An Ecological Mind

Curitiba would probably resemble any other Brazilian city if it weren’t for the bold initiatives of its former ecological-minded mayor, Jaime Lerner. In the 1960s, urban developers, influenced by Oscar Niemeyer and his followers, were planning to remodel the city around the automobile – tearing down buildings and widening boulevards – just as civil engineers were doing in the US. In Curitiba, a group of young architects and urban planners fought bitterly against the idea, proposing radical zoning and transportation ideas that would save the city from the wrecking ball. Lerner, an architect who became mayor in 1971, put those ideas into action – and came up with a few brilliant ones of his own.

One of his first daring moves was transforming a six-block length of the downtown into a pedestrian zone. Since local merchants blocked the implementation, Lerner used guerrilla tactics. On a Friday evening, he secretly brought in a crew who laid walkways, installed lights and planters, and completed the task in 72 hours – before anyone could stop the project. With a huge boost in pedestrian traffic, merchants soon asked for an extension of the automobile-free zone. Some drivers, however, were less pleased. When Lerner heard that a group was planning to drive along the road, he was prepared. He gathered several hundred children along the street, where they proceeded to sit down and paint pictures. This cemented the success of the pedestrian district and cast Lerner as a can-do mayor.

Public transit was another big challenge. Since the city couldn’t afford to build a metro system, it took the efficiencies of the underground and adapted them to the surface. It created five express-bus avenues, increased frequencies (arriving every 30 seconds at peak time) and built tubular boarding platforms, complete with fare clerks and turnstiles to allow faster boarding and exiting. It also had Volvo make double-accordion, 270-passenger buses. Today, the system transports over two million passengers daily and provides a speedy way around the city.

Lerner spearheaded some highly imaginative methods for dealing with the city’s garbage. He encouraged everyone to recycle (perhaps as much as one-third of garbage was being separated for recycling) and got poorer citizens in on the city’s clean-up act. Since the streets in some favelas (slums) are too narrow for garbage trucks, people cart out their own trash – 2kg of garbage is exchanged for 0.5kg of vegetables.

He also planted trees on an enormous scale (more than one million in the last 30 years) and set aside wetlands and parks (many with lakes to catch runoff in flood-prone areas), even transforming a waste dump into a botanical garden. Despite its explosive population growth, Curitiba increased its green areas from 0.5 sq meter per person to more than 50 sq meters. The ecology also extends to business, as Curitiba decided in the 1970s to admit only nonpolluting companies to its municipality, which it houses in an industrial district surrounded by large areas of green space.