Curitiba, Brazil: A leader in sustainable development

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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 New Orleans 365 days a
year, aren’t Brazilians perpetually celebrating that flashy festival, Carnaval?

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 New Zealand. With their high aggregate wealth, relative
social equality, snowy-white landscapes and population profiles of a similarly
pale hue, these countries are about as different from Brazil as you can get (or
at least from my own impressions of the South American nation). So imagine my
surprise when I discovered that there is one Brazilian city that is a world
leader in sustainability: Curitiba.

I first learned about Curitiba in an undergraduate geography class called “Globalization, Development, and
Environment.” When I saw that National Geographic Traveler’s "Intelligent Travel" blog was hosting a blog carnival about sustainable cities (called "Carnival of Cities"), the city immediately came to mind. For, even after reading just a few accounts of Curitiba, my impressions had
quickly developed in line with the lyrical descriptions of American writer,
educator, and environmentalist Bill McKibben (in 3):

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

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 Pa
olo 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.), Curitiba has achieved an impressive set of
sustainability milestones. To name a few:

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.

Green Space

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 are educated to become engaged
citizens through learning progressive social and environmental concepts at an
early age. The recycling program, for example, was first initiated in the
school system 1. Mayor Lerner established
a “University for the Environment” (Universidade Livre do Meio Ambiente) where
students can continue to pursue higher education, and eventually become key
players in the city’s ongoing efforts for green development 1.

Curitiba: World model
I’ve now described Curitiba as if it were perhaps
the pinnacle of sustainable urban development projects, nothing less than a panacea
for the ills of industrial society. While this might be a bit hyperbolic, its
achievements are certainly impressive: In 1992, the Resolution passed at the
International Urban Forum in Curitiba was used
to inform policy at the United Nations Conference on the Environment and
Development held in Rio de Janeiro 2. All this in Brazil, a country
notorious for burning down the largest, most biologically diverse rainforest in
the world to produce cattle and soybeans in the mad dash to ‘develop.’ Brazil: home to
bloated megacities like Sao Paolo
and Rio de Janiero, with some of most egregious cases of air pollution in the

Indeed, the case of Curitiba seems to prove the power of dynamic leadership when utilized as a voice articulating
the most basic wants, needs, and desires of a population. In the words of Mayor
Jamie Lerner himself: “There is no endeavor more noble than the attempt to
achieve a collective dream. When a city accepts as its mandate its quality of
life; when it respects the people who live in it, when it respects the
environment; when it prepares for future generations, the people share
responsibility for that mandate, and the shared cause is the only way to achieve
that collective dream” 1. Sounds
like the very definition of “sustainability” to me.

Curitiba: Ideal vacation destination
Through Lerner’s efforts, Curitiba truly seems to have become “more intelligent and more humane”2. It is certainly a must-visit
destination for all “intelligent travelers” interested in sustainability at
both the global and local levels, an example of a city “doing it right.” So why
not take a trip to Curitiba, where European social values and aesthetics meet Brazilian free-spiritedness
and flair. Stroll down the Dua das Flores–the oldest pedestrian street in Brazil—or
through one of the city’s many parks (I like the sound of the Parque Alemao, the
“German Woods” with plaques that recount the story of Hansel and Gretel); and
visit the Oscar Niemeyer Museum and the Feira do Largo da Ordem open air market

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
personally visited Curitiba:
“I went when I was very young, and I barely remember anything. But I can tell
you this much: It is indeed paradise.”

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7 responses to “Curitiba, Brazil: A leader in sustainable development

  1. Brazil is doing everything for its development, but not destroying the Amazon. We preserved 80% of this forest, and the government is doing a big effort to stop deforestation (it stopped to grow in 2004). There is a “environmental index” created by a agency called “German Watch” (if I remember), that put Brazil in the 8th position as a country that most do for environment, against the 55th position of USA and something like that for France (in a list of 57 countries). Mexico and Argentina are in good positions (5th and 10th). It’s time to you (people from the auto-declared “first world”) start to do something for the planet.

  2. On the other hand, Amazon is desappering because of the Global Warming. In Brazil, our cars use the “devil and demoniac (according to CNN)” biofuels, and our energy is produced by water, wind, biomassa, natural gas (only a little share is derived from oil). Every time you turn on your enormous television, use the lights of your three-store house and put your enormous car on the street, you are contributing for the disappering of the Amazon Forest, and to the destruction of our country.

  3. Hi Jose,
    Thanks very much for your comments!
    My research suggests that you are accurate in many respects: As a nation, Brazil has taken steps in the last 5 years to dramatically improve its environmental policies, including initiation of a program in 2004 to rapidly decrease rates of deforestation in the Amazon. Of course, this policy was instituted largely in response to particularly severe rates of deforestation in 2002 and 2003:
    While Brazil is making admirable progress, especially considering that its economy is very much still in the process of development, the country has a ways to go before it can be considered a world leader on environment. I could not find the “German Watch” ranking system to which you referred, but here’s one I DID find: the Pilot 2006 Environmental Performance Index performed by Yale and Columbia Universities:
    And of course, the United States is probably the worst performer of all in the international community. While cited as number 28 on the EPI list for exercising some progressive policies, and despite having been recently passed by China in total CO2 emissions, the U.S. is one of the MOST consumptive countries per capita. This is significant given that it boasts the third largest population in the world. Never mind that the U.S. has failed to sign on to international treaties like the Kyoto Protocol. Thus, both Brazil and the U.S. (ESPECIALLY the U.S.) have improvements to make. We all, as citizens of the earth, must take dramatic steps to start better caring for our planet and our descendants.

  4. That’s very interesting about Curitiba, I hadn’t heard of it either. Did Portugal have anything to do with the foundation for their urban planning and stuff? Or did this happen after? Great stuff, I like the “Intelligent Travel” blog too. Thanks.

  5. When I was living Brazil many types I heard that Curitiba was the model city for all the other cities in Brazil.
    I’ve never been there but by the pictures must be a really good place to live and work.

  6. hello
    im doing a sustainable city project for school
    and i just wondered. would you consider the fact that Brazil si doing much to perserve the ranforest and to lessen th eimpact on it, aprt of Curitiba’s sustainability?

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