Speaking from the rooftop of a building on Rio de Janeiro’s beachfront, Alex Costa explains why he’s taking down billboards. “Our goal is to rid the city’s landscape of this dirt,” he says—“visual pollutants” that take away from views of the city’s white sand beaches and the deep green rainforests clinging to nearby mountainsides. Costa’s job—special secretary for public order—was created recently by Rio’s can-do mayor, Eduardo Paes. Outlawing billboards and the banner advertisements papering Rio’s downtown is Paes’s latest move in a crusade to clean up the city before the world comes to town, first for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, then for the Summer Olympics two years later.
Paes, who took office in 2008, has a big job ahead. Rio is as famous for its violence and urban chaos as it is for its beauty and extravagant Carnaval. He’s fighting back with a new “shock and order” campaign, ramping up enforcement of everything from parking on sidewalks (a common practice in Rio) to peeing in public. Even the city’s beaches have not been spared in his quest for order: officers in shorts and hats now monitor everything from coconuts to Coca Cola, banning the sale of fresh-cooked corn and shrimp on the beach, and halting any paddleball games that don’t end by the 5 p.m. cut-off. But Paes’s plan for Rio involves more than coconuts.
Brazil is riding a wave of confidence thanks to its booming economy and Rio, which has seen both private and public development flood the city’s downtown, is its showcase. Paes, drawing inspiration from the changes the Olympics brought to Barcelona, is undertaking a $4.5-billion revitalization of Rio’s port region and subway expansions. The city is also building a network of dedicated bus lanes to address its severe traffic problems, and a new, state-of-the-art control centre to track transport systems in a city of 14 million: carnival parades, garbage trucks and car crashes all appear on a giant display of screens.
Paes is not without critics. “He’s a superintendent, not an urbanist,” says opposition city councillor Andrea Gouvea Vieira. Paes talked about sustainability in a recent TED conference in California. But Vieira says less than half of Rio’s sewage currently gets treated; when it flows to local bodies of water, it causes floods and erosion, leading to landslides.
Paes won’t be able to do much to chip away at the city’s infamous violence, which is by some accounts Rio’s more serious blemish: policing is outside the mayor’s jurisdiction. None of these critiques, however, are likely to hurt the popular mayor in elections this October. “Some see his re-election as a given,” says José Paulo Martins, a political scientist at UniRio University. Paes’s approval ratings, he adds, are sky-high. Martins says voters value technocrat politicians like Paes who are able to deliver more than just a beautiful speech. Brazilians are counting on Paes to deliver the next Barcelona—not another Athens.