Curitiba, Brazil

Michael O. Patterson

[Reprinted from Civic Values, 21 December 1999]

Curitiba, Brazil. Just an average Brazilian city, really. It has the best mass transit system in the world, has basically housed its street children, and uses sheep to trim the grass in the parks. For those who look at livability indexes, as with the Government Performance and Results Act, Curitiba is almost off the charts. In recent surveys, more than half the residents of American cities like Detroit and New York City would like to get out of the city. Yet over 98% of Curitibans are happy with their city. Even the Japanese don't have those kind of stats. This city was built around people, not the people forced into the city. It has a government that works with the people, with the organizations, to create a good place to live. Oh, it has its slum housing -- but it is clean, because a sack of garbage can be exchanged for a sack of food, from a municipal truck.

Jaime Lerner, a major part of this, started out by fighting an overpass , that would have destroyed his neighborhood. He had grown up in a real neighorhood, and for him his street -- the Rua Quinze -- was the city. He decided to make it into a walking mall, with no cars allowed. As mayor, he sat with his public works guy, and planned it out. They knew the merchants would never approve it.

Like Edwin Moses, the legendary New York planner, they tore up the pavement, replaced it with brick and cobblestone, and put in decorative elements ncluding thousands of flowers, lights, and kiosks. They also had it done by the following Monday morning. Later that day, other merchants wanted the walking mall extended to in front of their stores. A group of car owners decided to drive down the street to get it back for cars. The major put paper down the length of the mall, and had many children sitting on the street painting on the papers. People took the flowers, at first, but the city kept replacing them till they were left alone. The city respects its citizens, and the citizens return that respect. Bus stations are made out of glass, and are not vandalized.

Other things were done. Traffic was rerouted -- into 3 groups of parallel avenues -- the outer ones were one way, either in or out, and the middle street was for buses, which meant no costs for tearing down buildings to make highways, and kept streets to human scale. Zoning was fixed so that apartment conplexes were allowed only close to bus routes. The city grows in lines, with no backup, preserving varied kinds of housing, with people at different income levels, organically, like D'Arcy Thompson's notes in 'On Growth and Form'. They plant trees everywhere, and fines people who cut them without permission, even on their own land. Where there are problem trees -- trees that are getting too big -- they plant other trees, and wait till the new trees are good-sized before cutting the problem trees.

The city regulates where factories can be built, and what they can do. They note that the quality of life attracts good corporations, the kind that pay good wages, and they don't have to use tax concessions. Companies help pay for municipal child care. The city often employs single mothers from the slums, and sometimes helps people get materials to build homes with. Architects help people design homes that they can build one room at a time, all most can afford. The city has kid's programs -- and they treat all children like their own, with foster homes that care, or dorms, and jobs. The head of the department is most concerned that they get food, and love. City day care is free to toddlers and older, and run almost 12 hours per day. They even serve meals. Kids plant community gardens, using seed supplied by the city. Some new arrivals in the 1980's tried to make a living from pushcarts, competing with merchants. The city, instead of destroying them, as they would in an American city, licensed them instead, and put them in locations that helped the city. The city found it was cheaper to buy food from farmers and trade it for bags of garbage -- and the trucks don't fit in the narrow streets of the favelas, anyway. Children who sort out plastic by categories can exchange it for bus tokens.

Several million people ride the buses each day -- passengers are picked up in their neighborhoods, taken to terminals. Some buses go to special shelters where passengers load through several doors, having already paid their fares, like a subway. Buses are self-supporting, and get no money from the government. Ridership increases, because the buses are just faster. Old buses become classrooms for job skills training. Nothing is free, they know that free things have no value. A stone quarry was completed as a University -- in 3 months. They gather information for city planning, because that is the only way they can get it. The military knows that the best way to make people homicidal is to constantly irritate them, interfere with their living quarters, have unfair laws enforced in an unfair fashion, treat them with gross disrespect, playing favorites, and so forth, and it works in America's inner cities as well.

Crime is much less in this city. The lack of opportunity, constant frustration and resentments that reduce the veneer of civilization, so common in US cities, are much less here. Yes, there are problems, but not anywhere near what they are elsewhere in Brazil.

The city looks to <i>recycle</i> buildings rather than tear them down, converting old buildings to new uses. Curitiba took federal money available for building concrete levees to keep rivers from flooding, and spent it on land for parks, and small dams to make lakes. The city went from 2 sq ft of green perperson to 150 sq ft -- which increased property values. The city runs on around $150/person, vs. around $1,280/person in Detroit, about double that inNY City, or $800/person in Dallas/Ft Worth. The city finds ways to do things cheaply, simply, and quickly. They put up an opera house in a month. They can't afford research, or consultants, so they find something that works, and implement it as soon as possible. Lerner says you can't leave problems to experts, they are only expert in the way things can't be done. He finds people who find ways to get things done, and has brainstorming sessions. One product of such a session was the 24/7 street, which has shops and so forth that are open 24 hours per day -- to use the space more efficiently, and reduce the force that ties up space with buildings used only a few hours each day. The mayor believes that you have to have fun, at work, laughing, and create things that make people happy.

Designers come from other cities for the workshops. One group designed a mobile tent factory so children could create toys from recycled items. His staff love seeing their ideas come into form; in most places they couldn't get anything done.

Americans live in cocoons, watching TV programs designed to fill them with fear of their neighbors. Often they have no idea who their neighbors are. Fr. Thomas O?Brien notes that the worldwide breakdown of community leads directly to addiction. Mother Theresa noted that the major deficit in the first world is love, and attention from friends and family. Curitiba starts by making kids happy -- so they feel secure, have hopes for the future, and opportunity. The city has bike paths, soccer fields, and safe public space that is really nice. It has public concerts, street fairs, and volleyball courts, and a real, living downtown, not a faux fake. It is a place to enjoy life. Some Saturdays, city workers still put out paper for kids to draw on, to remember the original act that started it all. No, it's not perfect, but it's much closer to perfect than any American big city.

Curitiba has been covered on alternative radio, national public radio, and in books, including Bill McKibben's Hope, Human & Wild.