Urban Brazil: Visions, Afflictions, and Governance Lessons

Ivani Vassoler, Urban Brazil: Visions, Afflictions, and Governance Lessons. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2007. Illustrations, tables, figures, acronyms, appendixes, bibliography, index, 244 pp.; hardcover $99.95.

For some time, two popular sayings have been used to suggest strategies for political possibilities and action: think globally, act locally and another world is possible. Although both of these catchy sayings have been connected to a variety of social movements, the sayings seem to remain ambiguous in the concrete context of everyday life. In her study of urban political governance in the city of Curitiba, the capital of the state of Paraná in southern Brazil, however, Ivani Vassoler offers some quite concrete examples of how both of these sayings have become part of the everyday realities of the residents of this city.

Vassoler's review of the past 35 years of urban planning and action in Curitiba, with its population of 1.8 million, suggests that citizens have some reasons to be optimistic (at least in the context of Brazil) about real accomplishments in the area of public services. She argues that various city governments over this period have maintained a commitment to urban planning that has made many residents feel involved and has allowed them to talk about the quality of urban life they desire. This commitment to effective governance through urban planning has guided the impressive growth and transformation of Curitiba. It has developed a local-level decisionmaking centered on the combination of political commitment, consensus-building capabilities, and knowledgeable city organizations.

For Vassoler, the import of Curitiba's activities is not what the city government and the city residents have accomplished but how they did it. To show this, she reviews the histories of consecutive city governments (which included the period of military control of the nation, 1964-85, and the return to democracy, 1985) by focusing on how the governments dealt with problems of public transportation and environmental quality. It is interesting to note that even though the various city governments expressed different political persuasions, they all kept focused on effective urban development. This began with the composition of a general urban plan, which was actualized through the formation of an urban planning agency that was flexible and open to the changing needs of the residents of the city.

In 1964, the first transportation policies were developed. These policies worked with the assumption that mass transit, land use, and road systems would be utilized "as tools toward an integrative urban development process" (38). This involved making the center of the city a carfree zone, developing a new "road hierarchy" within the city, and putting into place "strict land use controls" (39). The hierarchy of roads involved a triple driving system: "a central road with two restricted lanes dedicated to express buses flanked by two local roads that allow fast car circulation in and out of the city center" (41).

Key to the transportation changes was the creation of a city agency to integrate the needs of the city with those of private bus companies. This integration was not without struggles, but what has emerged is a system that is modern and effective and that serves all the sections of the city. Significant in this has been the innovative revenue fare system, which gives financial compensation to the bus companies based on the number of kilometers traveled and the meeting of timetables. That is, the bus companies do not make money by the number of passengers but by "on time" compliance within the set route schedules (47). The other important change was a single-day fare for travel throughout the entire day.

To illustrate the city's approach to environmental quality, Vassoler focuses on programs that created city parks and garbage collection systems, including waste recycling (51). She describes the Iguaçú River system, which runs through the city and which began to pose flooding and contamination problems in the late 1950s and 1960s. Instead of attempting to control the river through dredging and building concrete canals, the city developed wooded parks along the river system that would act as flood plains. Currently there are 25 such parks throughout the city; they have made the city very green and also have addressed serious problems of drainage, sanitation, and flood control.

Garbage collection and disposal has been a great challenge to the various city governments of Curitiba, which have proposed innovative recycling programs consisting of workshops and public presentations on the material benefits of recycling. One program was called "Garbage that is Not Garbage." It launched educational campaigns in the city public schools and community programs to encourage residents to separate inorganic materials for reuse. It is estimated that 70 percent of the residents are now involved in such practices; this has meant real savings of approximately US$60 million a year (61).

Another innovative program, "Garbage for Purchase," was especially designed for the poorer neighborhoods of the city, where refuse collection was limited. Under this program, the residents collected their own trash, deposited it in stationary bins in the communities, and received a free bus ticket for every full bag of trash. This led to the "Green Exchange Program," allowing residents to exchange recyclable garbage for a basket of vegetables. It is claimed that every month, 20,000 people exchange 400 tons of recyclable materials for 100 tons of vegetables. This program also involves schoolchildren exchanging recyclable materials for school supplies. A side benefit was that thousands of small agricultural producers in the area could sell their produce to the city. The city runs several recycling operations, which have saved it money while creating more than 20,000 new jobs.

Vassoler provides a critical appraisal of how these city programs have developed, looks at their various contradictions and limitations, and compares Curitiba's 35 years of efforts to the near-absence of such efforts in the city of Säo Paulo. She recognizes that the programs have followed a top-down style of management, even though they have been linked to various communities on the local level and have required different promotional campaigns in order to maintain community participation. Although the programs have not addressed social or material inequality, they have made the city an easier place to live for all.

Vassoler, however, does not see Curitiba as a utopia; nor does she believe that these programs could be duplicated per se in other cities. What she constantly emphasizes is that a consistent commitment to make the city better through effective urban planning has been maintained by all the city governments during the last 35 years, independent of political positions. Furthermore, it was not so much the return to democracy that spurred these developments but the willingness of several generations of citizens to work for a better place to live. For Vassoler, Curitiba offers a possible example of what city governments can and should do: govern.

For me, Vassoler's research and the realities of what has gone on in Curitiba engender some interesting questions about the struggle for a better world to live in, particularly in Latin America. That is, what kinds of pragmatic forms of urban governance can be used in the context of postcolonial Latin America? Unfortunately, in the immediate future, there are no political and social movements that can fully dismantle the hierarchies of inequality. With all due respect to the social movements struggling in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil (to name only a few), the outcomes of these struggles are far from clear, and their success will take many generations of hard work. In the immediate context, cannot local programs or projects be developed and put into place to give fairer and easier access to the use of urban social spaces for the working class and urban poor populations? The social history of Curitiba suggests that by combining local actions with global understandings, such outcomes are possible.

What I would suggest as an additive to Vassoler's fine work would be some ethnographic encounters with the people of Curitiba. How do the people in the poorer bairros feel about the programs for exchanging garbage for vegetables or school supplies? Does the reworked transportation system help urban poor women move about the city with greater ease? Do residents in general feel that the quality of their life is better? Can one note such changes in the everyday lives of the residents? These, however, are not concerns that Vassoler needs to address; they are areas for future research into another possible world in this engaging context of Curitiba.

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