Rodolfo Lacy Tamayo
Undersecretary for Environmental Planning and Policy

Exploring the Building Blocks of Green Cities

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 16:14

A sustainable city’s design takes its environmental impact into consideration and aims to utilize resources efficiently and minimize its ecological footprint. Mexico’s recent reforms might open the door to such ideals, but, the country has to overcome the obstacles that come from urban sprawl, overpopulation, waste generation and poor urban planning.

SEMARNAT representatives describe Mexico City as an incredibly complex case. Originally, the city had an urban center and some suburbs connected to it as most of the economic, political and social activity took place there. Nowadays, the situation remains the same but urban sprawl has increased. For example, Santa Fe used to be a small borough and went on to become a financial and business center with restaurants, schools, hotels and residential areas. It was developed in a way that allowed people who live there to carry out their daily activities within the neighborhood. Originally, this was also the case for places such as Coyoacan and Azcapotzalco. However, it was only a matter of time before these independent towns succumbed to the city’s centralized dynamics.

A much larger problem, according to Rodolfo Lacy Tamayo, Undersecretary for Environmental Planning and Policy at SEMARNAT, arises when the economic activity of other cities, such as Toluca, Pachuca or Cuernavaca, intertwines with Mexico City, leading to interstate agglomeration. Previously, these cities were somewhat isolated and each one had its own dynamic, but they are now coming together to form a megalopolis. This situation suggests the need for a different approach in governance. A first step would involve seeking more integrated urban development, planned by several state governments in conjunction with federal authorities. “We need to achieve good ecological urban planning in order to reduce the population’s vulnerability, make better use of resources and improve the overall quality of life,” he explains, while adding that Acapulco is an example of how a city should not develop, becoming more susceptible to climate change related damage as it has.

Mexico is experiencing a commercial trend towards the use of LEED certification as the largest building leasing companies, which are transnational corporations, require these certificates. Lacy Tamayo highlights the need to extend this tendency to other sectors, such as residential and commercial areas, hotels, government buildings and even museums. The Mexican government recently released the non-mandatory norm NMX-AA-164 for sustainable buildings that will help establish a qualification system for domestic construction. Hopefully, this system will improve efficiency in buildings through the promotion of bioclimatic technologies that reduce the ecological footprint.

SEMARNAT has established land use regulations as part of its urban development plans. For instance, any new building on Paseo de la Reforma, one of Mexico City’s main avenues, must have LEED certification. This requirement is expected to contribute to the national standardization of green buildings. The high costs of sustainable buildings remain an issue, mainly because construction materials have not yet become standardized or widely available in Mexico. Lacy Tamayo believes this problem has to be addressed soon, since companies are speculating without guidance when choosing sustainable materials, which can be risky

The government’s efforts to broaden the use of green building techniques are evident, but the private sector will be in charge of implementing them. This calls for incentives to make sustainable construction attractive to the private sector. “The most important step to making this happen is to set industrial standards. For example, the government is establishing a standard for the quantity of megawatts per hour consumed per square meter each year,” Lacy Tamayo. “Setting this guideline will facilitate the quantifying of which projects and buildings are above or below expected consumption rates.”

Policies aimed at luring the private sector into establishing greener practices can also be seen in to residential projects. Parties who wish to obtain housing loans from the government need to be part of the Green Mortgage program, which demands several sustainable characteristics in the design of houses. This is one way for the government to encourage sustainable construction and standardize materials. Another crucial element in this shifting paradigm concerns the transfer of technology, as a significant amount of the equipment used in green buildings is not made in Mexico. “For example, the country does not have a local low-cost solar cell manufacturer, meaning that photovoltaic cells are mostly imported from China. Solar powered water heaters and geothermal heat pumps are also brought in from abroad,” says Lacy Tamayo, who highlights the need for institutional changes that would address this situation. Similar to what happened in the automotive industry, he proposes that solar cells sold in Mexico should have at least one of their components made here. “The point of a green economy is that the factory and the jobs involved are green. Using our money to buy foreign technology is not going to help us reach our sustainability objectives.” Another prominent environmental issue comes in the form of solid waste from urban centers, though this can also provide a solution in energy generation, as all waste streams have value. There are economies of scale involved in the process of using waste, and cities with a population exceeding half a million inhabitants have a better chance of implementing waste to energy projects. SEMARNAT is promoting a model of integrated urban waste management that will work well in medium-sized cities, although tests will also be carried out in smaller cities.

“The Constitution gives municipal governments the power to decide how they handle solid waste. This places waste to energy generation beyond the scope of CFE and the private sector, although their participation in these projects is sorely needed,” says Lacy Tamayo. “The main problem is that municipal governments have a three-year term, which leaves projects incomplete, since there is often little continuity between one administration and the next. This leads to the private sector refusing to participate, because there are no clear rules stating its role, leading to insecurity and fear of making a bad investment.” Lacy Tamayo believes a legal framework that offers greater certainty to private parties has to be created if Mexico wants to bolster waste to energy projects.

The private sector and specialized public organisms are highlighting shortcomings and lobbying for frameworks and policies that promote sustainability. “Although it may seem impossible to make major modifications to large cities such as Mexico City, it is important to test out new ideas in small towns and even disadvantaged neighborhoods. Once an idea demonstrates positive results, it can be implemented elsewhere, contributing to gradual change. Today, green cities are part of SEMARNAT’s agenda, which may yet surprise Mexico with its upcoming projects and proposals that are aimed at improving quality of life and environmental conditions at the same time,” concludes Lacy Tamayo.