While Latin American cities struggle with issues like air pollution and traffic, cities like Montevideo and Mexico City earn points for their entrepreneurial cultures.
With sprawling metro areas that struggle with pollution and traffic, Latin America isn’t exactly leading the way when it comes to creating energy efficient and well planned-out cities.
National governments haven’t shown much initiative when it comes to reducing carbon emissions and improving the quality of life in the world’s major cities, and that’s left it up to local officials and the private sector, Cohen said. Even more developed cities in Europe, North America and Asia have yet to meet their full potential when it comes to cultivating entrepreneurship, promoting environmentally conscious building and embracing renewable energy sources.
While Latin America has a long way to go, some cities have already taken steps toward becoming what Boyd Cohen, an urban and climate strategist, calls Smart Cities, or those that allow culture and business to thrive in a sustainable way.
In an increasingly intertwined global economy, people are more mindful of activities in cities around the world, taking inspiration in what they do right. And that’s happening in Latin America.
Cohen recently published a list of the eight smartest cities in Latin America, based on his data that quantifies six indicators: environment, government, living, mobility, people and economy. (His rankings in other parts of the world, such as Europe, North America and Asia Pacific, have included 10 cities, but given Latin America’s challenges, that many cities didn’t make the cut.)
Entrepreneurs Elevate Rankings
Santiago, Chile, topped the list. While it does have its share of air contamination and traffic, Boyd said the city has the less corruption than others in Latin America, along with low inflation and a stable economy. A government program called Start-Up Chile has created a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem in the country.
Mexico City landed in the No. 2 spot. There’s no doubt Mexico’s largest city—and one of the largest in the world, for that matter—has trouble with sprawl. Even so, other factors raised its ranking.
“Mexico City has the best car-share program in Latin America,” Cohen said. “There are some good initiatives in the green building space, and it’s also considered one of the quality cities as far as talent goes.”
On the green building front, the city has even begun to test buildings that can absorb nearby smog, Cohen points out. That’s a big step in a city that in the 1990s was considered to have the worst air pollution in the world. As far as people getting around, in addition to its car-sharing program the city has thousands of bikes for people to hop on and use temporarily.
Though far smaller than Mexico City, Montevideo, Uruguay came in at No. 8 on Cohen’s list. With less than 2 million inhabitants, Montevideo is frequently ranked as having the highest quality of life in Latin America, Cohen said.
It also has fostered an entrepreneurial culture and has done a surprisingly good job building a tech and information economy, primarily through software and gaming development, he added.
Don’t Get Left Behind
Still with lagging commitments to public transit, environmentally sustainable buildings and digital governance, Montevideo has plenty to work on before becoming a truly smart city, according to Cohen.
For the most part Cohen said Latin American cities, including those in Mexico, have big problems with urban planning—in that it’s pretty much nonexistent. Many cities have no urban planning departments and when they do exist, they lack the clout or resources to accomplish anything. Cities tend to be designed haphazardly to accommodate economic growth, exacerbating traffic congestion and pollution.
Also, culturally and politically, Latin American politicians have been hesitant to move toward transparency in government, which can lead to nagging corruption. Even so, as more cities have embraced an entrepreneurial culture, they have become more open to change.
“We’re in such a globalized world, really the world is made up of a network of cities,” Cohen said.
In an increasingly competitive environment, where innovators move around quickly, cities must learn from one another. Cohen likened the process to a moving train: “You’re either going to get on it. Or you’re going to get left behind.”
Dale Quinn is a freelance journalist based in Guadalajara, Mexico. He’s most recently written about technology, real estate and security issues faced by international companies. His work has appeared in The Financialist, an online magazine published by Credit Suisse, and in the Institutional Real Estate Inc.’s Americas letter. Before moving to Mexico, he worked as a business reporter for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, Ariz., where he covered the housing crisis in the wake of the financial meltdown.