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    Cultura Negada: Reflecting on Racialised Urban Violence and Practices of Resistance in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil

    By Federica Risi, on 9 July 2018

    Prominent academic debates around violence in the city most often seem to be concerned with how structural economic and political drivers codify violence into the urban space. To appropriate Harvey’s terminology, with how urbanisation by dispossession – in other words marginalisation – of urban groups contributes to increasing crime rates and gangs-related violence. It is only in recent decades that ‘institutional’ abuse  – perpetrated by police forces under the blind eye of the Hobbesian state – as well as more structural forms of selective and – most often –  race-based violence are confronted[1]. And yet as a category of analysis of the urban, violence emerges as a causally less linear and more nuanced construct.

    Measurability of course is an issue and deserves being questioned. What indicators are taken into account when defining urban violence? What types of data are considered? Who collects them? How are they read and  disseminated? The action research conducted in Salvador, as part of the MSc Social Development Practice overseas field trip, has evidenced how municipal – and national – indexes reflecting increasing rates of homicides as related to organised-crime, robbery and drug trafficking overlook important aspects of the realities of violence lived everyday by vulnerable urban communities. Vulnerability on its end also warrant a discussion on methodology. Drawing from the Participatory Action Research (PAR) tradition in urban planning, vulnerability is here understood as socially (re)produced and as related to asset ownership (Moser, 1996; drawing on Sen, 1981) and the capacity to cope with shocks; whether environmental, economic, political or all of these combined.

    In this blog series, I undress some reflections on how Salvador, the blackest city of Brazil, epitomises such a nuanced appreciation of how violence is urbanised, that is, how it becomes spatially codified in the city;  and in turn is itself an agent of urbanisation. Graffiti[2] is offered as an entry point for the analysis.


    Aesthetics of inequality. View of Saramandaia, Salvador, Brazil.

    In context..

    The Bahian capital is a city of contrasts and embodies the clash between the gentrifying force of globalisation as it manifests in the built environment and locally grounded social action reclaiming identity as forgotten history. Identity as ethnicity. Identity as part of the rich African heritage of Brazil and its institutional neglecting. As Kwame Dixon (2016) aptly elucidates in his book Afro-Politics and Civil Society in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, the country abolished legal slavery in 1888, but provided no institutional mechanism to free former slaves from racial discrimination. Almost a hundred years later, when Brazil returned to democracy in the 1980s, burgeoning blocos afros[3], black social and political movements revendicating Afro-Diasporic consciousness emerged to seek racial justice and equality, to claim their ‘right to the city’ as a right to live and exist in the city.


    Despite having one of the oldest and largest black populations of the Americas, Salvador has never elected a black mayor nor has the Bahian State chosen a black governor to date (Dixon, 2016). And, if urban violence seems to follow the racial and spatially confined pattern of poverty in the city, with residents of majority black, poverty-stricken neighbourhoods being more likely to be killed than their better-off, white neighbours (Chaves Viana et al, 2011; Huggings, 2004); institutional memory as well as public opinion as shaped by the media exert more intangible, narrative forms of violence on these vulnerable groups. These narrative forms of dispossessions become activating agents of citizenship and identity revindication from within the city.

    “Minha Vida” – My Life. Graffiti in Barra District, Salvador, Brazil.

    I wanted to talk about cultural syncretism, I ended up taking about violence…

    It would be amiss to document and account for the richness and multitude of cultural manifestations in Salvador without engaging with how these are shaped by violence in the city, and how, in turn, they impinge on it.

    A graffiti tour of Ladeira da Preguiça, literally “Slope of Laziness” helped vividly retrace the institutionalisation of racialised violence in Salvador. In the 17th century, the road, which historically connected the port area[1] (cidade baixa) to the upper city[2] (cidade alta), was used by African slaves to carry goods on their shoulders while being shouted at “to move faster” (Moreira, 2018). With the development of more easily accessible routes in modern[3] Salvador, the Ladeira and its people were abandoned by public power. The area, as a result of its narrow streets and vacant warehouses, slowly lent itself to organised crime and, most recently, to drug-trafficking.

    In recent years, the stigma[1] of violence and insecurity –which is almost as damaging as violence itself– eventually provided the perfect justification for the municipality to push forward a privatisation project that was meant to regenerate –and gentrify– the area. Local moradores (“residents”), however, joined forces and, in 2013, collectively mobilised to rehabilitate the Ladeira, reconstructing collapsed mansions and painting decaying façades with colourful graffiti referencing the African Diaspora; exposing Brazil’s institutionalised culture of exclusion as a means to call for the city to remember and for reclaiming their housing rights. A vibrant cultural centre was founded by residents themselves, Centro Cultural “Que Ladeira é Essa?”, to breath a culture of resistance through art. By calling attention to Brazil’s rich African heritage, the centre offers classes of  capoeira, afro-samba dance and percussions as well as painting and graffiti workshops. Cultural offerings then become an element of aggregation, an instrument for articulating a powerful counter-narrative to deconstruct stereotypes.

    To say that civic action is a reaction to violence would be simplistic and necessarily reductionist. Nevertheless, the tradition of survivalism through art and symbolism[2] has permeated the urbanisation of Salvador as emerging from the oppression and structural exclusion of black populations within the city (for a comprehensive analysis of the evolution of Brazilian popular culture read: Assunção, 2003).


    Reflecting on causality

    On the one hand, local practices of resistance rooted in the syncretism of Salvador’s condemned[3] neighbourhoods are an unapologetic expression of resistance to the stereotyping narrative of the city. A violent narrative of violence; one that lexically and imaginatively reduces majority black-afro-descendant communities to urban realities of degradation, crime, and carencias (“deprivations”) . A narrative that is reminiscent of colonial oppression and a revivified vehicle of neoliberal domination.

    Capoeira dancer. Graffiti in Pelourinho.


    On the other, it is precisely because of this concatenated cycle of oppression-marginalisation that non-white urban communities find themselves more exposed to violence stemming from their surrounding, built as well as non-built, environments.


    In this direction, there is room for critical urban theory to expand its scope to explore how violence – and even more so the fear of it – shapes city making. In fact, if market forces and political discourses are key determining factors in the urbanisation of violence, in its physical as well as narrative manifestations, violence too influences how people (re-)claim the city, how they move inside the city, use collective spaces, build or adapt their houses.


    Our co-investigation with local urban collectives and social movements in Salvador has revealed how urban violence and fear thereof shape the social production of urban habitats and community practices around culture, housing, use and production of collective space and mobility. Further considerations and findings from our field trip will be collated in a report produced with our partner, the research group Lugar Comum, and published in the coming autumn.



    Assunção, M.R. (2003). “From Slave to Popular Culture: The Formation of Afro-Brazilian Art Forms in Nineteenth-Century Bahia and Rio de Janeiro”. Iberoamericana, Vol.3, No.12, pp.159-176.

    Dixon, K. (2016). Afro-Politics and Civil Society in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. University Press of Florida.

    Huggings, M.K. (2000). “Urban Violence and Police Privatization in Brazil: Blended Invisibility”, Social Justice, Vol.27, No.2, Issue 80, Criminal Justice and Globalization at the New Millennium (Summer 2000), pp. 113-134.

    Manco, T., Lost Art, and Neelon, C. (2005). Graffiti Brasil .Thames & Hudson: London.

    Moreira, W (2018). Graffiti Tour, Ladeira da Preguiça. 09/05/2018.

    Moser, C.O.N. (1996). “The asset vulnerability framework: Reassessing urban poverty reduction strategies”. World Development, Vol.26, No.1, January 1998, pp.1-19.

    Moser, C.O.N. (2004). “Urban Violence and Insecurity: an Introductory Roadmap”. Environment and Urbanization, Vol.16, No.2, October 2004.

    Resident. (2018). Interview. Graffiti Tour, Ladeira da Preguiça. 09/05/2018.

    Sen, A. (1981). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Clarendon Press, Oxford.


    Federica Risi is the Graduate Teaching Assistant of the MSc Social Development Practice. Herself a DPU graduate from the MSc Environment and Sustainable Development, Federica has experience in participatory action research focused on urban risks. She is also a Research Associate at the Pastoral Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa (PENHA), where she is conducting an investigation on South-South Cooperation between Peru, Brazil and the Horn region.


    [1] Residents reported that identifying as black and “saying you are from the Ladeira, it’s like admitting you are a criminal”, which “[…] stops you to get a job and continue education” (Resident, 09/05/2018).

    [2] Capoeira  and Candomblé rituals for example, emerged as practice for African slaves to compensate for the loss of identity (Assunção, 2003, p.160).

    [3] Carnival Blocks.

    [4] In the sense of being publicly perceived as unsafe and rife with violence.

    [5] Where Portuguese ships would arrive to deliver materials and goods, historically, the part of the city dedicated to commercial activities.

    [6] Here, were established the main government offices and churches; also where the aristocracy resided.

    [7] Referring to the end of Portuguese colonial domination and Brazil’s independence in 1822.

    [8] In the October 2004 No.2 Issue Vol.16 of Environment and Urbanization, with the article ‘Urban Violence and Insecurity: an Introductory Roadmap’,  Caroline O.N. Moser draws on Galtung to extend the notion of violence as going “beyond situations of overt brutality to include more implicit forms such as exploitation, exclusion, inequality and injustice” (p.6). In this sense “…violence [can be] built into the structure [of society,] …show[ing] up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances” (Galtung, 1969 cited in Moser, 2004, p.6).

    [9] Drawings and writings scribbled or painted through a variety of techniques on public walls; “a vehicle for [the excluded] of the city to assert their existence and self-worth, and to do it loudly” (Manco et al., 2005).


    Just Sustainabilities and the New Urban Agenda

    By Vanesa Castan- Broto, on 5 August 2016

    Originally published by Urban Transformations

    Will 2016 be an urban year in international development policy? In September 2015, the United Nations Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to supersede the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). One notable feature was the introduction of an ‘urban goal’, Goal 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Planning is at the centre of the new urban goal. It includes an explicit planning target, Target 11.3: “By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries.” Target 11.3 synthetizes a long history of international development thinking to make cities sustainable through planning.

    The target also emphasises the relationship between inclusive development and sustainability. In doing so, the target expresses explicitly the interconnection between social and environmental issues in planning. By emphasising capacity, the target also points to a fundamental issue in planning for sustainable cities: that institutions with the power to carry on sustainable action, or even to understand what sustainable action is, are frequently absent. The target specifies how planning has to be: it has to be participatory, integrated and sustainable. This last adjective emphasises that sustainability is both a characteristic of the output, i.e., a sustainable city, and of the process whereby that output is achieved: i.e. participatory, integrated.14157883749_8f55b61a29_k

    To a certain extent, Target 11.3 follows on from the guidelines of Chapter 7 in Local Agenda 21 that was later consolidated in the Habitat II agenda in Istanbul, 1996. The assertive formulation of Target 11.3, putting at its core both participation and integrated planning, suggests an association of planning and urban management with social and environmental justice objectives. As part of the preparations for the Habitat III conference in Quito 2016, UN-Habitat has promoted the slogan “the transformative force of urbanisation”. The slogan is designed to harness the energy emerging from positive views of urbanization which do not just see it as an unavoidable global phenomenon, but embrace it as a positive force with the potential to change unsustainable societies. The use of the word ‘transformative’, however, suggests a radical departure from business as usual scenarios, a deep structural change that will not only reconfigure cities but also, will reconfigure contemporary societies and economies towards a fairer world which respects its environment. Overall, the link between inclusive and sustainable cities, the emphasis on the sustainability of both processes and outputs, and the framing of planning as a tool for radical change towards a better society all point to a greater interest on achieving environmental and social justice in urban areas. The central question that should be asked in the road towards implementation of SDG 11 and in the preparations for Habitat III is: what kind of planning can bring about cities that are both sustainable and just?


    The protection of the Earth’s life-support system and poverty reduction are twin priorities for development. In relation to the new urban agenda, this is akin to achieving ‘just sustainabilities’ through linking social welfare and environmental protection (Agyeman et al. 2003, Agyeman 2013). Just sustainabilities approaches have the potential to reinvigorate notions of sustainability in the new urban agenda, helping link environmental concerns with the needs and perceptions of citizens, and their articulation in social movements.

    23090523285_5b350f70ae_kThe notion of just sustainabilities emerged as a response to the 1990s debates on sustainable development, and how sustainability goals in an urban context reproduced, rather than prevented, the conditions of inequality and environmental degradation. In urban planning, there has long been a concern about the limitations of using sustainability-oriented urban policies to address social justice issues (Marcuse 1998). Political theorists have questioned broadly where social justice and environmental sustainability are actually compatible (Dobson 1998, Dobson 2003). However, for proponents of just sustainabilities, social justice and environmental sustainability are interdependent problems that challenge existing power structures (McLaren 2003).

    The linkages between environmental change and social justice are apparent in empirical evidence of how environmental degradation and resource scarcity is experienced by the urban poor. Unsafe and inadequate water supplies, inadequate provision of sanitation and waste management, overcrowding, lack of safety, and different forms of air and water pollution continue to shape the lives of many citizens around the world (e.g. Hardoy and Satterthwaite 1991, Forsyth et al. 1998, Brennan 1999, HEI 2004, WHO 2009, UNDP 2014). For example, almost 10% of deaths in low-income regions are directly attributed to environmental risks such as unsafe water, outdoor and indoor air pollution, lead exposure and impacts from climate change (WHO 2009). Poverty and inequalities in access to resources and livelihood opportunities increase the vulnerability of the urban poor to climate change impacts and natural disasters (Revi et al. 2014). By 2030, the global demand for energy and water will likely grow by 40%, while for food it may increase by as much as 50% (ODI/ECDPM/GDI/DIE 2012). This is likely to further hinder poor people’s access to even basic resources. For example, the number of people without energy access is raising, regardless of infrastructure developments or urbanisation rates (IEA 2014).


    Incorporating notions of justice in environmental policy and planning emphasises both the distributional impacts of environmental degradation and resource scarcity and the need to adopt decisions that emerge from a fair and open process of policy-making. This also requires broadening the notion of justice beyond a narrow distributive conceptualisation with a recognition of how environmental problems are experienced by diverse groups of actors – especially those which are disadvantaged and struggle to make their views known – the extent to which they are represented and participate in environmental decision-making, and how environmental policy influences people’s opportunities for fulfilment (Schlosberg 2007).


    Civil society organisations and local community organisations have already made substantial contributions to demonstrating and acting upon the nexus between social justice and environmental sustainability, which have in turn inspired the ideals of just sustainabilities (Agyeman et al. 2002). These are initiatives that recognise the need for people to participate in environmental decisions; the imperative to meet people’s basic needs’ and the normative requirement to preserve the integrity of nature for future generations (Faber and McCarthy 2003). Justice-oriented discourses are already inspiring environmental action for climate change in urban areas (Bulkeley et al. 2014, Bulkeley et al. 2013). Yet, addressing the environmental crisis will require a concerted action between public, private and civil society actors for a sustainability transition.

    Demonstrating that just sustainabilities have purchase to deliver an urban future that is both just and sustainable will require operationalising this notion within current governance possibilities. In particular, following Rydin’s (2013) pioneering work on the future of planning, there is a need to think how just sustainabilities can help challenge and redefine environmental planning. Just sustainabilities emphasises the “nexus of theoretical compatibility between sustainability and environmental justice, including an emphasis on community-based decision making; on economic policies that account fiscally for social and environmental externalities; on reductions in all forms of pollution; on building clean, livable communities for all people; and on an overall regard for the ecological integrity of the planet” (Agyeman and Evans 2003; p. 36-37). It adopts an expansive notion of environmental justice which also recognises the just practices of everyday life (Schlosberg 2013). In doing so, it calls for a to move away from current dominant paradigms of growth, using planning as a means to address social and ecological concerns within an unsustainable and unjust economic system (Rydin 2013).


    In this vein, just sustainabilities may be thought as the attainment of four conditions simultaneously:

    1. Improving people’s quality of life and wellbeing;
    2. Meeting the needs of both present and future generations, that is, considering simultaneously intra- and intergenerational equity;
    3. Ensuring justice and equity in terms of recognition, process, procedure and outcome; and
    4. Recognising ecosystem limits and the need to live within the possibilities of this planet (Agyeman et al. 2003).

    There is already a body of empirical evidence about the practice of just sustainabilities (Agyeman 2005, Agyeman 2013). However, does it represent a viable perspective for sustainable planning agendas? Does it have relevance beyond the environmental justice movements from which it has emerged? Can it be integrated into current practices of environmental planning? These are open questions which will unfold as the New Urban Agenda begins to be implemented on the ground. The concept of just sustainabilities emerges as a positive discourse that can support action to deliver urban transformations. Clearly, there are tools available to deliver just sustainability action in urban environmental planning and management, but their applicability, effectiveness and impacts depend on the context in which they are implemented. More ambitious efforts are needed in the New Urban Agenda to redefine urban development possibilities and the way environmental limits are experienced in different cities. Local governments will play a key role in developing strategies to challenge growth-dependence paradigms and to enable collaborative forms of environmental governance.



    Agyeman, J., 2005. Sustainable communities and the challenge of environmental justice. New York University Press: New York.
    Agyeman, J., 2013. Introducing just sustainabilities: Policy, planning, and practice. London: Zed books.
    Agyeman, J., Bullard, R. D. and Evans, B. 2002. Exploring the Nexus: Bringing Together Sustainability, Environmental Justice and Equity. Space and Polity, 6(1), 77-90.
    Agyeman, J., Bullard, R. D. and Evans, B., 2003. Just sustainabilities: development in an unequal world. Cambridge: MIT Press.
    Agyeman, J. and Evans, T. 2003. Toward Just Sustainability in Urban Communities: Building Equity Rights with Sustainable Solutions. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 590(1), 35-53.
    Brennan, E., 1999. Population, Urbanization , Environment, and Security : A summary of the issues. Comparative Urban Studies Occasional Paper Series. Washington.
    Bulkeley, H., et al. 2013. Climate justice and global cities: mapping the emerging discourses. Global Environmental Change, 23(5), 914-925.
    Bulkeley, H., Edwards, G. A. and Fuller, S. 2014. Contesting climate justice in the city: Examining politics and practice in urban climate change experiments. Global Environmental Change, 25, 31-40.
    Dobson, A., 1998. Justice and the Environment: Conceptions of Environmental Sustainability and Dimensions of Social Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    Dobson, A. 2003. Social justice and environmental sustainability: ne’er the twain shall meet. Just sustainabilities: Development in an unequal world, 83-95.
    Faber, D. and McCarthy, D. 2003. Neo-liberalism, globalization and the struggle for ecological democracy: linking sustainability and environmental justice. Just sustainabilities: Development in an unequal world, 38-63.
    Forsyth, T., Leach, M. and Scoones, I., 1998. Poverty and environment: priorities for research and policy – an overview study. Sussex, 49.
    Hardoy, J. E. and Satterthwaite, D. 1991. Environmental problems of third world cities: A global issue ignored. Public Administration and Development, 11, 341-361.
    HEI, Health Effects of Outdoor Air Pollution in Developing Countries of Asia. ed., 2004 Boston.
    IEA, Africa Energy Outlook. ed., 2014 Paris.
    Marcuse, P. 1998. Sustainability is not enough. Environment and Urbanization, 10(2), 103-112.
    McLaren, D. 2003. Environmental space, equity and the ecological debt. Just sustainabilities: Development in an unequal world, 19-37.
    ODI/ECDPM/GDI/DIE, 2012. Confronting scarcity: Managing water, energy and land for inclusive and sustainable growth. Brussels: European Union Report on Development, 9789279231612.
    Revi, A., et al. 2014. Towards transformative adaptation in cities: the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment. Environment and Urbanization, 26(1), 11-28.
    Rydin, Y., 2013. The future of planning. Policy Press.
    Schlosberg, D. 2007. Defining Environmental Justice: Theories, Movements, and Nature.
    Schlosberg, D. 2013. Theorising environmental justice: the expanding sphere of a discourse. Environmental politics, 22(1), 37-55.
    UNDP, Human Development Report 2014. ed., 2014 New York, 239.
    WHO, Global Health Risks: Mortality and Burden of Disease Attributable to selected major risks. ed., 2009 Geneva.

    Vanesa Castán Broto is a senior lecturer and co-director of MSc Environment and Sustainable Development at the DPU. Her work spans a range of issues in developing cities, including disaster preparedness, climate change adaptation and energy supply. Vanesa is also Principal Investigator of the Mapping Urban Energy Landscapes (MUEL) in the Global South project at Urban Transformations.