Updated: Apr 16
When thinking of sustainable cities, often times one will think of European cities, such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Reykjavik. However, a medium-sized city in Brazil is becoming increasingly recognized as one of the ecological capitals of the world due to a variety of programs and initiatives aimed at sustainability.
Curitiba, Brazil exists against all odds. Not only does the eighth largest city in Brazil (with a population of 1.9 million people) have to face the constant threat of extreme flooding, they also have to contend with Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly dismissed the existential threat of climate change. To that end, critics called him an “unprecedented threat” to the environment. In spite of these challenges, Curitiba’s city planners have been able to use creative solutions in order to curb emissions, while protecting biodiversity and even alleviating poverty.
One of the first issues that city planners in Curitiba had to grapple with was the threat of extreme flooding to the city. In order to mitigate this, an extremely smart and ecological solution was proposed and put into action. Rather than build dams that would be expensive and hinder biodiversity, the urban area was instead surrounded by vast fields of grass, which prevent the water from reaching the city and cause destructive flooding.
Not only that, but sheep are used to cut the grass instead of machines, which reduces oil consumption and helps to provide farmers with vital resources such as wool for clothing and manure for agriculture. Another way in which the city is sustainable is its bus rapid transit system, used by 1.3 million people, or 75% of the population, per day, which represents a widespread and affordable public transit system that can mitigate carbon emissions from cars. Recycling is also a big part of what makes Curitiba so sustainable, with 70% of the city’s trash being recycled. This has been achieved through a program which allows the city’s residents to exchange recyclables for food, notebooks, and bus tokens, which has been widely successful and helped the impoverished in the city by offering necessities and giving incentives to keep the city’s streets clean. In terms of education, the city is home to the Free University for the Environment which teaches city residents about sustainability for free. Lastly, there is signage and information panels throughout the city which provide citizens with information and help to create a culture of pride in sustainability.
The city of Curitiba is now hailed as a sustainable capitol of the world, but it wasn’t always this way.
In the 19th century the city became a place where a variety of European immigrants settled, and the city soon became both a cultural and economic hub in the region. This caused the population of the city to double in 20 years, and to incite social unrest and pollution to nature and wildlife.
This, however, changed in 1972, when Jaime Lerner became the mayor of Curitiba and initiated his plan to make the city more sustainable. His plan included much of what makes the city so environmentally friendly today - the increase and preservation of public parks and green spaces, the introduction of pedestrian-only streets, an emphasis on uplifting the spirit of the people, and the Rapid Bus Transit System.
His vision clearly had extremely positive impacts given the fact that the city has one of the most unique relationships to the natural environment in the world, there is a low poverty rate within the city, and there is a sense of cultural pride in how sustainable the city is and keeping the city clean.
The statistics are extremely telling of the impact that a shift to sustainability has had on Curitiba; 1.5 million trees have been planted since 1970, and 28 public parks have been built as well.
70% of the cities garbage is recycled, and although the population of Curitiba has increased by 1,000 percent in the last 60 years, to almost 2 million people, the city is on par with the rest of Brazil in that only around 10% of people live in substandard housing as of 2020, with that number likely to lower as poverty alleviation continues to be a focus of the city government.
Additionally, the city's per-capita income is above average in comparison with the rest of Brazil. With a city government that focuses on sustainability and uplifting the impoverished, the future of Curitiba looks to be very promising and serve as a potential model.
Oliver Stavri, Contributing Reporter