Jaime Lerner has a bone to pick with Al Gore. Granted, as one of Brazil’s leading lights in terms of green urban planning and architecture, he’s grateful for Gore’s ability to raise awareness on global warming. But he’s frustrated that people have become so overwhelmed that they don’t know what to do. “People are behaving like terminal patients,” says the 70-year-old Lerner. “Instead of acting, they are just talking. Instead of looking at their own lives and seeing that they can do something about carbon emissions – the majority of which come from cities – they’re just throwing their hands in the air. And this makes me very anxious because we could change all this very easily and very quickly.”

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Ônibus ligeirinho (speedy bus) tube station, Curitiba, 1990s
Photo courtesy of Instituto Jaime Lerner

Lerner should know. As a three-time mayor of Curitiba, a city of three million in the southern region of Brazil, he has seen his hometown grow into one of the most sustainable municipalities in the world. Its residents use 25% less fuel than other Brazilians, recycle 70% of the city’s garbage, and an astounding 99% of them claim to be happy with the way their city is run. With that in mind it’s hardly surprising that Curitiba received the United Nations Environmental Award (UNEP) in 1990, the Worldwatch Institute Prize in 1991 and the CITIES Award for Excellence in 2002. “I call it urban acupuncture,” explains Lerner of his approach, “which is where you focus on key points that increase energy and flow.”

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Universidade Livre do Meio Ambiente - UNILIVRE, Curitiba, inaugurated in 1992
Photo courtesy of Instituto Jaime Lerner

That might also describe Curitiba’s greatest success story: the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), which is said to be the most efficient, cost-effective public transportation system in the world. It delivers two million passengers at two-minute intervals much like a subway, stopping at boarding stations every 500 meters. Its efficiency is due in part to Lerner’s belief that transport systems—from buses to bikes—must have their own designated paths, where no other vehicles can travel. He also gave it a clean, modern style. “The look is important,” says Lerner. We used glass to reduce graffiti, but also to make it pleasing. Because the more people like something, the more they take care of it.”

Lerner also believes that Curitiba’s successes can be reproduced anywhere in the world, and on any scale. Although Curitiba is hardly a megalopolis like New York or Hong Kong, he insists that the same basic formula can work for any city of any size. And indeed, several major cities in the U.S. and Canada, including Los Angeles, Houston, Ottawa and Vancouver, have already initiated limited versions of the RBT, with dedicated right-of-way lanes and boarding stations. L.A.’s Orange line for example, which runs for 14 miles through the San Fernando Valley, has been such a success that it exceeded passenger projections by 13 years. As a result, more RBT lines are sprouting up worldwide. San Francisco is said to be next, followed by Portland and Toronto.

That’s why Lerner, who is also the former president of both Brazil’s Institute of Urban Planning and the International Union of Architects, spends the majority of his time teaching other cities how to enhance sustainability. “We must change the way we think about sustainability,” he says. “Putting money into new fuels, building materials, and green buildings might be important in the future, but we can also make changes right now. 70% of the population of Curitiba uses public transportation and bicycles because we have made it easy and convenient for them; and 70% of the population separates its garbage because we have given them incentives and education.”

To date, over 80 cities worldwide have adopted similar ideas including Caracas, Venezuela, Seoul, South Korea and Xangai, China, and now cities in the US, namely San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Miami and Philadelphia are reviewing similar strategies. Janice Woodcock, the Executive Director of Urban Planning for Philadelphia, for instance, claims that she found Lerner’s ideas “simple, striking, and beautifully designed” after she attended one of Lerner’s lectures. Since then, she has been trying to incorporate some of his theories into Philadelphia’s urban planning, which she believes will reduce the city’s greenhouse gasses by 10% in three years. “Maybe we’re at the beginning of what Mr. Lerner faced 25 years ago but we would like to engage the future in a way that he did,” she says. As the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, Lerner’s first success came in the late 1960s when he and a number of fellow students championed an initiative that would restrict cars from entering the historic district of downtown. That resulted in a cobble-stoned, pedestrian-friendly commercial center that is now as charming as it is functional. Lerner went on to study architecture and urban planning in Paris. Upon his return to Brazil he worked mainly as an urban planner before being elected mayor of Curitiba at age 33. He served three terms before being elected as governor of Parana. As mayor his creative solutions to social problems are now legendary. He taught children the value of recycling (who in turn taught their parents), traded groceries for garbage in poor areas and paid fishermen to help clean up the nearby bay. He also initiated a building recycling program where buildings could be reused rather than replaced, built housing for the elderly closest to main public transportation lines, and created educational programs to teach lower-income families how to build their own homes. What’s more, he helped to initiate a flood-control system that has since produced four times the amount of per-capita green-space that the World Health Organization prescribes for healthy living. “We didn’t have money,” says Lerner. “So co-responsibility was essential.”

So if Curitiba could do it, argues Lerner, so could virtually any other city. The only real obstacle is an unwillingness to try. “I am a very lucky man,” he confesses. “Because I have seen many of my dreams come true. But people have to understand that dreams will always come true if we remember one thing: that 50% of innovation is taking the first step.”

Shown on listing page: Jaime Lerner at his office at rua Bom Jesus, Curitiba, 2003. Photo courtesy of Instituto Jaime Lerner

Posted May 05, 2007