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A World Model in Third World : Brazilian city takes exemplary approach to the problem of poverty

June 09, 1996

The United Nations summit on urban problems, known as Habitat II, opened last week in Istanbul, Turkey, with more than 10,000 government ministers, diplomats, mayors and grass-roots activists attending. Their goal is to address the common problems many nations experience as a result of exploding urbanization. The delegates hope that one outcome of the two-week meeting will be a rough consensus on standards, goals and patterns for urban development.

In advance of Habitat II, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sponsored a competition to select 25 American examples of the practices that contribute best to building communities, with a focus on housing, job creation, poverty alleviation and environmental regeneration. Among the winners was Los Angeles' Beyond Shelter, a private organization that stresses immediate return of homeless families to independent living.

One of the finest exponents of such practices lies well beyond our national borders. Curitiba, in southern Brazil, is very much a Third World city. Although many of its 1.6 million people live in poverty, it is striving for First World goals.

Curitiba's idealistic municipal philosophy, as articulated by its mayor, Rafael Greca De Macedo, contrasts starkly with the sink-or-swim alternatives that confront the poor in many U.S. cities that struggle under shrinking budgets and cynical middle-class voters. "A city's society," Greca says, "must be understood as a train that will go no faster than its slowest wagon or car. City governments exist to push the slowest car so the whole train will go faster."

Curitiba's "slowest car," its poorest residents, gets a big push toward self-sufficiency from an extensive system of municipal libraries and vocational classes.

The whole community gains further from programs that recycle an extraordinary 70% of trash (compared with the U.S. average of 10%). Among the city's many innovative recycling practices is using old utility poles in the construction of office buildings and crushed plastic foam for stuffing quilts. No less important, the recycling program boosts municipal revenue and steers money to food for poor families.

For all its residents, Curitiba's programs offer hope and possibilities. These programs take leadership and full community involvement. There is nothing necessarily Brazilian about those qualities.

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