Will the population of Rio really benefit from hosting next year’s Olympic Games?

The entrance to Rio's Olympic park, currently under construction. Image: Getty.

Eduardo Paes looked right at home on the TED talk stage. Giving a talk in 2012, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro brimmed with the bubbly optimism that comes natural to Brazilians, and the relentless drive that comes natural to big city mayors. Speaking in English tinged with a Brazilian lilt, he assured the crowd, “You’re looking at the guy who has the best job in the world!”

Sensing that his charm offensive had worked, Paes quickly shifted to a more emotional tone. “I really wanted to share you [sic] a very special moment in my life, and in the history of Rio,” he said. On cue, the massive screen behind him played a clip of the announcement of Rio de Janeiro as host of the 2016 Olympics, made three years earlier. As the announcement was made, the Brazilian contingent leapt out of their seats. Brazil’s then-president “Lula” da Silva and football legend Pelé hugged each other enthusiastically.

For Paes, it was a dream come true. And despite brief moments of uncertainty, such as his remarks after the 2013 Brazil bus-fare uprising in which he expressed doubts about the legacy of the World Cup and the Olympics, he has remained faithful to bringing that dream to life. But for many in his city, the Olympic vision looks a lot less rosy. 

In preparation for Rio’s 2016 Olympics, as well as last year’s World Cup final, Paes worked alongside city officials and the state of Rio de Janeiro to draft an urban investment plan that would amount to a total of $16.6bn. Chief among these costs were the city’s “Porto Maravilha” shorefront improvement plan, and a plan to build an extensive bus rapid transit (BRT) network. Other schemes called for improvements in housing and basic services.

But these plans quickly ran into difficulties. In many cases, those “difficulties” seemed to be poorer favela dwellers living a bit too close to stadiums or event venues, who the Rio government preferred to move out of the way before the cameras started rolling.

The Maracana Olympic stadium under construction in Rio. Image: Getty.

These issues began as far back as 2012. Alongside the land slated to become Rio’s Olympic Park, west of the city centre, an informal settlement known as Vila Autódromo became the target of eviction efforts by the Government. The New York Times reported that Paes’s government had paid $11m to two real estate developers who had donated to his campaign to resettle the land; Paes’s government later cancelled the deal.

In 2014, as the World Cup was about to begin, similar plans were made throughout the city. And these plans continue. Last month, local news source Rio On Watch reported that evictions and demolitions had begun in the favela Vila União de Curicica, near Vila Autódromo. The demolitions were planned so as to enable the construction of the new Transolímpica rapid bus system; they were carried out despite an earlier agreement to reroute the planned western line of the system.

But the problems go beyond favela evictions. In January, Rachel Glickhouse at Fusion reported that the city was falling far short of the contamination clean-up target it had set itself. Due to a 95 per cent budget cut, city officials acknowledged that “the government would fail to reach its 2016 goal to clean the filthy Guanabara Bay by 80 percent before the games,” Glickhouse noted, before highlighting other sanitation issues such as excessive trash dumped in the bay and contaminated sand on Rio’s famous beaches.

Even Rio’s signature Olympics improvement project, the Porto Maravilha, is running into trouble. The project consists of converting an elevated freeway in Rio’s port zone into an underground tunnel, using the newly open space for pedestrians and streetcars. The freeway has now been demolished – but it remains to be seen whether the underground tunnels will open in time for the games.

In addition, specialists question whether the residential developments planned as part of the project will ultimately be beneficial. Ephim Schluger, an urban specialist for the World Bank, told Bloomberg News that the buildings of the new development “will not have the life of a city”. Others worry about inequality. In an interview with Jornal do Brasil, urban planner Humberto Kzure-Cerquera worried that the project would “marginalize the poorest population” of the area and “create a social abyss”.

Dead fish float in Guanabara Bay, part of which is due to be the Olympic sailing venue. Officials have recently admitted their cleanup goals won't be met in time for the Games. Image: Getty.

To top off Rio’s problems, last year the city’s preparation efforts were dubbed the “worst ever” by International Olympic Committee vice president John Coates. In response to what was deemed to be poor preparation, the IOC appointed its own experts to Rio’s local organising committee.

Could Paes have foreseen all these issues when he took the stage at the TED talk back in 2012? Given the issues cities so often face when hosting the Olympics, it’s hard not to think so. And yet, the prestige of becoming an Olympic host city was enough for Paes to turn a blind eye to potential problems.

In a cruel irony, the process also seems to have blinded him to one of the principles he stated so proudly back during his TED talk: to respect the slums. In that talk, he urged cities in countries like Brazil not to destroy their slums, but to incorporate them into the rest of the city.

In some cases, Paes has delivered on this; the Complexo do Alemão favela is now connected to the city with an aerial cable car, and other Rio favelas enjoy new parks and urban amenities. But it’s hard to look at the clearance projects in Vila Autodromo or Vila União de Curicica and think of them as being effective “slum upgrading”.

When the opening ceremonies begin in Rio in 2016, viewers from around the world will probably be treated to the same spectacle they are every four years: torches, concerts, lots of athletes competing in sports some of us may not have even have heard of, perhaps a bit of cool drone footage of the “Christ the Redeemer” statue. What remains to be seen is whether residents of places like Vila Autódromo will be any better off than they are today.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.