New Internationalist books and publications

World Development book case study: sustainable urban development in Curitiba

Map of Parana

In 2010 the Global Sustainable City Award was given to Curitiba. The award was introduced to recognise those cities that excel in sustainable urban development. It is much easier for cities in the developed world to invest in the planning and implementation of measures needed for sustainable urban development and it is a surprise to many people that the award went to a city in Brazil where, in spite of rapid industrial growth in recent years, income levels are still relatively low. A quick look at the reasons for this reveals Curitiba as a surprising place with an interesting history and culture.

Curitiba is in eastern Brazil and became the capital of the province of Parana in 1853. It attracted local migrants as well as immigrants from Germany, Ukraine and Poland and other European countries. During the 20th century its population increased rapidly and it became one of the wealthiest cities in Brazil. In 2010 the population of Curitiba was 1.8 million and the total population of its metropolitan area was 3.2 million.

Curitiba was a pioneer in attempts to provide solutions to improving urban life and the first city plan with boulevards stretching out from a central area, public amenities and industrial districts was produced in the 1950s. The plan was too costly to implement in full but formed the basis for future developments.

City photo

The plan for city development that led to its present status as one of the most sustainable cities in the world was a result of the election of a 33-year-old architect and planner, Jamie Lerner, as mayor of Curitiba in the late 1960s. He implemented radical plans for urban land use which featured pedestrianization, strict controls on urban sprawl and an affordable and efficient public transport system. The bus system has been a key feature of Curitiba’s development. The buses are long, split into three sections and stop at designated elevated tubes, complete with disabled access. There is only one price, no matter how far you travel, and you pay at the bus stop. It has been a model for other cities trying to achieve more sustainable movement of people and is used by 85% of people living in the city.

Another feature of the city is the large amount of green space per head of population (52 square metres) which is remarkable in a city that has seen its population triple in the last 20 years. Much of the green space was achieved by using federal funds for flood control to build small dams across rivers, creating lakes and parks for the city population. There are 28 parks and wooded areas in Curitiba, creating a city landscape which is unlike any other in a developing city.

Curitiba does have slum dwellings and housing shortages but has developed innovative ways of dealing with these urban problems. Farmland within the city limits was purchased in the 1990s and 50,000 homes, which will house 200,000 people, are being built. The houses are being built by the new landowners, sometimes with the aid of mortgages from the city.

'Sixty per cent of the lower-income people are involved in the construction industry anyhow,' says one executive from COHAB (Curitiba's public housing programme). 'They know how to build.' And here is the moving part: with your plot of land comes not only a deed and a pair of trees (one fruit bearing and one ornamental), but also an hour downtown with an architect. 'The person explains what's important to them - a big window out front, or room in the kitchen. They tell how many kids they have, and so on. And then we help draw up a plan,' says one architect, who has more than 3,000 of 'his' homes scattered around the city.

'Most people can only afford to build one room at a time, so we also show them the logical order to go in,' another designer explains.

From Curitiba: A Global Model For Development by Bill McKibben (2005

Map of city

The new developments are immediately linked to the pubic transport system to integrate the new home-owners. The shanty towns (favelas) on the outskirts of the city are kept clean by encouraging people to bring their rubbish to collection points where they are given sacks of food or bus tickets in return for their waste by the city authorities.

Nearer the city centre, the city authorities encourage the recycling of buildings rather than demolition and reconstruction, helping the city to retain its architectural heritage. Children can recycle waste in exchange for school supplies, toys and tickets for shows. It is estimated that recycling materials in the city saves the equivalent of 1,200 trees a day and the money raised from the recycling schemes goes into social programmes such as the employment of homeless people in the recycling separation plants. An Open University, created by the city, lets residents take courses in many subjects such as mechanics, hair styling and environmental protection for a small fee.

Providing employment is an important measure of urban sustainability. Although Curitiba is the eighth-largest city in Brazil, it has the fourth-largest GDP and is a focus for domestic and inward investment attracted by quality of the city infrastructure and the high quality of life enjoyed by the city population. From the 1970s onwards, it resisted the expansion of heavy industry and in 2010 66% of its GDP was produced by the commerce and services sector. It is, however, the second-largest manufacturer of cars in Brazil and home to many transnational corporations such as Nissan, Volkswagen, Audi, Siemens and Electrolux.

The concentration on encouraging non-polluting and hi-tech industry has been successful in achieving an economic growth rate which is much higher than the national average. The city’s 30-year economic growth rate in Curitiba is 7.1% (compared with a national average of 4.2%), and per-capita income is 66% higher than the Brazilian average. The high wealth levels have helped Curitiba fund municipal health, education and daycare networks, neighbourhood libraries shared by schools and citizens.

In the 1990s, the city started a project called FarÓis do Saber (‘Lighthouses of Knowledge’). These ‘lighthouses’ have been set up in each quarter of the city and contain a library, and computers for public use. Job training, social welfare and educational programmes are co-ordinated by the city and Curitiba has the lowest illiteracy rate and highest educational attainment levels of any of the Brazilian cities. In another attempt to improve social integration and reduce the need for unnecessary travel, Citizen Streets exist in each district where there is a long line of two-storey buildings, surrounded by a huge yellow tube, which can satisfy the majority of people’s needs: identity cards, employment and housing applications can be processed, and there are subsidized shops, welfare assistance, music classes and sports centres.

City photo

Many cities in the developing world have to cope with much higher levels of population growth and do not have the history of urban development that Curitiba enjoys. However we should not ignore the many people-centred innovations that have been implemented over the last 40 years which have helped to make the city an example that many would like to follow.

Below is a possible checklist for sustainable urban development suggested by Mostafa Rasooli, Nurwati Badarulzaman and Mastura Jafaar in The Role of CDSs (Community Development Strategies) in Sustainable Development in Developing Countries. The report was written in 2010 and a link to the full report is given below.

Environmentally sustainable urbanization

A. Energy Efficiency Measures
1. Alternative energy offered to consumers
2. Energy conservation effort (other than green building requirements)
3. Environmental site design regulations
4. Green building programme
5. Renewable energy use by city government
B. Pollution Prevention and Reduction Measures
6. Kerbside recycling programme
7. Environmental education programmes for the community
8. Green procurement
9. Water-quality protection
C. Open Space and Natural Resource Protection Measures
10. Environmentally sensitive area protection
11. Open space preservation programme
D. Transportation Planning Measures
12. Operation of inner-city public transit (buses and/or trains)
13. Transportation demand management
E. Tracking Progress on Protecting the Environment
14. Ecological footprint analysis

Economically sustainable urbanization

A. Smart Growth Measures
1. Agricultural protection zoning
2. Brownfield reclamation
3. Cluster or targeted economic development
4. Eco-industrial park development
5. Infill development
6. Purchase of Development Rights and/or Transfer of Development Rights
7. Tax incentives for environmentally friendly development
8. Urban growth boundary and/or urban service boundary
B. Measures Promoting Local Employment/Industries
9. Business retention programmes
10. Empowerment/enterprise zones
11. Local business incubator programmes

Social sustainable urbanization

  1. Affordable housing provisions
  2. Daycare services for service sector and low-income employees
  3. Homeless prevention and intervention programmes
  4. Inclusionary and incentive zoning
  5. Jobs-housing balance
  6. Living wage ordinance
  7. Mass transit access with local income subsidies
  8. Neighbourhood planning
  9. Sustainable food systems or food security programmes
  10. Women/minority-oriented business Community Development Corporations (CDCs) and investment programmes
  11. Youth opportunity and anti-gang programmes

Governance and institutional sustainable urbanization

  1. Dispute resolution
  2. Public participation
  3. Regional co-ordination

Useful links and articles

M Rasooli, N Badarulzaman & M Jaafar, The role of CDS in urban sustainable development, 46th ISOCARP Congress 2010

Bill McKibbin, Curitiba - A model for global development by Bill McKibbin in Common

Curitiba - Wikipedia

A succinct list of the key features that make the city sustainable