To LEED is Human; to Lead, Divine

With Earth Day nigh, it is instructive to hear Jaime Lerner’s lecture, “Sustainable City,” as a reminder of the architect’s potential role in a warming world. Speaking recently at Columbia, the former three-term mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, now works as a mischievous designer – dreaming and scheming solutions for cities that, like his mayoralty, bust all boundaries. Indeed, when it comes to sustainability, Lerner proves that to LEED is human, but to lead, divine.

As Mayor, he was well known for his trademark low-budget solutions to Curitiba’s mobility and environmental problems such as bus rapid transit, cash-for-trash, and the transformation of floodplains into sprawling city parks. Perhaps less known is Lerner’s longstanding embrace of high-rise density, from the intense mixed-use corridor that lines Curitiba’s BRT routes to his current proposals for densification of new transit nodes in São Paulo, in which the revenue created through new density is proposed to fund critically needed park and transit infrastructure.

A Bus Rapid Transit stop in Curitiba. Photo: Mathieu Struck
A Bus Rapid Transit stop in Curitiba. Photo: Mathieu Struck

“The City is not part of the problem, it is part of the solution” Lerner insists in reference to climate change. Few topics charge him up like the issue of urban mobility. For smaller neighborhoods, he proposes miniature electric cars for individuals called Dock Docks. In larger cities, he proposes transfer tubes to move passengers from smart buses to smart subways in free fare zones. In Lerner’s world, everything must be smarter, and must use every unit of space and resource with wisdom and clarity. His work continually recognizes that the jump in scale from Curitiba to São Paulo demands a jump in the scale of intervention. Yet in all cases Lerner states unequivocally that the key issue facing a rapidly developing planet is the distance people must travel to get to work – the means by which that distance can be smartly traversed and reduced, he rightly asserts, are the keys to global sustainability.

About green buildings, by contrast, he shrugs. Nice, he says, but the real issue is how people move between the buildings.

Bus, Curitiba, Brazil. Photo: Mathieu Struck
Bus, Curitiba, Brazil. Photo: Mathieu Struck
Scalable solutions to urban mobility and sustainability require the logic of design.

And with this simple shrug he plunges our professions, without pretense or guile, into the quandary of our epoch. It is human nature, after all, to toil within our arena of influence, even if that arena has no more impact than the proverbial re-arranging of the Titanic’s deck chairs, with perhaps some brilliant thoughts on design and recyclable content on the way down. Madonna made it clear that we are living in a material world, and we as architects, planners, and developers build much of that new material, with limited opportunities to remake the material that came before us. While it is true that a large percentage of greenhouse gases are generated by the existing building stock, how much agency do we have to meaningfully alter the majority of this existing stock? Do we honestly believe weatherizing McMansions will solve a thing? Noble though it may attempt to be, the impact of building greener new buildings and retrofitting a few older ones is negligible compared to the scale of global climate change, yet that is the limited potency that the design and development professions manage to muster and ballyhoo.

The actual material we as professionals wield in response to worldwide urbanization is a broader and far more significant matter, and demands that our professions influence the form and mobility, the very morphology, of our cities. It was not that long ago that we as architects had a far greater arena of influence, that we designed cities for monarchs and pontiffs, that we planned subways and schools for citizens and scholars, that we swayed the heads and hearts of presidents and prime ministers.  The word architect was once synonymous with power.

We were, once, important.

Today the word “architect,” though officially adjudicated by the AIA along an increasingly narrower bandwidth, is more commonly heard in reference to strategists like Karl Rove. Not since Harvey Gantt, former Mayor and Senate candidate, have we seen an actual architect in a major position of power in American politics. How far we have fallen since (or perhaps in part due to?) Thomas Jefferson.

Intersection, Curitiba, Brazil. Photo: Mathieu Struck
Intersection, Curitiba, Brazil. Photo: Mathieu Struck

Yet lead we can and lead we must. What Jaime Lerner teaches us, what students today tend to understand better than practitioners, is that as designers we can lead as others cannot. We are empowered with a holistic understanding of the environment and a project-based education that are ideally suited to the challenges of our day. Even business schools are attempting to adopt a “design-based thinking” curriculum, an arena in which we hold the high ground. As Lerner’s work so clearly reveals, the ability to conceptualize scalable solutions to urban mobility and sustainability requires the logic of design. It is with that field of vision that designers – be they architects, planners, or developers – can take on the scale of the problems the entire globe faces rather than settling for the sustainability scraps left on our plate.

Few words summarize this better than Jaime’s response to the question burning in me after the lecture. In which capacity has he had the ability to have more impact, I asked, as an architect or as a mayor?

He smiled wryly, took a long sip of deep red wine, and said “I’m the best client I ever had.”

All images by Flickr user Mathieu Struck. Some rights reserved.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, AIA, is the Marc Holliday Professor of Real Estate and the Director of the Real Estate Development program in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University and the founding principal of Vishaan Chakrabarti Design Collaborative (VCDC, llc), an urban design, planning, and strategic advisory firm based in Manhattan. He is a registered architect in the State of New York and lives in Tribeca.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


A Country of Cities

A series of opinion pieces in which Vishaan Chakrabarti casts key current events as rallying cries in his evolving argument for urban density, for a Country of Cities.


dr. arch. Kris W. B. Scheerlinck April 21, 2010

The question burning in me after that same lecture was: when sustainability is “sometimes you don’t have to spend”, why would we still design urban gadgets, like Dock Docks, transformable vendor’s stalls, or “metronized” busstops? It’s really all about image, isn’t it, Madonna would certainly agree, Lady Gaga most certainly would. But maybe sustainability is “sometimes you don’t have to design, just use what you already have in a better way”. Call it another way of designing.
Indeed, we need to acknowledge Mr. Lerner’s great achievements in Curitiba, that allowed to create one of the first green cities avant-la-lettre, an example for many cities and planners. Exactly for that reason I would suggest to relate sustainability to design as a better organization of space and time, not necessarily creating new gadgets. In other words, let’s avoid narrow object-like design approaches, that can only make us smile but can not make us happy (they only help to fill up empty pages in glossy magazines). The World Nature Games, as presented by Mr. Lerner, are an excellent example of this, as they used the present resources without destroying them, or without adding new design features. Hopefully one day this idea will be picked up by the old economy’s driven Olympic Parade, that has never proven to be real sustainable.
Design was, once, important?

Bill Hinchberger April 23, 2010

More about Jaime Lerner and Curitiba on, an online guide to Brazil:

urbanodelacruz April 23, 2010

“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” — Clay Shirky

Q: Is morphology (the built environment) still the right frame by which to understand cities? Have architecture, urban design and urban planning come up to the scalar limits (time, geography, growth)of their ability to address all the complexities of the problem and so are unable to address the city as a whole and can only address the building, the neighborhood, the district? The subcomponents of subcomponents?

“Planning” assumes we can get ahead of the curve. The growth of the city has completely swamped our ability to understand it from the frame of the design of the built environment. Even the periodicity of our solutions -the time to build -is completely out of sync with the speed of change in our cities.

Do we need a new intellectual and theoretical base on which to build our understanding of cities?