Curitiba: Sustainable Design in a Modern City

A city is where life happens. People work, play, and love there. They stroll through its parks, encounter long-lost friends — the city is where we live, in the fullest sense of the word.

In recent years, the idea that cities should be ecologically-balanced has taken root around the globe. A little-known state capital in southern Brazil, Curitiba, has become a model for a new way of building and maintaining the urban expanse in a sustainable manner.

I had the opportunity to live briefly in Curitiba a few years ago, and study the successes of its urban planning. I’d like to share some of what I learned. But before I talk about the city in detail, let’s set the stage with an intro to a rather academic-sounding term, Psychogeography.


What is Psychogeography

According to Guy Debord, one of the co-founders of the Situationists International (loosely put, a French version of the American Beat Movement) Psychogeography is the study of the effects of a city’s environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.

In the past, Psychogeography was a tool to supplant the ‘system’; it was used in service of rebellious acts. But now, its wisdom can be harnessed by the system to greatly enhance a city’s quality of life. Psychogeographic concepts can be used to ease traffic congestion, create safer walkways, and decrease a city’s negative carbon footprint.

Architects and city planners are the vanguard of a new era in modern Psychogeography. By researching how a city affects its citizens, and then making design and construction plans based on their findings, they are helping a completely different type of city to emerge. Instead of waiting to see how certain geographic environments impact people, cities like Curitiba are designed to produce beneficial effects — like citizens feeling safer at night, the elimination of billboards, and the decisive management of traffic flow.

In many ways, the interactions between people within a city mirror the ecology of nature. Thus, urban planners are choosing to look at the city from an ecological viewpoint. It may not be a perfect copy, but a city can emulate the essence of what the natural world should be: a sustainable and equitable living situation.


Curitiba is a Sustainable City

As I mentioned, I lived for a time in Curitiba — specifically to study its model of urban planning. Many threads weave into creating a safe urban environment for people, and one of the first that I noticed was a positive relationship with the police. Mark Holston, an expert on Latin American peoples and geography, gives this first-hand account of his impressions:

Unlike anywhere else in Brazil, there is no siege mentality — fear of the police by the city’s residents. The police force are likened to Canada’s Mounted Police in regards to the pride with which they wear their uniforms, and how friendly they are to residents and tourists alike.

This is of importance because the residents of, and visitors to, Curitiba feel safe. The police force is one of the most prominent faces of government. With a law enforcement agency so willing to put the citizenry they serve at ease, it can be seen as an extension of how the city government feels about its constituents. Without fear of the police, curitibanos are free to invest more of their time and energy into exploring and maintaining their city.

It’s this resident-centered approach to city living, building and management that makes Curitiba a template of the sustainable, modern city. The city’s planners, managers and other stakeholders have reconciled themselves to the idea that the physical environment and the psychosocial one are inextricably linked.


Jaime Lerner, a Mayor with a Vision

This type of radical change didn’t happen over night. The seeds for today’s healthy fruition in Curitiba were planted decades ago. The impetus for a more holistic design came from Jamie Lerner, during his first term as the city’s Mayor in 1971. Lerner — currently a professor of urban planning at the Architecture School of the Federal University of Paraná — spearheaded most of the social, ecological, and urban reforms that are associated with the renewal of Curitiba.

His Wikipedia entry highlights a few of Lerner’s accomplishments while in office, including the development of the Rede Integrada de Transporte (or Bus Rapid Transit):

The city built attractive transit stops with the look and feel of train stations, and all with handicapped access equipment, inducing private firms to purchase and operate the buses. The city controls the routes and fares, while the private companies hire drivers and maintain equipment.

Natural land-use patterns within the city of Curitiba support public transit systems. Buildings along the dedicated bus ways are up to six stories tall, gradually giving way, within a few blocks, to single story homes. This mix of densities ensures sufficient user population within walking distance of bus stops.

Mayor Lerner (who also served two terms as governor of Curitiba’s state, Paraná) was disturbed by the pollution due to personal and public vehicles, and also by the lack of pedestrian spaces. An architect by training, he made the radical decision to create pedestrian-only zones. And in keeping with this theme, chose to create an elevated train system — as opposed to the subways that were in vogue.

Lerner thought that by having an elevated rail system, riders would be able to see these pedestrian zones, and be compelled to exit the trains to spend time in the publicly-maintained parks. Without giving it a formal name, I think that Lerner was putting his spin on the core concepts of modern Psychogeography.


the Success of Mass Transit

Eighty-five percent of the city’s population uses the 24-hour mass transit system. That’s over 1.5 million people. But aside from being ubiquitous, the system is also equitable. Passengers travel between any two points for just one fare. By making any trip length a single fare, and having this fare be affordable, the desire for private transportation is lessened. This promotes an ecological approach to intra-city travel; the fewer cars on the road, the less pollution there is.

Along the transit routes, the city has built Faróis de Sabers (literally, ‘lighthouses of knowledge’). They act as centers for social and ecological education — providing internet access and a host of other services. One of the best, and most effective, uses of the Faróis de Sabers is on-site job training that teaches the skills necessary to keep all of the city’s pro-ecological services running.

Psychogeographic concepts are firmly implemented into the infrastructure of Curitiba. The very notion of a train — one that runs in an extended loop with no beginning or end — having places for education and enlightenment along its various stops is a wonderful example. With these concepts in action, Curitiba is an anomaly in that part of the world. But, hopefully, not for long as more cities seek to emulate its achievements.


Curitiba is a Model for the Future

In Curitiba, designers and builders have incorporated the natural world into the urban milieu (and vice versa) without choosing one model over the other. This shift in thinking to a more eco-friendly city is profound. For example, by moving to a more comprehensive mass transit system, pollution is controlled due to fewer automobiles on the road.

Curitiba is in harmony with the natural world: ecologically and psychogeographically sustainable. It’s a green city that nurtures itself and the people who reside in it. Curitiba has been designed to mirror the balance and symbiosis of the natural order; thus its citizens can live more resonant with their environment.

As proven by what is happening in Curitiba and a few other cities, the technology and design know-how is available to start building more like them right now. Sustainable ideas can be taken off the drafting tables of architects and designers, and shared with urban leaders, city planners, and construction workers so these theories can become tangible — enacting a positive change which is sorely needed in many urban areas.


Photos: Bruno Gola, Cesar Martins, ITF, Milton Jung, Augusto Janiscki, and Augusto Janiscki

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Shawn Taylor

Shawn Taylor

Shawn is a columnist for Ebony; and the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives with his wife and daughter in the San Francisco Bay area. Follow him: @reallovepunk

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