The Mythical City of Curitiba: Still a Model of Sustainability?

Curitiba, the capital of the Brazilian state of Paraná, remains in the minds of many as the great Latin American triumph in urban sustainability. Although these types of city brands are hard to attain, they can easily be lost.

There are many reasons why Curitiba Flickr / Mathieu Struckbecame recognized as the world’s most sustainable regional capital. Firstly, the urban revolution in the city started around the mid 1960s with a plan that sought to encourage urban growth corridors along mass transit routes. The plan emerged under the military dictatorship, and was effectively rolled out – and respected – until the late 1990s.

The continuity in public policy implementation owes much to the fact that the same political group remained in power for so long; a group that shared the ideas of the legendary planner/politician Jaime Lerner. Thus, Curitiba achieved the still remarkable 54m² of green space per capita, collected 100% of door-to-door recyclable waste, and introduced the famous bendy buses that years later inspired the Bogotá Transmilenio.

Nowadays though, any foreign visitor to the city must wonder Flickr / M.Struckwhether the famous sustainability postcard remains the reality for Curitiba. The first impression when walking its streets is the outrageous number of cars, which have gone clearly exceeded the capacity of the roads. Today, Curitiba has the highest number of cars per capita in Brazil: one for every 1.4 inhabitants! The few bicycles roaming the streets have no choice but to use the restricted network of bike paths, originally designed to only connect the parks.

The famous tube stations and bendy buses are now overwhelmed by the sheer number of people moving en masse from the 13 surrounding municipalities to the city Flickr / Mathieu Struckcentre. Obviously, thefts are as frequent as in the subways of Paris or New York, and the lack of comfort – which has become the norm in URBS-administered public transport – succeeds in alienating car drivers.

Although the density and good maintenance of green areas are truly unparalleled in Latin America, challenges are increasing. Experts at the Catholic University of Paraná tell me that about 60,000 people in inner Curitiba lack access to the sewerage system (partly due to political infighting between various layers of government). Meanwhile experts from the city’s famous urban planning agency (the IPPUC) anonymously tell me that a decade ago local politicians dropped long-term urban planning, in favour of profit making from short-term elections. Meanwhile, rapid population growth in the metropolitan area of Curitiba only guarantees more chaos in the future.

Despite these problems, the city remains beautiful. It exhibits the characteristic incoherent order of many Latin American cities, featuring eclectic façades filled with long blocks of workshops, training agencies for models, and traditional bakeries, alongside banks with modern marble floors. Often, pavements are overrun by the roots of the araucária tree (fully protected against any logging), while the streets are covered with yellow and pink flowers that fall from the ubiquitous ipê trees. Unfortunately, this pedestrian space is also infested by parked cars, and drivers that leave their buildings as if they never imagined that a pedestrian would cross their path; a characteristic lack of civic culture that is commonplace in this continent.

While feasting on a feijoada – a local dish of stewed beans, beef and pork – I could not help but notice that a large number of candidates for the local October elections have taken the bicycle as banner campaigns. So the trusty bike rejoins the political scene amid talk of the rising price of gasoline and copious congestion. Could this be a way to revive the prestige of this wonderful city?

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 13 August 2012. Images: Flickr / Mathieu Struck / Carlos Cadena Gaitán. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.