Curitiba, which means "pinewood" in the Native Indian language Guarani, has a higher rate of green space than any other Brazilian city. Its 28 parks and undeveloped land cover about 20 million square meters. Many of Curitiba's parks were reclaimed and converted from industrial or commercial use. For instance, the Free University for the Environment, Curitiba's environmental learning center, was once a quarry. After it was depleted of stone, the land was donated to the city. When I toured the center, remains of the old operation were nowhere in sight. Instead, the old quarry wall made a dramatic backdrop for a quiet duck pond secluded from the roadway. The center's office is perched above the water on beams made from recycled lampposts.
Another of Curitiba's parks, Saõ Lourenço, lies in the middle of a river floodplain. Before it became a recreational area in 1972, the land was a favela, a tight collection of squatter's homes. During yearly winter rains, the valley basin would flood, carrying the shantytown's trash into the water supply. Curitiba's city planners came up with a creative solution: build low-income housing for these people away from the floodplain and convert the land into a park. Squatters went willingly to the new housing, which was outfitted with plumbing and electricity and paid for in part with help from the state. The community today has a park with jogging trails and picnic areas, and a herd of sheep grazes the grass instead of noisy lawnmowers.
Curitiba's approach toward environmental protection often incorporates solutions to human needs, the city's environmental education director Samora El Ghoz Leme told me. "The environment is not just physical," she said. "It's an interactive relationship with people."
Curitiba is the nation's number one recycler, separating about 19 percent of its garbage. Curitiba encourages recycling through incentives such as the Cambio Verde program, which enables poor citizens to exchange their metal and glass waste for fresh produce. The city also maintains a trash museum at its central recycling center. Valuables recovered from the trash are on display, including a verified pre-Classic Greek sculpture that somehow found its way from the Louvre Museum in Paris to Curitiba.