The first Smart City in the World: Curitiba, Brazil

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Hailed as the first smart city in the world, Curitiba offers plenty of lessons in sustainability and green living: but how did this Brazilian city get there?

Jaime Lerner was elected mayor of Curitiba in 1971 and on that year he started his long project of reconstruction of the city. First of all, during the election year, he decided to listen to drivers and traders protests by turning an ordinary road into the famous Rua das Flores (The Flowers Street), a beautiful boulevard full of flowers and benches, very appreciated by people and a place where children could play.

Lerner’s vision was the result of the simple thought that the city must be changed in order to respond to the needs of its inhabitants.

Thanks to this philosophy, Curitiba is considered one of the most virtuous cities in the world, as it managed to increase its population in a sustainable way (from 300.000 inhabitants  in the 50s to 2.5 million in the 90s) and to turn itself from an agricultural small town into a commercial and industrial centre.

The Mayor’s approach was bold and visionary, he wanted to change the city by coordinating all the social sectors in order to make its development truly sustainable. Still, he had to solve some of Curitiba’s most imminent issues: the constant danger of flooding, the infringement of local building regulations, the urban mess and the lack of a draining canal system.

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Even if the citizens didn’t fully understand the massive policies implemented by Lerner, they voted him again in 1979 giving him the possibility to focus on his project and many other urgent problems for the city: public transports, green spaces, waste collection, social sustainability.

1) Transports
Thanks to the policy of changing the city in order to respect the citizens needs, Curitiba became a perfect example of a sustainable public transport idea.

The main goals were to reduce road traffic and thereby also air pollution; Lerner’s aim was to rebuild the city streets so that people could avoid using cars. First, he designed three main roads: one to get into the city, another one to get out of the city and the third one was a two-way road, just for public transports.

bus station curitiba

One of Curitiba’s tube-shaped bus stations

Curitiba buses are classified into typology (even nowadays): direct, fast, few stops and alimentadores (slow buses that reach the far neighborhoods).

Instead of normal bus stops, the mayor, installed some glass tubes to channel the people flow and today these huge tubes are part of 150km cycle path, increasing the city’s livability and drastically reducing pollution.

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The idea of meeting the citizens needs propelled also the 80s campaign to develop and save the green areas: 1.4 million square meters were destined to the construction of parks or generally public green areas and the citizens were encouraged to grow trees in their gardens.

Curitiba City Center

A glimpse of Curitiba City Center

2) Green policy
Nowadays, public green spaces per capita are approximately 55 square meters: this figure is way higher than the recommended UN standards. These areas are also maintained thanks to the use of goats, who graze the grass in a natural and sustainable way and produce wool that is sold to finance the social developments. Plus, by planting some native plants along the banks of the river, the danger of flooding was greatly reduced.

Curiba is equipped with funny-looking bins which remind you that “nothing is trash” and stress the importance of staying true to the “reduce, reuse, recycle” philosophy. The involvement of Curitiba’s citizens in recycling has made it possible for this city to achieve an impressive milestone, with about 70% of urban waste currently recycled, despite a population of over 2 millions.

It’s not surprising to see common people picking up rubbish from the streets and taking it to a “Lixo (waste) point”, where they are rewarded with fresh vegetables, bus fares or theater tickets.

This brilliant innovative social experiment is successful mostly with elderly citizens or young boys from the favela, the poorest neighborhood. The fruit and vegetables they get in exchange for collecting some rubbish, are bought from local farmers by the Municipality.

That’s how a lot of families survive and the recycled materials are intended to play a social role: many old useless buses are turned into cultural places, such as moving school classrooms or travelling reading rooms.

Mobile library - Curitiba

An old tram done over and turned into a public library in Curitiba

3) Social sustainability
Lerner’s project showed how simple it is to communicate among social partners if everything starts from an idea of equality. People and their legitimate requests become the centre of the urban development and the administrative structure is revolutionized. As Curitiba is an example to study, many foreign delegations and multinational companies have moved to this Brazilian city to produce Eco-sustainable products.

As Mayor, Lerner (elected again in ’89 and Governor of Paranà in ’94 and ’98) believed in young professionals and decided to let them manage the town planning Department and the control Department, two fundamental sectors. He even offered important roles to private companies, ONG and neighborhood associations.

Practically, social sustainability is planned by de-centralized neighbours committees whose role is to ensure school instruction, healthcare services and social security to people

This massive experiment developed in Curitiba allowed the city to win the UN Prize for its recycling innovative scheme and in 2010 the Sustainable Transport Award in Washington and the Globe Sustainable City Award in Sweden, becoming -according to the chief judge- “a strong winner, due to a plan that combines strategic sources with innovation and future sustainability”.

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