City&Country: Cover Story-- In a class of its own

Brazil, a country that is mostly known for its tropical weather and love of football and carnivals, hardly comes to mind when one talks about “green and sustainable living”. But a closer look at the southern part of the republic reveals Curitiba, the well-planned and sustainable capital city of the state of Paraná.

The green practices of the city has earned it a place in Reader’s Digest’s 2009 ranking of the world’s greenest and most livable places, taking into consideration social and environmental factors.

Policies and plans to develop Curitiba were first put in place in the 1960s as more people began to move into the city. These plans were reviewed and carried forward by each mayor.

“The secret lies in the good practices proposed by the city and adopted by its people, to the point of becoming routine and part of the local lifestyle and culture,” the mayor of Curitiba Dr Luciano Ducci said.

“Curitiba proves that cities can transform themselves as they grow and become even better through public policies that support each other.”

Ducci was speaking at the recent Second World Class Sustainable Cities 2010 conference jointly organised by the Real Estate and Housing Developers’ Association (Wilayah Persekutuan [KL] branch), the Malaysian Institute of Planners and the Malaysian Institute of Architects in Kuala Lumpur.

The aim of the conference was to support and collaborate with the local councils so that Kuala Lumpur achieves “world class city” status by 2020, as laid out in the Kuala Lumpur Structure Plan 2020 and the Draft Kuala Lumpur City Plan 2020.

The conference sought to provide a better understanding of the qualities, planning and design, and social needs required to become a world-class sustainable city.

Ducci, who spoke through an interpreter, told the participants how Curitiba achieved its sustainable development goals. The city — located about 250km southwest of Sao Paulo, near the coastal mountain range — has a population of 1.8 million.

An interesting fact about Curitiba is that although it has the second highest number of cars among the cities in Brazil (one car for every three people), the people of Curitiba use their cars less than those in the other Brazilian cities. Its petrol consumption is 30% lower as two-thirds of daily trips made by residents are by bus.

Its efficient and low-cost public transport system enables the people of Curitiba to spend only 10% of their annual income on bus fares. Some 85% of Curitiba residents use public transport on a daily basis. The city also discourages the use of cars by providing very limited public parking in the city centre while most employers offer transport subsidies, especially to the low-income group.

In an effort to improve the city’s public transport system, an 18km stretch of a highway that cuts through part of the city has been converted into a green lane, said Ducci. The buses that ply the lane are biofuel-powered while the plants that grow along it are native.

The city also encourages walking. Despite initial protests, the people have come to love their pedestrian-only paved spaces which are also used to host outdoor markets and events such as concerts.

The covered sidewalks — one of the many initiatives taken by Curitiba that reflect respect and care for pedestrians — shelter the people from the frequent rain. To top it all, the city has 120km of bike paths that are identified by surface colour and texture.

An early start
Cities across Brazil experienced rapid growth in the 1950s to the 1980s due to agricultural mechanisation, which led to rural-urban migration. But even as the country welcomed industrialisation, Curitiba took a different approach — it only accepted non-polluting industries and created an industrial district with emphasis on green spaces.

The growth experienced by the country led to a population boom of more than 4% per year in Curitiba alone in those decades. The city was thus forced to devise a plan to counter traffic congestion, urban sprawl and pollution.

In 1965, the Curitiba master plan was developed as a guide to transform the city into one that offered a high quality of life sustained by an efficient transport system and a healthy environment.
By 2007, the city had 28 parks and wooded areas. It now boasts about 54 sq m of green space per inhabitant compared with just 1 sq m back in 1970.

The city has seen its residents plant over 1.5 million trees along the streets while builders get tax breaks if green spaces are included in their projects. Another initiative is diverting floodwaters into new lakes to solve flooding problems while protecting the valley’s floors and riverbanks and providing artistic and recreational value as city parks for the people.

While many countries are still struggling to incorporate green features into urban developments, it seems Curitiba has a formula that works.

The capital city has introduced a green exchange employment programme to benefit both the needy and the environment. Under the programme, low-income families that live in towns that cannot be accessed by trucks are encouraged to bring their trash to a neighbourhood centre where they can exchange it for bus tickets and food — leading to less dumping in the rivers and so on.

“In this exchange programme, which was implemented in 1991, 4kg of recyclable material can be exchanged for 1kg of food,” Ducci explained. “Trucks bringing food cover 90 points in the city and over 7,000 individuals benefit from this programme.”

Curitiba has a “garbage that’s not garbage” programme as well where the residents sort out their own trash to be recycled collectively.

The bus system
The effectiveness of the city’s transport system has resulted in low emission levels, less congestion and a healthy environment.

While most cities in the world with effective public transport systems have subways or light rail systems, Curitiba has designed its bus-based transport system to include the same features that have made subways elsewhere very popular.

Ducci revealed that the city is also testing hybrid buses with electrical or biofuel engines. “Compared with regular buses, the carbon emissions of these buses are 50% lower. Moreover, the use of fossil fuels drops by 40%.”

The city’s unique transport system is locally known as Rede Integrada de Transporte, which is Portuguese for integrated transport network. All the bus stations in Curitiba are easily accessible, thanks to 21 transit centres, and passengers can move between them for free. The bus system has five main routes that radiate from the centre of the town and each bus has its own routes. The buses are colour-coordinated to make it easy for passengers to distinguish between the different routes. Today, about 1,100 buses make 12,500 trips per day, serving more than two million passengers — 50 times more than 20 years ago.

Each of the five routes contains an outer two-way lane devoted to express buses while the inner lane is flanked by an access lane for cars on one side and a high-capacity one-way route for the use of both cars and buses on the other.

The rapid transit system buses are long and split into three sections (bi-articulated), and stop at designated elevated tubes, complete with handicapped access.

In Curitiba’s transport system, you pay only one price no matter how far you travel. You pay at the bus stop before the bus arrives and wait in a dedicated raised area so that you walk directly onto the buses without having to mount stairs. The tube-shaped bus stops are also designed to protect passengers from bad weather and for quick bus entry and exit.

To ensure a truly green city, Curitiba makes full use of buses that have been retired as mobile schools or offices in areas that lack infrastructure.

Lessons learnt
Curitiba’s master plan, which emphasises integrated development, has made the city a showcase of green urbanism, with continuing improvements made to social, economic and environmental conditions.

The green city has managed to achieve urban development without the problems associated with it, such as pollution, bad traffic and unsustainable fuel consumption, through its integrated transport system, among others.

Its story is ample proof that sustainable development does not require loads of money, but forward planning and a lot of creativity and innovation.

This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 831, Nov 8-14, 2010

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