Town planning for sustainability

You recycle, you buy Fair Trade, you do your bit. Ever feel it’s not enough? You wouldn’t need to feel guilty if you lived in Curitiba, Brazil, the city designed for sustainability, argues S&YP correspondent Bennet Hackett

Curitiba in the southern state of Parana, Brazil is an excellent example of modern city planning. Since the mid 1960’s the local authorities in Curitiba have employed a linear town plan in order to allow for future expansion.

Mass migration of rural communities to urban settlements during that period was mainly due to agricultural mechanisation. To cope with the sharp increase in population, the municipal government of Curitiba set out a sustainable development plan whereby public transportation was the backbone for the development and growth of the city in the future.

The development scheme gave priority to public services such as sanitation, traffic management and creating centres that enabled the growth of both social life and commerce.

The integrated bus system and express bus system which serve as a surface subway for the city make inner city travel more affordable and manageable. It is also a  network that can be easily expanded by commissioning additional bus routes as the community and its surrounding built up area grow.

Although the excellent transport links within the city make it unnecessary for local people to own or use a car, Curitiba has one of the highest car ownership rates in Brazil. Its gasoline usage is a third lower than that of eight comparable cities in the country, however, highlighting the typical resident’s lack of dependency on the car.

Long term planning over four decades has been the secret to the city’s success as a sustainable development model. The authorities of Curitiba have always kept an eye on the future, with the same people involved in the city’s urban development for the past 40 years. This ensures the original philosophies and goals of the plan are never forgotten.
The city’s development has never deviated from the same fundamental idea shared by any good design, which is meeting the needs of the consumer, in this case the citizens of Curitiba.

The city’s development has also included multiple social projects, most notably the refurbishment of old buses as travelling social centers for the education of  Curitiba’s young and poorest citizens. They teach the residents the importance of sustainable growth as well as providing medical and community services.

This free education helps the younger generation to understand and share the ideals of the city’s development model, ensuring it continues to develop in the same way in the future.

The Olhos da Agua is an example of one of Curitiba's social programmes on wheels. The bus aims to teach residents about the fragility of the city's ecosystem and the importance of a healthy environment, in particular preserving the quality of the area’s water sources. This is particularly important as a large number of the city’s poorest residents live on the banks of the main river.

Commercial development is encouraged on the public transport routes, which branch out like arteries from the heart of the city. The city centre is partly closed to vehicular traffic to promote the reliability of the bus system.
The promotion of commerce along the transport arteries means the traditional rush hour isn’t as disruptive as in other cities: workers commute in all directions rather than heading for the city centre.

All over Curitiba there are fresh approaches to town planning suited to a modern, sustainable way of life. The city also functions as a social project, based on integrating the citizens and their government.

Instead of centralised government buildings the city has several government malls which have been built over the past 15 years with funding from the InterAmerican Bank. This means residents don’t have to travel to the city centre to have their voice heard or get help from the local government.

Here they can apply for assistance at the city's affordable housing office,  pay their property taxes, register their children for local schools, file for discounted transit passes, sign up for military service and apply for small business loans from the Banco social.

Although the lines were slow, they were a sharp contrast to the notoriously long lines in centralised government offices.
The Curitiba authorities are still developing this social living space for all its citizens. Based on good design and meeting the demands of modern life, the city has shaped and changed the attitude and expectations of all of its inhabitants.
Irrelevant of income or age, the residents of Curitiba are socially and environmentally conscious. The city runs a recycling scheme where the poorest citizens can exchange recyclable materials for cash or food.

In our society it is often only the very well off that can afford to put sustainability and social responsibility at the top of their agenda. As a result, it’s only these people who can afford to care.

It’s no secret that fair trade and sustainably produced items are more expensive and most people are not willing, or simply cannot justify, paying the difference. Here in Curitiba the whole community contributes and adheres to its collective sustainable model.

It’s a refreshing example of how good planning and a clear vision can bring sustainability and the environment to the forefront of people’s consideration whilst going about their daily lives.  

You cannot design a way of life as you can a product, but a product can be designed to change our way of life. In this case it’s not the design of a new product but the design of a city and the management of its services which has shaped the way of life for the people of Curitiba. It’s a unique example of excellent urban planning and, more importantly, continued development where sustainability is top of the agenda.

Bennet Hackett studied mechanical engineering at Heriot-Watt

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