Innovation Blog

Innovation in Cities:   “Remove One Zero, Two Zero’s, from the Budget” — The Case of Curitiba

By Shlomo Maital

Nov. 21/2009

   This is the story of the world’s most innovative city, Curitiba, in Brazil.  Curitiba is the capital of the southern Brazilian state of Paraña,  with some 3.5 m. people in metro Curitiba.  Every mayor and city council in the world should have made at least one trip here to benchmark the innovations led by the incredible Jaime Lerner.  Most have not. 

    To my knowledge, the mayors of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (past and present, including former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert) have not been here.  The result:  expensive, over-budget, bungled projects for light-rail or subway systems,  in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, that, at least in Jerusalem, are making inhabitants’ lives miserable (owing to torn-up streets) and will do so for years to come.  In contrast, in my city Haifa, a dedicated bus lane is zipping residents from the southern end of the city to the northern end in next to no time. 

   What are Jaime Lerner’s innovations?   Choosing to run for mayor in Curitiba, Brazil, in 1988, only 12 days before the election, and winning a surprise victory, Jaime Lerner  did the following, using creativity and common sense, and a lot of independent thinking:

  *  Speedybus:  Used Federal money earmarked for a subway to build instead a Speedybus system — long ‘accordion’ buses carrying up to 300 people, built specially by Volvo, owned and run by private companies, with dedicated bus lanes.  Bus stops board passengers in one minute (you pay in advance of boarding), buses run frequently, and housing is planned so most people are within walking distance of a bus, making cars unnecessary or even inconvenient.  The Speedybus system costs one per cent of a subway and does the same job.  Curitiba’s bus system carries 2.3 million passengers daily — more than Rio de Janeiro’s subway!

      “What is a subway?”  Jaime told the BBC.  “Speed, comfort, reliability, frequency!  We provide these with Speedybus, because we designed it for these four qualities.”

  Sheep:  According to Wikipedia,  “Curitiba is bordered by floodplain. While wealthier cities in the United States such as New Orleans and Sacramento, have chosen to build expensive, and expensive-to-maintain levee systems to build on floodplain. In contrast, Curitiba purchased the floodplain and made parks. The city now ranks among the world leaders in per-capita park area. Curitiba had the problem of its status as a third-world city, unable to afford the tractors and petroleum to mow these parks. The innovative response was “municipal sheep” who keep the parks’ vegetation under control and whose wool funds children’s programs.”

     Jaime told the BBC, “the sheep are the best public servants!  They never go on strike!”

 Food for garbage:  Like many Brazilian cities, Curitiba has barrios, slums.  They were once jammed with garbage; the streets were too narrow to permit access for garbage trucks.  Jaime Lerner told the people:  Bring me your bags of garbage to collection centers, and I will give you in return a bag of food.   One bag of garbage, one bag of food.  It was cheaper than garbage collection.  The barrios residents responded.  Within three months, the barrios were   clean. 

Recycle:   Many cities are drowning in garbage.  Curitiba is not.  Curitiba citizens recycle.  How?  Jaime Lerner had the schools teach children how to separate organic and non-organic garbage.  Organic garbage goes into compost piles.  The children taught their parents. Now, 70 per cent of all garbage is separated, one of the highest ratios in the world.  Curitiba has a lovely nearby bay.  Once it was a garbage dumping ground. Lerner began to pay fishermen by the pound for retrieving garbage from the bay.  Now, fishermen fish for fish, when they can, and when they cannot, they fish for garbage. Curitiba saves many millions of reals in this way.

* Schools:   Lerner has a program where poor kids who don’t want to go to school  can be apprenticed to city employees.  As a result Curitiba has many fewer gangs than does, for instance, Rio.   

* Bikes:   There are 62 miles of bike routes in Curitiba, used by 30,000 bikers daily.  

  But what is Jaime Lerner’s biggest idea — the truly revolutionary innovation?

  How often do we hear public officials and politicians say this sentence:

       Yes, we would like to do good things, solve problems, make citizens’ lives better — but, we lack the money.

   Here is Jaime Lerner’s ‘take’ on this statement.

   “Do you want to change things quickly?”  he asks.  “Remove one zero from the budget.   Do you want to change things even more quickly?  Remove TWO ZERO’s from the budget.”

      He did it.  If you have no money, you have to invent, create, innovate, improvise.  How often do we throw money at a problem (or accept the problem because of lack of funds),  rather than throwing energy, creativity and start-from-scratch innovation at it?  

      If the world’s mayors do not visit Curitiba, perhaps Jaime Lerner can visit them. 

      But will they listen?