Foreword - The Honorable Jaime Lerner

-The Honorable Jaime Lerner, Former Governor of Paraná, Brazil, and former Mayor of Curitiba

State of the World 2007 - Our Urban Future
State of the World 2007 Home Page

The twentieth century was, par excellence, the century of urbanization. Around the world the supremacy of rural populations over urban ones was reversed and cities experienced an accelerated growth, often beyond the desirable. They have been through unthinkable transformations, which left a fantastic array of challenges and possibilities as a legacy.

If the last century was the century of urbanization, the twenty-first will be the century of cities. It is in the cities that decisive battles for the quality of life will be fought, and their outcomes will have a defining effect on the planet’s environment and on human relations.

Therefore, what can we expect from an urban planet? What will the cities of the future be like? There are those who portray an urban world in apocalyptic colors, who depict cities as hopeless places where a person cannot breathe, move, or live properly due to excess population and automobiles. I, however, do not share these views. My professional experience has taught me that cities are not problems, they are solutions. So I can face an urban world only with optimism.

My strongest hope resides in the speed of transformation. For instance, the demographic projections based on the high birth rates of 20–30 years ago have not been confirmed, allowing us a more encouraging view on the growth of cities for the next years and decades. Renewable energy sources, less-polluting automobiles, new forms of public transportation, and communication technologies that reduce the need for travel are all pushing away the chaos that was predicted for large urban centers. The evolution of technology and its democratization are presenting new perspectives for cities of all sizes and shapes.

In terms of physical configuration, the cities of the future will not differ significantly from the ones of yesterday and today. What will differentiate the good city will be its capacity for reconciling its residents with nature. Socially just and environmentally sound cities—that is the quest!

By having to deal directly with economic and environmental issues, this quest will foster an increasingly positive synergy between cities, regions, and countries. As a consequence, it will motivate new planetary pacts focused on human development.

Still, a certain sense of urgency is vital to positively transform our cities. The idea that action should only be taken after having all the answers and all the resources is a sure recipe for paralysis. The lack of resources cannot be an excuse not to act. The planning of a city is a process that allows for corrections, always. It is supremely arrogant to believe that planning can be done only after figuring out every possible variable.

To innovate is to start! Hence, it is necessary to begin the process. Imagine the ideal, but do what is possible today. Solutions for 20, 30 years ahead are pointless, because by then the problems will probably be different. Therefore we need urban policies that can generate change beginning now, that will not need decades to show results. The present belongs to us and it is our responsibility to open paths.

In the roots of a big transformation there is a small transformation. Start creating from simple elements, easy to be implemented, and those will be the embryos of a more complex system in the future. Although we are living a phase of our history when events happen at a galloping pace, and information travels in the blink of an eye, the decisions regarding urban problems are postponed due to a systematic lack of synchrony with the speed of the events.

The world demands increasingly fast solutions, and it is the local level that can provide the quickest replies. But it is necessary to plan to make it happen. Plan for the people and not for centralized and centralizing bureaucratic structures.

Those responsible for managing this urban world must have their eyes on the future, but their feet firmly on the ground in the present. Those who only focus on the daily needs of people will jeopardize the future of their city. On the other hand, those who think only about the future, disregarding the daily demands, will lose the essential support of their constituents and will not accomplish anything.

It is necessary then not to lose track of the essence of things; to discern within the amazing variety of today’s available information what is fundamental and what is important, the strategic from the daily demands. A clear perspective on future objectives is the best guide for present action—that is, to bind the present with a future idea.

There are three crucial issues that need to be addressed: mobility, sustainability, and identity.

For mobility, the future is on the surface. Entire generations cannot be sacrificed waiting for a subway line while in less than two years complete networks of surface transportation can be set up. In Curitiba, starting in 1974 we gave priority to public buses carrying 25,000 passengers a day in exclusive lanes on a north-south axis. Today, the network carries 2 million passengers throughout the metro area with a single fare.

The key to mobility is the combination and integration of all systems: subway, bus, taxi, cars, and bikes. But these systems cannot compete in the same space. People will select the most convenient combination according to their own needs and travel with a “mobility card.” Operators of each transportation mode will be partners in the system.

Regarding sustainability, the main idea is to focus on what we know instead of what we don’t know. And, above all, to transfer this knowledge to the children, who will then teach their parents. Curitiba’s Garbage That Is Not Garbage Program encouraged separation of recyclable waste in households; children learned about the program at school and helped mobilize their parents.

Simple things from the day-by-day routine of cities can be decoded for children: for instance, how each person can help by reducing the use of the automobile, living closer to work or bringing the work closer to home, giving multiple functions during the 24 hours of the day to urban infrastructure, saving the maximum and wasting the minimum.

Sustainability is an equation between what is saved and what is wasted. Therefore, if sustainability= saving/wasting, when wasting is “zero,” sustainability tends to infinity. Waste is the most abundant source of energy.

A sustainable city cannot afford the luxury of leaving districts and streets with good infrastructure and services vacant. Its downtown area cannot remain idle during great portions of the day. It is necessary to fill it up with the functions that are missing. The “24 hours city” and multiple-use equipment are essential for sustainability.

Finally, identity. Identity is a major factor in the quality of life; it represents the synthesis of the relationship between the individual and his or her city. Identity, self-esteem, a feeling of belonging—all of them are closely connected to the points of reference that people have about their own city.

Rivers, for instance, are important references. Instead of hiding them from view or burying them in concrete, cities should establish riverbanks as valuable territories. By respecting the natural drainage characteristics, cities can make sure the preserved areas provide necessary episodic flooding relief channels and are still used most of the time for recreation in an economic and environmentally friendly way. Parks can work within a similar logic, providing areas that people can relate to and interact with.

Historic districts are also major reference points, closely related to each city since its inception. But these areas often suffer a process of devaluation and degradation. Finding ways to keep these districts alive by connecting identity elements, recycling outdated uses, and hosting a mix of functions is vital.

In Curitiba, a deactivated gunpowder storage facility was transformed into one of the city’s most cherished theaters—Teatro do Paiol. A city is a collective dream. To build this dream is vital. Without it, there will not be the essential involvement of its inhabitants. Therefore, those responsible for the destinies of the city need to draw scenarios clearly—scenarios that are desired by the majority, capable of motivating the efforts of an entire generation.

A city is a structure of change even more than it is a model of planning, an instrument of economic policies, a nucleus of social polarization. The soul of a city—the strength that makes it breathe, exist, and progress—resides in each one of its residents.

Cities are the refuge of solidarity. They can be the safeguards of the inhumane consequences of the globalization process. They can defend us from extraterritoriality and the lack of identity.

On the other hand, the fiercest wars are happening in cities, in their marginalized peripheries, in the clash between wealthy enclaves and deprived ghettos. The heaviest environmental burdens are being generated there too, due to our lack of empathy for present and future generations. And this is exactly why it is in our cities that we can make the most progress toward a more peaceful and balanced planet, so we can look at an urban world with optimism instead of fear.