Social Sustainability in Curitiba, Brazil by Leia Marasovich '14

Leia Marasovich
12 December 2013
Deike Peters
Final Paper

Curitiba, Brazil has been successful in strengthening both its economy and social-system services through a sustainable development model that also invests in the local ecology. Through innovative urban planning that strives to integrate the city’s social, economic, and environmental components, Curitiba has flourished into a safe, attractive, and livable city. The city’s efficient land use planning, convenient public transportation systems, abundance of green parks, and well-designed street networks are just a few of the elements that have reversed the city’s previous threat to urban sprawl, poverty, and pollution.  However, what has furthered Curitiba’s reputation as one of the “greenest cities” in the world is the government’s sincere commitment to viewing its citizens as its most precious resource. This paper will analyze three case studies from Curitiba to exemplify how a city government or corporation can embody the quintessence of sustainability by meeting peoples’ needs, while simultaneously stabilizing the economy and the environment. I will examine specifically how Curitiba has turned the isolated problem of waste into a resource that has alleviated many urban ills. Curitiba has discovered that when humans are priority, the state of the environment becomes an incumbent concern, which eventually factors into influencing the city’s overall economic standing.

Curitiba’s Research and Planning Institute    
Curitiba’s success can be greatly attributed to the Independent Municipal Public Authority called the Curitiba Research and Planning Institute (IPPUC), established by Mayor Ivo Arzua Pereira in 1965. In 1964, the Curitiba Master Development Plan was established under an administration of Curitiba, configured of Brazilian consulting firms; the plan covered themes of waste management, land use, segregated bus lanes, etc. (Biller, 24). The IPPUC was essentially born to carry out the Development Plan through research, implementation strategies, and monitoring of urban planning issues within Curitiba. The IPPUC’s main features of “creativity, simplicity, and boldness” have materialized throughout the city, making the IPPUC Curitiba’s nexus for progressive design strategies and urban planning initiatives (IPPUC). The IPPUC has been responsible for ensuring plans and projects that have reinvigorated Curitiba’s culture, history, environment, economy, and social structures. Curitiba’s policymakers and planners acknowledge that environmental management is cross-sectoral and intertwined amongst all levels of governmental agendas. 

Between 1950 and 1990, Curitiba’s population rose from 300,000 to 2.1 million (Hawken, 288). During this time of rapid population growth, Curitiba had the highest automobile per capita in Brazil (Biller, 17). As most cities affected by increased population growth, Curitiba was heading in the direction of urban sprawl with poor air quality, crowded streets, pollution, and a lack of local identity (Biller, 17). In order to prevent the unsustainable trajectory of a car-centered sprawling community, the Research and Planning Institute helped change the city’s direction through a variety of efforts that not only enhanced the physical urban core of Curitiba, but also provided compensation to the poor while respecting the environment. In addition to the extremely efficient network of transportation systems that is currently used by 75% of Curitiba’s population- with 89% user satisfaction- the IPPUC is also responsible for the implementation of the following projects: “Garbage that Is Not Garbage” Campaign and the Green Exchange Program (Wright, 129). 

Waste as a Resource
A major problem facing Curitiba was the unorganized disposal of waste, especially in the marginalized neighborhoods.  Instead of investing money to simply “band-aid” the solution with new trash bins, the city invested in its people to solve this urban problem. The Garbage That Is Not Garbage Program has drastically mitigated the waste sent to landfills by collecting separated organic and inorganic waste from households up to three times a week. A public competition rewarded a private firm to franchise the green trucks that collect organic material in one bag and paper, cardboard, metal, plastic, and glass in another. The recyclable materials are sent to the city-owned processing center, where employees sort and process the recyclables, while the organic waste that is collected gets sent to a compost site. The reduced amount of non-recyclable or non-compostable waste that is left over is sent to the landfill. With more than half of households partaking in recycling, landfill waste has receded by one-sixth in weight, as 13% of Curitiba’s waste is recycled (Hiroaki, 176). Curitibanos are aware that these recycling efforts save an average of 1,200 trees a day thanks to a display in a local park that demonstrates these environmental statistics (Hiroaki, 176). 

The problem of waste management is dealt with at the first stage of where the problem begins- the household. Through good marketing, effective campaigns, education, and incentives, the government has successfully inspired its citizens to take responsibility for separating their own trash. The curbside pickup makes waste management easy and convenient, resulting in participation from 70% of Curitiba’s population (Hawken, 2). Since the program was initiated, groundwater is not as contaminated by leaching garbage (Hawken, 301). Furthermore, Curitiba has ensured to educate its citizens of all ages about the implications of the waste loop cycle, paying special attention to its children (Hiroaki, 176). Since 1971, environmental issues have been integrated in the core curriculum in Curitiba’s school districts which aim to resemble the environment not only as parks but as “the place and the social setting that forms tomorrow’s citizens” (Hawken, 304).

Not only has the Garbage That Is Not Garbage Program alleviated the trash problem in Curitiba and been successful in educating its citizens on the environmental implications, but it has also provided employment opportunities and strengthened food security for all of Curitiba’s classes. First, the city partnered with an organization called the Institute for Social Integration to hire people who were previously unemployed, alcoholics, disabled, or homeless to work at the sorting stations-which are made from secondhand material (WWF).  Second, the Green Exchange Program arose after the Garbage That Is Not Garbage Project, which allows citizens from inaccessible slum areas to exchange trash at community centers for locally grown food or bus tokens. For every 60 kilograms of trash, an individual can receive up to 60 tokens which compensates for a month’s worth of food or bus tickets for an entire family (Hawken, 302). Additionally, children can receive school supplies, toys, show tickets, or chocolate for their recyclables. Through this recycling system, the low-income families reap all the benefits instead of a private organization. The fruits and vegetables are purchased by the city at a discounted price from local farmers who have difficulty selling their surplus produce. The Green Exchange Program started in 1991 because of the market failure that local farmers were encountering. At the end of the day, this single program has helped solve various issues; from nourishing impoverished slum dwellers to providing the monetary means for people to commute to work, to mitigating farmer deficit, to reducing landfill waste. 

Corporate Responsibility
The Garbage That is Not Garbage Program and Green Exchange Program illustrate Curitiba’s unconventional tactics in combating urban problems. Curitiba’s model is based around the human; the government recognizes that in order to achieve its economic, social, and environmental goals, it must invest in the individual by providing opportunities for education, transportation, food, employment, affordable housing, and other public services. The next case study from Curitiba will reveal how corporations can also be financially successful while providing for human amenities. Typically, large corporations are associated with negative connotations such as exploitation, consumption, pollution, excess waste, inequality, etc. However, Siemens, a large international electronics and electrical engineering company, has proven that a business model that values its employees, practices participatory democracy, and encourages volunteerism and environmental protection can thrive in today’s competitive business world.   

Siemens provides a variety of onsite services and recreational opportunities for its 1,099 employees: physical therapy care, a hospital, internet access, small banks, educational opportunities, soccer fields, restaurants, a fitness club, and surrounding nature trails (O’Neill, 3). By providing exclusive spaces for leisure and convenience, Siemens is committed to providing the best conditions for its employees. This stems from the idea that if the employees are healthy and happy, then they will work more effectively. In regards to happy workers, Siemen employees are encouraged to bring any concerns they may have to the manager who directly addresses the issue. This creates a transparent relationship between the employees and employers. Another way Siemens advocate transparency and employee participation is by allowing employees to submit ideas for how the company can save costs; if their idea is approved than the employee receives a percentage of the savings. This collaborative and incentive-based system empowers employees to be more involved in improving the company they work for. 

Not only does Siemens treat its employees with fairness and respect, but it also contributes to many community improvement projects. Siemen employees can find an array of volunteer opportunities for whatever their passions or skills may be. Rather than simply donating money to a distant charity, Siemens holds the belief that it should aim to improve the area it is located in. If more businesses assumed the responsibility of caring for their local community, companies could be the conduits for sustainable development. One example of Siemen’s contribution to the local community is its sponsorship of the Childhood Dream Bakery. A kindergarten located in the poor community bordering Curitiba was lacking financial funds and thus reached out to Siemens for donations. Siemens worked with the school to build the Dream Bakery in order to solve the school’s funding problems. Volunteers from Siemens came to help initiate the fully functioning bakery in addition to teaching baking classes. The kindergarten currently has a 400 person waiting list as the bakery has been able to provide the school children with five small meals a day and a shower (O’Neill, 5). Siemens latest project is the Formare School, a school located at Siemens for 17+ year olds from the community that come from low-income families. Siemen employees devise the curriculum and volunteer to teach the classes to the students who receive a salary half of a Siemen line worker, two meals a day, health club access, vouchers for public transit, and a gift card for groceries (O’Neill, 7). The Formare School, which is free for the accepted students, has bridged the gap between the employed and the underprivileged of Curitiba. Siemens’ volunteer initiatives employ a humanitarian business model that seeks to make a profit in addition to making lasting changes in the local community. In order for a business or city to be sustainable, it must live up to the expectations of social sustainability which harness an equitable, cosmopolitan, and democratic way of life. With the many projects and opportunities for its constituents and community, Siemens fosters a similar mentality to the city government of Curitiba that values humans and the environment that sustains them. 

In addition to education, Siemens has a strong emphasis on mitigating environmental concerns. The facility recycles, has committed to keeping 85% of its property green, and also hosts an event called Environmental Afternoons once a month (O’Neill, 2). On these Saturdays, Siemen employees organize activities and lesson plans related to environmental issues for children. The program is located on Siemens property and often involves activities such as hiking, stranger danger courses, art projects, and more. Through its various volunteer efforts, Siemen has constructed a business prototype that aims to enhance the quality of life of its surrounding area.  By treating the environment in a sustainable manner, Siemens believes the quality and life of the product will improve. This will result in proud and well-treated employees which make up a stronger working community. “A strong community base provides some degree of financial control. Better financial control allows Siemens to invest in and behave ethically towards the environment” (O’Neill, 4). 

Curitiba as a Successful and Sustainable Model
Statistics prove that Curitiba is a city that doesn’t only sound good on paper, but is actually satisfying the needs of its people. In the mid-1990s, a survey measured that over 99% of people living in Curitiba said they wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, while 70% of Sao Paulo residents admitted to thinking they would live a better life in Curitiba (Hawken, 307). The overall economy of Curitiba is one of the highest in Brazil; it has a 66% higher per-capita income than the Brazilian average (New Internationalist). Additionally, Curitiba’s economic growth rate within the past 30 years is 7.1%, while the national average is 4.2% (New Internationalist). Curitiba’s fairly high levels of wealth have been invested back towards public and social services such as municipal health, libraries, daycares, and educational networks (New Internationalist).  In addition to resident satisfaction, Curitiba has: a 95% literacy rate, 96% basic vaccination, 99.5% of houses have drinking water and electricity, 98% of trash is collected, 83% have at least graduated high-school, and life expectancy is 72 (Hawken, 307). The city has also invested in 74 museums and cultural buildings, 30 public libraries, and 20 theatres. Needless to say, urban problems still persist in Curitiba; roughly 33% of metro-region houses are not connected to a sewer system, 8% of the population live in slums, and about half of the children are not finishing elementary school (Hawken, 307).  

Overall, Curitiba has been successful in preventing the negative consequences of urban sprawl due to its political framework, good design, commitment to environmental stewardship, and respect for its citizens. Evidently, a plethora of circumstances came together to allow Curitiba to be so successful and for this reason Former Mayor Lerner claims Curitiba is “not a model but a reference”. Curitiba helped mitigate many of its urban ills by assuming responsibilities on its citizens. It provides opportunities for citizens to partake in activities that not only enhance public spaces but also improve the environment, such as recycling and maintaining green spaces. It also encourages citizen feedback on urban planning projects, involving the citizens in the beginning stages of any prospective project (O’Neill, 8). However, active participation did not come without the strong leadership of the mayor and the IPPUC. The projects were supported and politically backed by the government, yet the IPPUC ensured the “continuity and consistency in planning processes (Hiroaki, 181)”. The city is quick to take action and make decisions; if the city sees there is a 70% chance of success, it goes ahead with the project (Hiroaki, 181). 

Curitiba is an example of a sustainable city because of its vanguard approach to central planning which combines “farsighted and pragmatic leadership with an integrated design process, strong public and business participation, and a widely shared public vision that transcends partisanship” (Hawkens, 310). Through the programs previously described, we can see how the city government has focused on preventative measures instead of attempting to clean up and correct its past mistakes (Biller, 25). Furthermore, Siemens Company and the city of Curitiba’s flexible regulatory framework facilitate active public participation, especially when it comes to issues of environmental planning. In attempt to educate its citizens on environmental sustainability, Curitiba and Siemens have successfully connected nature and culture with work and daily life. This innovative city has proven that nature, society, and a prosperous economy can exist in a symbiotic and complementary relationship; rather than a system where one element is being sacrificed at the expense of another.

What I have found most intriguing in studying Curitiba is not the fact that the city has over 100 miles of bike lanes or the most “green” public space, but rather the city’s success in finding creative ways to empower locals, gain economic capital, and conserve environmental systems through single programs. This was all done by looking at challenges as opportunities. The government’s commitment to its citizens is inspiring and a true emblem of social sustainability. 

Currently, city governments and businesses tend to be geared towards individual success. However, based on the findings in Curitiba, it seems that there is an alternative approach that honors the residents, community, and environment. The government works for the people, and the people are its inspiration. However, Curitiba can still improve in its pursuit to educate all, regardless of fiscal accessibility. Essentially, between all the benefits and programs offered by the IPPUC and businesses such as Siemens, citizens do not have an excuse to be unemployed or lacking basic services. Curitiba has implemented various projects that address hunger, pollution, poverty, and unemployment together. These isolated problems have become generators of social cohesion and new opportunities and resources. Catering to basic human needs without sacrificing the environment is the true essence of sustainability which Curitiba seems to be doing with its creative city planning procedures. 


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