Curitiba, a fast and smart tortoise

A smart city for more than forty years, the success of Curitiba is based on concepts, solutions and theories,
those of the former mayor Jaime Lerner, which have made this city a magnificent subject of reflection for town-planners all over the world. The ‘smart’ city is one where life, work, leisure and nature are not separate
but contaminate one another – like the tortoise that spends its whole life under the same shell.

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It was not established in the United States, and not even in China or the United Arab Emirates. Nor in Europe, nor is it an achievement of the last decade. If you don’t know already, you would never guess; the first smart city in the world was born in Brazil in the Seventies. Its name is Curitiba, and from a height of almost a thousand meters above sea level, lying on the plateau of Paraná which dominates the state of the same name, and of which it is also the capital, it slyly looks at the development of the whole country, with its nearly forty years of experience in being an ecological and sustainable city. The first pedestrian street in the world? It was here. And also the first light-rail system. Curitiba has the highest number of square meters of greenery per inhabitant, and its recycling has become a ‘goods exchange’ to help poor families. A model of a city that has proven to be truly sustainable that comes from a developing country but on the strength of its example, one that has given architects, city planners, and administrators in more developed countries pause to think.

Curitiba, lying on the plateau of Paraná which dominates the state of the same name, of which is it also the capital, slyly looks at the development of the whole country, with its nearly forty years of experience in being an ecological and sustainable city

The recipe is simple. “If you want creativity, cut one zero from your budget” – in the words of Jaime Lerner, architect, mayor for three mandates, and the visionary author of the most profound innovations in Curitiba. “If you want sustainability, cut two zeros from your budget. And if you want solidarity, assume your identity and respect the diversity of others. These are the issues that are increasingly important, not only for cities but for the entire human race, and which are related to three important aspects of cities: mobility, sustainability, and tolerance.”

Needless to say, he was involved in all three in Curitiba.
First elected in 1971, he combined a dream, city planning, and common sense by supporting the development of state of the art urban infrastructures. Now considered the capital with the best quality of life in all of Brazil, in the early Seventies Curitiba was a farming town with just over six hundred thousand inhabitants, in fast-paced expansion and rapidly converting to commerce and industry, which grew becoming populated by abusers, favelas, inequality, and asphalt, and without any planning. The first challenge for the new mayor, now a university professor and consultant in different cities around the world, was to control the periodic floods that flooded roads and houses. Against the advice of those who suggested undertaking imposing and expensive public works (such as burying or diverting water courses), Lerner opted for ‘cleaning up’ the shanty areas in much of the city, and the construction of a huge green zone, where the river could safely overflow, creating ponds and a habitat for plant and animal species. Thanks to that plan, Curitiba is now one of the greenest cities in the world, and went from half a meter of vegetation per capita in the Seventies to the current 55 square meters (in Italy, according to Istat, the average is 30 square meters) for each of its nearly two million inhabitants. A sort of green belt, where the parks are all connected with one another, also fosters the survival of plant and animal species whose maintenance is entrusted – in addition to the co-responsibility of citizens – to … sheep.

I think that cars are like our … in-laws. We have to have good relations with them, but we cannot let them guide our lives

During his total of 22 years in government, Lerner made common sense and creativity his winning weapons. So, when the city found itself in the throes of its first serious mobility problems, the then mayor of Curitiba thought, against the advice of those who sought to demolish some old buildings in order to widen the main street of the city center, Rua das Flores, of closing it to cars for fifteen blocks, thus inventing the first pedestrian street in the world. To avoid the protests of shopkeepers, Lerner improvised an actual blitz: the road was closed, paved, and made pedestrian in just 72 hours. “I think that cars are like our … in-laws,” – he said in a speech to the American Society of Landscape Architects. “We have to have good relations with them, but we cannot let them guide our lives. I am convinced that a city is like a family portrait. You would never destroy a family portrait because you didn’t like an old aunt. You are that portrait.” Lerner has tried to impress criteria of functionality, sustainability, and co-responsibility on his family portrait, starting from transport.

The main arterial roads were divided into three parts, one for entering the city, one to leave it, and one reserved for public transport, and then this visionary public administrator created the first light-rail system. It is a bus service that runs at the same speed and efficiency as subways (every minute), but which is much cheaper and easier to manage. “The first thing we asked ourselves was: what is a subway? It must have speed, comfort, reliability, and a high frequency. But who says it has to be underground? Inevitably, that is a very expensive system. Why not get the same benefits with a bus?” Today the road system is called the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and it has already become a model for eighty similar systems around the world, convincing almost half the population of Curitiba to no longer use their car for urban transport. Thanks to 150 miles of cycle paths as well. How did the city manage to do this? “Curitiba has no secrets, just what you might call a special focus on simplicity. Cities are not so complicated: you just have to understand them. I would not say that Curitiba is a paradise: we have all the problems of big cities, but I think that here, we have what makes the difference: respect for people.” Lerner founded all his policies on this idea and on the co-responsibility of the citizens. “We had to work with economic solutions. We started cleaning up our bays thanks to an agreement with the fishermen. So if it’s not a good day for fishing, the fishermen can go fishing for the junk that is in the water, and we buy it from them. The more you collect, the cleaner the bay gets and the more fish there will be in the future.” This is more or less the same principle on which the differentiated waste collection is also based. “We had roads where the trucks for waste collection could not enter. Especially in the favelas, where people lived in the middle of garbage and there seemed to be no solution.

The first challenge for the new mayor was to control the periodic floods that flooded roads and houses. Lerner opted for ‘cleaning up’ the shanty areas in much of the city, and the construction of a huge green zone, where the river could safely overflow

So in 1989, we launched a major campaign in schools, teaching children to recycle and explaining to the residents of the poorest and inaccessible neighborhoods that we would buy their trash if they had differentiated and delivered it to collection points. In exchange for every five kilos of trash, a pound of fruits and vegetables. The favelas were cleaned up in three months, and even this little financial support has helped many families to make ends meet. Sometimes we even give out bus or cinema tickets.” Today Curitiba has one of the highest percentages of recycled materials in the world: around 70%. And it will probably manage to be more elastic than the other Brazilian cities in dealing with the horde of tourists who went there on the occasion of the forthcoming World Cup Soccer Championship. “Cities are not the problem, they are the solution,” Lerner likes to say. Perhaps his visionary folly is nothing but simple (but nonetheless precious) common sense!