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Making Cities Better: James Hagerty and Samantha Pearson on Jaime Lerner

Summary:
Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, died May 27, 2021. He was one of the most innovative mayors in the world, with practical “get the job done cheaply and practically” and “fail faster” philosophy (all quotations in this post are from the Wall Street Journal obituary “Brazilian Mayor Became a Global Guru of Urban Planning,” by James Hagerty and Samantha Pearson, with bullets added to separate passages):“Imagine the ideal … but do what is possible today. Solutions for 20 or 30 years ahead are pointless because by then the problems will probably be different.”Rather than spending years to formulate elaborate plans, he said, mayors

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Making Cities Better: James Hagerty and Samantha Pearson on Jaime Lerner

Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, died May 27, 2021. He was one of the most innovative mayors in the world, with practical “get the job done cheaply and practically” and “fail faster” philosophy (all quotations in this post are from the Wall Street Journal obituary “Brazilian Mayor Became a Global Guru of Urban Planning,” by James Hagerty and Samantha Pearson, with bullets added to separate passages):

  • “Imagine the ideal … but do what is possible today. Solutions for 20 or 30 years ahead are pointless because by then the problems will probably be different.”

  • Rather than spending years to formulate elaborate plans, he said, mayors should start making changes right away. “Citizens will teach you if you’re not on the right track,” he said.

In line with the “get the job done cheaply, practically, and quickly” Jaime went for buses, getting residents to do some of the work of garbage collection, and quirky rather than magnificent buildings:

  • Mr. Lerner, an architect, decided there was no reason a subway had to be underground. He built a network of dedicated bus lanes with plastic tubular stations, resembling subway platforms, where people paid in advance to speed boarding.

  • Sending garbage trucks into slums was difficult and expensive. Mr. Lerner found it was cheaper to persuade the poor to deliver their rubbish to collection points in exchange for vegetables.

  • … “urban acupuncture,” a quirky building or street feature that lures visitors and revitalizes a neighborhood. One example is Curitiba’s Wire Opera House, made of steel tubes.

Jaime was willing to force through a pedestrian mall in a winning bet that people would like them:

  • When he first became mayor in the early 1970s, downtown retailers had blocked proposals for a pedestrian mall. Mr. Lerner decided to plow ahead without awaiting a consensus. His director of public works estimated it would take four months to transform six blocks of a central street into a pedestrian zone. The mayor responded that he wanted the job done in 48 hours. “We did it in 72 hours,” he said later.

    Once retailers saw the results, Mr. Lerner said, they encouraged him to expand the pedestrian zone.

Finally Jaime respected the poor and existing good things:

  • Curitiba sought to preserve natural features and neighborhoods, while encouraging low-income people to build their own homes by giving them technical advice and discounts on land.

There were a lot of good ideas in this obituary. Stories of Jaime Lerner are good for anyone who cares about cities to hear.

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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