* Written by Nicholas Mang.


Curitiba is a large provincial capital city in south eastern Brazil with a population of roughly 2.4 million inhabitants. Curitiba is not known for any exceptional landmark; there are no beaches or wide, bridge-spanned rivers. It rains quite often. It has slums or shanty towns that have sprouted up around the city’s edges with roughly 1,700 new peasants migrating from the country side to the city every month.

Its population has skyrocketed over the past fifty years, growing sixteen‐fold. Its city resources have been scant.


Given all of this, it is a small wonder that Curitiba has not followed in the footsteps of most other burgeoning third world cities faced with these dilemmas. Rather then becoming an urban metropolis overrun with poverty, unemployment, inequity, and pollution over the past half‐century, Curitiba and its citizens have instead seen a continuous and highly significant elevation in their quality of life.

“Though starting with the dismal economic profile typical of its region, in nearly three decades the city has achieved measurably better levels of education, health, human welfare, public safety, democratic participation, political integrity, environmental protection, and community spirit than its neighbors, and some would say than most cities in the United States.” (Hawken et. al., 1999, p. 288)

Many, including the United Nations, have in fact lauded the city of Curitiba as now being a leading model or ecological urban development and planning (McKibben, 1995). The statistics show why:

  • The amount of green space per capita in the city has risen in the past thirty years from a dismal half a‐square meter of green space per inhabitant to over 50 square meters per inhabitant (Ribeiro & Tavares, 1992). In fact, nearly one‐fifth of the city is now parkland (MacLeod, 2002).
  • Over 1.5 million trees have been planted by volunteers along streets and avenues (Pierce, 2000)
  • Curitiba’s fast and efficient bus system carries more passengers per weekday than New York City’s and runs with an 89 percent approval rating (Hawken, et. al., 1999).
  • Auto traffic has declined by over 30% since 1974, despite the facts that Curitiba’s population has doubled in this period of time and that there more car owners per capita in Curitiba then anywhere else in Brazil (MacLeod, 2002).
  • The city of Curitiba has the highest percentage of citizens who recycle in the world (Ribeiro & Tavares, 1992). In fact, over 70 percent of all the city’s trash is now recycled (MacLeod, 2002).
  • Curitiba’s 30‐year economic growth rate is 7.1 percent higher than the national average, resulting in a per capita income that is now 66 percent higher than the Brazilian average (MacLeod, 2002).

What makes these accomplishments even more astonishing is the fact that all this was achieved through the means of a very limited civic budget. Many of Curitiba’s programs are designed to help pay for themselves, to address multiple civic issues at the same time, and to systemically coordinate with and enable the working of other programs. The “Green Exchange” is a good example of this systemic approach to planning.

“In the slums or favelas, where refuse vehicles can’t negotiate unpaved alleys, small trucks fan out in a massive ‘Green Exchange.’ For bags of sorted trash, tens of thousands of the city’s poorest receive 4 bags of rice, beans, eggs, bananas, and carrots that the city buys inexpensively from the area’s surplus production. The result’s are both better public health (less litter, rats, disease) and better nutrition.” (Pierce, 2000)

Furthermore, the excess money generated by the city’s recycling program is then used to fund additional educational and health programs for the poor. Many of these educational programs are in turn housed in retired (yet fully operational) city busses that have been remodeled into mobile classrooms. And many of these educational and social programs themselves generate income. For instance, free day‐care centers for the poor give kids the opportunity to create art‐and‐crafts, which are then sold in local souvenir shops. As one resident explains it:

“The city is the best human invention. But to make it work, a city’s society must be understood as a train that will go no faster than its slowest wagon or car. City governments exist to push the slowest car so the whole train will go faster” (Wright, 1996)

Fundamental to all of these changes in Curitiba is the change that has taken place in the culture itself. The spirit within the Curitiban culture and its civic pride has risen dramatically. In a survey conducted in the 1990s, over 99 percent of Curitibans told pollsters that if they could choose anywhere in the world to live, they would choose Curitiba. This contrasts with similar polls conducted in New York City, in which 60 percent said they would rather live somewhere else, and in Sao Paulo, in which 70 percent said they would rather live in Curitiba (McKibben, 1995).

Historically, Curitiba has been known as being a rather conservative and introverted society. This, however, is now changing. As local writer, Valencio Xavier (cited in McKibben, 1995), wrote, “Curitiba has always been a very tight city . . . before we were like oysters that crack open just a little bit to get the world passing by. Now we are opening up” (p. 105). Curitibans take pride in their city and on the whole are much more intrinsically motivated to act on behalf of the collective good of their city and fellow citizens. In the 1990s, downtown shopkeepers formed a trade association that collected dues to fund joint advertising and sponsor activities. According to one of the local shopkeepers, Anibal Tacla (cited in McKibben, 1995)

“In any other part of Brazil, if you talk to a merchant and ask him to pay three hundred dollars a month for an association, he will give you a big four letter word. Here, eighty percent joined up. Everything’s like that now – if you talk to Curitibans about separating garbage, they will do it, because they know they live in a different city. This mind‐condition – it’s very important, and it’s the exact reverse of what happened in Rio [and for that matter most other modern cities].” (p. 106)


Given all of these measures of success, the question that arises is how was this feat accomplished; how did Curitibans successfully bring about such a large‐scale transformation and regeneration of their city structure and culture?

While the answer to this question is not simple nor clearly apparent from what has been written on Curitiba, all the literature sources reviewed for this study (e.g. McKibben, 1995; Wright, 1996; Pierce, 2000; Ribeiro & Tavares, 1992; Hawken, et. al., 1999; MacLeod, 2002; Meadows, 1995; Vaz & Vaz del Bello, 2006) agreed that central to this transformation project’s success was the leadership and visionary role held by Jaime Lerner, the several times mayor of Curitiba and principal architect of the city’s urban redevelopment over the past thirty some years, and his core group of planning associates.

Their story begins in the 1950s and 60s. During this period of time, Curitiba was dealing with the straining effects of an explosive population growth that had started to gain momentum in the 1940s and 50s.

Between 1950 and 1960, in fact, the population of Curitiba doubled (Schwartz, 2004). Such rapid, unmanaged growth stretched the limits of what the city infrastructure could handle, in particularly in terms of its ability to handle automobiles. Traffic jams had become more plentiful and air pollution was worsening (McKibben, 1995). City officials at the time responded to these changes by calling for the implementation of a city plan that had been drafted two decades earlier to deal with the issue of reconfiguring the city for the automobile era. It, like most urban plans of that time, called for widening the main streets of the city to include more lanes and building a highway overpass that would link two of the city’s main squares.

Implementing this plan, however, required knocking down many of the turn‐of‐the‐century buildings that lined the downtown and building the highway overpass directly over the historic main‐street of the city (Ribeiro & Tavares, 1992).

To the city administration’s surprise, uproar and resistance to this plan was unexpectedly strong. Leading this resistance was Jaime Lerner and his associates in the architecture and planning departments of the local branch of the federal university (McKibben, 1995). For Jaime Lerner, this city plan and the ripping up of the downtown which it proposed, meant the end of the city which he had lived in and loved all of this life. According to Lerner, “They (the city planners at the time) were trying to throw away the story of the city, they were trying to emulate, on a much smaller scale, the ‘tabula rasa’ miracle of Brasilia (Brazil’s capital city that was built from the ground up as a modern city with modern high‐rises and speed‐ways)” (cited in McKibben, 1995, p. 64).

The city was at a crossroads. Was it to go the way of most modern cities and accommodate itself whole‐heartedly to the automobile, even if it meant the loss of its unique and historical character, or could it find another path, one that would reconcile its modernization needs with its historical character and the principles of human‐scale and ecological‐based development?

In the end, the state’s development company refused to finance these projects and instead offered funds to enable a new master plan to be drawn up. Thus, in 1965‐66, a new and quite innovative master plan was developed, led by the same architects and planners, including Jaime Lerner, who had fought against the implementation of the first city plan. Contained within this plan, as it turned out, were the seed thoughts for reconciling the modernization needs of the city on the one hand and the desire to preserve and grow the historical character of the city in a human and pedestrian friendly manner on the other. The implementation of this plan began five years later, when as a result of a political fluke Jaime Lerner was elected mayor of Curitiba at the age of thirty‐three.

Having now become mayor, one of Jaime Lerner’s first actions was the brilliant and highly symbolic move of remaking the downtown in one swift and bold feat. Having helped to save the historic downtown street just five years earlier from being covered by a highway overpass, Jaime Lerner now sought to revitalize this central street by making it a pedestrian mall. Such a move, however, was unheard of in the field of city planning at the time. According to Lerner, “I knew we’d have a fight. I had no way to convince the storeowners a pedestrian mall would be good for them, because there was no other pedestrian mall in Brazil. No other in the world, really, except maybe Munich. But I knew if they had a chance to actually see it, everyone would love it” (McKibben, 1995, p. 66). Knowing this, Lerner and his staff prepared for almost a year before they acted directly on the downtown street. First, they created traffic alternatives that made vehicle flow on the main street less necessary. Then they worked on designing a plan for the street redevelopment that would create the least resistance from shop‐owners and their customers:

“I told my staff, ‘This is like a war.’ My secretary of public works said the job would take two months. I got him down to one month. Maybe one week, he said, but that’s final. I said, ‘Let’s start Friday night, and we have to finish by Monday morning.’” (Lerner as cited in McKibben, 1995, p. 66).

And this is exactly what they did. Moving in with over one‐hundred construction workers on Friday night, they jack‐hammered up the pavement and putin cobblestone, streetlights, and tens of thousands of flowers. The following business week, the same storeowners that were threatening legal action to fight this move, were asking the mayor to extend the pedestrian mall even further so that their stores too could be included in it.

The following weekend, however, the newly created pedestrian mall faced another threat. Members of the local automobile club planned a “retaking of the street” by driving their cars through the mall in protest. Rather then setting up a police barricade to stop them, Jaime Lerner sent in children. When the protestors arrived at the mall, they found dozens of children sitting in the former streets painting murals.

Thirty years later, business and cultural life in this pedestrian mall is flourishing, and the mall now extends over twenty square blocks in the downtown area.

To this day, every Saturday morning (except when there is heavy rain) children still take over the pedestrian mall and paint and draw pictures in commemoration of the day when Curitibans took back their city’s historic center and returned it to pedestrians and a more human‐scale way of life.


One of the most distinctive and outstanding aspects of Jaime Lerner and his associates’ approach to city planning was their unique work process. Every morning, Lerner and his core team of planners would meet in a log cabin retreat in the middle of a forested city park. There, according to one of the leaders interviewed for this study, they worked only “on what (was) fundamental, on what would affect a large number of people and could create change for the better.” Then, in the afternoons, they would return to city hall to meet with their constituents and to deal with the city’s day‐to‐day needs.

By structuring their workdays in this way, these planners put a much greater daily emphasis on large scale, visionary planning than most city governments do. Yet, at the same time, they sought to temper this deeper, visioning work with continual interaction and exchange with the needs of the people. In other words, the mornings helped them continue to see and work on the bigger picture of the city and its evolution, while the afternoons helped them to stay grounded in the needs and pressing issues that the people of their city faced on a day‐to‐day basis. As one interviewee states it, while “I had all kinds of pressure and people coming and showing their needs every afternoon, I could react in a good mood because I knew we were working on what was really fundamental.

According to the planners that were interviewed, this balance between needs and potentials was critical to their success.

“For me, a good strategy is a daily balance between needs and potentials. Why? Because if you are working only with the needs and going every night and asking what are the needs of this neighborhood or that, you won’t change anything. On the other hand, if you are just looking at a large number of people, the big problems, you’ll be far from the people. So you have to keep a daily balance.”

Each morning was structured as a charrette‐like process. According to Jaime Lerner, “we use the charrette, always the charrette” (cited in McKibben, 1995, p. 77). The charrette is a creative design process developed in architecture that involves gathering key specialists from different fields together in an intensive meeting to quickly try and sketch out solutions to a given challenging situation. In the U.S., the charrette is often employed in the architectural field as a means for stimulating creativity and collaborative alignment between design team members. In such cases, however, the charrette is almost always used as an individual event rather than as a continual day‐to‐day process. By turning their morning meetings into a continual charretting process as opposed to a solitary event, the city planners of Curitiba were able to generate the creative space in which to continually delve deeper into their understanding of how the city worked as an integral system and how to refine solutions that would enable its continuing improvement and evolution through time. “It was always a learning process,” said one of the interviewees.

By working in this way, the city planners helped to create a shared sense of commitment in their morning meetings toward continually working to improve the critical systems in their city. As one interviewee states it, “you always need to make improvements,” and the focus of the morning meetings was “to identify and work on those improvements.” Depending on what they were working to improve, they would call in the critical leaders from that system to join their meetings. As this same interviewee describes the process, “When the discussion was on transportation, we got everyone involved from transportation.”

When discussion was community engagement, the same.” It is interesting to note that while each member of this core team brought to it a particular professional background and strength, they did not see themselves as specialists but rather as generalists in their orientation. Some of the planners have stronger architectural backgrounds, some have stronger civil engineering backgrounds, some are more focused on transportation, some have greater background in the ecology of the area, some are stronger in their ability to navigate political issues, and some are more focused on developing the community and organizational systems. But rather than each working in their own area of expertise and periodically reporting out to others, they instead developed a working process in which they would work as a team every morning on the collective issues of the city. In this way, they could each bring a distinctive perspective that helped to hold a picture of the larger whole, so that the solutions they came up with were much more multifaceted and systemic in their approach. In the words of one interviewee, “the multifaceted success of our projects occurred because we were not specialists. Specialists think the world spins around their specialties, which reduces creativity greatly.


Critical to working every morning on the fundamental issues of the city, was the development of a core concept or scenario for guiding the city’s structural growth. As one interviewee puts it:

“I’ve been in many places in the world, many cities. It’s hard to find out from them the scenario. What is the design of the city? What’s the real structural growth? For me, the city is a structure of living, working, leisure, everything together. And in many cities with very sophisticated planning, I couldn’t get an answer from them as to what is the design of the city. (I’d say) “Make me a sketch of your city,” and they were afraid to do this. There was always some spots, some arrows, but never a real design, a real concept, which is the structural growth of the city. For me, for all of us, this was debilitating. I cannot work in a place where I do not know what is the scenario.”

This core concept for guiding Curitiba’s structural growth, however, was not something that the planners believed could be invented out of thin air. Rather, they believed that it was critical to derive this concept from an understanding of how the place authentically worked in the past. According to Jaime Lerner.

“Every city has its hidden designs – old roads, old streetcar ways. You’re not going to invent a new city. Instead, you’re doing a strange archeology, trying to enhance the old, hidden design.” (as cited in McKibben, 1995, p. 68)

This “strange archeology,” however, required more than just an understanding of historical human settlement patterns. It also required an understanding of how the ecological system worked and flowed through the area. Curitiba exists on a forested flood plain, through which multiple rivers intersect each other multiple times. In this flood plain, the greatest diversity and accumulation of biological life occurred along the river corridors. When humans settled the plain, first as indigenous peoples and later as European and other immigrant groups, they set up transportation corridors that ran alongside and tended to mirror these river corridors. This flow of commerce and human exchange, which tended to match the flow of biological exchange, led to the development of many of the major road arteries that run through Curitiba today.

Through this process of “strange archeology,” Jaime Lerner and his core team saw that life (both human and other) tended to concentrate along these corridors of flow. Based on this understanding, they realized that the traditional radial model of urban growth, in which there is a densely populated city center and increasingly less dense populated areas as you move outwards from the center, did not match the way that life worked in their city. Therefore, they developed a core concept for Curitiba’s structural growth of “a linear city with structural arteries” (Ribeiro & Tavares, 1992, p. 12). This linear growth concept involved concentrating development of commercial and residential use along the major corridors of transportation.

Therefore, the tallest buildings, the most commercial activity, and the greatest intensity of public transportation routes occur along these corridors. In addition, the land around the biological corridors (i.e., the rivers) was bought by the city and developed into linear parks that now weave throughout the city, often parallel to the densely populated urban transportation corridors. As one interviewee put it, this helped to “keep the rivers flowing naturally.”

This core concept of linear growth has continued to guide the master planning and zoning policies of the city for the last thirty plus years (Ribeiro & Tavares, 1992).

Barigui Park. Built along one of Curitiba’s river corridor.


Even with good internal organization and a clear concept for orchestrating planning and design, the city planners could not have accomplished what they did without engaging the people of Curitiba. According to two‐time Mayor Cassio Taniguchi:

“No matter how well run we are, we still would not have all the resources we need. We can only get those resources by mobilizing more people to participate and take co‐responsibility for devising solutions. We cannot organize ourselves in linear ways because people do not live their lives in straight lines.” (Leadbeater, 2006, p. 236)

With each situation, with each project that the planners worked on, they would seek to develop the appropriate partnership with key stakeholders in order to develop a shared sense of commitment, stewardship, and investment in its success. As one interviewee puts it, “every problem has its own equation of co‐responsibility.” For example, when the planners developed their concept of an above ground subwaylike system using rapid transit busses with designated lanes, budget constraints would have normally required buying the busses slowly over time, which would have taken years and years. Instead, they approached private bus companies to develop a joint partnership of co‐responsibility. Through dialogue they developed a partnership in which the city would pay for the implementation and maintenance of the rapidtransit infrastructure and, in accordance with the companies, would set the fare and bus schedules. The bus company in turn would provide the buses and charge per kilometer of travel. By developing the partnership in this way, Curitiba was able to implement a public transit system that today is recognized as a world‐leading model. It carries over 2.4 million passengers per day, maintains low fares for travel so that poorer segments of the population can use it, does not cost the city one‐cent in subsidies, and makes a healthy profit for private bus companies. This is an example of a successful partnership of shared responsibility.

Whether it was getting private bus companies to be co‐responsible for the success of the transit system, or getting youth to be co‐responsible for the maintenance of parks through programs for growing and planting trees and flowers, or providing carts to entrepreneurial homeless people to collect recyclable trash in public areas, in each case the city sought to do more by doing less while growing the co‐commitment of others.

According to Taniguchi (in Leadbeater, 2006), “the social system will only have a growing impact by not growing, and so encouraging business, the voluntary sector, and citizens to take more responsibility” (p. 244).

To develop such equations of co‐responsibility, however, requires more than just good negotiation skills. It requires what one interviewee describes as a quality of “solidarity” with the people. According to this interviewee, “With solidarity I mean not manipulating one against the other, it’s having the people inside of you, of understanding what’s there.” This solidarity requires compassionate engagement with people and their place, of listening to and finding out what it is that they love about the place in which they live, what it is they identify with, and find meaning in by living there. As Jaime Lerner (in McKibben, 1995) described it:

You have to have a certain kind of complicity with people when you’re trying to understand what are their problems, what are their dreams. People, they are not living in the city just for survival. You have to love the city. They have to have this relationship that has to do with identity, with a sense of belonging. There are some neighborhoods that don’t even have [public‐transportation or schools], and the people are happy. Why? Because their father lived there; their grandfather lived there. There’s a sense of belonging to a place“. (p. 99)

Understanding people and what it is that feeds their sense of identity and belonging in a place, therefore, is a key element of solidarity. But, solidarity involves more than just a shared sense of identity and belonging. It also requires understanding and relating to what it is that people are striving to achieve, to what their dreams are individually and collectively. As Lerner (in Meadows, 1995) stated it:

“There is no endeavor more noble than the attempt to achieve a collective dream. When a city accepts as a mandate its quality of life; when it respects the people who live in it; when it respects the environment; when it prepares for future generations, the people share the responsibility for that mandate, and this shared cause is the only way to achieve that collective dream.” (p. 2)

By demonstrating this respect for all citizens, the poorest included, Jaime Lerner and his team developed a level of faith and trust with their citizens that is unheard of in most modern cities. These same citizens, in turn, became more willing and motivated to accept co‐responsibility of their city’s mission:

They are willing to build their own simple housing, especially with a little architectural counsel and utility connections. They volunteer for environmental projects, they start cottage industries. Civic life flourishes” (Pierce, 2000, p. 1).