Curitiba's train-length buses simplify sustainable transit for the masses. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Curitiba: the Greenest city on Earth
15th March 2014
Football fans around the globe have their eyes set on Curitiba, Brasil this year, the site of the 2014 World Cup. But as Brian Barth reports, eco-savvy urban planners have been studying Brasil's seventh largest city for decades ...
This city is not for cars - Jaime Lerner, three-time Mayor of Curitiba
The story of Curitiba (the ti is pronounced like the chee in cheese) is one of the holy scriptures of sustainable urban development, now replicated by many other ailing metropolises around the globe.
Curitiba's eco-city initiatives began long before the current mandate to clean up cities was born, their phenomenal success a product of a political climate with a humble problem-solving approach, rather than the usual grand-standing.
A pastoral city
With 52 square meters of green space per capita, Curitiba is truly the 'greenest' city in the world. Many of the smaller parks are dedicated to one of the ethnic groups that have settled in the city. Filled with shrines to the cultures of the world, they are enchanting oases of shade and quiet in the urban environs.
Within the larger tracts of green space, there is a world-class botanical garden and an opera house built in the dramatic setting of an abandoned quarry, its glass walls shimmering with magic in the water's reflection.
Curitiba's parks serve an ecological function, as well. Much of the 400 square kilometres of parkland doubles as a naturalized, decentralized stormwater management facility.
In most cities, a massive river like the Iguacu would be channelized between concrete walls in an attempt to control flooding and maximize developable land along the riparian corridor.
In contrast, Curitiba's park system was designed to preserve the river's meandering course. During heavy rains the river backs up and spreads out into the low-lying area of the parks, forming temporary lakes and mimicking a natural floodplain.
Curitiba's bus rapid transit system (BRT) satisfies 70 to 80 percent of the daily trips made by Curitibanos, resulting in 25% lower carbon emissions per capita than the average for Brasilian cities.
The beauty of BRT is its efficiency: its ability to move people around the city quickly (thus reducing dependency on automobile use) compares favorably to underground or elevated rail systems, but the infrastructure can be built for a fraction of the cost.
In a typical public bus system, buses are subject to the same traffic congestion as private vehicles, a limitation circumvented by dedicated rail lines.
In a BRT system, buses have exclusive access to a central right-of-way where they move unimpeded by other vehicular traffic; this is flanked on either side by one way streets for the circulation of private vehicles.
By combining the advantages of light rail with the affordability of bus transit, precious municipal funds can be redirected to other important programs-a concept pioneered in Curitiba and now used in many other cities.
Empowering the populace to keep Curitiba clean
Brasil is infamous for its favelas - unplanned slums inhabited by disenfranchised members of society, usually groups that have migrated to the city from rural areas in search of work.
Curitiba has never been immune to the phenomenon but has dealt with the issue with greater success than many of its counterparts in the developing world.
One of the more heart-warming examples is a program that exchanges trash and recyclables for bus tokens, food and cash. Participants are known as carinheiros, which is best translated as 'those that give tender loving care'.
Because of the carinheiros' TLC, Curitiba is astonishingly clean and the affectionate name they've been endowed with shows how much their work is appreciated and celebrated by the general populace.
By empowering people with access to transportation and meaningful work, Curitiba has created dynamism at its lowest socio-economic rungs, propelling upward mobility and decreasing dependence on government support.
Today, Curitiba is one of the most prosperous cities in Latin America; per capita income is 66% higher than the Brasilian average.
Planning instead of politics
Southern Brasil is not where you would expect to find the city that chartered the course towards urban sustainability for the rest of the world. The unique culture of enlightened urban policy and citizen engagement first emerged in Curitiba in the 1960s in a strangely ironic brew of circumstances.
The events that set the stage for Curitiba's success are less than admirable: the military dictatorship that ruled Brasil between 1964 and 1985 meant that government officials were appointed, not elected, and could impose whatever they wished within their jurisdiction.
Curitiba is a rare example of this power being used with noble intentions, a fact that has everything to do with its three-time mayor, Jaime Lerner.
Lerner could be seen as a benevolent dictator, but he was an architect and urban planner by trade - not a politician - and his vision of what a city could be was backed with a profound understanding of how to make it happen.
Though Lerner's 'sustainability regime' was force-fed to the city in the beginning, the results were so positive he was elected by an overwhelming majority after democracy was restored in Brasil in the 1980's.
Thanks to Lerner and his cohorts, Curitiba is a rare city where the language of urban planning is part of the common parlance. In this unassuming eco-city, pragmatism regularly wins out over politics and environmental ethics have squarely supplanted the conventional tactics of economic development.
After visiting Curitiba, Bill McKibben, founder the 350.org movement, lavished his praise on the place: "I met very few cynics. The resigned weariness of westerners about government, which leaves only fanatics and hustlers running for office, had lifted from this place."
Brian Barth is a freelance writer and landscape architect. Particular interests include the interdependence of people, plants, and the Earth; communicating the complex systems of design, urban ecology, and urban planning to a general audience; the dynamics of development patterns and ecosystem integrity in urban areas; and engaging public awareness in the ecological processes of a given site.
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