Lessons Learned from Montes Claros

Montes Claros is a perfect example of an intermediate Brazilian city. While it would be incorrect to describe it as a poor city, the urban population is highly segregated; one third of the city’s population is poor, and the wealthy—who represent 20% of the population—control 66% of the local wealth. This fragmentation of the social fabric is also reflected in the more than 140 unregulated neighborhoods and 50,000 people living in makeshift housing conditions.

In addition to these socio-economic and territorial disparities, two other major problems exist. The first is the depletion of natural resources due to advanced deforestation and periodic flooding of central neighborhoods, a problem that largely results from the construction of new housing developments (social and luxury), wherein the environmental impact of these forms of urbanization, which have become increasingly popular in the past 20 years, are not fully considered. The second is the lack of regional integration of the municipality’s rural hinterlands. These areas, where services and telecommunications are still rudimentary, are gradually being abandoned as purely agricultural region and progressively transformed in new peri-urban settlements.

To address this situation, the local authorities are in the process of developing a new master plan. As such, the plan aims to create a sustainable city, including a right to urban land, housing, infrastructure, services, transport and employment for everyone.

The critiques lean in two directions:

First, the implementing of decisions made by the council falls on technical teams and administration members who have neither a guaranteed job in the long term, nor attractive salaries. Secondly, political changes in the city’s administration have direct political repercussions on the continuity of urban alternatives, with each new mayoral team seeking to set itself apart from its predecessors and to “leave its mark”.

The current process raises many issues. To begin, it is impossible to discern the authorities’ medium- and long-term vision, which would be helpful in streamlining the urban planning. Furthermore, the authorities’ perception of Montes Claros is biased as it only takes into account the dense areas in the city center. The rapidly growing outskirts and suburban areas are still disconnected from the rest of the city and are poorly integrated in this prospective exercise. In the future, Montes Claros must be seen as an urban hub for northern Minas Gerais, in a kind of urban/rural/interurban interplay that involves environmental, social, educational and housing issues. All neighborhoods and people cannot be dealt with in the same way; specific needs and priorities must be taken into account. While there is undeniably cooperation with national and regional authorities in the implementation of the current plan, it is not a participatory master plan in the eyes of many respondents. Considering the current process is that, once completed, the master plan should be supported by enabling legislation. Without it, the plan cannot be fully functional.

This ongoing process may be can be seen as an associative process, but not a veritably participatory one. City Hall has indeed teamed up with private agencies and representatives from different sectors (universities, representatives from the economic community, and the ad hoc committees of the City Council), but without including the public in the initial phase of the process. Instead of collecting opinions and request of the population, it is only now in the final phase that the provisional results, which will determine the guidelines for future planning, have been presented and discussed in the more urbanized areas of the city. This exclusive approach has received considerable criticism from “outsiders”, particularly volunteer organizations and social groups, who were not invited to participate in the process from the beginning. For them, this denotes a certain authoritarianism on the part of the public authorities, who have not seized the opportunity the new plan affords to engage in an open dialogue with the public to better understands its needs, desires and vision of their urban future.

Though Montes Claros cannot be described as a “poor city”, it can be described as an intermediate city that, like many other cities in Brazil, is experiencing the kind of unbalanced growth that is typical of what one can see in cities around the world. Brazil has become one of the most segregated countries in the world, an emblem of economic globalization in a growing struggle between global regions and cities

(nationally and internationally) and strategies to improve social cohesion and cultural/economic integration, reflected politically in terms of urban planning.

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