The great reformer of Brazil

As mayor of Curitiba, Jaime Lerner revamped a grubby city into the envy of urban planners worldwide – without spending much money. How did he do it? And what is he up to now? Jared Green spoke to him.

Jared Green: In a talk you gave at a recent conference organised by The Economist, you argued that cities are the solution to climate change, not the problem. What is the case for this?

Jaime Lerner: Well, my point of view is that there are many, many answers to what would be the best way to avoid climate change. A lot of people are talking about new materials, or new sources of energy, or wind turbines, or recycling. They’re really important but not enough. Everything is very, very important, but not enough. When we realised that 75% of car emissions are related to cities, we realised we can be more effective when we work with the concept of the city. It’s through cities that we can have better results.

JG: When you were mayor of Curitiba, in Brazil, you devised a number of low-cost solutions that turned your city into a model green community where people also have incomes 60% higher than the national average. What kind of investments did you make in green space? What do you see as the relationship between liveability and sustainability?

JL: If you want creativity, cut one zero from your budget. If you want sustainability, cut two zeros from your budget. And if you want solidarity, assume your identity and respect others’ diversity.

There are three main issues that are becoming important, not only for your city, but for the whole of mankind. These relate to three key issues in cities: mobility, sustainability and tolerance, or social diversity. Every time we try to create a solution, we have to have a good equation of co-responsibility with the public. That means it’s not a question of money and it’s not a question of skill; it’s how do we organise the equation of co-responsibility?

For example, when I was governor we had to work hard to reduce pollution in our bays. Of course, it’s very expensive to do environmental clean-up work and we didn’t have the money. Another region had taken out a huge loan from the World Bank – about US$800 million [5.2 billion yuan]. For us though, the question wasn’t about money; the question was about mentality. 

We didn’t have that money, so we started to clean our bays through an agreement with fishermen. If the fisherman caught a fish, it belonged to him. If he caught garbage, we bought the garbage. If the day was not good for fishing, the fishermen went to fish garbage. The more garbage they caught, the cleaner the bays became. The cleaner the bay, the more fish they would have. 

It’s that kind of win-win solution we need. We need to work with low-cost solutions. And, of course, in public transport, we also organised a good equation of co-responsibility with the public.

JG: As mayor of Curitiba, you also created the world’s first bus rapid transit system (BRT), which works like a surface subway system but at far less cost. How did you come up with this solution? And how did you form the public-private partnership that made it cost-effective?

JL: We didn’t have the money for a completely new fleet, which would have cost US$300 million [1.9 billion yuan]. What was the equation? What was the solution? We said to the private sector, we’ll invest in the itinerary as long as you invest in the fleet. We’ll get loans for the work on our side, for public works, for the itinerary, if the private sector gets loans for the fleet. We paid them by kilometres and there are no subsidies – the system pays for itself. Now, there are more than 83 BRT systems around the world.

The problem is, in many countries, government wants to invest in everything. That doesn’t work. I’ll give you an example. Why don’t we have a good system of transport in New York on the waterfront? This could be a very good approach for reducing congestion in the city’s bridges and tunnels. The city could have a very pleasant system of water public transport. But instead, the policymakers are holding it up, saying there are no passengers and they don’t want to invest in the fleet. First, they need to create a good partnership and create an attractive system, then they will have the passengers, and then they will have a low-cost solution. 

JG: You also mentioned that many poor copies of your BRT are out there, and are actually setting back BRT as a transportation movement. What are other cities doing wrong? 

JL: BRT can’t be designed as a transportation solution. It has to be planned as a whole city. Why? Because the city is a structure for living, working and leisure – everything together. 

It’s not about living here and working in some other place. With that kind of approach, you will only use public transport twice daily, concentrated in just a few hours. If you have a system that works always and connects working and living activities, it’s more a city than just a corridor of public transport.

JG: You were also known for innovations in the delivery of city services. One programme to clean up dirty, narrow streets that were inaccessible to trash collectors gave residents bags of groceries or transit passes in return for their garbage. How well did this programme work? 

JL: It’s been working for more than 20 years in Curitiba. In many cities, there are places where it’s difficult to provide trucks access to collect garbage. In many cities, if the slums are on the hills or deep in valleys, they’re difficult to access. In these places, people are throwing away their garbage and polluting the streams. Their children are playing in polluted areas. In 1989, we started a programme where we said, OK, we’re going to buy your garbage as long as you put your garbage in a bag and bring it to the trucks, where it’s more accessible. In two or three months, all these areas were clean, and these very low-income people had an additional source of income. 

We also started a public education programme on the separation of garbage, because we realised that we could transform one problem if we separated garbage in every household. We started teaching every child in every school. Children taught their parents. Since then, Curitiba has had the highest rate of separation of garbage in the world. Around 60% or 70% of families separate their garbage at home.

JG: Now you have your own architecture and urban design firm and you are working with city governments and private clients throughout the Americas. I saw you were designing a few projects that reuse transportation infrastructure and turn highways into elevated parks. How are you doing that?

JL: For instance, in Sao Paolo, they have three subway lines. They are working on the fourth line of the subway. At the same time, the suburban railroad is being improved. The idea is to take advantage of the existing path of the suburb railroads and build above the rail a kind of linear park like the High Line [a park in New York, built on a section of former elevated railroad]. However, this linear park would link the whole city, where you can connect people of all income levels. In every place, you could have good public transport and a huge park linking it all. Within this park, you could walk, bike, or take a small electric car. That’s the idea that we presented for the city of Sao Paolo with the private sector and public sectors.

In other cases, we use "urban acupuncture". These are small interventions that can provide new energy to the city, and provide assistance during the process of long-term planning, which has to take time. 

JG: At the street level, you’ve been experimenting with portable streets, which you say can enable vendors to set up easily anywhere, creating informal and spontaneous market street life. Why do we need this infrastructure?

JL: Some places in some cities have become decayed. There’s no life. When that happens, it’s very difficult to bring back life because people don’t want to live in a place like that. However, the moment we bring street life, people will want to live there again. That’s why we designed the portable streets. On a Friday night, we can deliver a portable street and remove it Monday morning. We can put a whole street life in front of a university or any place, bringing street life back.

Jaime Lerner served as mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, for three terms before being elected governor of the state of Paraná in 1994. Lerner has won a number of major awards for his transportation, design, and environmental work, including the United Nations Environment Award. In 2002, he was elected president of the International Union of Architects. He is also principal of
Jamie Lerner Associated Architects

Jared Green is web content and strategy manager at the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).

This interview was first published by ASLA. It is reproduced here with permission. 

Homepage image from MarkWSutton