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Change is in the air in Colombia’s Aburrá Valley.
Medellín, the largest city in the Aburra Valley Metropolitan Area has reduced air pollution red alert days from 30 in 2016 to just one so far in 2018— an achievement that comes hot on the heels of over two decades of radical urban transformation.
It was an achievement celebrated in a city council meeting on air quality last week, and one the council took as part of evidence that PIGECA— or Plan Integral de Gestión de la Calidad del Aire (Comprehensive Plan for the Management of Air Quality)— was working.
While the celebration was tempered by concerns among the councillors that measures to improve air quality were being rolled out too slowly, particularly with respect to mobile sources, which are responsible for 80 per cent of air pollution in Medellín, the overall picture is positive.
Dramatic growth in private transport in the city in the 10 years to 2015 has contributed greatly to the city’s air quality challenges: the number of cars increased from 271,000 to 546,000, and motorcycles from 139,000 to a whopping 710,000.
The explosive growth in motorcycles, in particular those with polluting two-stroke engines, has increased emissions of ultrafine particle pollution, or PM2.5, which are so tiny they can burrow into the deepest reaches of the lungs and enter the bloodstream and brain, carrying with them toxic pollutants.
“We have to evolve from car-free day to a future of car-sharing. The message should not be that we are enemies of the car but that we are making irrational use of it. We can double the road capacity of the city without building roads,” said Councillor Daniel Carvalho Mejia, in a tweet.
Mejia’s comment evokes PIGECA’s sustainable mobility strategy, which requires companies and organizations to implement commute reduction plans that include car-sharing and telecommuting, among other supportive initiatives and systems. Simultaneously, it prioritizes Metropolitan investment into active mobility and public transportation.
In 1998, it launched the Program for the Protection and Control of the Air Quality from the Metropolitan Area of the Aburrá Valley, which established the basis for the first metropolitan air quality management plan, issued in 2008.
While successful, the dynamics of the metropolitan area required a new comprehensive plan that incorporated the lessons learned from previous experiences and the availability of state-of-the art tools and strategies.
That plan was PIGECA 2017-2030, developed by the Metropolitan Area of Aburra’s Valley in collaboration with the Clean Air Institute, an international organization with wide experience on air quality management in Latin American region, and approved and launched in December 2017 by the 10 mayors who make up the Governance Body of the Aburrá Valley Metropolitan Area.
“It is one of the most comprehensive Plans in the Latin American region, with concrete goals, abatement strategies and commitments from all sectors, with a communication strategy threaded through,” said Director of Environmental Health, Clean Air Institute, Juan J. Castillo.
The Plan puts emphasis on stakeholders from civil society. Its preparation in 2016 included workshops with citizen groups and their contributions were incorporated into the plan, while making air quality information publicly available.
Local and international specialists, government officers, the private sector and civil society organizations also participated in its preparation.
That same year, the city experienced severe air pollution events that raised the alarm about the importance of taking action in the region.
In the March-April smog season of 2016, when a powerful, prolonged El Niño phenomenon, which reduces rainfall and winds, caused a particularly severe and drawn-out pollution emergency that smothered Medellín for four weeks.
Medellín is geographically prone to two smog seasons a year: when the city transitions from dry to rainy weather in March-April and September-October, as a cooler, denser air sits atop rising warm air, trapping pollutants in the valley.
But 2016’s March-April smog catapulted air quality to the top of public consciousness, providing the needed momentum for joint efforts to support the development of a plan to tackle the problem and protect public health.
Several citizen groups took to the streets with innovative strategies to the issue more visible to the public: Aire Medellin, La Ciudad Verde, Low Carbon City, Siclas, Bicitertulia, Ciudadanos por el Aire and Túnel Verde put masks over the mouths and noses of the city’s “fat” sculptures by world renowned Medellín artist Fernando Botero and called for air quality data to be published.
Other citizen action added to the momentum: models wearing face masks paraded around the city, a petition on Change.org to “Implement a comprehensive and long-term plan to improve the environment of Medellín” attracted over 12,000 signatures, there were hundreds of citizen proposals to the city council, and countless editorials in the media.
Concerned about public health and considering options to mitigate the pollution, Medellín’s mayor, Federico Gutiérrez, just months into the job, made the decision to activate “pico y placa”, which disallowed certain car plate numbers from driving on certain days, implemented car-free days, free metro, cable and tram services, and restricted days on which children went to kindergarten.
The episode marked a turning point in public awareness for the region.
“Thanks in part to citizen pressure, air quality data is publicly available online, and the regional government began coordinating a comprehensive air quality management plan in collaboration with citizens, academia, the private sector and local and national authorities in 2017,” said Daniel Suarez, a spokesperson for Aire Medellín, in March this year.
PIGECA was followed by the signing of the Clean Air Pact, which involved the private sector, civil society organizations and government agencies, and is expected to lead to the supply of cleaner fuels to the city, among other important actions.
In April this year, the first electric bus rolled onto Medellín’s roads to join the Metroplus system’s fleet, as the City Council agreed on a resolution requesting that all new buses be electric.
“We have a very clear objective, which is to become the Latin American capital of electric mobility in the country,” said Medellín Mayor Gutiérrez at an event at the World Cities Summit in Singapore last week.
“By next year, we are going to be changing the whole fleet of buses,” he said, “and starting in 2018, we are going to be introducing a fleet of electrical taxis.”
Any differences the city’s efforts make to air quality can now be observed by anyone: as Suarez pointed out, air quality data is now readily available, disseminated every hour online and through an app, gathered through a monitoring network that includes an extensive citizen scientist component that has been operating since 2015.
“We have 40 air quality monitoring stations that account for more than half of all such stations in the country,” said Mayor Gutiérrez.
Contributing to these is Ciudadanos Científicos (Citizen Scientists), a local science, technology and education project developed by Sistema de Alertas Tempranas del Valle de Aburrá (SIETA) and financed by the Metropolitan Area of the Aburrá Valley.
It takes minute-by-minute readings on temperature, humidity and PM2.5 (very fine particulate matter) from 250 monitoring points in homes and places of work that have agreed to house a SIATA-developed low-cost sensor for measuring air quality.
When air pollution levels rise to unhealthy levels, contingency measures under Plan Operacional para Enfrentar Episodios de Contaminación Atmosférica (POECA) are activated.
PIGECA obliges the city to strengthen its capacity to implement POECA, periodically review it, and use it as an instrument to strengthen awareness and citizen culture in favour of improving air quality.
POECA’s ability to make the issue of air quality visible is given emphasis, because it isn’t just a reactive system; it includes a prevention phase, as well as different activation levels with specific actions that correspond to different degrees of air quality.
“Efforts shouldn’t just come from government and institutions; we must also make sure that people are aware of the challenges and problems, which is the only way to find solutions and tackle challenges. All sectors are important: public, private and citizenry,” said Mayor Gutiérrez.
In April, as part of communications efforts under PIGECA, a group of Medellín’s youth became the first batch of representatives to graduate from a programme training them to be civic leaders to promote change for a more sustainable city.
In the same month, the Aburra Valley Metropolitan Area signed a collaboration agreement with local universities to support research in air quality and health.
And, just last week, the Metropolitan Area, in cooperation with Explora Park of Medellin, presented the Mobile AIRE strategy, an initiative that uses hands-on experiments give citizens an understanding of the impact of air pollution and how different actions can help improve the city's air quality.
It’s part of the extensive, consistent public communication that the seven citizen groups have been calling for over the last few years.
“We need the government to implement communication strategies that achieve an understanding of poor air quality as a structural problem and not a temporary one,” said Suarez. “If people knew the many impacts air pollution has on their health and the health of young and even unborn children, I think they would be more willing to act.”
But, like the Councillors, the citizen groups feel that action needs to be accelerated.
“We need braver decisions to make public transport sexier, to promote bicycle mobility, and to discourage the use of private vehicles,” Suarez said.
With citizens and city representatives on the same page with respect to air pollution, Medellín looks to be continuing its track record in urban transformation— this time, on an issue that plagues the majority of cities around the world.
The Aburra Valley Metropolitan Area is part of BreatheLife, a Climate and Clean Air Coalition initiative led by UN Environment and the World Health Organization. It aims to raise awareness of the impacts of air pollutions and provide city-based solutions to the problem.
This article originally appeared on the BreatheLife website here.
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