Urban Planning Replicability – a case for Kaizen

By Henry Motte-Munoz

In the past few classes, we have focused on fascinating attempts to create cities where none existed before — be they tens of kilometers away (KAEC) or a present/future suburb (Phung My Hung in Vietnam). The idea is that existing cities cannot cope with the waves of rural emigration in Emerging Markets. I would argue that renewal of existing Tier 2 cities across these nations would be a more cost-effective, natural way of absorbing the influx. And for these cities, there is no need to rely on “new eco-city” findings — examples abound of successful transformations, including Medellin in Colombia and Curitiba in Brazil. To take a leaf from the Toyota Production Method, Kaizen, or continuous improvement, can radically improve the quality of life and population absorption capacity of a city.

Medellin has just been named the world’s most innovative city by the Urban Land Institute. It beat Tel Aviv and New York, on the account of its social mobility, efficient public transport system and investment in civic spaces, art galleries and libraries. Instead of spending billions trying to replan its poor neighborhouds or clear them, it built a giant escalator and a cable car for its residents to commute to the city centre to their jobs. The transformation did not happen overnight, nor is it complete, but it has allowed the city, once a byword for drug cartels, to cope with a doubling of its population since 1985 to ~3m.

Exhibit 1: Giant Escalator through low-income neighborhoods of Medellin, Colombia

Curitiba is an older example, but its lessons still apply. In the 1970s, the city’s visionary mayor, Jaime Lerner, decided to impose rapid changes to make the city more livable. In 48 hours, he had 6 central blocks in the heart of the city turned into pedestrian only zones. The area was paved, lit and furnished with plants & furniture over a single weekend. Other quick projects include the construction of an opera house, from recycled materials, in 2 months. More long-term projects include one of the world’s earliest BRT systems, creating recreational parks (which double as catchment areas for rainfall), increasing green space per capita 100 fold, and instituting a food-for-recycled materials program. The plan was made for a city of 350,000, which now houses 1.8 million.

Exhibit 2: Wire Opera House, Curitiba, Brazil

Exhibit 3: Pedestrian city center, Curitiba, Brazil

What is our role as fresh graduates? Professor Macomber often insists that we cannot wait for governments to get their act together; and for many of us, running for office is an unpalatable, or financially impossible, option. However, there is nothing stopping us from being advisors to existing Tier 2 cities in Emerging Markets. By leveraging our Harvard network across the Business, Kennedy and Design schools, we have access to a pool of students and professors who collectively could redesign entire countries. Our job is to craft integrated pitches to local communities and share with them the best practices discussed in this class, and persuade different actors — from the local water utility to the bus driver association. This can be done incrementally — every BRT, public park, recycling facility will be a victory for the city. I truly believe there is substantial value in being a funnel of best practices cherry-picked for the target city’s wealth and topography.