designing the eco-city: the legacy of jaime lerner

by jenny zhong, first year environmental policy with economics at LSE

Credit to International Transport Forum via Flickr

Credit to International Transport Forum via Flickr

By 2050, 68% of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas. The UN projection highlights the importance of cities as a focal point for environmental efforts due to its high demand for energy and resources. 

Through his planning work, it is evident that Jaime Lerner sees this as an opportunity rather than a setback in adopting bold solutions to environmental problems. Curitiba, a city that Lerner mainly focused on, now has a GDP per capita 60% higher than the average. The former mayor of Curitiba and ex-governor of Parana in Brazil uses his power with noble intentions, transforming a city into an eco-city using restricted budgets and endless creativity. His philosophy is to “work fast to avoid our own bureaucracy”, opting for a simple approach to all planning projects. 

“You have to keep things simple, and just start working… you have a lot of complexity sellers in this life. We should beat them, beat them with a slipper.”

This philosophy materialised in a project to pedestrianise the main central shopping street in 1972, which started Friday night and completed Monday morning. Although the project led to more business around street shops and more store keepers wanting streets to be pedestrianised, there was a backlash by drivers who argued streets should be dominated by cars and this had caused them to change routes unnecessarily. Drivers planned a protest driving through the newly pedestrianised thoroughfare in protest for blocked roads, but was met by Lerner’s creative solution to turn the street into a paint zone for children. Lots of children were armed with paintbrushes, shielded with easels and the protest drivers never appeared. 

Lerner is also imperative in popularising the simple Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT). Rather than looking to build subway and tube stations, which would require multiple times as much funding, he instead proposed overground bus stations. These buses had their own exclusive routes, allowing them to move faster and more efficient than cars and had a prepayment system for increased efficiency. It is estimated that the BRT carries 2 million passengers a day, and has reduced street traffic by 30%. As the city expanded, they could only grow along bus routes that were already built so that residents were never more than 400 meters from a bus stop, reducing their reliance on private transport and increasing convenience for citizens.

Under the Green Exchange program, the focus on economic incentives by Lerner’s team revolutionised the way a nearby favela managed their surroundings. Initially, the residents were dumping trash in surrounding rivers and fields because there were no trash collection trucks in proximity. Then in 1989, under this program the citizens traded 4 pounds of trash for tokens or a pound of produce. This meant many residents cleaned rivers and fields of old rubbish to sell, and today it has expanded so that 90% of the city participates in its recycling program. 

Alongside these efforts to clean the city, there were also efforts to green it. Parks and public spaces were emphasized by Lerner as key to a greener future. The building and maintenance of green belts around the city meant that the entire city is economically, socially and environmentally profiting off from its 16 parks and 14 forests, as well as more than 1000 green public spaces. Each inhabitant has on average 52 square meters of green space, a change that marked Curitiba as the third greenest city in the world in 2007. 

Each project led by the former mayor of Curitiba or his team can teach us something about the importance of prioritising transport, green spaces, pedestrians and a simple approach to planning a city. As more people flock to city centers in search of a better life, policy makers, planners and governments around the world should look to Lerner’s projects for inspiration to achieve sustainable urban development.