Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative | Latin America & Carribean

Urbanization is occurring at a rapid pace in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). Already the second-most urbanized region on the planet, LAC has gone from a 62% urbanization rate in 1980 to 81% in 2011 and is expected to reach 89% by 2050. This process happened in a disorderly manner and without adequate planning, creating daunting challenges, especially by causing carbon-intensive urban sprawl and placing the urban poor in marginalized areas most vulnerable to disaster risk and climate change. The Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative (ESCI) seeks to address these challenges by developing planning tools like greenhouse gas inventories and risk maps as well as action plans to put cities in Latin America and the Caribbean on a sustainable pathway that includes low -carbon, climate-resilient development.

Twenty-six per cent of the urban population in LAC lives in poverty or extreme poverty and nearly one in four people lives in slums. It is estimated that 66% of the poor in Latin America reside in urban areas. By taking a multi-sectoral approach, ESCI not only seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and vulnerability, but also to create other social, environmental, and economic benefits, thus improving the lives of citizens and especially the urban poor.

Key facts

  • Over 50 million people live in the 55 cities where the initiative is active. More than 10 million of these people are poor.
  • 30 ESCI cities have developed action plans that include activities to reduce their carbon footprint and vulnerability to climate change.
  • 28 ESCI cities have developed climate vulnerability assessments, greenhouse gas mitigation studies, and urban growth scenarios.
  • Many of the climate-relevant projects proposed in the action plans are already underway in ESCI cities, including upgrading storm drainage networks, expanding bus rapid transit systems, creating green corridors for storm water retention, and creating control systems that help reduce flood risk.

The challenge

Although the big metropolises in Latin America and the Caribbean house the largest concentrations of national populations and wealth, these mega cities are no longer those with the highest growth rates. The region’s urban population and economic growth is increasingly taking place in intermediate-sized cities, whose urban footprints are expanding in size exponentially. This rapid and chaotic pattern of urbanization is creating considerable challenges for the municipalities in the region.

Intermediate-sized cities in LAC are becoming important poles of investment and economic growth, representing 25% of the region’s GDP and expected to reach 40% by 2030. However, they continue to have high proportions of their population living in poverty, limited governance and an enduring scarcity of financial resources, which hinders their capacity to deal with the complex urban challenges they confront. The adverse effects of climate change are expected to further aggravate these challenges. To date, 55 of the 242 emerging cities in the region have joined the ESCI network, and more are expected to follow.

The solution

As a response to the challenges of climate change and rapid urbanization, the Inter-American Development Bank launched the Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative to support sustainable development in medium-sized cities facing high growth rates. Considering urban planning as a key tool to tackle climate change, ESCI seeks to build greater capacity in Latin American and Caribbean cities to improve the quality of life of their citizens, to reduce their carbon footprint, and to increase their resilience. This helps partner cities to identify and prioritize the challenges they face and to determine adequate solutions. By working currently with 55 cities across the region, the initiative reaches a total of over 50 million people, more than 10 million of which are poor.

Through a rigorous assessment in dialogue with its local partners, ESCI identifies and prioritizes key issues that the cities face on their path to sustainability and helps them develop action plans with a project pipeline to promote social inclusion, resilience, efficient use of urban assets and environmental resources, and a prosperous economy. Since many of the challenges these cities face are exacerbated by urban inequality and social vulnerability, action plans take inequality and the needs of the poor into particular consideration.

By incorporating indicators and climate change studies in its methodology, ESCI helps mainstream climate change into city planning in Latin America and the Caribbean. The initial indicator assessment covers corresponding key metrics for mitigation and adaptation and also assesses related issues like energy efficiency and disaster risk management into account. The challenges are analyzed in further detail through a set of studies that includes an assessment of the city’s carbon footprint and the creation of disaster risk maps that take into account climate change. The findings are linked to urban growth scenarios, thus allowing local decision-makers to better understand the future impact of current policies and regulations. Local stakeholders, including civil society, are consulted throughout the process.

Helping people

The Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative supports local efforts to improve the quality of life of citizens, focusing particularly on the urban poor.

For example, an upgrade of the public transport system in La Paz, Mexico, provides cleaner, more efficient and comfortable buses for up to 50,000 people per day. Street improvements in Mar del Plata, Argentina, have enhanced walkability for more than 13,000 pedestrians every day. Urban rehabilitation plans in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and in Panama City, Panama, will make a real difference for the environment, citizen health, and quality of life.

The action plan of Managua, Nicaragua, includes a program for upgrading poor neighbourhoods and new social housing. Public transport and storm water drainage improvements planned for Managua will benefit urban poor neighbourhoods.

Spillover effect

The methodology of the Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative is designed to be scalable and replicable throughout the region, and can thus be implemented by any municipality, group of municipalities, or provincial government. National finance institutions, such as Caixa Economica Federal in Brazil, Financiera de Desarrollo Territorial (FINDETER) in Colombia, and the National Bank of Public Infrastructure and Services (BANOBRAS) in Mexico, are expanding ESCI’s scope nationally in these three countries with their own resources. Civil society is strengthened by getting non-governmental organizations, universities, and research institutes involved in monitoring the implementation of the action plans. The initiative is open to requests for support from local and national governments alike.

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