Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Consensus Buildings vs. Robert Moses-style planning in Curitiba

From Richard Layman's blog, I saw this story about Curitiba, Brazil in the NYT Magazine. The parts about Bus Rapid Transit were why I clicked the link, but what I really noticed was the reasoning they gave for why transit ridership, recycling, and eco-mindedness all seem to be trending downwards in the city.

It made me think of the current re-examinations that have been going on in regards to Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. When Jane Jacobs died last year, it seemed no newspaper could write about her without mentioning Robert Moses. And they couldn't talk about "Death and Life" without talking about "The Power Broker". For better or worse, they're likely to be linked forever in history. (Which will only gain momentum in 2008 when Anthony Flint's new book comes out.)

It was a contrast in styles — Jacobs was the grassroots organizer and neighborhood activist. From the bottom-up, she was able to save the Village. Moses had more consolidated power and authority than any urban planner or mayor will ever have again. So it's often uttered that what we need is another Robert Moses, albeit one who shares a pro-city perspective that values Jacobs' urbanism and people-first planning. This thought used to sound appealing to me, but now it scares me.

Consider: In Curitiba, the plans and implementation in the 60's and 70's came from one man in who was in some ways a figurehead leader who had power because the military dictatorship handed it to him. Quite different from Moses, but maybe not all that different after all. Curitiba might be a good lesson as to what happens when there is no consensus-building, no ownership, no charettes, no visioning, and no citizen particpation in the process of figuring out what sort of city to become:

“Curitiba began early to look at recycling garbage — that is true, and it is good,” says Teresa Urban, a local journalist and environmental activist. “But the separation of recycled garbage is a little part of all the garbage we have here. There is no tradition of participation here. The mayor sold to the people the idea that this is a wonderful city. And the people think, This is wonderful, I don’t have to do anything.”

Like other left-wing critics, Urban traces the lack of participation to an original sin. The progressive urban planning of Curitiba was not initiated by a democratic process; it was set in motion by the military dictatorship that seized power in 1964 and ruled Brazil until the mid-’80s. Its environmentalism is rooted in authoritarianism. “They didn’t have to confront the public through public participation, and the decisions could be made by urban planners — architects acting as politicians,” says Clara Irazabal, who has written a book comparing the urban planning experiences of Curitiba and Portland, Ore. The city that has been called the most forward-looking in the Western Hemisphere is an outgrowth of an era that many Brazilians prefer not to look back on. Jaime Lerner, the archangel of the Curitiba green movement, was anointed by the dragons of war...

...“He never asked if something was good or not,” Rischbieter remarks. “He would say, ‘I’ll go do it.’ I would say, ‘You have to go ask people and get their opinions.’ He would say, ‘No, they won’t agree with me, and it has to be done.’ He is not a political animal, he is a dictator.”
The story closes with a graf that hammers home the need for planning at the regional and megaregional scale:
Nor is Curitiba a single town any longer. It’s a conurbation. Planning must be for the metropolitan region, not just for the municipality. Does it matter that Curitiba bans polluting industries if the neighboring town of Araucária has an oil refinery belching smoke on the city line? Similarly, if the new immigrants to the poor surrounding communities don’t recycle, then Curitiba’s landfill, the only such facility in the metropolitan region, will fill up even sooner. Like garbage, water does not respect city limits: Curitiba’s water supply depends on reservoirs controlled by municipalities outside its borders. What was never simple has become even more complex. For a long time, the citizens of Curitiba were so proud of the city’s reputation as an urban showplace that they kept re-electing urban planners — self-styled technical experts who seemed to be above politics and who vaunted their expertise in running the buses, building the parks and recycling the garbage. But a mayor today must be able to negotiate successfully with other mayors if reform is to work. Mayors need to be politicians, even in Curitiba.