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April 13, 2004 7:41 AM   Subscribe

Creative, cheap, participatory, the most innovative city in the world......Curitiba !! There may be no single, organic and living font of solutions to many of the world's most pressing problems than Curitiba (previous link from Wikipedia, and a bit more of a wonkish summary here), a Brazilian city of 1.5 million that urban planners from around the globe make pilgrimages to, to learn.

On a budget a tiny fraction of those which American cities have at their disposal, how did Curitiba become the world's leading model for urban sustainability and quality of life ? - with possibly the world's most efficient and effective public transit system, a network of parks and greenery far beyond Olmsted's visionary parks, 70% trash recycling, innovative social welfare systems, trees everywhere, and "Lighthouses of Knowledge" with small libraries and free internet access as well, a low cost open university system.....and flowers! Curitiba's pedestrian-only (no cars) city center is filled with gardens.
posted by troutfishing (34 comments total)

Thanks, trout, this is fascinating stuff. But if they're so friggin' visionary, why can't they get someone to design a user-friendly Web site? Hmph.
posted by soyjoy at 7:53 AM on April 13, 2004

interesting links, thanks for that! If I had to guess the answer to your question, I would say that too much money in the hands of the Government is a bad thing. If the city council is not corrupt, and has innovative people, they can sometimes achieve more with less. Numerous small towns in America are examples of this... but something on this scale really doesn't exist almost anywhere. If anyone has other links to other innovative cities, I would love to see them!
posted by cell divide at 8:21 AM on April 13, 2004

Yep, i lived there from around 1993 to 1995. I wish more US cities would follow their lead and develop better public transportation.

That said, it is hardly a first world utopia. The minimum wage is barely enough to starve on and American imports (so coveted by the masses) are woefully out of reach for average citizens.

As for public health, sure it is free to see a physician but heaven forbid you should actually have to stay in a public hospital. Rows and rows of dying patients are reminiscent of a Pink Floyd video. The wealthy pay for private doctors and hospitals.

I hate to be a detractor here. I loved Curitiba and would consider living there again. But only if I had a comfortable income. As in many places in the world, the poor working class suffers the most.
posted by kzam at 8:23 AM on April 13, 2004

FYI: Wendell Cox is not public transportation's friend. He was on the Amtrak Reform Council to disband Amtrak. He suggested that Atlanta should build highways in a grid every mile or so and was run out of town. He suggested that Light Rail would be extremely bad for Dallas, when if fact Light Rail has been a boom for Dallas.

People should take what he says with a grain of salt, since the highway lobby pays his salary.
posted by LinemanBear at 8:24 AM on April 13, 2004

LinemanBear, the word is "boon", but your highway lobby/grain of salt pun made this michigander guffaw. :-)
posted by quonsar at 8:39 AM on April 13, 2004

I love this link. I think many in the West, particularly in Europe, have a defeatist attitude, that we'll all end up following an American model. I am sure there are problems in this city, but there are also a lot of good ideas that could be implemented many places, if only we had the political will.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 8:43 AM on April 13, 2004

kzam - well, of course it's not paradise - bit Curitiba's standard of living compared to other comparable cities in it's region is about $3,000 US higher ($8,000 US average).

The point of the post is the ability of humans to use their creativity to make remarkable improvements in their world for very little money.

LinemanBear - where did Wendell Cox come into this? Oh, OK - does he run that "dismantlement......" site ?....If that's it, well I suppose I should have dug into it that site a little. There's not really that much in English on Curitiba on the web (bizarrely) and I liked that nutshell description although - I'll trust you on Cox's positions - it doesn't sound like I support Cox's agenda at all.

soyjoy - Good things come in kludgy wrapers sometimes.

cell_divide - as an example, the Central Artery Project wasn't initiated because it was practical or necessarily the best solution. It happened because Tip 'O Neill cashed in his political favor chits to buy a passing vote on a highway appropriations bill which represented the last really big chunk of federal highway $ to be coming down the pipeline for quite a while. Tip brought home the bacon.

In reality, Boston could have just torn down the old, raised original Central Artery which had cut Boston in two, and pulled a "Curitiba" - bought a lot of buses, and banned cars from certain urban core areas.

But, Boston's only progressive up to a point. It's no Curitiba.
posted by troutfishing at 8:49 AM on April 13, 2004

Quonsar, A slip of the keys.. boon yes.

As for Wendell Cox, it's quite obvious who he has done work for in the past.
posted by LinemanBear at 8:53 AM on April 13, 2004

I would say that too much money in the hands of the Government is a bad thing.

Could that statement say any less? How much is too much? It applies to every situation? We're effectively talking about the provision of public goods, business isn't going to provide them as they don't get to collect the benefits so they don't make the investment, the money thus has to come from the public purse, else you end up stuck with the crappy system you've always had. This obsessive belief that government can't possibly get anything done itself contributes to the problem of driving innovation in the public sector, it saps the ability of government to try new solutions and we're all worse off as a result.

kzam: That said, it is hardly a first world utopia.

Isn't that the point, that the city is poor but that they're making it work much better than cities with much better resources?

I think many in the West, particularly in Europe, have a defeatist attitude, that we'll all end up following an American model.

Can you explain more clearly what you mean by American model in this context? If we're talking about urban transport solutions many European cities have excellent public transport systems and continue to try and move forward with systems for improving traffic flow and reducing traffic levels. Plus European city geography is likely to rule out adopting an american approach to planning.
posted by biffa at 9:00 AM on April 13, 2004

I'm a little surprised that first-hand information from kzam, who actually lived in Curitba, is so summarily dismissed. I think it sounds like an amazing city, but it's even better when we have knowledge of all of it - the good and the bad.

Also, it's good that they've improved their standard of living compared to surrounding regions, but it's still miserably low. It is really wonderful to read about success stories, but we shouldn't feel the need to close our eyes in order to appreciate them.

So thanks, kzam, for your perspective.
posted by livii at 9:11 AM on April 13, 2004

One of the (major) causes of poor planning in the US isn't a lack of will -- it's spectacularly ill-conceived building codes & zoning laws.

...we're talking about regs that *require* gigantic parking lots, that mandate streets so wide no elderly person could possibly cross before the light changed, and so on.

Architects and builders complain all the time about these things, but nobody pays any attention because the knee-jerk response of US politics is MORE regulation, not less. So rather than remove absurd rules that hinder livable cities, you get NEW rules about how many structural engineers have to approve your back porch.

The code system in the US needs to be massively overhauled, and I'm not sure anyone has the political will and time to do it.
posted by aramaic at 9:13 AM on April 13, 2004

aramaic - sometimes desperate situations cut through the clutter, eh?

livii - Did anyone summarily dismiss kzam ? I didn't claim Curitiba was a utopia, or even moderately wealthy. Curitiba isn't in the 1st world, and I don't know of any utopias. So how could it possible be compared with or asked to rise to the level of a first world utopia? Oh - and I didn't mention the health care system at all. I'm sure it's rough, and basic. But how does it compare with a complete lack of health care ? Pretty well, I'd guess. It's all relative.

kzam's observations would tend to be true nearly everywhere in the developing world - Curitiba is actually moderately affluent - or at least "lower middle class" - by overall world standards, I believe. That doesn't mean there isn't suffering. But, again, to focus on these shortcomings is to miss the basic point : A better mousetrap. Just because people are poor doesn't mean they can't create visionary solutions which make the best of their limited means.

LinemanBear - I'm a little confused by your Wendell Cox references. He's a shill for the auto and/or highway industry. OK, fine. I'm familiar with his sorry species. But, um....does he live in Curitiba, or something ?
posted by troutfishing at 10:15 AM on April 13, 2004

There is a chapter devoted to Curitiba in the book Natural Capitalism which is an inspiring read for anyone into sustainibility. You can read it online.
posted by jacobsee at 10:54 AM on April 13, 2004

This is a good set of links, thanks troutfishing.
posted by hoskala at 11:03 AM on April 13, 2004

from another source:
"Curitiba's buses are privately-owned by ten companies, managed by a quasi-public company. With this public-private collaboration, public sector concerns (e.g. safety, accessibility, and efficiency) are combined private sector goals (e.g. low maintenance and operating costs). The bus companies receive no subsidies; instead all mass transit money collected goes to a fund and companies are paid on a distance travelled basis."

Sweet. Sounds like someone's head should be exploding somewhere.

kick-ass links troutfishing.
posted by blogRot at 11:09 AM on April 13, 2004

err.... actually its the same source material.
posted by blogRot at 11:12 AM on April 13, 2004

Troutfishing – the PDF from that you link to has Mr. Cox's name on it.
posted by Utilitaritron at 11:23 AM on April 13, 2004

In reality, Boston could have just torn down the old, raised original Central Artery which had cut Boston in two, and pulled a "Curitiba" - bought a lot of buses, and banned cars from certain urban core areas.

To my knowledge, most people do not use the Central Artery to get from one point to another within Boston. They use it to get from points North of the city to points south. The central artery might have cut Boston in two, but the lack of such an artery would cut the east coast of the state in two (much like the disconnect between north & south stations). The purpose of the Ted Williams tunnel, the other big part of the project, is to keep autos out of the urban core by allowing them to go directly from the highway to the airport without needing to go through the city.

That said, I wish more cities would think of buses as a means of transportation, as Curitiba does, rather than merely a service for commuters. You can get anywhere in Boston using the bus system between the hours for 7am and 9am and 4pm and 6pm. Outside of that interval, there are certain parts of the city that require either a car or a long, long walk.
posted by deanc at 11:58 AM on April 13, 2004

Thanks for the links - I just got back from Curitiba a month ago. One of the most striking things there is the lack of noticeable poverty in the city as opposed to the rest of Brazil, but then again the South is the economic center of their economy.
posted by iamck at 12:15 PM on April 13, 2004

okay troll fishing, sorry, troutfishing:

i am concerned you missed my point. i mentioned healthcare because i feel it is closely related to quality of life.

other quality of life factors to consider:
1. good schools for all. brazil (curitiba included) makes it very hard to get into higher education unless you are A. rich and/or B. brilliant.
2. easy access to parks and recreation facilities. many (indeed most) parks are near the city center leaving mainly the affluent access to them. further out into the sprawling subdivisions where average people can afford to live, parks and trees, flowers, etc. are more rare.
3. few cars in the city center. so what? nobody but the rich even OWNS a car so prohibiting their traffic in certain locations is not such a big deal.
4. public transit. here curitiba scores big. but then it HAS to have a solution because without it nobody could afford to get around. the curitiba model seems to have been followed in other, smaller surrounding cities in the same state such as ponta grossa, araucaria, campo largo, and even londrina.

geez, why the fuck should i have to defend myself? i lived there and traveled extensively. how much web-research is gonna give you the same life experience i had?

all i am saying is SURE THE BUSSES ARE NICE BUT OTHER THAN THAT IT AIN"T SO GREAT! sure, it is just my opinion but any other curitiba link you submit for me to look at is just the same thing: another person's opinion.
posted by kzam at 12:17 PM on April 13, 2004

For the record, I hold no responsibility for other persons named Wendell (in fact, since Mr. Cox is listed higher than I am in a Google search for "Wendell", please feel free to berate him; just don't link to his site).

kzam's personal experience is certainly as valuable as any other source quoted in this thread (maybe more so), but having actually mastered the use of public transportation in Los Angeles myself, there is a special allure to the "city with the best bus service". So, if I were foolish enough to wish to relocate to Curitiba, would learning the Portuguese language be valuable or necessary? And is Miguel available for on-line tutoring?
posted by wendell at 1:09 PM on April 13, 2004

If he is, note that he would teach you Portuguese Portuguese, ranther than Brasilian.
posted by Utilitaritron at 1:33 PM on April 13, 2004

kzam - How am I trolling?

As for your points, it seems to me that you're just trying to take some of the gloss off the "Curitiba miracle" . Well, maybe that's appropriate. I don't know. I'm well aware that Brazil has some of the more extreme wealth distribution inequality in the world (I was writing a bit about it on metafilter yesterday, in fact) - so I would be surprised if these didn't hold in Curitiba. But, I guess my question to that then would be : did Curitiba's city planners really have the capability to address the underlying wealth inequalities in Brazilian society ? Sure, maybe they held classist beliefs as well. But, those things notwithstanding, as sounds as if Curitiba's government has done more for it's poor than most developing world city administrations.

Is this an incorrect impression ?

Maybe iamck will see fit to respond to your views - do you think it's really true the the poverty is less extreme in Curitiba ? That's what the stats say. And are the innovative methods used in Curitiba actually 1) truly innovative or 2) actually beneficial ? That's the real issue to me - and not whether Brazil has extreme inequality. Of course it does. But that's not about Curitiba per se.

All of the points you cite above concern Brazil's larger societal problems - they are not unique to Curitiba. So how much of what dismays you about Curitiba dismays you about Brazil in general ?

Anyway - don't take it so personally, really! I wasn't trying to attack you.

Utilitaritron - Oh, OK. Thanks. I re-read Cox's piece and - in itself - it didn't seem problematic to me. That doesn't mean he isn't implicated in various nastiness. But the piece I linked to, in itself, didn't seem problematic to me. I'll remember the name now though, for sure. Wendell Cox.
posted by troutfishing at 1:35 PM on April 13, 2004

Like I mentioned before - Curitiba lacks the typical trademarks of a large Brazilian city - favelas, homeless (kids), and the infamous vira lata (street dog). Not that these things are completely absence, but they're definitely not as obvious. From what I understand this is due to the fact that the South of Brazil has much more money then the North, and basically is what supports the Northeast (which in places the poverty is comparable to sub-saharan Africa).

Curitiba is definitely Brazil's model city - any Brazilian you talk to will tell you this, and it's a big source of pride for the country. An idea of how amazing the city is wont be gleamed from comparisons to any first world city, but from the other cities in the South of Brazil with similar resources.
posted by iamck at 1:54 PM on April 13, 2004

I had the chance to chat with someone who'd lived in Curitiba in the laundromat once, and his view was that yes, while they're doing some interesting things there, by no means is it some kind of miracle. He stressed that the city puts a lot of effort in its marketing to the rest of the world - so its best to look closely and be careful should you repeat claims that are just coming from a new kind of chamber-of-commerce boosterism.
posted by syscom at 2:16 PM on April 13, 2004

I have heard that good city planning can cut down on crime and delinquency as well as promoting health and wellbeing.

Kind of like feng shui on a larger scale. Sim city-tastic!

This place looks good. I would like to visit it, but I am not likely to do so in the near future. However, a friend who is my namesake is currently in Brasil, so I shall get him to visit if possible. He is an architect, so I am sure he will have some interesting comments. Keep your e-eyes peeled for the mail, trout, although it is unlikely to be immediate.

Also - AGENDAFILTER - why can't I look at my favourite website without encountering issues that might upset me. Boo-hoo, I am a big cry baby ban all posts relating to cities. I have read these links before. I have seen it all before. Stop trying to claim mind-space that has been ceded to the oligarchy, like a bloody hippie. Blah blah blah no real argument blah blah blah whatsitcalled, oh appeal to authority (in this case posting guidelines). Sorry about that troufishing, but I thought you wouldn't be too upset about this blurting out onto this thread. I was considering getting my arse banned by posting 'AGENDAFILTER' (as large as possible, with links to previous threads) to all threads where the thread poster had previously posted a thread on a similar or related subject. As a kind of expression of my disgust at the pathetic whining of some of the less open minded members here, and as a bit of agit-prop. Or something. /bile

When I searched google for 'good city planning' Curitiba ( came up at google prime.
posted by asok at 3:10 PM on April 13, 2004

syscom - no doubt it does. But there sure wasn't too much on Curitiba available on the web in English (although I've been reading about it for years) , so it's only relative.

But are the public transit system, the higher standard of living, and so on only boosterish disortions like GW Bush's "Texas Miracle" (in education) ? That would be a shame. Still, there are an awful lot of urban planners going to Curitiba to study something (maybe they're just partying) .
posted by troutfishing at 3:11 PM on April 13, 2004

In Los Angeles, there was much todo about building a Curitiba-like bus network as a cheaper and faster alternative to extending the rail network. Yet LA being the car city it is, rather than dedicated busways-- or even dedicated lanes-- the proposal was watered down to the point where the only improvements over traditional bus service are a: busses are painted red (makes you feel like you are travelling faster?), b: they don't stop at every corner, c: traffic lights will occasionally give them priority.

Curitiba boosters also completely ignored the fact that Curitiba itself has decided to begin work on their own monorail system to handle larger passenger loads.
posted by 4easypayments at 4:27 PM on April 13, 2004

One of the most striking things there is the lack of noticeable poverty in the city as opposed to the rest of Brazil

It's been since 1997 since I was there, so things could have changed, and maybe I went to a different part of town. But in one particular part of town where I went, dirt roads, open sewers and shacks were the rule, and I visited a couple of other homes that were only a step or two up. My brother had gone there on a mission and I went back with him to visit some of the people he'd met.

Don't get me wrong, I was impressed with many areas of the city, and maybe they've done a lot of things right, but this wasn't Utopia.
posted by weston at 5:03 PM on April 13, 2004

Devils in the Details. Here is another Green Community in England that if you believe the marketing it is the savour of the world. I have since found out it is saddled with problems like cost overruns and not as efficient as people think. But you won't hear about it on the web because these are excellent marketing people and they are selling a product to a certain segment and there are no regulations to control this kind of stuff. We have the same problems in the USA with recycling it is not as helpful as people think but thats another topic.

Obviously this is the future, sustainable cities and communities. How we get there I think we are still living in the dark ages. Take any concept and imagine the entire country of China living with it and ask yourself, would it work, would the raw materials be available, would the land be available, would the costs be affordable. That is the test and so far I've never seen an answer to that China mind puzzle question.
posted by stbalbach at 6:27 PM on April 13, 2004

Wow, I'm pretty amazed at the sheer number of mefites who have been there. I'm tre jealous. I'd love to go see it...should I find myself in Brazil.
posted by dejah420 at 10:11 PM on April 13, 2004

rexgregbr also recommended florianopolis :D oh and second jacobsee's rec!
posted by kliuless at 11:09 PM on April 13, 2004

stbalbach - well, there's a lot more fat in the British and US economies, so I wouldn't look there for an answer to your question (the China Mind Puzzle question).

But I think you'll find that most of the answers to your question in........... Gaviotas
posted by troutfishing at 6:29 AM on April 14, 2004

I second Florianopolis, especially Santa Catarina island. Fabulous week there, a wonderful new years eve.
posted by weston at 9:10 PM on April 21, 2004

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