Articles

Sustainable Cities Grow on Community Empowerment

Ailani M. Ocasio Ortiz / 15 years / Puerto Rico

Sustainability is the study of how natural systems function, remain diverse and produce everything it needs for the ecology to remain in balance (environmentalscience.org). In order to maintain balance, natural resources must regenerate at the rate they are being used. However, as a society, we have exploited these resources and consumed them at a rate that can’t be produced in the quantities that are used.

Sustainably speaking Puerto Rico is not as advanced as other countries, for example Switzerland and France who were ranked first and second by the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) for their environmental policy making and sustainability practices. Towns and cities that are farther away from the capital (San Juan), like Mayagüez, my hometown, are more propense to a lack of sustainable efforts. The need for a sustainable change emerges because of various reasons. Poorly developed urban planning makes amenities and daily activities distant and not easily accessible for bikers as there are few trail routes in the city. Mayagüez lacks efficient public transportation and the existing ones are scarce and limited. Supermarkets have high levels of imported goods and high levels of consumerism are also seen. Recently there has been water rationing because our demand is higher than the amount of water in the reservoir. These issues directly challenge the idea of sustainability as depending mostly on individual transportation directly impacts the amount of petroleum used, lack of accessibility to trails are a health and environmental issue, and the overconsumption of water leads to rationing and eventually a limited amount of water overall. Additionally, Puerto Rico is powered by a government agency that generates electricity mostly run by fossil fuels, increasing our carbon footprint.

Mayagüez could gain many social and economic benefits if it became more sustainable. A report written by Hallie Kennan and Chris Busch talked about the way sustainable cities could drive business growth and reported an increase in time efficiency, improved health, and innovation inspired by diversity. The information emphasized the aspect of urban planning and well thought urban planning is good for the environment and is also sustainable. An increase of time efficiency would be possible because commute times are decreased when the community lives closer to jobs and amenities. Improved health is also expected as physically and mentally healthy workers are involved in activities improving their minds and bodies. Research shows that every hour spent driving increases the risk of obesity by 6% and on the other hand biking to work can promote cardiovascular fitness and reduce cancer mortality. Overall improved health increases job productivity and performance. Kennan and Busch write about innovation inspired by diversity, for instance, access to public spaces (common in sustainable cities) help diverse groups of people to interact; diversity is equal to more innovation and creativity.

Few towns in Puerto Rico have taken the initiative to become sustainable and have experienced some of the aforementioned benefits. The community of Toro Negro, for example, has joined these sustainable efforts. It is located in Ciales, to the center of the island, and is considerably distant to surrounding cities. I spoke with their community leader, José Figueroa, to be able to share some of their work. The community has worked for fifteen years towards improving its infrastructure, its management of solid wastes, its health, and the protection of its nearby rivers; Río Toro Negro and Río Matrullas. As most of the island, Toro Negro was heavily affected after hurricane Maria and mostly because they are very distant from immediate relief. The community efficiently searched for alternatives to be able to help itself and after the crisis was over, it decided to become completely solar powered, an idea proposed by Somos Solar. Besides solar energy, the community has a potable water reservoir that holds 12,000 gallons of water, they have installed pipelines and a resilient center, its purpose being to avoid the events that occurred during the hurricane and after. The community of Toro Negro has also added waste recipients near the river in order for visitors to dispose their trash and to also educate them about the importance of a clean river. During the last few years it has promoted education and created Por Amor al Río which presents four workshops to the general public yearly. When asked about the benefits of such changes in his home, José Figueroa viewed the community as cleaner and healthier, he believes their solar power and their water supply have given them energetic security, and that it overall facilitates their lives. In the economical aspect he stated “if you don’t have electrical energy in your house you start to lose money” referring to the fact that a power outage causes loss of money on fuel for power generators and other related aspects. The community of Toro Negro is a small part of Puerto Rico that demonstrates sustainable practices have advantages that could be beneficial to Mayagüez and the island as a whole.

Mayagüez could emulate Toro Negro’s ideals in order to become sustainable. To do so, it would have to increase the amount of public transportation, promote energy alternatives, construct more bike trails, and future constructions should manifest concern about well thought urban planning. The city should encourage and educate its community about less usage of plastic material and more biodegradable products and also embrace and promote recycling programs. It should follow Toro Negro’s community as an example, as they became empowered to protect and maintain their resources. Mayagüez’s communities must work together and support each other to achieve the goal of becoming more sustainable. In doing so, they will demand action from their local government and support from other cities in order to make Puerto Rico more sustainable and environmentally conscious.

References:

Environmental science.org. What is sustainability and why is it important?. Retrieved from https://www.environmentalscience.org/sustainability

Environmental Performance Index. Results. Retrieved from

https://epi.envirocenter.yale.edu/epi-topline

Greenbiz. How sustainable cities can drive business growth. Retrieved from

https://www.greenbiz.com/article/how-sustainable-cities-can-drive-business-growth

Interview with José Figueroa, Community Leader of Toro Negro, on March 27, 2019.

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