It is not often we can praise the way our towns and cities are run. They are usually run by people lacking in vision, out for their own self-aggrandizement, mired to their necks in sleaze and corruption. One of the rare exceptions is Curitiba.
Curitiba, a provincial town in Brazil, where sustainable development is not given lip service, but actually practiced, where the people are involved in the planning decisions.
It is not often we can praise the way our towns and cities are run. They are usually run by people lacking in vision, out for their own self-aggrandizement, mired to their necks in sleaze and corruption.
It is all too easy to find the bad examples. Farnborough, a small town south west of London, the town centre lying derelict thanks to the council pushing through plans to demolish the entire northern half of the town centre for superstore. The store will face out of the town with its own car park, social housing of 28 maisonettes to be destroyed for the car park. Upton Park in the East End of London, home to West Ham's football ground, where the mayor wishes to destroy the century-old Queen's Market, an undercover street market. 12,000 people who have signed a petition opposing the destruction of Queen's Market, have been dismissed as second class citizens. The mayor is practicing a form of cultural apartheid, ethnic cleansing, wishing to see the poor driven out of the borough and replaced by yuppies occupying expensive apartments.
Neither of these examples could be classed as sustainable development. Many many more examples could be added to this list.
There are though a few examples that point in the opposite direction, pointers to the future. Curitiba, a provisional town in Brazil, where sustainable development is not given lip service, but actually practiced, where the people are involved in the planning decisions. Bogotá in Colombia, another example of good urban design, where despite the bad press, crime rate is lower than Washington DC. Porto Alegre, a provisional town in Brazil, is a model of participatory democracy. The local community draw up the budget for the the town, decide how the money will be raised, how it will be spent, then present their findings to the local mayor. Puerto de la Cruz on the northern coast of Tenerife, where the centre of the town is pedestrian streets, tree lined calles connecting open plazas. Even new developments follow this pattern. And in recent years the car free areas have been extended along the sea front.
The first three examples, two in Brazil, one in Colombia, are all in Latin America. The fourth example in the Canary Islands, has strong Latin influence.
In Carfree Cities, the opening chapter develops a yardstick for cities by comparing (car fee) Venice with (car dominated) Los Angeles. You don't even have to read the text, just look at the pictures.
In Venice, children, from a very early age, are free to walk the streets, without being under the guard of an adult, and in doing so, learn to interact with the society around them.
The same is true of Puerto de la Cruz. Young children are seen walking to and fro school, to and fro the shops, often doing the shopping, they are even found at the local flea market selling off their unwanted possessions. During La Carnaval, they are out in the main square, Plaza Charco, enjoying themselves until the early hours of the morning. Shops and restaurants line the streets, they don't need garish signs to advertise their presence, nor are they part of global chains.
Porto Alegre played host to the first World Social Forum, the radical alternative to the World Economic Forum. Curitiba has recently played host to COP8 MOP3 where it was agreed to uphold the ban on terminator technology. This was the only good news to emerge, no agreement was reached to protect the Earth's biodiversity. In the early 1990s, Curitiba was host to the World Forum of the Cities, a preparatory event for the Rio Earth Summit.
For most of his existence, Man has been a hunter-gather, it is only in the last 11,000 years he has been an agriculturalist, and in the second half of the last century, industrial agriculture has appeared.
With agricultural surpluses, cities became possible. The first cities developed were where agriculture began.
The problem with cities is shipping food in and shipping waste out. These two factors have been the limits on the size to which cities can grow.
The Sumerians were among our first agriculturalists, they used water irrigation, had written language, their cities prospered, then collapsed, as did their ancient civilisation.
Their counterparts in the New World, flourished, then collapsed.
The size of modern cities is determined by cheap oil.
The modern city has been with us for a little over a century. The era of cheap oil is about to end. Oil production has peaked, or is about to peak within the next few years. The modern city is unsustainable, assuming it ever was.
Cities have to be designed for people not cars, they have to be closer to Venice in design than Los Angeles.
A measure of the livability of cities, the ratio of parks to car parks.
The car promises mobility, but deliver immobility.
From 1998, Enrique Peñalosa served as Mayor in Bogotá for three years. When he took office he did not ask how life could be improved for the 30% who owned cars, which seems to be the question asked elsewhere, he wanted to know what could be done for the 70% – the majority – who did not own cars.
Peñalosa realized the obvious, that a city that is a pleasant environment for children and the elderly, ie like Venice, would work for everyone. Within just a few years, he transformed the quality of urban life with his vision of a city designed for people.
Under his leadership, the city was transformed, cars were banned from parking on the sidewalks, 1,200 parks were created or transformed, a highly successful bus-based rapid transit system was introduced, hundreds of kilometers of bicycle paths and pedestrian streets were created, rush hour traffic was reduced by 40%, 100,000 trees were planted, and local citizens were involved directly in the improvement of their neighborhoods.
The works carried out and the direct involvement of the people created a sense of civic pride among the city’s 8 million residents, making the streets of Bogotá in this strife-torn country safer than those in Washington DC.
Enrique Peñalosa has observed that:
'... high quality public pedestrian space in general and parks in particular are evidence of a
true democracy at work. ... Parks and public space are also important to a democratic society because
they are the only places where people meet as equal ... In a city, parks are as essential to the physical and emotional health of a city as the water supply.'
The reforms Peñalosa initiated in Bogotá are being carried on by his successor, Antanas Mockus.
Curitiba, a provisional city in southeastern Brazil, has a population similar to Philadelphia or Houston. It faces the problems of all Third World cities, unwanted migration into the city, rural dwellers pushed off the land and lured by the cities. The migrant poor form slums and shanty towns on the edge of the city.
Population 300,000 in 1950, 2.2 million by 1990, and an estimated million more by 2020.
We are used to seeing pedestrian areas in towns and cities, we take them for granted, but in the early 1970s, these were a novelty.
Curitiba was one of the first cities to have a pedestrian area. This was thanks to Jaime Lerner, a planner by profession, being appointed mayor.
In 1972, the historic boulevard the Rua Quinze de Novembro, was converted virtually overnight, into a pedestrian area. Workman planted tens of thousands of flowers. The street was closed on the Friday night, when it reopened 48 hours later, it was a pedestrian area, one of the first in the world.
Shopkeepers had threatened to sue for loss of trade, by midday Monday, they were petitioning for the surrounding streets to be pedestrianised.
To put what Lerner was doing in context, this was at the time of the construction of Brasilia, the new capital of Brazil, a dazzlingly modern new capital of skyscrapers and wide motorways that was widely seen at the the time as the city of the future.
People took the flowers, workman added more. Protests by motorists, were met by children bearing flowers, which has led to the alternative name of the street Rua das Flores.
Had this historic street not be pedestrianised, it was destined to be destroyed for an overpass, as have so many historic streets in towns and cities across the world.
Jaime Lerner turned out to a be a visionary, a rarity in local government, and ultimately served three terms in office, twelve years. His successors have continued his vision.
But successful town design is not top down, it is organic, it involves the people, it is bottom up.
Curitiba is not top-down led by the mayor, even though it has been fortunate to have had a visionary mayor. All of the mayors who have followed Jaime Lerner have worked in partnership with private companies, NGOs, neighbourhood and community groups. A series of interactive, interconnected evolving solutions. Wide public debate and discussion, widespread participation, to reach a broad consensus. Most important of all, the best ideas and implementation comes from its citizens.
It is by reaching consensus through wide participation, that solutions can be implemented rapidly and are highly successful.
Curitiba doesn't impose a handful of mega-projects that have been imposed from above, even worse from outside, that its citizens have not been consulted about, let alone want. Instead myriads of little projects, multi-purpose, cost-effective, people-centred, fast, simple, home grown, based on local initiatives and skills.
Curitiba is a success because it involves all its people, treating them, especially the children, not as a burden, a nuisance, a bunch of troublemakers to be ignored or worst still, attacked and victimised, but as its most precious resource, the path to the future.
A classic example of how not to do it is to look at Farnborough in southern England. KPI, a Kuwaiti-funded front-company for St Modwen, a property developer, bought the entire town centre. They then emptied the town of shoppers and shopkeepers. They imposed their unwanted plans on the town. The local council did nothing to stop them, failed to act in the best interests of the local community, accused members of the local community of being troublemakers, serial objectors, and threatened them with anti-social behaviour orders if they did not desist.
The only opportunity the local community had to voiced their concerns was at a Public Inquiry into highway closures. This was the only occasion the plans were subject to detailed scrutiny, and due to the restricted remit of the inquiry, this was restricted to the road closures, could not look at the plan as a whole.
St Modwen are now proposing to destroy the century old Queen's Market at Upton Park in the East End of London, with the full blessing of the mayor, the local community dismissed as troublemakers and second-class citizens.
One of the key elements of successful planning in Curitiba is the integrated transport system, especially the bus routes.
Curitiba was the first city to implement rapid bus transit system. Five routes radiate out from the centre of the town. The buses have exclusive routes, running parallel are routes for cars.
At peak times, a bus every minute. The cost in the late 1990s, was the equivalent of 20p for a flat rate fare, and it is not subsidized.
The bus stations link to a 150-kilometer network of bike paths. Although Curitiba has one of the highest car ownerships in Brazil, one car for every three people, people use their cars less than in other towns, two thirds of all trips in the city are made by bus. Car traffic has declined by 30 percent since 1974, even as the population has doubled.
When the bus routes were planned, land zoning also took place, placing higher density near major interchanges and along the radial routes. The city bought up tracts of land to save speculators profiting from investment in public assets.
During the routing of the fast radial routes, great care was taken to keep destruction of existing buildings to an absolute minimum, routes were adapted wherever possible to existing streets. Compare this to Farnborough, where an estate of 28 maisonettes, social housing set within a grassy, a safe area for children to play, was earmarked to be demolished for a car park for a superstore, the residents of the estate to be forcibly relocated to two blocks of flats surrounded by car parking, the residents encouraged to move by years of disrepair.
The bus system is publicly-controlled, the buses run by private companies, and entirely self-financing. The money that is paid back to the private bus companies is based on the kilometres of route they cover, not on the number of passengers they carry, which encourages them to provide comprehensive coverage
The statistics are staggering. The express bus lanes carry 20,000 passengers per hour. The most densely travelled bus system in Brazil. It carries three-quarters of all commuters, 1.9 million passengers per weekday, more than New York.
Transport in Curitiba is not planned in isolation, it is coupled with land use policy, work schemes, education. A system approach. A system approach does not only enhance the environment, it also enhances the social and economic viability of a city.
At the time Curitiba started its transportation system, the city began a project called the "Faróis de Saber" (Lighthouses of Knowledge). These Lighthouses are free educational centers which include libraries, Internet access, and other cultural resources. Job training, social welfare and educational programs are coordinated, and often supply labor to improve the city's amenities or services, as well as education and income. These are strategically placed around the city.
Several of the largest of the bus stations, have decentralised city services, to save the local community having to waste time travelling into the city centre to access council services.
Well designed towns and cities work with nature, not against. A city should be seen as a functioning whole, not a sum of its disintegrated parts.
San Luis Obispo, small Californian town north of Los Angeles, restored a creek. The creek is now the main focal point and thoroughfare of the town, with the shops and side streets running off it. You can sit at a restaurant, overlooking the creek.
Curitiba had major problems with flooding, waterways had been canalised, making the problem worse.
Waterways and low-lying land prone to flooding, was turned into parks. People were encouraged to plant trees, residential developments had to have gardens, open space had to be permeable. No one can cut down a true without a permit, and if you gain permission, you have to replace it with two trees.
A sixth of the city is wooded.
Public open space has grown faster than the population. As the population grew by 2.4 times, the public space per person expanded from 5 to 581 square feet per person. 52 square metres of park per capita, higher than New York, higher than any city worldwide, four times higher than the UN recommendations.
In the1970s, the parks created accounted for 10 million square meters of preserved land.
In the 1990s, Curitiba was designated the Ecological Capital of Brazil. Six new parks, the Botanical Garden, and eight wooded areas were created, totaling more than eight million square meters of public preservation areas.
A park created in twenty days, a recycling scheme implemented within months of its inception.
A municipal shepherd and a flock of sheep are employed to mow the grass in the parks. Instead of a cost, the grass becomes a resource, providing meat and wool, which is sold to fund social programmes.
In Curitiba, everything is recycled, even the buildings and the buses!
An old gunpowder magazine converted into a theatre, a foundry into a shopping mall, the old railway station a railway museum, a quarry an ampitheatre, a stunning polycarbonate and cable opera house built in only 60 days.
Schools are re-used in the evening for adult education programmes.
Children are encouraged to establish community gardens to grow food. They are helped by what would otherwise be out-of-work peasants.
The Botanical Gardens was an old garbage dump. The Free University of the Environment was built of old tires and utility poles in an old quarry. It provides education on the environment and land use to everyone, taxi drivers (mandatory), shopkeepers, teachers, journalists, and how it relates to their work.
This is an important aspect of Curitiba, education on environmental issues, easy access to information, to enable citizens to make informed decisions on city plans, and to participate in the planning process.
The average life of buses in Curitiba is 3.5 years (cf average in Brazil of eight years and legal limit of ten). But they then have other uses, mobile information points, job training centres (Linha do Oficio, the Jobs Route or Line to Work), clinics, soup kitchens, food markets, coaches for weekend excursions.
The reused buses are also integrated with a food for waste problems. Unmade roads makes it impossible for lorries to go into the squatter areas to collect garbage. The children are encouraged to bring out the garbage, for which they receive tokens to be exchanged for education and fresh seasonal food. This prevents malnutrition, and keeps farmers on the land who grow the food.
One of the major problems facing cities is waste disposal. With the closure of the Fresh Kills landfill site, New York is now trucking waste hundreds of miles to remote landfill sites in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia. New York produces 12,000 tons of garbage every day.
The 1989 initiative, Garbage That Isn't Garbage, saw waste as having value, and led to 70% of households sorting out a recyclable waste for a thrice-weekly kerbside collection. Two-thirds of the bagged and separated waste are recovered and sold, offsetting the cost of collection and disposal, which had been the largest item in the municipal budget. Landfill has been reduced by one-sixth in weight, even more by volume. Recycling of paper saves 1,200 trees a day.
Compare this with Hampshire in southern England, where the council is complimenting itself on having a target to recycle or compost 50% of domestic waste by 2010, the Borough of Rushmoor (Aldershot and Farnborough, towns within Hampshire), where recycled waste is only collected once a fortnight and to cut costs, the council is proposing cutting the collection of other domestic waste from a weekly collection to fortnightly.
In Curitiba, council officials are employed to solve problems, not fob the public off with excuses.
Curitiba didn't start out with advantages over any other city, it was not wealthier. In 1980, its GDP per capita was only 10% above the average for Brazil. By 1996 it was 65%.
Companies are attracted to Curitiba because of the pleasant environment, lack of congestion, ease of commuting.
The poor in Curitiba are better off because the cost of living is lower and benefits are better targeted.
The success of Curitiba is also a problem, as it is attracting more migrants to the city.
The success of Curitiba cannot be simply transferred to other cities, although elements of it can. Los Angeles (of all places) is considering implementing a Rapid Bus System, Beijing has already implemented one RBS route and is considering more.
What can be implemented is involving people in the decision-making process, making our cities greener.
In Curitiba, the important principle adopted in 1971: to respect the citizen/owner of all public assets and services, both because people deserve respect and because as Lerner insists: 'if people feel respected, they will assume the responsibility to help others.'
Designing sustainable cities is about closing loops, a network approach. One of the most important loops we have to close is the political system. Top down systems do not work, where the people, if they are lucky, are reduced to election fodder to keep corrupt elites in power, to provide them with fig-leaf of legitimacy. We have to close the loop and put the citizens in charge of running their cities, as they once did in Athens
We no longer have a choice, not if we want to make our cities sustainable.
Excerpted from Curitiba – Designing a sustainable city