How a city at the foot of the Andes can serve as an example for combating climate change by enhancing environmental consciousness in green cities
The City of Mendoza is situated right at the foot of the Andes, about 700 miles west from the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires. It has gained international recognition for its excellent wines and attracts many tourists each year during the wine festival „La Vendimia“ – ranked as of one the most popular harvest festivals worldwide. The City of Mendoza is known for its breathtaking landscapes, the majestic mountain range, and the water canals running like rivers through the city, a relict of colonial and pre-colonial times. Not least, it is known for its wealth of trees, whose branches seem to embrace each street in a gesture as warm as the rays of the Argentinian sun. Nature is ever present in this city counting almost 2 million inhabitants. Green spaces in cities close the gap between nature and urban environments – citizens no longer live disconnected, but rather, alongside of nature.
Could this be a means to foster environmental awareness and more sustainable decision-making on part of individuals? Could the City of Mendoza, with its particular layout and the value it places on nature, deeply entrenched in everyday life, possibly serve as a model for other cities worldwide? And, in which way could creating greener cities be central for combating climate change?
Cities as key for reducing emissions and creating – a zero emission future
„We can not afford to not win this battle.“, says Christiana Figueres at the second annual meeting of the Women4Climate Conference in Mexico City at the end of February this year. This conference, recognising the crucial role women play in combating climate change, is hosted by the C40 organisation – a global network of more than 90 of the greatest cities that all committed to take action for creating emission-free futures. In October 2017, the mayors of twelve of the biggest cities signed the C40 Fossil-Fuel-Free Streets Declaration, pledging to only use emission-free busses by 2025 and to create a major area free of emission by 2030.
South Africa is amongst the C40 cities. „Cities are the drivers for change around the world“, says Patricia de Lille, Mayor of South Africa „and if you want to counter or deal with the effects of climate change, it needs to be in cities.“.
According to a recent report published by the C40 network and McKinsey, emissions in all C40 cities have to be considerably reduced by 2030 – from a current 9 tonnes to at least 3 tonnes per person per year. Urgent action is required.
This year, South Africa is to reach the predicted „Day Zero“ – the day water supplies will go from very scarce to zero. This effect of climate change is a reality.
A City at the foot of the mountains
Mendoza is not emission-free. After all, it is a city in a state struggling hard to free itself from the criteria making it qualify as a developing country. About a third of Argentinian population lives in poverty, of which 6.2% are caught in extreme poverty conditions.
At the outskirts of the City of Mendoza, close to the mountains, hills of piled-up waste belong to the landscape. Plastic is as present as nature is. Yet, the City has taken considerable efforts to protect the environment. Plastic bags have no longer been given out for free at the tills since 2017 and more and more people are seen walking around with their own reusable shopping bags. At the beginning of this year, the city government launched the „Plan for Mobility 2030“, with the aim to promote sustainable transport, implementing measures to make public transport accessible, efficient, and free of emissions.
As the transport sector is responsible for a quarter of all energy-related greenhouse gases emitted, it holds huge potential for curbing global warming. Making transport in cities more sustainable and efficient has many positive effects, such as fostering economic growth and social welfare. The Global Mobility Report 2017 highlights the importance of mobility in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals and balancing out existing inequalities . Already today, half of the world’s population resides in cities – and the number continues to grow. If individual emission is to be reduced, it is indispensable to create efficient alternatives to private cars or diesel fuelled buses.
Ultimately, it will be governments’ responsibility to implement schemes for sustainable public transport. However, that doesn’t leave individuals without choice or without power to contribute to change – it is individuals who can decide to walk more often, leave the car at home when not necessarily needed, and take a bicycle instead. There is a lot that governments and businesses need to do in order to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and get global warming under control. Yet, that doesn’t take responsibility off individuals’ shoulders. „In the end, it’s our behaviour that seems to be driving the problem“ , says Peter Calthorpe in his talk 7 principles for building better cities at TED 2017. Climate change is both a top-down and a bottom-up movement.
So, if it is individuals choices that hurt the planet, it is changed or improved individual choices that can lead to the opposite: reducing greenhouse gas emissions and getting climate change under control. The question is: why do we take unsustainable decisions in the first place? And how can we turn them into sustainable ones?
Knowledge about the damaging effects of consuming certain products or behaviours is easily accessible. Yet, these products continue to be consumed, and unsustainable choices continue to be made.
Overcoming the gap between two parallel worlds
Life in cities, often, is a created illusion that human beings can live independently from nature. The effects of seasons are overcome by air conditioning or heating, the effects and consequences of consumer choices are far removed. Supermarkets give the impression that everything is available at all times. Cities seem to outsource the impact of the lifestyles lived and make city and nature two parallel worlds. Despite access to acquiring knowledge, there is a fundamental lack of experiencing it.
Could first hand experiences be much more effective in shaping customs and habits than any available knowledge in books or online? If we felt the effects of climate change much stronger and immediately, would we realise that we are not independent from nature? Would our decisions, then, change for the better?
City environments promoting unsustainable lifestyles, unfortunately, don’t help much. We need better environments. We need more sustainable products in the supermarket. And yet – it is not only external change. It it is us consumers choosing unsustainable products. By changing our habits, and making better choices, we can create more sustainable environments. We can and we should. If we damage the planet, we damage ourselves. No one is independent from nature.
And, maybe, here lies the key – once that connection is made that no one is independent from nature, thoughtful and sustainable decisions could be made. Once that gap between city and nature is closed, between acquiring knowledge in books and experiencing effects of decisions in nature, the obstacle to creating new habits and making more sustainable decisions could be overcome a lot easier.
The power of education in fostering environmental awareness
Environmental education in German primary schools is quite general – switching off the light to save energy, turning off the tab to save water, taking the bicycle and recycling waste. Environmental education in Mendoza is very specific: saving water to deal with water scarcity, typical for the region, and caring for the city’s green spaces.
Each year at the end of the term, school kids plant a tree in the city’s main park. The Directory of Natural and Renewable Sources has launched several campaigns for planting trees and raising awareness about the City’a tree population. It has published a magazine series titled „The Book of Water“, in which Justo and his friends, the water drop Nieve and the dog Cacique, explore the history of the city and call for action for saving water and protecting the environment in Mendoza. These magazines are part of the school curriculum and teach kids, early on, that the City of Mendoza, has grown out of a desert and remains, ever since, an oasis that needs to be taken care of.
Mendoza’s is a region characterised by arid and semi-arid climate conditions. Little precipitation, with most of the rain falling in summer, as well as high changes in temperature in the course of a day are typical for this region. Strong and hot summers, with temperatures reaching up to 40 degrees are a stark contrast to the ice-cold winters, often bringing at least a few days of snow. Natural weather conditions in Mendoza are tough.
A watering system, invented by the indigenous communities and developed by Spanish colonisers, consisting of little canals that carry and disperse the water of the mountains, have made cultivation of soil possible, allowing settlement, survival and growth. Up to this day, canals on each side along the streets carry and disperse water that sustain the city.
Much of the city’s present layout is the result of the reconstruction after a destructive earthquake in 1861. It left the city in bricks, creating the need for complete restoration. That was the hour of birth of the five main plazas, initially built as space to gather in case of an earthquake, where people would be protected from crumbling buildings. Today, these plazas are an oasis in itself, where children play, people meet, music is enjoyed – places where every day life takes place.
Only a few years later, the city’s main park has been created by the well known landscape architect Carlos Thays, whose design was influenced by English and French architecture.
The Parque General San Martín, with its territory of 971 acre displays more than 169 species of trees is more than part of Menodza’s pride – it’s where every day life takes place. It is a connection hub to the neighbouring cities, it is home to the Science Museum, the well-reputed University Nacional de Cuyo, the Monument to the Arms, the amphitheater where festivals take place and also the football stadium. It is home to the lake, swimming pool, and the „Club Regatta“ – the footbridge to the rowing boats, meeting point, exercise club, and also restaurant with excellent cuisine. The park is food for soul – a forest, a place for tranquility, just as it is a place for gathering on a Sunday for picnics.
What is most striking about Mendoza is that „nature“ and „city“ are not two parallel worlds. Rather, one lives alongside the other. The park and the many, green plazas contribute to this impression. Nature is never distant – the presence of green spaces in the city is astonishing. Nature has never adjusted to the city, rather, the city has adjusted to nature.
What has once been learned in primary school is a knowledge experienced once stepped out of the classroom. There is always a reminder in the city that one is not alienated from nature. Sometimes it comes in hummingbirds in the garden. Sometimes it comes in power cuts.
It comes with the heat, so hot it melts everything that has been left outside. Those who leave the windows open during the day are immediately recognised as foreigners. It is forbidden by law to water the lawn with a garden hose during day time – the water would immediately evaporate. As soon as the sun sets, a swishing sound of garden hoses lies over the city. The mountains are never to escape, you see them when crossing the street, driving your car, going to work, coming home. It is, as if nature reminded you day by day that she’s there, watching your steps, and there is no alternative to living in her presence. People in Mendoza grow up knowing and experiencing she can’t be ignored.
Nature literally flows in the blood of the Mendocinos each day, in the form of Mate, a tea brewed with herbs, typical for Argentina and shared with friends and companions, at each time of the day. Drinking Mate is an activity itself. Mate is life – it’s bitter, and the more you share it, the sweeter it gets.
The City of Mendoza – where nature is close
Life is not sterile in The City of Mendoza. The only thing this lifestyle close to nature disrupts, is the illusion created that a city is, or rather, we, as humans, are entirely independent from nature.
Day-to-day life in Mendoza is city life alongside nature. It is as if the heat of the sun had made its way into the heart of the people, filling and surrounding them with warmness. How big is the joy of a fresh watermelon, how fierce the fights over the sweetest peach in the queues in front of each of the many fruit stands, who have caught part of the sunshine in the round yellow melons they sell, the size of a football. Warmth flows through this city just like the water in the little canals at each side of the streets. These canals that carry the water of melted glaciers in the mountains, having brought Mendoza to life and sustaining it each day.
Without these, no single tree could flourish, protect the city from the sun, cooling the air, absorbing pollution, and enabling the citizens of Mendoza to live in a city, and in nature.
The power of sustainable decision – making
Cities are key in reaching the targets of the Paris Agreement, the climate agreement which made the world’s sovereign governments come together to commit to curbing global warming and restrict it to an increase of no more than 2.0 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Keeping it below 1.5 degrees could considerably reduce all risks related to climate change – from threatened food production to air pollution, from water scarcity to extreme weather events.
„There is many things that we can do as individuals, there is no one who is exempt of responsibility.“, says Christina Figueres who has been key in the negotiations leading to the Paris Agreement.
That’s why it’s worth starting with creating environmental conscience.
How would we do that if not by truly understand the effects of choices, deeply care about nature? How else could we do that if not by living, not distanced, but alongside nature?
„With knowing comes caring“, says scientist Sylvia Earle, „and with caring, there is hope that we can find an enduring place for ourselves within the natural systems that support us.“
As seen in the example of the City of Mendoza, Nature could be the best teacher for environmental consciousness. No one but nature itself could teach us better to appreciate and recognise the value of green spaces. Nothing could make us understand better how important it is to take action as individuals, and make sustainable choices, every single day.
Taking Action Now
There is good news – it is easy to take action and become a climate hero. Trees do not only play an important part in the city of Mendoza but everywhere on the planet. Have you ever considered planting a tree?
For the price of about three coffees a month already, 100 trees are planted on your behalf. How?
This research project consisting of a series of articles exploring the connection between nature and city is kindly been supported by TreeEra, an organisation that plants trees in Canada to combat climate change.
Tree Era helps individuals and businesses reduce their carbon footprint and combat the effects of climate change by community-funding the planting of trees.
Find out more and subscribe to take climate action on www.treeera.com !