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FEATURE STORY

Megacities: what does the future hold?

September 18, 2013

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Public and private institutions are gradually becoming aware of the need to build a sustainable future for today’s cities
  • The challenges: reduce pollution, decrease traffic jams and introduce new technologies in transportation and health
  • To this end, public-private agreements play a key role since they enable linking innovation with its social application.

Imagine for a moment a megacity of the future: flying cars; intelligent houses where lights can be turned on with a simple snap of the fingers; wide, clean streets with no traffic; disease just a distant memory…

Now take a look around you: rivers of cars polluting the air; unsafe neighborhoods; many narrow, poorly-maintained streets. Nothing could be further from that idyllic future. The reality in Latin America – and in the rest of the world – is far removed from those ideal scenarios, but public and private institutions are gradually becoming aware of the need to build a sustainable future for today’s cities. This will enable more comfortable, ‘greener’ transport, thereby improving the quality of life and health of citizens.

Given that 80% of Latin Americans –in other words, over 400 million people – live in cities, the challenges are already apparent: reduce pollution, decrease traffic jams and introduce new technologies in transportation and health.

These are some of the conclusions of a group of experts who met in Buenos Aires at a recent conference on megacities, where discussions centered on cable cars and electric buses rather than flying cars. These electric modes of transport are more efficient and less polluting and noisy. Electric transport saves 30% in energy costs and does not produce carbon emissions. The ultimate goal is to make cities more livable and to help make the planet more sustainable.

“For the development of cities, a strategic vision is required and the needs of each city and the desires of their citizens must be known. To this end, the new technologies can favor more efficient modes of transport, without affecting public spaces,” said Verónica Raffo, a World Bank transportation expert.

Some Latin American cities are taking the lead. Rio de Janeiro has a cable car that safely connects residents of the Complexo de Alemao shantytown with the rest of the city in just 16 minutes. Buenos Aires residents use the free Ecobici bike exchange system to make around 5,000 trips each day.

Open Quotes

For the development of cities, a strategic vision is required and the needs of each city and the desires of their citizens must be known Close Quotes

Verónica Raffo
World Bank transportation expert

Public-private agreements to promote innovation

Experts agree that the different modes of transport should complement rather than compete with one another and should be adapted to the specific needs of the cities. To this end, public-private agreements play a key role since they enable linking innovation with its social application.

Although it is no easy task to transport of the 9 million inhabitants of Bogota, the 20 million of Mexico City or the 19 million of Sao Paolo, there is potential for improvement.

“In a city like Buenos Aires, cars are at a standstill 75% of the time,” said Verónica Paginez, Business Innovation Manager at Mercedes-Benz Argentina. “90% of vehicles that circulate in the city are transporting a single individual. In this scenario, we must seek innovative solutions although there is no one answer.”

Health: the big challenge for megacities

Besides transport, health is another pressing problem in megacities. The concentration of the population in major urban centers implies largely sedentary lifestyles and social environments that present health risks – from poor water and air quality to noise pollution and infectious diseases.

“Half of humanity lives in urban areas,” says Luis Pérez, a World Bank health expert. “Megacities have a strategic importance at the global level, for which reason health problems are a global issue. Clear examples include HIV, the H1N1 virus, radiation exposure in Hiroshima and the effects of natural disasters.”

Infectious disease, environmental contamination and chronic illness caused by lifestyle choices (sedentary lifestyles or tobacco and alcohol use, for example) are the main threats to health in megacities. Smoking, for example, kills 5.6 million people every year, according to the World Health Organization.

However, technology is also advancing rapidly in this area. “Health systems are already adapting to these new times,” says Dr. Luis Carnigia,Director of Institutional Affairs at Garrahan Hospital in Argentina. “Medical procedures are now more efficient and less expensive, thanks to long-distance consultations, telefax and teleconferencing. These are new tools adapted to new lifestyles.”