This Bill McKibben piece on Curitiba, Brazil—which has been held up for years as an international model of people-friendly urban design—may seem like old news to those who are in planning or transportation circles. But I still found it inspiring. If Curitiba—with a per capita income of $2500 a person, 300 percent population growth since 1970, and no lush beaches or obvious tourist attractions—can make its city a model of human-scale sustainable design, why can’t Northwest cities come closer to the mark?

Some of the city’s accomplishments:

– A jewel of a highly integrated bus rapid transit system that’s often cited as one of the best in the world, and passenger terminals have sparked local urban development and commercial activity.

– Planning policies that prioritize transit over cars, curb sprawl, and make the downtown extremely friendly to foot traffic. This includes a pedestrian mall—Brazil’s first, and a 20-block area downtown where vehicular use is almost wholly prohibited.

– The result? Three-quarters of residents commute by transit (from this source); and Curitibans use 25 percent less fuel per capita than other Brazilians. And—perhaps most important—the downtown is packed with people.

  • – Parks that do double duty as flood control: City officials took federal flood-control money and—instead of spending on "channelizing" rivers in concrete viaducts—they developed parks with small lakes that served the same flood control purpose. In the process, Curitiba went from two square feet of green area per inhabitant to more than 150 square feet per inhabitant. 

    – A housing program that helps lower-income residents build their own homes, which even gives them an hour with a city architect for design advice. And an overall emphasis on social and economic integration throughout the city.

    And so on. The theme here is that Curitiba has become expert at implementing innovative and economical solutions that fix a bunch of problems at once.

    When I read an article like this, I do wonder if Curitiba residents would agree with such a glowing assessment; and I’m reminded that friends of mine from Vancouver, BC, often lament their city’s "most livable" reputation, which they feel makes it easier for the city ignore the many challenges that it faces. And you don’t have to go far to find criticisms of Curitiba as a model for US communities (see here, for example).

    Regardless, there are lessons. Several years ago, I attended a workshop on the city; the detail that sticks in my mind is the level of pride residents had in their bus system. And it wasn’t just the result of good marketing. It was the fact that planners had paid as much attention to the details of the system—from how fares are collected to the look of the bus stops—as is usually paid to rail (or monorail).

    Maybe the humble bus–if we give it the treatment it deserves—will serve our needs after all.