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The Vision of Jaime Lerner for Curitiba, Brazil

Jaime Lerner of Curitiba has placed the city on the map as a leading global example in urban sustainability. During his three terms as mayor of Curitiba and governor of Paraná, he and his team made great strides both in protecting the environment and in elevating the spirit of the city. Under the leadership of Lerner, his team designed a new master plan that integrated land use and transport, introduced the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), increased green space, and made pioneering efforts in recycling. The idea that Lerner proposed – that transport should be both efficient, affordable and sustainable, thereby helping cities by focusing on health and community – inspired innovations across the city and taught a lesson to cities across the globe.

Jaime Lerner, chief architect and designer of Curitiba, Brazil

A New Vision for the Connection of Land Use and Transport

In the late 1960s, a group of young architects from the Federal University of Paraná, which were against the official development plan created by Alfred Crouch in 1940, proposed a different view. Their vision entailed the creation of dense developments along the corridors of mass transit, reducing sprawl, extending green areas, and preserving historic neighborhoods. To implement this ambitious strategy, Lerner became the first director of IPUCC (Institute of Urban Planning of Curitiba). The core of the new strategy for urban design laid in the ternary system, which sought to integrate mass transit, access roads and land use together. This vision required a transportation option capable of creating affordable and convenient mobility to connect the various parts of the city.

The BRT: Building a Connected City

To support the vision of a sustainable and connected city, Lerner understood the need for a high capacity transportation system, but also recognized the need to move away from the trends in transportation planning that were dominant in the cities of the developed world. Unable to create a system below ground, like a subway, Lerner decided to "metronize" the bus. The city plan prioritized the bus, allowing them to move quickly and more efficiently – and introduced exclusive bus corridors, designed a network of feeder buses, and in 1982 introduced the "tube stations" with larger buses and a pre-payment system.

The Bus Rapid Transit system in Curitiba, Brazil

These elements are the core of what would later be called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Since his time as mayor, the city grew with the work of Lerner, creating an integrated transport network, which was also expanded to the metropolitan area. The BRT concept has also spread across the globe, with 168 cities operating BRT lines carrying more than thirty-one million people every day.

Expanding Parks and Public Space for a Greener Future

Aiming to expand green areas and avoid urban sprawl, the Pilot Plan of Curitiba created a green belt around the city in the sixty areas reserved for parks, specifically in areas subject to flooding. Half a century later, the whole city enjoys sixteen parks, fourteen forests and over a thousand public green spaces, many of which are dedicated to celebrating the multicultural history of the country. Lerner's vision for the city played a major role in the idea to provide a green area of 1 square meter to fifty-two square meters per inhabitant, a change that made Curitiba the third greenest city in the world in 2007.

Again, Lerner and his team proposed this change, which at the time was beyond the standards set by developed cities. For example, while expanding green areas was a priority, the city could not afford costs of maintenance and wanted to avoid creating unplanned and underutilized spaces. To combat this problem, the city introduced sheep that could eat the grass and produce manure to local farmers.

Sheep grazing in a park in Curitiba, Brazil

Allowing the sheep in the pasture was a simple solution and other cost-effective interventions for the city were also hidden in plain sight.

Turning Trash into Opportunity

During his first term as mayor of Curitiba, Lerner created a recycling program aimed at making junk valuable. The "Garbage that is not Garbage – Green Exchange" program, was created with the idea that garbage and recyclable paper could be exchanged for public transport passes, student laptops, or food. The exchange program has brought low-income populations access to jobs and higher quality meals, and has also allowed students access to educational resources they needed.

Around 62 low income neighborhoods of the city exchanged 11,000 tons for nearly one million bus passes. The program has served as the perfect example of how to use resources creatively to help bring greater sustainability to a city and a better opportunities to its residents.

Creative Solutions to Create Lasting Rewards

The system of connected transportation and dedication to green areas that were led by Lerner, were well worth the investment. From 1975 to 1995, the GDP of Curitiba increased 75% more than the general state of Paraná, and 48% more than the GDP of Brazil as a whole. The city has become an attractive location for multinational industries, from automobile manufacturing to information technology.

At the same time, Curitiba has maintained high levels of air quality and road safety, as other emerging cities have struggled with such factors in their rush to develop. Curitiba has managed to increase economic productivity and at the same time have a more sustainable modal share among fifteen cities in Latin America. In Curitiba, 42% of daily trips are made on foot and by bike, while the other 28% of trips are by public transport, with only 4.2 traffic fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants (compared with an average of 9.6 in region). Lerner is a celebrated figure among planners for his insightful vision. The current success of Curitiba was possible through two key elements that Lerner identified early on: fewer cars and more garbage recycling. Even though his words may seem simple, Curitiba shows how imaginative, complex and compelling solutions can actually become reality.

Has your city successfully adopted Bus Rapid Transit or another form of sustainable public transportation?

Original article, originally published in Portuguese, can be found here.

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.