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PhD Fellow flies home to Rio to help transform slums into next generation microcities

Jessica Pinheiro de Lucena-Thomas, Marie Curie FIRE PhD Fellow, shares her internship experiences after a month in Rio.

For my internship, I decided to spend some time away from the lab to face real-world sustainability issues in vulnerable areas of South America. This was an incredible opportunity to develop new skills and to expand my horizons.

I worked for a month with Utopia's team in Rio de Janeiro which is the symbolic capital of slums, commonly called favelas.

Utopia is the world's first urban design and innovation firm focused solely on slums, which will soon be home to one third of humanity. They aim to convert slums into next generation microcities, that are more liveable, more human scale and a better place for everyone to thrive. My motivation to work with them was to contribute engineering and sustainability ideas to my home country to find solutions to tackle the global slum issue.

Visiting Rio's largest favela

Jessica with the groups she worked with in Rio
Jessica with Utopia and Horta na Favela groups

In my first week in Rio, I spent some time trying to understand Utopia’s work and plans and I went to Rocinha, Brazil's largest favela at the hills of São Conrado. It was my greatest experience from the internship.

In Rocinha, I met and interacted with four groups:

  • Grupo Familia na Mesa, which collects food donations and distributes them to families, based on analysis of their real economic need

  • Horta na Favela, a sustainable development project that aims for social development and reduction of the environmental impact through horticulture

  • Salvemos São Conrado, a movement that uses social media to mobilize a community of volunteers who get together to collect rubbish at São Conrado Beach

  • Route Brasil, an organisation that works with solutions to the impact of human consumption and disposal in natural environments, such as beaches, by organising environmental awareness events and clean-up movements.

The founders of the first three initiatives are residents of Rocinha. They kindly took me on a few tours up the narrow alleys of Rocinha safely and showed me around. It was a humbling experience!

Discovering more about favelas and Utopia's work

Jessica riding a moped in Rio
Jessica spent a month learning about the favelas in Rio

Despite improvements, favelas are still known for having bad infrastructure; poor sanitation (sewage often runs in open drains and ends up in the sea); overcrowded areas prone to landslides due to illegal makeshift housing; drug trafficking gangs and lack of government services.

Even with all these problems, the favelas still manage to coexist within the city and grow over the years.

What I experienced was a vibrant community with its own identity and very strong culture, relatively safe, and with kind, open, and friendly people. The concept of community is strong as the favelas were created by the residents, with little help from the government, in a complicated economic environment. As most of the houses are constructed up on the hills, they have breath-taking views that make some rich people jealous.

Utopia’s work in Rio aims to connect small initiatives, preferably led by favela residents, to develop them into more robust projects that are self-sustained. One example would be using a public school in Rocinha as a prototype to generate income and jobs for the community and to also develop sustainable development awareness.

Helping get Utopia more organised and better understanding the community

During my internship I helped structure Utopia’s work itself. In order to begin new initiatives, it would be better to have an organised programme. Until then, the contacts and projects were still informal. So together we wrote a document, which included the mission, vision, values, summary of the work already done, risk analysis and work strategies. It was nice to be involved in such an early stage of the work and I hope to still give them insights from UK if they need it.

During the second half of my internship I took part in meetings to engage with the community and understand their needs, and the ecosystem in which the projects would need to survive in.

Access to the communities is usually based on trust that few people have, and that is truly difficult to gain in Brazil's slums: corruption and violence are the reality in the favelas, so to be able to implement something there, the projects can only survive if residents are leading them. This is why it was so important to meet the residents leading the existing initiatives, who know the reality of the community more than anyone.


I confess I started this job not knowing exactly what I was supposed to do. The only thing I knew was that I would be working with favelas in Rio and helping people get a better life there using sustainable development ideas. Of course, one month is not enough, but in the end, I learned much more than I was expecting. The contrast and complexity of favelas are huge.

I'm from Rio, and I thought I had some knowledge about it, but not enough. I know the world is unfair sometimes, and corruption and violence are everywhere. But once I was there, meeting fantastic people in the favelas, doing everything they can to help their community, I came away with hope. It was amazing to see how everyone knows everyone else there, and how they share what they have, even if it is not much.

This internship was a rewarding experience that helped me break some stereotypes and be more empathetic. It will help me think more about the social aspect of my work and to think about the real benefits and consequences of my actions for a sustainable world. In summary, it was an incredible experience for me and I am looking forward to share this with people!

University Support

My internship was funded by a £1000 grant from The Doctoral College Placement Fund - and a bit of my own initiative too! The £1000 grant broke down into: flights (£ 448.80), train tickets ( £103.95), transport (taxi £70.33, metro £12.30), and subsistence (£358.96). I stayed at my aunt’s flat, as she kindly offered me accommodation free of charge and some meals. This saved me around £500, at least.

‘My motivation to work with Utopia was to contribute engineering and sustainability ideas to my home country to find solutions to tackle the global slum issue.’
Jessica Pinheiro de Lucena-Thomas Marie Curie FIRE PhD Fellow, (Integrated PhD, Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies)

Thinking about going on a placement? Find out about the Doctoral College Placement Support Fund

Find out about the Doctoral College Placement Support Fund