Learning from Lerner

The former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil is carrying his message of sustainability to the world’s burgeoning cities. Lesson one: get rid of your car.

Next year marks the 35th anniversary of a simple but transformative idea in urban planning and transportation: Curitiba, Brazil launched a surface bus system that behaves like a subway. Better than, in some ways. Double-articulated vehicles carry large volumes of commuters, passengers prepay their fare in glazed boarding tubes, designated lanes keep traffic flowing smoothly, and one bus trails the next by one minutes’ distance. Curitiba’s transit system was established with little municipal investment and at a fraction of the cost of subterranean excavation, and today it carries some 2 million people per day.

Jaime Lerner was serving his first term as mayor of Curitiba when the city’s bus system began service, and the innovation catapulted the then-37-year-old architect and urban planner not only to two more terms as mayor and another two as governor of Parana State, but also to the forefront of contemporary urban planning and of the nascent sustainability movement. (Indeed, besides public transportation, Lerner implemented a recycling program in Curitiba that still enjoys an impressive participation rate.) Lerner has deftly juggled his design and political careers, and since 2003 he has run an eponymous architecture firm from Curitiba. I caught up with Lerner on a typical whirlwind day—between charming a group of Filipino researchers and making a presentation to a delegation from the United Nations—to clarify points he made at Tropical Green, a February 2006 conference sponsored by Metropolis, and to take his pulse on recent phenomena like boomtown China.

In many respects, the world has caught up to your common-sense approach to sustainability. What events inspired you to embrace those values so early on?
It was logic. We realized that sustainability is a whole discussion. Most people think that sustainability is just green buildings. That’s very important, but it’s not enough. Or that sustainability is new materials, new sources of energy, or recycling, but that’s enough, either. When you see that cities are responsible for 75 percent of all carbon emissions, then it’s in cities where we can find a more effective answer. It’s at the very conception of cities where we have to do this work.

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What is a more ideal plan for battling climate change at an urban scale?
One step is to use your car less. Cities will have to provide an alternative public transit. The second is separating garbage, because you can save a lot of energy, even your own. The third is to live closer to work, or to work closer to home. And this is the key issue, because our cities have more and more separation.

Those steps don’t seem too difficult. What about the famous Curitiba bus system: That, too, sounds painless to realize. Has it been adopted widely?
At the moment there are 82 cities around the world. Some of them did it differently, but more or less, it’s Curitiba. I don’t try to prove which system is the best; I know it’s okay to have buses or subways or light rail, as long as the system is a good system. The key issue is to never compete in the same space. They have to be complementary.

Without ranking them, then, what cities have embraced this bus concept particularly well?
They’re not all done, but they include Seoul, Bogotá, Mexico City, the Los Angeles orange line, and many Chinese cities. Even cities that have complete subways, like London and Paris, are also thinking of having a good surface system.

We cannot be dependent on the car. I’ve repeated this saying many times, but I feel it is very appropriate: The car is like our mother in-law. We have a good relationship with her, but we cannot let her conduct our lives. In other words, if the only woman in your life is your mother in-law, then you have a problem.

You mentioned the conception of cities, and now is a time when those births are taking place around the globe. What is your perspective of the new cities coming up throughout the Middle East, India, Korea, and China?
Why are European cities better than most American cities? Because they have mixed uses and mixed incomes. These cities are more human, more diverse. Most of the new cities in Asia and the Middle East are building ghettos for very rich people and ghettos for very poor people. This is not a good coexistence; it’s really terrible, in fact. Some people living in cities are so crazy about their safety and protection that they can barely leave the house without thinking criminals are after them. They are the real prisoners.

You have speaking engagements in the U.S. frequently—such as the Sarasota Design Conference, which is coming up on June 6.
When I go to a city, I try to give testimony about what we did in Curitiba, to show that it’s possible.

Do you tailor your message to the peculiarities of American audiences?
No, everyone understands. Even in Oklahoma City there are people who understand the message. People are starting to understand cities’ quality of life, about why we have to have a mix of uses and good public transport. Of course the message has different meanings in different cities, but the basic idea is that we don’t need to do what we’ve been doing. There has to be a change.

At Tropical Green, you mentioned that you are performing “fast acupuncture” on cities all over the world.
In many cities there are a few focal points that can effect a really great change, points that are not part of the whole planning process, but that can give a new energy to the city. It’s like acupuncture. Planning takes time, but sometimes you have to offer ideas that accomplish it immediately.

Can you give some examples of this?
Where do you live?

In New York.
One great acupuncture in New York is that some places have been transformed by cultural decisions, like Chelsea, Soho, or Williamsburg. They are not related to a global plan, but they will help the whole process of city planning and energize it.

In Paris, I.M. Pei’s Louvre pyramids are a wonderful example of acupuncture. With one gesture he provided the solution to a 300-year-old problem about entering and organizing the museum. So that’s what I like to do recently: go to some place, work with people for a week, propose one or two ideas, and if they like, they can make it happen.

Would you say it’s important for there to be architects and urban planners in elected positions in order to foster experimentation within cities?
Not necessarily. The most important element is having good decision-making and a good equation of co-responsibility. And any mayor, architect or not, has to be open to new ideas. I work with governments and private initiatives—as long as they are interested in improving the quality of their city, then I’m there.

Would you say that Curitiba has problems today that you could not have foreseen 35 years ago?
Every city has new problems every moment, and every mayor has a new challenge. The good thing about Curitiba is that the people are used to innovation and demand it from every mayor.

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