Case Study - International Community Sustainability

A visionary leader advances community sustainability

curitaba brazil panorama

Curitiba, Brazil
Curitiba is a city of 1.6 million in Brazil. As in almost every other city, economic growth led to downtown traffic congestion and air pollution and when it came time for city planning to address growth and these problems, planning meant planning for automobiles. However, in part due to a charismatic mayor in 1971 named Jamie Lerner, Curitiba was planned with principles of sustainable design and with community in mind. Currently it has one of the most innovative transportation systems in the world and is a uniquely designed sustainable community. For example, residents of Curitiba use 25 percent less fuel per capita than other Brazilians, even though they are actually more likely to own cars. It still is a relatively poor city with an average per capita income of about $2,500. Regardless, it still fosters community well being and a high quality of life as the following quote demonstrates. “In a recent survey, 60 percent of New Yorkers wanted to leave their rich and cosmopolitan city; 99 percent of Curitibans told pollsters that they were happy with their town; and 70 percent of the residents of São Paulo (a neighboring city) said they thought life would be better in Curitiba.”  Curitiba also has slums: or shantytown favelas characteristic of most Third World cities but even they are different.  For example, under a city program, a slumdweller who collects a sack of garbage gets a sack of food from the city in return.

To redesign this city, Lerner used the hidden design of the city; he didn’t tear down old buildings but worked within the template that he had, recycled old buildings, and increased density of housing around main roads and amenities. 
The transport system in Curitiba consists of buses. Five doors open and close at each stop and on busy routes at rush hour, one bus arrives every minute or so. This allows 20,000 passengers an hour to get to their destination for only about 30 cents each. The bus service is not subsidized by the city because the fleet is privatized but the government regulates routes and fares and pays each contractor by kilometer traveled.

Even as Curitiba has tripled in population – the city went from two square feet of green area per inhabitant to more than 150 square feet per inhabitant; this figure is four times the World Health Organization standard of 12 square meters of green space per person.

One of Lerner’s other accomplishments was the creation of industry and thus employment for a growing population. Instead of offering huge tax breaks to anyone who promised jobs, the city used eminent domain to purchase about 40 square kilometers of land south of downtown. The government provided services, streets, schools and housing. They connected the area to the bus system and built a“worker's line” from the most impoverished neighborhood. The government also enacted a series of regulations –controlling air and water pollution and to conserve green space. This foresight developed thousands of new direct jobs and thousands of indirect employment for residents of Curitiba.
In response to the growing problem of favelas and the urban poor, the housing policy of Curitiba was reformed to abandoning the policy of small, scattered sites, and the city bought one of the last large plots of land left within its limits, which was called Novo Bairro, or New Neighborhood. This cleared field became the home to 50,000 families. New landowners built their own houses. With a plot of land, landowners are given a deed and a pair of trees (one fruit bearing and one ornamental), and also an hour downtown with an architect.

Consistent with the city design, one of the first structures to go up at Novo Bairro was a glass tube bus station that linked this neighborhood to the rest of the city. This was a way of  “knitting together the entire city” –  to connect rich, poor, and in-between – culturally and economically and physically”. It was a way to recognize the poor as citizens and integrate them into the city network.

Curitiba has been cited several times as an example of what city planning can be on a third world budget, and it provides inspiration for the rest of the world to intentionally design their social and ecological spaces to foster social equality and environmental sustainability.

(Adapted from the work of I. Shaver, 2011)