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New Report: Latin American Green City Index
Photo by Ariel Cruz Pizarro.

Line 4 of Santiago's Metro. Photo by Ariel Cruz Pizarro.

The Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) of the news magazine The Economist and Siemens released a Latin American Green City Index measuring sustainability of 17 key cities in the region. EIU is a prominent research and intelligence firm that delivers business and intelligence to more than 1.5 million decision-makers from global companies, financial institutions, governments and universities. This new report is likely to be highly influential.

The United Nations says Latin America is the most urbanized region of the world with 81 percent of people living in cities compared to 40 percent globally. This study was conducted specifically to focus on urban environmental issues, both best practices and environmental concerns that that have resulted from a lack of environmental governance, rapid urbanization and degraded infrastructue. The report highlights best practices and its analysis is a sort of “state of the environment” for cities in order to help them learn from one another. The report includes a detailed analysis of Curitiba, ranked first overall for its efforts in sustainable transport. The iconic city was recently featured at a film screening and panel discussion hosted by EMBARQ (the producer of this blog) and became the headquarters of the newly launched Latin American Association for Bus Rapid Transit and Integrated Transport Systems.

Cities in the index were picked based on a few factors: available data, size, and economic and political importance. Some findings may appear contradictory depending on the experience of residents, visitors or people working in the transport field:

Residents’ environmental perceptions, unsurprisingly, tend to focus on issues that are highly problematic and visible, such as traffic congestion, uncollected waste, or polluted air or rivers. The Index, on the other hand, measures environmental performance across eight categories — energy and CO2, land use and buildings, transport, waste, water, sanitation, air quality and environmental governance — and gives equal weighting to each. The Index also evaluates policies, which are a reflection of cities’ commitment to reducing their future environmental impact.

The report is extensive but you can easily browse through and find the case studies that interest you.  Those working on the study include researchers and experts in international urban sustainability from places like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), International Institute for Environment and Development, CITYNET and The World Bank.

Another surprising and optimistic finding in the report was that there is no clear relationship between overall environmental performance as analyzed in the Index and city income, defined as average GDP per capita. These findings are in contrast to similar analyses in Asia and the EU.

Graph from Latin American Cities Index.

Graph from Latin American Cities Index.

City Highlights

In terms of transit, the report highlights bus rapid transit, specifically, which makes sense given that the birth of this system was in Latin America. For transport, Santiago ranks “well above average.” Cities that are “above average” include Bogotá, Curitiba, Mexico City, Quito, and São Paulo.  Santiago’s “well above average” ranking in transport is probably because of its use of congestion pricing, says Erik Weber of EMBARQ.  He also adds, “I’m glad to see that BRT was given its due despite the report being sponsored by perennial rail-car manufacturing heavyweight Siemens.” The only city ranked as well below average was Brazil’s clogged, car-dependent capital, Brasilia.

Even though Curitiba was the birthplace of BRT and the home of Brazil’s first pedestrian-only street, the city achieved its ranking as the top city for air quality and waste. According to the report, “Since 2009, for example, the city’s environmental authority has been conducting an ongoing study on the CO2 absorption rate in Curitiba’s green spaces, as well as evaluating total CO2 emissions in the city.”  The city has also been working to move people from informal settlements and slums to low-income housing where sanitation infrastructure like water and waste collection are easier to supply. Curitiba also achieves such distinction for its holistic approach to the environment. As early as the 1960s, “city officials implemented proposals to reduce urban sprawl, create pedestrian areas, and provide effective, low-cost rapid transit.”

The report also notes that five of the six cities that were ranked well above average were Brazilian cities. They achieved this ranking largely because of sound environmental governance for policies like climate change action plans, water and air quality and land use regulations.

Still Taking to the Road

Of transit more generally, the report highlights the fact that many Latin American cities have successfully set up extensive public transit systems, however, they have not necessarily gotten the people who can afford and choose to drive out of their cars, calling the region deeply entrenched in the culture of individual transportation.  Plus, policies to encourage the use of public transit are rare, save for Santiago. Only two cities have park-and-ride schemes, none have carpool lanes. The number of vehicles per capita increases with per capita income, regardless of the extent and breadth of the public transit network.

Transport Indicators

The methodology of the study was based on analysis of key indicators. For transport, the report looked at:

  • length of the mass transit network
  • stock of cars and motorcycles
  • urban mass transport policy (measure of a city’s efforts to create a viable mass transport system  as an alternative to private vehicles)
  • congestion reduction policy

The report is a really interesting window into the status of Latin American cities. The case studies are very readable and the other factors analyzed all integrally relate to building sustainable transportation.

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