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Green space, public participation, energy efficiency, carbon reduction, public transportation, improved governance... in bits and pieces, city governments are taking on the multifaceted challenges of becoming sustainable. But what do these mean in practice, and who's doing it well? With the possible exception of Curitiba, Brazil, no single city has succeeded in adopting all the different policy areas often subsumed under the term "sustainable cities."

Given the novelty of the concept and the inevitable need for any elected mayor to make policy choices, that is to be expected. How could a city government simultaneously tackle such ambitious areas as reducing carbon emissions, improving city governance and efficiency, reducing traffic congestion, and upgrading public transportation--not to mention expanding green space, increasing protection from natural disasters, improving security, and many of the other things often lumped into "sustainable cities" by advocates and citizens--in just a few years?

Explore how cities are handling these challenges by clicking the topic boxes in the illustration below.

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governance

governance

Nashville, U.S.: To facilitate the permit process for business, construction and homeowners, the metro government has created one-stop-shop offices and an online platform that contain 87% of the necessary permit forms and procedures in one office complex and on a single website.

Montevideo, Uruguay: The majority of national governments in the region have adopted freedom of information laws. The city of Montevideo, though, has gone one step further by creating an open government data portal and platform that formats the information to make it more user- and Internet-friendly.

Santiago, Chile: According to 2012 public opinion surveys, Santiago has the highest levels of citizen trust in local government across 18 countries.4

water

water management

governance

Mexico City, Mexico: To ensure water security, the city created the Isla Urbana project to harvest rainwater in medium- and low-income areas. By 2010, the project had installed 110 units collecting more than 4,165,000 liters of water.

Grenada: The country is implementing a ground breaking flood mitigation project to assist residents and owners of businesses located in the lower reaches of Grenada's St. Mark's River. The program includes water dredging, slope protection and reconstruction, and waterfront construction, and is expected to be completed this year.

Cuenca, Ecuador: In 2009, an international association of water engineers rated the city's drinking water the best in Latin America, reporting that it was better than 90% of municipal water in the U.S. As a result, 9.5% of Cuenca households use bottled water, while the national average is 30.21%.

transportation

transportation

governance

Bogota, Colombia: The city's heralded TransMilenio bus system has shortened commuting time for its riders by 32%, lowered traffic fatalities by 89% and reduced carbon emissions by 300,000 tons annually.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Plans to expand the city's network of bike paths by the end of 2013 will give this Argentine capital the densest network of cycling infrastructure in the region, with hopes to have 5% of commuters taking their bikes to and from work and school.

Curitiba, Brazil: The first and most famous of the region's bus rapid transit (BRT) systems, Curitiba's Rede Integrada de Transporte (Integrated Transport Network) has increased bus transit by 400% in 20 years.

citizen

citizen engagement

governance

Toronto, Canada: Since 2001, the public housing authority has set aside $9 million a year for tenants to discuss and allocate for local infrastructure and building upgrades.

Rosario, Argentina: The city allows neighborhood assemblies to develop proposals to spend $8 million of the city budget on capital projects and services. The overall environment of citizen engagement is helped by a local NGO, Njambre, that supports market-based initiatives to address social needs and the Red Argentina de Municipios Frente al Cambio Climatico (Network of Argentine Municipalities Facing Climate Change).

Belo Horizonte, Brazil: The Nossa Belo Horizonte association and the AVINA Foundation created a participatory process with the city to develop a multi-year plan.

La Paz, Bolivia: According to 2012 public opinion surveys, this capital city has the highest rate of citizen participation in community improvement committees and associations.1

waste

waste management & recycling

governance

Mexico City, Mexico: To ensure water security, the city created the Isla Urbana project to harvest rainwater in medium- and low-income areas. By 2010, the project had installed 110 units collecting more than 4,165,000 liters of water.

Grenada: The country is implementing a ground breaking flood mitigation project to assist residents and owners of businesses located in the lower reaches of Grenada's St. Mark's River. The program includes water dredging, slope protection and reconstruction, and waterfront construction, and is expected to be completed this year.

Cuenca, Ecuador: In 2009, an international association of water engineers rated the city's drinking water the best in Latin America, reporting that it was better than 90% of municipal water in the U.S. As a result, 9.5% of Cuenca households use bottled water, while the national average is 30.21%.

energy

energy efficiency

governance

Belo Horizonte, Brazil: The city's Mineirao soccer stadium, built in the 1965, has been equipped with a solar-powered roof in preparation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The 1.4MW solar unit will feed energy directly into the grid, rather than being used only for the stadium.

New York City, U.S.: Part of the city's program of sustainable growth, PlaNYC, the city government approved the Greener, Greater Building Plan that requires an annual benchmarking of energy and water use by buildings and a retrofitting every 10 years to meet those reduction targets. That's no small change when 75% of the city's greenhouse gas emissions come from energy use in buildings.

emissions

reducing CO2 emissions

governance

Mexico City, Mexico: While Mexico City still performs poorly compared to other cities in the region for levels of the three air pollutants--nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter--it has made impressive reductions of these and other pollutants in the air since the 1990s. By 2002, airborne lead was no longer an issue, and the average level of sulfur dioxide was one-sixth that of the early 1990s.

Vancouver, Canada: The city with the lowest level of CO2 emissions in Canada and the second-lowest in the Americas, Vancouver is the greenest city in Canada and the second-greenest in North America after San Francisco. And it is close to achieving its objective of becoming the greenest city in the world by 2020.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: In 2011, the city passed a law setting a target to reduce its greenhouse gas by 20% by 2020, based on 2005 levels.

green

affordable, green housing

governance

Mexico City, Mexico: A federal housing finance scheme started in 2007 by the Instituto del Fondo Nacional de la Vivienda para los Trabajadores (Institute for the National Workers' Housing Fund--INFONAVIT) encourages the use of energy-efficient systems and technologies in low-income households. Families purchasing homes with INFONAVIT are given an additional "green" mortgage (a credit on top of the actual mortgage credit) to build or (after 2012) retrofit houses with green, energy-saving technology.

São Paulo, Brazil: In 2009, the Brazilian federal government launched Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life) to build 3 million homes for low-income families in just five years. Developers can also receive a subsidy to provide and install solar water heaters.

space

public space

governance

Vancouver, Canada: The city has more than 220 parks that make up 11% of Vancouver's land mass for its less than 700,000 inhabitants.

Santiago, Chile: To increase its green spaces, Santiago plans to have private developers transform 15 square miles (3,900 hectares) of the city into public parks and green spaces in exchange for accessing another 22 square miles (5,700 hectares) for building development.

Quito, Ecuador: In 2001, Quito created its Forestation and Reforestation Project, and by 2008, the program had led to the planting of about 6 million trees, mostly native species.

San Francisco, U.S.: According to the Trust for Public Land, San Francisco spends the most on its parks per resident ($281 per) in the U.S. and is second in park land as a percentage of city area (17.9%). In the latter, New York City is first, at 19.7 percent.

security

security

governance

Mexico City, Mexico: You wouldn't know it from the headlines, but Mexico's Distrito Federal is the safest big city south of the United States, with just 8.4 homicides per 100,000 residents (compared to 10.8 in São Paulo and 17.4 in Bogota).

Panama City, Panama: According to 2012 public opinion surveys, citizens here report the lowest rates of being a victim of crime (robbery, burglary, fraud, and the like) across 18 countries in the hemisphere.2

Florianopolis, Brazil: An annual comparison of crime rates in 23 cities reveals this southern coastal city in Brazil to be one of the safest and most crime free in Latin America.3

Cuenca, Ecuador:

In 2009, an international association of water engineers rated the city's drinking water the best in Latin America, reporting that it was better than 90% of municipal water in the U.S.

Vancouver, Canada:

With the lowest level of CO2 emissions in Canada, Vancouver is Canada's greenest city, and the second greenest in North America after San Francisco.

Mexico City, Mexico:

You wouldn't know it from the headlines, but Mexico City is the safest big city south of the United States, with just 8.4 homicides per 100,000 residents. (Compared to 10.8 in São Paulo and 17.4 in Bogota.)
governance

governance

Nashville, U.S.
Montevideo, Uruguay
Santiago, Chile

water

water
management

Mexico City, Mexico
Grenada
Cuenca, Ecuador;

citizen
engagement

citizen

Toronto, Canada
Rosario, Argentina
Belo Horizonte, Brazil
La Paz, Bolivia

energy

energy
efficiency

Belo Horizonte, Brazil
New York City, U.S.

emissions

reducing CO2
emissions

Mexico City, Mexico
Vancouver, Canada
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

green

affordable,
green housing

Mexico City, Mexico
São Paulo, Brazil

transportation

transportation

Bogota, Colombia
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Curitiba, Brazil

space

public space

Vancouver, Canada
Santiago, Chile
Quito, Ecuador
San Francisco, U.S

waste

waste management & recycling

Toronto, Canada
Belo Horizonte, Brazil
Puebla, Mexico

security

security

Mexico City, Mexico
Panama City, Panama
Florianopolis, Brazil

Explore how cities are handling these challenges by clicking the topic boxes in the illustration above.

1-2 Results analyzed by Matthew Layton based on 18 cities in the hemisphere and draw on the 2012 AmericasBarometer by LAPOP.
3 "Latin America Security Index," FTI Consulting, http://www.fticonsulting.com/global2 media/collateral/united-states/fti-journal-latin-america-security.pdf.
4 Layton, 2012 AmericasBarometer by LAPOP.

Illustration by Kopp Illustration