The first time I went there, I had never heard of Curitiba. I had no idea
that its bus system was the best on Earth or that a municipal shepherd and
his flock of 30 sheep trimmed the grass in its vast parks. It was just a
midsize Brazilian city where an airline schedule forced me to spend the
night midway through a long South American reporting trip. I reached my
hotel, took a nap, and then went out in the early evening for a
walk--warily, because I had just come from crime-soaked Rio.
But the street in front of the hotel was cobbled, closed to cars, and strung
with lights. It opened onto another such street, which in turn opened into a
broad and leafy plaza, with more shop-lined streets stretching off in all
directions. Though the night was frosty-Brazil stretches well south of the
tropics, and Curitiba is in the mountains-people strolled and shopped,
butcher to baker to bookstore. There were almost no cars, but at one of the
squares, a steady line of buses rolled off, full, every few seconds. I
walked for an hour, and then another. I felt my shoulders, hunched from the
tension of Rio (and probably New York as well) straightening. Though I flew
out the next day as scheduled, I never forgot the city.
From time to time over the next few years, I would see Curitiba mentioned in
planning magazines or come across a short newspaper account of it winning
various awards from the United Nations. Its success seemed demographically
unlikely. For one thing, it's relatively poor - average per capita (cash)
income is about $2,500. Worse, a flood of displaced peasants has tripled its
population to a million and a half in the last 25 years. It should resemble
a small-scale version of urban nightmares like São Paulo or Mexico City. But
I knew from my evening's stroll it wasn't like that, and I wondered why.
Maybe an effort to convince myself that a decay in public life was not
inevitable was why I went back to Curitiba to spend some real time, to see
if its charms extended beyond the lovely downtown. For a month, my wife and
baby and I lived in a small apartment near the city center. Morning after
morning I interviewed cops, merchants, urban foresters, civil engineers,
novelists, planners; in the afternoons, we pushed the stroller across the
town, learning the city's rhythms and habits. And we decided, with great
delight, that Curitiba is among the world's great cities.
Not for its physical location; there are no beaches, no broad bridge-spanned
rivers. Not in terms of culture or glamour; it's a fairly provincial place.
But measured for "livability," I have never been any place like it. In a
recent survey, 60 percent of New Yorkers wanted to leave their rich and
cosmopolitan city; 99 percent of Curitibans told
pollsters that they were happy with their town; and 70 percent of the
residents of São Paulo said they thought life would be better in Curitiba.
This city has slums: some of the same shantytown favelas that dominate most
Third World cities have sprouted on the edge of town as the population has
rocketed. But even they are different, hopeful in palpable ways. They are
clean, for instance-under a city program, a slumdweller who collects a sack
of garbage gets a sack of food from the city in return. And Curitiba is the
classic example of decent lives helping produce a decent environment.
Because of its fine transit system, and because its inhabitants are
attracted toward the city center instead of repelled out to a sprawl of
suburbs, Curitibans use 25 percent less fuel per capita than other
Brazilians, even though they are actually more likely to own cars.
Curitiba started out as a backwater town, a good stopover on the way to São
Paulo. By 1940, there were 125,000 residents. By 1950, the number had jumped
to 180,000, and by 1960, doubled to 361,000-the explosive, confident growth
that marked the entire country was underway in Curitiba as well. And with
many of the same effects: traffic downtown started to snarl, and the air was
growing thick with exhaust. It was clear that the time had come to plan,
and, as in almost every other city, planning meant planning for automobiles.
The official scheme called for widening the main streets of the city to add
more lanes-which would have meant knocking down the turn-of-the-century
buildings that lined the downtown-and for building an overpass that would
link two of the city's main squares by going over the top of Rua Quinze de
Novembro, the main shopping street. But resistance to the plan was
unexpectedly fierce. Opposition was centered in the architecture and
planning departments of the local branch of the federal university, and the
loudest voice belonged to Jaime Lerner.
Jaime Lerner is a chubby man with a large, friendly, and open face. He looks
like Norm, the guy at the end of the bar in "Cheers." He also looks silly
stuffed into a suit; so even though he's been mayor of Curitiba on and off
for the last two decades, he normally wears a polo shirt. In the late 1960s,
however, he was just a young planner and architect who had grown up in the
city, working in his Polish father's dry goods store. And he organized the
drive against the overpass, out of what might almost be called nostalgia.
"They were trying to throw away the story of the city," he recalls.
It was a good thing that Jaime Lerner had grown up loving the mix of people
in Curitiba. Because through a chain of political flukes, Lerner found
himself the mayor of Curitiba at the age of 33. All of a sudden, his friends
and colleagues were pulling their plans out of the cupboards. All of a
sudden, they were going to get their chance to remake Curitiba-not for cars,
but for people.