Amazonian Cities: What It Is Like to Live Close to the Largest Tropical Rainforest on the Planet

The world has its eyes on the Amazon. Geographical data about this vast territory, spanning 6.74 million square kilometers across eight countries in Latin America, is constantly featured in national and international media. Headlines often highlight its sheer magnitude as the largest tropical rainforest in the world, home to 10% of the planet’s biodiversity, and responsible for 15% of the Earth’s freshwater. However, little attention is paid to what transpires beneath its canopy, on the ground where people live.

The urban aspects of the Amazon region are often the last to be mentioned when discussing this part of the Earth. However, grasping the significance of preserving the forest for the planet’s survival also entails caring for the quality of life of its inhabitants.

The Brazilian Amazon alone has a population of  28.4 million people, and urbanization is increasing. Presently, 75% of its population is considered urban, the vast majority residing in small municipalities with up to 50,000 inhabitants. Over the centuries, this structure has been shaped by two significant periods: the era when rivers played a crucial role in the local economy through rubber extraction in the 19th century and the rapid growth of various towns along the road axes opened by the military government starting from 1970.

This history, starting from colonization, with its sole objective of resource extraction, is the burden with which the Amazon region grapples. Far from being a tale of sustainable living based on ancestral understanding, it portrays the forest as an obstacle to overcome. As a result, there’s immense population dispersion, with an average linear distance of 1000 km between settlements, posing challenges in terms of mobility and access to basic services. Despite being surrounded by freshwater, sanitation, and potable water indices are the lowest in the country, with quality housing and public spaces restricted to a small fraction of the population. These contradictions culminate in the third largest favela in Brazil, situated precisely on the forest’s edge.

How can one assimilate the importance of the surrounding nature as essential for the planet’s survival while one’s existence is threatened daily?

Providing dignified and comfortable lives for these communities is crucial for nurturing a sense of belonging and care toward everything that constitutes the Amazon. In this sense, despite understanding the deep roots of the problems the Amazonian population faces, targeted actions that perceive urbanization and nature as interdependent rather than opposing aspects can be an important tool for changing course.

This guiding principle enables natural aspects to be viewed through a new lens, fostering healthy and reciprocal relationships. The hydrographic network, often overlooked in favor of roads, holds promise for transportation and developing top-notch public spaces with ecological benefits in riverside areas. This approach can shorten distances and safeguard natural resources.

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In the architectural realm, the flood-prone conditions, flat topography, and relative proximity to watercourses can guide technological and constructive decisions, focusing on nature-based solutions to produce sustainable architectures and infrastructure (such as drainage and sanitation) that are sustainable and accessible. In this aspect, the indigenous architecture of the region has much to teach. Indigenous peoples already understood nature not as a resource to be exploited but as part of the community, demonstrating inherent sustainability through locally available materials and respect for the climate.

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It is crucial to highlight the deep understanding that riverside communities have about the landscape, demonstrated through their traditional constructions like thatched malocas and stilted houses. Passed down through generations, the two predominant typologies, stilt houses, and floating structures, are wooden constructions defined by a precise understanding of the soil, currents, and flood levels. Although many of them are synonymous with precarity due to the population’s limited resources, the potential of this strategy underscores the importance of adaptation and resilience.

This relationship with the context is also addressed, albeit from a different perspective, in contemporary examples that employ passive cooling strategies and the use of local materials, aiming for the essence of construction. Faced with the challenges of the region, alternative approaches to design emerge, either by reinventing vernacular methods or by generating projects that reflect local culture

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It is impossible to address the urbanity of the Amazon without understanding its complexities. A diverse cultural makeup, with indigenous, European, and African ethnicities, presents a wealth of strategies that have been honed over many centuries, with the examples mentioned earlier being just a few. Nevertheless, they serve to unveil the layers that compose this region and to guide urgently needed actions.

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The examples illustrate how we can create improved architecture and cities by utilizing available resources and reinforcing the connection between communities and nature. This shift in focus extends beyond just the vastness of the forest to also encompass the challenges faced by its inhabitants. After all, as anthropologist Romero Ximenes asserts, the Amazon is not just a natural landscape with staggering numbers. A landscape has no ethnicities, no culture; it’s just a landscape. The Amazon is about people making a living, producing their existence. Hence, the importance of valuing concepts and technologies tailored to ensure the reproduction and survival, not only of the environment but also of the people.

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