The Best City In The World?

Making a solid case for better urban planning

One of the articles in Good Medicine (IC#39)
Originally published in Fall 1994 on page 8
Copyright (c)1994, 1997 by Context Institute

Residents of Curitiba, Brazil, think they live in the best city in the world, and a lot of outsiders agree. Curitiba has 17 new parks, 90 miles of bike paths, trees everywhere, and traffic and garbage systems that officials from other cities come to study. Curitiba’s mayor for 12 years, Jaime Lerner, has a 92 percent approval rating.

There is nothing special about Curitiba’s history, location, or population. Like all Latin American cities, the city has grown enormously – from 150,000 people in the 1950s to 1.6 million now. It has its share of squatter settlements, in which less than half the people are literate. Curitiba’s secret, insofar as it has one, seems to be a simple willingness of the people at the top to get their kicks from solving problems.

Those people at the top started with a group of young architects in the 1960s who were not impressed by the urban fashion of borrowing money for big highways, massive buildings, and shopping malls. They were thinking about the environment and about human needs. They approached Curitiba’s mayor, pointed to the rapid growth of the city, and made a case for better planning.

The mayor sponsored a contest for a Curitiba master plan. He circulated the best entries, debated them with the citizens, and then turned the people’s comments over to the upstart architects, asking them to develop and implement a final plan.

Jaime Lerner was one of the architects. In 1971 he was appointed mayor by the then-military government of Brazil. He has since served two more four-year terms (non-consecutive as required by Brazilian law) – one of them appointed, the other elected.

Given Brazil’s economic situation, Lerner had to think small, cheap and participatory, which was how he was thinking anyway.

He provided 1.5 million tree seedlings to neighborhoods for them to plant and care for. "There is little in the architecture of a city that is more beautifully designed than a tree," says Lerner.

Lerner prefers rehabilitating built-up areas to spreading the city outward. He converted a former warehouse into a theater and an abandoned glue factory into a community center. He met resistance from shopkeepers when he proposed turning the downtown shopping district into a pedestrian zone, so he suggested a 30-day trial. The zone was so popular that shopkeepers on other streets asked to be included. Now one pedestrian street, the Rua das Flores, is lined with gardens tended by street children.

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 meal a day and a small wage in exchange for doing simple maintenance, gardening, or office chores. Brazil forbids child labor, but Lerner says, "By law, a child mustn’t work, but society looks the other way when he goes hungry or homeless or works for a drug trafficker."

Public transport in Curitiba is so convenient that 70 percent of commuters and shoppers use it. Concentric circles of local bus lines connect to five radial lines that go outward from the center of the city. On the radial lines, triple-compartment buses in their own traffic lanes carry 300 passengers each. They go as fast as subway cars, but at one-eightieth the construction cost.

The buses stop at plexiglass tube stations designed by Lerner. Passengers pay their fares, enter through one end of the tube, and exit from the other end. This system eliminates paying on board, and allows faster loading and unloading, less idling and air pollution, and a sheltered place for waiting.

Bus fares are low (20 to 40 cents per ride with unlimited transfers), but the system pays for itself. Private companies own and operate the buses and keep part of each fare. The city gets the rest to pay for roads, terminals, and to buy old buses, which are refurbished as classrooms, daycare centers, and clinics.

Curitiba’s citizens separate their trash into just two categories, organic and inorganic, which are picked up by two kinds of trucks. Poor families in squatter settlements unreachable by trucks bring their trash bags to neighborhood centers, where they exchange them for bus tickets, or for eggs, milk, oranges, and potatoes bought from outlying farmers.

The trash goes to a plant, itself built of recycled materials, that employs 100 people to separate bottles from cans from plastic. The workers are handicapped people, recent immigrants, and alcoholics. Recovered materials are sold to local industries. Styrofoam is shredded to stuff blankets for the poor. The recycling program costs no more than the old landfill, but the city is cleaner, there are more jobs, farmers are supported, and the poor get food and transportation. Curitiba recycles two-thirds of its garbage, one of the highest rates of any city, North or South.

Builders in Curitiba get a tax break if their projects include green areas. The city has a hotline to report industrial polluters. In spite of strict environmental laws, Curitiba contains 341 major industries, including Fiat, Pepsi, and Volvo. Hitochi Nakamura, Curitiba’s environment secretary says environmental laws are not slowing industrial development.

Lerner says, "The dream of a better city is always in the heads of its residents. Our city isn’t a paradise. It has most of the problems of other cities. But when we provide good buses and schools and health clinics, everybody feels respected. The strategic vision … leads us to put the first priorities on the child and the environment. For there is no deeper feeling of solidarity than that of dealing with the citizen of tomorrow, the child, and the environment in which that child is going to live."

Donella Meadows, co-author of Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits, is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmoutb College and an IC contributing editor.

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