2015 Urban Network Forum focuses on how mega-events shape cities

As host of the 2014 World Cup and the upcoming 2016 Olympics, Brazil now finds itself on the world stage. Cities are often shaped by having to put on a “show,” especially mega-events that are spectacles for all to watch before, during and after the happening. Such mega-events are the focus of the 2015 Urban Forum conference, “Cities and Spectacle in Modern Brazil,” hosted by the UChicago Urban Network in cooperation with the Center for Latin American Studies.

The Urban Forum conference is bringing together scholars from Brazil and across the United States to discuss how the many types of spectacle—from global galas and cultural events to social and racial politics, including poverty, violence and the demand for civil rights—can radically change cities.

“I think when people look back at Rio de Janeiro many years from now, they’re going to see this as the most important transformative moment in half a century,” said Brodwyn Fischer, UChicago professor of Latin American History and one of the organizers of the conference. “We’ve heard about all of the environmental problems and the security issues. Having these mega-events in Brazil is also changing the real estate markets, the transportation networks, and governance and policing policies. It’s just fascinating to see how much the city is changing as it prepares for the Olympics,” she added.

The conference is drawing scholars from many disciplines, including literature, communications, urban planning, political science, and history. Almost two-thirds of the presenters are Brazilian. Fischer said one of the goals is to create connections and collaborations between Brazilian scholars and policymakers and scholars at the University of Chicago. Another goal is to show that American university scholars have an interest in studying Brazil.  

“There are things we can learn from them about greater themes of environmentalism, economic development and culture that affect all urban areas,” said Fischer. “The conference is going to explore all the ways that putting on a show ends up changing urban geography and the distribution of public resources. The effects of mega-events on poor communities can be devastating,” said Fischer, “but spectacle can sometimes actually help preserve poor communities, especially if poor residents—like those in Rio’s hillside favelas—are savvy about publicizing their cause. There are all kinds of collateral effects that are really relevant for Chicago, too.”

Fischer noted that UChicago’s campus is near the site of a mega-event, the 1893 World’s Fair, Columbian Exposition, and pointed out how much that spectacle changed the city and Hyde Park. 

Fischer said UChicago’s long tradition in sociology and urban studies is a big draw for Latin American scholars. The conference, which is open to the public, runs May 8 and 9 and is co-sponsored by the Urban Network, the Center for Latin American Studies and the Franke Institute.