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Curitiba, Brazil: A Sustainability Success Story

Curitiba, Brazil: A Sustainability Success Story

By Mariela Zingoni de Baro

Curitiba is globally renowned for its sustainable urban planning, implemented in the early 1970s.  The success of the innovative urban transformations was mainly due to the creative leadership of Jaime Lerner and his core team of professionals. Lerner is an architect and urbanist who was Mayor of Curitiba and Governor of the state of Parana in southern Brazil.

Curitiba’s success in urban planning for over 40 years is largely due to a few important  factors. Creativity and innovative thinking in design and initiatives aimed to change outdated practices and overcome deficient budgets, dubbed “brilliant on the cheap’ by McKibben. Lerner and his core team took the opportunity of particular political support to develop ideas that were implemented unchallenged, based on political will, continuity and perseverance. And international support and recognition gave value to the local efforts and ensured the city was on the right track.

You might ask how this might happen in a developing country? It started with a significant change in mentality around planning beginning with a unique work methodology. Splitting work days into two periods, the team would meet every morning to work on the city vision and large-scale issues at the “Thinking Hat”, a log cabin retreat deep in the heart of one of Curitiba’s forested parks. The afternoons would be spent at the city hall offices where they would deal with the daily needs of the city and residents. The method helped to balance both need and potential, enabling the city planners to work on real and sustained change.

Among the creative planning approaches is the ‘strange archeology’, defined by Lerner in this way: “Every city has its own designs –oldroads, old streetcarways. You are not going to invent a new city. Instead, you’re doing a strange archeology, trying to enhance the old, hidden designs.”

From this starting point in thinking followed the ‘urban acupunctures’ which are specific actions of revitalisation that can progressively change urban life. They begin with the development of a good idea, and are applied in a variety of situations ranging from ecological restoration, regeneration of degraded areas, reshaping of urban sectors and improvement of urban life to economic objectives. One of the most famous acupunctures was the ‘flowers’ street’, a transformation of the main street into a pedestrian mall which was amazingly completed over the course of one weekend.



Flowers Street, Curitiba


The Wire Opera House is a theatre built out of recycled steel pipes in only two months. Besides giving new life to an abandoned quarry and a new use for abandoned building materials, the building is a celebration of nature and its everlasting power of rebirth.



Wire Opera House


The idea of designing parks with lakes as a solution for storm water management and flood control originated in the morning meetings. Nicolau Klüppel, who was the planning team’s civil engineer specialising in flood control infrastructure, said:

‘‘I was a narrow-minded engineer, trained to build infrastructure to control floods. One day, in a conversation with my colleagues, one of them said: ‘What Curitiba needs is water, but we can’t have a beach at 1,000 m altitude.’ I was always thinking about drainage, so I said ‘We can’t have a beach, but we can have lakes that can double as retention ponds and collect runoff from increasingly large impervious surfaces.’ And so, we decided to have a lake in every city park.”


Besides the environmental aspect, of channelling destructive floor water into spectacular lakes in the city’s many parks, the parks also provided social and cultural benefits to the community: old remaining buildings were transformed into performing places, art ateliers, community centres and gained cheap maintenance methods including the use of sheep to “mow the lawns’. The acupunctures, the parks and many other initiatives implemented in Curitiba are examples of the power of creativity and ingenuity, of collaboration and good leadership.


Sao Lourenco Park



Old brick factory buildings transformed into a community creativity centre



A cheap maintenance idea




Lerner at work


Image of The Wire Opera House in Curitiba, Brazil from Flickr