Apostle of the City: Remembering Jaime Lerner

In May, Jaime Lerner—Brazilian architect, politician, and pioneer of urban planning—passed away from a chronic kidney condition at the age of 83. His vision for the world, however, lives on.


Source: Grant Burrier

In May, Jaime Lerner—Brazilian architect, politician, and pioneer of urban planning—passed away from a chronic kidney condition at the age of 83. However, his vision lives on.

In 2018, I had the opportunity to meet Jaime Lerner at his cozy, eponymous institute (o Instituto Jaime Lerner) in Curitiba, the capital of Paraná state in southern Brazil. His office, an inviting mixture of glass, concrete, and industrial chic, was covered in Rothko-esque paintings and cloaked with a verdant courtyard. Lerner, who lived in a comfortable apartment across the street, joked with a wry smile: “If I arrive late to work, traffic was really terrible.”

Before the interview, my close friend Tom and I waited in the small canteen. Someone had just returned from Minas Gerais with fresh cheese. Someone else procured goiabada (a guava preserve) and fresh bread. We sipped strong, black coffee with a dash of sugar, swapping stories and wisecracks with a convivial staff. Lerner later reflected that his office is “um conto da alegria,” a tale of happiness. “Everyone does what they like. We work on projects we love. If our partners don’t have that [same love], we don’t accept the job.” The constant laughter, loud saudações, the hustle and bustle, made the Instituto feel more like a crowded family kitchen during the holidays than a traditional workplace. That, after all, was Jaime’s great talent and passion: creating space for people to come together.

The Instituto Jaime Lerner

State planning has played an outsized role in Brazil’s political, economic, and social development since Getúlio Vargas led a military coup against an entrenched, landed rural oligarchy in 1930. A continent-spanning country rich in natural resources, with a budding industrial sector and a booming population due to immigration from around world, Brazil appeared poised for national greatness. According to Vargas and his supporters, the country’s only missing ingredient was a modern state. While Vargas centralized and strengthened the federal government’s control, he simultaneously improved bureaucratic capacity and autonomy. While the fervor of centralized planning would wax and wane somewhat over subsequent decades, the developmental model, now firmly implanted at the federal level, soon began to manifest itself through urban planning.

No example better reflects this synthesis than the construction of Brazil’s new capital, Brasília. In the late 1950s, then-President Juscelino Kubitschek enlisted the famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer to build a futuristic city in the middle of the expansive, sparsely inhabited cerrado of Brazil’s interior. During the Vargas era, the dynamic duo of then-Mayor Kubitschek and Niemeyer had previously collaborated in Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais, planning and building a modern neighborhood in Pampulha. While Niemeyer was inspiring a younger generation of modernist architects, his partnership with Kubitschek also mirrored a growing push at the local level to develop long-term urban plans and empower visionary technocrats.

Lerner: “I became an architect because of Oscar Niemeyer. He was a genius—an extraordinary man—not just as an architect, but as a human. I was lucky to meet him and he told me: ‘Jaime, the earth is nothing more than dust in the universe. We are dust of dust.’ I don’t understand people who think they are too important.”

Museu de Oscar Niemeyer, Curitiba

Over the second half of the 20th century, Curitiba’s population swelled with urban migrants and foreign immigrants. The city responded by hiring French architect Alfred Agache to produce the city’s first “master plan” in 1943. Agache’s design focused on controlling automobile traffic and zoning neighborhoods for specific activities: industrial, residential, commercial, or agricultural. While some of his avenues remain crucial arteries, the cost of Agache’s plan was too high and quickly discarded. As population growth continued unabated, another attempt at long-term planning was made in 1964. This time, a team from the local university, the Universidade Federal do Paraná—led by a recent graduate named Jaime Lerner—was charged with the task. Lerner’s vision was different from Agache: curbing urban sprawl, densifying the urban core, minimizing downtown automobile traffic, and emphasizing efficient, affordable public transportation.

Lerner emerged as an innovator in the bleak 1970s. Brazil—governed by the military since a 1964 coup—was slowly exiting the longest period of military rule in the Southern Cone. Lerner served as mayor of Curitiba three times (from 1971-1974, 1979-1983, and 1989-1992), and led the state of Paraná as Governor twice (1995-2002). Over his political career, he flitted from party to party—some leaning conservative, others more progressive—reflecting his general disinterest in political ideology. While such a flexible and noncommittal approach to politics enabled him to reach power despite the repressive and conformist political environment of the dictatorship, he also resisted becoming overtly partisan with the re-democratization of the 1980s. To Lerner, partisan blinders seemed to divert one’s attention from pressing problems and reduce politics to petty bickering. He preferred results, pursuing what was “desirable” for the public good. “Having a party project,” he chuckled, “is different than being part of the solution.” 

In his numerous books and lectures, Lerner reminded us that cities are organisms—vibrant, dynamic, and nourishing. They are the lifeblood of humanity, lifting our spirits, sparking our creativity, and showcasing our diversity. Left unplanned, cities can overwhelm, becoming overcrowded, polluted, and derelict. Even worse, they can devolve into a mind-numbing jumble of pavement, parking lots, and strip malls. Cities need a plan, but such a plan must constantly evolve along with its inhabitants.

While one could not revolve every urban impasse immediately, Lerner swore that, with the proper initiative, “you can transform a city in three years.” Financing need not be an impediment; rather, Lerner frequently joked that truly creative, innovative urban planning occurs when you move the decimal point to the left, eschewing pretentious extravagance for simplicity and utility.

Whether comparing it to a cigarette, a bossy mother-in-law, an obnoxious drunk at your house party, or any slew of colorful metaphors, Lerner’s archnemesis was the automobile. City planning, argued Larner, too often responds reactively to cars, which hoard too much space and constantly demand further investment. “It’s not that we can make cars disappear,” Lerner conceded, “but we need to change the way they are used.”

His best solution: developing high-quality public transportation. His RIT (Rede Integrada de Transporte; “Bus Rapid Transit” in English) system introduced dedicated bus lanes, gave buses priority at intersections, and featured elevated pods where riders pre-paid for their trips and could quickly enter or exit the bus, expediting the entire transit process. Lerner’s buses were double- or triple-articulated to increase carrying capacity, functioning like an above-ground subway, more efficient and infinitely cheaper than tunneling around a city’s innards. The transportation network would stretch along important arteries, where new land use policies encouraged the construction of higher density housing along these critical axes. The goal was to bring more people closer to bus stops. Lerner’s model for public transit has since been exported to cities around the world. 

Curitiba’s Rede Integrada de Transporte, next to the old train station cum shopping mall.

Although he did not slay his proverbial beast, the automobile, he steadily beat the drum. Cars cannot dictate the structure, nor the future of cities. Lerner recognized the eternal truth, that we fall in love with cities, and discover their raw essence, on foot. The smells that emanate from the small café. The busker on the corner. A hidden gem of a store hiding down an alley. An old edifice nestled in its rightful spot. The hush of the streetlights at night. There is an intimacy created on foot that will never be replicated in a four-wheel contraption with a belching motor and blaring radio.     

Praça Generoso Marques

Transportation is critical to a city’s success, but each city also has an identity that sets it apart. Lerner understood that cities need spaces where people congregate, reference points in the center where people can connect during and outside of business hours. A place where the old gossip, the young canoodle, and children freely chase soccer balls. Generations come and go, but old buildings, rivers, and parks preserve history, serving as witnesses to the movement of time and acting as repositories for shared memories. One of Lerner’s first measures as mayor was to shut a busy thoroughfare in the center of town to automobiles. Despite initial protests from shopkeepers worried about declining sales, stores on the pedestrian-friendly street ended up attracting even greater patronage. During Lerner’s mayoralty, a run-down train station with soaring ceilings was spared demolition and re-purposed as a shopping mall. Incentives were devised to help owners re-invest or re-purpose old buildings. Heritage was saved.

The final key dimension of Lerner’s time in office was his commitment to sustainability. Curitiba, a city once notorious for its lack of green space, now boasts more than any other Brazilian capital, 60 square meters (roughly 646 square feet) per inhabitant. The United Nations recommends 12 square meters (roughly 129 square feet). To deal with issues of flooding, his administration designed a series of artificial lakes outside of the city center, connected by bike path and dotted with botecos (small bars). Another project converted an abandoned quarry into a beautiful park. In his final term as mayor, Lerner initiated a wildly successful recycling program that encourages all curitibanos to separate their trash, while incentivizing poorer residents to swap trash and recyclables for food. Citizens, rather than machine, separate garbage. Landfill waste has been cut by 70 percent as the city has simultaneously attacked hunger, decreased unemployment, and supported local famers. This is the type of ingenuity, affordability, and comprehensiveness that has come to define urban planning in Curitiba.

After leaving government, Lerner founded his institute, filling its ranks with a coterie of architects and engineers eager to continue promoting his vision of urban acupuncture. Lerner compared efficient urban planning to a pin prick, something quick and possible, that could nevertheless be transformational. An abandoned building or dilapidated area can rapidly be transformed into something new and inviting.

In an era of populism, polarization, and perpetual outrage, Lerner advised future mayors and city planners to surround themselves with a talented supporting cast—he freely attributed his own success to working with the best, most creative people. “Start with an idea,” Lerner advised. “If you agree with me, help me. If you think the idea is bad, help me make it better. Avoid radicalization and never forget that progress occurs when we work together and tackle a problem. People must work harder to understand each other. Forge consensus, but don’t fall into paralysis. Recognize that politics cannot be a perpetual match of futebol.”

An international food festival in the Praça Osório

In many ways, Lerner’s memorial is Curitiba, the city of his birth and the place where he piloted his vision of urban transformation. Paraná’s capital and its nearly two million municipal inhabitants (3.4 million in the metropolitan area) will likely never be featured among the glitterati’s dream travel destinations. Critics allege Curitiba is losing it edge and failing to adequately resolve the urban problems that plague cities around the developing world. Although violence is low by national standards, it is still too high (24.6 homicides per 100,000 people). Public transportation costs have increased, and the city has struggled to better integrate the needs of the urban core with residents in the lower-income periphery. Somewhat paradoxically, Curitiba remains a city with one of the highest car ownership rates in Brazil. Despite several programs in place, informal settlements and substandard housing persist. Rising housing costs will displace residents if affordable housing stock is not substantially increased to meet a growing population. Some allege the entire urban planning experience has been too elitist and hierarchical, failing to include more participatory avenues for regular citizens. 

Nevertheless, Curitiba remains an eminently livable and pleasant city. Residents boast higher incomes and enjoy higher levels of human development than those of nearly every other Brazilian state capital. It still regularly receives global recognition and accolades for its planning and programs. Founded in 1965, the city’s Urban Research and Planning Institute (Instituto de Pesquisa e Planejamento Urbano de Curitiba, IPPUC) continues to be a hive of ideas, proposals, and plans. The city remains a laboratory, where technocrats-turned-politicians conceive of and implement new initiatives intended to alleviate the ills of the day. Most importantly, Lerner’s legacy has left future mayors with a solid foundation upon which to build.

On one recent, cool spring weekend, local bands played on the Rua das Flores while food trucks lined up, serving fare from around the world. As you mill about Curitiba’s crowded parks, plazas, and pedestrian streets; as you sip a cold beer and stare at the waterfall in a park rescued from the ruins of an abandoned rock quarry; as you jog through the Parque Barigui and mingle with capivaras; you appreciate the fruits born of decades of planning and action. There is no greater gift Jaime could leave us. In his own words: “It’s possible, you can do it.”

Parque Tanguá, an abandoned quarry turned tranquil park

Grant Burrier teaches at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and currently serves as President of the New England Council of Latin American Studies. 

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