Brazil's urban laboratory takes the strain

Posted: 12 June 2001

Author: Cristina Cavalcanti

Curitiba, capital of grain-rich Parana state in southern Brazil, is famous for its environmentally-friendly urban planning. Here Christina Cavalcanti reports on the city's efforts to extend its success in the face of a growing population.

Viewed from the top of the Merces tower, the panorama of Curitiba is rich in visual texture. Skyscrapers stand side by side with one or two storey houses surrounded by neat small gardens. In between, woods and green areas mottle the landscape.

Aerial view of Curitiba© Municipality of CuritibaSeen from ground level, the colourful modern buildings of the municipal administration contrast with the plain rchitecture of commercial and residential buildings. Settled in a flat land and lacking natural and historical attractiveness, Curitiba has acquired identity and appeal at the hands of its architects and urban planners.

Its resulting quality of life has encouraged the natural growth of the city, which has doubled its population to over 1.3 million in the last 20 years, while retaining 52 square metres of green area per inhabitant - more than double the amount recommended by the UN.

Indeed, urban planning is a tradition in the city. In the 1940s, wide avenues were built. By the mid-1960s, a contest chose Jorge Wilheim's urban project, which reoriented the city's expansion and gave priority to public transport. The implementation and improvement of Wilheim's project was done by Curitiba's Institute of Urban Research and Planning (IPPUC). Created for this end, IPPUC has guaranteed the continuity of urban plans and has become a generator for the city's ideas and administrators.

Integrated transport

Jaime Lerner, three times mayor of Curitiba, since 1971, is the best known of IPPUC's sons. Among other things, he created the integrated transport system. With one ticket, the passenger goes from home to work in minibuses that connect each district to one of the 20 city bus stations. From there, the 'speedy' bus or 'ligeirinho' and other express buses leave at scheduled times, running along exclusive lanes that cross the city from South to North and East to West and stop only at their special tubular glass and metal stops, with level entry for passengers that includes elevators for wheelchairs. In the 'tubes' as they are popularly called, tickets are pre-paid. Other bus lines connect the city's districts following a circular route.

Curitiba was the host of the last meeting of the National Committee for the UN Conference on Human Settlements, to be held in Istanbul in June. It was chosen because IPPUC's creative and cheap solutions for urban problems have given the city a role model in the national scenery.

Express bus© Municipality of Curitiba

Besides the integrated transport system, one of the main commercial streets downtown was turned into a pedestrian street. Following this, some other streets in the tiny historical centre were also closed. Recently, a 24-hour street was created, with shops, restaurants and cafeterias.

With pedestrian streets full of flowers, a good transport system, woods and parks and a spotlessly clean environment, thanks to a troop of sweepers working 16 hours a day, a multitude of tourists are attracted to the city, responding to an intensive official campaign. In 1994, tourism generated an income of US$ 280 million, or about 4 per cent of the city's net income.

The tourist route includes two accomplishments of the Lerner administration: the Wire Opera and the Free Environment University. The former is a round transparent theatre, with a tubular structure, located by an abandoned stone quarry, to which was added an artificial lake with a small cascade.

The Free Environment University, settled in a small woodland, is a dazzling round wooden building by another old stone quarry where, in another artificial lake, swans and ducks swim to the sound of Mozart and Vivaldi. Created in 1991, the Free University offers the general public short courses on environment management and protection. Among the clients that require specific courses are state and municipal secretaries, unions and professional associations and private and state companies from the chemical, energy and petrochemical and environmental sectors.

Improving health

Curitiba has enforced the federal law that prescribes the decentralisation of the country's health system. Its 86 outpatient posts, of which five are open 24 hours a day, offer general clinic, paediatric and gynaecological care. For more specialised medical care, patients are sent to one of the 36 private hospitals that have a contract with the municipal Secretary of Health.

Maria das Dores Tucunduva, social worker at the Union of Health Workers of Curitiba, says health care is of good quality, but hard to reach, since patients can spend a whole day in hospital queues. A housemaid, Geny Barbosa odrigues, 35, mother of a seven-year-old boy, confirms that: "At six in the morning I am already standing at the queue and, if I'm lucky, I might get an appointment for the same day in the afternoon. Since I live far from my work, when my child or myself are ill, I cannot work."

However, Dr Angela Kotizias Ribeiro, Director of the Health Planning Department of the Municipal Secretary of Health (MSH) says this problem is being solved with the creation of an Appointments Centre, through which outpatient post workers can make appointments with specialists by phone, saving patients a long wait.

Recycling programme

The city that calls itself the 'capital of ecology' has launched a programme of waste sorting, named 'Rubbish That Is No Rubbish'. Once a week, a truck collects paper, cardboard, metal, plastic and glass already sorted in the city's homes and sells them to private recycling companies. Organic waste is unloaded in a landfill site, where poor families comb through the garbage, looking for semi-rotten food and usable goods.

Unfortunately, a great part of the 300,000 inhabitants of the city's slums do not benefit from rubbish collection. Here, as in other Latin American cities private waste collectors have proliferated, pulling manual carts along the streets offering to buy newspapers, bottles and other used objects. Now the city authorities have now turned their informality official, selling them the carts for US$20, on a monthly payment of US$2.

Another problem is the inevitable expansion of Curitiba towards the larger metropolitan zone, whose 22 satellite townsare mainly dormitories for Curitiba's workers and have not known its urban development.

One of the measures to restrain the migratory inflow has been the creation of a 'Return House' in the capital's interstate bus station. There, social workers spot potential migrants and offer them free bus tickets to return home. In two years, the programme has sent 23,000 persons back to the countryside.

Rural town

For the longer term the city has promoted the idea of the Vila Rural (Rural Town). This aims to maintain seasonal agricultural workers in the countryside. It consists of small rural properties, of 5,000 square metres and a house, where peasant farmers will be able to farm in between industrial jobs. As an official explained "We expect to maintain this population as farmers for the next one or two generations. In the meantime, the cities will be planned to receive their descendants in the future."

In the first year five Vilas Rurais have been built, there are 15 under construction and another 60 are being planned. Financed by the World Bank and the Inter American Development Bank (IBD), the State government expects to build 600 rural villas. By 1999, 50,000 families are expected to be settled, equivalent to 4 per cent of Parana's population or a quarter of its landless farmers.

If the IPPUC's team is successful in transposing to the State its achievements in the municipal administration, by the year 2000 Curitiba will have proved to be the seed of a revolution that will improve the development of the whole region.

Cristina Cavalcanti is an anthropologist and freelance journalist based in Rio de Janeiro.