Curitiba: Story of a City

The first time I went there, I had never heard of Curitiba. I had no idea that its bus system was the best on Earth or that a municipal shepherd and his flock of 30 sheep trimmed the grass in its vast parks. It was just a midsize Brazilian city where an airline schedule forced me to spend the night midway through a long South American reporting trip. I reached my hotel, took a nap, and then went out in the early evening for a walk – warily, because I had just come from crime-soaked Rio. But the street in front of the hotel was cobbled, closed to cars, and strung with lights. It opened onto another such street, which in turn opened into a broad and leafy plaza, with more shop-lined streets stretching off in all directions. Though the night was frosty –Brazil stretches well south of the tropics, and Curitiba is in the mountains – people strolled and shopped, butcher to baker to bookstore. There were almost no cars, but at one of the squares, a steady line of buses rolled off, full, every few seconds. I walked for an hour, and then another. I felt my shoulders, hunched from the tension of Rio (and probably New York as well) straightening. Though I flew out the next day as scheduled, I never forgot the city.


From time to time over the next few years, I would see Curitiba mentioned in planning magazines or come across a short newspaper account of it winning various awards from the United Nations. Its success seemed demographically unlikely. For one thing, it's relatively poor – average per capita income is about $2,500. Worse, a flood of displaced peasants has tripled its population to a million and a half in the last 25 years. It should resemble a small-scale version of urban nightmares like São Paulo or Mexico City. But I knew from my evening's stroll it wasn't like that, and I wondered why.


Maybe an effort to convince myself that a decay in public life was not inevitable was why I went back to Curitiba to spend some real time, to see if its charms extended beyond the lovely downtown. For a month, my wife and baby and I lived in a small apartment near the city center. Morning after morning I interviewed cops, merchants, urban foresters, civil engineers, novelists, planners; in the afternoons, we pushed the stroller across the town, learning the city's rhythms and habits.


And we decided, with great delight, that Curitiba is among the world's great cities.


Not for its physical location; there are no beaches, no broad bridge-spanned rivers. Not in terms of culture or glamour; it's a fairly provincial place. But measured for “livability,” I have never been any place like it. 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 said they thought life would be better in Curitiba. It has slums: some of the same shantytown favelas that dominate most Third World cities have sprouted on the edge of town as the population has rocketed. But even they are different, hopeful in palpable ways. They are clean, for instance – under a city program, a slumdweller who collects a sack of garbage gets a sack of food from the city in return.


And Curitiba is the classic example of decent lives helping produce a decent environment. Because of its fine transit system, and because its inhabitants are attracted toward the city center instead of repelled out to a sprawl of suburbs, Curitibans use 25 percent less fuel per capita than other Brazilians, even though they are actually more likely to own cars.


Planning a city's future

Curitiba started out as a backwater town, a good stopover on the way to São Paulo. By 1940, there were 125,000 residents. By 1950, the number had jumped to 180,000, and by 1960, doubled to 361,000 – the explosive, confident growth that marked the entire country was underway in Curitiba as well. And with many of the same effects: traffic downtown started to snarl, and the air was growing thick with exhaust. It was clear that the time had come to plan, and, as in almost every other city, planning meant planning for automobiles.


Curitiba's official scheme called for widening the main streets of the city to add more lanes – which would have meant knocking down the turn-of-the-century buildings that lined the downtown – and for building an overpass that would link two of the city's main squares by going over the top of Rua Quinze de Novembro, the main shopping street.


But resistance to the plan was unexpectedly fierce. Opposition was centered in the architecture and planning departments of the local branch of the federal university, and the loudest voice belonged to Jaime Lerner.


Jaime Lerner is a chubby man with a large, friendly, and open face. He looks like Norm, the guy at the end of the bar in Cheers. He also looks silly stuffed into a suit; so even though he's been mayor of Curitiba on and off for the last two decades, he normally wears a polo shirt.


In the late 1960s, however, he was just a young planner and architect who had grown up in the city, working in his Polish father's dry goods store. And he organized the drive against the overpass, out of what might almost be called nostalgia. “They were trying to throw away the story of the city,” he recalls.


It was a good thing that Jaime Lerner had grown up loving the mix of people in Curitiba. Because through a chain of political flukes, Lerner found himself the mayor of Curitiba at the age of 33. All of a sudden, his friends and colleagues were pulling their plans out of the cupboards. All of a sudden, they were going to get their chance to remake Curitiba – not for cars, but for people.


And so the story of Curitiba begins with its central street, Rua Quinze – the one that the old plan wanted to obliterate with an overpass. Lerner insisted instead that it should become a pedestrian mall, an emblem of his drive for a human-scale city.


“I knew we'd have a big fight,” he says. “I had no way to convince the store-owners a pedestrian mall would be good for them, because there was no other pedestrian mall in Brazil. But I knew if they had a chance to actually see it, everyone would love it.”


To prevent opposition, he planned carefully. “I told my staff, ‘This is like war.' My secretary of public works said the job would take two months. I got him down to one month. Maybe one week, he said, but that's final. I said, ‘Let's start Friday night, and we have to finish by Monday morning.'” And they did –jackhammering the pavement, putting down cobblestones, erecting streetlights and kiosks, and putting in tens of thousands of flowers.


“It was a horrible risk – he could easily have been fired,” said Oswaldo Alves, who helped with the work. But by midday Monday, the same storeowners who had been threatening legal action were petitioning the mayor to extend the mall. The next weekend, when offended members of the local automobile club threatened to “reclaim” the street by driving their cars down it, Lerner didn't call out the police. Instead, he had city workers lay down strips of paper the length of the mall. When the auto club arrived, its members found dozens of children sitting in the former street painting pictures. The transformation of Curitiba had begun.


But this was not some romantic revolution, a cultural protest of the sort so common in the wake of the 60s and so evanescent. Even this small victory was possible only because Lerner and his architect friends had thought so carefully about the future of the city. They had, among other things, carefully replotted the city's traffic flow, not only to make the downtown function without cars on its main street, but also to direct growth throughout the city. Instead of buying up buildings and tearing them down to widen streets, planners stared at the maps long enough to see that the existing streets would do just fine – as long as they were considered in groups of three parallel avenues. Traffic on the first avenue would flow one way, into town. The middle street would be devoted to buses, driving in dedicated lanes so they could move more quickly. A block over you'd find motorists heading out of town. No highways in the city – three streets still scaled to human beings. And more important, once the planners had designated five of these “structural axes” leading out from the center of town like spokes in a wheel, they could begin to tinker with zoning. Along these main routes, high-density buildings were permitted – the apartments that would hold the commuters eager to ride the buses. Farther from the main roads, density decreases.


From the observation deck on the top of the city's television tower, you can see the results spread out below you: not a ring of high-rises choking the downtown, but orderly lines of big buildings shading off into neighborhoods along each of the axes; a city growing in lines that removed congestion from the center and kept a mix of housing – and hence, of incomes – throughout the city. “Every city has its hidden designs – old roads, old streetcar ways,” says Lerner. “You're not going to invent a new city. Instead, you're doing a strange archeology, trying to enhance the old, hidden design. You can't go wrong if the city is growing along the trail of memory and of transport. Memory is the identity of the city, and transport is the future.”


Speedy buses and “space age pods”

Transport in the case of Curitiba means buses. Though larger Brazilian cities were investing in subways, Lerner and his team decided they were too expensive –that they were stuck with buses. They also decided that buses needn't be stuck in traffic. They quickly designed a system of express lanes that sped travel to and from the downtown, and ridership began to take off. In 1974, the system carried 25,000 passengers a day; by 1993, the number was 1.5 million – or more than ride the buses in New York City each day. The route network looks like a model of the human brain. Orange feeder buses and green buses traveling in constant loops through the outer neighborhoods deliver passengers to terminals, where they catch red express buses heading downtown or out to the factories on the city's edge.


In an effort to increase speed even further, the red express buses were replaced in the late 1980s by silver “direct line” buses on the busiest streets. The buses move faster not because they have bigger motors, but because they were designed by smarter people. Sitting at a bus stop one day, Lerner noticed that the biggest time drag on his fleet was how long it took passengers to climb the stairs and pay the fare. He sketched a plan for a glass “tube station,” a bus shelter raised off the ground and with an attendant to collect fares. When the bus pulls in, its doors open like a subway's, and people walk right on. A year after the “speedybuses” went into service, the city did a survey: 28 percent of the passengers were new to the system, commuters who had parked their cars because of the new convenience. In 1993, Curitiba added another Lerner innovation – extra-long buses, hinged in two spots to snake around corners and able to accommodate 300 passengers.


Five doors open and close at each stop, and on busy routes at rush hour, one of these behemoths arrives every minute or so; 20,000 passengers an hour can move in one direction. There is a word for this kind of service: subway.


Amazingly, the city doesn't need to subsidize its bus service. The fleet is purchased and owned by private companies; the government assigns routes, sets fares, and pays each contractor by kilometer traveled. For about 30 cents, you can transfer as often as you want; and the whole network turns a profit. A few years ago, to help celebrate Earth Day, Curitiba lent New York several of its loading tubes and special buses. Brazilians installed the system in five days, and for a couple of months, the buses plied a loop from the Battery to South Street Seaport and back. The Daily News reported “looks of bewilderment” at the “space age pod” donated by the Third World to the absolute epicenter of world finance, but by all accounts, passengers loved the system.


Brilliance on the cheap

Cheapness is one of the three cardinal dictates of Curitiban planning. Many of the city's buildings are “recycled.” The planning headquarters is in an old furniture factory; the gunpowder depot became a furniture factory; a glue plant was turned into the children's center. An old trolley stationed on the Rua Quinze has become a free babysitting center where shoppers can park their kids for a few hours.


The city's parks provide the best example of brilliance on the cheap. When Lerner took office for the first time in 1971, the only park in Curitiba was smack downtown – the Passeio Publico, a cozy zoo and playground with a moat for paddleboats and a canopy of old and beautiful ipé trees, which blossom blue in the spring. “In that first term, we wanted to develop a lot of squares and plazas,” recalls Alves. “We picked one plot, we built a lot of walls, and we planted a lot of trees. And then we realized this was very expensive.”


At the same time, as luck would have it, most Brazilian cities were installing elaborate flood-control projects. Curitiba had federal money to “channelize” the five rivers flowing through town, putting them in concrete viaducts so that they wouldn't flood the city with every heavy summer rain and endanger the buildings starting to spring up in the floodplain.


“The bankers wanted all the rivers enclosed,” says Alves; instead, city hall took the same loan and spent it – on land. At a number of sites throughout the city, engineers built small dams and backed up the rivers into lakes. Each of these became the center of a park; and if the rains were heavy, the lake might rise a foot or two – perhaps the jogging track would get a little soggy or the duck in the big new zoo would find itself swimming a few feet higher than usual. “Every river has a right to overflow,” insists parks chief Nicolau Klupel.


Mostly because of its flood-control scheme, in 20 years – even as it tripled in population – the city went from two square feet of green area per inhabitant to more than 150 square feet per inhabitant. The official literature always points out, with understandable pride, that this figure is four times the World Health Organization standard of 12 square meters. From every single window in Curitiba, I could see as much green as I could concrete. And green begets green; land values around the new parks have risen sharply, and with them tax revenues.


The industrial city

In a world of cities, states, and nations increasingly whipsawed by the demands of business, perhaps the best example of the value of Curitiba's independence is its Industrial City. When Lerner took over as mayor for the first time, he realized that the city needed industry: its traditional role as a governmental and financial center couldn't support the population boom that was clearly coming. He could have simply offered huge tax breaks to anyone who promised jobs. Instead, acting quickly before speculators could run up the price, the city used eminent domain to purchase about 40 square kilometers of land seven miles downwind of downtown. The government put in streets and services, housing and schools, and linked the area solidly to the bus system, building a special “worker's line” that ran to the biggest poor neighborhood. It also enacted a series of regulations – stiff laws on air and water pollution and on the conservation of green space.


“What we've found is that regulation attracts good industries, the kind we want,” says Oswaldo Alves. Foreign corporations were among the first to see the advantages; Volvo built a factory, lured in part by the chance to work out improved bus designs with city planners. And new businesses continued to arrive throughout the 1980s, drawn as much by the quality of life for executives fleeing São Paolo as by the ease of doing business with nearby Argentina and Paraguay. Even in the teeth of Brazil's endless recession and inflation, the number of jobs continued to increase. By 1990 there were 346 factories in the Industrial City, generating 50,000 direct jobs and 150,000 indirect ones – and 17 percent of the entire state's tax revenue.


Houses with care built in

Though the population continues to grow steadily, it's indeed possible that Curitiba may have broken the back of its social problems. Since many of the people in the favelas have been evicted from their homes in the countryside, a house is an urgent need. Not just a shelter –a house they own, on a lot they own.


Until the mid-1980s, COHAB, Curitiba's public housing program, was fairly standard. It built more units per capita than any other Brazilian city and did a good job of scattering them around in small pockets so they blended in with neighborhoods. But the main source of funding, the national housing bank, collapsed in 1985. At the same time, the demand for housing skyrocketed as the countryside poured into the favelas. Abandoning the policy of small, scattered sites, the city bought one of the few large plots of land left within its limits, a swath of farmland bounded by several rivers called Novo Bairro, or New Neighborhood.


We stood on a rise in Novo Bairro and watched as bulldozers scraped and contoured the hills. This cleared field would soon be home to 50,000 families, perhaps 200,000 people. Small houses crept like a tidemark across the land. The city was not building the homes – the new landowners were, sometimes with the aid of a city mortgage on a small pile of bricks and windows. Every third house seemed to be doubling as a building supply store; and everywhere, people plastered, framed, roofed.


“Sixty percent of the lower-income people are involved in the construction industry anyhow,” says one COHAB executive. “They know how to build.”

And here is the moving part: With your plot of land comes not only a deed and a pair of trees (one fruitbearing and one ornamental), but also an hour downtown with an architect. “The person explains what's important to him – a big window out front, or room in the kitchen. They tell how many kids they have, and so on. And then we help draw up a plan,” says one architect, who has more than 3,000 of “his” homes scattered around the city.


“Most people can only afford to build one room at a time, so we also show them the logical order to go in,” another designer explains.


At the moment, in the center of Novo Bairro, COHAB is building “Technology Street,” an avenue of 24 homes, each built using some different construction technique – bamboo covered with plaster, say – so that people can get ideas for the kind of house they might want. The houses are all smaller than most Americans would want to live in, but they all say something about the people who built them. “It's a house built out of love,” says the housing chief. “And because of that, people won't leave it behind. They're going to consolidate their lives there, become part of the city.”


One of the first structures to go up at Novo Bairro was a glass tube bus station, linking this enclave to the rest of the city. “Integration” is a word one hears constantly from official Curitiba, another of its mantras. It means knitting together the entire city – rich, poor, and in-between – culturally and economically and physically. Hitoshi Nakamura is the city parks commissioner and one of Lerner's longtime collaborators. “We have to have communication with the people of the slums,” he said one day as we were talking about the problems posed by settlers invading fragile bottomlands along the rivers. “If we don't, if they start to feel like falvelados, then they will go against the city. ... If we give them attention, they don't feel abandoned. They feel like citizens.”


A place for living

Creating that kind of identity, instilling whatever it is that keeps people from giving their lives over to gangs or to shopping malls, in a city that has tripled in size over two decades is far from easy.


I set out one day on the bike path that ran by my apartment, pushing my baby in her stoller, intent on compiling a sensory catalogue of a little of the urban pleasure Curitiba offered. On this sunny afternoon, the path was crowded with cyclists.


We walked by a sandy soccer field jammed with eight year-old boys. Past a Bavarian beer house and a bike-rental stand, the path reached the Parque São Lourenço, whose big lake was one of the original flood-control projects. On the left a shepherd gathered the municipal herd of sheep, which had finished trimming the grass for the day. Swans and geese floated on the lake; at the lake's head sat the former glue factory, now the Municipal Creativity Center, with a ceramics studio, a sculpture garden, and a giant chess set with pieces the size of children.


Curitiba is a true place, a place full of serendipity. It is as alive as any urban district in the world: poems pasted on telephone poles, babies everywhere. The downtown, though a shopping district, is not a money-making machine. It is a habitat, a place for living – the exact and exciting opposite of a mall.


I had to remind myself, wandering through Curitiba, that without the planning and the risky gambles that created the conditions for it to evolve, its center would likely be dangerous and dying. There is one subtle reminder every Saturday morning. Municipal workers roll out huge sheets of paper down the pedestrian mall and set out pots of paint so that hundreds of kids can recreate the sit-in that drove away the cars and launched this pleasure-filled street at the beginning of Lerner's first term.


To learn from Curitiba, the rest of the world would have to break some long-standing habits. And the hardest habit to break, in fact, may be what Lerner calls the “syndrome of tragedy, of feeling like we're terminal patients.” Many cities have “a lot of people who are specialists in proving change is not possible. What I try to explain to them when I go visit is that it takes th  e same energy to say why something can't be done as to figure out how to do it.”


Excerpted from Hope, Human, and Wild by Bill McKibben. Copyright © 1995 by Bill McKibben. Reprinted by arrangement with Little, Brown, and Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.