Development and  Coastal Erosion in Fortaleza, Brazil

Exploring Soft Engineering and Land Use Adaptation to Mitigate Erosion and Flooding

1 Paula, D., Dias, J., Ferreira, Ó, & Morais, J. (2013). High-rise development of the sea-front at Fortaleza (Brazil): Perspectives on its valuation and consequences. Ocean & Coastal Management, 77, 14-23. doi:10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2012.03.004
  2 IBGE. Fortaleza. (n.d.). Retrieved December 23, 2020, from
  3 Fechine, J. (2007). ALTERAÇÕES NO PERFIL NATURAL DA ZONA COSTEIRA DA CIDADE DE FORTALEZA, CEARÁ, AO LONGO DO SÉCULO XX (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Universidade Federal do Ceara.


The area closest to the seashore were once mobile and fixed sand dunes. Infrastructure and commercial and residential development eradicated the sand dunes, prompting a negative change in the natural movement of tidal sediments.

Source: City of Fortaleza

 9 UCSB. Beach Nourishment. (n.d.). Retrieved December 23, 2020, from

10 Borsje, B. W., Wesenbeeck, B. K., Dekker, F., Paalvast, P., Bouma, T. J., Katwijk, M. M., & Vries, M. B. (2011). How ecological engineering can serve in coastal protection. Ecological Engineering, 37(2), 113-122. doi:10.1016/j.ecoleng.2010.11.027. 114. 
11 Ibid. 116.


12 Silva, R., Martinez, M., Hesp, P. A., Catalan, P., & Osario, A. (2014). Present and Future Challenges of Coastal Erosion in Latin America. Journal of Coastal Research, (71), 1-16.
13 Neto, A., Cunha-Lignon, M., Arruda Reis, M., & Miereles, A. (2011). The Ceará river mangrove’s landscape (northeast Brazil): Comparative analyses of 1968 and 2009. Journal of Coastal Research, 64, 1802-1805.
14 Ibid.

15 Kaly, U., & Jones, G. (1998). Mangrove Restoration: A Potential Tool for Coastal Management in Tropical Developing Countries. Ambio, 27(8), 656-661. doi:
16 Rezende, C. E., Kahn, J. R., Passareli, L., & Vásquez, W. F. (2015). An economic valuation of mangrove restoration in Brazil. Ecological Economics, 120, 296-302. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2015.10.019. 302.
17 Ibid.
18 Legislação Urbanística Lei Complementar de Parcelamento, Uso e Ocupação do Solo LPUOS – Lei nº 236/2017. (2019, July). Retrieved December 23, 2020, from

The city of Fortaleza is located in the state of Ceará, in the semi-arid Northeastern region of Brazil. The city grew steadily from its founding in 1726 until the 1920s when the population began to receive migrants from the drought prone interior of the state. Between 1950 and 1990, the city experienced a huge boom in population size and construction aided by the development of the tourism industry.[1] Tourism fueled the city’s development, culminating in two major events: the expansion of Fortaleza’s international airport in 1997, and the coastal engineering that began in the 1930s. This engineering not only protected the coast for touristic amenities, but also expanded trade and business through the building of an international port. Currently, the city is the fifth most populous Brazilian capital, with 2.6 million inhabitants, and the most densely populated with 7,778 people per square kilometer.[2] While tourism has created job opportunities in the state, it has greatly changed the natural, delicate balance of the coastal environment. 

Beginning in the 1970s the city’s coastline began to dramatically change. Prior to coastal development and engineering, the coastline had both fixed and mobile sand dunes, as well as an abundance of mangroves where the rivers and streams met the ocean. Most of this geomorphology has been cemented over to give rise to formal and informal settlements, water, sewage, and drainage infrastructure, and other large-scale infrastructure such as beach promenades. The mangroves found along areas of brackish water have almost completely disappeared due to the dredging of wetlands, building of retention walls, and creating of sewage infrastructure.[3] The current location of the city’s port on Mucuripe Beach, located at the northern tip of the city, was established in 1933, occupying the site of a fisherman’s community. The dunes in this area had been naturally nourished to prevent movement caused by strong trade winds. But, by the 1960s, coastal erosion from the construction of a new port became a problem for littoral areas on the city’s western coast.

In 1963, three riprap walls and six groynes were installed on the western coast, moving away from natural erosion measures such as beach nourishment, and marking a change in the way the city began thinking about coastal erosion by implementing hard coastal engineering.[4] By 1975, the number of groynes, manmade walls that reduce tidal surges and decrease sediment movement, doubled to twelve and an additional riprap wall was erected, turning the western coast of the city into a nearly all artificial area.[5]

The hardening of Fortaleza’s coastline was largely a response to economic factors, initially to promote coastal activities such as trade and fishing, followed by a reorientation towards tourism. Prior to the 1990s, development in areas along Fortaleza’s western coast was already increasing and creating a highly lucrative, high rise, real estate market even as the coastline was becoming increasingly artificial. The city itself represented a tourist destination, but also served as a jumping-off point for more isolated beach areas to the east and west, such as Porto das Dunas to the east, which houses the largest water park in Latin America, Beach Park. In 1989, the State first began seriously investing in tourism under a program designed to stimulate economic development and activity.[6] In 1993, a national investment in tourism in the northeastern region of Brazil called PRODETUR funneled $800 million dollars into the newly commodified northeast and brought $74.3 million into Fortaleza.[7] A second round of funding arrived in 2004, which prioritized the development of beachfront areas and tourism, the construction of a new convention center, and the road and airport infrastructure, over environmental protections. Investment in hard infrastructure, including roads, real estate development, and coastal engineering has largely been centered around equipping the city for tourists and the tourism economy, but as Paula et. al point out, 

“[t]he poorly planned coastal land and rapid development of the coast has decreased the environmental quality of beaches and consequently there has been a reduction in the competitive advantage these tourists areas have in relation to tourist areas where the coast is better preserved...Increasing human pressure on the coastal zone and the unsustainable use are incompatible with the support capacity of these environments, which will certainly be reflected in the artificiality of the landscape and consequences of environmental impacts (e.g.: urban flooding, landslide, rise in temperature, coastal erosion and marine pollution.” [8]

Regaining biodiversity and natural functions is increasingly important in the face of climate change and sea level rise, as both the tourism industry and the wellbeing of the city’s residents could be put at risk by the hard engineering that has weakened the city’s defenses against the very things it is meant to protect them from. 


There is no doubt that the hard coastal engineering that has taken place in Fortaleza has negatively impacted natural processes along the coast, contributed to a loss of biodiversity, and made the coastal areas of the city more prone to erosion, flooding, and pollution. While the city’s economy has grown in the wake of this artificialization, a complete loss of the natural features that attract tourism and development could create an economic bubble at risk of bursting when climate change, rising sea levels, and stronger storm surges sufficiently damage the environment. It is important to provide solutions to this hard engineering problem from multiple angles, such as more natural erosion proofing measures, restoration of natural habitats, and land use, zoning, and policy changes that make the city more resilient against climate risks and economic changes. This section of the paper outlines possible solutions for 
re-armoring Fortaleza’s coastline.

While the City has invested millions of dollars in hard engineering of the coastline, the City could invest in less costly and time-consuming natural measures such as beach nourishment. This process armors the coastline by allocating additional sand and sediment where natural sediment deposits have been lost or altered by hard armoring. This approach is often seen as a better alternative to sea walls, which would be costly and detrimental to the City as they would create loss of economically and ecologically valuable shoreline. Beach nourishment does require the temporary closure of the shoreline to bring in more sand and sediment, may kill off coastal and marine animals or prevent them from hunting and fishing, and does eventually give way to erosion. On the other hand, this process widens the beach front and would provide natural precautions against erosion and storm surge.[9] For a city that profits from beachfront property and tourism, this is a viable, if only short-term solution. Other natural solutions include ecological engineering, for example, reintroducing plant and animal species such as eel grass that “reduce current velocities and dampen waves and … trap sediment and clarify the water.”[10] In areas that already have hard infrastructure in place, such as Fortaleza, the reform of concrete textures also creates an innovative way to attract species back into intertidal zones. 

A third measure would involve introducing reef building species such as oysters and mussels to encourage the growth of intertidal reefs in the depleted coastal area along Fortaleza’s western coast. Reefs would bring biodiversity back to the area by encouraging fish and crustacean to nest and shelter, dampen harmful wave energy, help purify the water, and even act as a natural alert system if the water has reached certain levels of pollution.[11] These natural adaptations to the hardened coastline could reinvigorate the intertidal areas by bringing back fish and plant species, reducing pollution, and ultimately protect the coastal infrastructure, including the existing homes and businesses that drive the local economy.

The City has also lost an important ecological feature in the process of urbanization: mangroves. Mangroves are an important socioeconomic entity, not only do mangrove forests help play an important role in traditional Northeastern culture and religion, they also provide economic output for fisherman and aquaculture entities. Mangroves are also an essential part of a resilient coastline, helping filter water and armor shores against strong surges. Much of the Brazilian coastline was, at some point, covered by mangroves, and boasted impressive plant, animal, and reef biodiversity.[12] In Fortaleza, the remaining mangroves exist in the Ceará and Cocó Rivers, as well as on the Eastern shore in an environmentally protected area.

Mangroves forests became officially protected by the government in 1968,[13] and then received additional protection for a National Plan for Coastline Management in 1988. Deforestation due to construction of informal settlements, construction of transportation infrastructure, and problems with sanitation and waste measures have all contributed to mangrove loss.[14] Mangrove restoration has already taken place in various coastal regions around Brazil, such as in the state of Rio de Janeiro, and can be a viable option for Fortaleza to regain protection against erosion and flooding, enhance biodiversity, and even aid in carbon sequestration. 

The restoration process must begin with an environmental assessment of the current mangrove areas, including analyses of topography, hydrology, erosion, soil condition, and pollutants, to understand when seeds can be optimally planted to render productive mangroves forests that act as barriers and invite back different flora and fauna.[15] Mangrove forests are already protected under Brazilian law, thus funding for this type of project should be available and secured. Natural barrier restoration also promises strong returns on investment: a ten-year project would cost residents at most R$251 ($48.57 USD) per individual, while a 20-year long project would run a total of R$231 per individual ($44.70 USD).[16] For a city the size of Fortaleza, such an investment could yield as much as $2.65 million USD for the protections and amenities these mangroves provide.[17] This relatively low-cost, and time flexible approach could yield economic and ecological benefits to counteract Fortaleza’s erosion and environmental degradation.

A third approach to the erosion and artificiality of the city’s coast would be to alter the City’s land use and zoning code, as well as sanitation and drainage infrastructure. The City’s most recent comprehensive plan, which set guidelines for zoning and land use, was created in 2009. The only zoning and land use regulation that has been used regularly is a national guideline that prohibits coastal construction to be less than 30 meters from the coast, which the City achieved by creating a beach promenade known as Avenida Beira Mar. The lack of adequate zoning and land use measures not only causes rapid and uneven urbanization but puts more strain on the coastal areas which disproportionately drive the economic vitality of the City. The first building code was introduced in 1981, after many of the city’s coastal high-rise buildings were already developed. The city currently has in place a special zone for environmental areas known as ZEA, encompassing four distinct areas of the city. It has  another set of zones that identifies precarious built environments such as non-codified buildings and favelas (informal settlements) known as ZEIS. [18]

For areas that fall into the ZEIS categories, bringing formal water, sewage, and drainage infrastructure should be a top priority and will extend city infrastructure to areas that currently lack it. Along with physical changes, ZEIS areas should also receive extra environmental protection statuses due to their informal nature and socio-economic and structural vulnerability. Coastal and riverine settlements may also experience the direct effects of erosion, landslides, flooding, and storm surges, and should therefore be fortified, preferably using natural measures such as tree planting, rain gardens, and other ecological engineering if necessary. This integration of environmentally protective zoning with zoning of informal communities will allow for the protection of the city’s most vulnerable populations and help maintain the integrity and vitality of the city’s costal and riverine regions from erosion and other potential issues. 


The development of the global tourism industry offers new economic opportunities for areas of the world that often experience slower economic development. For Fortaleza, a city in the impoverished and drought prone Northeastern region of Brazil, tourism provided an economic boost that catapulted the city into the international sphere, becoming the fifth largest and most densely populated Brazilian capital and a site for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The development of touristic infrastructure along the city’s western coast also led to the hardening of the city’s main assets: beaches, sand dunes, and mangrove forests. The addition of the city’s industrial port, groynes, jetties, and rip-rap have altered the natural processes of the intertidal basin and left the most economically valuable areas of the city prone to erosion and associated adverse side effects. Addressing the issues created by hard coastal engineering will help the city become more resilient to not only erosion, but flooding, landslides, sea level rise, and storm surges. Countering hard engineering with softer, more natural measures such as ecological engineering, mangrove restoration, and environmental protection policies, can help physically protect the city and maintain the economic vitality it has enjoyed by opening itself up to tourism. 

Sophia Winston is a second year City Planning student concentrating in Land Use & Environmental Planning. In 2018 Sophia was selected as a Fulbright Teaching Assistant in Viçosa, Brazil, where she gained an appreciation for landscape preservation while living within the Atlantic Rain Forest and traveling through Brazil’s Central Savannah Region. In 2016, Sophia took part in a 6 week research project through the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Latin American Studies where she studied the impact of shopping malls on the built environment and economy of the City of Fortaleza, in Brazil’s semi-arid North East. 

By Sophia Winston

4 Paula et. al., 17.  
  5 Ibid.
6 Araujo, E. F. (2011). As políticas públicas e o turismo litorâneo no Ceará: O papel da Região Metropolitana de Fortaleza (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Universidade Federal de Ceara.
7 Ibid.

8 Paula et al., 19.


Jetties dot the shoreline of Fortaleza, demonstrating the scale of coastal development and hard engineering created to fight against erosion. 

Source: Author


Informal areas of the city lack basic infrastructure, such as sewage, water, and drainage. Green infrastructure such as the reforestation of mangroves and planting of trees can protect against potential flooding and erosion in informal settlements near the city’s coast and rivers.

Source: City of Fortaleza


Parque de Cocó is the largest park in the City of Fortaleza. Along with providing much needed green space in the city, the park helps preserve and re-forest the mangroves that are native to the area which aid in the reduction erosion and flooding along the city’s rivers and coastline. 

Source: ME/Portal da Copa, Wikimedia, September 2014