Climate change impacts key parts of urban life, making climate resilience more important than ever. Rebecca Bertram looks at the Colombian city Medellín, exploring how smart climate resilience measures are boosting electric mobility and making it an example for the rest of the Latin American continent.
Today, cities are home to more than half of the global population and account for more than 70 percent of global carbon emissions. By the middle of this century, estimates suggest that more than 7 billion people will be living in cities. This will have a staggering effect on demand for transportation, water and energy. As such, cities find themselves at the forefront of the climate crisis and are increasingly turning their attention to developing resilience programs. In Latin America, Medellín is a front runner in the urgent race to adapt.
Medellín is the second-largest city in Colombia after Bogotá. Intensive urban heat resulting from half a century long rapid urban expansion led the city government to initiate its so-called green corridor project in 2016. Combatting rising temperatures and reducing dangerous local air pollution were the key objectives of this initiative. Medellín’s residents faced an increasingly serious health problems due to air pollution from transport. The plan was simple: a set of interconnected networks of green space across the city was meant to reduce the overall heat in the city and soak up air pollution and carbon emissions. The results are clear for all to see: Within a short time, 18 main roads, 12 waterways and 124 parks have been connected by green vegetation leading to a staggering 2 degrees cooling effect across the city. In total, almost 1 million trees and more than 2.5 million smaller plants have been planted throughout Medellín at a cost of USD 16.3 million with an additional cost of USD 625,000 in annual upkeep.
The direct effects on Medellín’s residents have been very positive. The investments have not just resulted in lower temperatures across the city but have also improved the overall quality of life in the city. Cleaner air and green space have encouraged residents to do more physical activity and take greater pride in their city’s overall development. The green corridor project has also proved a powerful tool for the city government to push other important sustainable goals as well. When the green corridors were first approved, air pollution in the city was at a record high, and residents were asked to stay inside several days a week to avoid respiratory problems. Thanks to the green corridors, they can keep going outside.
The direct benefit to people’s daily lives has allowed the city government to push through other green policies and programs on more inclusive and sustainable transport options in the city, triggering an overall support for sustainability programs among residents. This is an important aspect since residents have a say in where some of the public funds are being spent. In recent years, city dwellers and the local government have therefore been able to push electric mobility across the city by replacing diesel-run public buses with electric ones. In fact, Medellín’s ambitious goal is to become Latin America’s leading city in electric mobility by 2030.
A key focus here is to green and extend public transport options, reducing air pollution and carbon emissions in the city. As such, more than 500 public buses have been retrofitted with electric engines, reducing carbon emissions by more than 4000 tons and diesel particulates in the air by 5.4 tons. The business community has also had to contribute and offer new mobility options to their employees. All public and private companies – including universities – that have more than 200 employees are required to develop a so-called Sustainable Mobility Plan for their company that lays out plans to help boost air quality and ease traffic problems in the city. Options for employees include home office, flexible working hours and carpooling to reduce fuel consumption.
The example of Medellín’s green corridors is a hopeful one. Not only does it show that green policies have a direct impact on people’s lives at a relatively low cost but it also sets the stage for more sustainable policies to come. Other green policies, such as building the public transport system to become more inclusive and sustainable as well as meeting ambitious electric mobility targets did not face significant public opposition. Yet perhaps most of all, the Medellín case serves as a reminder that cities in the Global South, which generally struggle to integrate sustainability into urban development, can emerge as regional and international trend setters. Other Latin American cities have taken note and are following suit, including Bogotá, Monterrey and Rio de Janeiro to name a few. Stay tuned for where their journey takes us!