Brazil is the world’s most biologically diverse country. It is home to around 15% of the known animals and plants, and scientists discover approximately 700 new animal species each year. But Brazil, being one of the newly emerging economies, is also home to many environmental issues. It has the highest deforestation rate in the world. Air pollution ravens its largest cities. Health expert Izabel Marcilio’s research shows that in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, 5% of total annual deaths concerning the clinically vulnerable were attributed to air pollution. Water and industrial pollution are also significant concerns.
One city in Brazil stands out as an anomaly – Curitiba. It is the 8th most populous city in Brazil, the largest in the southern region. But instead of pollution, successful urban planning, sustainability, ecological conservation characterise this green city. It has an HDI of 0.86 and is a winner of the Global Sustainable City Award. Curitiba’s story inspired many geographers and urban planners around the world. They study and replicate Curitiba to make the city they are planning more sustainable. This article explores Curitiba’s history, eco-schemes, success stories, and the challenges it faces.
History of Curitiba
In 1654, Curitiba was founded as a gold mining camp. It also had an agrarian economy. As a result of its good geographical location, Curitiba quickly developed into a trading post. Tropeiros (traders) stayed in the town during winter. They traded with local merchants and their counterparts with minerals and livestock.
In the late 19th Century, Curitiba had an economic boom. Trading was an important reason. The boom was also helped by its rich national resources. It had extensive forestry, and the woods were used for the development of railroads. The city also used its maté plant for tea. The plant creates a bitter tea called ‘chimarrão’. This became one of Curitiba’s largest exports during the 19th century. Curitiba’s tea industry was so successful that the ‘Maté Barons’ who controlled the exports built mansions in the town still standing as historic sites today. The building of the Paranaguá-Curitiba railroad links Curitiba to the ocean, allowing ever more import and export.
As Curitiba’ economy thrives and transport develops, people started to move in. Rural-urban migration began. The city not only received Brazilians in surrounding rural areas, but also German, Italian, and Polish settlers, and immigration continued during the 20th century with the arrival of the Japanese. The city grew; by 1940, Curitiba has a population of over 140,000.
Curitiba’s Problem in the 1950s
But the growth did not stop there. Very quickly, the rapid demographic increase became problematic. As political economist David Adler records, the city’s population more than doubled between 1940 and 1960 – from 140,000 to 360,000 residents. There was a shortage of electricity, telephones, and paved streets. Only a third of the families living in Curitiba had access to sewers. Curitiba became chaotic. Favelas grew around its periphery; cars jammed into its centre.
Planning and Ingenuity
To solve these problems, Curitiba politicians launched a competition that allowed urban planners and architects to propose plans for the city’s future growth. The winning team was a group of young idealistic planners and architects led by Jaime Lerner. They have a Master Plan to rejuvenate the city. But the rejuvenation scheme was not without challenge; Curitiba is not São Paulo after all, there was limited funding.
Lerner took office as mayor in 1971, giving him control over the city. As the city was cash poor, Lerner could not afford to build metros. Therefore, he developed a practical alternative called the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) System. Lerner’s plan removed cars from the equation and focused on public transport. Rather than creating multiple overlapping avenues for driving into the central city and causing greater congestion, he encourages the citizens to use BRT. As Drew Reed explains, Lerner proposed integrating dedicated bus lanes along the city’s main arteries, with stops placed on medians along the routes. This would allow buses to run at speeds comparable to light rail, while dramatically reducing the cost.’
Lerner used bendy buses to maximise the number of passengers. A bus can take an incredible 4,000 per day, and Learner claims that it can move more people than the metro yet is 100 to 200 times cheaper. Buses are coloured according to their functions and routes, just like the metro in cities has different lines going to other places. In addition, Learner improved the BRT by designing an elevated glass boarding tube, where people could shelter and buy their tickets, speeding up the journey. The bus doors are wider and open directly into the tube. In essence, the BRT works like an overground. Its bus lanes are the rail equivalent.
Downtown Transformation – Pedestrians Not Cars
Of course, Lerner’s insistence on minimising cars in the city was controversial. It faced a lot of backlash. In 1972, Lerner proposed to transform parts of downtown Curitiba, Rua Quinze de Novembro, from an automobile thoroughfare into a pedestrian mall. This was unpopular because people had a habit of stopping their cars in front of the stores, buying what they wanted, and then getting back into their cars. Shopkeepers were also worried about the impact of Lerner’s plan. Consequently, they organised protests and filed lawsuits to stop it.
In light of this, Lerner proved himself to be a masterful enforcer. Usually, such projects would take months to complete. In that period, a judicial demand would have stopped the project. Magically, Lerner and his team finished the project in 72 hours – Friday night to Monday night. The construction was so efficient that those who wanted to stop the project did not have time to file a suit.
One may question Lerner’s way of implementing policies. He is not the most democratic mayor as he ignores the stakeholders and opposing opinions. Yet, one has to admire his vision of a sustainable city and his excellence in policy execution. Indeed, history has justified Lerner’s assertiveness. The bus system and pedestrian walks reduced traffic and the emissions drastically. 85% of Curitiba use the BRT. As of 2007, the annual average emissions from light vehicles in Curitiba are 3.98 Metric Ton CO2 per vehicle, much lower than Brasilia’s 6.15.
Parks and Ecology
Lerner hired the prestigious architect Hitoshi Nakamura to design the green spaces for his city. Nakamura created extraordinary urban landscapes. There are currently 28 parks in Curitiba, and many of those are interconnected. Nearly 1/5 of Curitiba is parkland, and volunteers have planted 1.5 million trees along the streets. Those trees absorb CO2 and help to reduce the urban heat island effect in summer.
The parks are hugely beneficial for the environment. Firstly, it enhances the overall biodiversity of Curitiba by providing animal habitat. Sometimes herds of sheep graze the grass in the large parks. This just shows how ecologically diverse Curitiba is. More importantly, parks function as flood control. Plants intercept and store rainwater. Water infiltrates the soil beneath, then throughflow or percolation follows. These natural processes reduce surface runoff significantly, hence reducing the chances of flooding. Nakamura designed Barigui Park to absorb floodwater from the Iguazu River. The floodwater comes in and creates a natural lake in this park.
Such sustainable flood management requires little maintenance and is much cheaper than traditional engineering methods. Such as putting a concrete channel around rivers. The money saved could be reinvested in communities.
Green Spaces and Cultural Centres
Parks in Curitiba also serve as backdrops to some beautiful and creative architectures. Landmark buildings merge with nature. For instance, the UNILIVRE (Independent University of Environment) is surrounded by woodlands.
As the picture shows, the university is wooden and blends into the forest perfectly. The Opera de Arame follows this trend. But instead of using wood, this opera house is made of tubes of steel and glass. This unique structure helps it to stand out, reaffirming the opera house’s landmark status in Curitiba. Together, they beautify the city.
Are recycling and charity two very different notions? It would seem so in any other city, but not in Curitiba, where voluntary recycling can help the poor to get fresh produce.
The Green Exchange
Lerner implemented The Green Exchange to financially help the poor whilst simultaneously improving the hygiene of Curitiba’s slums. The idea is that slum dwellers collect rubbish, and local councils pay for the weight collected using healthy food such as fruit and vegetables. Every four kilograms of recyclables can be traded for one kilogram of fresh produce. Councils gain here because the people collect the rubbish on narrower roads where the council’s collection trucks can’t get to. This initiative is economical, as it saves money on expensive road widening, and it gets the job done. Notably, The Green Exchange recovered 45 thousand tons of waste from ending up in landfills – a reduction of almost 70% of landfill waste.
The Other Side of the Story: Curitiba’s Flawed Sustainability?
Of course, no city is perfect in terms of sustainability. Whilst the mainstream media all hail the tremendous success of Curitiba, it is also important to recognise some of Curitiba’s flaws and challenges.
Geographer Joyde Giacomini Martínez’s work highlights some inconsistencies in the city’s eco-schemes. For example, residents have unequal access to green spaces nearby. Many green spaces are located in 1/3 of the town, in the northern and southern regions. North Curitiba is where the elite neighbourhoods lie. Martinez found out that, according to the Planning Institute standards, only 18% of the population have sufficient public green space per capita in poor communities. Hence, whilst Curitiba has many parks and therefore seemingly high green space per capita as a city, the distribution of the parks is problematic. And thus, there is a disparity between different social classes in terms of nearby green space access.
Living on Past Glory
The BRT also has flaws. It focuses primarily on city centres. But as the population grows and the city expands, the transport system is insufficient to move commuters between the city and their distant homes in the suburbs. According to critics, the municipal government just hasn’t been quick enough or bothered to plan new bus routes to catch up to changing times. Consequently, many residents switched transport modes. Martínez conducted a survey and found that 55% of respondents turned away from BRT. Among them, 56% switched to cars or bikes.
Indeed, architects such as Humberto Carta are concerned about Curitiba’s future. In an interview with France 24, he said: “The vision of dormitory suburbs is completely outdated. We are living on past glory and we’ve simply expanded the model that Lerner brought in.”
Mitigating water pollution is another challenge for Curitiba. The Iguacu River crosses the city, and it’s a river with extensive industrial and domestic sewage. The Paraná Environmental Institute reported that the slurry dumped in this river exceeded legal standards 60 times. Brazil’s Sustainable Development Indexes identified the Iguacu as the nation’s second most polluted river in 2010 and 2012. Consequently, the river has ceased to be the city’s freshwater supplier since the 2000s.
Therefore, it isn’t all rainbows and sunshine in Curitiba. There are complex problems that need solving, and implementing innovative policies as Lerner once did is imperative to ensure the city’s continuing success.
This article has offered an overview of how Curitiba was transformed into a sustainable city today. It also tried to provide a holistic picture of Curitiba’s eco-schemes by exploring its successes and flaws. Curitiba is not a rich city. Hence, it is a living example of how city planners can achieve sustainability with a small budget, and how ingenuity can overcome financial restraint, as the BRT system and Green Exchange program show. Many cities around the world admire Curitiba and copied its sustainable schemes. 176 cities, including México City, Rio de Janeiro, and Beijing, applied the BRT concepts to their urban levelling-up programs. It is safe to say that Curitiba is worthy of its prestige.
Jamie Lerner is the guru to thank. And in light of Lerner’s death on May the 27th, 2021, urban planners, environmentalists, geographers around the world should remember and commemorate him. But it is not just his achievements one should marvel at. Curitiba’s urban planners should learn from Lerner’s attitude to work, efficiency, and creativity. It is clear that Curitiba nowadays is becoming more imperfect: the BRT is not adapting to changing demographics, and water pollution raven the city. Curitiba needs continuous innovation to thrive. It needs brilliant leaders to step up and solve problems. Just as Humberto Carta suggested, the city cannot live in its past glory and become a shadow of its former self. The making of Curitiba has been a story of success, and as the city’s current problems show, Curitiba needs innovation and sound policies to continue its legend.
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