Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sustainable Curitiba

I came to Curitiba because of its former Mayor and State Governor, an architect named Jaime Lerner. I heard him speak on three different occasions in Vancouver and Toronto, and was impressed with his ideas and accomplishments. For the past 4 decades, he has been trying to make Curitiba a model of sustainability. Unfortunately, he was out of town when we arrived, but I could feel his presence as we toured around the city.

On arrival we were pleased to find HSBC advertising all over the airport. This meant we could avoid ATM fees! In keeping with the city’s spirit of sustainability, we took a bus from the airport into town. On the way we read the literature provided by the airport's tourist information centre. We were happy to see there was a hop-on hop-off bus. However, this one was operated by the local public transit operator, not a private company.

To the casual observer, Curitiba looks like another large South American city, with a skyline of large mediocre apartment blocks, and a broad mix of buildings along its downtown streets. But when you look closely, you start to see some differences. This is the self-proclaimed 'environmental capital of Brazil' and the greenest city in South America in terms of park space per resident.

The 25 stops along the two hour hop-on, hop-off tour offered further evidence this was not a typical Brazilian city. They included:

·A 24 hour street, initiated by city planners, to increase around the clock activity and safety in the downtown;

·Theatro Paiol, a powder depot recycled into an arena theatre;

·a combined bus, train and city market development, considered a landmark in transportation terminals in the country, when it opened 35 years ago;

·a memorial for Polish immigration,

·the Museu Oscar Niemeyer, the largest and most modern in Brazil;

·a tribute to German immigrants,

·the ‘free university of the environment’ that promotes public education on the environment, inaugurated with Jacques Cousteau;

·an old glue factory that was converted into a creativity centre;

·a glass and steel Opera Centre in a former quarry, where the trees surrounding the building are the 'walls' of the auditorium;

·a park which serves as a tribute to the natives who first inhabited the area,

·a Ukrainian memorial, in tribute to the many immigrants from the Ukraine,

·a gateway to the Italian neighbourhood.

I was particularly interested in seeing the city's relatively inexpensive rapid transit system that uses buses rather than trains or trams. They run primarily on dedicated lanes. A key feature is the raised tubular glass platforms that are the fare paid zone. They allow easy access onto the buses. Hydraulic platforms are available for those in wheelchairs. Lerner claims it works since it wasn’t designed by experts. It seemed like such a good idea, I was curious to know if other cities have copied it.

Curitiba is the opposite of Brasilia. In addition to its focus on transit, it is a city designed for walking, with many wide, decorated sidewalks, and a portion of the downtown restricted to pedestrians. It was the first pedestrian only street in Brazil, created in 72 hours over a long weekend in 1973.

Unfortunately, I couldn't see some of the other initiatives I had heard about from Lerner. These included a garbage pick up program in which residents of low income neighbourhoods were paid to collect their own garbage...with bus tickets! To make the program more interesting and effective, the bus tickets were also lottery tickets, with draws each week. In another project, park light fixtures were made from recycled local children

We did see the current recycling program operating around town. There are 5 containers instead of the typical three. One is for organic waste, and one is for ‘stico’ which I am hoping means chewing gum, since I hate seeing it on sidewalks around a city.

One of our best stops was the Oscar Niemeyer Museum. It’s the building with the large eye out front. There we saw some very unusual pieces and a display on Niemeyer’s work. There was also a filmed interview with him, explaining the rationale behind his different projects, (and he has done a lot of them in South America). While he didn’t convince Sally that there shouldn’t be trees in Brasilia’s major civic plaza, I was impressed with his approach. However, while I like many of his buildings, I too do not like his major urban design projects like the civic square in Brasilia.

While I would have like to have stayed on for another day or two to see a bit more of the city, Sally was eager to get to the Iguazu Falls and Buenos Aires. So, on Friday morning, I stopped off in the Canadian Travel Agency in Curitiba, where I purchased two tickets for Saturday’s flight to the falls. Although HSBC has a big presence in Curitiba, their credit card did not work for on-line bookings with the airlines. But when we got to the airport, we found a special airport lounge for HSBC premier members. Go figure.

Although Brasilia and Curitiba had not been typical tourist destinations, we were glad we had visited them. We had again seen different sides of life in Brazil, but now we were off to do some real site seeing. It’s a shame we couldn’t take Brasilia’s and Curitiba’s perfect sunny weather with us.


Venky said...

Nice post and makes me feel good that i'll be visiting Curitiba soon. How far is Iguazu falls from Curitiba? Which flight/mode of transport would you recommend?

Thanks in advance!


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