschek to fulfill an 1891 constitutional mandate to move the capital from Rio de Janeiro to a location at the center of the country. Oscar Niemeyer was the principal architect, and Roberto Burle Marx was the principal landscape designer.

Bird- or airplane-like form of Brasilia, Brazil.

Original city plan by Lucio Costa. Source: Jader Resende

Brasilia was built according to plan, with few modifications. It is a modernist dream come true, a gigantic piece of land art. It is now one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites, and the municipal government invests in keeping its monuments in good condition. Brasilia was designed for automobile transport, with no traffic lights and few sidewalks in the center. Avenues are massive to prevent traffic jams.

Southern wing of the city — satellite view (above) and perspective (below).

Source: Arqpoli Urbano

As with other planned cities, Brasilia grew larger than predicted. It is now surrounded by smaller cities and settlements that provide cheap labor for the wealthy capital. Urban growth in the periphery did not follow a modernist plan. Most of these residential areas grew through land speculation and informal construction.

High-income Lago Sul neighborhood in central Brasilia.

Low-income Sol Nascente neighborhood in Ceilândia, 26 kilometers west of the capital.

Brasilia has the highest per capita income of Brazil's major cities. Its social disparities are spatially divided, with a wealthy center and impoverished outskirts. In Sol Nascente — one of the country's largest informal settlements according to census data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics — garbage collection, sewage and healthcare are severely limited. And, as in many cities around the world, government neglect gives rise to illegal land markets and associated mafia activity.

Brasilia's metropolitan area demonstrates perhaps the sharpest possible contrast between state-controlled wealth at the core and informal poverty on the periphery.

Credits: Satellite images from Google Earth.

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  1. Thank you for this nice documentation of such an interesting subject.
    I find that this post can work complementary with this one:,
    giving a wider view of cities as social constructions.

  2. Here is a related example from today's New York Times: "Brazil, Where a Judge Made $361,500 in a Month, Fumes Over Pay" (

  3. Hello.

    Loved the post. As a Brazilian, I am fueled with anger everytime I go to brasilia. The stark diference between the public workers elite that live and work in the "Plano Piloto" and the poor 3rd sectors workers that live in the "Cidades Satelites" is just a grotest caricature of Brazil's true nature.

    Brasilia is an enormous artificial playground that the Senators, Deputies and high federal public servants can live in, happy that they dont have to deal with the poor majority of the Brazil.


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