Taking Nature to the City


In Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning, Timothy Beatley, Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia, argues that planners and landscape architects must design cities so people feel intimately connected with nature. Beatley hopes his book will foster a dialogue about biophilic cities by first defining what these are, offering a set of indicators for measuring biophilic interactions, then imagining how these look at various scales, and finally outlining what institutions and organizations can do to build communities more in tune with nature.

Beatley describes how biophilia, a term coined by famed sociobiologist and conservationist E. O. Wilson, can inform how we plan, design, and manage our cities. He defines a biophilic city as one that puts nature first. “It recognizes the essential need for daily human contact with nature as well as the many environmental and economic values provided by nature and natural systems.” In addition, these cities are places where “residents spend time enjoying the biological magic and wonder around them. In biophilic cities, residents care about nature and work on its behalf locally and globally.” 

Throughout, there’s a strong case for the psychological benefits of urban nature. E. O. Wilson writes in the foreword: “The evidence is compelling that frequent exposure to the natural world improves mental health, it offers a deep sense of inner peace, and, in many ways we have only begun to understand by scientific reason, it improves the quality of life.” Beyond improving humans’ well-being though, fostering biophilia among residents can also increase cities’ resiliency to future changes.  

Beatley compiles research and case studies that highlight the environmental, economic, and quality-of-life payoffs of nature in the urban setting. He breaks down several indicators of a biophilic city while acknowledging that urban design and planning is concerned with various scales: regional, community, neighborhood, street, block, and building. “The best biophilic cities are places where these different scales overlap and reinforce biophilic behaviors and lifestyles. Ideally, in a biophilic city these scales work together to deliver a nested nature that is more than the sum of its parts.”

He explores a number of indicators for determining how well a city creates biophilic connections:

Conditions and Infrastructure

Beatley covers the growing body of biophilic architecture (see earlier post) and then inspires to translate them to the broad scale. He also argues for improved accessibility to green spaces. At the broad scale, he asks policymakers to consider how well they facilitate access to nature:

  • What percentage of the population is within 100 meters of a park or greenspace?
  • Per capita, how many miles of walking trails exist in the city’s borders? 

Activities

The residents and institutions of a biophilic city celebrate the unique biodiversity of their place and actively enjoy and participate in the nature around them. Beatley writes that cities can encourage us to connect with nature through programs and offering volunteer opportunities. Some questions for the cities trying to measure the biophilic connections created through activities:

  • What is the percentage of time residents spend outside, understanding that climate must be accounted for?
  • What percentage of the population is active in nature or outdoor clubs or organizations?  How many of these organizations exist in the city?

Attitudes and Knowledge

The metabolism of a sustainable city relies on residents both knowing and caring about its unique nature, natural history, and restoration opportunities. Beatley points to Tadao Ando’s “Sea Forest” plan for an 88-hectare parcel in the Tokyo Bay where trees will be planted on landfill, educating all who visit about the benefits of nature. In this area, there are some questions to evaluate how actively residents participate in the natural city:

  • What percentage of the population can recognize common species of native flora and fauna?
  • To what extent are residents curious about the natural world around them?

Institutions and Government

To facilitate the growth of biophilic connections, many players must become involved. Most important: there should be education programs to foster connectedness to nature- locally, regionally, and globally. Institutions that could have particularly strong roles include botanical gardens, municipal zoos, natural history museums, and conservation groups. Beatley writes about Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden of Richmond, Virginia, which grows food for its community. It has five “learning farms” for urban youth to work at and earn an income.  To determine whether governments and instutions are doing enough, questions are directed at how well cities are protecting and building their biodiversity and investing in education:

  • Has the government adopted a local biodiversity action plan or strategy?
  • Has priority been given to environmental education?
  • Has the government adopted green building and planning codes, grant programs, density bonuses, green space initiatives, dark-sky lighting standards, etc?

Overall, the city should be a place that is deeply connected to nature; it breaks the average urban resident’s feeling of alienation from nature. Planners and landscape architects need to mediate and facilitate this process so that we envision our cities as a living environment. With many case studies and best practices, the book offers exemplary ideas for professionals to consider as they re-naturalize the urban world.

Read the book and learn more about biophilic landscape design.

This guest post is by Amanda Rosenberg, 2010 ASLA advocacy and communications intern.

Image credit: Timothy Beatley / Island Press

Blurring the Lines Between Building and Landscape

Sam Lubell, west coast editor of The Architect’s Newspaper, argues that the demands of sustainability are forcing a merger of building and landscape. At the level of the design process, this integration has led to increased collaboration between some architects and landscape architects and, in some cases, for the two disciplines to “reverse roles.” 

One architect, Michael Maltzan, designed Playa Vista park on LA’s west side (image above) to be a series of “urban rooms,” which include “floating recreation areas, large angular planted mounds, carved granite bridges, and a tensile fabric band shell.” Working with landscape architect James Burnett, FASLA, Maltzan used “materials to reinforce the separation of space and employed shapes and textures to lead people through the park. In the end, the park is as much architecture as it is landscape.” Maltzan said: “The boundary between landscape and architecture barely exists anymore.” In fact, by blurring the lines between the two disciplines, “you can then create real innovation.”

In another example, Curtis Fentress is expanding the public space in the San Diego convention center by heading for the roof. His firm will create a five-acre green park on top of the center. While Vancouver got there first, creating a massive 6-acre green roof for their convention center, Vancouver’s conference center isn’t designed for public use (see earlier post). Fentress said: “It’s about adding public space in a tight environment.”

In an instance of a true collaboration, Morphosis and SWA created a new headquarters for Giant Interactive Group outside Shanghai, a project in which the “building and landscape are often indistinguishable.” The building is covered in a “‘prairie blend’ of 15 plants that undulates and twists at extreme angles, and slopes down to the surrounding waterscape. While all green roofs provide thermal protection, this project is an entire eco-system, filtering water for the nearby canal and feeding several life forms. The green space has become an attraction for workers and locals alike.” SWA principal Ying Yu Hung, ASLA, said:“We’re all interested in the same things these days. Energy efficiency, natural materials, the healing power of nature.” 


In fact, SWA’s Los Angeles office has 13 landscape architects and two architects — “an increasingly common admixture.” In another example of a mixed, interdisciplinary, and innovative firm, there’s San Francisco-based firm Interstice Architects, which includes two principals: an architect and a landscape architect. According to Lubell, “several of their projects combine the disciplines, including the upcoming Center for Science and Innovation at the University of San Francisco. This project will include a “new green plaza made of native plants built on top of an expansion to the school’s Harney Hall. In order to provide more light inside, the firm included benches that double as skylights and a side-facing ‘storefront window wall’ that cuts into the earth.”


Their firm’s interdisciplinary design approach, which is used to achieve maximum sustainability benefits, means, in practice, a breaking down of disciplinary boundaries to achieve results. Zoee Astrakhan, ASLA, Interstice’s landscape architect principal, said: “When you begin documenting things, the lines are difficult to draw. There was definitely a lot of time spent figuring out what made sense; figuring out what was architecture and what was landscape. It wasn’t always that clear to us.”

Read the article to learn about how other architects and landscape architects cross disciplinary boundaries.  

Image credits: (1) Playa Vista Park / Ivan Baan, (2) Giant Interactive Group Headquarters / Morphosis and SWA , (3) Center for Science and Innovation / Interstice Architects

BIG Goes Biophilic with New Sports Center


Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, perhaps one of the youngest architects to get the “starchitect” label, is creating a model of biophilic design with a new sports center in Umea, Sweden, which will be set in an “open landscape where the inside and outside meet seamlessly.” Preserving the natural lines of the site located in the Umedalen Sculpture Park, Ingels will use the area’s “natural bowl-shape” to create a dramatic 4,600 square meter ice rink, amphitheatre, restaurant, and outdoor cafe.

BIG let the natural elements of the existing site dictate the design. A natural recess that offered “people a nice place to hang out and enjoy the nature” was effectively cut into two. The south half was then used to create the new ice rink. “By splitting the recessed area into two, we can sweep the program under a green roof, the latter becoming part of the sculpture park.” The rink’s green roof will serve an extension of the surrounding landscape, blending hidden structural and natural elements.

The biophilic design ensures the center functions well year-round. In the colder months, a new glass facade in the middle of the recess will enable ample sunlight to warm the interior but will protect hockey players and ice skaters from the frigid temperatures outside. In warmer months, the daylit subterranean facility’s facade will open up, removing the barriers between the indoor spaces and the outdoor amphitheatre. BIG writes: “the interior landscape is considered an extension of the exterior landscape.”

Given this center is supposed to be an “accessible landscape” in all seasons, the design for the wheelchair ramps were built into the early concepts.

See more images of the new design.

Also worth checking out: Ingel released plans for a new waste-to-energy power plant that will also function as a ski slope. Multi-use infrastructure projects like these show how otherwise-unwieldy infrastructure can be better integrated into communities. See his new TED talk as well.

Image credits: BIG

Energy Efficient Home Landscapes

Watch an animation from ASLA’s Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes online exhibition that explains how to use the landscape to reduce the energy consumed by a typical suburban home. See how smart tree placement and green roofs and walls dramatically improve energy efficiency.

Trees are being cut down to make way for new single-family homes, which then often sit on bare lots. These treeless lots not only have negative impacts on the climate, environment, and community health, but they also exacerbate the energy inefficient practices found within homes. This is a major problem given the average American home consumes 70 million BTUs annually. In fact, taken together, American homes account for 22 percent of total energy use as well as nearly 22 percent of carbon dioxide emissions (1.19 billion metric tons).
(Source: The Washington Post and Architecture 2030)

McKinsey & Co, a management consulting firm, found that energy use in the U.S. could be cut by 23 percent by 2020 by implementing simple energy efficiency measures. While homeowners can take low-cost steps to make the inside of their homes better insulated and therefore more energy efficient, the landscape isn’t often seen as a part of the problem… or the solution. Basic green technologies like smart tree placement and green roofs and walls can be used to dramatically reduce energy usage inside homes. If placed strategically, trees can reduce summertime cooling energy needs by 7-47 percent and wintertime heating needs by 2-8 percent.
(Source: The Washington Post and Reducing Urban Heat Islands: Compendium of Strategies. Trees and Vegetation, U.S. E.P.A.)

In addition, well-designed residential green roofs, which are growing popular in some parts of the world, can reduce energy usage in both summer and winter. According to one Canadian study, a 32,000-square foot green roof on a one-story commercial building in Toronto reduced energy usage by 6 percent in the summer and 10 percent in the winter. Similarly, the green roof of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) at just 3,000 square feet reduces energy usage by 3 percent in summer and 10 percent in winter. Weather, roof, and building size and location also have an impact on the amount of energy savings. Lastly, fast-growing green walls can also reduce energy use by providing insulation in the winter and limiting direct sunlight on walls in the summer. In hotter months they also cool air temperatures by up to 10 degrees.
(Source: Reducing Urban Heat Islands: Compendium of Strategies. Green Roofs, U.S. E.P.A. and American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Green Roof)

D.C. Metro Designer Harry Weese Gets His Due


At the National Building Museum, Robert Bruegmann, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, made some progress in restoring the reputation of Harry Weese, one of the great, but nearly totally forgotten, masters of modern American architecture. Designer of the Washington, D.C. Metro system, Arena Stage, and range of other residential and large-scale government projects, Weese was a man of many talents. However, his true capabilities can only be understood if we actually look beyond his architectural work, and his role as a developer, writer, and “nag, gadfly.”

In his later years, Weese took to financing architectural journals, acting as a developer of major residential projects, and writing many “letters to the editor”, making the case for preserving some great American buildings and infrastructure. He helped make sure Chicago kept its historic elevated “L” subway in the inner loop when the city wanted to tear it down and replace it with a subway line. Bruegmann says the enormous expense involved in replacing the surface rail line kept that project from moving forward, but Weese definitely crafted the case for the L that eventually won wide public support.

While his earlier residential projects have merit and show the impact Alvar Aalto had on his design approach, his work in D.C. didn’t take off until he created the original Arena Stage (Fichhandler Stage and then the Kreeger Theatre buildings) in southwest. The buildings have since been subsumed by Bing Thom’s masterful canopy-like building, but back then, they had a huge impact on that neighborhood (see earlier post on Bing Thom’s building).  

Winning the D.C. Metro contract was “the apogee of his career,” said Bruegmann. Starting the project in 1966, Weese and his compatriot designers took a tour of the world’s subways systems. Weese was clearly influenced by the monumental underground stations in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In fact, six months after the tour, he already had the basic design scheme in place that mimiced the awesome nature of those stations.

Creating a range of options for the “bureaucracy” deciding on the design, he devised one initial design option that allowed for variations on the main Metro design theme. For example, in one option, some stations would have had “natural rock poking through into the stations.”

Despite his abhorrence for bureaucracy, it was actually the Fine Arts Commission that helped him perservere with this original vision. Two members of the Commission, Gordon Bunschaft and Aline Saarinen, argued that the Metro definitely needed one look “to maintain the integrity of the system.” The idea of a Metro made up of a hodge-podge of different stations was nixed, and ten years later, the system opened to acclaim.

Bruegmann believes the Washington, D.C. Metro is “one of the grandest examples of public space in American architecture” and “seems inevitable.” It may even be one of the greatest works of American architecture ever, he says.

Roger Lewis, an architect who writes for The Washington Post and has also worked on Metro design projects, says Weese would be displeased with the current state of the Metro. “Weese would say WMATA is mistreating this architecture.” He pointed to the many lights that have been allowed to permanently go out.

“Remedying the lighting problems” isn’t just needed so transit users can see the great architecture more clearly, but also to ensure the safety of everyday passengers. WMATA has told Lewis that a lack of funds is preventing a revamp of the outdated lighting systems.


Check out Bruegmann’s book on Harry Weese, an architect, Lewis said, who may not have gotten his due because his “style was so eclectic.”

Image credit: Metro Center Station, Washington D.C. Metro / Photo.net, (2) Dark Metro Station / Travel pod

In Queens, Broken Concrete Keeps Pedestrians Safe

With the Queens Plaza Bicycle and Pedestrian Landscape Improvement Project, the New York City Department of Planning and Economic Development Corporation are moving forward with efforts to redesign the streetscape of a dysfunctional part of Queens, New York, and revitalize JFK park. The urban design project, which includes landscape architect Margie Ruddick, ASLA, Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT), Marpillero Pollak Architects, Leni Schwendinger, a light artist, among others, and will also involve the innovative reuse of materials from the construction site. One smart application of reused materials: broken concrete medians that cover approximately 14,000 square feet of “unusable space between lanes of traffic and in Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) maintenance areas,” says WRT. While this redesign can achieve a whole set of “goods” like increasing pedestrian and bicyclist safety and creating a more artful urban landscape, it’s also a real-life example of sustainable reconstruction in action.  

WRT says Queens Plaza is an “extremely busy” vehicular corridor that provides connections for 140,000 vehicles moving between Queensboro Bridge, Manhattan, Queens Plaza Boulevards North and South, Jackson Avenue, and other streets. The area is also dangerous: over a three year period, there were 23 accidents, mostly involving jaywalkers. This is six times the national average for urban streets. As a result, one of the key goals was to improve the “accessibility and functionality of the crosswalk and bicycle path systems.” Reused materials play a major role in this. 

According to Tobiah Horton, a landscape designer with WRT, the reused concrete medians “physically block passage across vehicle lanes and visually indicate to the pedestrian who is still safely on the sidewalk that it is impossible to cross.” In addition, the textured and irregular appearance of the medians, which can perceived as looking “scary or dangerous” actually make pedestrians safer. “With a perception of danger, here perceived in texture and irregularity – a heightened sense of awareness and care is created in the user. Paradoxically, what is smooth, clean and without remarkable characteristics actually creates a dangerous environment of speed and inattention.” 

Beyond calling attention to the dangers of crossing the street in such a busy area, these pieces of reused transportation infrastructure are also artful in a shabby chic kind of way, and may even resonate with the hardened pedestrians in this evolving neighborhood. Horton adds “keeping some traces of the old neighborhood in the new design comes to mean something for a neighborhood that is undergoing a rapid stage of change. Keeping the material in a relatively unprocessed or rough state allows for it to still be perceived as sidewalk, but with some suggestion of it as a demolition waste material. These lingering identities from the former use and the demolition process combine with the new identity as landscape element to suggest a way of looking at waste as resource with potential value and meaning.” 


Importantly, this technique shows that designers working on urban redevelopment projects can safely salvage and reuse materials on site in an efficient manner. Horton says approximately “1,000 CY of broken concrete was used, saving transportation, disposal, crushing costs and impacts. Our rough calculation suggests that approximately 1.7 Billion BTUs of embodied energy is conserved in the reuse of this material in a higher form than crushing for road base. Additionally, we estimate that a release of 60 tons of C02 (principally from cement production) was avoided by not installing a typical DOT median feature composed of new concrete and other new materials.” Moreover, those rough surfaces meant no energy was wasted polishing them up.

Also worth noting: given these medians are made up of broken concrete, they are also permeable. WRT didn’t provide info on whether these new medians will function as green infrastructure and use natural systems to manage stormwater, but they say the “the uplift of the sidewalk suggests the opening of the impermeable urban surface” and opportunities for “green space, permeability, and infiltration.” Perhaps that piece will be coming soon.

  
The project is expected to be completed by fall 2011. See an interview from Urban Omnibus with the project designers. Also, check out an ASLA animation that explores some of these concepts, “Building a Park Out of Waste.”

Image credits: WRT

Landscape Architects Improvise with History


At Dumbarton Oaks, landscape architecture historian John Dixon Hunt examined how contemporary landscape architects deal with history, arguing that many of these designers, being artists, are actually “improvising with history.” Improvisation may even be a key part of their job, but they must do it well. Unbound from “memory and context” but still knowing a site’s history, landscape architects can then be free to invent their own versions of history.

Today, many landscape architecture students don’t want to bother with history. “They want to design something new,” says Hunt. A site’s history can be about the natural history of the site, the site’s development, the changing ownership, and also “memory,” which “doesn’t even need to be historical,” but can be “fabricated.”

Hunt pointed to a number of contemporary landscapes to illustrate his ideas. For example, at the GasWorks Park in Seattle, an old industrial site turned into a park, the site’s history literally leaches out of the ground in the form of toxic sludge. Even though park visitors can pay close attention to the site’s history if they want, much of that history has been repurposed. Old tanks are now used by scuba-divers to explore. Walls are now meant to be scaled. Bunkers are now gardens designed for meandering. In a similar example, Park Bercy in Paris features old wine storage facilities and casts embedded into the new park. In a contrasting example in Paris, Citroen, a French car manufacturer, completely demolished its old car manufacturing plants to create Citroen Park.

One Parisian park Hunt spent time exploring in his talk about landscape and memory was Park Atlantique, which sits above a high-speed rail station. The park has a maritime theme with seaside plants, games, a promenade, and weather station. “The site isn’t derived from historical events. However, it successfully creates a memory of trains and the seashore on an anonymous location.”


Jumping to New York, Hunt said Landscape architect Ken Smith, ASLA, has created a new form of history with his fake rooftop garden for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which can only be seen by those working in the huge buildings looking down on it. Smith created a “camouflage-like painted garden” in this instance. In another example in the UK, Martha Schwartz, ASLA, transformed history in her Manchester Exchange Square project by “designating a new boundary between the modern and medieval times.” There’s a sloping edge indicating the space where a bomb hit, and other key “story elements” incorporate into the site. In Portugal, Joao Gomes de Silva used a set of consecutive gardens to “bring home distant memories of distant colonies to Portugal.” Each garden uses native plants and design elements from those colonies, like Macao, to create a “memory of empire.”

Finally, he pointed to Maya Lin’s masterful Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., which makes a painful history abstract and accessible to all. “With its sunken descent into the ground, we follow the litany of death.” 

Landscape architecture is one of the few arts in which history can be created. “Landscape doesn’t have to honor history.” Pillaging an “endless bank of history,” landscape architects play the role of “critical historians.” That being said, these artists of the built environment should “always study history. If they are good, they can then invent their own.”

These days, Hunt said, there’s an awful lot of terrible landscape architecture out there, “really bland stuff,” that could be picked up and put anywhere. He’s also “fed up” with many landscape historians who want to spend a week on a studio trip to a foreign city. “This is just like some sort of tourist trip, and helping to create a global, homogenous view of landscape.” In other words, to invoke history properly, the landscape architect has to be “sensitive to that place.”

Check out Hunt’s book on the “afterlife” of gardens.

Image credit: (1) Seattle Gasworks Park, Ping Chen / Picasa (2) Parc Atlantique, Paris. Gardenvisit.com

Vito Acconci’s Provocative Spaces


Dressed in his obligatory uniform of all black, pacing back and forth in front of room, and speaking without notes, Vito Acconci outlined the many shifts his work has taken in the last 50 years at a lecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). Acconci has had a number of different labels attached to him over the years – poet, artist, designer, landscape designer, provocateur. That last one has probably stayed consistent. The other thing that has stayed consistent, and the reason he was invited to talk about landscape architecture, is his interest in space – between things, between words, between people.

Acconci started as a writer, a poet, attending the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. His early work focused on how to make words function as literal, concrete things. His work was about movement, from left margin to right margin, from top to bottom, shifting through the space of the page. This movement through the page soon became actual bodily movement through public space. This idea was epitomized by his “Following Pieces,” which involved Acconci selecting a person each day and following them until they went into a private space. This work looked at the urban environment as a space, and examined relations between people in different types of places. Acconci continued to evolve his practice by bringing his body, his person, more and more into the work with performance pieces such as “Conversions or Claim.” These body-based performances, eventually convinced Acconci that he was setting himself up to be too special, to be a “cult figure,” and he decided he needed to re-engage place. Acconci tried not to conceive any project prior to being offered a specific space for it. These works began to more directly involve and require user participation. 

With the start of Acconci Studio, this landscape artist decided his work now required users, not visitors or viewers. Since architecture requires users, Acconci formed a studio where he could surround himself with architects. The last 20 years of the studio’s work has seen a cycle of public art commissions, landscape architecture, architecture, other design projects and more “speculative projections.” The studio, in Acconi’s words, is “messier and louder” than most studios – the basis of all projects is group discussion. Not group discussion about how to achieve his vision, but integral, intensive arguing, and sharing. The work, even after 50 years of evolution, is still based on the word, on cultural understandings and hidden meanings of accepted phrases. 

Acconci has continually reinvented himself with the changing cultural zeitgeist, but what is even more inspiring is a singularity of focus within all of this change. Starting with his early poems and ending with the studio’s current work, there is a clear and distinct pursuit of interpersonal relations and how they are formed by space and movement. His legacy will be complicated and far reaching, but his relentless pursuit of understanding and provocation will be central to any reading.

See examples of his work. Also, watch a Web cast of the lecture and check out an interview with Acconci

This is the first in a series of posts covering lectures at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) by Andrew Zientek, RLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture (MLA) II candidate, Harvard GSD.     

Image credit: Vito Acconci / Harvard GSD

Interview with Jaime Lerner


Beginning in 1971, Jaime Lerner was elected Mayor of Curitiba, re-elected two more times, and then served as Governor of Paraná, Brazil. Lerner has won a number of major awards for his transportation, design, and environmental work, including the United Nations Environment Award; the Prince Claus Award, given by the Netherlands; and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture, given by the University of Virginia. In 2002, Lerner was elected president of the International Union of Architects. Lerner is principal of Jamie Lerner Associated Architects.

In your talk at a conference organized by The Economist, you argued that cities are the solution to climate change, not the problem. What is the case for this?

Well, my point of view is that there are many, many answers to what would be the best way to avoid climate change. A lot of people are talking about new materials. Or new sources of energy. Or wind turbines. Or recycling. They’re really important but not enough. Everything is very, very important, but not enough. When we realized that 75 percent of car emissions are related to the cities, we realized we can be more effective when we work with the concept of the city. It’s through cities that we can have better results.

When you were mayor of Curitiba, you devised a number of low-cost solutions that turned your city into a model green community where people also have incomes 60 percent higher than the Brazilian average. What kind of investments did you make in green space? What do you see as the relationship between livability and sustainability?

If you want creativity, cut one zero from your budget. If you want sustainability, cut two zeroes from your budget. And if you want solidarity, assume your identity and respect others’ diversity. There are three main issues that are becoming important, not only for your city, but for the whole of mankind. These relate to three key issues in cities: mobility, sustainability, and tolerance (or social diversity).

On infrastructure, there’s always the assumption that the government has to provide public transport. Every time we try to create a solution, we have to have a good equation of co-responsibility with the public. That means it’s not a question of money and it’s not a question of skill; it’s how do we organize your equation of co-responsibility?

For example, when I was governor we had to work hard to avoid reduce pollution in our bays. Of course, it’s very expensive to do environmental clean-up work and we didn’t have the money. Another region had taken out a huge loan from the World Bank, about $800 million. For us though, the question wasn’t about money; the question was about mentality. We didn’t have that money so we started to clean our bays through an agreement with fishermen. If the fisherman catches a fish, it belongs to him. If he catches garbage, we bought the garbage. If the day was not good for fishing, the fishermen went to fish garbage. The more garbage they catch, the cleaner the bays became. The cleaner the bay is, more fish they would have. It that’s kind of win-win solution we need. We need to work with low-cost solutions. And, of course, in public transport, we also organized a good equation of co-responsibility with the public.


Fisherman onshore collecting garbage. Image credit: Jaime Lerner Associated Architects

As mayor of Curitiba, you also created the world’s first bus rapid transit system (BRT), “Speedy Bus,” which works like a surface subway system but at far less cost. How did you come up with this highly sustainable transportation solution? How did you form the public-private partnership that made it cost-effective?

We didn’t have the money for a completely new fleet, which would have cost $300 million. What was the equation? What was the solution? We said to the private sector, private companies, we’ll invest in the itinerary as long as you invest in the fleet. We’ll get loans for the work on our side, for public works, for the itinerary if the private sector gets loans for the fleet. We paid them by kilometers and there are no subsidies. The system pays for itself. Now, there are more than 83 BRT systems around the world.


Curitiba Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Stations. Image credit: Jaime Lerner Associated Architects

The problem is in many countries, government wants to invest in everything. That doesn’t work. I’ll give you an example. Why don’t we have a good system of transport in New York on the waterfront? This could be a very good approach for reducing congestion in the city’s bridges and tunnels. The city could have a very pleasant system of water public transport. But instead, the policymakers are holding it up, saying there are no passengers and we don’t want to invest in the fleet. First, they need to create a good partnership and create an attractive system, then they will have the passengers, and then they will have a low-cost solution. However, if don’t have passengers to make it feasible, it’s much more costly.

You also mentioned that many poor copies of your BRT are out there, and are actually setting back BRT as a transportation movement. What are other cities doing wrong? Who are the worst offenders? Why is it hard to get this system right?

BRT can’t be designed as a transportation solution. It has to be planned as a whole city. Why? Because the city is a structure of living, working, and leisure. Everything together. Transportation has to provide a structure for living and working together. It can’t just be a system of transport. You will just have a kind of commuting system, which is more difficult to make feasible. Cities always need to approach transportation as providing a structure for living and working. It’s not about living here and working in some other place. With that kind of approach, you will only use public transport twice daily, concentrated in just a few hours. If you have a system that works always and connects working and living activities, it’s more a city than just a corridor of public transport.

You were also known for innovations in the delivery of city services. One program to clean up dirty, narrow streets that were inaccessible to trash collectors gave residents bags of groceries or transit passes in return for their garbage. You decentralized garbage collection. How well did this program work? Have other cities taken up this approach?

It’s been working for more than 20 years in Curitiba. In many cities, there are places where it’s difficult to provide trucks access to collect garbage. In many cities, if the slums are on the hills or deep in valleys, they’re difficult to access. In these places, people are throwing away their garbage and polluting the streams. Their children are playing in polluted areas. In 1989, we started a program where we said, Okay, we’re going to buy your garbage as long as you put your garbage in a bag, and bring it to the trucks, where it’s more accessible. In two or three months, all these areas were clean, and these very low-income people had an additional source of income.

We also started a public education programs on the separation of garbage because we realized that we could transform one problem if we separated garbage in every household. We started teaching every child in every schools. Children taught their parents. Since then, Curitiba had the highest rate of separation of garbage in the world for more than 20 years. Around 60 or 70 percent of families are separating their garbage at home.

Now you have your own architecture and urban design firm and you are working with major city governments and private clients throughout the Americas. I saw you were designing a few projects that reuse transportation infrastructure and turn highways into elevated parks, much like the High Line. What kind of projects are you working on? How are you trying to reuse infrastructure?

Sustainability is an equation between what we save and what we waste. There are so many problems of mobility or integration of systems, but we have to work fast. If we understand the city as a structure of living, working, moving together, we can work more effectively. It’s very difficult to have a complete network of subways in many cities of the world. Even if I believe that the future is on the surface, my idea is not trying to prove which system is the best, but using what you have. For instance, in Sao Paolo, they have three subway lines. They are working on fourth line of the subway, with 84 percent of the trains are running on the surface. It’s the surface that has to operate better. At the same time, the suburb railroad is being improved.

The idea is to take advantage of the existing path of the suburb railroads and build above the rail a kind of linear park like the High Line. However, this linear park would link the whole city, where you can connect people of all income levels. In every place, you could have good public transport and you a huge park linking it all. Within this park, you could walk, bike, or take small electric car. That’s the idea that we presented for the city of Sao Paolo with the private sector and public sectors.


Sao Paulo elevated parks concept. Image credit: Jaime Lerner Associated Architects

Sometimes there’s an idea and it has to be improved. We have to understand that innovation is fast and leaves room for the idea to be improved. We’re trying to work fast in many cities and provide them with a good start. In other cases, we use “urban acupuncture.” These are small interventions that can provide new energy to the city, and provide assistance during the process of long-term planning, which has to take time. But we have to work fast.

At the street level, you’ve been experimenting with portable streets, which you say can enable vendors to set up easily anywhere, creating informal and spontaneous market street life. Why do we need this infrastructure?

Some places in some cities have become decayed. There’s no life. When that happens, it’s very difficult to bring back life because people don’t want to live in a place like that. However, the moment we bring street life, people will want to live there again. That’s why we designed the portable streets. On a Friday night, we can deliver a portable street and remove it Monday morning. We can put a whole street life in front of a university or any place, bringing street life back.


Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Portable Streets. Image credit: Jaime Lerner Associated Architects