Jaime Lerner: Architecture/Urban Planning

The street where he grew up evokes fond memories for Jaime Lerner. He remembers keeping time by the clock of a nearby train station, recalls the hiss of the irons at the tailor’s shop, the smell of the café where he’d stop for coffee after a hard evening of study. “My neighborhood had everything,” he says. “It gave me an education in both reality and fantasy.”

These memories might be dismissed as mere nostalgia had Lerner not dedicated his professional life to re-creating the magic realism of his youth in Curitiba in the 1940s and ’50s. “Most of the world’s cities lost their human element when they began to modify three fundamental spaces—the river, the street, and the square,” he wrote in his children’s book, The Neighbor: Relative on the Street’s Side, recently released in Portuguese.

Lerner received a degree in architecture and as a young man worked as an activist to improve the municipal planning in his hometown, now Brazil’s seventh largest city (population 1.7 million) and the capital of Paraná state. He served three nonconsecutive terms as mayor before moving over to the statehouse for two terms as governor. During more than three decades in politics, he developed a style of urban planning that has been suggested as a model for the rebuilding of Kabul and now New Orleans.

Lerner’s approach to the revitalization of cities—he calls it “urban acupuncture”—depends on the agility of local policy makers and involves pinpoint interventions that can be quickly accomplished. Curitiba’s bus system—with its trademark clear tubes for boarding—is efficient, affordable, and solvent. Mayor Lerner also oversaw the planting of 300,000 seedlings; citizens did their part by watering them. To combat the city’s litter problem, he created an innovative recycling program: the city bought food and traded it with citizens for recyclables, which were then sold to fund food purchases.

Lerner’s recent book, Urban Acupuncture, outlines other successful examples of his approach: the removal of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway, the renewal of Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires, and the construction of Opera de Arame Theater at the site of an abandoned rock quarry in Curitiba. But urban acupuncture is not limited to physical interventions. Policies to reduce noise pollution or to encourage nightlife in desolate areas also qualify. “Sometimes urban planning is too slow,” he says. “The idea is to create energy.” Lerner—who recently stepped down as president of the International Union of Architects—is now taking urban acupuncture to cities around the world as a roving consultant.

In recent years Brazilian pundits have tabbed Lerner as a potential presidential candidate, but his disinterest in a 2006 bid seems sincere—especially since he’s convinced that the future won’t be determined by central governments. He argues that many global problems, like the depletion of the ozone layer, can be addressed by the widespread adoption of policies at the local level. “This is going to be the century of the city.”

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