Sing a song of cities: Jaime Lerner on

With maverick flair and a strategist’s disdain for accepted wisdom, Jaime Lerner re-invented urban space in his native Curitiba, Brazil. He talks about how to revolutionize bus transit, awaken green consciousness in a populace accustomed to litter and blight, and change the way city planners and bureaucrats worldwide conceive what’s possible within the tangled structure of the metropolitan landscape. (Recorded March 2007 in Monterey, California. Duration: 15:42.)

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I hope you’ll understand my English — in the mornings it is terrible, and the afternoon is worse.

During many years, I made some speeches starting with this saying: “City is not a problem, it’s a solution.” And, more and more, I’m convinced that it’s not only a solution for a country but it’s a solution for the problem of climate change, or it could help a lot on the solution of — or, helping the problem to solve — helping how to end the problem of the climate change.

But we have a very pessimistic approach about the cities. I’m working in cities for almost 40 years, and where every mayor is trying to tell me, oh, his city is so big, or the other mayors say we don’t have financial resources – — I would like to say, from the experience I had, every city in the world can be improved in less than three years. There’s no matter of scale, it’s not question of scale, it’s not question of financial resources. Every problem in a city has to have its own equation of co-responsibility, and also a design.

So to start, I want to introduce some characters from a book I made for teenagers. The best example of equality of life is the turtle, because the turtle is an example of living and working together. And, when you realize that the casque [shell] of the turtle it looks like an urban tessitura [city plan], and, can imagine if we cut the cask of the turtle, how sad she’s going to be. And that’s we’re doing in our cities! Living here, working here, having leisure here. And most of the people are [working] in the city and living outside of the city.

So, the other character is Otto, the automobile. He is invited for a party, he never wants to leave. The chairs are on the tables, and still drinking — and he drinks a lot. And he coughs a lot. Very egotist, because he carries only one or two people. And he asks always for more infrastructure. Freeways. He’s very demanding person.

So — and on the other hand, Accordion, the friendly bus — he carries 300 people. 275 in Sweden. 300 Brazilians.

Speaking about the design. Every city has its own design. Curitiba, my city, 3 million in the metropolitan area, 1 million 800 thousand people in the city itself. Curitiba, Rio, it’s like two birds kissing themselves. Oaxaca, San Francisco — it’s very easy, Market Street, Van Ness, and the waterfront. And every city has its own design.

But to make it happen, sometimes you have to propose a design, an idea that everyone, or the large majority, they’ll help you to make it happen. And that’s the structure of the city of Curitiba.

[narrates series of slides] And it’s an example of living and working together. And this is where we have more density. It’s where we have more public transport. And so this, this system started in ’74, we started with 25,000 passengers a day, now it’s 2,200,000 passengers a day. And it took 25 years until another city, which is Bogota, and they did a very good job, and now there’s 83 cities all over the world that they are doing what they call the BRT of Curitiba.

And one thing, it’s important, not for only your own city — every city, besides its normal problems, they have a role — a very important role on being with the whole humanity. That means mostly, two main issues, mobility and sustainability, are becoming very important for the cities.

And this is an articulated bus, double articulated [photo changes], and we are very close to my house, you can come when you are in Curitiba and have a coffee there. And that’s the evolution of the system. The design that made the difference is the boarding tubes. The boarding tube gives to the bus the same performance as a subway. That’s why — I’m trying to say — it’s like METRO-nizing the bus. And this is the design of the bus. [Series of slides showing bus system boarding tubes.] And you pay before entering the bus, your boarding. And for handicapped, it’s — they can use — it’s a normal system.

But, what I’m trying to say the major contribution on carbon emissions are from the cars. More than 50%. So, when we depend only on cars, it’s — that’s why when we’re talking about sustainability, it’s not enough green — green buildings — it’s not enough, a new materials, it’s not enough, new sources of energy, it’s the concept of the city. The design of the city. And that’s also important too — and also, how to teach the children. I’ll speak on this later on.

Our idea of mobility is trying to make the connections between all the systems. We started in ’83, proposing for the city of Rio, how to connect the subway with the bus. The subway was against, of course — and 23 years after, we — they called us to develop — were developing this idea, and you can understand how different it’s going to be, the image of Rio with the system — one-minute, one-minute frequency. And the design it’s not — it’s not Shanghai, it’s not being colored during the day, only at night [describing slide], it will look this way.

And, before you say it’s a Norman Foster design, we designed this in ’83. And this is the model, how it’s going to work. So it’s the same system what the vehicle is different. (describing slide) And that’s the model.

What I’m trying to say is — I’m not trying to prove which system of transport is better. I’m trying to say we have to combine. To combine all the systems, and with one conditions, never — if you have a subway, if you have surface systems, if you have any kind of system — never compete in the same space.

And, coming back to the car, I always used to say that the car is like your mother-in-law. You have to have good relationship with her. But she cannot command your life. So when the only woman in your life is your mother-in-law, you have a problem.

So, all the ideas about how to transform true design — old quarries, and open universities, and botanic garden — all of it’s related how we teach the children — how we teach the children, and the children we teach during six months how to separate their garbage. And after the children, they teach their parents. And now we have 70% — since 20 years, is the highest rate of separation of garbage in the world. Seven zero. (applause) So, teach the children.

I would like to say, if we want to have a sustainable world, we have to work with everything what’s said. But don’t forget the cities, and the children.

And I’m working in a museum — and also a multi-use city — because you cannot have empty places during 18 hours a day. You should have always a structure of living and working together. Try to understand the sectors in the city that could play different roles during the 24 hours.

Another issue is, a city’s like our family portrait. We don’t rip our family portrait even if we don’t like the news of our uncle, because this portrait is you.

And this are the references that we have in any city, this is the main pedestrian mall — we did it in 72 hours. Yes, you have to be fast. And this are the references from our ethnic contribution. This is the Italian portal, the Ukrainian park, the Polish park, the Japanese square, the German park — all of a sudden, the Soviet Union, they split. And since we have people from Uzbekistan, Kazakhistan [sic], Tazakhistan [sic], Orbekhistan [sic], we have to stop the program.

Don’t forget, creativity, it starts when you cut a zero from your budget. If you cut two zeros, it’s much better. And this is a wire opera theatre, we did in two months. Or, parks — old quarries that they were transformed in parks. Quarries, once made in nature, and sometimes — we took this once and we transformed. And, every part can be transformed — every frog can be transformed in a prince.

So in a city, you have to work fast. Planning takes time. And I’m proposing urban acupuncture. That means me, with some focal ideas to help the normal process of planning. And this is an acupuncture note — (scrolling through slides adding comments) or I.M. Pei’s — or — some small ones. They can make the city better. Or, the smallest park in New York, the most beautiful. 32 meters.

So, I want just to end in saying that you can always propose new materials, new sustainable materials, but keep in mind that we have to work fast. And to the end, because we don’t have the whole time to plan. And I think creativity, innovation is starting. And we cannot have all the answers. So when you start — and we cannot be so prepotent on having all the answers. It’s important starting and having the contribution from people, and they could teach you if you’re not in the right track.

At the end, I would like if you can help me to sing the sustainable song. OK? Please, allow me just two minutes.

Uh, you know, you’re going to make the music and the rhythm. (counting rhythm with hand) Toonchi-too, Toonchi-too, Toonchi-too, Toonchi-too, Toonchi-too,Toonchi-too (audience claps and continues rhythm — JL chants) — It’s possible! It’s possible! You can do it! You can do it! Use less your car! Make this decision! Avoid carbon emission! It’s possible! It’s possible! You can do it! You can do it! Live closer to work! Work closer to home! Save energy in your home! It’s possible! It’s possible! You can do it! You can do it! Separate your garbage! Organic, schmorganic! Save more! Waste less! It’s possible! You can do it! Please! Do it — now!