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Blueprint for an eco-safe city.

Act locally, think globally is a maxim Curitiba's unflappable mayor swears by. While many of us listen, dismayed and helpless, to reports of global warming or the shrinking species diversity, Mayor Jaime Lerner has been rallying his constituency towards environmental victories. In fact, Curitiba, the charming green-sparkled capital of Brazil's southern state of Parana, has been praised as one of Latin America's most livable cities.

About to celebrate its tercentenary next year, Curitiba has a population of 1.5 million and a half a million cars running about its streets. yet it seems to have found the secret of an environmentally balanced growth. Whether pointing out the clean residential streets bordered with big yellow or purple flowered ipe trees, the ingenious transportation system, or the large public parks with lakes and river-dams, Curitibanos are quick to tell visitors that they live in the best place on earth.

The secret of Curitiba lies in a direction that was determined many years ago and that has been maintained to this day. In the early 1960s, while planners and urbanists in most Brazilian cities "thought big" and dreamed of taller buildings, of more driving and parking space and overpasses for more cars, and of building subways in each state capital, a small group of local architects raised the banner of environment and balanced growth. That banner has been handed down by consecutive administrations, although with some political differences regarding priorities. As a result, Curitiba displays a quality of life that is unique among other Brazilian capitals and is hard to match elsewhere.

"It is not easy, and it is becoming harder," remarks Mayor Jaime Lerner, who was in that original group of architects and is now in his third term at the head of the administration, having held office on and off during the past twenty years. "The problems of Brazilian cities are very serious. People are becoming poorer, pressures are building and one has to find a way to manage this process.

It is Lerner's contention that most problems affecting the environment have to do with the way people live and how they travel. Key to his philosophy is simplicity. "I think it is fundamental for all cities to define where they are heading, where people are going to live and where the city's growth is leading," remarks Lerner. "Sometimes the answer is very simple: normally the city follows the trail and the memory - the trail of transportation, which means that as the city grows, it gets a lift on the transportation. And memory is the soul of cities, it is our identification, it is belonging. When you achieve this in a city, you have come a long way," stresses Lerner.

The achievements of the mayor and his fellow architects and urbanists are a model for city planners throughout Brazil. These include innovative projects not only in the field of transportation, housing and land use, but in garbage recycling as well. Over the past twenty years, Curitiba has planted over 1.5 million trees, drastically decreased automobile use, created a simple technology that enables buses to run as quickly and efficiently as subways, and added more than five large parks, increasing open space one hundred times.

Today there are more than fifty square meters of green area for each citizen. Indeed, the environmentally minded Curitibano has the choice of several green areas within a five to ten minute drive (or twenty minute bus ride) from the downtown leisure park, the Passeio Publico. Sao Lourenco Park and Barreirinha on the north sector, encompass 200,000 and 1,400,000 square meters respectively. Barigui Park, closer to downtown, boasts a 400,000 square meter lake and the vast Iguacu Regional Park, encompassing 8 million square meters, includes a zoo with over 1,000 animals living in environments similar to their native habits.

Several years ago Lerner, with the assistance of local urbanists, introduced a creative solution for mass transportation and traffic problems. Fast, articulated buses run at twenty second intervals on a two-way exclusive lane called a canaleta. Low-speed lanes, one on each side of the canaleta, have no access to it. Two other avenues, parallel to and one block away from the canaleta, hold the fast traffic. This complex of three parallel avenues, radiating from the downtown area to the city limits, is called a structural axis. There are five of those axes, intersected at intervals by common bus lines called interbairros which run in four widening circles to form a spider's web that connects all sectors of the city. Curitiba's system of integrated transport, which last year won an award from the International Institute for Energy Conservation, is helping to induce urban growth away from already densely populated areas.

The latest addition to mass transportation has been a system of metro-like express lines used exclusively by large biarticulated buses with a 300 passenger capacity. These vehicles stop at attractive steel and acrylic tube stations which are built equilevel to the buses and designed to fit their doors. Fare is collected at the tube station's turnstyles, thus facilitating boarding. Comfort and swiftness earned the express lines popularity and the nickname of ligeirinho (swift one), as well as national and international publicity. Last April Curitibanos were thrilled to watch on television their ligeirinho in a live demonstration in the streets of New York - complete with tube station and Mayor Lerner on a ceremonial ride. Public transport has worked so effectively that ridership has increased by 28 percent in a year and the use of auto fuel in Curitiba, per capita, is now less than in any other Brazilian city, despite the fact it has more cars per capita than the national average.

Twenty years ago Curitibanos met Lerner's ideas with skepticism, if not downright objection. They were quite comfortable driving right up to stores, buying what they needed and driving home again. So when Lerner proposed a pedestrian shopping mall, the first in Brazil, the shopkeepers were none too pleased. "He asked them for thirty days and at the end of thirty days, the shop-keepers on the next block asked for it to be pedestrianized," recalls Curibita's International Relations Coordinator Jonas Rabinovitch. Today, Rua das Flores or Flower Street is lined with vegetable, fruit and flower beds that are tended by Curitiba's "street children" and it has become the most expensive area of the city.

Many poor and homeless rural people have migrated to Curitiba, looking for jobs and shelter, along with workers from small towns in search of better opportunities. The problem of over-crowding came to the forefront two decades ago when the city grew from 150,000 in the 1950s to 600,000 in the mid-1960s. At that time the group of young engineers and architects, convinced that only through planning could the city's development be controlled, approached engineer Ivo Arzua, the mayor of Curitiba at that time. "We think of Curitiba as a green city," said one, "but the green will disappear when they raise tall buildings." Arzua not only bought the idea but he held a national contest among architects and urbanists which resulted in the masterplan the city needed. In an unprecedented political move that won the population's lasting support, the Mayor circulated the plan and debated it with the citizens of each densely populated area of Curitiba. It was then left to the group of local planners, including the young architect Jaime Lerner, to work out the details. The planners, gathered at the newly established Curitiba Institute for Reserach and Urban Planning (IPPUC), meticulously prepared adequate city legislation to implement the scheme. When Lerner moved in 1971 from IPPUC to the mayor's seat for his first term, everything was ready - he and his colleagues put into practice the ideas that changed the face and future of the city forever.

It has taken years, of course, for trees to grow along the new avenues and on some disappropriated green areas but, one by one, the structural axes were implanted, river-dams and balancing lakes checked seasonal flooding, construction rights were reordained, and the formation of forested areas in private properties was stimulated. Twenty years of work on the recuperation and preservation of 3,000 kilometers of rivers, streams and valley bottoms in and around the city has changed the conditions of the poor. Thousands of poor people had built homes in the low, swampish (and therefore cheaper) Boqueiro district - an area subject to periodic flooding when the already full Iguacu River could no longer absorb the influx from all of the streams and rivers crisscrossing the city. A seven kilometer long artificial channel was constructed parallel to the Iguacu. This channel now carries all the urban rivers' water to a lake in the great Iguacu Park, adding to its beauty. "It's easier to treat the polluted water in a channel than in a river," remarked a city engineer. This solution worked so well that other counties on the opposite margin of the Iguacu River are building similar systems with the help of the state government.

Land use and water recuperation are only two aspects of the Mayor's innovative approach to linking service systems that help solve environmental and social problems at the same time. The garbage exchange, where poor families can turn in bags of recyclable waste for food or transportation tokens, is another. It was instituted after the health centers on the city's periphery began detecting an increase in diseases from the rats, mice and flies that feed on trash. "Normally the low income families settle along streams and rivers and throw the garbage alongside the banks where the roads are narrow and it is difficult to collect," comments Rabinovitch. "So we set up this program where people carry their garbage up to the road. In exchange they receive a transportation token. Another closely allied aspect of the program is a food exchange where needy residents can exchange a bag of garbage, at stores or schools, for a bag of produce - surplus that the city buys from outlying farms. These self-financed programs are managed by local neighborhood associations which receive 10 percent of the value of the tokens as administrative fees.

Curitiba recycles about two thirds of its trash - over 100 tons - every day. Although no one is fined for declining to recycle, over 70 percent of the population does. Compare this with New York City, for instance, where a scant 10 to 15 percent of the population recycles trash and you begin to see the magnitude of Curitiba's achievements. The city recycles enough paper to save 1,200 trees a day. "That is six small forests," figures Mayor Lerner. "If every city in Brazil would do the same, we would save 500 forests every day."

Recycled materials are sold to local industries - a preserve company, for example, buys the glass which has already been tested and found suitable - or it is used in other ingenious ways, Styrofoam, which is difficult to recycle, is shredded and used to fill blankets which are given to the poor. The recycling plant was built using old equipment from local factories. Lerner says that visitors are always shocked by the simplicity of it. The 100 plant employees are disenfranchised people in need of social intergration - recent immigrants, alcoholics or poor people. "We're not only recyclng garbage, but human beings as well," says Lerner. The idea is to integrate these people back into society by providing opportunities. Old buses have been outfitted as mobile vocational classrooms where slum dwellers can learn to type, style hair, or do plumbing; a former military headquarters is now a cultural foundation and a turn-of-the century powder deposit is a theater.

To kick off the recycling program, Lerner launched a media campaign and enlisted the help of the city's children, who he claims are his best allies. People dressed as trees visited all 110 schools and taught students the value of recycling. Now it is an integral part of their curriculum and a source of civic pride. Today school children are learning to make toys from recycled waste and the programs keep on growing.

Planning for tomorrow is still on in Curitiba. For decades, the IPPUC has been serving the city administration as a kind of brain-pool. Cassio Taniguchi presides over its staff of 400 technicians, architects, engineers, sociologists, geographers and computation experts. He recalls that the first structural axis, 20 kilometers long, carried 20,000 passengers a day. That soon became 54,000. Despite the city's rapid population growth, Taniguchi feels that its basic structure is adequate for two million people because of advanced planning and an integrated system of public services. The city government has closely regulated the height of buildings to avoid ventilation and insulation problems; builders are even tax-induced to include a good percentage of green area in their projects. "These directions for planning related to the sizing of structures and land use come from twenty years ago, so it is much easier to define priorities," remarks Taniguchi.

And priorities are something that Mayor Lerner is big on. "The strategic vision of the country leads us to put the first priorities on the child and the environment," states Lerner. "For there is no deeper feeling of solidarity than that of dealing with the citizen of tomorrow, the child, and the environment in which it is going to live."

As to Lerner's personal outlook, he likes his job. "I love being mayor," he says, his smile broadening. "Why not? The city is so fascinating, you cannot give up because it is amazing how far you can go."

Mauricio Pedreira is an architect and freelance writer living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Carol Goodstein is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Curitaba, Brazil
Author:Pedriera, Mauricio; Goodstein, Carol
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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