Petropolis to Ecopolis: Can Emerging Cities Become Sustainable?

Cities in emerging economies face massive huge hurdles in the struggle to reach their full potential.  Perhaps the central problem many face is successfully absorbing a rapidly expanding population as people continue to migrate from the countryside, but without becoming overcrowded dystopias.

Urban areas in emerging and developed economies also face extremes of poverty, pollution, waste and increasingly the malign effects of global warming such as flooding, at times it must seem that these are insurmountable challenges, but around the world cities and towns have been successful at finding at least part solutions to these problems.

As someone who has spent a lot of time in emerging economies I realise that getting cities “right” is key to our future, the best cities are intense concentrations of humanity which produce the world’s leading businesses, art and ideas and to live in them gives you a constant sense of excitement and wonder. Who cannot fail to feel that tingle of excitement as they enter one of the globe’s major cities for the first time? Just as I have when first experiencing cities like Shanghai, Delhi or Saigon.

However while even the most unpleasant cities on earth can provide that buzz, they can also make life extremely uncomfortable for its inhabitants. Adapting the world’s most unhabitable and unpleasant cities to make them more liveable is clearly one of this century’s key  challenges.


Curitiba is proof that you don’t need huge budgets to change a city. Curitiba’s mayor Jaime Lerner started his tenure in the 1970’s and quickly decided that the city shouldn’t fall into the trap that other Brazilian cities had becoming increasingly dominated by cars with shanty towns around the edges along with soaring crime rates and widespread corruption.

Instead the mayor resisted developers and insisted on green spaces, so now there are 50 sq metres of parkland per inhabitant, making it Brazil’s greenest city. The innovative mayor pedestrianised major streets practically overnight to avoid objections by shopkeepers but in doing so revived the city centre. Again swimming against current trends he avoided building a costly underground system and instead invested in an innovative bus network.

Other schemes also developed, city dwellers can trade rubbish for tokens and cash in a scheme designed to help alleviate poverty and litter. While the city is far from perfect it does provide a superior environment to many other Brazilian cities which are beset by pollution, poverty and overcrowding.

Tianjin New City

Chinese urban dwellers have increasingly suffered from unchecked air and water pollution as well as chronic traffic problems and so it is no surprise that China took the lead in promoting the concept of a sustainable city, the result is the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city, as the name suggests it is joint venture between Singapore and China whose vision is to be “A thriving city which is socially harmonious, environmentally-friendly and resource-efficient – a model for sustainable development”.

This city was newly constructed close to Tianjin and was built with public transport, cycling and walking in mind. The city also has extensive vegetation and water to enhance the environment of the city. The success of the project is measured by 26 key performance indicators such as air quality, carbon emissions per unit of GDP, recycling rate, proportion of green trips and proportion of affordable public housing.

Compared to the majority of Chinese cities, Tianjin New City is in a different league in terms of liveability, the question is how can China emulate its approach in other new developments which will continue to grow as the mass migration from rural to urban areas continues.

The InterAmerican Development Bank

Another approach to sustainable cities has been taken by the Inter-American Development Bank – which works with established cities in Latin America and Caribbean on comprehensive action plans in an effort to make them more sustainable.

Cities like Nassau, Montego Bay and San Jose undergo a program which firstly involves a diagnostic that identifies the problems faced by the city, these are then prioritised and a plan is formulated to tackle them, studies are made and a monitoring system is designed, then finally the action plan is implemented which attempts to tackle the city’s economic, social and environmental problems head on in a co-ordinated manner. Like Tianjin key performance indicators are monitored such as:

  • Percentage of the population with access to wastewater collection.
  • Time required to obtain an initial business license.
  • Number of homicides for every 100,000 residents.

These are published and so the success (or not) of the program is transparent to everyone. These cities are all living examples of how the developing world has improved life for at least some of its inhabitants. In the next article I go into more depth on the future of sustainable cities and how they can adapt to existing and future challenges.

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