The Evolving Urban Form: Rio de Janeiro


Rio de Janeiro was the capital of Brazil from before independence from Portugal was declared in 1822. That all changed in 1960, when the capital moved to the modern planned city of Brasilia, more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) inland. The move, however, did nothing to slow Rio de Janeiro's growth, as the metropolitan area (as designated by Brazil's census agency, the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística),  added 7 million people – a 150 percent increase in population – over the ensuing 60 years

The placement of the federal government in Brasilia has had positive economic impacts on the interior, but it did not make Rio de Janeiro less crowded (factor Indonesian officials should note as they consider moving the capital from Jakarta,).

The Urban Area

However, it is clear that Rio de Janeiro has fallen behind even faster growing Sao Paulo, which has become one of the world's 10 largest urban areas (with a population of approximately 20.5 million in 2013). Nonetheless, as an urban area with a 2013 population of 11.6 million (Figure 1) Rio de Janeiro still ranks among the world's megacities (urban areas over 10 million).

The urban area covers 720 square miles (1,870 square kilometers),   a population density of 16,100 per square mile (6,200 per square kilometer). This is similar to the density of Sao Paulo, 20 percent above that of Buenos Aires, but 35 percent less dense than the western hemisphere's most dense megacity, Mexico City. In contrast, Rio is more than twice as dense as the most dense Canadian and US urban areas, Toronto and Los Angeles, but less than 1/6th the density of Dhaka, the world's most dense megacity.

Metropolitan Dispersion

As this series on world urbanization has shown, cities tend to become less dense as they grow (at least until they reach predominantly automobile oriented densities). This can be seen in Rio de Janeiro as well. Since the 2000 census, virtually all of the population growth has been in less dense areas. The inner core (the districts or bairros of Zona Centro), for example, accounted for two percent of the urban area's growth over the past decade. The larger, inner core (around the urban core) accounted for three percent of the growth (principally the Zona Sul and some additional bairros adjacent to Zona Cento and Zona Sul).

A Suburbanized Core City: Like many core municipalities around the world, Rio de Janeiro contains large expanses of suburbanization (Photo: Rio's In-City Suburbs). The suburban portions of the municipality accounted for 43 percent of the growth, while the outside-the-municipality suburbs and exurbs (inside the metropolitan area, but outside the urban area) represented 53 percent of the growth (Figure 2). Most of the growth outside the municipality of Rio de Janeiro has been across Guanabara Bay, with the large suburbs of Niteroi and São Gonçalo, and to the north, where there are a number of large municipalities (such as Duque de Caxias and Nova Iguaçu).

Photo: Rio's In-City Suburbs

This preponderance of growth outside the dense core has been developing since 1950. The municipality of Rio de Janeiro has added 3.9 million residents since 1950, while the suburbs and exurbs have added 4.8 million. The municipality continues to have more than half of the population (53 percent), down from 76 percent in 1950 (Figure 3). However, the retention of this strong share of the population has been made possible only by the large amount of land available for suburban development within the municipality (this is similar to the experience of other suburbanized core cities, such as San Jose, Edmonton, Phoenix, Denver, and Kansas City).

The Physical Setting

Rio de Janeiro sits on the Atlantic Coast and is one of the world's leading tourist beach areas (Copacabana and Ipanema). The urban area straddles Guanabara Bay, with the municipality of Rio de Janeiro on the west side. A bridge leads to Niteroi, on the east side. The municipality of Rio de Janeiro covers virtually the same land area as the city of Los Angeles and like its American counterpart also includes mountainous areas. The mountains include Sugar Loaf and Corcovado, site of the world famous "Cristo Redentor" statue ("Christ the Redeemer") and others.  North and West of the mountains are the broad plains that contain most of the suburbanization (both within and outside the municipality).


Favelas, also called shantytowns or informal housing proliferate throughout much of Latin America. It is estimated that 20 percent of new municipality's population lives in favelas. The largest of these is Rocinha, which accounted for a full one third of the inner and outer core growth over the last 10 years, despite having less than 5% of the population. Rocinha is located on a steep hill adjacent to affluent São Conrado, which provides employment for many residents. This is typical for shantytowns around the world, which are located near principally domestic labor opportunities, since residents generally have only limited mobility options to employment in the rest of the urban area. The favela to affluent neighborhood model represents an effective example of a "jobs – housing balance," though   rooted in poverty and gaping class distinctions. (Photo: Rocinha Favela & São Conrado, top).


Mass transit is very important in Rio de Janeiro. More than one half of all travel is on the Metro, commuter railways, buses and informal vans. In recent decades, the rail share of travel has been falling substantially, while the van share of travel has increased substantially. Vans have also made serious inroads into mass transit ridership in other urban areas of Brazil.

This dependence on transit does not mean that the roads are uncongested. For example, Avenida Brasil, the main arterial leading to Centro from the North carries more than 200,000 vehicles each day, a figure that exceeds that of many US urban freeways. A new peripheral freeway is under construction arcing around the urban area from west to east.

Gross Domestic Product

According to the Brookings Institution Global Metro Monitor, Rio de Janeiro had a gross domestic product per capita of approximately $16,300 in 2012. This would rank Rio de Janeiro 100th out of the 300 top metropolitan area economies in the world (Note 1). This is below Latin American leaders Buenos Aires ($26,100) and Sao Paulo ($23,700). It is also below the more affluent Chinese metropolitan areas, such as Shenzhen ($28,000) and Shanghai ($21,400). Rio, however, ranked above Cape Town ($15,700) and Cairo ($10,000).

Life After the Capital Leaves

The growth of Rio de Janeiro shows that there is, indeed, life after the national capital leaves. Rio has experienced strong economic growth in recent years and remains a dynamic urban region.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”


Note: These rankings are based on the 300 metropolitan areas with the largest total gross domestic product (not per capita gross domestic product). As a result, many metropolitan areas that are more affluent per capita are not included because their total gross domestic product is not rank in the top 300. This would include a large number of metropolitan areas in the United States, Europe Canada and elsewhere. The ranking of metropolitan areas in China is adjusted for the 2010 census, which includes migrant workers. Additional details are provided in Endnote 19 in the Brookings Global Metro Monitor.

Top Photo: Rocinha Favela & São Conrado (photos by author)

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