Zeno’s Public-Consultation Paradox: Part 1, Longer than the time available

March 18, 2014 | Brazil, Bureaucracy, Government, Infrastructure, Olympics, Public choice theory, Relocation, Rio de Janeiro, Theory, Urban renewal

By:David A. Smith


Zeno’s Public Consultation Paradox


All public-consultation processes take longer than the time available, even when you take into consideration Zeno’s Public Consultation Paradox.



Surely Achilles can catch the tortoise

Just as surely, Rio can relocate slum dwellers without resorting to forcible eviction


Sometimes no evil intent is required to produce the wrong result, it can arise out of automatic consequences of a machine working algorithmically, though one would not quite know this from a story on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition (February 27, 2014):


As Brazil Gears Up For Olympics, Some Poor Families Get Moved Out

by Lourdes Garcia-Navarro


Victoria Agostinho, 5, walks outside her home in the Vila Autodromo area of Rio. Her family is slated for eviction, along with others in the area, to make way for building projects related to the 2016 Summer Olympics.


When it comes to public-consultation processes, there is never enough time to achieve consensus, and poor old Achilles never catches the tortoise. 



Why am I not achieving consensus with you folks?


And here is the Zeno’s paradox of public-approval processes: no matter how much time the public sector budgets for its consultation and approval processes, it will always use more than that amount of time, until time runs out, the bulldozers have to roll, and the government ends up forcibly evicting people whom it had set out to protect, all the while saying (and believing) that it is doing the right thing, acting honorably and for the poor people’s own good.



Don’t worry, we’re building you a better community than the one you built for yourselves:

Demolition in Vila Harmonia, Rio de Janeiro



Maria Victoria Agostinho, 5, walks outside her home in the Vila Autodromo area of Rio. Her family is slated for eviction, along with others in the area, to make way for building projects related to the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Lianne Milton for NPR

Jeane Tomas scraped all her money together to build a house where she could raise her son. She’d been renting in the favela, or shanty town, of Vila Harmonia and wanted to put down roots in the community where she lived when her child was born.


It was near her work, near doctors, and other key amenities, she said.


The house went up — only to quickly come down.



Houses being demolished in Vila Harmonia


“There is this frustration to have worked so hard, dreamed so much to leave everything behind,” she said.


Normally, slums disappear by being slowly formalized, and in expanding Rio de Janeiro, as in so many global-south cities, that is the likeliest path, if only because the slums are so vast that they cannot all be removed. 


In any citizen-responsive democracy (dictators can do what they like), relocating a slum – demolishing it to rebuild it somewhere else – is politically and legally possible only when multiple conditions are simultaneously present:

1. The geographic area to be relocated has to be small.  Otherwise the protest risk and relocation costs are too great.


Rio’s Olympic Park is being built in Barra de Tijuca, where Jeane Tomas once lived.



Barra de Tijuca, with the residents removed and before the Olympic facilities have been built


2. The political case for reclaiming the area has to be compelling to the average citizen.  The average newspaper reader must believe that the greatest good of the greatest number will be served by the relocation.



October, 2009: Rio wins the bid for the 2016 Olympics


3. The potential boost in land or economic value has to be enormous.  Otherwise the political case is uncompelling, and the economics of relocation are hard to justify – whereas, if the economic boost is huge, then the political class can afford to fund a ‘generous’ relocation and transplanting strategy.



All due to the Olympics?


4. An immovable intermediate-term deadline has to be looming.  If the doom is too far enough, people will dither. 



In 2009, it sounded so far away we could make a logo in which everyone was happy and connected


All these forces come together when the city is hosting a global event, like the World Cup or the Olympics – or, in the case of Rio, both.


Now that the Winter Olympics in Sochi are over attention will be turning to Brazil, the host of the 2016 Summer Olympics.


Rio de Janeiro is undergoing a massive transformation in advance of the games and that has brought with it a number of criticisms. Chief among them are the forcible evictions that are taking place across the city.


I am morally certain that the Brazilian government didn’t originally plan forced eviction, but like Zeno’s Achilles, they never caught up with the community’s tortoise-like deliberations.



From the NPR story: For the newly urban poor, horses and donkey carts are cost-effective transportationHide caption

Jeane Tomas, with her mother, in their two-bedroom apartment, in Rio de Janeiro’s far west zone of Campo Grande. The family was relocated to this area three years ago to make way for building projects related to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.



As many as 200,000 people across the country are at risk of the same, according to the Popular Committees for the World Cup and Olympics.


Personally, I have grown skeptical of advocacy phrases like ‘as many as’ and ‘at risk,’ because they allow the claimants to scaremonger without evidence.  That may be the stuff of political and advocacy campaigns, but it’s vaporware nonetheless, and if the scale is as great as proposed, then the political blowback will be large.


When Rio was awarded the Olympics in October, 2009,  Like Achilles and the tortoise, the government though the deadline far away and the tortoise easy to catch.



Surely Achilles can catch the tortoise

Just as surely, Rio can accommodate the residents


I’m sure Rio envisioned taking advantage of the vast national funding – for stadiums, new highways, new bus lines – to be flowing into Rio to create


Tomas was among those who were moved.


So the city went to Jeane Tomas, and hundreds like her, with what the city undoubtedly thought would be an excellent deal.


About three years ago, she was told she would have to leave to make way for a new road that was being built as part of an infrastructure upgrade.


The place where Jeane Tomas now lives is called the OITI complex.


In fact, she was offered a free new apartment.


[Her relocated] housing is new, and the people live there at a relatively low cost. They pay a small condo fee and utilities.


The home was given to them for free; the residents are paying only the bare operating cost of their apartments.



Isn’t this nicer than you had before?

Resettled residents in Campo Grande


Though free, the home is too expensive.


Still, they don’t own these homes and they can’t rent them to others. [Did they legally own their old homes? – Ed.]


Not formally, anyway – which means only that the renting will be informal.



From the NPR story: The fresco’ed sign sayis For saleHide caption

Hide caption

Neighbors gather on Sunday afternoon in Vila Autodromo. More then half of the 3,000 families who have been moved did not want to leave, but say they were pressured.


Activists and academics allege the forcible evictions have more to do with real estate than real help to the poor.


Of course the evictions/ relocations are all about real estate value – that doesn’t make them ipso facto inhumane.  Nor does the land having arisen in value automatically entitle the squatters upon it to a portion of that value – though in my ideal world of equitable eminent domain, they would share in the upside.


[Barra de Tijuca] used to be a poor area. But with the influx of development and roads for the Olympics, luxury apartment complexes are springing up along with Miami-style malls.


Of course they are: the city is investing billions in infrastructure, and that infrastructure (transport and otherwise) is changing the land’s desirability.  It always had intracoastal oceanfront; now it has accessible, developable oceanfront.



Once it’s developed, it’ll be immensely valuable

Hide caption

A woman and child at a playground. Nearby, construction is taking place for the Olympic Village.

Land is becoming extremely valuable. For example, the athletes housing during the games is going to be turned into high-end apartment buildings once the games are over.


Naturally, for two reasons:


1. The housing for athletes has to be world-class quality.  It’s a showcase, after all.  So it will be high-end finishes.


2. The organizers, thinking like developers, realize that because apartment are occupied by money, not people, selling the built homes to higher-income people will recover more of the cost.


Orlando Santos Junior is a professor of urban planning at Rio de Janeiro Federal University who has studied the evictions for years.


“Social exclusion is the issue here. The city is more beautiful, but for whom? The city is richer, but for whom? The city is for whom?” he asked.


Much though I’d like to sympathize, that is the wrong question.  The city is not a monolith, it’s a complex organism stretching across thousands of acres and scores of neighborhoods.  The right question is How do we distribute land uses, and assure equality of access for all citizens?



Hide caption

A youth guides his horse and cart down the main road of Vila Autodromo, an area where many families have been evicted and moved to far away neighborhoods. Construction on the Olympic Village is taking place nearby.

From the NPR story: Equality of housing, but how about equality of access?


According to human rights groups, some 3,000 families have already been evicted from their homes in Rio alone.


While NPR didn’t delve into the specifics, I suspect that most of the homes demolished were illegal –on public land, on someone else’s land, or in self-built substandard structures.  This doesn’t change the disruptive effect of forcible relocation but it changes the rational equities of the relocation proposal Rio offered the residents.


“And I would ask them, where to?  They were asking us to sign papers without knowing where we were going,” she said. “Then they showed us this place and, to be honest, we really didn’t have a choice.”


Governments chasing hard deadlines are like Zeno’s Achilles, in that they ought to be able to catch the deadline, but somehow they never do. 



[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]