January 12, 2007

Latin American Cities Answer Poverty, Sprawl With Ecological Innovation

22. logo_washpost

My mom would rush out with whatever bottles, jars and newspapers she had saved and exchange them for a few pesos with those Bogotános who eked out an existence in repurposed trash.  I didn’t think much about it then but I realize now that this type of recycling was an adaptation, an innovation if you will, born from urbanization and poverty.

Now, some 30 years later, these same circumstances writ large across the globe are demanding unprecedented innovations. Sometime next year the majority of the world’s population will live in cities.

Some of the most aggressive responses to the challenges of urbanization are coming out of Latin America, a new report from the Worldwatch Institute suggests. “State of the World 2007: Our Urban Future,” reveals Latin America as a “fascinating region that is inspiring imitation worldwide,” according to Molly O’Meara Sheehan, the report’s project director.

Not long ago, Loja, Ecuador, was a city afflicted by deforestation, pollution and uncontrollable sprawl. In the last decade, under the leadership of mayor Jose Bolivar Castillo, Loja has managed to transform itself into an “ecological and healthy city.” Loja makes some serious demands on its citizens with tough land use and environmental protection policies.

Among other things, the city requires developers to set aside 20 percent of the land for public space. The resulting parks and green spaces have improved water management and public health.

Loja’s recycling program has an amazing 95 percent compliance rate while recycling “all organic waste and over 50 percent of the inorganic waste,” according to the report. This is not achieved with polite reminders to recycle printed on cans and bottles or mere five-cent return deposits. The city will ultimately shut off your water if you don’t comply.

Northeast of Loja, Bogotá, the urban capital of more than 7 million people, has been waging “the world’s most aggressive campaign to recapture public space from private automobile users,” according to Walter Hook of the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

Bogotá, under then-mayor Enrique Penalosa, seized traffic lanes in major thoroughfares in the city for its bus rapid-transit system. The TransMilenio, modeled after a system developed in Curitiba, Brazil, in 1974, now transports 53,000 passengers per direction per hour, comparable to some of the world’s largest metro rail systems.

Today Bogotános can cover in 30 minutes the same distance that used to take them an hour or more. Public space has also been transformed into new parks, pedestrian-only streets and miles of dedicated bike lanes that used to be the domain of automobiles.

Some of these innovations may in fact be coming to a city near you. Both Bogotá‘s and Curitiba’s systems have been studied by cities throughout the world. The new TransJakarta system in Indonesia’s capital is a direct replica of Bogotá‘s TransMilenio. And Los Angeles, the city known as much for traffic congestion as for Hollywood, has been developing its own system following the Brazilian example.

In describing all the physical changes—the green spaces, the recycling programs and the transportation systems—the report leaves you with the impression that there are civic leaders willing to fight urban blight and take on problems that are virtually ignored by lethargic national governments.

They are not unlike the leaders in over 300 U.S. cities who have committed to reduce carbon emissions, even as the federal government blocks global agreements and other national responses to climate change.

These leaders see their cities as a source for solutions. Just as Curitiba’s former mayor Jaime Lerner did when, in the 1970s, he pushed for innovations that are still worthy models today. Thus he continues to defy, as he wrote in a foreword to the Worldwatch Institute’s report, those who think of cities as “hopeless places where a person cannot breathe, move, or live properly.”

Perhaps too these innovations signal a democratization of quality of life, a realization that a happy life is not exclusive to a certain class but can be a reality to those most deprived—many of whom live now in urban centers. Cities may in fact exacerbate poverty but at the very least they can provide, as Bogotá‘s Penalosa likes to say, public places where “everybody meets as equals.”

Marcela Sanchez’s e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.


Sign up for updates on our projects, events and publications.