How Curitiba Did the Impossible: Sustainable City and Community Planning, "simple, fast, cheap."

"Simple, fast, cheap." Sustainable Community Planning With a Difference!

Jamie Lerner has been mayor of Curitiba, in alternating terms, for more than 20 years. He sums up his mission, and the city's mission this way:       "There is no endeavour more noble than the attempt to achieve a collective dream. When a city accepts as a mandate its quality of life; when it respects the people who live in it; when it respects the environment; when it prepares for future generations, the people share the responsibility for that mandate, and this shared cause is the only way to achieve that collective dream."                                                                — Jaime Lerner

    Sustainable Community Planning,   Curitiba, Brazil
Sustainable Community Planning, Curitiba, Brazil

Curitiba Does the Impossible!

Curitiba is a city in the interior of Brazil whose population tripled to one and a half million over the last 25 years. In spite of such rapid growth, it has become known around the world for a unique, effective and sustainable community planning approach based on the basic principles of “simple, cheap and fast.”

Author Bill McKibben spent a month in Curitiba examining its award-winning successes and documented his findings in an exciting book, Hope, Human and Wild. He concluded that, “Curitiba is among the world’s great cities,” not, he says, for its beaches or bridges, not for its culture or glamour, but for its “livability.”

Although Curitiba is a relatively poor city (per capita income is $2500 US) it has produced a series of amazing results in transportation, parks and flood control based on its unique approach of meeting people's, not planners, needs. How the architects of Curitiba’s success handled the challenge of public transport in this rapidly growing city is exceptional. It demonstrates the power of vision-driven creativity to transcend confict-driven problem-solving, and enable cash-strapped municipalities to do what is usually thought to be impossible.

“Transport in the case of Curitiba,” says McKibben, “means buses … the system of express lanes that speed to and from the downtown. In 1974 the system carried 25,000 passengers per day; by 1993 the number was 1.5 million."

Curitiba's buses move faster than buses in other cities, says MiKibben, not because their motors are more powerful, but because they are better designed. While sitting at a bus stop one day Curitiba's Mayor Jamie Lerner noticed that the buses were stopped for longer periods than they moved, because of how long it took passengers to climb the stairs and pay the fare. So he sketched a plan for a glass "tube station," a bus shelter raised a couple of steps off the ground, with an attendant to collect fares.

When a bus pulls in, its doors open like a subway's. People walk right on (or in the case of wheelchairs, roll right on). The buses are extra-long and hinged in two spots so they are able to snake around corners. Each can accommodate 300 passengers.

"Five doors open and close at each stop," say McKibben, "and on busy routes at rush hour one of these behemoths arrives every minute or so; twenty thousand passengers an hour can move in one direction. There is a word for this kind of service: subway.”

Curitiba’s planners, who take an creating focused architiectural approach rather than a conventional engineering approach, are masters of doing more with less.

“Amazingly,” McKibben adds, “the city doesn't need to subsidize its bus service. The fleet is purchased and owned by private companies; the government assigns routes, sets fares, and pays each contractor by kilometer traveled … and the whole system turns a profit."

But that's not all! The Curitiba transportation systems carries four times the number of passengers each day as Rio de Janiero's subway system, at a cost of only one-half of one percent as much per kilometer. One-half of one percent! Listen up city, state, and provincial planners. Mayor Lerner, an architect by profession, has created a city design process based on basic architectural principles which involve the people to be served in the creation of designs for new services. He has no use for those who focus only on problems and their solutions.

“Transport is so important, you can't leave it to the experts,” Mayor Lerner told McKibben. “They will solve the problem of transportation, but they won't link it to the problem of the city. When you realize how many cities were killed by traffic engineers, well, we should beat them with slippers, we really should. In many cities a lot of people are specialists in proving it's impossible to do things. "I try to work with professionals who think it is possible”

Lerner’s method, he says, “is the method of architectural schools everywhere: "We use the charette, always the charette””

A charette is a community based planning exercise in which local citizens are given a challenge and work together to design innovative ways to bring their visions into being.

City employees take a hands on role in city planning. One such employee participating in the transportation planning process saved the city tens of millions of dollars.

“On a regular bus,” says McKibben, “it doesn’t make much difference where you stop—the passengers will just walk a few steps to board. But with the tube stations, the bus has to be in just the right place, or the openings on the tube won't align with the bus doors."

Volvo (who built the articulating buses) offered to design and install an elaborate and expensive optical computer system to line up the doors with the openings in the tube. But before going ahead with it, the employee,a long-time bus driver who sat on the planning committee, suggested, “Let's try a stripe painted on the pavement…I'll see if it works.” It did. And saved the city millions of dollars. Curitiba is a classic example of community planning driven by vision, grounded in reality, and focused on actions that lead, quickly and effectively, to real and lasting end results.

As well as their world famous transportation system, the planners have designed flood control systems built around man-made lakes surrounded by parkland rather than channeled concrete, They have designed garbage collection systems run by slum dwellers and numerous other projects and programs that are the envy of cities and towns around the world—all done “simple, cheap and fast.”

When asked how they do it, Mayor Lerner says, “We’re working on things that make us happy. You don’t have to have all the answers before you start—you can’t be such smart guys. To start is important.”

Led by architects and other creative minds, Curitiba has followed its "simple, fast, cheap" principles and created a kind of grass-roots sustainable community planning that is the envy of many cities around the world.

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Bruce Elkin is author of Simplicity and Success: Creating the Life You Long For , THRIVE! and The ABCs of Emotional Mastery.

For more of his writing please visit his HubPages Profile.

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This lovely lake is part of the natural flood control system in Curitba.
This lovely lake is part of the natural flood control system in Curitba.
A "tube station" on one of Curitab's bus routes.
A "tube station" on one of Curitab's bus routes.
Bus at tube station in Curitiba.
Bus at tube station in Curitiba.

Sustainable Community Planning: Curitiba Style

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Comments 12 comments

lori763 7 years ago

This is very interesting! Punta Gorda, FL seems to be following a semi-charette model of community planning in that it continues to invite community feedback.

No wonder Brazil is one of the most promising of emerging markets. It seems that more people should recognize that sustainable living is attainable by making smart (not necessarily expensive) choices. I will help spread the word by Clipmarking this:)


Bruce Elkin profile image

Bruce Elkin 7 years ago from Victoria, BC Canada Author

Thanks, Lori. Making smart, cheap choices seems the way to go. Boeing, which was falling way behind Airbus in the 90's has leaped ahead of all the airplane companies by building its 787 Dreamliner with carbon fibre in stead of steel. Lighter body means lighter engines. Both mean less fuel consumed, money saved. Smart, and the manufacturing process is cheaper, too.

Instead of just handing out welfare cheques to the Big 3 automakers, I think they should have made them invest the money in the kinds of things Boeing is doing.


VioletSun profile image

VioletSun 7 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

Bruce: I read this with interest because I had not heard of this type of transit planning where both the citizens and city benefit-no one is taking anything away from anyone. It was brillant of the Mayor to design subway type doors for the buses to save on transport time.  Seems to me simplifying is the way to live in this planet.  I have a best friend who is from Rio de Janeiro, and will send her your article which I know, she will enjoy!

BDW, I am always learning something new by being a member of Hubpages. Pretty cool! :)


Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 7 years ago from United States

This is fascinating. Efficiency and quality of life are where it's at. Thanks, for another great hub, Bruce!


Bruce Elkin profile image

Bruce Elkin 7 years ago from Victoria, BC Canada Author

Hi VioletSun, Hi Tom!

Thank you both for your comments. THe Curitiba story is really eye-opening, especially the "simple, cheap, fast" principle. It allows them to do things that other cities would take years, and study to death, and never do. Or do at great expense to the taxpayers.

Another person who is enlightened about this notion of efficiency and quality of life is Amory Lovins, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, in Boulder, Colorado, USA. Check out http://www.rmi.org/ The videos are very interesting.

Thanks, again, for your comments!


rockinjoe profile image

rockinjoe 7 years ago from Standing right behind you!

Interesting piece. If you don't mind me asking, why the interest in Curitiba? You look as Brazilian as I do.


Bruce Elkin profile image

Bruce Elkin 7 years ago from Victoria, BC Canada Author

Ah! I had a couple of clients (via phone) from there. But even before that, I have a long-standing interest in living simply, richly, and in harmony with the planet, and they do things well down there. Mostly, it's because they take a vision-driven design approach to creating the city they want -- not a problem-focused, narrow engineer or problem-solving approach.

My whole thing is helping people see the limits of problem solving as a life/work creation stance, and the power of creating to bring about real and lasting change. And Curitiba, with it's simple fast cheap approach really appealed to me. I mean creating a transort system that moved 4 times the number of people at 1/2 of 1% the cost of other big subway systems? Ya gotta love that!


rockinjoe profile image

rockinjoe 7 years ago from Standing right behind you!

That's awesome.I'm going to be doing some reinventing this year and know your hubs are going to help me to succeed. Don't stop, whatever you do.


Bruce Elkin profile image

Bruce Elkin 7 years ago from Victoria, BC Canada Author

Great, Joe. You've just given me a new topic: "Reinventing Yourself: . . ." Thanks!

Keep on tickling our funny bones with your great sense of wit! Cheers!


Sally 7 years ago

Great hub! Just checking to see if a person can sign in without giving away info.


Bruce Elkin profile image

Bruce Elkin 7 years ago from Victoria, BC Canada Author

THanks, Sally. You're safe here. Sign in and comment any time you feel like it. Best!


Maia 4 years ago

Didn't even know you had this page! Great article. Thanks for sharing. Makes you wonder why it has to be the "envy of other cities" eh??? Why don't they just start doing creative things themselves? Sheesh!!!

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