The tale of local architect/planner’s pilgrimage to Curitiba, Brazil

There’s a comment from NanaimoCityHall blog reader urbanismo this morning and I’m reposting it here for a number of reasons — not the least of which is that it contains the site’s first Portuguese language message.

The message came from the office of the Brazilian architect and planner Jaime Lerner, best known for his innovative transformation of the Brazilian city Curitiba, announcing his inclusion in Time magazine’s list of 25 most influential thinkers in the world. The brief  Time bio was written by Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson:

“Cities are where people live — by the billions. So they’re also where the planet’s environmental problems need bold solutions. No one understands that better than Jaime Lerner, 72, a former mayor of Curitiba and an ex-governor of Paraná, in Brazil.

Over the past 40 years, Lerner has left a magnificent legacy of urban sustainability. He turned Curitiba’s main downtown street into a pedestrian corridor. His decision in the early 1970s to allow only nonpolluting industries presaged modern models of green business. He pioneered the bus-rapid-transit systems now in use around the world.

“There is no need to be scared of simplicity,” Lerner has said. Especially when it pays such rich rewards.”

As urbanismo explains in his comment he (in one of his other personas that of local architect and planner Roger Kemble) headed to Brazil in early 2006 to knock on Lerner’s door and invite him to Nanaimo. Roger recounts that he was treated royally and given tours of the city and time with the great man himself and that he was able to start the work with Lerner’s staff to lay the groundwork for a visit to Nanaimo then undergoing the 10 Year Official Community Plan Review. I very much enjoyed helping Roger take this initiative through the mayor’s office, Planner Andrew Tucker’s office, the Plan Nanaimo Advisory Committee, the Downtown Nanaimo Partnership, looking to build support. What Roger calls in his comment “blank stares” actually understates the case by a considerable degree. The reaction to this citizens initiative was truly appalling. Petty empires within the city advisory committee structure felt themselves to be under threat. Mayor and Council of the day had no idea who this world famous thinker was. The Planning Department withdrew support for the initiative by the time it went to Council to consider funding and urbanismo forgets the role played by former DNP ED George Hanson in derailing the project.

All of which is water under the proverbial… but the question has to be asked if that culture of exclusion still exists in our civic affairs. Or whether there’s a new interest in the innovative ideas successful elsewhere as we reappraise where we find ourselves as we rebuild in the aftermath of the worst ecomomic crisis in 70 years. Are we still committed to cruise ship terminals, sprawling suburbs and big box retail all connected by arterial highways?

Blog reader sunnydan introduced the topic of a complete rethink of our transit system which I want to get back to. No discussion of transit would be complete without a look at Lerner’s innovative Bus Rapid Transit system and Curitiba is also a laboratory for looking at what contribution urban planning makes to economic development. Here’s a primer.

Frank Murphy