Curitiba: visionary city
A great city does not need record-breaking towers or adjectives, but rather, a far-sighted master plan that puts its citizens’ well-being first.
ONE of the world’s best planned and environmentally friendly urban cities is Curitiba, an unassuming southern Brazilian city that exemplifies the importance of implementing a far-sighted development master plan dating back 40 years.
Curitiba began as a shanty town. In 1654 it was a gold mining camp. By the late 1800s, its population had grown to 50,000. Today it is the capital of the state of Parana with 1.8 million citizens.
Today, Curitiba is recognised for numerous achievements – it is among the world’s most sustainable cities, best planned urban centres and boasts of the world’s best public transportation system and recycling programme.
Similar to cities around the world, Curitiba was confronted with the growing pains of rising urban migration, overcrowding, expanding slums, poverty and pollution.
“What made a difference was a master plan where the top priority was elevating the quality of life for our citizens,” explains Curitiba mayor Luciano Ducci who was in Kuala Lumpur recently for the 2nd World Class Sustainable Cities Conference. “Curitiba did not become a model city overnight. It took us 40 years.”
Migration to Curitiba started from the 1940s and by 1960 the population had swelled to nearly half a million people with many European migrants. Mayor Ivo Arzua called for plans to prepare the city for future growth.
A young architect, Jaime Lerner, led a group of like-minded colleagues and planners from the Parana Federal University in presenting a bold, visionary plan for their city, which was later adopted as Curitiba’s master plan. It called for a modern, high-speed public transportation system to minimise the use of cars therefore reducing traffic jams; the preservation of Curitiba’s historic quarter, and the development of clearly marked industrial zones and housing areas.
In 1968, Lerner established the city’s first urban planning division to specifically implement the master plan. Four years later when he became mayor, he ordered the first of many radical changes. Six blocks along a street became a pedestrian zone in just three days. Shop owners and merchants vehemently protested but after seeing the increase in business, they soon demanded for an extension of the pedestrian zone.
Lerner then had hundreds of schoolchildren and their teachers enjoying a day out sitting on the street to draw and paint, much to the dismay of motorists.
“Of course, this was very emblematic,” Lerner recounted in an interview with the New York Times. “We were trying to say, ‘This city is not for cars.’”
By the 1980s, Curitiba’s population reached nearly one million. Yet, protected green lungs increased throughout the city. And Curitiba’s acclaimed transportation system was expanded. The city could not begin a light-rail or subway system because it lacked funds. So it made do with buses. What was previously a highway cutting the city into half became busy bus lanes forming a north-south axis for the city’s fleet of modern buses and tubes that ply over 100km routes in and out of the city. The buses operate like a subway system minus the cost. They run on an easily identifiable colour coded system for different zones that are equally priced, even for trips out of the city. And upon reaching a stop, six doors open on each side of the bus for quick exiting and boarding.
“There really isn’t a need for cars,” says Ducci. “We allocated total priority for public transportation because it was very clear that much of the urban issues are due to over-congestion, traffic jams and pollution that would later lead to many ad-hoc measures to contain these problems.”
Curitiba’s master plan also called for redevelopment of existing buildings. Government departments are housed in retrofitted factories and warehouses; an opera theatre was built on an abandoned quarry. Decommissioned buses are turned into mobile recreation centres for children. The Central Business District does not command the heart of the city as in the case of most cities. Instead, it is sited in the outskirts of the city.
A recycling programme took off in the early 1990s way before the current green movement began. Citizens separated their trash at home. These are collected by the city council and sold off to cover operational costs. A practical social services programme was also implemented where salvage collectors could exchange their finds for food.
And while cities, including Malaysia, are desperately fighting to save their ever shrinking green lungs, Curitiba’s citizens revel in 3.5mil sqm of protected areas teeming with wildlife, including 350 bird species – more than what some countries have.
“Our goal of a bio city is to have 17mil sqm of green areas that are protected from development,” Ducci says. “We have yet to consolidate all our green areas and we are working with wildlife experts, environmental societies and NGOs to reach our goal.”
Many cities, grappling with urban growth issues, are turning to Curitiba for solutions. Various questions were raised by participants at the conference in Kuala Lumpur, mainly by town planners, architects, government officials and concerned citizens. One gentleman wanted to know the cost of Curitiba’s renowned bus system – which could not be answered as it was implemented during the 1970s – and if it is profitable.
“It is a privatised system held by 23 companies and the government does not subsidise it at all,” answers Ducci. “The city council merely dictates the bus routes and keeps its fares affordable. As mostly poor or middle income people utilise the systems, we ensure that it is the same fare, which is about US$1 (RM3.50) whether they are travelling 7km or 70km. It is a matter of will, not money, to ensure that a public transportation system is successful.”
Curitiba’s city council does not just pay lip service to its taxpayers. Development plans submitted to the council are evaluated in a transparent process where even a proposed building’s possibility of blocking wind and sunlight from its neighbours is assessed.
How did Curitiba manage to follow and implement so diligently a master plan that was drawn up in the 1970s? The answer is surprisingly simple: “The plan is carried on to each successive mayor,” says Ducci. “Every plan is tabled to the citizens who are very much aware of what is happening in their city. If the subsequent mayor approves a development or does anything contrary to the agreed plan, Curitiba citizens will boot him out at the next election.
“It is vital to engage the people in all plans that concern their city, their wellbeing and their future. This is integral for a city to be happy, livable and successful.”
Car-free: A well-connected public transportation system has made the Brazilian city of Curitiba free of traffic congestion.
Curitiba is not a city for cars.