Jaime Lerner: Cities Are the Solution to Climate Change


Even though urban areas account for some 70 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, cities aren’t the problem causing climate change, but the solution, argued Jaime Lerner, the highly influential former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil and now architect and urban designer, at a conference organized by The Economist. To avoid turning cities into a “tragedy”, city officials, planners, and designers must instead invest energy in solving critical urban problems so cities can continue to provide the density needed for more sustainable living.

Lerner has some experience in creating successful cities, which he says are like turtles, with shells “that protect and preserve them.” In Curitiba, he focused on density, or as he described it, “living and working together,” while creating the first system of bus rapid transit (BRT) in the world (see earlier post). At first, the highly cost-effective, low-carbon system only ran 25,000 passengers per day. Now, there are 2.3 million trips on the city’s BRT each day. “We used no subsidies, we just metro-ized the bus.” He said initially the biggest obstacle to getting BRT going was the car, which he said is like “your mother in law. You want to have a good relationship with her, but you can’t let her run your life. If she’s running your life, you’ve got a big problem.”

However, the success of his city’s BRT has proven hard to replicate. He commented that many of the systems he’s seen elsewhere haven’t worked as well, and, in effect, work against the BRT movement. Curitiba was successful because the BRT was just one part of a whole system. “We have a smart bus, taxi, cars, bikes, etc.” These systems don’t compete for space, but work together.

In addition to separating out garbage, closing the distance between home and work, using less energy, and creating a range of easy transportation options, Lerner said communities must also respect their own diversity and build on it, using it a resource, in order to become more sustainable.

While still promoting BRT, Lerner is working on a range of new transportation and design projects like the “dock dock,” a very tiny smart car that can provide a more sustainable transportation option; “portable streets” that enhance the urban landscape; new High Line-like projects in Sao Paulo and elsewhere that would turn existing highways into verdant, walkable parks; and the World Nature Games, which he says “don’t cost a cent because you don’t need arenas or stadiums. It’s all about using nature.”  

Learn more about Lerner’s current projects.

Image credit: Portable Street / Jaime Lerner Associated Architects

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