Jaime Lerner on transforming Curitiba

The charismatic Dr Jaime Lerner, former three time Mayor, turned the city of Curitiba in Brazil into one of the most sustainable cities in the world. Awarded a Special Mention for the 2010 Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize, Lerner talks about his experience and the significance of capturing the hearts and minds of citizens.

Jaime Lerner
© Instituto Jaime Lerner

What is your greatest satisfaction in helping to transform Curitiba?

Jaime Lerner (JL): My greatest satisfaction is in demonstrating that such a transformation is possible. It is possible to change things for the better without substantial investments or the passing of generations to see the results. Many spend huge amounts of resources anticipating very complex scenarios which may often lead to paralysis. What I have learnt from my experience with Curitiba is that planning is a process that always allow for corrections. What is important is to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve and be focused on continuously adapting and improving the solutions: a park can be created from a bike lane; a whole transportation system can be developed starting from one dedicated line.

How can cities become more liveable and sustainable?

JL: People need to look at life, work and mobility as integrated aspects of a city. A shared vision and responsibility to follow through can help address challenges of mobility, sustainability and co-existence and guide present and future actions.

In terms of mobility, every city should optimise each transportation mode as much as possible, whether it is located above or underground. The key lies in not having competing systems in the same space, and using everything that the city has in the most effective way. The transport network above ground has the advantage of(for example, dedicated lanes, various type of boardings, and the ability to accommodate high frequency of commuters achieving a performance similar to underground trains at a cost that is affordable to virtually every city, in a much more expedient manner. I also believe “private” vehicles without private ownership, such as the example of the Velib in Paris will increasingly play a larger role in urban transportation.

A cornerstone of sustainability is enabling people to live close to their workplace, or bring their work closer home. Sustainability is an equation between what is saved and what is wasted. The more you save and the less you waste, the more sustainable you are -We can carry out initiatives like reducing the use of the automobile, separating the garbage, giving urban equipments multiple functions during the 24 hours of the day. This enables us to save the maximum and waste the minimum.

Additionally, it is important to strengthen solidarity, to encourage the coexistence of diversity of ages, of income levels, of uses, of functions, of typologies. This is crucial for a better quality of life.

You were known for implementing the urban planning concept of “Urban Acupuncture” in Curitiba. How have you have applied this?

JL: “Urban Acupuncture” is a timely, strategic intervention in the urban fabric that can trigger positive chain reactions for the whole system, just like the way acupuncture works. One example in Curitiba is the Botanical Garden, a public park that was implemented in a neighbourhood that suffered the stigma of being associated with favelas (shanty towns). The creation of this new public space helped to raise the self-esteem of the whole community which in turn improved the liveability of the whole area.

Curitiba Botanical Gardens
Aerial View of Botanical Garden, Curitiba, Brazil © Instituto Jaime Lerner

Another example is the Opera de Arame and the Pedreiras Park. These were built in abandoned quarry areas with neighbourhoods that were not attractive. We were able to take advantage of the unique characteristics of the site and turn it into an outstanding venue for concerts and cultural activities. This is the key to urban acupuncture: find the right idea and the suggested intervention that become the catalysts of change. In working in several cities in Brazil, such as Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre, Brasilia and in Angola, Mexico, Dominican Republic, I was able to apply “Urban Acupuncture”. Projects like the Bossa Nova Park in Rio de Janeiro and the regeneration of the Mauá Docklands in Porto Alegre exemplify this concept well.

Since you left office in 1992, Curitiba has undergone a series of transformations and change in leadership. In retrospect, which are the key projects or initiatives you feel should be institutionalised to ensure continuity, and which should be re-examined and modified to suit the changing context and needs of the people?

JL: Curitiba taught me that planning is a permanent process, and this process requires a strong commitment with constant innovation and simplicity. Policy makers responsible for its planning and administration should not forget that. There should be a greater emphasis on more proposals and less policies. The urban mobility system should be continuously reviewed and improved. The city should not import obsolete solutions but systematically enhance the existing system. The car should not be at the centre stage.

Citizens played a major role in Curitiba’s transformation. What were the challenges you faced and how did you encourage active citizenry?

JL: The biggest challenge in encouraging active citizenry was how to engage the hearts and minds of the people in order to persuade and mobilise them. As a Mayor then, I did not have the kind of presentation tools we have today. There were no powerpoint presentations or animated models. When discussing the proposals for Curitiba with several segments of society, I would always use a physical model of the city so that people could visualise the plans being conceived. I had the help of a driver-assistant, Mr Alceu Cecon, who carried the model with me everywhere I went. Many years later, when I was governor, I had to go to Brasilia and, since he had never been there, I asked Alceu if he would like to come along. As the plane flew over Curitiba, he looked down and exclaimed - but it is just like the model! It was extremely gratifying to see that he was able to recognise the realisation of the vision set in motion so many years ago.

For me, that is the key to encouraging active citizenry and collaboration: the ability to present a shared dream, the desired scenario that can capture the hearts and minds of the people. Once everyone is convinced of the vision, then the public, private sectors and civic society should all be encouraged to share the responsibility of implementing the vision. In this way, people will feel part of the solution and take pride in it. O

This article was first published in February 2012. All images contained within this page are used with license and shall not be copied, modified, or reproduced.


Jaime Lerner

Jaime Lerner

Jaime Lerner, architect and urban planner, was three time Mayor of Curitiba (1971-1975, 1979-1983, 1989-1992) and was Governor of Parana (1994-1998, 1999 -2002). He was awarded a Special Mention for the 2010 Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize.