Does Brasilia work?

That Brasilia is a monstrosity of a planned city, reflecting all of the worst excesses of rationalist constructivism and other Hayekian bugaboos, is a common cliche.  But the evidence does not support that picture.

Here is one eloquent paean to the livability of Brasilia (short pdf), it’s worth the quick read.

Admittedly, Brasilia does not work as well as Curitiba (also quite planned), but I would rather live here than in most other parts of Brazil, including Rio de Janeiro.  The Le Corbusier open city plan is wonderful for sunlight and relatively low congestion.  The city made its peace with the automobile a long time ago and it was planned for heavy auto usage.  There is still plenty of room to expand.

No one lives on the Washington Mall either.  The outlying areas feel normal and walking and shopping is easy.  The city’s “bad rap” from the 1970s and 80s seems to be gone.  I am told that the food and cultural scene is much better.  Brasilia is more expensive than most parts of Brazil but that is common for capital cities.  It’s a fair criticism that some of the commutes from outlying areas are too long.

Not everyone likes the architectural style but I would rate it as one of the top ten attractions of the New World and if I lived here I would be proud of it.

There are a few quick lessons:

1. Sorry Jane Jacobs fans, planned cities do sometimes work.  Take a look at postwar Germany too.

2. “Planned” cities are often less formally planned in their entirety than you think, and that is true for the greater Brasilia area.  Brasilia is a mix of planned and unplanned elements, and it’s the mix which (mostly) works.  We should not demonize either the “planned” or “unplanned” aspects of that blend per se.

3. Even when matters are quite screwed up from the policy or optimality side, mobility enforces an equality of average rates of return.  This is one of the most neglected insights of economics.

I thank Leonardo Monasterio for a useful conversation on these topics; here are his tips for visiting Brasilia.


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