Friday, July 17, 2009

Jaime Lerner: Curitiba


Jaime Lerner was born in Curitiba, Brazil in 1937 to parents of Polish descent. He trained as an architect and won a mayoral competition to develop a masterplan for the city in 1964. He was subsequently elected mayor of the city himself in 1971–75, 1979–84 and 1989–92. In 1994, Lerner was elected governor of the state of Paraná, and was re-elected in 1998 until 2002. He served as president of the International Union of Architects 2002-2005. He is a professor of the local university where he studied as a young man and is still promoting his unique brand of urban design around the world.


The city of Curitiba is Jaime Lerner’s legacy to the world. Its residents claim it is the best city in the world and it is hard to argue with them. Lerner applied almost childlike common sense and simplicity to develop solutions that make the urban environment work for its residents rather than the other way round.

The public transport network consists of major radial bus routes and secondary concentric routes which meet at major transport hubs. There is a flat fare system and tickets are pre-purchased to allow access into a boarding tube. This cuts boarding time to a minimum as the system operates more like a metro than a normal bus network. The road layout and traffic light systems are designed to favour buses. Unsurprisingly 80% of the population uses the buses, despite having the highest car ownership in Brazil.

The closer a new residential or commercial development is to a transport interchange, the larger it may be. Therefore the city is shaping itself around the transport network and not vice versa as occurs in other cities. Developers also get tax breaks for building open space into their designs.

Curitiba is surrounded by flood plains. Instead of installing flood protection and building, Lerner has let them carry out their natural function by designating them as parks. This is the biggest parkland in any city (52 square metres per person) and restricts urban sprawl, while protecting biodiversity. To keep costs down, sheep are used to maintain the grass.

Like all South American cities, Curitiba has a poverty problem which manifests itself in street children. Rules compel shopkeepers to employ a street child to clean the pavement outside the shop. Homeless people and those living in barrios can also take waste to recycling centres in return for food vouchers. Fishermen are paid to remove garbage from the bay. The city has a 70% recycling rate – the highest in the world.

What is remarkable is where Curitiba is – in a country renowned for grinding poverty, shantytowns and uncontrolled sprawl. It is not a shiny, expensive, technological masterpiece designed from scratch, but a living, breathing, historical city. As Lerner told the TED conference in 2007, “Creativity is when you lose a zero off your budget”.

Lerner is a true visionary, and, unlike many of the gurus here, has demonstrated the clear benefits of his vision in practice. While Curitiba is unique, the principles are now being applied around the world from Los Angeles to Afghanistan.

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