Architect and urbanist Jaime Lerner was joined by former NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

Sustainable Innovation in Urban Planning: Jaime Lerner’s Visionary Success

Kicking off a North American book tour for his new publication, Urban Acupuncture: Celebrating Pinpricks of Change That Enrich City Life, Jaime Lerner recently spoke at the Museum of the City of New York, joined by former NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Hon. AIANY and journalist and urban critic Roberta Brandes Gratz. Released by Island Press, a nonprofit organization with a focus on issues in the environmental field, Urban Acupuncture is a smart, quick read that urges urban residents to take a closer look at their everyday surroundings and find small but significant ways to improve the urban landscape, “a pinprick that provides a new energy in the process of planning, said Lerner.”

Referencing a subject discussed earlier that morning on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, Lerner began his monologue by highlighting bits of recent urban acupuncture he thought made an impact in New York City: the High Line, which has influenced his ideas for plans in São Paulo, and the new bike lanes complemented by the arrival of Citi Bikes, which have transformed both the individual and public realms of transportation. He believes another pinprick lies in the revamping of the city’s ferries and urges us not to be afraid of using water as a means of everyday transport, citing the vaporetto used in Venice as an example of a popular waterbus. One could imagine how much less congested the L train would be if only there was a ferry running from Williamsburg to the East Village, not to mention how much better it would be to start a workday with a view down the river!

Now that Lerner is no longer in politics, he works with what he enjoys most: small ideas that help transform cities. Integral to a successful city, and the driving force behind most of Lerner’s work, is the ability to provide combinations of public transport, which minimize the use of cars, emphasizing individual transportation without private ownership. The denser a city is, he argues, the more transportation options there should be. In his home town of Curitiba, buses carrying up to 200 passengers occupy a central and exclusive traffic lane. These stop every 500 meters, with users never having to wait more than two minutes for any given bus to arrive. When asked by an audience member how such frequent service is able to pay for itself, Lerner’s answer was simple: the better the system is, the more people will use it. Another key component of this system has been stepless boarding and prepaid ticketing. Both of these goals were reached by yet another simple solution: a cylindrical station that passengers pay to enter, which is elevated to the level of each bus for a seamless boarding process. These tubes have also been integrated into cities with pre-existing subways, such as Rio de Janeiro, creating an attractive connection between surface and underground transport. However, Lerner is a strong advocate of surface transportation, and is quick to point out that it is the future of mobility. And how could one blame him? His bus systems are up to 50 times less costly than subways, easily sustained, and infinitely more pleasing than the dark tunnels we have become so accustomed to with underground travel.

What is sustainability? Lerner defines it as the relationship between what we save and what we waste. One main route to living sustainably is to lessen our dependence on cars, as more than 70% of carbon emissions in the world has been attributed to cars in cities. By targeting cities we can begin to fix this problem earlier, but alternate transportation options are a must. Recycling is another step, and has been woven throughout Lerner’s Curitiba, starting with schoolchildren. By educating children on the value of sustainability they are able to drive this knowledge home to influence parents, yielding the highest separation of garbage index seen in the city so far. When asked what the secret of Curitiba is, Lerner credits “simplicity and imperfection” as main concepts. Innovation can be reached by just taking the first step, but he warns that “if we want all the answers, we will never get started. If we project tragedies, we will get tragedies. Tendency is not destiny.” A proposal that a large majority understands and government officials and communities can get behind is crucial to putting plans into action. He places importance on making citizens feel as if they have a hand in the process, stressing that “if you leave room for people, they will correct your trajectory if it’s not on the right track.”

Brandes Gratz chimed in and agreed that involving the community was important, but pointed out that some of the greatest successes have come from quick government implementation, similar to the demonstration effect that contributed to the success of a downtown shopping district in Curitiba turned pedestrian-only. Expected to take up to four months, Lerner, instead, gave his planners only 72 hours. Once completed, the original skeptics from businesses in the surrounding area were converted when they saw a significant increase in foot traffic and sales. A group of motorists planned to ignore the ban and drive into the new pedestrian zone, but Lerner got creative and invited groups of schoolchildren to sit in the streets and draw. He was able to prove that by sometimes ignoring regulations and forging ahead with controversial plans, the means justify the ends. “If the people didn’t approve of the change, we could always go back to what we had before,” he explains, “but it was essential that the people see the finished work.” Sadik-Khan took the same approach when pedestrianizing Times Square, implementing a pilot program to reduce the anxiety of such a change while compiling statistics that measured impact on injuries, mobility, development, and a number of other factors. For a data-driven mayor, the results proved favorable, and the change was made permanent. In these cases, Sadik-Khan argues, it is essential to “have a gallery for people to pick from” to achieve plans that might otherwise have been thwarted from the start.

Most impressive in Lerner’s long list of record-breaking achievements are the sites disrupted by human activity that have been transformed into venues for the people. The Ópera de Arame, a beautiful and delicate structure consisting of just steel tubes, was erected in 60 days – ”legally!” Lerner jokes – on the site of a former granite quarry. Passaúna Park was built – in only 28 days – around a man-made reservoir, placing a path around the lake front that includes hiking, bridges, and picnic areas. The Open University of the Environment sits amongst the Zaninelli Woods and another abandoned quarry that is now a lake teeming with lush wildlife where yet another abandoned quarry once remained – built in the two months before a new government took office.

Lerner stresses that political will, solidarity, good strategy, and the ability to turn problems into solutions are what make the start of an idea possible; to implement his ideas in such a timely manner, it is clear that he has perfected his knack of cutting costs. This allows a certain amount of risk-taking, forcing a creativity that “starts once you cut a zero from your budget. If you want sustainability, cut two zeroes from your budget.” As an urban planner and architect-turned-mayor, it is obvious that leaders who have social and ecological interests in mind when designing cities, as opposed to lobbies and politics, are what is needed to begin healing urban wounds and global problems as well.

Melody Fernandez is a Public Information Assistant at the Center for Architecture. She received her BA from Hunter College.

Event: Lessons from Brazil: A Conversation with Architect and Urbanist Jaime Lerner
Location: Museum of the City of New York, 10.15.14
Speakers: Jaime Lerner, Architect and Urbanist; Janette Sadik-Khan, Hon. AIANY former Commissioner, NYC Department of Transportation; Roberta Brandes Gratz, Author and Urbanist
Organized by: The Museum of the City of New York
Co-presented with: AIANY Global Dialogues Committee, Design Trust for Public Space, Van Alen Institute, and the Transit Center
Sponsored by: The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Center for the Urban Living City