by Jared Green.
This interview originally
appeared in The Dirt.
Lerner was elected mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, in 1971, and reelected two more
times before serving as governor of the Brazilian state of Paraná. As mayor, Lerner
devised a number of low-cost solutions and innovative partnerships with the
public and private companies that turned Curitiba into a model green community. He has won
a number of major awards for his transportation, design, and environmental
work, including the United Nations Environment Award. In 2002, Lerner was
elected president of the International Union of Architects. Today, he is
principal of Jamie Lerner Associated Architects.
Q. You’ve argued that cities
are the solution to climate change, not the problem. What is the case for this?
A. Well, my point of view is
that there are many, many answers to what would be the best way to avoid
climate change. A lot of people are talking about new materials. Or new sources
of energy. Or wind turbines. Or recycling. They’re really important but not
enough. When we realized that 75 percent of car emissions are related to the
cities, we realized we can be more effective when we work with the concept of
the city. It’s through cities that we can have better results.
Q. What do you see as the
relationship between livability and sustainability?
A. Every time we try to
create a solution, we have to have a good equation of co-responsibility with
the public. That means it’s not a question of money and it’s not a question of
skill; it’s how do we organize the equation of co-responsibility?
For example, when I was
governor we had to work hard to reduce pollution in our bays. Of course, it’s
very expensive to do environmental cleanup work and we didn’t have the money.
Another region had taken out a huge loan from the World Bank, about $800
million. For us though, the question wasn’t about money; the question was about
mentality. We started to clean our bays through an agreement with fishermen: If
the fisherman catches a fish, it belongs to him; if he catches garbage, we
buy the garbage. If the day was not good for fishing, the fishermen went to
fish garbage. The more garbage they caught, the cleaner the bays became. The
cleaner the bay was, the more fish they would have.
It’s that kind of win-win
solution we need. We need to work with low-cost solutions.
Q. You also decentralized
garbage collection. One program to clean up dirty, narrow streets that were
inaccessible to trash collectors gave residents bags of groceries or transit
passes in return for their garbage. How well did this program work?
A. It’s been working for more
than 20 years in Curitiba. In many cities, there are places where it’s
difficult to provide trucks access to collect garbage. In many cities, if the
slums are on the hills or deep in valleys, they’re difficult to access. In
these places, people are throwing away their garbage and polluting the streams.
Their children are playing in polluted areas. In 1989, we started a program
where we said, “Okay, we’re going to buy your garbage as long as you put your
garbage in a bag, and bring it to the trucks, where it’s more accessible.” In
two or three months, all these areas were clean, and these very low-income
people had an additional source of income.
We also started public
education programs on the separation of garbage [into separate streams for
recycling, composting, etc.] because we realized that we could transform one
problem if we separated garbage in every household. We started teaching every
child in every school. Children taught their parents. Since then, Curitiba has had
the highest rate of separation of garbage in the world for more than 20 years.
Around 60 or 70 percent of families are separating their garbage at home.
Q. As mayor of Curitiba, you
created the world’s first bus rapid transit system (BRT), “Speedy Bus,” which
works like a surface subway system but at far less cost. How did you form the
public-private partnership that made it cost-effective?
A. We didn’t have the money
for a completely new fleet, which would have cost $300 million. What was the
equation? What was the solution? We said to the private sector, private
companies, “We’ll invest in the itinerary as long as you invest in the fleet.
We’ll get loans for the work on our side, for public works, for the itinerary,
if the private sector gets loans for the fleet.” We paid them by kilometers and
there are no subsidies. The system pays for itself. Now, there are more than 83
BRT systems around the world.
The problem is in many
countries, government wants to invest in everything. That doesn’t work. I’ll
give you an example. Why don’t we have a good system of transport in New York
on the waterfront? This could be a very good approach for reducing congestion
in the city’s bridges and tunnels. The city could have a very pleasant system
of water public transport. But instead, the policymakers are holding it up,
saying there are no passengers and we don’t want to invest in the fleet. First,
they need to create a good partnership and create an attractive system, then
they will have the passengers, and then they will have a low-cost solution.
Q. You’ve also mentioned
that many poor copies of your BRT are out there, and are actually setting back
BRT as a transportation movement. What are other cities doing wrong?
A. BRT can’t be designed as
a transportation solution. It has to be planned as a whole city. Why? Because
the city is a structure of living, working, and leisure. Everything together.
Transportation has to provide a structure for living and working together. It
can’t just be a system of transport. You will just have a kind of commuting system,
which is more difficult to make feasible. With that kind of approach, you will
only use public transport twice daily, concentrated in just a few hours. If you
have a system that works always and connects working and living activities,
it’s more a city [approach] than just a corridor of public transport.
Q. Now you have your own
architecture and urban design firm and you are working with major city
governments and private clients throughout the Americas. What kind of projects
are you working on?
A. Sustainability is an
equation between what we save and what we waste. There are so many problems of
mobility or integration of systems, but we have to work fast. If we understand
the city as a structure of living, working, moving together, we can work more
For instance, in Sao Paolo,
they have three subway lines. They are working on fourth line of the subway,
with 84 percent of the trains running on the surface. It’s the surface that has
to operate better. At the same time, the suburb railroad is being improved. The
idea is to take advantage of the existing path of the suburb railroads and
build above the rail a kind of linear park like the High Line. However, this
linear park would link the whole city, where you can connect people of all income
levels. In every place, you could have good public transport and you have a
huge park linking it all. Within this park, you could walk, bike, or take small
Sometimes there’s an idea
and it has to be improved. In other cases, we use “urban acupuncture.”
Q. At the street level,
you’ve been experimenting with “portable streets,” creating informal and spontaneous
market street life.
A. Some places in some
cities have become decayed. There’s no life. When that happens, it’s very
difficult to bring back life because people don’t want to live in a place like
that. However, the moment we bring street life, people will want to live there
again. That’s why we designed the portable streets. On a Friday night, we can
deliver a portable street and remove it Monday morning. We can put a whole
street life in front of a university or any place, bringing street life back …
These are small
interventions that can provide new energy to the city, and provide assistance
during the process of long-term planning, which has to take time. But we have
to work fast.
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