Through the Red Tape with Jaime Lerner

Jaime Lerner, three term Mayor of Curitiba, Brazil

“The city is not a problem. It’s a solution.”

This is the core message of Jaime Lerner’s TED talkA song of the city. The key, he says, is to think creatively and to act quickly, with firm resolve.

Lerner is a legend in sustainable urban and regional planning. As the Mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, he demonstrated leadership and vision decades ahead of his time, from transportation-oriented development, to distributed affordable housing, to green infrastructure for stormwater management, to large-scale recycling and simultaneous slum-upgrading. To this day, he shows an uncanny ability to recognize and capitalize on the inherent synergies between the three pillars of sustainability.


For me, the most striking lesson is what it means to act quickly. In the same TED talk, Lerner asserts: “Every city in the world can be improved in less than three years.” Two pieces are needed. First, there must be an “equation of co-responsibility.” Government, business, and society must all commit to do their part, and must follow through. Second, there must be what Lerner simply calls “a design.” By this, he means an intuitive understanding of, and an intentional response to, the inevitable challenges and the inherent opportunities in a unique place.

My favorite story of Lerner acting quickly is the decision, early in his first term as mayor, to convert a main street in downtown Curitiba to pedestrian-only use. As he describes it in an interview with Streetfilms, Lerner’s staff predicted the project would take six months to a year to complete. In response, the mayor presented and then executed a plan to start and finish the job in 72 hours, over the upcoming weekend. At first, local merchants were skeptical. A few months later, nearby business owners were asking the city to make their blocks pedestrian-only as well.

From 365 days to 3. Talk about acting fast.

Lightning Fast
Lightning fast

Lerner says there are at least three reasons to work fast.. First, to avoid bureaucratic red tape. Second, to avoid political drama. Third, “to avoid your own insecurities.”

All of these are real obstacles to sustainable urban planning. In all three cases, it strikes me that along with an equation for co-responsibility and a smart design, the planner needs to have some courage. Time and again, as a leader, Lerner showed himself willing to take calculated risks that could fail at his own expense. Instead, time and again, his synergistic approach led to widespread success.

Here’s to all of us channeling some of Jaime Lerner’s courage, and finding some of his success.


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