Frontline World

BRAZIL - Curitiba's Urban Experiment, December 2003
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
master plan:future
master plan: history
master plan: future
The Future of Curitiba

While visiting Curitiba, I witnessed scenes of daily life that added greater dimension to the international model I read about back home. Seconds after a man tossed an empty can onto a dark street, I watched a child dart from a corner to collect and redeem it for cash or food through Curitiba's world-renowned Cambio Lixio trash exchange program. I saw people lining up all hours of the night to log on at free, public Internet terminals along Rua 24 Horas -- one of the city's lively pedestrian-only streets, lined with shops and restaurants. I watched children playing on park equipment that I learned was transported to Curitiba by an old city bus, later converted into a mobile recreation center. The vignettes were testaments to the city's embrace of urban planning and environmental protection -- something I didn't witness in the rest of my travels in Brazil.

the tube at night
With the construction of a new transit axis, Curitiba is continuing to invest in its renowned transit system.
As more and more people flock to cities worldwide, the challenges for urban planners and leaders also grow. Many are turning to Curitiba for answers. Few cities have attempted to adopt Curitiba's holistic approach to urban planning, but a fair number have borrowed from its solutions to address individual urban ills. Some city leaders travel to Curitiba to see for themselves just how the city operates, and they return home inspired to start similar programs.

During my travels, I met a delegation from Mexico studying the city's success as Brazil's leading recycler. I learned Curitiba's rapid bus transit model has also been exported around the world, from Bogotá to Seoul. Los Angeles adopted a similar system after former Mayor Richard Riordan traveled to Curitiba. Other U.S. cities, including Detroit, Seattle and San Diego, are also considering adopting Curitiba's transportation solutions. In all, Curitiba officials told me, 41 cities are operating a transportation system based on the Curitiba system, with 46 more in development.

Curitiba didn't become a success story overnight. Its innovations evolved over a generation and through experimentation. The city also had the advantage of local leaders who had urban planning expertise and who early in Curitiba's history invested powers in an independent and progressive planning office.

Curitibanos I met shared a pride in the unique urban experiment of their city. But they also conveyed an uncertainty for Curitiba's future.

I was invited to a family dinner with longtime Curitiba resident Jose Luiz Miccelli. The 43-year-old technician told me that without the diligence of local leaders and fellow Curitibanos, he fears his city could quickly go the way of others.

"All these things that have happened to Curitiba, they will end if there isn't constant attention given to it," he told me as we sipped coffee and tea and nibbled from a traditional Brazilian spread of cheeses, sliced meats and pastries. "Transportation and especially all the ecology issues -- recycling our trash -- we're afraid it will go away, that cuts will be made and things like environmental education will stop."

A supporter of Curitiba's current mayor, Cassio Taniguchi, Miccelli is concerned when term limits will require Taniguchi to leave office in 2005. A civil engineer, Taniguchi was involved in Curitiba planning since the 1970s. No one with an urban planning background has emerged yet as a serious candidate in the next election.

But despite citizen concern over its future leadership, Curitiba revealed itself to be a city committed to maintaining its traditions. After 40 years of practice, there is a shared responsibility ingrained in the citizenry to do so. And it's that identity that just might be Curitiba's best defense against inertia in its future.

next arrowSee a chronology of Curitiba's Master Plan.