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Vision + Participation =
A City that Works
Compiled by Miriam Knight
Jaime Lerner

This is the story of how one man’s vision transformed a chaotic third world backwater into a city that works and a Mecca for urban planners and environmentalists around the world. In the 1960s the mayor of Curitiba, Brazil sponsored a contest for a city development plan. He circulated the best entries for public debate and turned over the results to some upstart architects. Jaime Lerner was one of them. Lerner became mayor in 1971 and embarked on a path that has gained him worldwide respect and admiration for his visionary leadership in transforming Curitiba into what some planners call the most environmentally advanced urban area on Earth.

Today, Lerner is Governor of Parana State and is known for his innovations in mobility and land use. He believes that cities need to be rediscovered as instruments of change. Trained in France as an architect and urban planner, he has become a figure of international interest among green thinkers. Lerner’s approach focuses on three principles: Keep It Simple. Begin It Now. Don't Rush to Have All the Answers.

 The conventional wisdom, he said, is that the future of our cities is tragic. There is a lot of pessimism afoot, and not much generosity; politicians are especially in love with the tragic projections. But if you project tragedy, he said, you'll likely get tragedy. If, however, you concentrate your efforts on changing negative trends, you may very well succeed. “In the 1970's, most cities were pouring money into public works and working for the car. We do not work for cars. We work for people. If a city treats the people with respect, they will respect the city.”

Lerner began the process of redesigning Curitiba by addressing the transportation system in the city. Subways are normally considered a necessity for a city the size of Curitiba, but they didn't have the money for underground construction so they developed a mass transport system based entirely on buses. While the city manages the program, all of the buses are privately owned and operated, and the fares virtually pay for the system.

In the last 25 years it’s capacity has grown to 1.8 million passengers a day. On one line it has more passengers than on all of Washington, DC's, and it is 200 times less expensive. The trick, Lerner said, is how to integrate transportation into the city.

The Curitiba bus system includes exclusive corridors for mass transit vehicles, a central, slow moving arterial, and lateral freeways. Curitiba's Integrated Mass Transit System is composed of express bus lines, “ feeder lines,” and “ interdistrict lines.” The system is based on routes following concentric circles through the city, fed by feeder and interdistrict lines. During rush hour, buses are as frequent as one per minute on the busier routes.

The city has used zoning to encourage development near transit stations and to encourage mini-centers outside the center of the city. Retired buses are either used as mobile training centers or as free transportation to parks and open spaces. These mobile training centers serve as education facilities for Curitibans, who pay $1.00 to take courses in auto mechanics, electricity, typing, hair dressing, artisan work or the like. At the end of these training courses the students are placed in jobs throughout the city or they often start their own businesses.

“Every problem has a solution that involves everyone; we believe in shared responsibility,” Lerner said. “Money is not always the answer. Curitiba has pioneered in developing innovative, small-scale, low-cost and practical solutions to urban problems. Instead of building costly new recycling plants, for example, Lerner set out to get households to sort their garbage before putting it out. He launched the campaign in schools, sending out people dressed up as trees to make the point that recycling paper could save forests. By stressing to the public that the recycling of paper goods saves an estimated 1,200 trees a day, 'we transformed the garbage man into an environmental hero.' The efforts turned children into 'secret agents inside each home.'

In slums that garbage trucks could not enter, Lerner gave residents bus vouchers or bags of vegetables, fruits and dairy products bought from outlying farms in exchange for bags of rubbish brought to recycling stations. In this way he made the city cleaner while also improving health, nutrition and boosting public transportation.

 The city's recycling plant for non-organic rubbish is on the grounds of a foundation for recovering alcoholics, disabled and homeless people who are actively employed in the recycling program. The proceeds earned from the recycling go back into social services provided by the city for its residents. 'We don't just recycle garbage, we recycle people here,' says Enrique Goldenstein, the foundation's head.

 Orphaned or abandoned street children are a problem all over Brazil. Lerner got each industry, shop and institution to 'adopt' a few children, providing them with a daily meal and a small wage in exchange for simple maintenance gardening or office chores. Another Lerner innovation was to organize the street vendors into a mobile, open-air fair that circulates through the city's neighborhoods.

The success of these programs comes from the commitment of the government and the participation of the residents. “You cannot solve a city's problems only with money, you need a change in mentality. We invest in public awareness. When people understand the importance of the projects, they become involved,” Lerner explained. . Curitibans have a strong sense of solidarity and take pride in their city because they are creating and maintaining systems that work.

The one sour note I uncovered in researching this story is that due to the increasing economic crisis and high unemployment rates in the area, rural workers organizations have intensified land occupations in Brazil. In the last two years, the number of families ‘squatting’ in rural camps increased by 10,000. Apparently, under the Brazilian Constitution, idle land that is occupied in this way is supposed to be appropriated from the landowners and ceded to the squatters. There have been a number of assassinations and human rights violations against rural workers who have been expelled from rural camps. The workers union (MST) has accused the state government, the military police and the large landowners association (UDR) of complicity in the violence. The UDR has announced it will start using land mines as a weapon against rural workers.

The MST has been constantly denouncing this violence to the state government, the local police as well to the Human Rights Commission in Congress. In addition to disregarding these claims, the government of Parana has apparently not investigated the killings or any other human rights violations.

For further references see the following sources:

Article entitled 'The city of first priorities' by Donella Meadows in Whole Earth Review, Spring '95

Case Study Source: Sustainability in Action: Profiles of Community Initiatives Across the United States - American Forum for Global Education. 1995

Curitiba's “Voluntary Sustainability” – case study for The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, 1818 H Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20433

Bill McKibben, Hope, Human and Wild: True stories of living lightly on the earth (Little, Brown and Co, 1995)

Jonas Rabinovitch, and Josef Leitman, Urban Planning in Curitiba, Scientific American, March 1996

Jaime Lerner, The Curitiba Bus System Transportation Experiences and Options in Developing Countries, edited by Mia Layne Birk and Deborah Lynn Bleviss, International Institute for Energy Conservation, June 1991.