Frontline World

BRAZIL - Curitiba's Urban Experiment, December 2003
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
master plan: history
master plan: future
architect tanaguchi architect lerner
Cassio Taniguchi  
jamie lerner
Interview With Jamie Lerner

Jamie Lerner stands as something of a hero among his fellow Curitibanos. The chief architect of the Curitiba Master Plan, he was appointed mayor during Brazil's military dictatorship in 1971. When the nation returned to democracy, he was elected to another term. During his 12 years in office, Lerner devised many of Curitiba's innovative, inexpensive solutions to city problems. For instance, in the early days of the public transit system, to increase its funding and encourage ridership, he made a special city lottery, valuing bus fare as lottery tickets. To combat Curitiba's growing litter problem, he created more incentives for recycling, including exchanging bottles, cans and other recyclables for food. Lerner believed in implementing plans swiftly -- in just 72 hours, he converted the city's downtown into Brazil's first pedestrian mall.

Lerner's track record in Curitiba helped him gain the trust and confidence he needed to reach state office, and he served as governor from 1994 to 2002. Today, Lerner consults with cities on their plans for addressing long-term growth and sustainability.

I met with Lerner in the central Curitiba house he built for his family and which has been his home for 40 years. The structure, recently converted into a live-work space, bucks traditional home design. Lerner built the house to conform to the land rather than raising it above the lot's hilly landscape. For example, rooms in the back are half-buried underground. After a tour of his home and office, we sat down in his front room and, under lofted ceilings and exposed beams, discussed the principles of the Curitiba model. As the shadows cast by the afternoon light grew longer on the table between us, Lerner reflected on the ability of all cities to change.

How is it that Curitiba has been so successful in changing over time?

Many times I was asked, "What is a process of changing?" After those 32 years, I can say to make change, a real change, in a city -- or in a state, or anywhere -- you have to have political will, solidaristic view and an equation of co-responsibility. And when you have an equation of co-responsibility, when people understand the ideas, everyone, they know how to share it.

What is the secret to Curitiba's success?

Simplicity. We never tried to have all the answers because if you try to have all the answers, it's...not leaving for the next generations everyone to make their contributions, and synergy. In Curitiba, it showed that it is possible. Every time when I hear "Ah, that city is so big, it's not possible" or "It's too difficult," that drives me crazy. You know, now, I can say every city in the world can make important changes in less than two years. And it's not a question of money, it's just a question of how to transform every problem [into] a solution. If you have a problem, you have to build an equation of co-responsibility.

Can you give an example of this kind of urban planning problem-solving?

I remember in the year 1992 we were asked for an exhibit of Curitiba in New York. So I said why just the images, why not put in a system? And we put an experimental line in just five days in New York... With the was always, "Oh, this is not possible." "Why is this not possible?" "Because the unions won't allow it." So I said let's go to the unions. And we discussed the idea. "Oh, this is not possible because of handicap requirements." So let's go talk to [those bureaucrats]. And little by little, but in a very fast way, we got the system working in five days. So we sent boarding tubes and buses just to give an example. In Istanbul, using the biggest airplane they have -- Antonov, it's a Russian airplane -- we transported double articulated buses and tubes, and in one week we put in [a transportation system].

next arrowNEXT: Cassio Taniguchi, a civic engineer, now serving as Curitiba's mayor, is leading the city through a new century of growth.