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A DXer Looks at Curitiba, Brazil

By Don Moore

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the December, 1994 issue of The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association in the Latin Destinations column.


Hola amigos! Bienvenidos to this month's Latin Destinations column. Several times in the past few months while tuning around I've come across Brazil's Radio Clube Paranaense on 6040 and 9725 and Radio Universo on 6060, 9565, and 11905, both from the city of Curitiba, capital of the southern state of Parana. Each time it has reminded me of interesting tidbits I've heard about this city, from reading and from a few friends who have been there until last week I was prompted to spend an afternoon at the university library doing a little research.

I've always believed that one thing that makes Latin America interesting is the way that certain areas sometimes defy everything we have ever believed about them. For example, when we think about First and Third World countries, we assume that the Third World needs to become more like the First, and that the First World has a lot to teach the Third. Certainly Brazil is an example of this. With one of the most unequal income distributions in the world, it has many problems including widespread poverty and vast slums in its cities. Who would ever imagine that a Brazilian city could be a model for cities around the world, both First and Third World? Yet, that is what Curitiba has become.

In the late-1960s, like all cities in Latin America, Curitiba was experiencing a population boom due to rural-to-urban migration. The population had increased from around 140,000 in the early 1940s to about 600,000, just 25 years later. A small group of local architects and engineers dismayed by what uncontrolled growth was doing to the beautiful small city they had grown up in did not want Curitiba to become another center of gray concrete and high skyscrapers. They approached the mayor, Ivo Arzua, with the suggestion that the city's development should be controlled through careful urban planning that would focus on small-scale, balanced, and - decades ahead of their time - environmentally- sensitive projects. Arzua not only liked the idea, but held a nationwide contest to come up with an overall plan. Mayor Arzua then went out and sold the idea to the city's people, leaving the architects and engineers to put the plan into practice. The initial steps worked so well that in 1971 a member of the original group, architect Jaime Lerner, was elected mayor, the first of three terms he would serve. Since then Lerner has been the driving force behind Curitiba's progess.

Some of the changes were easy to put in effect, such as a ban on the construction of high-rise buildings. Others took time. When Lerner first proposed closing some streets to traffic to create outdoor pedestrian shopping malls, store owners thought he was nuts. But, he convinced one block to try the idea for a month. Shoppers loved the idea so well, that by the end of the month shopkeepers on other blocks were pleading for the same. Today, Curitiba's downtown pedestrian malls are the center of city life. The malls are lined with fruit trees and flower beds, which Curitiba's street children are paid to maintain.

Keeping Curitiba green has been part of the plan since the beginning. Since the early 1970s, the city has purchased over 1.5 million trees, which volunteer citizens have planted along city streets and avenues. Not only have trees & flower beds been planted along many of the city's streets, but today Curitiba is a park-lover's paradise. When the plan was first proposed, Curitiba had 5 square feet of parkland per citizen. Today it has 550 square feet, despite a 164% population increase - to over 1.5 million - during the same period. Part of the Iguazu River flowing through town was diverted through a 7 km artificial channel before it arrives to the city's parks, making it easier to keep pollution under control in the numerous artificial lakes.

World's Best Bus System?

Another goal of Lerner's group was solving the transportation problem that any growing city has. Elsewhere in Brazil, large cities built superhighways and planned subways. But, as Lerner said, "While other cities thought about a subway for the year 2000, we wanted a good public transport system now." The result was five special multi-avenue channels radiating out from the city center, much like the spokes on a wheel, with special avenues for fast limited-stop buses and parallel avenues for slower local buses. Other local bus routes link the five spokes. The system has gradually evolved into a marvel of efficiency.

The key to the fast lanes is special large plastic tubes at the bus stops. Passengers pay their fare upon entering the tube, not boarding the bus. The other end of the tube interlocks with special wide bus doors allowing eight people to enter or exit the bus per second. Add to this special three-coach linked buses that hold 270 people, and Curitiba's high-speed buses move more people than a subway system, just as quickly, but at a fraction of the cost of a subway. City officials from around the world, including New York, Vancouver, and Lyon, have come to Curitiba to take a look. The system works so well that even Curitibanos who have cars prefer to use the bus system. Curitiba has the second highest number of cars per capita in Brazil - one for every three inhabitants, but the lowest use of autofuel per capita among Brazilian cities. And in Curitiba, traffic jams are almost unheard of.

Recycling Everything

Recycling is quite the buzzword in the USA these days, but few know that Curitiba was one of the first cities in the world to begin a widespread voluntary recycling campaign. By the early 1990s, just when recycling was really starting to pick up here in the states, seventy percent of Curitiba's households already recycled trash. Over 70% of Curitiba's garbage is recycled or composted, with most sold to local industries. The city's recycled paper alone is estimated to save 1,200 trees a day.

Recylcing even reached the slums. In a 'food for trash' policy, the city government bought surplus produce from farms around the state, which was then bagged and trucked into the slums to be exchanged, a bag of food for a bag of sorted, recyclable trash. A similar program gives slum residents a free bus pass for a bag of trash. The result? Amazingly clean slums with well-fed inhabitants and without rats, flies, and other vermin usually found in such neighborhoods, which in turn has led to a decrease in communicable diseases in the city. Furthermore, slums dwellers have been given most of the jobs in the recylcing program, bringing income into those neighborhoods.

The concept of recycling is found everywhere in Curitiba. Old buses have been turned into mobile vocational classrooms to take job-training into the squattertowns. Sheep graze in the city park, both to keep down the grass and to naturally fertilize it. An abandoned quarry has been turned into a rock concert arena. Even the mayor's office (located in a city park for easy public access) is recycled - a log cabin made out of old telephone poles. In Curitiba, simplicity applies to everyone.

Curitiba has far more interesting features than I can go into here. It's biggest resource, obviously, is imagination and a willingness to try something different. Of course, as Jaime Lerner himself admits, "Our city isn't a paradise. It has most of the problems of other cities. We haven't got rid of the favelas (slums). But when we provide good buses and schools and health clinics, everybody feels respected." So, amigos, the next time you tune in a station from Curitiba, remember, it's not just another Brazilian city. Curitibanos believe it is the best place on Earth! Hasta luego!


Rik van Riel writes ....
I'm a dutchman who moved to the city of Curitiba in february 2000 and happened to run across your article on Curitiba.
All I can do is compliment you on the nicely written article, there really is very little to add...
(Only possible DX-relevant thing: the city was founded by Germans; some radio stations still have the occasional German program and the "traditional southern brazillian" music is exactly the same as traditional german music ;))


This article is copyright 1994 by Don Moore.

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