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.


I think the important thing is to walk the fine line between large planning ideas and complete freedom at a certain level of detail. Planning dense urban cores around a "planned" central park obviously improves quality of life. Planning streets and mass transit before construction of an area is a great way to spur development. These are the best ways to plan, otherwise you rely on the vision of the planners completely.

It gets a bad rap compared to Rio, which is one of the most topographically spectacular cities in the world.

What would your examples of post-war German cities be that you like?

Given the power you attribute to point 3, I'm surprised you don't believe that existing Americans would be better off with a more restrictive immigration policy.

I'm also surprised Sailer didn't pick up on this inconsistency.

Brasilia is a great city if you like driving to the one part of town where the pharmacies are, driving to another part of town where the hotels are, driving to another part of town where the restaurants are and if you don't want to walk anywhere. Give me Rio 10 times out of 10. It's a city with life. As is NYC, London and other cities that have developed more organically.

I can't help but disagree. Though the city is divided in sectors, the majority of day-to-day business is easily found near every residential area. That's actually the whole idea of the "quadras" and "super quadras". There are some streets that concentrate restaurants or pharmacies, but every "super quadra" has its own restaurants, drugstores (pharmacies), bakery and etc. For everyone living in Plano Piloto and in some surroundings areas, banks, laundries and etc. are just some footsteps away from home.

I am not saying that a car is not needed, but certainly not for those reasons.

You don't actually sound that different from "Seeing Like a State". Brasilia in practice diverges from Brasilia in theory, and Brasilians are all the better for it.

Brasilia has yet a mildly to very negative reputation among Brazilians that live outside of Brasilia. It's less negative than it was in the 70s, and let's make it clear, mostly due to the fact that the city grew *beyond* its original plan and because of all the continous patching of the original plan. But it's indeed negative, and there should be no question about it.
It's easy to make a list of a few good things about Brasilia while ignoring all the many bad things about it. Brasilia has the most dysfunctional public transportation system that I know of among cities of the same or larger size, with the exception of, maybe, Los Angeles. Life is miserable for a large majority of the population living in the well-hidden favelas outside of the heavily subsidized central rich neighborhoods, and when I say miserable, I say that it's miserable by Brazilian standards, meaning, it's not only poor and dirty, it's no fun (like it may be "fun" in favelas in Rio -- at least they have the best view in town).
It's not possible to judge Brasilia's success by population growth, or the fluidity of private transportation, or per capita income (I believe, the highest in Brazil), because these are clearly the creation of a highly centralized (and parasitic) federal government that acts as a financial black hole for the rest of the country's economy. Think about DC multiplied by orders of magnitude. It's true that Brasilia attracted lots of immigrants from rural areas, but this was true of all other big cities in Brazil. Its a well-known fact that people originally moved to Brasilia almost exclusively due to very generous financial incentives, and that it was the plan of almost every family that moved in to move out later. Many did move out, but time bends notions and naturally many families remained and developed some local pride, but even today this "pride" feels very artificial and conceited, and is highly dependent on superficial notions such as the "greatness" of its architecture or the beauty of its sky (which is a result of a very dry and dusty atmosphere). The city has yet, believe me, an amazing lack of cultural options for a capital of a country with an economy of the size of the Brazilian economy, and it's amazingly lacking even for city of its size and its per capita income ($ 28 thousand per person, higher than Ann Arbor, MI).
And let me make it clear that, despite my criticism, I enjoyed living in Brasilia, in one of those central rich neighborhoods naturally. But I've also lived long-term in a few other places in America and Europe, and I can tell you, trying to be objective, that Brasilia is really dysfunctional, and that this is mostly the result of some very strange assumptions behind its planning, for example, that Brasilia would be a place where Ministers would be door neighbors of janitors. Never happened, and the unintended consequences were the worst imaginable. A more interesting way to look at Brasilia is exactly to try to identify the many unintended consequences of bad planning, such as how shops that where "forced" to have front doors directed towards pedestrian gardens found ways to invert their front and back doors so the front doors would in reality become the ones directed towards the "service" traffic lanes (which became costumer parking spots), etc.

I first step foot in Brasilia in 1976 and thanked my lucky stars I didn't have to stay. It was barren, treeless and full of red dirt or mud, depending on the season. Things improved and Brasilia in the late 90s, when I lived there, was very habitable, but lifeless compared to almost every other Brazilian city.

While living in Brasilia can be very pleasant - good housing, little real traffic, pollution or crime - it was a sterile existence, Almost the polar opposite of any other place in Brazil. The Plano Piloto clearly did not envision pedestrians, or a feeling of community.

This can appeal to Americans, as anything other than the biggest US cities appeals like a lifeless, sterile location to people used to urban settings. The problem is not planning, but LeCorvusier's idea of a city, where you don't really get to meet people that are very different economically unless they are working for you, or go look out for them.

This different way of living permeates into people's mindsets, and in part explains why we see noticeable differences in values. Back in my home country, I could never understand why Americans voted the way they did, and held some of the beliefs they do. After spending a few years in a suburb, the American values appear as a natural consequence of the lifestyle choices.

As the suburbs grew, so did the modern American right.

You do have some points which would be "consensus", but I'd have to disagree with others.

About miserable living standards outside the center: that do happen but it's very very small compared to others Brazilians. The comparison with Rio is just way exagerated. As someone who has worked a lot with regional economics here, I can tell you that there are around 4-8 areas in the DF that could be compared to a favela as in R io. It is true that the living standards in the "satelilte cities" is well below the "Plano Piloto" and surroudings, but that cannot be compared to the misery or to a favela. These people still live in cities somehow planned and the local government has a huge budget because of the federal government which translates, in some level and despite the local corruption, in better health, education and public security than the majority of other Brazilian cities.

Compared to Rio or São Paulo Brazilian cultural scene is certainly less exciting. But it may be a surprise that in per capita terms the city has more theaters and movie theaters than London, NY, Paris or Tokyo.

What I feel being born here and having lived in other cities is that, in general, Brasílians love their city and the rest of Brazilians dislike the city, for pretty much the same reasons.

I'm pretty sure that there's general agreement that living in a favela in Rio or Recife is considered by the Brazilian poor to be superior to living in a favela in Brasilia, even after adjusting for the fact that the favelas in Brasilia may receive more handouts from the federal government. The non-incentivized migrants to Brazilian favelas did not come from Rio's favelas, they came mostly from smaller and very poor cities in the African-like Northeast of Brazil.
The typical conversation in a poor Brazilian family goes somewhat like this: "yes, our cousin in Brasilia is not doing badly, but who wants to live in that soulless place?"
The translation is: for a very poor Brazilian, living in Brasilia may be marginally better financially and infrastructure-wise speaking, but it lacks cultural and leisure life and, worst of all, it lacks sense of *ownership*. Brasilia is owned by the federal government and its bureaucrats. The "others" are there to serve the government structure. Very sovietish? Well, then it's not a coincidence at all.
In Recife, Salvador or Rio even the very poor have a sense of cultural, urban and historical entitlement. They may be poor, but they choose how to express their culture through their many folkloric manifestations (such as carnival and other century-old seasonal parties, street gathering, etc). They are (mostly) free to use the public spaces (beaches, parks, gardens, plazas, etc). This is not so easy for the poor in Brasilia: the design of the city had ironically the opposite effect of what was intended, that is, of achieving *perfect* equality among all citizens. In reality it became one of the most unequal cities in the country exactly because of the artificial zoning imposed by heavy planning and the way planning was captured by power handlers.
One example of this is how Brasilia's suburban railway system was sabotaged for decades by the middle and high class so the poor in the suburbs couldn't enjoy the inner city public spaces.

OK, I see what you mean.

4. Even planned cities spontaneously evolve after 30 years.

I don't know very much about urban planning so, even though I wish I could add something, I really can't. All I'll let myself say though is that it'd be really hard to keep a city "planned." There are just too many factors involved in a city's growth to properly control it. Sooner or later something spontaneous is going to happen and no longer will it be in the planner's control.

Similarly, the mobility of capital enforces an equality of conditions - those that provide the greatest returns. Enter Chinese-style environmental and labor conditions.

It is worth noting that the "unplanned" burbclaves common to the U.S. are heavily regulated in terms of land use and commercial car parking requirements.

Folks tend to assume that it is a model that people prefer, because it is what is there.

Dont' forget Paris. Many people who have not lived there do not know that it was mostly planned, by Haussmann in the 1860's. It has hardly 'grown organically' since then.

But Haussmann != Le Corbusier, though.

That's the point. The point is not that urban engineering is bad. The point is that *bad* urban engineering is bad. Brasilia is bad urban engineering. Paris is very much the opposite.

I seem to be alone in sharing Tyler's observations about Brasilia.

I have problems with the "but you need a car to get anywhere!" criticism, let alone the people comparing Brasilia to Los Angeles. Brasilia, which was planned around the automobile, has two advantages over the typical American sprawl: more mixed commercial and residential use, and a traffic plan that actually works well enough that the average resident doesn't spend an hour a day sitting in traffic.

"Brasilia is a great city if you like driving to the one part of town where the pharmacies are, driving to another part of town where the hotels are, driving to another part of town where the restaurants are and if you don’t want to walk anywhere."

I don't know what to make of this. I'm not sure about the pharmacies, but every superquadra contains at least a couple of restaurants. There is no "part of town where the restaurants are." I'll give you the hotels. How often does someone living in a city have to go to a hotel? This may be one of those places that is better for residents than for visitors. There are also a number of fairly large and convenient malls in the center, two of them attached to the main bus station.

One thing about Brazil is that the usual pro-public transportation thinking of Americans is completely turned on its head. There is no intercity rail to speak of, and the metro networks in places like Rio and Sao Paolo, though expanding, are clearly not sufficient given the scale of the cities. But the neighborhoods and small towns are walkable, and the bus system is actually functional! Intercity busses are comfortable and municipal busses are fast. I've found it easier to get around Brazil without a car than in the northeast US, with its subway and commuter rail networks.

Then there are the comments criticizing Brasilia for not being Rio, or claiming that the slums are better in other cities. Well, OK. I think there is a hostility to planned cities in general here. Interesting, the construction of Brasilia bankrupted the country and indirectly ushered in two decades of military rules, which, combined with the general uselessness and corruption of Brazilian federal politicians, explains the hostility from Brazilians. From non-Brazilians, I'm not sure, maybe because the only reason most people would go there would be some sort of transaction with the federal bureaucracy?

Again, this is not the point. What some of you have been describing as the good things in Brasilia (including Pedro a few posts above) is the *actual* Brasilia, not the Brasilia of the original planning. Brasilia's original planning went through an amazing amount of individual and local redesigning in order to become the "somewhat" livable, half-human place that it is today. We need to acknowledge that the original plan was bad, that's it. And proof of this is that *ABSOLUTELY NOBODY* in the world is currently saying that we should build other Brasillias in order to solve humanity's urban problems.
And please, American cities *in general* are not references for economic efficiency + charm in urban layout. I'm not saying that American cities are a disaster, well, some American cities are really bad, and some American cities are quite nice, but they are clearly laid out in a way that is costly on many fronts, and yet many cities suffer from the complaints of lack of "soul," etc.
In some sense, Brasilia bashing in Brazil is not fundamentally very different in motivation from suburban bashing in the US.

Those commenters here who slam Brasilia are so right! It has nothing to recommend it, unless you are an aficionado of concrete. It is so bad that Ayn Rand could have used it in the Fountainhead to illustrate the worst of world architecture and city planning.

Here in Texas we have cities, like Dallas, Austin and Houston, where you need a car to get around. There aren't any sidewalks in many places and you need a car. But at least you can find banks, bars, restaurants, drugstores, gas stations and parks within a few blocks of your home if you live within 10 miles of the center.

But Brasilia is a godawful planned city, much like its smaller version Boa Vista, capital of Roraima. I spent a decade one day in Boa Vista, setting forth on foot to do the errands. It took a whole day, because all the hotels are in one place, the airport in another, the bus station in another, the banks in another, the restaurants in another, and so on and on.

I have a home in Teresópolis, RJ, from where I can walk and in 15 minutes arrive at a flea market, shopping center, bank, pet store, bars, restaurants, building supply outlets, bus station, lumber yard, and even the entrance to a vast national park (

Many Brazilian towns are just as fine. Brazilia and Boa Vista are hell-holes in comparison.

Teresopolis is indeed nationally recognized as having very high living standards, and besides is located in a region of beautiful landscape. All that Brasilia isn't.

To be clear, I mean urban living standards, not per capita income, which is abusively high in Brasilia.
One of the recognized reasons for the military to accelerate the moving of the capital to Brasilia, despite the strong resistance put up by Rio, was the fact that they wanted federal power to be isolated from ordinary people. They wanted to make sure that the city would be located very far away from any Brazilian blue-collar urban center.
This not only contributed for the political disconnectedness that is one of the hallmarks of Brazilian federal governance, but also created the conditions for extreme rent seeking by public employees, in a scale probably not seen anywhere else in modern history.
I find it interesting that very few people come to realize this particularity of Brazilian institutions, and how important it is economically, even to explain the implicit perception that Brazil is not only unequal but *unfairly* unequal, what makes inequality in Brazil worse than in other unequal regions of the world - and it's mostly a government creature.

I'm from Curitiba and this is not a planned city at all. It is more than 300 years old and the only 'planning' they did here, if so, was in the 1990s when a bus-rapid system was implemented. But this system is way worse than a regular subway. Now that the city is larger and continues to expand while population rapidly increases, people regret the choice for the bus-rapid system and wish they had a subway instead --- but it's too late and too expensive. Advocates of the bus-rapid system say the buses can move faster cause they don't 'compete' for space with cars as they use exclusive lanes. But buses still have to stop at every corner on traffic lights at the city centre, and these exclusive lanes force the normal traffic to significantly divert in all other parts of the city, where crossings exist only every 3 or 4 blocks, causing huge traffic jams at these concentration points uptown. In a nutshell, that's Curitiba's glorious bus system that is (allegedly) praised all over the world.

Tyler Cowen wrote:

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

Benjamin Hemric writes:

As is often pointed out, admirers of Jane Jacobs pretty much run the gamut of the political spectrum. Similarly, it also seems to me that they have diverse views regarding "planning" and "planned cities." So there may be some Jane Jacobs admirers out there who claim that no planned city can ever "work," in any way shape or form, ever. But, as one Jane Jacobs admirer who is, generally speaking, against "planning" and "planned cities," I wouldn't agree with such a claim. Of course "planning" and "planned cities" can sometimes "work."

A more important issue, though, is whether Jacobs herself ever claimed that "planning" and "planned cities" could never, ever, "work." I don't think she did. (More about this later in my comment.)

I also think it's important in this kind of discussion to be precise about what is meant by words such as "planning," "planned cities," and by "work" (which I assume is meant as a stand-in for "being successful"). What some people claim is "planning" or a "planned city" may not be what other people are talking about when they talk about "planning" or a "planned city." And different people may also be talking about different things (e.g., have different criteria, etc.) when they use words like "work" or "be successful." This is especially likely when talking about various different types of cities -- such as a capital city vs. an economic city.

To get back to Jacobs, it seems to me that in "Death and Life of Great American Cities," Jacobs was mostly concerned with finding ways to stop the post-war decline of large American cities -- and I think in this book she points out, correctly in my opinion, that the rebuilding of such cities in the form of "Radiant Garden Cities" (the prevailing planning orthodoxy at the time), etc., was not going to help these cities, but hurt them instead.

And in "Death and Life . . ." but even more so in her later books, Jacobs is concerned with how cities generate economic growth and wealth, and she pointed out (again, in my opinion, correctly) that planned cities and planned economies were, generally speaking, not likely the best way to go -- especially over the long haul.

Benjamin Hemric
Friday, April 15, 2011, 8:00 p.m.

Well, if the government is there with jobs and you need a job, you probably don't mind the architecture.

What Tyler seems to mean by Brasilia "working" is that it's a nice place to visit. What Jacobs meant by working, I think, is something quite different. Her "generators of diversity" (Death & Life) refers to economic and cultural vitality. Living cities for Jacobs are economic engines and incubators of ideas. Is that Brasilia? Really? Places like ancient Rome or Washington, D.C. today may be nice showpieces (in some sense), but they depend parasitically on the rest of the country. Is Brasilia more like those places or more like New York?

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It's somewhat questionable how "planned" the city actually is considering the level of corruption.... however the question really is not whether planning could sometimes work; the question is if government should engage in planning and if you shouled expect a good result if it does.
There are lots of externalities going on in cities that are could be much more easily handled globally; that's an advantage to the planner. But still, we should include in the consideration:
* the probability that the planner succeeds
* the price of the project

If you have high price and low probability, you still get to the conclusion that government should not plan. And really, it seems to me that nobody is saying "government planning never works" - given the amount of government planning it would be really a miracle if they got everything wrong.

Resource-rich southern hemisphere nation largely ignored by the world outside its immediate sphere of influence? Check!

Planned modernist-fantasy capital city built in the interior, well away from coasts where the two largest cities are located and most of the population live. Check!

Bizarre animals dotting abstract de-Chirico-cum-JG-Ballard public space? Check!

Ladies and gentlement, I give you: Canberra, Australia!

It looks a lot like Irvine.

Planned cities work in Orange County.

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