Revisiting Brasilia

The Basement Geographer is back again with another article on Google Sightseeing. This week, thanks to the new Street View and 45° imagery released at the end of July throughout Brazil, we decided to revisit one of the greatest civil engineering projects of all time – the city of Brasilia. You can read the article here.  Although the article mostly looks at the buildings within Brasilia’s famous ‘Pilot Plan’ (the ultra-Modernist central city constructed in 1960 in the shape of an airplane, hence its name), it does touch on the end at the slums that surround the capital.  While most people think of Brasilia as merely the Pilot Plan area itself, the capital in both the legal and functional sense is synonymous with the entire Federal District, which unlike the rest of Brazil has no municipal divisions. 


The Pilot Plan itself was only designed for a half-million residents, yet the capital now has over 2.5 million with another million living just outside its boundaries.  The idealistic plan originally intended to have people of all different social classes living in apartments within the same ‘superblocks’ to make up for social inequalities, but the differences in apartments prices were ultimately so small that living in the Pilot Plan was unaffordable for the lower classes.  Upper and middle class people, meanwhile, had no incentive to move to Brasilia in the first place as life was suitable where they already were.  That combined with the rush of comparatively poorer people into the newly-constructed capital looking for work and the fact that the construction workers who worked to build the city were not provided housing nor permitted to live in the construction sites led to the rising of numerous favelas– shanty towns – around the capital.  By the end of the 1960s, most of the population lived not in the Pilot Plan but in satellite towns, and 80 000 of Brasilia’s residents were living in shacks.  The rigid planning of the central district inadvertently created spontaneous, unplanned development elsewhere.

The Brazilian government had to design new neighbourhoods to accommodate this rapidly growing population that was unable to afford life in the Pilot Plan.  As well, many of the favelas developed into more traditional cities and neighbourhoods with their own sizeable commercial districts, most notably Taguatinga, now a thriving financial centre and the second-most populous area of the capital.  Today, even though most of the jobs in the capital are within the Pilot Plan, less than ten percent of Brasilia’s population live there.  The area of Brasilia with the largest population is Ceilandia, founded in 1971, with a population now over 400 000.  70 percent of Ceilandia’s population originally hailed from the less-developed northeastern states of Brazil.  Taguatinga is closing in on 300 000, a few tens of thousands of people ahead of Brasilia proper, which ranks third.


The Pilot Plan of Brasilia is dwarfed in size by its surrounding districts such as Ceilandia, Taguatinga (the skinny, dense district immediately to the east of Ceilandia), Guara (a dormitory town between Taguatinga and the Pilot Plan), and Nucleo Bandeirante (one of the original labourer favelas lying immediately to the west of the airport).  The rapidly expanding district of Samambaia can be seen in the bottom left corner.  Formerly a rural area of Taguatinga inhabited informally, the area of Samambaia was cleared of settlers by the government in 1985 and created as as a new, planned district. Samambaia’s population has grown to 200 000 residents, and the new city now has access to a metro line.

The newer neighbourhoods were purposely placed some distance from the Pilot Plan to avoid compromising the initial design and image of the central district as well as to keep the Plan’s water supply clean.  This lack of centralisation of population means that going from one neighbourhood to another in Brasilia can be quite difficult.  Walking around the city as is done in other metropolises around the world is an impossible task.  Within the Pilot Plan, which was explicitly designed for an automobile-based society, buildings are spaced very far apart and types of buildings (commercial, residential, financial, government, and tourist) are rigidly assigned to widely-dispersed sectors within the plan.  Outside of the Pilot Plan, where most of the people live, getting to their jobs downtown requires a commute of often dozens of kilometres.  The metro system in the city is rather underdeveloped, having only opened in 2001, and mainly travels along the Ceilandia-Taguatinga-Pilot Plan corridor, leaving most of the city inaccessible except by car, taxi, or bus.  Expansion of the system using light rail, however, is underway in advance of Brasilia being a host city for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.


The plan of the Brasilia Metro.  Currently, two metro lines run along the south axis of the Pilot Plan through Guara to Taguatinga and Ceilandia (green) and Samambaia (orange).  2010 saw the beginning of construction on a light rail line (pink) from the International Airport east of Nucleo Bandeirante through the western portion of the Pilot Plan to eventually link up with an expanded green line at the north end of the axis.  The sizable satellite towns of the north such as Planaltina and Sobradinho, meanwhile, are left out.

That said, there are still many positives about Brasilia.  The city has the highest GDP per capita in the country at US$31 000, nearly triple that of the country as a whole, thanks to its high-earning federal government employees (91 percent of Brasilia’s GDP comes from the service sector; 55 percent of the GDP alone comes from public administration).  The crime rate is lower in Brasilia than other areas of the country, and traffic flows are far less chaotic.  The Pilot Plan itself was enshrined as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 in recognition of its status as ‘a landmark in the history of town planning’ and for the shape and scale of its numerous major buildings.

Further Reading (2012).  About Brasilia.  Available at  Accessed 7 September 2012.

Blake, A. (1996).  Brasília: A Modern City.  Available at  Accessed 7 September 2012.

Branco, M. (2011).  PIB per capita no DF é quase o triplo da média do país.  Correio Braziliense, 27 May 2011.  Available at,254133/pib-per-capta-no-df-e-quase-o-triplo-da-media-do-pais.shtml.  Accessed 7 September 2012.

de Holanda, F. et al. (2001).  Eccentric Brasilia.  Urban Design International  7: 19-28.   Available at   Accessed 7 September 2012.

Hamre, B. (n.d.).  Brasilia, Capital of Brazil. South American Travel.  Available at  Accessed 7 September 2012.

Moerschel, J. (1996).  Brasília.  Available at  Accessed 7 September 2012.

UNESCO World Heritage Centre (2012).  Brasilia.  Available at  Accessed 7 September 2012.

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