Atlantic Cities

Has South America's Most Sustainable City Lost Its Edge?

Has South America's Most Sustainable City Lost Its Edge?
Mathieu Struck/Flickr

The southern Brazil metropolis of Curitiba built its reputation as an urban planning model thanks, in large part, to its innovative transportation system. But in recent years, the system has become overcrowded and expensive, pushing people into their cars.

Curitiba is now the Brazilian state capital with the highest ratio of automobiles per inhabitant, and its bike paths remain largely underused. In early June, news reports revealed that usage of its famous Bus Rapid Transit system has decreased by 14 million rides in the past four years, or 4.3 percent. This followed a series of road accidents involving speeding buses, and complaints about ever-increasing fare prices.


The BRT, courtesy: whltravel/flickr.

Car culture is growing in all of Brazil's major cities, as the growing middle-class happily gives up inefficient public transportation. But the much-praised BRT, which inspired systems like Bogotá's TransMilenio, wasn't expecting to see its popularity decline. The blame, according to critics, lies with URBS, the city agency in charge of managing the system, which has failed to adapt to changes in usage patterns and evolving demographics.

The misfortune of the BRT speaks to the larger failings of the city governance in Curitiba. Once praised for its impeccable urban planning and innovative interventions – the city pretty much invented the term "urban acupuncture" – Curitiba now seems to be suffering from a certain inertia.

"In the past 15 years Curitiba has rested on its laurels," says Clara Irázabal, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University, who has written at length about the Brazilian metropolis.

The city has failed to integrate its growing suburbs into a coherent regional plan. As a result, most of the planning interventions that Curitiba is known for – public parks and green spaces, pedestrian streets, preservation of the historic district – are not accessible to hundreds of thousands of suburban (and usually lower-income) residents.

Curitiba's planning method also concentrates on the "formal" city, leaving thousands of low-income residents with no choice but to establish illegal settlements due to lack of affordable housing, says José Ricardo Vargas de Faria, an engineer working at Ambiens, a Curitiba-based urban planning studio operating as a cooperative. "The discourse about Curitiba deliberately leaves out certain things, and contributes to build an image of a city that solved all its problems through planning," he says.


Curitiba's Bus Rapid Transit system has been suffering from overcrowding in the past few years. Courtesy: Elias Dias

An estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population still lives in substandard housing, and 83 percent of the population in the metropolitan area earns a low to moderate income (less than five monthly minimum wages) [PDF]. Crime is high, with 4.7 murders on average each day. That's 56.8 murders per 100,000 inhabitants [PDF], a rate almost as high as New Orleans' (58 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011.) These figures aren't bad by Brazilian standards. But Curitiba was supposed to be different than a typical BRIC city.

Curitiba's image was largely built around Jaime Lerner, the three-time mayor between 1971 and 1992 and later governor of the state of Paraná. He is credited with launching the BRT, as well as many other innovative measures. An architect and planner, he contributed to the 1965 creation of the city's planning agency, IPPUC.

But his high-profile mayorship sometimes overshadowed the work of the department. As a governor, he adopted a conservative stance against several social issues, and was responsible for a tough repression of the landless movement.

Since the Lerner days, IPPUC has regained its autonomy from the mayor's office, but is still operating in closed circles. "Curitiba is very famous for its urban planning, but the truth is this planning is very authoritarian and technocratic," explains Faria. The latest example of this is the aggressive bid to host four World Cup games in 2014. Drafted by IPPUC, the bid involves a reordering of priorities in city planning, the sale of public assets, the removal of residents without a rehousing plan and a slew of other measures.

Graffiti which reads "2.20 reals is already a theft," can be seen around town in Curitiba. BRT users have been complaining about high fares. (Credit: Movimento Passe Livre)

For Clara Irázabal, this type of decision marks the entrance of Curitiba into what is sometimes called "neo-liberal urbanism," which implies treating the city as a commodity in order to attract capitals, sometimes at the expense of a large part of the population. In this sense, Curitiba is only guilty of taking part in a global trend in city governance.

Meanwhile, the discrepancy between its flawless image and reality is growing.

"You have to remember at the time all these ideas were very innovative," says Irázabal. "There is a logic of learning from best practices. You can have solutions to problems that are proven to be effective, and this is prevalent in many other disciplines. Those ideas travel around the world." She adds, "Sometimes ideas keep on traveling, even when they're outdated."

Top photo credit: Mathieu Struck/Flickr

Flavie Halais is a French freelance journalist, blogger and filmmaker living in Montreal, Canada. All posts »

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