A spatial and temporal analysis, at a city wide scale, is given of the main type of informal housing (favelas) in Rio de Janeiro. Rapid change in the number and distribution of favelas and their inhabitants (favelados) over time is seen as the outcome of two opposing sets of factors. Demand-led housing factors, including population growth and variations in levels of poverty in the city, have constantly outstripped the supply side of the housing equation where inadequate housing policies and investment, together with restricted building land have been characteristic. Added to these factors are a set of more specific developments which shape the favela geography, including the timing and location of urban redevelopment, favela eradication and recognition, transport development and access by the favelados to employment sources. Evidence shows that the contemporary distribution of favelas in the city does not conform to spatial models of this urban form, and that any interpretation of the Rio favelas, including their growth, development and diversity, needs to be space and time specific.