June 21, 2006 - From the June, 2006 issue

Curitiba Mayor Jaime Lerner: ‘Simple' Strategies Can Transforms Cities, States, and Communities

Hailed worldwide as a genius of urban planning and governance, architect Jaime Lerner has served three terms as mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, and two as governor of the state of Paraná. In his tenures, Lerner instituted a suite of reforms that improved transportation, housing, and the environment using innovative, efficient ideas that fit within a Third World budget. In the following speech, excerpted from a presentation at the Great Valley Conference in Sacramento, Lerner explains how other cities and regions can use simple, inexpensive ideas to make great gains.

Jaime Lerner

First, I want to say that the city is not the problem. The city is always the solution.

I don't share the idea that we have to project tragedies – when Mexico City will have 50 million people, or when Såo Paulo will have 30 million people. When you project tragedy, you find tragedy. I think we should invest our energy to avoid trends that are not desirable. So, this is my testimony, after working 40 years in cities. After working all those years, I would like to share with you my thoughts, which is every place, every city, every region can improve its quality of life in less than two or three years. Of course you need political will, of course you need strategy, of course you need solidarity, but you can always build a good equation of co-responsibility when dealing with cities and communities.

I've met with mayors from big cities and they try to say, "My city is so big. We have ten million people. It is not possible." Yes, it is possible. Or it's not a problem of scale; it's not a problem of financial conditions-you can always build a good equation of co-responsibility. When I was governor, we needed to clean our bays. We didn't have the money to clean the bays like the Rio de Janeiro did by getting a loan of $800 million from the World Bank. But the problem was not the money, and it was not public works. It was a question of mentality.

So we made a good equation of co-responsibility to start to clean our bays. It was very simple. If the fisherman catches the fish, it belongs to him; if he catches garbage, we'll buy the garbage. If the day is not good for fishing, he can fish for garbage. The more the garbage he picks up the more money he gets, and the cleaner the bay is, the more fish he'll have. So, it's a win-win solution.

I want to introduce you to a very good friend, the turtle. I think is the best sign of quality of life, because it is living and working together. The turtle carries its house and has also a design in its shell that looks like an urban fabric. So can you imagine how sad it would be if we cut in the turtle's shell in different pieces. Living here, working there, having leisure there-that we're doing in most of our cities, and that's a disaster.

Let's present to you another friend, the automobile. He's the type of guy who, when he's invited to a party, he never wants to leave. People are cleaning tables, picking up glasses and everything, but he doesn't want to leave and he drinks a lot. His coughing is crazy and his smoke is terrible. And he's very egotistical; he only wants to transport one or two people. Another guy, the friendly accordion bus, can transport 300 people and is very inclusive.

Let's discuss design. I think design is very important, and not just because I am an architect. It is important to know the design of the city because if you don't have a design, you don't have priority. The city is a structure of living and working together. Working in a city is like a strange archaeology, where you trying to find out all roads and trying to keep the places where they are references for us and to link them to a spine which is a stretch of living and working together. It involves public transport, land use, and keeping the structure of living and working together. When you separate living from working you have disaster.

It's very easy to find out the design of a city or a state. I was a candidate for governor against a former governor who had a good image and was a former soap opera actor. Very handsome and young, and he had all his teeth. He was more related to rural area, my state is more rural, and I was an urbanite. I started my campaign with 6 percent and he had 52. He thought probably, "We have two months free time on TV so it's going to be very easy for me."

But, I started to design the state, the way I saw it. I start to map out the main ideas, because the state is not only the political separation of municipality-it has a design. So we designed a state so that every place would be less than one hour from good hospitals, good universities, good facilities. The design that I made when I was a candidate is the design we have right now.

We can see very easily the design of Curitiba, and we have high-rise buildings and high density only around the corridors with public transportation, with dedicated lanes for the buses. We have 1.8 million people in Curitiba and 3 million people in the metropolitan area.

But when I was mayor the first time we had 650,000, and it was said that every city with 1 million should have a subway. And we thought we didn't have the money for a subway. But what is a subway? It's transportation that should be fast, reliable, with good routes-why not on the surface? We didn't want to invest too much, so we tried to use existing streets. So we put the buses on dedicated lanes – using 300-passenger double-articulated buses. The Swedish factory says it holds 270, but I told them, "it's 270 Swedes, but it's 300 Brazilians!"

There are a lot of systems for mobility, and I don't want to prove which one is the best. I think we have to use everything we have. London, New York, and Paris all have very good subways, but they started 100 years ago when it was cheaper to work underground. My feeling is we have to work with everything. Sao Paulo has four subway lines, but 83 percent of the trips are on the surface. So we have to have a good surface system. The future is on the surface. I'm not saying that subway or light rail or the car is not good. Sometimes I say the car is like our mother-in-law; we have to have a good relationship with her, but we cannot let her conduct our life.

But even the car, bikes-everything-should work together and be integrated and work in a broad mobility concern, which is to have all of them, but with one condition: never compete in the same space.

You could have, for instance, a taxi that could pick you up and drop you off at the nearest public transport. The taxi would do it because it's going to be a partner of the system. If I want to go by car, OK. Park your car closer, and you can have a valet service, and you can have a van drop you in front of your office. But you'd have to pay a mobility fee – and you'd be paying more than the guy using the bus. But the main issue is to not compete in the same space.


In Curitiba we started with 25,000 passengers a day, and we're now transporting more than 2 million per day. And there are no subsidies. The system pays for itself. That's why land use has to be integrated so more people can share the fees.

And what was the equation of co-responsibly? It was very simple. We designed the system and made an agreement with private operators. We told them, "We're going to invest in the routes, itineraries, boarding stations, and terminals, and you're going to invest in the rolling stock." We didn't have $250 million for a new fleet. So they invested in the fleet, and we paid them by kilometer.

And it works.

What makes the difference is a very simple boarding tube whereby you can pay before you board and you can board at the same level as the bus. So you have quick boarding, quick debarking-as quick as a subway.

I'm working on how to have smaller buses, bigger buses, depending on the place. But the most important issue is frequency. In Curitiba we don't wait more than one minute, and sometimes 30 seconds. This is quality public transport. But you have to integrate them. So that's why when I worked in Rio in 2000 we used tubes to connect rail and buses, and you can have a whole metro with buses. The vehicle is different, but the system is the same.

Let's talk about sustainability. We are stuck with the problem of climate change. We think we can't do anything. We're reading about all the disasters and projections, and we feel like terminal patients. But it's not true. You can do a lot. First, don't try to work with things you don't understand. These are my five commitments for sustainability: first, use your car less; second, separate your garbage; third, live closer to your work, or bring your work closer to your home; fourth, waste the minimum and save the maximum; and fifth, have facilities for multiple uses.

I once went to a Pacers-Nets basketball game in New Jersey, and I found that they are using the arena a few times a year. It's a huge place, but it's empty all the time! In the mornings, it could be a market. It could be a university. It could be a big place for events. In most of the cities, the downtown areas are empty 16 hours a day, with the best infrastructure!

When we decided to separate our garbage, we taught all the children about it for six months in school, and the children taught all their parents. Since 1989 we have the highest rate of separation in the world – 70 percent. The campaign is not an official campaign; it's done where the family lives.

And we transformed our green areas. We had one-half square meter per inhabitant in 1971 and after a few years we had 52 square meters – with an increase in population! For instance, we took an old quarry and turned it into a free environmental school for daily life. The idea was to teach teachers, and then we thought we should teach more than just teachers. Why not the janitors, taxi drivers, industrial managers, journalists – why not every person that deals with more people? And we started to teach the whole population how to treat the environment.

We have many places in the city with multiple functions. That means, during the day they have one function and during the night different functions. Our market street in Curitiba has never been closed since it opened in 1992. It's not because the mayor was a Bohemian! It is because people need a place to meet. It's incredible. It gives the vendors a second chance to sell, and it's good as a meeting place.

Let's talk about identity. You would never rip up your family portrait, even if you don't like your uncle or your aunt because the portrait is you. We have to think of a city like a family portrait – that's our identity. In Curitiba we didn't have landmarks at the national level. But we had references. That means an old factory, maybe. Or the historic center, or the pedestrian mall, which was up and running with vendors in 72 hours. You have to be fast.

We have a diverse ethnic population, and diversity is important. I often meet people who are very interested in biodiversity. I met one guy in Honolulu who was very insistent about biodiversity, so I asked him to tell me where he lives. I asked him if he had commerce or culture where he lived. He said, "Oh, no. We don't. It's not possible." "So do you have entertainment areas close to your house?" "No, we don't permit it." "Do you have people from different incomes in your neighborhood?" "No, it's not possible." So for animals, it's good, and for people it's not good? How about social diversity? Curitiba is very mixed. We have diversified neighborhoods.

To finish, what I would like is to say is, it is possible. Se puede. You can do it.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.