Curitiba’s Former Mayor Lerner Offers Valuable Reflections on Designing Sustainable Cities

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Last week, Embarq, in conjunction with the other major players in the development world (think: international banks), hosted the ninth annual “Transforming Transportation” Conference to share model practices,  meet with colleagues doing similar work, and address sustainable transport issues worldwide.  This year’s conference focused on “scaling up” – that is, finding ways to emulate/adapt/multiply current best practices from various cities to make a larger, more powerful print on the future of (sustainable) development.

For me, the most exciting part of the conference was the opportunity to hear the keynote speaker, Jamie Lerner, who, until yesterday, I had only read about in grad school textbooks and researched for my sustainability classes.  Lerner- former three-time Mayor of Curitiba; two time Governor for the State of Parana, Brazil; architect; and urban planner (the list goes on) is perhaps best known for his implementation of the first ever BRT (bus rapid transit) system in his first term as Mayor.  Since then, academics, practitioners, researchers, and the like have looked to Curitiba as the highest example of a visionary transit system.  Today, over 100 BRT systems are operating from Los Angeles to Dhaka, making the effects of increased mobility and access felt worldwide.   

Without spending too much time on the details on Curitiba’s BRT system (if you’re curious, Google will turn up plenty of publications on its design and implementation), I wanted to share my interpretation of some of his messages about city planning- messages that I believe are applicable to virtually every city.   While he stated that every city has its own design, certain principles are universal:

  • Mobility matters.  Lerner’s talk, along with several others at the conference, highlighted the importance of analyzing transit access and availability from the user’s standpoint.  By shifting perspectives, we are able to better understand the connections between various transit systems (train, bus, BRT, walking, biking) that already exist in our cities, without necessarily building anything new.  Rather than competing for users within the same space, transit systems should enhance each other. Additionally, Lerner mentioned that there’s not just one way to address mobility concerns for all cities- a simple point, but one worth noting.
  • “Creativity starts when you cut a zero from your budget.”  Enough said.  With ever-increasing fiscal constraints, the time is ripe to think of innovative, out-of-the box (and economical) strategies to address persistently pesky municipal issues or long-term sustainability goals. There are stellar examples from within our own country’s borders:  Austin’s Green Business Leaders Program, hosted by the city’s Office of Sustainability, is a competitive awards program for local businesses to take advantage of sustainability opportunities already existing in other city departments as a means to green their business. As a result, the program brings together the various business stakeholders in Austin’s green future, while capitalizing on the ongoing efforts of other city departments.
  • Co-responsibility. Lerner stressed an “equation of co-responsibility,” where all people begin to understand the ideas, motivations, and reasons for city led projects.  When that happens, Lerner states that support for city led projects quickly multiplies, as people feel a sense of ownership over what their city is doing. To breed co-responsibility, informing constituents and getting their feedback is critical and in this age, that means utilizing various social media outlets such as websites (SustainIndy); twitter feeds (Sustainable Cleveland 2019); and Facebook pages (Greenworks Philadelphia).
  • Educate children/youth about sustainability. We often forget that sustainability deals with long-term systemic change- when we recall that, we realize the impact that educating children about sustainable living can have on drastically altering a city’s trajectory.  Check out the Youth Planning Program in Portland’s Office of Sustainability, where 14 – 21 year olds work with professional and planners to shape the city’s long-range planning.  Instilling a culture of sustainability in your city begins with engaging the younger generation in your sustainability efforts.

As a designer who has a clear commitment to the political process, Lerner brings a unique perspective to the future of sustainable cities.  His keynote speech was quite an appropriate and inspiring beginning to a conference that generated substantive and spirited dialogue around sustainable transit.

[In case you’re interested in hearing him speak, I was able to find a TED talk that mentions some similar elements.]