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Curitiba and Hope

The Brazilian city of Curitiba is a global model for development that both respects the earth and delights its inhabitants.

| Tue Nov. 8, 2005 3:00 AM EST

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.

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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.

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