Jaime Lerner: “A City Is Like a Family Portrait”


“A city is like a family portrait. You may not like the nose of your uncle but you don’t tear up the whole family photo. You don’t do this because the family portrait is you. In the same way, we just need to make those uglier parts of our cities more attractive. We can’t tear apart our cities,” argued Jaime Lerner, former Governor of Paraná and Mayor of Curitiba in Brazil and a practicing architect and urban designer, at EMBARQ’s Transforming Transportation conference held at the World Bank.

So how can cities deal with their ugliest, least pedestrian-friendly aspects? For Lerner, it’s all about “urban acupuncture,” targeted, sometimes temporary, interventions that address a challenging design, economic, or social issue. These acts of acupuncture are effective because they are fast. Buildings and public spaces can be quickly retrofitted to become parks, event spaces, or sites for raves. Temporary pedestrian malls on streets formerly clogged with traffic, pop-up parks, or “portable streets” set-up in unfriendly or unsafe areas can help urban policymakers and designers “avoid getting stuck in bureaucracy” and act. Lerner added that “50 percent of all innovation is just starting something.”

These interventions can also have powerful “demonstration effects.” While planning is necessary, it also takes a lot of time, and so these interventions can help the process of planning and even guide it. As an example, Lerner pointed to Paley Park in New York City (see image above), “one of Manhattan’s most successful parks,” as an example of how a small project can have an enormous impact and even influence future planning. In this instance, Paley Park helped reinforce the value of well-designed pocket parks in any neighborhood. Lerner also discussed his “portable street” concept, a configurable, moveable piece of hardware that enables storefronts to be set up quickly. Inspired by the many bouquiniste of Paris, his portable streets are being tested in Cracolandia, a “tough” part of Sao Paulo, in an effort to bring back street life. 


Lerner is well-known among the transportation crowd for inventing bus rapid transit (BRT). As he described Curitiba’s experience launching this service, it became clear that the system fits in with his broader understanding of the value of strategic interventions that have powerful demonstration effects. At very low-cost, this system, which is basically a surface subway system, takes more passengers daily than “New York City’s new $4 billion 2nd Avenue subway,” which will take 10 years or more to get going. Amazingly, Curitiba’s BRT also comes every 40 seconds during peak times but averages no less than one every minute. He said “these systems have to have a reliable frequency and be well-operated.” BRT lanes in Curitiba also now provide cover for 120 kilometers of bike lanes, which are now lined with parks and rest areas. (See an interview with Lerner on Curitiba and check out his TED talk).

Other speakers at the conference argued that urbanization is here to stay so smart, low-cost, sustainable urban transportation investments must be a top priority for developing countries. OP Agarwal, Public Transit Advisor, World Bank Group, said that “urbanization in India is inevitable,” and policies, which once focused on promoting rural development in order to encourage people to stay out of cities, have now shifted towards improving urban conditions. “India realized it can’t prevent people from going to cities.” Dario Hidalgo, EMBARQ, said another challenge is creating transportation systems in cities made up of unplanned “informal” developments. In Columbia, some 50 percent of all urban development is informal, and the car also largely rules, meaning “we need to re-develop what we have.” In Mexico, Carlos Mier y Teran, Mexican government, said there are now 35 cities with more than half a million people, and 60 million or 50 percent of the total population now live in cities. “The urban transportation problem is increasing. Motorization is gaining terribly.” Automobile ownership is up 8 percent, while population growth is only 2 percent.

Increasing the share of bicycle riders may be part of the solution. In one session, Tom Godefrooij, Dutch Cycling Embassy, said bicycling accounts for 27 percent of all trips in the Netherlands, making it the world leader for bicyclists. Denmark has a 20 percent mode share and Germany has 10 percent. Meanwhile, even the cities doing really well in the U.S., like Portland, Washington, D.C. would be lucky to top 5 percent. Godefrooij said some promising developments were happening in developing countries: Bogota now has 350 kilometers of cycle routes and bicycling is up to 4 percent of all trips; Santiago has a whopping 690 kilometers planned, while 250 have been implemented; and Sevilla, Spain, has 120 kilometers of lanes in place, pushing up bicycles’ share of total trips to 6.6 percent in just four years. Godefrooij added that bike share programs like the new one in Washington, D.C. are also now “fashionable” and may even help build support for more bicycle infrastructure.


A few Chinese cities may also be getting serious about undoing some of the recent damage caused by building too much infrastructure for cars. Bram van Ooijen, ITDP-China, said that while many new Chinese cities are “hostile to cycling” and most bicyclists feel very unsafe, China has had a long history with bicycles and it may be coming back. Working with Guangzhou city officials, ITDP was the key designer of that city’s new BRT route, which also opened up opportunities for new bicycle infrastructure. The protected bike lanes separated from car traffic and pedestrians have boosted bicycle use by up 53 percent in some areas. Greenways, which are linear parks along rivers and canals and are designed for walking and biking, have also taken off, with 8,200 kilometers planned by 2015 and 1,500 kilometers now in place.


Perhaps inspired by the example set by Lerner, Guangzhou, with its ever-growing population and tight resources, is simply moving forward with its own acupuncture, creating a new urban greenway model for the rest of China. “Guangzhou set the model. Now hundreds of Chinese cities want to do this,” said van Ooijen. 

Image credits: (1) Paley Park / Wikipedia, (2) Portable Street / Jaime Lerner Associated Architects, (3) Capital Bikeshare / CDM Cyclist, (4) Guangzhou greenway / Karl Fjellstrom, ITDP China

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