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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Vision of a Sustainable City

Air Date: Week of

The southern Brazilian city of Curitiba and its botanical garden.(Photo: Jose Vladimir)

In honor of Earth Day, Living on Earth revisits some of our favorite stories. Today, we go to the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba. When reporter Cecilia Vaisman visited Curitiba in 1994, she learned how a city with a growing population and outdated infrastructure transformed into a sustainable and wonderfully livable city, with lots of green space, recycling programs, and an efficient rapid transit system.


CURWOOD: To mark Earth Day, we are presenting and updating some of our favorite stories from years past. And with the theme of sustainable cities common this year in many locales, we thought we’d go back to 1994 and visit a city in Southern Brazil called Curitiba. Curitiba is often cited as an example of how to make cities more livable. Its transformation didn’t take a lot of money or even a lot of time. But it did take the vision of a man who is an architect and three-time mayor of Curitiba, Jaime Lerner.

When our story was produced back in 1994, the city had a million and half residents and had made great strides in dealing with garbage, pollution and congestion. Later in today’s program, we’ll catch up with Jaime Lerner to hear how his Curitiba is faring today, but first here’s our story by reporter Cecilia Vaisman.


VAISMAN: For Paul Peter Constantinides, an architect and city planner, coming to Curitiba is like a pilgrimage.


TRANSLATION VOICEOVER: It is the only city in my region that has an urban design that is correct. It prioritizes the quality of life, which is the most important thing.

VAISMAN: It’s the morning of the first day of a workshop for city officials at the Jaime Lerner Institute, Curitiba’s urban planning think tank, and Constantinides and a dozen other mayors, vice mayors, and city officials from Brazil and Mexico are touring the city.


VAISMAN: Constantinides works in Jacareí, a small city about 200 miles from here. He says Jacareí is growing fast; it’s polluted, and the city’s roads are a mess. Here in Curitiba, Constantinides stares out the window, marveling at the sights. Every few blocks there’s a park. The city’s downtown is laced with pedestrian promenades; no trash clogs the gutters; no stains from smog on the seventeenth-century architecture – and everywhere, traffic flows smoothly.



TRANSLATION VOICEOVER: When you do urban planning, sometimes you favor the car or public transportation. But here, everything’s balanced; everybody wins: the pedestrian, the driver of the car, and the user of the bus. And also, the landscape is beautiful.



VAISMAN: The first stop is Curitiba’s University of the Environment. Set up by the city government, the university provides free classes to citizens on everything from botany to recycling.

VAISMAN: A walkway made of rough boards winds across a marsh and through dense forest.



VAISMAN: It leads to a clearing surrounded by walls of sheer stone. Black-necked swans glide across a pond, and classical music is piped in over a loudspeaker.


VAISMAN: Until a few years ago, this was an abandoned quarry. When Curitiba’s three-time mayor Jaime Lerner saw this space, he had a flash of inspiration, sketched out a rough design for a small building made of recycled materials, and a couple of months later, the university was completed. Its low-tech and low-cost ideas like this that the city officials have come here to see.


TRANSLATION VOICEOVER: This is very beautiful. Whoever had the idea of doing this is brilliant.

VAISMAN: Manuel Tomain is a top official in a city that’s the capital of stainless steel production in Brazil. He says that smelters have polluted his city and left large tracts of vacant land. He came to Curitiba desperate for solutions.

A bus stop in Curitiba. Riders pay before entering so they can board the bus as quickly as boarding a subway train.(Photo: Sasha Aickin)


TRANSLATION VOICEOVER: I’m going to do anything, find anything, an inspiration, a quarry, a pile of rocks, whatever, to see if I can do something similar to this. I came to see what works and see which ideas I can steal.



VAISMAN: At the next stop, the officials file into an auditorium, and the man they’re all eager to meet strides to the podium of the institute, which bears his name.



VAISMAN: I have the honor of receiving you here, Jaime Lerner tells them, at a time when cities can play a decisive role in the future of our country


VAISMAN: The son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Lerner is an architect and urban planner. For most of the last 25 years, he’s been mayor of Curitiba and master minded the city’s environmental urban design. Legally, he can’t become mayor again, but recently he was elected governor of the state of which Curitiba is the capital. And Lerner consistently tops public opinion polls as the most popular politician in Brazil. Admirers come from all over the world to listen to Lerner’s gospel.

LERNER: I’m sure that every city in the world, in less than one year, can improve on environmental issues. It’s very important, the start of the process of change in the city. Don’t be afraid to start, even if it's not so correct. But if you don’t start, there is no – there is nothing to correct.

VAISMAN: Back when Lerner first became mayor of Curitiba in 1971, Brazil was going through its economic miracle, and most Brazilian mayors embraced the idea that bigger is better. Brasília, the country’s capital, had recently been built from the ground up in only five years. São Paolo’s industries boomed, and in a decade, the city’s population grew by more than half.

But Lerner believed that unrestrained growth would eventually choke cities and make them unlivable. So he hired a team of young architects and urban engineers to develop cheap and environmentally sustainable solutions to basic urban problems like public transportation and garbage. They built special schools for street children, and converted old buses into roving classrooms to provide job training in typing and hairdressing for people living in shantytowns.

Lerner says it’s crucial to start small and look for simple solutions.

LERNER: There’s a lot of people, sellers of complexity. And sometimes it’s not the question – it’s not so complex. I think one of the secrets of Curitiba – we are not afraid of trying simple solutions.

VAISMAN: Like Curitiba’s reforestation program, launched 15 years ago. The government provided saplings, and the citizens rolled up their sleeves to plant them – a million and a half trees. Now Curitiba has more green space per citizen than any other major city in Brazil.

LERNER: When, the people, they feel respected, there is that, that kind of a shared cause: the people with their city. And that means a lot.


VAISMAN: After meeting with Lerner, the officials split up into small groups. A group of Mexican officials and bus drivers from the city of León, Guanajuato, decide to check out Curitiba’s transportation system.


TRANSLATION VOICEOVER: The system in our city is very, very bad.

VAISMAN: Rafael Fernández Pérez works in the office of urban affairs in the city of León.


TRANSLATION VOICEOVER: Hardly anybody gets some buses in León. No children, no pregnant women, no middle class or older people. The only people that use them are people who don’t have any choice. Other people travel by cars, so the traffic jams are terrible. Here, in Curitiba, they have three times more cars than us, but people don’t use them very much.


VAISMAN: The officials pull up to Curitiba’s transit authority, where the manager of operations starts off his presentation with a videotape touting Curitiba’s bus system.


VAISMAN: On the screen, sleek buses whiz through the city’s streets, carrying smiling passengers. The narrator explains that an efficient bus system can save money, reduce air and noise pollution, and improve the overall quality of life of the city.


VAISMAN: When Jaime Lerner first became mayor, he was urged to build a subway, but decided instead that the more practical and cost-efficient solution was to improve the city’s bus system with a network of express bus lanes linking downtown to outlying areas. Now a third of the city’s residents have switched from cars to riding buses, and exhaust fumes have been reduced by a third.

The system pays for itself. The government contracts out to private companies on a competitive basis. The city collects fares, and in turn pays the bus companies by the number of miles they drive each day.

Curitiba and its botanical garden. (Photo: Jose Vladimir)


VAISMAN: On the other side of town, Ricardo Ontiveros, a sanitation commissioner from Mexico, is inspecting Curitiba’s recycling program.


TRANSLATION VOICEOVER: Garbage is a huge problem. The only thing we do when we take it to a landfill – it’s like the servant who sweeps the house and hides the garbage under the rug. There will come a day when garbage will suffocate us totally.


VAISMAN: In Curitiba, a fleet of green trucks owned by a private company goes door to door to collect recyclable material. 70 percent of Curitiba’s residents recycle, the result of a massive education campaign in schools and middle-class neighborhoods.

And perhaps more importantly, the city also came up with an innovative program in poor neighborhoods, which gives out food and bus coupons in exchange for bags of recyclable glass, plastic, aluminum, and tin cans.


TRANSLATION VOICEOVER: This program is ingenious, because it solves several problems at once. The poor have an incentive to recycle, and at the same time they’re encouraged to use public transportation.


VAISMAN: And in this facility, the recyclable materials is separated by homeless people and recovering alcoholics, who work in exchange for a small salary and room and board. In his city, Ontiveros says about 250 people live next to the dump, and survive by combing through the trash and salvaging whatever they find. He says many of these people get seriously ill.


TRANSLATION VOICEOVER: It’s degrading to work in a dump. It’s humiliating, and it shouldn’t be.

VAISMAN: Ontiveros says he’d like to give the people back home jobs and a plant like this.



VAISMAN: At the end of the day, the officials head back to their hotel. Many of them are reeling with possibilities and trading ideas about the new programs they want to establish when they get home.


TRANSLATION VOICEOVER: I’m excited, but frankly, I feel a little sadness too.

VAISMAN: Luiz Augusto Trojan, the secretary of urban development in a small town of a neighboring state is unsure. He says he wonders if Curitiba’s success can really be repeated elsewhere.


TRANSLATION VOICEOVER: The main difference between my city and this city is a person like Jaime Lerner, a political figure with credibility. Curitiba is already so changed. People have become used to these things. It’s irreversible.

In my city, people are used to ugliness. People there don’t want trees; they cut down the trees in the parks. They do things that are insane, nuts. So we have to start from the beginning. But without that visionary person, it’s very difficult.


VAISMAN: A man sitting nearby has similar concerns. Alexandre Pera Cerearo, from the state of Rio de Janeiro, says that residents of Curitiba are very different than the people in his city.


TRANSLATION VOICEOVER: In my city, the culture’s very different. And the climate is different – people go to the beach, they aren’t disciplined. Here it’s colder – people stay indoors and read books. They think more about things. I know it all depends on the education. If you start slowly educating people in grade school, who knows – maybe in ten years, my city could be better.

VAISMAN: In fact Curitiba is very different than most other cities in Brazil. Even before Jaime Lerner became mayor, Curitiba had a long history of civic responsibility and community participation. Curitiba’s population, mostly of Polish and Italian ancestry, is more culturally homogenous than in other parts of Brazil. Curitiba has a strong middle class, without the huge income disparities between rich and poor common throughout the country. And the city government has traditionally been free of corruption. Another key to Curitiba’s success is the fact that Lerner and his team were in power for nearly a generation, providing consistent policies from one administration to the next.

Jaime Lerner admits that all of those factors have helped Curitiba be successful. But he insists that officials anywhere can implement simple solutions that can quickly improve the quality of life for their city’s residents. In turn, he says, city leaders will gain credibility and support for future projects.

LERNER: Many mayors in big cities, they have always that kind of excuse. Uh, you know, we cannot change because, you know, it’s a big problem. The scale of the problem is not an excuse for not trying to change. It has nothing to do with the possibility of change.

Several cities have already adopted some Curitiba-type solutions, like recycling and express buses. Lerner says these won’t solve all their environmental problems, but it’s an important beginning in a world where increasing numbers of people live in cities.

VAISMAN: I’m Cecilia Vaisman reporting.

[MUSIC: Moacir Santos “Sou Eu…” from ‘Ouro Negro’ (Adventure Music – 2001)]

CURWOOD: Coming up – fourteen years after we first aired our documentary on Curitiba, we speak with Jaime Lerner, the man whose vision helped create the model sustainable city.

LERNER: I think the merit of – the credit of Curitiba is we had the courage to make simple solutions.

CURWOOD: The simple solutions that shaped Curitiba and how other cities could follow its lead. That’s just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!



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