By Eliot Allen*

Solar energy panels stand in the middle of the lush Green of the largest urban rain forest in the world: The Tijuca National Park, in Rio de Janeiro.  Those solar panels stand on top of houses whose residents also manage to produce biogas from organic waste and also work on a prototype for a small hydraulic generator.

All of this happens in a name with a fairy tale name: Vale Encantado, Portuguese for Enchanted Valley. But Vale Encantado is not one of the luxury real estate developments that sprawl in Rio. It’s a favela, a slum that like many others in the world represents the darkest side of the rapid urban development of modern nations.

LEED-Vale Encantado solar system

Solar panels in Vale Encantado, a favela leading the way for greener neighborhood improvement.

How did a favela managed to implement sustainable technologies, more commonly associated with high income communities? In short, it was done in three steps that we are going to explain ahead. Before going into that, let me tell you that the Vale Encantado experience represents a promising model that demonstrates that slums can become economic and social engines, where ingenuity and entrepreneurship pave the road for greater opportunities for their inhabitants.

Informal settlement upgrading increasingly recognizes the vital economic and social systems of informal settlements, where creativity and entrepreneurship can be marshaled to help improve living conditions and well-being. At the same time, “a new generation of architects is emerging with ambitions to make a difference” in slums, as Justin McGuirk observes in Radical Cities. Harnessing this convergence holds great potential, particularly when coupled with techniques of sustainability that are equally valid for informal and formal urbanism. The challenge is devising efficient methods of linking slum residents with emerging green knowledge and resources during upgrade projects. 

LEED_Vale Encantado multiple neigh photos

Solar panels, biogas, green spaces. A favela shows the world that everything is possible.

A promising method of accomplishing these aims is LEED UP. It connects a settlement’s needs with the knowledge and resources of sustainability practitioners who are applying Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green strategies throughout the Americas. This is accomplished with slum residents selecting and adapting sustainability strategies that meet pressing needs and create green jobs. Residents then define catalytic actions that will jump-start the strategies, and those actions are undertaken with LEED partners and cooperating organizations. The result is slum upgrading with investment returns in triplicate: an improved environment, new jobs, and stronger social fabric. And better chances for the upgrade to endure.


 LEED UP is both a framework and a process for upgrading. The framework organizes settlements into ten components of sustainability: housing, water, sanitation, food, education and healthcare, access and mobility, common spaces, energy and communications, solid waste, and restoration and resilience. These form an interlocking system of strategies and targets for green upgrades, depending on local needs. Not all components apply to all settlements, and settlements may add components unique to local circumstances or goals.


The LEED UP process is intended for residents and businesses of settlements, favelas perhaps, like Vale Encantado, that have some degree of land security, an established self-governance or entrepreneurial entity that can ‘own’ the finished roadmap, and are linked with territorial-scale initiatives. Participants complete a multi-day charrette or series of workshops with the assistance of a LEED UP team that includes a facilitator, local architect/engineer, and LEED strategist.

Participants work through a four-step process: first, selecting and adapting LEED strategies for their most pressing needs; second, prioritizing responsive strategies that create local jobs and economic synergies; third, designing catalytic actions needed to jump-start the priority strategies; and finally, identifying LEED practitioners and other partners able to voluntarily support the catalytic actions. The process generates a green upgrade roadmap for managing catalytic actions and monitoring progress toward LEED UP goals.


The method has been applied to the Brazilian favela Vale Encantado with encouraging results, including strategies for biogas digestion, hydro power generation, and terrain-adapted recreation spaces. Additional pilot applications will help shape a robust approach suitable for wider use. The goal is a replicable, scalable framework for green collaboration and investment in critical parts of cities. Collaboration that can create new economic and social opportunities for the poor, while fostering and accelerating sustainable urbanism for all.

 LEED UP framework

*Eliot Allen is an urban and regional planner focusing on the nexus of community planning and sustainability. Since founding Criterion Planners in 1979, he has become a nationally-recognized leader in the use of information technology to help designers and citizens create places that are measurably more livable and environmentally responsible. Eliot was a charter member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is a former chair of the Portland Sustainability Commission.