¬by Neal R. Peirce
Curitaba, Brazil –It rains a lot in this provincial capital of 2.4 million, 220 miles southwest of San Paulo.¬ There’s a large needy population, swollen each month by 1,700 peasants flowing in from the countryside.¬ The city’s architecture is unexceptional.
But look across the continents and you’ll not likely find a better managed city.¬ And not due to some tight, buttoned-down management scheme.¬ But rather because Curitaba, since urban visionary Jaime Lerner became its mayor in 1971, has pioneered one remarkable social or physical innovation after another.
Curitiba’s remarkably fast and efficient bus system accommodates 1.9 million bus passengers each weekday — more than New York City.¬ Downtown has delightful pedestrian-only streets.¬ To foster equity, small-scale, low-income dwellings (rather than high-rise housing ghettoes) have been spotted across the city.
An extensive new park and lake system covers 18 percent of the city’s land area, doubling as a much-needed flood protection scheme (so that the ducks, it’s quipped, just float a meter higher after rains).¬ Over 1,100 tax-relieved private woodlands allow rain to soak in where it falls.¬ Volunteer citizens, since the 70s, have planted over 1.5 million trees along streets and avenues.
Curitiba invented “Lighthouses of Knowledge.”¬ Fifty of them, brightly colored, glassy lighthouse-shaped towers, are spotted through the neighborhoods, providing thousands of books and now Internet connections for citizens aged 3 to 80.¬ Another innovation:¬ “Citizenship Streets” — two-storied pedestrian malls, located beside the heavily-used bus terminals, offering clusters of city services from job training to day care, gyms to small claims courts.¬¬
Lerner, now governor of Parana, Curitiba’s state, and potential Brazilian presidential candidate, reminds a visitor that Curitiba has the problems of all Latin American cities, tough slums included.¬ The apparent difference:¬ the fundamental respect for all citizens, the poorest included, that he and his team of architect-planner associates have sought to build over three decades.
Citizens who are shown respect with health clinics, good buses, decent schools, insists Lerner, accept “co-responsibility.”¬ They’re willing to build their own simple housing, especially with a little architectural counsel and utility connections.¬ They volunteer for environmental projects.¬ They start cottage industries.¬ Civic society flourishes.
Most families and firms now presort their trash, and 70 percent is recycled or composted.¬ In the slums, or favelas, where refuse vehicles can’t negotiate unpaved alleys, small trucks fan out in a massive “Green Exchange.”¬ For bags of sorted trash, tens of thousands of the city’s poorest receive bags of rice, beans, eggs, bananas, carrots that the city buys inexpensively from the area’s surplus production.¬ The result’s both better public health (less litter, rats, disease) and better nutrition.
Green Exchange exemplifies Curitiba’s penchant for solutions that are “simple, fast, fun and cheap,” write Paul Hawken, Amore and Hunger Lovins in their new book, Natural Capitalism.¬ The city is thus benefiting from a flow of interconnected, interactive, evolving solutions.
Lerner explains his distaste for “creativity killers” — a type of person “you can smell in meetings,” who insists on having all the answers before any project can start.¬ That’s wrong, he insists:¬ “Creativity means certain risks.¬ It’s important to start, then make changes.¬ The ideal can easily be the enemy of the possible.”
Lerner and Curitiba’s present mayor, Cassio Taniguch, split their days.¬ Mornings are a jungle-like retreats on the edge of parks, talking big ideas that might change many lives.¬ In the afternoon, by contrast, they’re in their official offices meeting constitutions.¬ “You need a daily balance,” says Lerner.
But where do all the ideas come from, and how do they get coordinated?¬ The answer’s “IPPUC” — the city’s research and urban planning institute, now 35 years old.¬ It’s a rare phenomenon among world cities — an official city institute that’s intellectual on one side, management-focused on the other.¬ The mayor, department heads and staff involved in currently hot issues meet there ever Thursday for a frank exchange on how to keep multiple city projects moving.
SO does it matter if a city has imaginative leadership over years?¬ One shred of evidence — surveys show 99 percent of Curitibans (as opposed, for example, to 60 percent of New Yorkers) wouldn’t want to live elsewhere.
Lerner recounts a 90s meetings with Renault officials at his jungle office.¬ Parana wasn’t even on their list for a Brazilian expansion site.¬ Suddenly, a hummingbird flew in and alighted on the table.¬ “We had no contract with that bird,” says Lerner.¬ But clearly Curitiba’s quality of life, its spirit and imagination, was key in drawing Renault, and then equally coveted Chrysler and Volkswagen/Audi plants, to the province.
But the auto plants have been located outward, with the stated goal of sharing Curitiba’s prosperity with its entire province.¬ Expanding its focus to regional collaboration — the first great challenge for 21st century cities.