In the throes of researching our next online interactive documentary on city planning here in Rio de Janiero. The subject for now is Rocinha, Latin America’s densest favela – with 150,000 people in the space of 2.2km squared. 2015 will make 100 hundred years since the first ex-slaves made the mountains their home – bordering two of Rio wealthiest neighbourhoods.
The story here is how does a city build itself so organically. How does it know how to work when each ant in the anthill is burrowing with no sense of the bigger picture. I have always been fascinated as I travel at how the city replicates its features like a species might. The Central Business District, the Ghetto, the Parklands, the Creative Hub. This was the basis of a project I did with the BBC World Service in 2008. It makes me wonder if there is an inner city programmed in the DNA of our human matter. A pattern that only appears when all the microorganisms come together. A milky way only visible from a million light years away.
Studies of ant colonies tells us that cities can only grow to a certain size before the cost of transporting material get too high. This is emergence; what happens when an interconnected system of relatively simple elements self-organises to form more intelligent, more adaptive behaviour. It’s a bottom-up model; rather than being engineered by a general or a master planner, emergence begins at the ground level. Systems that at first glance seem vastly different — ant colonies, human brains, cities, immune systems — all turn out to follow the rules of emergence. In each of these systems, agents residing on one scale start producing behavior that lies a scale above them: ants create colonies, urbanites create neighbourhoods.
In Rio we followed two theories of creation. The master planner and the ant – the ant was in fact a lovely man called Ricardo who had since the age of 12 been a builder in the favela of Rocinha. A builder/architect/engineer/decorator in fact. Only there was no paperwork to authorise any of that – just over 200 houses that still stood as testament to his toil.