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Brazilian Architect Jaime Lerner Sees New Frontiers in S.F.

At once disheartened and bemused, Jaime Lerner looked through the locked metal gate into the outdoor plaza of 140 Montgomery St., a restored 1920s tower that opened last year.

“It’s a little bit egotist, isn’t it? You don’t have to be afraid of people,” the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, said outside the landscaped terrace that’s visible from Natoma Street but off-limits to everyone but tenants. “This is not the right way to be part of a city. The right way is having things accessible.”

Lerner, 77, is a trained architect and planner who spent three terms as mayor of one of Brazil’s largest cities, his final term ending in 1992. He’s also a cult figure among urbanists for his renewal efforts in Curitiba that emphasized “simplicity and imperfection” — or as he now calls it, “Urban Acupuncture.”

That’s the title of Lerner’s first book in English, published in September by Island Press. The book tour brought him last week to San Jose and San Francisco, where he spoke on the virtues of inventiveness that keeps three goals in mind: mobility, sustainability and social diversity.

“The structure of living and working together, a mix of incomes — I know you care about this,” Lerner told a crowd of 90 or so people at the SPUR Urban Center. “Separating people by incomes and functions isn’t healthy.”

Some reforms instituted by Lerner in the 1970s and ’80s found their way to the Bay Area and other metropolitan areas, such as the separation of garbage so that organic refuse can be composted. Curitiba was the first city to pursue what’s known as bus rapid transit, where one lane of traffic is reserved for buses only; this relatively low-cost alternative to subways and light rail has since been embraced by more than 150 cities and is in the works for Van Ness Avenue.

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Jaime Lerner Nov 2014


Brazilian urbanist and author Jaime Lerner takes in the
urban planning in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood.