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Sing a Song of Sustainable Cities

by Mel Starrs on November 4, 2009

in Events & Conferences

Last night I had the immense pleasure of catching Jaime Lerner at the RIBA Jarvis Hall in Portland Place, London. I had originally come across Lerner on TED, Chris Anderson*’s brainchild. If you aren’t already aware of TED, go check out the many and varied lectures and performances.

Lerner is an architect and urban planner by trade and was also the mayor of Curitiba, in Brazil. Curitiba is the capital of Paraná. Lerner was mayor three times (1971–75, 1979–84 and 1989–92). In 1994, Lerner was elected governor of Paraná, and was reelected in 1998 until 2002.

Watch the video below, from TED which gives a very potted version (16 minutes) of what we were treated to last night. Lerner also talked at University of Westminster on Monday and will again tonight at BFI.

Jaime Lerner: Sing a song of sustainable cities

Some background (from Wikipedia) which was not given last night. Sunand Prasad and Nicky Gavron seemed to expect everyone in the audience to know exactly who Lerner was, but a lot of this I wasn’t aware of:

As Mayor, Lerner employed unorthodox solutions to Curitiba’s geographic challenges. Like many cities, Curitiba is bordered by floodplain. While wealthier cities in the United States such as New Orleans and Sacramento, have chosen to build expensive, and expensive-to-maintain levee systems to build on floodplain. In contrast, Curitiba purchased the floodplain and made parks. The city now ranks among the world leaders in per-capita park area. Curitiba had the problem of its status as a third-world city, unable to afford the tractors and petroleum to mow these parks. The innovative response was “municipal sheep” who keep the parks’ vegetation under control and whose wool funds children’s programs.

When Lerner became mayor, Curitiba had some barrios impossible to service by municipal waste removal. The “streets” were too narrow. Rather than abandon these people, or raze these slums, Lerner began a program that traded bags of groceries and transit passes for bags of trash. The slums got much cleaner…

Perhaps the crown jewel of Curitiba’s achievements is its Bus Rapid Transit system (called “Speedybus”). Originally, the city was given Federal money to build a subway (Curitiba is not a small town), but Lerner discovered that “heavy rail” like a subway costs ten times the amount for “light rail” (trolleys), which, in turn, costs ten times a bus system, even with dedicated bus ways. The “light rail” savings usually touted to sway municipal decision makers occur because even trolleys can have relatively fewer drivers than a 40 – 60 passenger bus. Lerner got Volvo to make 270 Swedish people accordion buses (300 Brazilians, says Lerner), so that the problem of a lower passenger number to driver ratio was no longer an issue. The City built attractive transit stops with the look and feel of train stations — and all the handicapped access equipment – inducing private firms to purchase and operate the buses. A hierarchy of buses of six sizes feed one other. The city controls the routes and fares, while the private companies hire drivers and maintain equipment.

Natural land-use patterns within the city of Curitiba support public transit systems. Buildings along the dedicated bus ways are up to six stories tall, gradually giving way, within a few blocks, to single story homes. This mix of densities ensures sufficient user population within walking distance of bus stops.

Lerner has a very broad, dare I say, holistic view of sustainable cities. Green buildings, recycling and transport are all individually important, but on their own, are not enough. That said, his talk focused very much on the transit system and also on the way he has since applied the principles to other cities. The fascinating thing about the transit sytem in Curitiba is that it isn’t subsidised at all – it pays for itself.

I found this quote via Green500 originally although the link seems broken now. The 75% of CO2 emissions was a number quoted by Lerner last night too:

Cities are an important battleground in the fight against the impacts of climate change. Worldwide they cover less than 1% of the Earth’s surface, but account for some 75% of CO2 emissions. London alone emits up to 44 million tonnes of CO2 a year.

One of the most striking points for me was the fact that he had the agency, as mayor, to introduce the changes he made, which must be a unique position of an architect/urban planner. He couldn’t wear both hats at the same time, but the experience in both fields rubbed off on each other.

A quote, which I think he uses in the TED video above,  is that to be creative, cut one zero from the budget. To be sustainable, cut two. With a vision or proposed solution, it is possible to create sustainable cities without necessarily spending a fortune.

Lerner has an infectious optimism when it comes to the future of cities. As a lover of cities myself, I was won over by his enthusiasm. The city is a much more effective scale for sustainability than individual buildings. As he said:

Cities are not the problem. Cities are the solution.

*It was only when I looked it up on Wikipedia I realised there were 2 Chris Anderson’s – I had assumed Wired/Long Tail Chris and TED Chris were the same person – they’re not! Ooops!

  • http://www.terrainfirma.co.uk/blog.html Gareth Kane

    Mel,

    You and your readers may be interested in my profile of Lerner on Green Gurus: http://www.greengurus.co.uk/2009/07/jaime-lerner-curitiba.html

    Cheers,

    Gareth

  • http://www.terrainfirma.co.uk/blog.html Gareth Kane

    Mel,

    You and your readers may be interested in my profile of Lerner on Green Gurus: http://www.greengurus.co.uk/2009/07/jaime-lerner-curitiba.html

    Cheers,

    Gareth

  • Andrew

    I went to curitiba a few years ago. It is very clean and green and the bus system seemed clever too….

  • Andrew

    I went to curitiba a few years ago. It is very clean and green and the bus system seemed clever too….