Harnessing Infrastructure to Drive Urban Renewal and Social Change

Q&A with Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil and governor of Paraná

This is the fifth in a series of Q&As conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit and commissioned by the United Nations Foundation to explore advancements towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that is, the 17 UN-backed objectives that more than 190 countries agreed to prioritise in 2015. These targets include improving infrastructure, education, health and industrial innovation, as well as reducing environmental degradation.

Here The EIU interviews Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba and governor of Paraná about infrastructure development as a driver of social and economic change. As a well-known architect, urban planner and three-time mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, Mr Lerner is credited with reinventing the city into one of the world’s most environmentally friendly metropolitan areas. With an emphasis on public-use infrastructure, Mr Lerner replaced congested roadways with pedestrian thoroughfares and efficient, affordable bus routes that shuttle more than 2m riders a day. He is credited with establishing innovative programmes, such as recycling services in the city’s favelas, that helped foster public buy-in for environmental initiatives. Mr Lerner also served twice as governor of Paraná and facilitated widespread social and economic transformation of urban and rural areas in the state.

Mr Lerner is the former president of the International Union of Architects. He has received the United Nations Environmental Award (1990), the UNICEF Child and Peace Award (1996), the World Technology Award for Transportation (2001) and the Sir Robert Matthew Prize for the Improvement of Quality of Human Settlements (2002).


EIU: Infrastructure investment frequently means new roads, not public transit. That is a model you’ve rejected. What is the best way to measure the return on investment of public- versus private-user-focused infrastructure as a means of meeting the SDGs? And what is the role of cities in this process?

I bring to this discussion my experience and belief that cities are not problems; they are solutions. It is a well-established fact that the majority of the world’s population is urban. Cities are engines of economic growth. They are responsible for about 70% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, and they are the level of government closest to the people. Therefore, it is in cities that the most significant contributions towards meeting the SDGs can be made.

The challenges of mobility, however, go beyond choices of modality, such as deciding between investment for highways or railroad tracks. Cities should be viewed as integrated structures of life, work and mobility, and local governments must have a plan for growth to attract public and private investment. This vision must be developed collaboratively to ensure transparency and accountability.

This post is part of the “SDG Solutions” series hosted by the United Nations Foundation, Global Daily, and +SocialGood to raise awareness of ways the international community can advance, and is advancing, progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. As the international community prepares to gather at the UN for the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development from July 10-19, this series will share ideas and examples of action. Previous posts in the series can be found here.

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