Image courtesy of http://edition.cnn.com
I’ve never been to Brazil, but when I picture it in my mind, I envision it a
little bit like New Orleans: a melting pot of European, African, and indigenous
traditions together in a stew of culture as rich and spicy as a steaming bowl
of Jambalaya. And just as the music and color of Mardi Gras seem to pervade
Of the many characteristics I can attribute to Brazil, eco-consciousness and sustainability aren’t at the top of the list. “Sustainability”—for those who might not be up on their environmental terminology--is a concept that was first introduced in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), defined simply as progress that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It generally encompasses the three goals of economic prosperity, environmental quality and social equity. These concepts are vitally important to all of us who share and care about this planet, our neighbors in it, and our collective futures.
[It is certainly important to the National Geographic-led My Wonderful World Campaign, a public awareness initiative that I have been working on for the last four months. The goal of the Campaign is to promote geographic literacy and “give kids the power of global knowledge.”]
When I think of “sustainability,” places in Western Europe, like Scandinavia,
come to mind, and maybe
I first learned about
The first time I went there, I had never heard of Curitiba. I had no idea
that its bus system was the best on Earth or that a municipal shepherd and his
flock of 30 sheep trimmed the grass in its vast parks. It was just a midsize
Brazilian city where an airline schedule forced me to spend the night midway
through a long South American reporting trip. I reached my hotel, took a nap,
and then went out in the early evening for a walk--warily, because I had just
come from crime-soaked Rio.
But the street in front of the hotel was cobbled, closed to cars, and strung with lights. It opened onto another such street, which in turn opened into a broad and leafy plaza, with more shop-lined streets stretching off in all directions. Though the night was frosty--Brazil stretches well south of the tropics, and Curitiba is in the mountains--people strolled and shopped, butcher to baker to bookstore. There were almost no cars, but at one of the squares, a steady line of buses rolled off, full, every few seconds. I walked for an hour, and then another. I felt my shoulders, hunched from the tension of Rio (and probably New York as well) straightening. Though I flew out the next day as scheduled, I never forgot the city.
From time to time over the next few years, I would see Curitiba mentioned in planning magazines or come across a short newspaper account of it winning various awards from the United Nations. Its success seemed demographically unlikely. For one thing, it's relatively poor -- average per capita (cash) income is about $2,500. Worse, a flood of displaced peasants has tripled its population to a million and a half in the last 25 years. It should resemble a small-scale version of urban nightmares like Sao Paolo or Mexico City. But I knew from my evening's stroll it wasn't like that, and I wondered why.
Maybe an effort to convince myself that a decay in public life was not inevitable was why I went back to Curitiba to spend some real time, to see if its charms extended beyond the lovely downtown. For a month, my wife and baby and I lived in a small apartment near the city center. Morning after morning I interviewed cops, merchants, urban foresters, civil engineers, novelists, planners; in the afternoons, we pushed the stroller across the town, learning the city's rhythms and habits. And we decided, with great delight, that Curitiba is among the world's great cities.
Not for its physical location; there are no beaches, no broad
bridge-spanned rivers. Not in terms of culture or glamour; it's a fairly
provincial place. But measured for "livability," I have never been
any place like it. In a recent survey, 60 percent of New Yorkers wanted to
leave their rich and cosmopolitan city; 99 percent of Curitibans told pollsters
that they were happy with their town; and 70 percent of the residents of Sao Paulo said they thought life would be better in Curitiba...
Curitiba has been billed the “best planned city in Brazil” and an “international leader for sustainable development” 1. How did this come to pass?
Curitiba was fortunate enough to have a few visionary individuals who pioneered a strategy of participatory, integrated urban planning beginning in the 1960’s—a time when leftist social movements took hold of much of Latin America and the world was ripe with progressive ideas. Of greatest influence was Jaime Lerner, who began his work as an urban planner, helped found a consulting organization called the Urban Planning Institute of Curitiba (IPPUC), and eventually became mayor 1. Lerner believed that “cities needed to be rediscovered as instruments of change” (Curitiba video, 1992 in 2.)
Under the leadership of Lerner and his successors (Lerner went on to become the Governor of the state of Parana, and is now retired from political life 2.),
Transportation & Bus System
Curitiba developed an inexpensive, “speedy” public bus system with direct routes and nifty stations specially designed for rapid loading and unloading. As a result, Curitiba has the highest public transportation use rates and the lowest air pollution per capita of any Brazilian city—despite having among the highest rates of car ownership 1.
Effective zoning led to an increase in green space from one square meter per person, to 52 square meters per person over the last 40 years--despite the fact that the population tripled in the same time period! 1, 2 The city is now over 20% green space, with 28 parks and wooded areas 1.
Curitiba’s recycling program has been overwhelmingly successful both in terms of its environmental and social benefits. Over 70% of the city’s garbage is recycled at plants that employ individuals struggling to overcome drug dependencies and homelessness 1, 2. Through a “green exchange,” families can trade in bags of garbage in return for food vouchers and bus tickets 1.
Students in Curitiba
Curitiba: World model
I’ve now described Curitiba
Indeed, the case of
Curitiba: Ideal vacation destination
Through Lerner’s efforts,
My Brazilian-born roommate may have put it best when, in a last-ditch
attempt to find a first-hand review, I emailed her at work to ask if she’d ever
Sarah for My Wonderful World