Curitiba park

Curitiba has almost 600 square feet of green space per resident.

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Guilherme Scholz Portela/Flickr

Curitiba, the eighth largest metropolis in Brazil and the capital of the state of Paraná, has been called the “best-planned city in the world.” Much of the credit goes to Jaime Lerner, a charismatic architect, urban planner and a former mayor of Curitiba.

Now in his eighth decade and retired from politics, Lerner, who was mayor or Curitiba three times and the governor of Parana twice, has traveled the world looking at some of the things cities do to make urban life more vibrant and sustainable. In his new book, Urban Acupuncture: Celebrating Pinpricks of Change that Enrich City Life, Lerner says the path to success is often found in doing simple things quickly that enhance the life of a city, he says.

“Sometimes to make a change in a city takes time; the process of planning takes time,” he says. “But through local interventions, you can start to give new energy to a city, and you can do it very fast. ... All it takes is a pinprick.”

Lerner is known for his innovative, focused approach to revitalizing cities, but one area he highlights is the centrality of public transport to healthy urban life.

When he was mayor, Lerner says, conventional wisdom held that every city with a population of one million people should have a subway. But the city didn’t have money for a subway. “So we started to think, ‘What is really a subway?’ It is a system of transport that has to have speed, less stops and good frequency. You shouldn’t wait more than one minute or two minutes. So we started to understand: ‘Why not on the surface?’”

In 1974, the city started one bus line dedicated to moving people quickly. It carried 50,000 passengers a day. Today, the Curitiba bus system carries 2,600,000 passengers per day — and it does this at 50 times less money per kilometer than the London Tube, which carries three million passengers per day. The “speedy bus” is now celebrated around the world as a model system for cities trying to do more with less to create attractive and rapid public transit.

Other cities will have to find ways to deal with traffic congestion and climate change, Lerner says, and the only way to do this is to face our addiction to the car. “The car has become the cigarette of the future,” he says. Nobody expected, he explains, that once smoking was forbidden in certain places it would eventually become socially unacceptable because of its impact on public health. But over time, that has happened. Now, he thinks the same might be true for the car.

“I’m not saying you are not going to have a car,” Lerner says. “We’ll still have cars for trips, for leisure — but for the daily, routine itinerary there’s only one way — public transport.”

There are other small things a city can do to have a rich life, to be environmentally responsible, socially fun and politically functional, Lerner suggests. It just takes a little imagination.

When he was governor, for example, the state of Paraná wanted to clean their bays, which had become badly polluted — but it was a very costly job. What was their solution? “We made an agreement with the local fishermen: if a fisherman catches a fish, it belongs to him; if he catches garbage, we buy the garbage. If the day was not good for fishing, they went to catch garbage — and the more garbage they caught, the cleaner the bay became; the cleaner the bay is, the more fish they have.”

Lerner believes every city is capable of implementing such smart, creative solutions. “I love a sign that I saw in Mexico City in a small square,” he says: “‘Better the grace of imperfection than the perfection without grace.’ People have so many ideas and there are so many things that can make people happier.”

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

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