On the Edge of the Future
What are some of the world’s poorest cities getting right, and what can they teach us?
By Emily Gertz
This is the era of the Urban Majority: the first time in human history when most of us live in cities.
In some ways it’s a troubling moment. With the world’s population headed for 9 billion-plus by 2050, many cities in the global North are trying to confront decades of neglecting basic infrastructure. The United States alone could spend $2.2 trillion in the next five years on existing urban water, sewage and transportation systems, and would achieve only a basic level of repair.
Meanwhile, billions of people in the cities of the global South have never had clean drinking water and effective sanitation.
It’s also a hopeful, exciting moment thanks to a growing recognition that the metropolis doesn’t have to be nature’s enemy. Energy-efficient city living is crucial to curbing global warming. Increased urban density will help preserve open spaces, wilderness and wildlife, while making the most of limited resources like timber, clean water and farmland.
In the current global economic reckoning, the cities of the North could learn from the “disadvantaged” cities of the South—that it’s possible to do a lot of social, economic and environmental good with very, very little.
For six straight months, from December 1997 to June 1998, intense El Niño rains drenched Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador. The steep hills overlooking the Pacific coast city melted into devastating mudslides. Houses were crushed, roads buried and bridges destroyed. The city was cut off from the rest of the country for weeks, and some 5,000 of its 25,000 residents were left homeless.
Then, that August, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake shook more than 200 buildings into rubble.
The dual disasters prompted the resort town to reconsider its relationship to the surrounding environment. In 1999, Bahía de Caráquez declared itself an “eco-city,” vowing to rebuild according to principles of bioregionalism and sustainable development.
That year the city’s mayor invited Peter Berg, founder of the San Francisco-based Planet Drum Foundation, to advise and educate the community on the eco-city plan. In 2000, Planet Drum partnered with the local Eco-Bahía Learning Center to work with the city’s different communities. The foundation has had a presence there ever since.
“We decided that the longest-term project was to revegetate hillsides that were severely eroded [in the mudslides],” says Berg, “to control erosion and recreate food sources, native plants, fruits, cattle fodder, habitat for wild species, and to start recreating natural systems.”
El Niño washed the hillsides of the María Auxiliadora barrio clean—right down to the clay subsoil (16 people died in one such landslide). On the “if it will work here, it will work anywhere” theory, Berg and his colleagues decided this was the place to start replanting trees.
These efforts have relied heavily on volunteer energy. On the first day of tree planting in María Auxiliadora, in January 2001, around 20 men and a passel of children from the barrio showed up. Together with Planet Drum and Eco-Bahía staff, they planted six-odd acres of barren hillside with 500 seedlings indigenous to Ecuador’s dry, neotropical forests.
Eight years later, the area is known as the “forest in the midst of the ruins.”
“Today the trees are 65 feet tall. You can’t tell it was replanted,” says Berg. The patch of urban forest has become self-propagating, reproducing amazing habitat. “You’re seeing animals previously declared extinct in the region.”
The barrio residents continue to maintain the wild park. In recent years, they’ve sought to improve its potential as an educational and tourist enterprise.
And Bahía de Caráquez has developed plans for green projects ranging from renewable energy systems to artificial wetlands for sewage filtration.
The Planet Drum Foundation remains involved in pursuing the city’s vision for ecologically sound renewal. The revegetation project appears to be its most successful effort to date: Approximately 50 areas have been replanted with 300 to 500 seedlings each.
Unfortunately, many of the city’s ambitions have been stymied by Ecuador’s struggling economy and endemic poverty, says Berg. “The bloom went off the rose about five years into the eco-city movement, when people felt they weren’t going to get any return on the labor they were putting into it. … Job creation is an absolute necessity.”
Berg hopes to recruit more volunteers to Bahía de Caráquez, particularly students interested in bioregional development and reforestation. “[We’re] making models for carrying out erosion prevention in different kinds of sites. But it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed in the region.”
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Last modified on January 23, 2012