“The only colony in modern history to swallow its own empire”: how the Portuguese royal family remade Rio

The National Library of Rio, one legacy of John VI. Image: Getty.

In 1808, on the run from Napoleon, and after a short stay in Salvador, the Portuguese Royal Crown finally met its new home: Rio de Janeiro.

The portraits are, as these things usually are, much more impressive than reality likely was. Rio de Janeiro, for all its natural beauty, was a shabby, unimportant capital of a backwards colony. The Portuguese crown, on the other hand, was filled of odd characters, seasick and very likely filthy. Colony and coloniser glared at each other with some distaste. It was Rio de Janeiro’s first experience in being a living contradiction, an art that it still practices today. It’s the only colony in modern history to have swallowed its own empire.

John VI, the acting ruler of Portugal, traveled to the tropics a prince, his mad mother still holding the title of queen; in Rio he would become a king, just as Brazil would become a kingdom. The country has very few heroes in its culture; figureheads are divided in buffoons and rogues. John VI is usually seen as the first, a shy, fearful glutton pushed into a terrifying journey by the English, and who never really understood the art of politics.

Domingos Sequeira's portrait of John II. Image: Wikimedia Commons. 

John was a second son, not expected to rule until his older brother died of smallpox, a fact that probably contributed to his image as an unprepared loser. The portrait doesn’t really match reality. Napoleon would, with frustration, describe John as the only one who fooled him; in any case is hard to reconcile the image of the cartoonishly frightened soft prince with a man that would transform Rio into a city capable of ruling itself and its coloniser.

The first priority was housing. The court demanded a lot of homes that simply had not been built; while John, Maria and Carlota had found suitable residences, they had brought along a demanding court with too many people for the modest colony.

The solution was to seize homes from current residents; it was common to find homes marked with the letters P.R (Prince Regent) to mark the takeover. Brazilians, with their usual sense of humor took to saying the letters stood for “ponha-se na rua” (get out). They would also come to grow frustrated with the intrusion of the court. The better food and products were given to the newcomers. Taxes were raised.

Hard feelings aside, change was inevitable. The city grew, molded into something suitable for a prince to stay in. Street lighting, water fonts, better streets would come; John would also open ports to new products and allow industry in the country (an interesting little detail: the taxation for imported goods from Portugal to Brazil was 16 per cent; the taxation for English products was just below, 15 per cent). No more the plain fashions of a dull countryside for Rio de Janeiro; that, of course, would not do for an European court.

John’s hunger for civilising the city did not stop at a few ticks: he brought many institutions that are still around Rio de Janeiro now. The Botanical Garden, with its magnificent palm trees that still grow, for which he had a special fondness. The National Library, with documents that had been transferred from Portugal’s. The bath house, the first Brazilian bank. To ensure that taste would rule, a French Artistic Mission, bringing artists to build the Royal School of Sciences, Arts and Crafts.

In everything, the Empire had a taste for the over the top. It also had a taste for spending money on red tape; John found jobs and functions for almost every single one of his court members, not necessarily for the sake of talent. This habit of building big and employing many is probably one of its most enduring legacies; many Rio mayors leave office with big buildings from which public money bleeds.

A lot of this was paid for by one of the Empire’s greatest industries: African slavery. The free population of Rio grew, but the city had the biggest slave population in the Americas, too. In its streets, the black and brown population did the hard work white Portuguese and Brazilians would consider below them.

To deal with the prospect of an uprising, John created the Rio military police, an organ still alive today. There has never been a better manifestation of the upper class paranoia, inherited from the royals, that one day black Brazilians might demand equality. Even today, black Brazilians die in larger numbers after conflict with the police, and the streets of Rio are one of their main graveyards. It would be 1888 before Brazil abolished slavery.

Long before that, John VI was gone, back to home to deal with an uneasy Portugal. The Empire stayed. His son Peter would declare Brazil’s independence not long afterwards. “If Brazil is to break away, it’s better that you do it, Peter, than some other adventurer,” John had told his son. Indeed, his family would hold power of newly independent Brazil for over 50 years – first through Peter I, and then, after a brief interval, through Peter II, who Brazilians remember as a gentle looking old man with a beard like Father Christmas.

Peter II. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Under Peter II’s command, Rio blossomed again, an industrialised wonder, lead by an emperor so keen on innovation and so in love with knowledge that he was one of the first men to own a telephone. A certain wide eyed nostalgia covers the period, lost in images of industrial wonderman Viscont of Mauá bringing railways and banks. But in truth, Peter II was supported by slave-owning coffee farmers, the army and church, all of which would abandon him eventually. Brazilian politics, as ever, are ruthless; the military coup that brought in the republic would follow.

The Brazilian royal family still exists today: strange, decaying curiosities who at times snipe about the state of Brazilian democracy, but don’t do so about the many periods of dictatorships. In its streets, in its architecture, in its natural beauty and its people, Rio de Janeiro remains, as ever, a strange empire.

Julia Blunck tweets as @angrysigh.


Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.


In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?

Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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