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Urban example: balancing tradition and infrastructure, Curitiba continues to be the model ecological, people-centered metropolis of Brazil.

It's a typical weeknight in September in the capital city of Brazil's southern state of Parana. Tonight, I'll be exposed to an aspect of this city of 1.7 million that few outside of its gritty bairros know or care much about. After all, in recent years, Curitiba has been heralded around the world as a global leader in urban planning for its innovative public transportation schemes, recycling programs, and a myriad of other progressive social, environmental, and economic initiatives. The city's affluent neighborhoods, well groomed parks, and sparklingly clean business districts stand in stark contrast to the rutted back roads, ramshackle dwellings, and poorly-lit squares that we pass as we drive into the heart of Bairro do Cajuru. But there is a common thread: problem-solving. For decades, Curitiba's citizens, from the mayor to the street sweepers, have addressed issues that bedevil municipalities in countries rich and poor with homegrown solutions that are as ingenious and innovative as they are effective.

Enzo Scaletti Jr. an attorney who heads the municipal government's anti-drug program, is giving me an opportunity to see up-close something that is a front burner topic in virtually every city in the world: the corrupting presence of drugs and the influence they have on a community's most vulnerable citizens, its youth.

In Curitiba, the dilemma has its own unique twist. Because of the city's relatively close proximity to the one of South America's major smuggling routes--the infamous tri-border region where the boundaries of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay converge--it has become a key transit point along a major drug distribution route to the north. In recent years, gangs have stepped up efforts to recruit Curitiba youth to act as "mules" to transport cocaine. Curitiba's answer? Give the youngsters enticing alternatives to being lured into the drug underworld and let them know that the greater community cares about them.


The city's strategy was simple: Take existing facilities like schools and community centers and keep them open until late into the night on weekends. Provide activities, a trained and caring staff, and police officers for security, and give neighborhood kids something to do to occupy their idle time.

"When the drug gangs knew what we were up to, they reacted violently at being challenged on what they believed was their turf," Scaletti says. "They tried to intimidate the local communities, the kids, and us. They fired weapons at our activities centers and even killed one person. But, we still have the support of the local residents, and the kids keep coming."

In the poorly lit gymnasium, the shrill whistle of one of the project's coordinators blows as a scruffy group of kids laugh their way through a coordination drill using volleyballs. Although it's close to midnight, several parents are in attendance. Maria Luiza sits in the bleachers keeping an eye on her eleven-year old son Tiago. "It's much better to have him here than to be out on the street," she says.

The city has decided to put a strong emphasis on its youth. Comunidade Escola is a new program that functions on Saturdays and Sundays where more than 100 volunteers work at 70 schools to provide physical conditioning and self-esteem building activities for kids. One veteran of the program is 69-year old Jose Castro de Oliveira, who brings his 40 years of training in karate to classes of youngsters decked out in the traditional white ji robes of martial arts. "It teaches them discipline and a competitive spirit," he explains after demonstrating a dizzying array of quick moves. "It also helps them with their schoolwork, and, it helps them respect their friends and themselves.

Founded in 1693 by Portuguese explorers, Curitiba--a Tupi Indian word for "many pines" in recognition of the forests of rangy Parana pine trees that surround the city--is situated 3,000 feet above sea level on a plateau 65 miles inland from the Atlantic coast. For centuries, it served as a regional transportation, trade, and communications hub. In the post World War II years, the greater metropolitan region, which today includes 26 municipalities and over three million people, grew rapidly as immigrants from Central Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East began to arrive in large numbers. Today, it is proud of its reputation as a model for integrating humans with the environment and with urban spaces. Elsewhere in Brazil, however, Curitiba is derided for being staid. People joke that it is so lacking in the pizzazz that gives places like Salvador and Rio de Janeiro their particular personalities that it isn't really a Brazilian city at all.



Perhaps it's not surprising that many of Curitiba's residents take their good fortune somewhat nonchalantly. "Yes, life here is very good. But for us, it's also something we take for granted," says Dr. David Kulysz, a urologist and a member of the city's large Polish community. "We work hard and then go out to enjoy a play or a concert. It is so routine that for us, it's unremarkable."

"All aspects of the city are appealing," comments Marilene Savarin, the manager of a city center shop specializing in rare vinyl LPs and CDs who proudly explains the French origins of her last name. "Cities like Rio and Sao Paulo are much more complicated, with massive problems of crime, transportation, and pollution. Here, in Curitiba, everything is better."


Indeed, snapshots from around the city reveal, for the most part, an urban culture that's polite to a fault and functioning as smoothly as a fine-tuned engine. Fresh-faced police officers maneuver through congested pedestrian malls on Segway personal transporters. Well-dressed retired residents, both men and women, gather in small clusters in pracas and on street corners for a daily ritual--political discussions or catching up on the latest gossip. In one of the city's many parks, music lovers assemble for a concert at what was not long ago an abandoned rock quarry. At the city's spotless municipal market, work is underway to create a new section devoted just to organic products. Students wanting to spend some extra time in a well-stocked library have over 50 Farols do Saber (Lighthouses of Knowledge) available after-hours in neighborhoods throughout the city. In economically disadvantaged zones, local residents queue up with wheelbarrows loaded with refuse to receive quantities of surplus food in exchange for the trash they've collected.



Not all of Curitiba's better ideas last forever. Rua das 24 Horas, a downtown collection of cafes and boutiques that provided an around-the-clock gathering place is padlocked today, the need for its physical meeting space rendered obsolete by the proliferation of Internet social networking sites and cell phones.

It's understandable, however, why Curitiba's many innovative and successful urban planning schemes have attracted international attention for over two decades. Today, half of the world's population--about three billion people--live in urban areas. The United Nations estimates that in just twenty years, another two billion will become city dwellers. Concepts refined in Curitiba have become blueprints for the ways in which other major metropolitan areas can offset the consequences of rampant growth.

In the new book Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities Are Changing the World, author Jeb Brugmann lauds Curitiba and its urbanists for a coherent version of urban planning that incorporates existing traditions and infrastructure. He points out that the city's much discussed bus system evolved from hundreds of previously existing private lines into an integrated system that today provides almost 50 percent of the region's transportation needs. He also contends that because of its proactive planning, Curitiba, though it is growing rapidly, is much better prepared to handle an influx of immigrants than other large Brazilian cities.

In a recent article titled "Ottawa's More Successful Twin," Canada's Ottawa Citizen correspondent Phil Jenkins added his own perspective on Curitiba's success. "[Its solutions to] the problems that all cities face--how to get people to where they work, how to break the addiction to cars, how to give people spaces where they can think subjectively about life and get away from the clock, what to do with the garbage--are all innovative, and most importantly they work," he says. "The root of the solution, actually, is that for 40 years their mayors have all been town planners."

The one individual who best personifies Curitiba's long-standing international image as an urban utopia is Jaime Lerner, a stocky 72-year-old architect and urban planning guru of Polish descent, who served as the city's planning director before being elected to his first terra as mayor in 1971. His immediate impact in improving the quality of life for most Curitiba residents led to two more terras as mayor and two stints as governor of Parana. His often recited mantra, "Cidade nao e problema; cidade e solucao" (The city isn't a problem, the city is a solution), sums up his belief that there are few, if any, urban quandaries that can't be solved if the right combination of planning, resources, and passion can be focused on the issue at hand.



Realizing that a better public transportation system was a key to reducing congestion and improving the quality of life and productivity of Curitiba's residents, Lerner quickly initiated what has become the city's most visible symbol of its novel urban planning, a streamlined bus system designed to move passengers so efficiently that it would wean people away from driving their polluting cars.

Articulated express buses--buses with two compartments that carry 300 passengers and are connected by an accordion-like midsection--move rapidly in designated lanes. Riders, including wheelchair users, enter and exit en masse at tube-like stations where they've paid for their fares before the bus arrives. Today, an estimated 50 times the number of people use Curitiba's vastly improved public transportation system than they did just two decades ago. Significantly, almost 30 percent of the 1.3 million people who ride the city's 1,100 buses daily were once commuting by car. The city uses almost 30 percent less fuel per capita that other large Brazilian cities, and has some of the country's cleanest urban air as a result.

Upgrading public transportation was just the first of many improvements that Lerner and the staff of the city's Instituto de Pesquisa e Planejamento Urbano (Institute of Research and Urban Planning) had in store for the city. A fifteen-block long section of Rua XV de Novembro, an historic street in the heart of the city's commercial center, was converted from a typical car-and-bus-choked byway into Brazil's first pedestrian-only street. "We have to have places where we can meet each other, and very pleasant places," Lerner says. "We have to have a space for people." The mayor and his team moved quickly to put this initially unpopular plan into action, working around the clock to accomplish in a matter of days what had been anticipated to take several months. "One solution," he notes, "provided synergy for finding a solution to another problem." Today the street, popularly known as Rua das Flores, is one of the city's most popular destinations, packed throughout the day with shoppers, strollers, people watchers, street musicians, and mimes.


Jose Carlos Fernandes, a veteran journalist at Gazeta do Povo, Curitiba's largest and most influential daily newspaper, is a recognized expert on the city, its politics, and culture. He believes that the city's enhanced public amenities, including a multitude of parks, resulted from a conscious effort to compensate for being located so far from the pleasures of the seacoast. But the journalist is also intimately familiar with Curitiba's dark side, including its current ranking as Brazil's seventh most violent city. Fernandes suggests the thesis of a provocative book by Universidade Federal do Parana (Federal University of Parana) sociology professor Dennison de Oliveira, Curitiba e o mito da cidade modelo (Curitiba and the Myth of a Model City), as an alternate view on the city's urban planning. The journalist is also inherently skeptical when he hears politicians like the current mayor put even more ambitious new projects on the table, such as plans to build new hospitals designed especially for the particular needs of women and children. "Sometimes it's just talk ... some of the proposals are just not realistic," he notes. "But people have come to believe that the city will provide more and more of what they need."

Carlos Alberto "Beto" Richa, a charismatic 44-year-old native of the Parana city of Londrina and a descendant of Lebanese immigrants, is Curitiba's current mayor. "Improving the quality of life of all Curitiba residents is always our goal," Richa told Americas at a campaign stop on a university campus where he was reverentially received by the student audience. "It is what we are known for. Specifically, addressing economic development, human development, and environmental protection needs will be our most important objectives."

Richa is following the lead of Lerner and other recent mayors by paying special attention to the city's growing transportation needs. Linha Verde (The Green Line) is a just completed extension of the city's express bus system. A dozen miles of a former federal highway that had been engulfed by one of Curitiba's fastest growing regions has been redesigned into a grand boulevard with a dedicated lane for express buses and six additional lanes for conventional traffic. The new line helps integrate hundreds of thousands of residents in outlying suburbs as it accomplishes a bevy of environmental goals, including restoring the riparian habitat of the Rio Belem and planting tens of thousands of trees and flowers along the extensively landscaped route.


The mayor has also given the go-ahead for the construction of the city's first metro system, although it will be done on Curitiba's exacting terms. Rather than build the kind of highly engineered system common in most major cities of the world, Curitiba will use what is known as a "cut-and-cover" system. A deep trench will be excavated to house the light rail system. The method costs a fraction of what it costs to bore deep tunnels. When it is operational in 2017, the sixteen-mile line will feature 21 stations and have the capacity to carry 25,000 passengers a day on a number of four-car trains.

The city's fevered efforts to stay one step ahead of future growth-related problems leaves some pining for simpler times. Curitiba native Roberto Muggiati began his long career in journalism as a sixteen-year old reporter at Gazeta do Povo. In 1992, he penned Nos em busca da provincia perdida (In Search of the Lost Province), an essay based on his recollections of an idyllic life in a less complicated Curitiba of the 1950s. It was a time when a typical Saturday afternoon found Muggiati and his boyhood friends enjoying leisurely excursions via trolley to visit city parks. It was also a rime when elegant hotels were centers of the city's social life. "I once met an elderly lady in London who showed me the photograph of her marriage taken at the Grand Hotel," he reminisces. "Near the old bus station, at Avenida Joao Negrao, stood one of the first modern hotels, the Mariluz, where Woody Herman's big band stayed during their Brazilian tour of the late 1950s. That city, of course, is no more. Another one has been built upon its ruins," he adds wistfully. "But, this is happening all the time all over the world."


Which makes Curitiba's daily struggles to triumph over urban adversities all the more compelling. The story of the city's urban planning successes has reached a vast international audience, thanks to the boundless energy of former mayor Lerner, who travels the world today as a consultant. He has helped cities as diverse as Toronto, Los Angeles, London, Oaxaca, Panama City, and Bogota find plausible solutions to their urban woes. His philosophy is summed up in Acupuntura Urbana (Urban Acupuncture), his palm-size book of just 137 pages published in 2005. In it, Lerner focuses on the revitalization of cities, suggesting techniques that can be quickly applied and have the potential to inspire other complementary changes.

The indefatigable Lerner has even tailored his message for the youngest possible audience in his recently published children's book, O Vizinho: Parente por Parte de Rua (The Neighbor: Relative on the Street's Side). "My neighborhood had everything," he writes, recounting his youth in Curitiba. "It gave me an education in both reality and fantasy." But, he laments, "Most of the world's cities lost their human element when they began to modify three fundamental spaces--the river, the street and the square." In large part due to his vision and concrete efforts, Curitiba has reclaimed those essential spaces. Thanks to its example, other cities around the globe can dare to do the same.

A musician and journalist, Mark Holston is a regular contributor to Americas. Images appear courtesy of the brazilian State of Parana, unless otherwise noted.
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Author:Holston, Mark
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:3BRAZ
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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