Saturday, December 15, 2012

Green Cities Revisited: The Case of Sao Paulo Brazil's Tiete and Pinheiros Rivers

Today, the NY Times provides a geography lesson for its U.S readers as it takes us to Sao Paulo, Brazil and introduces us to Jose Leonidio Rosendo dos Santos (JLRDS).  JLRDS has the nasty habit of diving into the polluted Tiete and Pinheiros Rivers to look for stuff and thus is an expert on river water quality dynamics.  An interested Environmental Kuznets Curve arises.  As Sao Paulo's population grew and as slums emerged, people and factories directly deposited their waste in the rivers.  For years, the city didn't bother to have a sanitation system and that meant that a lot of poop was directly placed in the river.  All of this yields bad smells and what the rockband Cream would call "Strange Brew".

But, the story may have a happy ending!   As shown in dozens of U.S cities ranging from Manhattan to Boston to Chicago,  people like a high amenity city next to pretty (unsmelly) water.  Using funds provided by the IADB, a cleanup effort is underway. I'd like to see some objective evidence of the water quality progress but tourist boats are now taking people on rides on the river.  If Sao Paulo follows the U.S trajectory, restaurants, walking and shops will locate along the river's banks.   A basic public finance issue arises.  If Sao Paulo is a great mega city, why can't it afford to finance basic sanitation for the whole city?   Is this an issue of finances or about denying slum areas access to slow down their growth?  The Times names one area within Sao Paulo called Guarulhos as the epi-center of not having sanitation access.   I see that the airport is there so this must be at the outskirts of the metropolitan area and the infrastructure is only slowly being built relative to the growth of the population. The Times makes an interesting point that the hilly topography of the area raises costs of providing services.

For my Brazilian friends, I have one question.  As Sao Paulo becomes richer and more educated, will there be an urban middle class interest group pushing for "green cities" and the cleanup of the poop? Will politicians respond to such demand?   Or, do the factories have the upper-hand in blocking regulation?  In many other major mega-cities, dirty industry moves away from the big cities as transportation networks improve and center city land prices rise.

For teachers incorporating videos in your courses, I have recorded a youtube video on this case.