Curitiba, Brazil

January 25, 2013, 4:15 pm

Curitiba, Brazil (49º14'30" West, -25º25'04" South) was founded in 1693 by Portuguese explorers and has since become one of the world's most efficient cities. In 1854, Curitiba was officially named the capital of Paraná, the southeastern region of Brazil. Brazil is divided into five regions: North Region, North-East Region, Center-West Region, South Region, and South-East Region. The division of the states is based on cultural, economic, historic, and social aspects.

Unchecked population growth and migration to urban centers throughout Brazil have led to large numbers living in poverty. These patterns have also led to areas of heavy pollution and rampant rates of deforestation, yet Curitiba has managed to reform its society and infrastructure, making it one of the world's most efficient cities. Dubbed the “eco-capital” of the world, Curitiba proves that with good governance and social cooperation, a clean, efficient, bustling urban center is possible. Although part of an underdeveloped country, Curitiba manages to flourish and run more efficiently than most developed, industrialized cities.

Early design of Curitiba

By the end of the 19th century, a drastic increase in European migration caused Curitiba’s population to rise above 50,000. Curitiba continued to experience rapid growth into the 1940s when its population exceeded 150,000 with a growth rate of about 3.5%. The city was faced with increasing demands for housing, transportation, and other essential services. Curitiba hired Alfred Agache, a French architect, to develop and direct the city’s urban growth. The urban plan, known as the Agache Plan, was Curitiba’s first comprehensive urban development scheme. It created sanitation measures, additional housing, industrial zoning, and a more accommodating network of streets.

Curitiba experienced yet another surge in population growth beginning in the 1950s. From 1950 through 1990, the population swelled from 300,000 to 2.1 million. The Agache Plan did not account for further drastic population increases, so a new plan was essential to meet the needs of the booming city. By 1964, Curitiba’s mayor, Ivo Arzua, called upon architects and engineers for proposals. A young architect by the name of Jaime Lerner seemed to have the solution. Jaime Lerner (1937-) graduated from Paraná’s School of Architecture in 1964. He was a leading figure behind the creation of the Instituto de Pesquia e Planejamiento Urbano de Curitiba (IPPUC), Curitiba’s urban planning and research institute. He later played a fundamental role in the development of Curitiba’s Plano Diretor (Master Plan), the plan behind the transformation of Curitiba.

Lerner was first elected Mayor in 1971. He served three terms as mayor: 1971-1975; 1979-1983; and 1989-1992. As a political official with a solid background in architecture and urban planning, Lerner promoted and fostered innovative social and economic changes. Many feel that Lerner has contributed more to Curitiba’s success than any other individual. After several terms as Mayor of Curitiba, he served as governor of the state of Paraná from 1995 to 2002. He is currently a professor for Urban and Regional Planning at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning of the Federal University of Paraná.

Present-day Curitiba

In 1990, 42 % of the population was under the age of 18. This built-in population momentum is expected to add another 1 million people to the population of Curitiba by the year 2020. In recent years, population growth has finally slowed down; the 2006 estimate of Brazil’s rate of population growth is 1.04%, a significant reduction from the past average of 4%. Although Curitiba’s 2005 estimated population was 1.76 million (3.2 million in the entire metropolitan area), the city operates smoothly and resourcefully, meeting the multiple needs of its citizens with as few resources as possible.

The key to Curitiba's success

The key to Curitiba’s success lies in the carefully constructed, innovative Plano Diretor that was formally adopted in 1968. The fundamental principal behind the success of the Plano Diretor is the complete integration of land use and mobility. For example, the city’s layout is a radial or axial system of structural arteries with priority and connector streets that divert traffic from downtown. Most cities create a gridlocked core fed by several major highways resulting in city congestion and pollution.

The projects are implemented the IPPUC, founded in 1966. The fact that there is a single institution behind the development projects of Curitiba translates into uniformity and efficiency. The IPPUC architects and engineers fully understand the interconnectedness of their city and are aware of the various projects that are going on. They perceive Curitiba as an integrated system, whereas if the city had various independent firms and contractors carrying out the plans and projects, there would be a disjointed relationship. The IPPUC has several essential principals that guide their actions: promote public transportation over private means; support human needs instead of corporate interests; meet the needs of the poorest; and do not spend money that you do not have. By taking a closer look at Curitiba’s infrastructure, one can truly see how the innovative plan has transformed the city into a success story.

The city plan


caption City of Curitiba, Brazil.

Curitiba has five structural arteries that run east to west. The city has encouraged development along these main arteries, which has ultimately diverted traffic from downtown and has allowed the city’s center to be a pedestrian friendly area with minimal congestion. Furthermore, the zoning and land-use principles encourage high-density development along the arteries, which are near bus routes, thus encouraging the use of public transportation through accessibility. The IPPUC ensures that zoning is based on geography, hydrology, topography, as well as cultural and historical factors instead of taxes or political and developmental pressures.

Ciudade Industrial de Curitiba (CIC), the industrial city of Curitiba, was built in 1973 and has become an integral part of the city’s economy. Whereas most industrial centers are far from the center of the city, the CIC is located in the western part of the city and is connected to other municipalities by Curitiba’s public transportation system, the Rede Integrade de Transporte (RIT), which makes it easily accessible by workers. The CIC provides basic services and housing to its workers so that they do not have to travel far to meet their needs. The CIC has numerous preservation areas surrounding the industries—it is said that there are as many forests as there are factories in this area. Several of the industries that Curitiba has recruited are non-polluting.

Curitiba does not neglect the needs of its poorest citizens. In 1976, the city adopted a Slum Relocation Plan to assist low-income families. The Public Housing Company of Curitiba built low-income housing near the center of the city instead of far away from the center, which is typical of US cities as well as major cities around the world. The incorporation of public housing with the rest of the city has created socially integrated neighborhoods that provide public health, education, day care centers, and recreational services. By meeting the needs of the poorest, the city has also saved money and energy because low-income neighborhoods, with all the necessary amenities, reduce the need for travel.

caption 360 degree panoramic view of Curitiba. Source: Wikipedia.

Curitiba's transportation sector

An efficient transportation infrastructure is vital to the success of a city. Curitiba is widely recognized for its efficient and widely used bus system. When it came time to renovate the existing transportation system, the city planners decided to work from the bus system already in place, around which the city had been built. The buses are locally assembled by Volvo, reducing transportation costs for the city that would be inflated if buses were imported from abroad.

With IPPUC behind the entire process, Curitiba redesigned their transportation infrastructure. It was designed to function like a subway system in terms of the amount of people it could transport and the frequency between routes. It has proven a good decision because the economic and time costs would have been significantly greater if the city had opted to construct a subway system; excavation for a subway can take years if not decades. The money that Curitiba has saved has been allocated to other social causes. The city layout itself has encouraged the wide use of the bus system because it is reliable and easier to use than a private car. The IPPUC architects replaced the old, noisy, and polluting buses with those that were cleaner and more efficient.


caption Passengers board and alight via a special tube on Curitiba's central transit routes so that boarding is not delayed by fare collection. (Source: U.S. Federal Transit Administration)


The glass tube stations provide citizens with a clean, protected area in which to wait for the bus. The platform of the tube station is parallel to the platforms of the buses, so there are no awkward steps to climb and the bus is handicap accessible. Passengers enter from one end of the station and exit on the other end, minimizing the amount of idle time.

Approximately 1,100 buses make about 15,000 trips daily. The ternary street system has an exclusive bus lane and bus drivers control the traffic lights, giving the buses priority. The IPPUC has designed five different buses that are used for different jobs so that there are fewer empty seats: express buses run only along the arteries; rapid buses operate on the main arteries and on other main streets; double- or triple-length buses operate on high capacity routes; inter-district buses carry passengers between the main arteries; and feeder buses operate on the city streets. The main function of the feeder buses is to bring passengers to district terminals or transfer stations. During rush hour, buses can leave once every minute, carrying up to 20,000 passengers per hour, similar to the capacity of a subway. The IPPUC has also developed software for scheduling and routes, allowing for greater accuracy and efficiency.

Ultimately, this well-designed bus system has resulted in fewer buses needed to do the same job. This leads to economic savings along with a significant reduction in the amount of fuel the city uses—Curitiba has saved 7 million gallons of fuel per year. Curitiba has a high rate of car ownership, yet the fact that so many citizens use public transportation proves that its system is truly efficient. Three-fourths of the city’s population relies on public transportation even though the majority of people still own cars. Curitiba is rarely, if ever, troubled with traffic problems and probably has some of the cleanest urban air.

Conservation and preservation measures

Curitiba also has an amazing waste management and recycling program. 90% of residents recycle 2/3 of their trash daily, which provides the citizens with a cleaner city as well as jobs. Curitiba initiated a garbage exchange program in an effort to minimize the amount of waste and litter on the streets in poorer neighborhoods. People are given bags of food or transportation tokens in exchange for bags of trash.

Curitiba’s fostering of preservation areas is a constant reminder to Curitibanos that they are not detached from nature, but are an integral part of it. Curitiba has over 1,000 parks and natural areas with no signs of decline. Many of these preserved areas are located near river streams and lakes, acting as buffers against flooding, development, and pollution. By preserving nature, Curitiba is ultimately ensuring the survival of its society. The entire plan behind Curitiba’s success demonstrates how a careful balance between nature and society can be obtained. While many believe that environmental ethics can conflict with economic growth, Curitiba has proven that society can only benefit from placing a value on the resources on which our existence depends.

Lerner's legacy

At the National Council for Science and the Environment’s second National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment (December 6-7, 2001) Sustainable Communities: Science and Solutions, Jaime Lerner, then governor of Paraná, “described his success as Mayor of Curitiba, which has achieved renowned status as one of the world’s most sustainable cities. Under Lerner’s charismatic leadership, using comprehensive planning, participatory democracy and innovation spurred by resource constraints, Curitiba has achieved an admirable record in education, health, well-being, safety, environmental protection and community spirit. Lerner talked about the importance of solidarity with present and future generations. His message of “Eo posible” (it is possible) inspired the conferees.”

The text below is taken from the following source:

Jonas Rabinovitch in "Curitiba: Towards Sustainable Urban Development", Urban Management Programme Working Paper Series # 1, United Nations, 1992.           


Priority to people and to public transport:

Mayor Lerner’s first administration (1971-1974) consciously decided to take control of its urban growth process by using two basic instruments: land use legislation in combination with the right to determine public transport routes. Total priority was given to public transport throughout the entire city and to pedestrians in the Central Area.

Over the years, urban growth has been encouraged along the “structural” axes, also known as structural sectors. Each axis was designed as a “trinary road system”: the central road has two restricted lanes in the middle for express buses flanked by two local roads. There are high capacity one-way streets into and out of the central city one block on either side of this central road. In the areas adjacent to each axis, land use legislation has encouraged high-density occupation, together with services and commerce.

The city augmented these spatial changes with a bus-based public transportation system designed for convenience and speed. In high demand routes, tubular, subway-style boarding stations speed boarding times through pre-payment and level boarding. This system replicates some of the advantages of a subway system at the surface, costing approximately 200 times less than a conventional subway.

Curitiba has over 500,000 private cars (more per capita that any Brazilian city except Brasilia). Remarkably, 75% of all commuters (more than 1.4 million passengers per day) take the bus. This has resulted in fuel consumption rates that are 25% lower than comparable Brazilian cities and has contributed to the city having one of the lowest rates of ambient air pollution in the country.
A very important aspect is that the average Curitiba low income resident spends only about 10 percent of income on transport, which is relatively low for Brazil.

Designing with nature:

Flooding was one of the most serious problems that Curitiba faced. The city center used to have frequent floods that were worsened by the construction of houses and other structures along stream and river basins. In addition, during the 1950s and 1960s, many streams were covered and converted into artificial underground canals that made drainage more difficult. Necessary drainage works had to be dug underground at a very high cost. At the same time, new developments on the periphery of the city were being constructed without proper attention to drainage.

Beginning in the early 1970s, some strips of land for drainage were set aside and certain low-lying areas were put off-limits for building purposes. The remaining natural drainage system was then protected by stringent legislation. River basins were classified as special areas requiring protection and management, often through park development. Stream protection strips were developed as linear parks and supported by comprehensive tree planting. Other areas subject to flooding were transformed into parks and enhanced with sports and leisure facilities. The parks are also well integrated in the transportation system via free green-colored public buses and bicycle paths, so that all social segments can enjoy all parks.

There were several advantages to this “design with nature” strategy. The preventive measures allowed the city to forego substantial new investments in flood control and have made serious and costly flooding a thing of the past. In 1970, Curitiba averaged only 0.5 m2 of serviced green space per capita. This figure has now increased one hundredfold to 50 m2 per person and all during a period of rapid population growth. The manner by which this was accomplished is a lesson in environmental management—solving several problems with win-win solutions accessible to all social groups in the City.

Appropriate rather than high-tech solutions:

Curitiba could have chosen a number of technologically sophisticated solutions to its woes. Two examples illustrate this point. The conventional wisdom was that cities with over a million people needed a subway system to deal with congestion. The other prevailing dogma was that cities that generated over one million tons of solid waste annually required expensive mechanical garbage separation plants.

Instead, Curitiba chose different paths for its transportation and garbage problems, paths that were based on the principles of simplicity and resource conservation. The choice of transportation technology was simple economics: an underground metro system would have cost $90-100 million per kilometre while the express bus way system came in at $200,000 per kilometre. Bus operation and maintenance were also familiar technologies that could be operated by the private sector.

For problems of trash generation and collection, Curitiba instituted two innovative programs. The “Garbage that is not Garbage” initiative involves curbside collection and disposal of recyclable materials that have been sorted by households. The “Garbage Purchase” program, designed specifically for low-income areas, seeks to clean up sites that are difficult for the conventional waste management system to serve by exchanging garbage bags collected by residents for bus tokens, parcels of surplus food, and children’s school notebooks. Another initiative, “All Clean,” temporarily hires retired and unemployed people to clean up specific areas of the city where litter has accumulated.

The results of these challenges to conventional wisdom have been beneficial. The city has a self-financing public transportation system instead of being saddled by debt to pay for the construction and operating subsidies that a subway system entails. The savings have been invested in other priority areas.

For solid waste management, over 70 percent of households participate in the recycling programs. Nearly 1200 trees are “saved” each day by the volume of recycled paper alone. Sixty neighborhoods with 31,000 families have benefited from the garbage purchase program by receiving nearly a million bus tokens, 1200 tons of surplus food, and school notebooks in exchange for collecting over 11,000 tons of garbage. These innovations have reduced the costs and increased the effectiveness of the city’s solid waste management system while conserving resources, beautifying the city, and providing employment—another win-win (and low-tech) solution that benefits all social groups in the City

Innovation and participation:

The city managers of Curitiba have learned that good systems and incentives are better than good plans. The city’s master plan helped forge a vision and strategic principles to guide future developments. However, the vision was transformed into reality by reliance on the right systems and incentives, not on slavish implementation of a static plan.


Time is money:

The longer it takes to implement solutions, the more expensive they become. Cities are not static and nor are solutions. For example, a low-cost sanitation technology that is suitable for a density of 40 families per hectare will not be suitable for a density of 100 families per hectare.

A more costly approach may be required. Curitiba has developed alternative approaches to deal with the pollution of the Iguazu river tributaries. For certain areas, however, demographic density still demands conventional approaches, which represent a heavy burden on the municipalities’ budget. In another example, with the definition of a comprehensive urban growth design, Curitiba demonstrated the importance of making the right decisions at the right time.

The same applies to public transport technologies, to waste management techniques, to drainage and urban services in general.

Prevention x remediation:

With relation to environment and urban infrastructure, for instance, it is well known that the cost of prevention can relate to the cost of remediation by a factor of 1 to 100. In other words, it makes sense to spend one dollar today in order not to have to spend one hundred dollars tomorrow. The planning of the “structural sectors” is an example, which directly saves in transport costs and indirectly in the distribution of infrastructure improvements, such as water, sewage, electricity and communication.

Incremental learning:

The perfect plan will never be implemented. Rather than pursuing perfection, Curitiba concretely did what was possible to do at specific moments in time—and incrementally developed such ideas in practice when they were already operational. The land use legislation, the industrial city, bicycle paths, the parks policy, bus design, public transport terminals design are examples of this approach. It should always be clear that an idea has three components: the idea, the viability, and the operation. This sequence forms a circle, which then feedbacks the idea again for further improvements.

Leaving the drawing board:

One advantage of working for local administrations is that the issues are concrete and the problems are just outside your door. This clarity is not easily attainable in broader levels of administration, such as states or countries. There is always a bureaucratic way of dealing with any issue and this is certainly the best way not to solve it. Planning officials, architects and other professionals in Curitiba were always encouraged to look at the problems, talk to the people, discuss the main issues, and only then reach for the pen. This behavior was promoted by Mayor Lerner, who pioneered a new style of municipal administration in Brazil. A genuine concern in looking at the problems and talking to the people, at any level of decision, provides an insight, which is seldom self-evident at the drawing table.

Lessons for an urbanizing world

Some of the lessons that emerge from the Curitiba experience for other cities include:

  • Top priority should be given to public transport rather than to private cars, and to pedestrians rather than to motorized vehicles. Bicycle paths and pedestrian areas should be an integrated part of the road network and public transportation system. In Curitiba, less attention to meeting the needs of private motorized traffic has generated less use of cars.
  • A sustainable city is one that uses the minimum and conserves the maximum. Th is pragmatic application of demand management and recycling is exemplified in Curitiba by solid waste recovery, re-use of old buses as mobile schools, preservation and use of historic dwellings, and employment policies where poor people are employed in the waste separation plant and as teachers of environmental education courses.
  • There can be an integrated and environmentally sensitive action plan for each set of problems. Solutions within any city are not specific and isolated but interconnected. The action plan should involve partnerships between responsible actors such as private sector entrepreneurs, nongovernmental organizations, municipal agencies, utilities, neighborhood associations, community groups, and individuals.
  • Creativity can substitute for financial resources. Ideally, cities should turn what are traditional sources of problems into resources. For example, public transport, urban solid waste, and unemployment are traditionally listed as problems but they have the potential to become generators of new resources and solutions. Creative and labor-intensive ideas can, to some extent, substitute for capital-intensive technologies. Also, cities do not need to wait for bailouts or structural reforms to begin working on some of their problems.
  • Social, environmental and economic solutions can be integrated into holistic approaches. Mayor Lerner’s leadership and creativity proved that there could be a sustainable solution for each set of problems usually found in fast-growing cities worldwide. A combination of public-private partnerships, transparency and participation was promoted in the development of equations of co-responsibility. The experience of Curitiba demonstrates that solutions, not only problems, can be seen in an integrated way.

Beyond the city level, the Curitiba case suggests that state and national governments would do well to acknowledge the strategic importance of cities as potential instruments for positive development and change.

These lessons are being learned by other cities inside and outside of Brazil. In Brazil and other Latin American cities, pedestrian walkways, bus lanes, waste management programs that were pioneered in Curitiba have become popular urban fixtures and procedures. Cities in regions as different as Africa, Asia, North America and Europe have expressed interest in the approaches put to practice in Curitiba.

One size does not fit all—not all cities enjoy Curitiba’s political will and continuity. However, one of Curitiba’s many creative, resource-conserving solutions may fit many cities that make up an increasingly urban world." [1]







(2013). Curitiba, Brazil. Retrieved from


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Keith Roy Franklin wrote: 01-11-2011 10:46:27

I have enjoyed reading this article as I live here in Curitiba. I am a retired Engineer, Building services, yet spent the last 20 years in the Graphics industry in Production and engineering. Now to main comment, Having Liived and worked in the city of London Most of myadultlife, then later 25 years in Norway, Oslo. I find the Health Services here to be a problem to many. I do not and cannot accept any country that allows the medical services to be under Private Control. View the system in Norway and you will find the Perfect Medical Service for all that live in the country, Regardless of income. This system would make Brazil a paradice for sure....... Regards.................

Christian Mueller wrote: 12-08-2010 23:42:56

Very good article about Curitiba. I lived there quite a while as my wife comes from there. I love that city. I also have a small site about Curitiba: Best wishes to you!