The greening of the city: Latin America´s urban innovations

Blogs, 29 September 2010

The news that Mexico City´s authorities will begin fining shops which give free plastic bags to consumers might come as a surprise to many. After all, it is often assumed that environmental concerns are primarily a ‘Northern’ issue, and that poorer cities could not possible be willing, or capable, of implementing policies which even policymakers and voters in the UK would balk at. For people better acquainted with local governments’ environmental policies in Latin America, though, the move is only a continuation in a progression of innovative policies sweeping across the region´s cities for the last two decades.

Since the 1980s, a regional push towards democratisation and decentralisation has handed an increasing amount of power to local urban authorities, and this has created the space for considerable innovations, often concerning environmental issues. Building on the example of the Brazilian city of Curitiba, which boasts a pioneering bus system which gives buses a monopoly over the road (later christened ‘bus rapid transit’), local environmental issues have gradually moved higher up the priority list for urban leaders in Latin America. In the 1990s, the flag was taken up by Bogotá, which extended its existing cycle networks, imposed restrictions on car use, implemented its own ‘bus rapid transit’ known as ‘transmilenio’, and established an annual ‘day without car’.

Such policies, which built on the previous mayors´ successes in balancing budgets and building a civic culture, led to Bogotá ‘s transformation from being one of the most chaotic and dangerous cities in the world to a model of urban governance. The various policies linked to the city´s transformation have been credited with achieving substantial co-benefits ranging from reduced road accidents, cleaner air, enhanced mobility and better community relations . Today, as recent articles in the Guardian have pointed out, major Latin American cities like Mexico City and Bogotá, which are generally assumed to be chaotic and disorganised, are actually streets ahead of many wealthier cities such as London when it comes to encouraging cycling.

Yet the increasing mainstreaming of environmental issues in Latin America´s urban governance did not come about under pressure from northern environmentalists, or from a desire to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, it came from the realisation that key social and environmental issues are, at the local level at least, intimately connected in a variety of ways. Innovative leaders such as Enrique Peñalosa, Mayor of Bogotá from 1998 to 2001, realised that the planning behind many developing country cities had been fundamentally aimed at the interests of a rich minority, to the detriment of the poor. Too often cities were built in ways that encouraged excessive car use to the detriment of the poor who had to bear the brunt of the contaminated air, inadequate public transport and degraded public space. In this context, reasoned Peñalosa, the most democratic thing a governor could do would be to restrict the ability of the wealthy to pollute at the expense of the poor, whilst simultaneously investing in public transport and space.

In implementing their policies, urban leaders like Peñalosa shattered taboos that, tragically, continue to stifle debates over environmental issues even in many developed countries. They demonstrated that innovative, courageous leaders can make the case that private rights should not ride roughshod over the public good, that leaders can convince citizens to make necessary behavioural changes, and that ‘green’ policies can enhance, rather than inhibit, living standards.

Now, some Latin American urban leaders are extending the concept, and making a leap from local social and environmental issues to global ones. Mexico City, which boasts twice the population of London, has committed itself to investing $1 billion a year in a 15-year ‘Green Plan’. Whilst including many of the tried and tested local innovations which have proven successful in Curitiba and Bogotá, the plan also promises a reduction in carbon emissions of 7 million tonnes (12 per cent) between 2008 and 2012, mainly through energy efficiency provisions and installing solar water heating in public buildings. At the global level, Mexico City is a leading member of the C40 coalition of developed and developing country cities committed to reducing urban carbon footprint, and will host the World Mayor's Council on Climate Change, a week before the climate change conference in Cancún.

The impressive thing about the Green Plan is the way it links up social issues such as mobility, public health and public space with both local environmental issues (air pollution, water exhaustion) and the global issue of climate change. It includes mitigating (avoiding the unmanageable) and adapting to (managing the unavoidable) climate change, with massive investments in water treatment and recovery systems plus demand management policies, which will be crucial in an area where climate change is likely to accentuate water scarcity. The embracing of both mitigation and adaptation reflects the reality that whilst the majority of inhabitants of middle income countries like Mexico continue to be poor, low-emitting citizens who are likely to be vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such countries also have sectors of wealthy people whose carbon footprints rival those of their counterparts in New York or London.

Now, Mexico City´s mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, has called for urban leaders to have a place at the main negotiating table when national governments and multilateral institutions try to hammer out a global climate agreement in Cancún. After all, regardless of what targets are set, it will often be urban leaders who have to administer the changes required to meet them. Moreover, whilst developing- country cities clearly have a more limited responsibility for mitigating emissions than their developed country counterparts, making even symbolic cuts could be used as a powerful tool to pressure for change in the developed world.

So can Latin America´s urban innovations in local environmental management be used as a foundation upon which to solve the greatest environmental problem of all?