Change comes from the cities
draws lessons from experience in pioneering
In the course of 25 years working as a professional in
Curitiba, Brazil, and other cities, I have become convinced that it is
essential to consider the city as an agent of change. Local action can
have a revolutionary effect at a regional, national and global level,
regardless of the city's size.
The potential of local-level action is self-evident. Consider, for
instance, the link that exists between local action and external debt.
Brazil's debt inhibits the country's development; this is true for many
other countries as well. However, if each city were to act against
wastefulness, some of the energy-generating resources currently purchased
from abroad would no longer be needed.
Similarly, the survival of the Earth is inextricably linked to the
policies of our cities, which is where the majority of our ecological
problems now originate. Our planet would benefit greatly if every city,
large or small, were to adopt environmentally friendly policies.
Curitiba's example is persuasive. More than five years ago its inhabitants
began separating organic from non-organic waste, both at home and in the
office, so that the former could be re-used or recycled. Re-using old
paper now saves some 1,200 trees from felling every day.
How many trees could all the cities in the world save? How many a day, how
many a year? And by how much could we reduce the extraction of other
natural resources by recycling glass, plastics and metals?
Local-level action can protect the environment and can also be directed
towards other key issues such as education, whose main priority is to
alleviate the impact of poverty. This opportunity must not be missed.
How can this notion of collective awareness be reconciled with the
fundamental problems of the city? How can it be reconciled with the
poverty experienced by the majority of its inhabitants? I am convinced
that the challenge of city planning today lies in striking a balance
between meeting people's basic needs and preparing for the city's future.
Balancing what is vital with what is important. Balancing day-to-day needs
with those of the future. A city will not be well managed if local
authorities are overpreoccupied with short-term issues, because then they
will be impeding long-term development.
Similarly, the city will not be well managed if its local authorities are
preoccupied only with future plans, because these plans will bypass the
immediate needs of its inhabitants; their problems will be aggravated and,
in addition, they will not be directly involved in the city's projects.
Paying attention to problems as they arise is crucial to the effectiveness
of both short and long-term city planning. We must take it as gospel that
problems must not be allowed to accumulate. Thus, one of our primary
obligations must be to ensure that every city becomes environmentally
friendly from this day forth.
What constitutes an environmentally friendly
An environmentally friendly city is one that minimizes waste and
economizes to the maximum. This would be my criteria for any project which
deserves to be given priority - for guidelines, or even steps to be
followed - to achieve this fundamental objective.
Guidelines would set out progressively to reduce waste in all its forms,
to avoid the accumulation of problems, and to make full use of existing
structures. They would aim not to complicate issues, but to take action.
Why, for example, choose a sophisticated waste separation plant which is
laborious to set up and operate when each family can separate the waste in
advance and, in the process, develop a healthy sense of joint
responsibility towards the environment?
A city which is environmentally friendly gives public transport priority
over private transport. This is essential. Fuel is conserved through
reduced car use. Funds used to finance roadworks that benefit the
excessive use of private cars (which only serves to compromise the quality
of life in the city, particularly in the large ones) could instead be
allocated to the development of public transport.
In Curitiba, where public transport has been prioritized for the last two
decades, the city consumes 20 per cent less fuel than other large
Brazilian cities. A comprehensive bus system - which would help remove
thousands of cars from the streets - can be set up for the same cost as
constructing a flyover, which often only serves to shift a traffic jam
from one point to another.
When I cite the example of Curitiba I am often told that it is a special
case, where solutions have only been found because the city has only 1.6
million inhabitants. I would agree that the city is different - but this
is because it has made itself different: all cities (including megacities)
could follow its example.
If one has a clear global picture of the problems and prospects of a city,
it is perfectly possible to govern and guide its growth and give it a
As far as the megacity is concerned, I believe that the major achievement
of the authorities is the suitable selection of technology which
adequately meets its needs. It is obvious that an issue such as sanitation
cannot be resolved in a large city through centralization: solutions must
be found in the catchment area on a street-by-street basis.
Conversely, planning public transport is essentially dependent on
integrating the whole system. The choice of bus routes in a city is
directly related to what could be called technology for the masses. It is
crucial to give due consideration to the magnitude of a project in order
to avoid the risk of presenting 'show-case' solutions which are conceived
for the media and only benefit a minority of the inhabitants.
City planners should not allow the scale of the city's projects to detract
from such considerations as the psychological effects of the urban
landscape on its inhabitants. Rather, respect for these values is
fundamental to humanizing the city.
We must make use of past experiences. We must base the development of the
city around its history, preserving and appreciating its intrinsic
reference points, which have guided entire generations and provide its
Similarly, a city must be considered as a common ground where the informal
and formal sectors can live together in peace. It is important to make
gradual adjustments to the city as it develops and not to make plans which
automatically assume the worst.
If considered in this way, the city will, little by little, cease to be a
mere centre for survival and become a place where human contact abounds as
an expression of solidarity.
Planners can encourage the city's inhabitants by giving them joint
responsibility for solving its problems, from the most simple
environmental issues - such as those concerned with waste - to the most
Authorities must not fall into the 'tragedy syndrome', where problems seem
insurmountable and where the inhabitants become complacent, believing
their isolated actions to be insignificant. If responsible action is
encouraged now, the community will respond positively to our appeals in
future. Above all, if the inhabitants feel respected, they will respect
the environmental issues presented to them.
I hold great store in the 'domino effect', believing that the example of
one city - good or bad - can influence the rest. Countries can be changed
by their cities and I emphatically believe in an optimistic vision of both
the city and humanity. If the city becomes environmentally friendly, the
country will follow suit and future generations will inherit a world in
which development is sustainable.
Jaime Lerner, architect and town planner and former Mayor of Curitiba,
is Governor of Paraná, Brazil, and Special Advisor to the United
Nations on Human Settlements.