Residents of Curitiba, Brazil, think they live in the best city in the world, and a lot of outsiders agree. Curibita has 17 new parks, 90 miles of bike paths, trees everywhere, and traffic and garbage systems that officials from other cities come to study. Curibita's mayor for twelve years, Jaime Lerner, has a 92 per cent approval rating.
There is nothing special about Curitiba's history, location or population. Like all Latin American cities, the city has grown enormously - from 150,000 people in the 1950s to 1.6 million now. It has its share of squatter settlements, where fewer than half the people are literate. Curibita's secret, insofar that it has one, seems to be simple willingness from the people at the top to get their kicks from solving problems.
Those people at the top started in the 1960s with a group of young architects who were not impressed by the urban fashion of borrowing money for big highways, massive buildings, shopping malls and other showy projects. They were thinking about the environment and about human needs. They approached Curibita's mayor, pointed to the rapid growth of the city and made a case for better planning.
The mayor sponsored a contest for a Curibita master plan. He circulated the best entries, debated them with the citizens, and then turned the people's comments over to the upstart architects, asking them to develop and implement a final plan.
Jaime Lerner was one of these architects. In 1971 he was appointed mayor by the then military government of Brazil.
Given Brazil's economic situation, Lerner had to think small, cheap and participatory - which was how he was thinking anyway. He provided 1.5 million tree seedlings to neighbourhoods for them to plant and care for. ('There is little in the architecture of a city that is more beautifully designed than a tree,' says Lerner.)
He solved the city's flood problems by diverting water from lowlands into lakes in the new parks. He hired teenagers to keep the parks clean.
He met resistance from shopkeepers when he proposed turning the downtown shopping district into a pedestrian zone, so he suggested a thirty-day trial. The zone was so popular that shopkeepers on the other streets asked to be included. Now one pedestrian street, the Rua das Flores, is lined with gardens tended by street children.
Orphaned or abandoned street children are a problem all over Brazil. Lerner got each industry, shop and institution to 'adopt' a few children, providing them with a daily meal and a small wage in exchange for simple maintenance gardening or office chores.
Another Lerner innovation was to organise the street vendors into a mobile, open-air fair that circulates through the city's neighbourhoods.
Concentric circles of local bus lines connect to five lines that radiate from the centre of the city in a spider web pattern. On the radial lines, triple-compartment buses in their own traffic lanes carry three hundred passengers each. They go as fast as subway cars, but at one-eightieth the construction cost.
The buses stop at Plexiglas tube stations designed by Lerner. Passengers pay their fares, enter through one end of the tube, and exit from the other end. This system eliminates paying on board, and allows faster loading and unloading, less idling and air pollution, and a sheltered place for waiting - though the system is so efficient that there isn't much waiting. There isn't much littering either. There isn't time.
Curitiba's citizens separate their trash into just two categories, organic and inorganic, for pick-up by two kinds of trucks. Poor families in squatter settlements that are unreachable by trucks bring their trash bags to neighbourhood centres, where they can exchange them for bus tickets or for eggs, milk, oranges and potatoes, all bought from outlying farms.
The trash goes to a plant (itself built of recycled materials) that employs people to separate bottles from cans from plastic. The workers are handicapped people, recent immigrants, alcoholics.
Recovered materials are sold to local industries. Styrofoam is shredded to stuff quilt for the poor. The recycling programme costs no more than the old landfill, but the city is cleaner, there are more jobs, farmers are supported and the poor get food and transportation. Curitiba recycles two-thirds of it garbage - one of the highest rates of any city, north or south.
Curitiba builders get a tax break if their projects include green areas.
Jaime Lerner says, 'There is no endeavour more noble than the attempt to achieve a collective dream. When a city accepts as a mandate its quality of life; when it respects the people who live in it; when it respects the environment; when it prepares for future generations, the people share the responsibility for that mandate, and this shared cause is the only way to achieve that collective dream.'
Summarised from an article by Donella Meadows entitled 'The city of first priorities' in Whole Earth Review (Spring '95; subs $35; 27 Gate Five Road, Sausalito, CA 94965, tel 415 332 1716; fax 415 332 3110).