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The History of Urban Reform in Brazil

Nelson Saule Júnior, Karina UZZO


The History of the National Urban Reform Movement

The struggle for urban reform began in the 1960s, when progressive sectors of Brazilian society demanded structural reforms to the legal regulation and use of public land. The main issue was agrarian reform in the countryside, which had already been included in the “Grassroots Reform” plan under the government of President João Goulart. The urban reform proposal for Brazil’s cities was initially drawn up by Congress in 1963, and was promoted by the Brazilian Institute of Architects. However the military coup of 1964 gave rise to an authoritarian political system (lasting until 1984) which did not allow these reforms to be carried out.

Urban reform issues reappeared in the 1970s and 1980s during a period of slow and gradual political openness in which social movements slowly gained greater visibility and political weight, and were able to construct an autonomous discourse and social practice. The movement’s demands were presented as rights in an effort to reverse social inequalities on the basis of a new social ethic. An important dimension of this new social ethic was the politicization of urban problems, understood as a fundamental element of the democratization process of Brazilian society. During this period, the Catholic Church made a major contribution with the launch of “Pastoral Action and Urban Land,” in which it defended the social role of urban property. This proved to be a very important text in the struggle for urban reform.

At the time, Brazil’s urban landscape had undergone significant changes. Marked by a high rate of rural-urban migration between 1940 and 1991 during which time the urban population increased from 31.2% to 75% of the country’s total population, Brazilian cities grew without basic infrastructure. Major consequences resulted, especially the spatial segregation of neighbourhoods which were largely neglected, lacked the basic conditions for adequacy and developed with the complicity of the public authorities. In 1988, the struggle for urban reform was taken up again. The National Constituent Assembly was a grand arena of political struggle, in which popular forces worked hard, articulating their demands while also coming into conflict with powerful interest groups from the conservative forces. Amid the post-1964 movement which culminated in the Constituent Assembly of 1988, the National Urban Reform Movement was created in January, 1985. Its story is the history of a struggle that unified and linked diverse social actors. In the beginning, the movement’s struggle was focused on local issues, such as demands for housing. However by the end of the military regime, it had begun to incorporate ideas of the right to a more social life: the idea of the city, the city of all people, a home beyond one’s house, a home accessed by paved roads, public services, schools, and transportation.

The National Urban Reform Movement was formed by a heterogeneous group of people, with participants who worked in different aspects of urbanism, and worked to link popular participation throughout Brazil, through the Constituent Assembly of 1988. Numerous civil society organisations, social movements, professional associations, non-governmental organisations and unions came together, including: the National Federation of Architects; the National Federation of Engineers; the Federation of Social Assistance and Educational Bodies (FASE); the National Urban Land Link (ANSUR); the Favela Movement; the Association of Mortgage Holders; the Institute of Architects; the Federation of Residents’ Associations of Río de Janeiro (FAMERJ); and other social ministries and social movements struggling for housing.

These entities focused on preparing a bill to be included in the federal constitution, in order to change the exclusionary profile of Brazil’s cities, which were until then characterized by the precariousness of public polices related to sanitation, housing, transportation and occupation of urban land. This precariousness had resulted from the omissions and negligence of government authorities. On the basis of the exchange between such diverse entities and the contributions of practical experience, a more advanced proposal was developed. This resulted not only from local struggles but also from participation in the preparation of public policies (although this had largely been for judicial purposes).

In 1986, the National Urban Reform Movement defined the concept of urban reform as a new social ethic which rejects the use of the city as a source of profit for a few while conversely subjecting many to poverty. Consequently, it assumes a critique and rejection of social inequality, keeping in mind the duality that exists in the same city: the city of the wealthy and the city of the poor, the legal city and the illegal city. It condemns the exclusion of the majority of the city’s inhabitants as caused by the logic of spatial segregation: the city as merchandise; the commoditization of urban land and real estate valuation; and the private appropriation of public investments in housing, public transport, urban infrastructure and public services. Thus, this new social ethic politicizes the debate about the city and creates a discourse and political platform for urban social movements, in which access to the city is the right of all its residents and not restricted to a few, or rather, the wealthiest.

Efforts towards urban reform solidified, not only through the linking of social movements supporting an urban platform that incorporated local and national issues, but also by criticizing spatial inequality in the dual city. With this, the country began an urban project based on the demand for a new city, proposing to eliminate access privileges in different areas of the city. What formed was a political matter that extended beyond urban issues and delved into the areas of social justice and equality. Its central point is the question of democratic participation in city management, which has been discriminated against by the exclusionary logic of technocratic plans of the 1960s and 1970s. This basis of technical knowledge assumed that the majority of the population was incapable of understanding, acting on, or deciding anything with regards to these urban plans. The right to the city was strengthened amid the struggle for urban reform and was characterized by democratic and participatory management of the city, fulfilment of the social function of the city, the guarantee of social justice and decent conditions for all inhabitants of the city, the superiority of the social function of property, and sanctions against property owners who disregard the social function of land.

The Popular Amendment for Urban Reform in the Brazilian Constituent Assembly

The participation process was galvanized by the establishment of an internal regulation in the Constituent Assembly which permitted the use of popular initiatives to present amendments to the Brazilian Constitution of 1988. As evidence of the efficacy of popular participation in the Constituent Assembly, more than 12 million signatures were gathered for popular amendments. Conservative forces argued that the principles of social justice were being used as a pretext to prevent the country’s development (development was a term long used to disguise the issue of the inequality of urban space) and that intervening in urban policy would give the state too large of a role. They described the popular amendment as a usurpation law to be used as an instrument for social disorder and an incentive for illegal land occupations, among other retrograde concepts. The popular amendment proposed by the National Urban Reform Movement was supported by 48 state and local entities and included the participation of six national groups: ANSUR; the National Federation of Architects (FNA); the National Federation of Engineers; the National Coordination Office of Mortgage Holders Associations; the Movement in Defense of Favelas and the Institute of Brazilian Architects. The social function of property was the greatest threat to conservative groups and to the right to private property.

In this world where cities were collective, urbanized spaces — or spaces about to be urbanized — progressive civil society forces began to demand public mechanisms to oversee the right to private property. With the popular amendment, Brazilian public rights began to guarantee not only private property and individual interest, but also the protection of collective interest above the various uses of individual property. As a result, property was no longer linked to a fundamentally private civil right, and began to be addressed by public rights. The right to property was separated from the right to build, a right of a different nature, and represents a concession of public power. Sanctions with regulatory attributions were established, based on a series of legal and urbanistic instruments which impose serious sanctions, including expropriation, on owners of urban land that is left unused for speculative reasons or owners who fail to utilize, underutilize or do not build on their property.

Other achievements at that time were the affirmation and establishment of effective municipal autonomy and the expansion of popular participation in city management, both through direct institutional mechanisms like plebiscites, referendums, popular initiatives and public consultation, as well as other forms of direct participation such as councils, conferences, forums and public hearings. This ensured the community’s participation in the development of Master Plans, the main urban planning instrument for municipalities. Other actors, including organised sectors of the real estate market, mobilized to guarantee their interests in the urban and transport affairs subcommittees. Although the National Urban Reform Movement’s proposal was not accepted in its entirety, it led to creation of the Popular Amendment for Urban Reform, backed by nearly 200,000 signatures. Although the achievements were finally reduced to two articles, for the first time in the country’s history the constitution contained a chapter titled “Urban Policy,” under the Economic and Financial Order section. Even though the 1988 Constitution did not address all of the National Urban Reform Movement’s demands, it represented significant progress because for the first time it established a public policy on urban issues oriented towards meeting urban reform objectives.

National Forum on Urban Reform (FNRU)

After the Constituent Assembly, the National Forum on Urban Reform (FNRU) was organised with the immediate objective of pressuring Congress to regulate the chapter on urban policy in the 1988 Constitution. During 12 long years, this was one of FNRU’s main tasks until the enactment of the federal law known as the City Statute.

Starting with the 1988 Constitution, municipalities grouped together, gaining political and financial capacity to act in the field of public policy. In the early 1990s, with the process of drawing up municipal constitutions — which established municipal political and administrative structures and local public policy (Municipal Organic Laws) — local connections between entities and movements linked to FNRU played an important role in Brazil’s largest cities. These constitutions were decisive in ensuring that the urban reform platform and the right to the city culture were included in urban and housing policies. FNRU actively organised civil society in many international events, among them the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, where the treaty “Towards Just, Democratic and Sustainable Cities“ was developed by consensus. In 1995, FNRU participated in the preparatory committee for the second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) and organised, along with others, the Brazilian Civil Society Conference for Habitat II on the right to housing and to the city. In July 1996, FNRU participated in the official delegation representing Brazil at the Habitat II conference held in Istanbul, which established the right to adequate housing as a human right, as inscribed in the Habitat Agenda.

These conferences established various commitments concerning human rights and sustainable development of human settlements on behalf of government authorities. As a result of Habitat II and due to pressure from popular urban movements, the commitments made by the Brazilian government gave way to the recognition of the right to housing as a fundamental right in the Brazilian Constitution in 2000 and the approval of the City Statute in 2001. New forums began to appear in the 1990s, including the National Forum for Popular Participation and the National Environmental Sanitation Front, among others. Linked and interacting with FNRU, the new networks expanded the ways urban reform was treated, strengthening the discourse and actions of civil society. Issues began to be discussed in greater depth and contributed to an improvement of FNRU concepts.

Once it was understood that housing alone does not satisfy the right to the city, it was necessary to address the issue from the point of view of integration of rights and obligations that include the right to work, to sanitation services, to transportation, and access to public facilities, among others. The right to the city stems from and is achieved through this broader concept.

The Aims and Structure of FNRU

FNRU is still working actively with civil society to ensure that urban reform is carried out in Brazil. FNRU’s current concerns are focused on ways to ensure that all of the rights achieved are applied. The fundamental principles that guide its actions are:

• the right to the city and to citizenship, understood as participation of urban inhabitants in determining their own destinies. It includes the right to land, livelihood, housing, environmental sanitation, healthcare, education, public transportation, food, work, leisure activities and information. It includes respect for minorities, ethnic, sexual and cultural diversity, and the right to enjoy a culturally rich and diverse space without discrimination based on gender, ethnic origin, race, language or beliefs.

• the democratic management of the city, understood as a way of planning, generating, operating and governing cities, subject to social control and civil society participation.

• the social function of the city and property, with the common interest prevailing over individual property rights. It is the socially just use of urban space so that citizens take possession of land, democratizing its spheres of power, production and culture within the parameters of social justice and the creation of environmentally sustainable conditions.

FNRU periodically organizes a national meeting and thematic working groups, in a continuous process of evaluation and analysis of policies. The organisation has a coordination committee that meets regularly to discuss emerging demands, determine priorities and organise upcoming actions. To be better organised and to strengthen civil society in the area of urban reform, FNRU is currently divided into 15 interconnected state-level groups, as well as regional forums on urban reform (North, Northeast, Centre-West, Southeast and South). With this structure, it is able to stay connected to the diverse local issues and debate the issues specific to each region and support their demands, while raising visibility and organising around the urban reform struggle on a national level. Every two years, FNRU holds national meetings to debate the country’s public policies and choose the priority issues and actions for the following years.

Some initial problems facing the urban reform movement have been overcome, such as understanding the institutional language used in public administration, learning to read laws, as well as understand, decode and write them, and the ability to contribute arguments to technical and legal discussions. Taking the political struggle for urban reform to public and institutional spheres was one of FNRU’s most important achievements. As a result, popular urban movements — within broader social struggles — have been able to assert a demand for the recognition of popular rights such as the right to the city and to housing. These rights have become institutionalized in urban laws through the demands of these organisations and grassroots movements, which have achieved policies, projects and channels for democratic participation within the political and legalinstitutional structure of the Brazilian state.

Winning the City Statute

The City Statute (Federal Law No. 10.257/01) is the Brazilian development law that regulates the chapter on urban policy in the 1988 Brazilian Constitution. It sets the overall guidelines to promote urban policy that must be observed by the Union (federal government), the states (state governments) and municipalities (local governments). The objective of this process is to guarantee the full development of the social functions of urban property and the city, the right to sustainable cities and the development of the democratic management of cities. Based on the principles of the social function of property and democratic management of cities, the law contains regulations regarding public order and social interest which regulate the use of urban property to ensure security, and collective and individual well-being of citizens. The City Statute specifically addresses:

• instruments designed to ensure the fulfillment of the social function of property, progressive taxation over time on urban property and expropriation for urban reform purposes;

• criteria for municipalities to develop and apply Management Plans;

• regulatory instruments for the use of and access to urban lands occupied by low-income people;

• democratic city management instruments: public hearings; councils; and city conferences in national, state and municipal plans. Another of FNRU’s many actions (not to take away from the importance of other actions) was the approval of the City Statute, which was a fundamental step towards urban reform in Brazil.

It took twelve years of social struggle to get the City Statute approved by Brazil’s Congress, particularly in the Chamber of Deputies. This was because of opposition from business groups representing the real estate and civil construction sectors as well as planning and urban management technocrats.

There were numerous obstacles and strong resistance to a national law that sought to strengthen municipalities and civil society in urban land planning, which also requires social use of property and helps to plan the city through social control and popular participation.

With the approval of the City Statute, the struggle for urban reform ran into two major challenges. The first was training social actors on the importance and perspectives of the City Statute to promote public policies based on the urban reform platform in Brazilian cities. In this case, the social actors were defined broadly: popular leaders, professionals, academics, Members of Parliament, and public administration employees. In 2001 and 2002, different didactic materials regarding the City Statute were produced in accessible language and FNRU also organised two national trainer workshops, attended by 200 leaders of popular urban movements. The second challenge was to disseminate and popularize the City Statute so that it could be implemented in Brazilian cities. One way of approaching this challenge has been through the participation of FNRU’s popular entities and organisations in the national campaign for a management plan which was developed by the National Council of Cities. The creation of the Ministry of Cities, and consequently the Council of Cities, initiated the start of an urban policy in which the various actors and legitimate representatives of civil society were included in the institutional sphere for the first time in the long history of urban reform in Brazil, in order to develop and apply urban policies.

The National Fund for Social Interest Housing

The National Fund for Social Interest Housing was born out of the first popular bill in the country, which was prepared by FNRU and presented to the National Congress in 1991. The trying times of the Collor government (1990 to 1992) presented an opportunity for civil society entities, which had been previously discredited by the government, to join FNRU in developing a bill to establish a public fund to meet popular demands for housing. The mobilization effort was enormous: thousands of signatures which were needed to accompany the proposal were presented in Brasilia. Aware of the difficulties, FNRU emphasized the importance of this popular bill process in demanding the necessary public funds in order to implement housing policies which subsidize the part of the population that is excluded from the formal housing production market. The popular bill from the National Fund for Social Interest Housing was presented in Parliament on November 19, 1991, by popular urban organisations and movements affiliated with FNRU, including: the National Confederation of Resident Associations (CONAM); the Union of Grassroots Movements (CMP); the National Union for Low-Income Housing (UNMP) and the National Movement for the Fight for Housing (MNLM).

The popular bill was backed by more than 1 million signatures and was unanimously approved by all committees of the Chamber of Deputies between 1997 and 2001. As evidenced by the testimonies gathered for this research, thousands of signatures were carried to congress in Brasilia in wheelbarrows loaded by members of FNRU-affiliated movements and organisation. At the opening of the first National Conference of Cities in October 2003, President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva insisted on passing the bill to satisfy the demands of popular movements. In this sense, he reinforced the need to approve a key instrument for implementing a housing policy for low-income people; an instrument which was previously inexistent.

After thirteen years of debate in the National Congress, Law No. 11.124/05 of the National System of Social Interest Housing (SNHIS) created the National Fund for Social Interest Housing (FNHIS) and its executive council. The law presents objectives, principles and guidelines for the National System of Social Interest Housing and establishes the formation of the National Fund for Social Interest Housing and the competencies of the Ministry of Cities, the coordinating unit of the SNHIS, as well as the Federal Financial Fund, the operating entity of the FNHIS. The law defines the objectives and funding sources for the FNHIS and establishes the executive council and the way in which the fund’s resources are to be applied.

FNRU’s Participation in the Institutional Sphere

Since the beginning of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva’s government, some of the Movement’s and FNRU’s historic demands have been met. The first was the creation of the Ministry of Cities, which aims to integrate and link policies concerning urban development, housing, environmental health, mobility and urban transportation. The second was the start of a democratization process in the management of urban policies. In this sense, the first National Cities conference was held in 2003, bringing together more than 350,000 people. Members of the National Council of Cities were elected during the series of conferences, representing a percentage of each segment of society and including popular urban movements, non-governmental organisations and professional associations that work within FNRU. In 2005 the second conference was held with the objective of defining strategic actions for national and regional urban development policies. The National Council of Cities was renewed with 57% of voting members, as elected by civil society sectors, representing entities linked to FNRU. In the third conference, the formulations of the National Urban Development Policy were debated, members of the National Council of Cities were elected and 1,820 delegates and 410 observers participated, from all states in the federation. The National Council of Cities is made up of 83 members and 83 alternate members. Of the total, 49 members are elected by civil society groups and the other 34 are elected by directors and managers of the public sector. Among the challenges for the coming years is the consolidation of democratic institutions, including the city conferences and councils, so that the Brazilian government respects and translates their decisions into concrete policies and actions in cities.

Maintaining and strengthening of the national land regulation policy, as a form of recognition of the right to housing and to the city for all social groups, is a strategic component towards achieving urban reform. One of FNRU’s top priorities in the coming years will be to defend the use of public lands to meet the needs of poor populations, such as slum dwellers, indigenous peoples, fisherman and “quilombolas” (groups of descendents from villages founded by escaped slaves).

In cities, the mission of people working with popular organisations and movements linked to FNRU is to continue exercising their citizenship activities with the objective of creating cities places where people live with dignity, justice and solidarity in peaceful coexistence.

In 2009, a key result was the implementation of the national program “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” (My House, My Life), which sets rules and regulations for guaranteeing the regularization of informal settlements by declaring them as social settlements, while the major challenge remains creating a national urban development system.


reforma da legislação, reforma agrária, bem comum público, política urbana, planificação urbana, crescimento urbano, movimento social, participação comunitária, participação dos moradores, participação popular, iniciativa cidadã, rede de cidadãos

, Brasil


Direito a Cidade


This article is also available in portuguese and in spanish



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Da Silva, Éder Roberto. “The National Urban Reform Movement and the Process of Democratizing Urban Planning in Brazil˝. Master’s dissertation, Universidad de San Carlos, February 2003.

Fernandes, Edésio (Ed.). Urban Law. Belo Horizonte: Editora Livraria Del Rey, 1998.

Rolnik, Raquel. ˝The City and the Law˝. São Paulo: FAPESP, 2000.

Rolnik, Raquel and Saule Júnior, Nelson (Coordinator), The Statute of the City – guide to implementation for municipalities and citizens, Pólis (Institute for Study, Training and Consulting in Social Policies) and the Federal Economic Fund (Caixa Economica Federal), support from the Urban Development Commission of the Chamber of Deputies, the Special Secretariat for Urban Development of the President of the Republic, Chamber of Deputies, Brasilia, 2001.

Saule Júnior, Nelson, ˝New Perspective on Urban Law: Constitutional Structuring of Urban Policy˝. Porto Alegre: Sergio Antonio Fabris, Editor, 1997.

Legal Routes of Urban Policy in Brazil: Sergio Antonio Fabris, editor, Porto Alegre, 2007.

The Right to the City: A Strategic Response to Social Exclusion and Spatial Segregation. The Challenges of Democratic Management in Brazil. Instituto Pólis, Ford Foundation, São Paulo, 2009, pp. 39-62.

Almeida Silva, Carla. “Thematic Forums of Civil Society: A Study of the National Urban Reform Forum”, in DAGNINO, Evangelina (Ed.). Civil Society and Public Spaces in Brazil. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 2002, p. 167.

Silva, Ana Amélia da. “Urban Reform and the Right to the City”. Revista Pólis, No. 01, 1991.

Uzzo Karina, Saule Júnior, Nelson, Santana Lilia and Nowersztern Marcelo. Portraits of Civil Society Action for the Right to the City: Dialogue between Brazil and France, AITEC, Instituto Pólis, Coordinación SUD, São Paulo, 2006.

Urban Reform Websites

National Forum on Urban Reform (FNRU):

International Observatory of the Right to the City:

Instituto Pólis:

Members of the FNRU

National Urban Reform Forum (Coordination); Federation of Social Assistance and Education Organisms (FASE);

National Confederation of Residents’ Associations (CONAM);

National Movement of Struggle for Housing (MNLM);

National Union for Low-income Housing (UNMP);

Union of Popular Movements (CMP);

National Federation of Associations of Federal Fund Employees (FENAE);

Inter-state Federation of Engineering Unions (FISENGE); PÓLIS (Institute of Study, Training and Consulting in Social Policies);

National Federation of Architects and Urban Planners (FNA);

Brazilian Institute of Municipal Administration (IBAM);

Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (IBAM);

National Public Transport Association (ANTP);

COHRE Américas;

Center for the Right to Housing and Against Eviction;

Association of Brazilian Geographers (AGB);

National Federation of Brazilian Architecture and Urban Planning Students (FENEA);

Center for Consulting on Popular Self-management (CAAP);

Brazilian Association of Architecture and Urban Planning Education (ABEA);

Bento Rubião Center for Defense of Human Rights;

Observatory of the Metropolis (coordinated by the IPPUR / UFRJ and FASE);

ActionAid Brazil;

Federal Social Service Council.

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