In late June, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb supported an idea from residents in Ma’adi to turn Road 9 into a pedestrian promenade. Ma’adi is one of Cairo’s upscale, inner suburbs, best known for its greenery, relatively calm traffic, and British garden-style development. Road 9 is a street adjacent to the Metro that has developed over the past two years into one of Ma’adi’s most important and popular commercial streets. The closures began in early August and, for the time being, will happen on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of each week.
A few of us at Tadamun visited Road 9 on a Thursday evening. The impact of the closure was immediate and delightful. Rare is the opportunity to walk on any street in Cairo without having to jostle for space with other pedestrians and cars and trucks and microbuses and motorcycles. People strolled with ease and freedom on the newly paved road, giving the street a welcoming vibrancy and vitality, a calm known only to the rambling walkways of Al-Azhar Park.
Give the Prime Minister some credit for supporting the project: this was a very good idea. Egypt’s cities need more ideas like this. But where will they come from? Will the Prime Minister travel to other cities throughout the country and listen to the ideas of residents or district heads and support changes to the urban fabric project by project? Highly unlikely. Will the new Minister of Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements be the creative engine behind all of Egypt’s cities? She might try, but one person can achieve only so much. Will a city like Ismailia, Port Said, or Luxor ever have the opportunity to be at the forefront of urban innovation in Egypt? Not without central government approval.
Despite the government’s renewed interest in improving Egypt’s cities, the highly centralized structure of the government stifles creative thinking and urban innovation. Egypt’s cities will always lag behind the world’s best until residents and city governments are given the freedom to create and redefine their city themselves. There is no executive position in cities vested with the authority to implement projects without the consent of the central government and no governorate, municipality, or district may create legislation that differs from national law. The people with the power to innovate in urban areas or approve innovations of others are limited to those in high positions of the national government. They are mostly concerned with security and business investment and have less interest in the health and vitality of cities. The planners, architects, engineers, and organizations who have devoted themselves to improving Egypt’s cities have little to no power at all. There is nowhere to experiment, nowhere to learn, nowhere to imagine.
A quick survey of other countries facing similar urban challenges to Egypt shows an incredible depth and breadth of urban innovation. Urbanists working with or for municipal governments of cities like Sao Paolo, Mumbai, Nairobi, and Johannesburg are adopting innovative policies and legislation to deal with issues as diverse as transportation, housing, governance, community development, public art and culture, and heritage. In countries where cities have the power to determine their own future, where mayors and city councils are able to make decisions independently of the national government and national government officials do not interfere in local politics, there are thousands of people working in governments and the private sector to create programs and projects, and implementing ideas to drive their cities forward.
One such person is Jaime Lerner, the three-time mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. This article presents some of Lerner’s innovative and sometimes controversial projects that redefined urbanism in Brazil and have influenced thousands of cities throughout the world. An architect by training, Lerner was a master politician and leveraged the institutional power and resources at his disposal during a military dictatorship in Brazil to create sweeping changes in the urban fabric and culture of Curitiba. Today, some 30 years after his mayorship, Lerner’s philosophy of the city and his innovations are still fresh and progressive and there is much to learn from what Lerner accomplished.
Curitiba is the capital of the state of Parana in south-east Brazil. Like Egypt, Brazil experienced several decades of socio-economic restructuring due to the mechanization of agriculture, the displacement of farmers, and massive rural to urban migration beginning in the 1950s and carrying through to the 1980s (Irazabel 2004). Between 1950 and 1960, the population of Curitiba doubled, and throughout the 1960s, Curitiba’s population growth rate was a staggering 5.16% annually. The strain on the city’s infrastructure was severe. Government planners smitten with the superhighways of Brasilia, Brazil’s new, modernist capital city, drafted a plan to run an elevated highway over Curitiba’s central shopping district and widen the city’s major roads. In the early 1960s, a group of architecture and engineering students, including Jaime Lerner, protested against the proposed highway expansion, claiming that the project would destroy many historic structures and rob Curitiba it its identity. The protest was in tune with the sentiments of the population of the time who felt that highway expansion was not what the city needed (McKibben 1995).
In 1964, the government sponsored a public competition to create a new master plan for Curitiba in response to public sentiment and pressing need to manage the city’s rapid growth. The winning proposal was adopted the following year and the mayor of Curitiba at the time established the Institute of Urban Research and Planning of Curitiba (IPPUC) to oversee the development and implementation of the new master plan. Zarela believed that “[t]here is little use in commissioning competent professionals to draw [up] a plan without the proper follow-up … by the people who are going to implement it. This is why so many plans remain on the shelf. The people in charge of implementing them don’t know them nor [do they] believe in them” (IPPUC no date).
The 1966 Curitiba Master Plan departed from mid-twentieth century urban planning orthodoxy, an orthodoxy that still dominates Egypt’s urban planning approach in several ways. First, a conscious decision was made to frame Curitiba’s plan in the context of all of the elements of the urban system—social, economic, political, and technical—rather than treating them as independent of one another (Schwartz 2004). The institutional structure of municipal governance and the role of the IPPUC in Curitiba (both discussed below) allowed this systems approach to the city. Second, the plan incorporated a transportation approach that placed the transportation needs of the population, not the needs of the automobile, at its core. The plan used a transit-oriented development (TOD) approach by integrating regulations on land use with street networks and public transit (Irazabal 2004). TOD is a strategy where the municipality uses zoning regulations to increase density near public transit hubs and along corridors with easy access to the public transportation network. The plan encouraged mixed-use development as opposed to single-use development to reduce the need for automobile trips, encourage people to walk more, and create vibrant communities. The plan also introduced other important policies in order to manage growth, promote industry, and improve the city’s environment.
Before we discuss the accomplishments of Jaime Lerner’s administration while mayor of Curitiba, it is important to understand the nature of municipal governance in Brazil and the system in which Lerner worked. It is also important to understand, despite the strong central government, how the institutional structures in Brazil allowed for innovation in urban development and how this differs from Egypt’s municipal institutional structures today. This is not to suggest that the Brazilian model under the military dictatorship was ideal for urban development—Curitiba’s success was exceptional, and Lerner was able to leverage the existing institutions to accomplish a great deal.
Between 1964 and 1985, Brazil was a highly centralized state ruled by a military dictatorship. Municipalities were governed by a mayor-council system in which the mayor served as the executive of the municipality and councils serve as the legislative branch of the local government. Both mayors and councils were popularly elected in most municipalities, but appointed by the central government in larger cities, capital cities, and frontier municipalities that the government controlled tightly for security purposes (Owolu 1982). By contrast, Egypt does not have local government in the sense of the Brazilian model. All executive positions at the subnational levels of the government (from the governorates to the villages) are appointed by the central government and popularly elected local councils in Egypt do not have any legislative authority. Curitiba is a capital city of the state of Parana and therefore, the mayor was appointed by the state government. Mayors appointed by the military government were expected to ignore the elected council and eschew public participation while attending to the needs of the elites and business class. As a result, Curitiba’s mayor had greater discretion in policy making, administering, and financing its programs.
Another major difference between Egypt and Brazil is in the area of urban planning and management. In Brazil, most aspects of municipal urban planning and management were the responsibility of the municipality. Their responsibilities included transportation, zoning, building codes, waste removal, housing, green-space and park development as well as social development sectors such as education, child care, favela (slum) improvement, and healthcare (IPPUC no date). In Egypt, the responsibilities for physical and social development are divided among governorates and national level ministries. For example, there is a unit of the GOPP in each government which is required to prepare detailed urban plans for cities and villages. These offices rarely have the capacity and technical expertise to create these plans and so, they rely on private consultants to complete them. Furthermore, the planning offices don’t have the authority to access real-estate and land-registration records—important components for creating a comprehensive plan. Transportation, education, healthcare, informal area development, and building codes are all done at national-level ministries (Nada 2014). In essence, the comprehensive city plans are not comprehensive at all and, as a result of institutional territorialism, cities cannot easily address the challenges they face.1
In Curitiba, the mayor held final authority over all planning-related decisions and served as chairman of the primary decision making authority in the city’s planning unit, the IPPUC. The IPPUC was responsible for conducting research on all of the urban planning elements mentioned above and municipal urban law as well as to develop instruments for implementing Curitiba’s master plan. It also had units that implemented and monitored the planning projects. The IPPUC also had the responsibility to review the allocation of resources to implement the city’s project. As mentioned above, the IPPUC was initially established to oversee the development of the 1965 Master Plan, but its role in the municipal government evolved into a coordinating and strategizing entity during Jaime Lerner’s tenure as mayor (Tlaiye and Biller 1994).
Finally, like Egypt’s subnational levels of government, Brazil’s municipalities were severely underfunded and their finances were tightly controlled by the military government. Local governments depended on the central government for the majority of their funding (70-80 percent) and that funding was allocated for specific government transfers: e.g., highways, electricity, education, health, sanitation, etc. The balance of local government revenue was raised through local taxes.
Lerner and his administration accomplished a great deal even with these fiscal restraints. This was not because he had the phone number of the Minister of Finance to leverage further resources. To be fair, Curitiba was one of the wealthier cities in Brazil, but thrift was a hallmark feature of many of the projects and programs implemented by Lerner and his staff. The restraints on local government revenues were a motivating factor for Lerner. He believed that “creativity starts when you cut a zero from your budget,” (Lerner 2007) and disdained the use of consulting “experts” because their solutions were often costly and cumbersome (McManus 2006). This is not to advocate for the fiscal conservative mantra to “do more with less” or justify the central government’s decision to underfund municipalities, but simply to highlight how the right institutional environment can be conducive to innovation and creative thinking.
Lerner served as mayor of Curitiba three times, twice appointed under a military regime (1971-1975 and 1979-1983) and once elected (1989-1992). During his tenure as mayor, Lerner established a culture of planning that was maintained by all of the subsequent mayors of Curitiba and mimicked elsewhere in Brazil (Hawken et al. 1999). Part of Lerner’s success as mayor was to loosen the grip of the central government on Curitiba’s policies and programs. As a military appointee, Lerner could push through unpopular programs or projects that he felt benefited the population and he was able to work quickly in order to limit the time opposition from powerful interests in the city had to organize. To a certain degree, Lerner earned his political power because of his urban agenda and political alignments. He collaborated with business interests around a pro-growth governing agenda that included policies to expand and attract industry to promote the city’s economic growth, but he also prioritized creating programs with an explicitly pro-poor agenda (Irazabal 2004).
Lerner’s deep connection to the streets of Curitiba has, in part, defined his motivation to “plan for the people, not for the…bureaucratic structures” of the city (Lerner 2006). Lerner has been described as a “sparkplug of ideas, [who] radiates a highly compressed and infectious energy, with a can-do assertiveness that borders on arrogance” (Lubow 2007). He set his agenda on an unthinkably wide scale, surrounded himself with a highly technical, competent staff, and worked at a blistering pace.
Lerner identifies three key issues of cities that planners must address in order to create a successful city: mobility, sustainability, and identity. He disdained mega-projects that characterized much of modernist planning and instead, adopted an experimental, inexpensive style of planning which he calls “urban acupuncture.” Urban acupuncture is the swift application of intense pressure on one point of the city to release tension and distribute positive energy to surrounding areas (Lerner 2006). Several examples of urban acupuncture are discussed below. This approach has allowed Lerner to be one of a few municipal leaders who was able to change his city fast enough to see his vision realized (Washburn 2013).
The breadth of Curitiba’s accomplishments under Lerner is impressive. His administration created the first pedestrian mall in Brazil in the city’s primary shopping district, established the world’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) system, and created an industrial park in which only non-polluting industries were permitted. By 2003, these industries accounted for 20 percent of Brazilian exports (Schwartz 2004). His administration initiated an aggressive park building agenda, turning old quarries and garbage dumps into public space.2 His administration valued and preserved Curitiba’s built heritage by reusing old buildings to house cultural institutions and maintain the city’s identity. Lerner also emphasized equality in his administration’s urban agenda. The municipality allocated entire tracts of land close to public transportation and job centers to low income housing and promoted technical assistance to help each resident design and build their own homes. They established a recycling program that not only achieved some of the highest rates of recycling in the world, but simultaneously provided a steady source of income for the city’s poor (Schwartz 2004).
The government planners in Egypt can learn a great deal from what Lerner and his administration accomplished in Curitiba. Two projects that are of particular relevance to Egypt are Curitiba’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system and their efforts to improve housing for the poor.
Curitiba was a pioneer of public transportation in an age dominated by the automobile. The 1966 Master Plan incorporated principles of TOD and Lerner and his staff took those principles and built a model public transportation system. They realized that residents’ quality of life depends on their ability to access job opportunities, education, shopping districts, markets, and other amenities throughout the city that may not be in their immediate neighborhood. In other words, quality of life depends on mobility. The key to access was an affordable, high quality public transportation and the ability of people to move easily within the city. They also understood that a public transportation system could not only serve as a skeleton for development, but paired with zoning laws, could be used to guide the growth of the city and preserve the historic downtown (Rabinovitch 1992).
The key to the system was to encourage the physical growth of the city along linear axes which had a road with exclusive lanes for express buses. These corridors were meant to draw employment away from the traditional city center to leave the historic core for pedestrian use and preserve the city’s built heritage. The first components of the transportation system were implemented in 1974 along the city’s north-south axis. Over the next 20 years three more east and west corridors were added. Each corridor had a highway with three lanes. The center land was dedicated for bus service only. Over time, feeder bus lines were added that wound through residential areas, bringing people to the main bus stations on the primary routes (Rabinovitch 1992).
In the 1980s, the government installed glass boarding tubes on the main bus routes that mimic a subway platform to speed up the times busses spent at the stations. These closed shelters are raised to put the boarding platform at the same level as the bus and have an attendant at each end that collect fares to eliminate the need for passengers to pay as they board. These shelters serve only the buses on the main route. Passengers from the free feeder lines are dropped off nearby. The doors of the platform and the bus open simultaneously to allow passengers to enter and exit quickly and efficiently. A flat-rate pricing system was also implemented, which effectively used shorter commutes often made by the middle class to subsidize longer commutes made by lower-income commuters who typically live further from the center of the city (Hawken et al. 1999). In its first year of operation, the bus system carried 25,000 passengers per day. Eight years later in 1982, it was carrying 774,000 people per day (Rabinovitch and Hoehn 1995). In 2007, the system carried 1.3 million people per day (Goodman, et al. 2007) in a city of about 1.8 million people (Curitiba n.d.) without using any public subsidies (Lubow 2007).
To complement the BRT system and guide growth in the city, Lerner and the IPPUC adopted strict zoning laws. The zoning laws encouraged growth along the transportation corridors by allowing the highest densities on properties close to the corridor with a FAR limit of up to 6.0.3 The allowable density decreased the further the property was from the transportation corridor. The city also adopted growth restrictions on the downtown district to force development outward along the corridor and preserve the historic structures and identity of the downtown district (Rabinovitch and Hoehn 1995).
Curitiba’s BRT was the first in the world. Its success has been replicated in dozens of cities as diverse as Istanbul, Turkey; Bogotá, Colombia; Lahore, Pakistan; Amedabad, India; and New York City, USA. In July 2014, UN-Habitat issued a call for expressions of interest to develop demonstration BRT corridors in Cairo.
During the mid-twentieth century, Brazil experienced a great deal of rural to urban migration putting a strain on urban infrastructure and services. As in Egypt, limited affordable housing for new residents in cities resulted in the production of extensive informal settlements, or favelas, as they are called in Brazil. Lerner and his staff at the IPPUC understood the exclusionary nature of the real-estate market and took steps to provide access to land in desirable locations for lower-income communities in Curitiba. They also recognized that they did not have the financial resources to provide housing for lower-income communities and adopted an incremental housing program in which residents were able to build their own homes.
As a general rule, IPPUC implemented the mixed used planning found in the 1966 Master Plan by merging small-scale, low-income housing units throughout the city in order to promote equity and social integration. The city also launched the new policy of Land Banking where they purchased cheap land intending to use the land for social housing after land prices rose as a result of this new investment and development. To undermine real-estate speculation they made information about land-use planning and regulation open and accessible to the public through a GIS system, since real-estate speculators typically benefit from uncertainty resulting from hiding such information (Hawken et al. 1999).
When the IPPUC installed the BRT system, they created a great deal of real-estate value along the transportation corridors. Property owners along the corridor experienced a windfall not only due to the new infrastructure but also because of the increase in allowable densities.4 Left to the open market, over time, lower-income residents would have been priced out of the areas close to the BRT system. To combat the exclusionary nature of the real-estate market and real-estate speculation and to ensure equitable access to the transportation system, the city sold the density rights to developers on properties with increased density allowances at 75 percent of the market rate. The development rights could be paid for in cash or in land of equivalent value elsewhere in the city.5 The city used the proceeds to provide infrastructure to the properties as well as to purchase large swathes of land along the planned corridor, dedicating it for low-income housing development to ensure equitable access to public transportation for the city’s lower-income residents (Hawken et al. 1999).
Through the 1970s and 1980s, the continuous migration of residents to the city overwhelmed the city’s housing market and affordable housing was scarce. The city implemented a new flexible incremental development program in the early 1990s during Lerner’s last term as mayor to accommodate an additional 30,000 migrant families. The program provided each family with a plot of land, building materials, and a consultation with an architect for a single hour. The initiative capitalized on the construction skills of the migrants to build their home themselves, incrementally, room by room, as they were able to save money. The land given to the lower-income migrants was easily accessible to the public transportation system (Hawken et al., 1999).
Through the 1970s and 1980s, the continuous migration of residents to the city overwhelmed the city’s housing market and affordable housing was scarce. The city implemented a new flexible incremental development program in the early 1990s during Lerner’s last term as mayor to accommodate an additional 30,000 migrant families. The program provided each family with a plot of land, building materials, and a consultation with an architect for a single hour. The initiative capitalized on the construction skills of the migrants to build their home themselves, incrementally, room by room, as they were able to save money. The land given to the lower-income migrants was easily accessible to the public transportation system (Hawken et al. 1999).
One of Lerner’s first major accomplishments as mayor was turning downtown Curitiba’s primary commercial street, Rua XV Novembro, into a pedestrian promenade. Like Prime Minister Mehleb’s closing of Road 9 in Ma’adi, Lerner acted without consulting the public and believed strongly in the merits of the project. Despite initial resistance from residents and merchants, he believed they would grow to love the pedestrian zone if they had a chance to experience it. Lerner was right. Today, Rua XV Novembro is one of South America’s most successful pedestrian malls. Perhaps Road 9 in Maa’di will be as successful.
However, there are a few differences between the decisions of Mayor Lerner and Prime Minister Mehleb. The idea for a pedestrian promenade was included in the 1966 Curitiba Master Plan. The pedestrian promenade fit perfectly with the ideas of TOD, mixed-use development, and the preservation of downtown and the built identity of Curitiba that were pillars of the 1966 Master Plan, designed with public input. It was part of a larger strategic vision for a city that promoted inclusive development and equitable access to public space and transportation.
Prime Minister Mehleb’s decision is not part of any such plan. It was a local idea, a good local idea, supported by the district manager who presented the idea to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister approved the plan and directed the district manager to begin work immediately. Had the Prime Minister not approved the plan, it would not have been implemented.
Why do innovations in our cities require the approval of the Prime Minister or another high level government official? Why doesn’t the district manager have the authority to implement new ideas that are supported by the community? Why is the future of our cities dependent on the central government?
Many of the central government planners in Egypt are smitten by grand projects and national plans that are incredibly expensive and often impossible to implement. They do not see cities in their dynamic totality, but instead the institutional structure of the government forces planners to focus on specific sectors within the urban system. As a result, plans are fractured, uncoordinated, and hold little promise for the future. No city has the freedom to challenge the status quo. They just have to sit on their hands until the Prime Minister arrives.
Curitiba. (No Date). “City Profile.” Portal da Prefeitura de Curitiba. Accessed 27 August 2014. Link
Goodman, J. and M. Laube, J. Schwenk. (2007). “Curitiba’s Bus System is Model from Rapid Transit.” Race, Poverty and the Environment. 12:1, 75-76. Accessed 27 August 2014. Link
Hawken, P., Lovins, A., and Lovins, L. H. (1999). Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Little, Brown and company.
Hudson, R. (1997). Brazil: A Country Study. Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Accessed 26 August 2014. Link
IPPUC. (no date). The Creation of IPPUC. Retrieved from Instituto de Pesquisa Planejamento Urbano de Curitiba. Link
Irazabal, C. (2004). City Making and Urban Governance in the Americas; Curitiba and Portland. Antony Rowe Ltd, Chippenham, Wiltshire.
I.U.L.A. (1978). Local Government Finance, International Union of Local Authorities. The Hague, the Netherlands.
Lerner, J. (2004). “Biografia.” Jaimelerner.com Accessed 28 October 2009. Link
Lerner, J. (2006). “Forward.” State of the World 2007: Our Urban Future. Worldwatch Institute. Accessed 27 August 2014. Link
Lerner, J. (2007). “Jaime Lerner Sings of the City.” TED.com. [VIDEO] Accessed 26 August 2014. Link
Lubow, A. (2007). “Recycle City: The Road to Curitiba.” New York Times. Accessed 27 August 2014. Link
McKibben, B. (1995). Hope, Human and Wild. New York: Little Brown and Company.
McManus, R. (2006). “Imagine a City with 30 Percent Fewer Cars.” Sierra. 91:1: January/February
Nada, Mohamed. (2014). “The Politics and Governance of Implementing Urban Expansion Policies in Egyptian Cities.” Égypte/Monde arabe Third Series, 11. Accessed 18 June 2014. Link
Owolu, D. (1982). “Local Government Innovation in Nigeria and Brazil: a comparative discussion of innovational transfers and intergovernmental relations.” Public Administration and Development. 2:345:357.
Rabinovitch, J. (1992). “Curitiba: Towards Sustainable Urban Development.” Environment and Urbanization 4: 62-73.
Rabinovitch, J. and J. Hoehn. (1995). A Sustainable Urban Transportation System: The “Surface Metro” in Curitiba, Brazil. Working Paper No. 19. United Nations Development Programme, New York, NY. Accessed 27 August 2014. Link
Tlaiye, L., and D. Biller (1994). Successful Environmental Institutions: Lessons From Colombia and Curitiba, Brazil. The World Bank, Latin America Technical Department, Environmental unit.
Washburn, A. (2013). The Nature of Urban Design; A New York Perspective on Resilience. Islandpress.
1.National entities responsible for physical planning include the General Authority of Physical Planning (GOPP), the Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Communities (MHUUC), the New Urban Communities Authority (NUCA), the Ministry of Urban Development and Informal Areas (MUDIA), and the Ministry of Transportation (MoT). Socially-oriented entities include the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health and Population, and the Social fund for Development.
The content of this website is licensed by TADAMUN: The Cairo Urban Solidarity Initiative under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License