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Profile : The Maestro of Curitiba : By the end of Jaime Lerner's third term as mayor, this Brazilian city was a model metropolis. He fused creative urban planning with an abiding concern for the environment.

April 27, 1993|MAC MARGOLIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CURITIBA, Brazil — Wooden planks complained slightly as Jaime Lerner climbed with visitors along the spiral boardwalk up to the deck of a lookout tower. At each turn, a different facet of an old rock quarry came into view. Now we faced sheer stone, now a curtain of moss, now a pond dappled by a swan's wake. The walkway wrapped around a structure of rustic wood and orange roof tile. This was Curitiba's Open University for the Environment, though it looked less like a campus than a nature preserve.

A bulky man with a rounded face, Lerner negotiated the steep boardwalk with some effort. But it was a labor of pleasure. One afternoon last year, during his final year as mayor, a friend took Lerner to see the abandoned quarry, and he fell in love with the setting. In two months, he turned this hole in the ground into Brazil's newest university, maybe its cheapest and probably its most pleasant.

It was typical of his administration: A flash of inspiration, a sprint back to the drafting table, a frenzied spree of building, and, pronto, another addition to Curitiba's cityscape was born. Nothing grand to fatten the purse of contractors. Rather, it was put together with inexpensive and discreet materials in a deliberate attempt to marry sound ecology and solid architecture with a pauper's budget.

"I always run into these Ph.D.s," Lerner said. "They write and write and write about sustainable development. Then these guys ask me, 'But, how do you DO it?' " He looked toward the shimmering steel and glass skyline of Curitiba, the town where he grew up and that he helped make over into Latin America's model metropolis. "They are scared to death to DO anything."

Cities, someone once said, are like symphonies or poems--special places where human landscapes and nature's mingle and harmonize. Clearly the author of that paean to urbia had not stopped in the modern megalopolis. A passage through Mexico City, Delhi or Sao Paulo (or even much of London and Los Angeles) can be a grim journey marked by smog, overly full buses, teeming downtowns and terrible slums. A song to the megalopolis, especially the Third World megalopolis, would be less an ode than a dirge.

Then again, it depends on who's the maestro. In his three stints in City Hall, with a repertoire of simple and cheap solutions, Lerner helped fashion Curitiba (population: 1.6 million), the capital of the farm-belt state of Parana, into one of Brazil's most livable metropolises. Some of Lerner's fans go further.

"I think his is the best planning and development program in the world," said Berkeley University urban studies professor Alan Jacobs, a former planning director of San Francisco. Jacobs is a longtime friend of Lerner's, and he is not alone.

"He has a competent team, makes decisions and executes them," said Homero Icaza Sanchez, one of Brazil's leading pollsters. "For a country where everything is discussed endlessly before it is carried out, that is remarkable."

Had Lerner, the son of a Polish textile merchant, followed his father's trade, none of this might have happened. But the Brazil of his boyhood was a country of growth and startling change, a "country on the move," as John Dos Passos once marveled. Something about that change tugged at the fabric of Lerner's imagination. It was a heady, nearly heroic time for urban planning. Rio de Janeiro had burrowed through 3,000-foot mountains of sheer stone and pushed back the sea with giant landfills. Brasilia, the brave new "capital of hope," had been raised in only five years from scratch on the dusty central plateau. "Sao Paulo cannot stop!" was the heady slogan that rang throughout the 1970s.

By then, Lerner had finished architecture school and the military was running Brazil. The generals saw this sleepy South American nation as the next superpower. Mayors of regional capitals were handpicked back then, and in 1971, Lerner, then 33, was named mayor of Curitiba. Everywhere he turned his fellow politicians were building and building.

But not Lerner. He put on the brakes, and as a result Curitiba did not go the way of Sao Paulo or Rio, Brazil's largest and perhaps meanest megacities. He served as mayor two more times, appointed again in 1979, and elected in a landslide in 1988. His third and last term ended early this year.

The ingredients of Curitiba's successful recipe are well known by now. While most cities had long ago surrendered to the automobile, Lerner reclaimed much of the downtown for pedestrian promenades. Instead of tearing up the elegant 17th-Century architecture to build an exorbitant subway, he stuck to the humble bus, setting up a lattice of express bus lanes dotted with pleasant transfer shelters. Now, 75% of Curitibanos take the bus to work, as opposed to 45% in Sao Paulo and 57% in Rio.

He built park after park and planted 1.5 million trees. Now the city boasts 50 square meters of green area per inhabitant, three times the standard recommended by the World Health Organization.

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