Change comes from the cities

Change comes from the cities


draws lessons from experience in pioneering environmentally friendly

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.

street market 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 city?

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.

Positive outlook

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 positive outlook.

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 basic infrastructure.

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.

Joint responsibility

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 complex.

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.

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