Sunday, December 17, 2006

Jaime Lerner

Jaime Lerner was born on this day in 1937 in Curitiba, Brazil.

Lerner is celebrated internationally for having masterminded and implemented a city plan for what is known as one of the "greenest" cities in the world -- Curitiba, Brazil. The son of Polish immigrants, as head of Curitiba's School of Architecture and an architect in the city's department of urbanism, during the 1960s Lerner helped to formulate several plans for the redesign and improvement of Curitiba, all of which fell victim to bureaucratic neglect.

After the military seized control of Brazil in a coup, in 1971 the military governor of Parana "suddenly" appointed the 33-year old Lerner mayor of Curitiba (although one suspects that Lerner was enough of a smooth operator to attract the notice of the military authorities). Choosing first to deal with the traffic snarl downtown, noting that "the less importance you give to cars, the better the city becomes for people," in the middle of the night on May 2, 1972 he assembled a convoy of city work trucks on the XV de Novembro, Curitiba's main shopping avenue, and turned it from a multi-lane asphalt street into a pedestrian mall with flower beds and trees in planter boxes. When the shopkeepers returned at the end of the weekend and began to protest that it would hurt business, Lerner was there to greet them, asking them for 30 days' patience; before the end of the week, as pedestrians flocked to the area in droves, a petition landed on Lerner's desk from the rest of the XV de Novembro merchants asking him to close the remaining 10 blocks to cars as well.

Lerner also created a 17-square mile industrial area 6 miles from downtown to encourage the local economy; forced developers to leave a third of any development project's area for parks in return for zoning concessions elsewhere in the city; discouraged the building of high-rises in the city center, instead relaxing the zoning along public transportation routes; and began the bikepath-connected park system, manicured daily by roaming sheep, which sprawls throughout the city. He served 2 terms before leaving office for a private consulting career, but after the military government retreated and democracy was reinstated, Lerner was drafted to run for a 3rd term, which he won in a landslide. He then devoted himself to improving the city's bus lines -- resulting in a network which pays for itself and is used by 75% of the city's population, a higher usage rate than in any city in the Western hemisphere -- and in organizing the city's poor to assist with the city's recycling project, in which 70% of the population participates and the proceeds from which aid the city's poor children.

Lerner was elected governor of Parana for two terms beginning in 1995. Despite his green record in Curitiba, he has occasionally come under fire from activists who accuse him of doing too little to conserve the Atlantic rain forest of Brazil.

Lerner's legacy as a director of planning easily rivals that of New York's Robert Moses in its revolutionary scope, yet Lerner's outlook has always been much more human-centered than that of Moses the great builder.

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