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air quality in Mexico CityThe Mexico City metropolitan area, home to more than 21 million people, experiences air pollution that can have negative long-term impacts for its residents. Indeed, some recent grim headlines bemoaning increased smog and ozone during the dry season, as well as premature deaths due to air pollution, are quite discouraging. However, CDMX, as the city is colloquially known, has a “comeback kid” success story to tell. In 1992, the U.N. and WHO declared the megalopolis the world’s most polluted city. Following this sobering declaration, the city government made sweeping changes to bring the city’s air quality under control. Here are five innovations that are continuing to help air quality in Mexico City move in the right direction.

5 Green Innovations Improving Air Quality in Mexico City

  1. Low-emission public transit: The city has expanded public transit options to include low- and zero-emissions options like the Metrobús and Ecobici bicycles. Early changes that revolutionized air quality in CDMX were part of a multiphase government program called ProAire. The program included closing fuel refineries, adding catalytic converters to cars and enacting weekly “Hoy No Circula” (“No-Drive Days”) for city cars. Later, in 2005, the low-emission Metrobús system made its debut as part of the third phase of the same program. Among many benefits, Metrobús is cheaper to run than the subway and far cleaner than regular buses. In recent years, the city has also worked to become less car-centric by designating bike lanes on roads. In 2010, Ecobici stations with public-use bicycles started popping up around the city. Anyone with an Ecobici card can now use a bicycle in 45-minute increments, picking it up at one station and dropping it off at another. Hybrid and electric taxis have also been introduced to improve air quality in Mexico City.
  2. Air quality forecasting: In 2017, Mexico City unveiled a new tool to forecast high levels of air pollution. The city’s location in a valley surrounded by mountains puts it at a disadvantage for ridding the air of dangerous pollutants. These come in the form of nanoparticles, which are released into the air mainly through vehicle emissions and industrial activity. Nanoparticles can become lodged in people’s lungs and hearts, where they can have long-term consequences. In a country that, in comparison to developed nations, has very limited availability of hospital beds and doctors, the need for prevention is urgent. The forecasting system for air quality in Mexico City can accurately predict high rates of pollution a full day in advance, allowing schools to cancel classes if necessary and giving people time to safely plan their activities and transport.
  3. Eco-friendly art: Young artists are using air-purifying paint to create murals for awareness about air quality in Mexico City. In 2019, the Absolut Street Trees project, run by Mexico City’s Anonimo Agency in partnership with French company Pernod Ricard, painted three murals on different buildings around the city center. The colorful murals portray positive environmental messages using Airlite paint, whose active ingredient, titanium dioxide, reacts to the presence of light. Undergoing a process comparable to photosynthesis, the paint can scrub the air of nearly 90% of harmful toxins and pollutants from cars. In a city where buildings abound, space is limited and private vehicle transport is a necessary evil for many, Airlite offers possibilities for redemption. In 2019, the U.N. hailed the innovation as one of the four most useful new technologies for solving air pollution problems in cities across the world.
  4. Solar panel integration: Ciudad Solar (Solar City) is an ambitious solar panel program that aims to harness 350 megawatts of solar energy by 2024. In 2019, the city government, led by mayor Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, launched the nearly 8 billion peso ($414 million) plan using funding from the city budget, the Mexican federal bank Nacional Financiera (NAFIN), the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. By installing renewable energy units like solar panels and solar heaters across the city in private and public buildings over five years, the city aims to slash carbon emissions by 2 million tons to improve air quality in Mexico City.
  5. Clean outdoor spaces: The city is expanding green acreage, using recycled materials to open a massive new park in an outlying zone. The centrally located Bosque de Chapultepec is a well-known gathering place for many residents, as it is the largest and oldest urban park in all of Latin America. However, green spaces are needed in other neighborhoods as well if air quality in Mexico City is to sustainably improve. In 2017, a large park called Parque La Mexicana opened in the Lomas de Santa Fe neighborhood on the city’s western edge. More recently, Parque Ecológico Cuitláhuac in Iztapalapa has been the biggest revitalization project to take place in the city. The 250 million peso ($11.4 million), 358-acre park, once a trash dump, has been cleaned, greened and transformed by a brigade of more than 200 scientists, engineers and other specialists. It has been built in large part using recycled materials and is opening three distinct sections in three phases. One debuted in 2020, and the last two are set to open in 2021 and 2022. Some have already dubbed it “the new Chapultepec.”

While geographical and ecological challenges occasionally cloud efforts to achieve better air quality in Mexico City, public and private organizations, including the government, have shown openness to innovative solutions. This is not for nothing: the changes have earned attention as models for other pollution-challenged countries like India. However, more consistency and dedication to green innovation is needed to make this vibrant and iconic “city of palaces” a palace not just for tourists, but for those who call it home.

– Andrea Kruger
Photo: Flickr

Architects for Society Designs Sustainable Housing for Refugees
Architects for Society (AFS) defines itself as, “a group of experienced architects from the U.S., Canada, Europe, the Middle East and India who are committed to engage practitioners, policy-makers, and the public in a collaborative dialogue.” In other words, its members use innovative design techniques to develop the environment of vulnerable communities. The organization’s sustainable housing designs are helping to make strides in contributing to the global refugee crisis.

Currently, the world is struggling to cope with a global refugee crisis. A record number of people worldwide have been forced from their homes due to violence, lack of economic opportunity and a plethora of other reasons. The global community has faced many challenges in supporting displaced peoples, included economic and social problems. Architects for Society, as an organization, is looking for answers to these problems.

The nonprofit was founded in 2015 and have since focused on designing sustainable housing, schools, youth and community centers. The organization’s staff is made up of experienced architects who have been educated on design research and production.

The AFS website also features art by several members of the team that aims to educate on current global issues. The organization states, “A key component of our education programs will be to promote the interest of these communities in a positive light and stimulate the public to support development efforts.”

This year, the Minnesota-based nonprofit developed a design called the “Hex House.” The design is meant to serve refugee communities, as it is affordable, self-supporting and versatile. The organization describes the homes as “both dignified and cost-effective.”

The structures are 431 square foot units mostly made of steel and foam Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs). Each unit is said to cost between $15,000-$20,000 but differs from other emergency housing in that it is designed to last between 15-20 years.

Shaped like a hexagon, the homes can be arranged in various ways and can be combined to create larger dwellings. They are equipped with modern conveniences, a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and living space.

AFS designers carefully thought through the provision of utility services when designing the Hex House. Rainwater is collected through a gutter system that filters the water into a storage tank. Each side of the home is equipped with a ventilation system that can be adjusted according to the direction of the wind. Power is stipulated by solar panels.

Another aspect of the design is its versatility. The homes are user-friendly in a way that allows for anyone to put it together using basic tools. Hex Houses are designed to be flat packed and delivered to emergency sites in trailers or trucks, which could potentially solve safety and humanitarian issues for those living in refugee camps. Considering that the average time spent in a refugee camp is 17 years, the Hex Houses could solve issues for many people.

The designs are still in their first stages in terms of tangible effects, but funding for the development of a Hex House prototype is ongoing and AFS will move forward with the project as finances allow.

AFS’ groundbreaking designs offer a humanizing solution for people stuck in dehumanizing situations. Recognizing that, “there are natural and man-made catastrophic event affecting the living conditions of large population groups,” Architects for Society sustainable housing could easily contribute to a solution for the global refugee crisis.

Peyton Jacobsen

Photo: Flickr

Project_sunroof
In 2008, solar panels were considered to be an enviable luxury. Beginning in 2013, the prices thereof began to lower, and this year the cost of solar technology is at a record low and can actually save thousands of dollars per year on electric bills.

There are still a lot of factors to consider where the installation of solar panels are concerned: how much sunlight hits the roof, the local weather, or if there are any businesses nearby where someone could be hired to install them.

Since so many people have asked Google about solar energy, engineer Carl Elkin came up with the initial idea that has since become Project Sunroof. This online tool takes the data from Google Maps and gives all the necessary information including how much money could be saved by installing solar panels.

In the next few months, the project goal is to expand to more cities, more countries and eventually become accessible worldwide. “Elkin writes that Project Sunroof is part of Google’s wider vision of accelerating the wide-scale adaption of zero-carbon energy.”

Solar panels, also called photovoltaic panels, turn energy from the sun into electricity. That energy is then synchronized to become compatible with the power grid in the home. This process actually saves energy that was formerly reliant on carbon energy and replaces it with something that is actually better for the environment.

A popular myth is that solar energy is unreliable, so people will avoid considering the technology until it improves. In actuality, solar panels generally come with a manufacturer’s warranty of 25 years and also requires little to no maintenance during its lifetime. There are few existing electronics to date with 25-year warranties.

So, with all of the existing benefits of solar energy to the environment and to the people who utilize it, the solar subscription service Bright has decided to bring those benefits to developing countries starting with Mexico.

“Working with local partners, Bright provides the software, financing, and maintenance. Using its software, it monitors installations and deploys partners to fix any errors.” These initiatives make energy more affordable and therefore, more accessible and enjoyable.

Project Loon gives the developing world access to the internet, and Project Sunroof combined with the initiatives of services such as Bright gives the necessary energy for not only the maintaining of devices that connect to the internet but also for everyday activities.

So, not only can the developing world be provided with water mills and food, but can even (for example) be helped with alternative methods of storing them and keeping them fresh for longer periods of time.

Anna Brailow

Sources: Voice of America, IFL Science, RE-volv, Bright
Photo: CS Monitor

solar power
The Abu Dhabi Fund for Development announced a new loan program that would provide Sierra Leone with Dh 33 million, or about $8.9 million, to construct a new solar power plant near Freetown, the capital and a major urban area. Called Solar Park Freetown, the project would provide an extra six megawatts to Sierra Leone’s already burgeoning solar power networks.

In addition to providing manufacturing jobs to people who need it, Solar Park Freetown will bolster Sierra Leone’s shaky central power supplies. Much of Freetown’s power comes from the Bumbuna Dam, which, according to a 2011 World Bank report, produces less than 20 megawatts of power during the dry season. Sierra Leone’s grid only provides 13 megawatts per million people, about 3.5 times less than nations with similar socio-economic conditions. The weak electrical grid forces many citizens to purchase expensive oil and gas, and electric power remains scarce.

New central solar power initiatives will help solve this problem. Adding to the grid’s capacity with works like Solar Park Freetown will help satisfy energy demands and improve quality of life in Freetown. Dr. Kaifala Mara, Sierra Leone’s Minister of Finance, believes that the project will help people “overcome the difficult economic conditions by improving the performance of the main economic sectors, leading to advancing sustainable development” for the nation.

Centralized power, however, is only part of the story. For the 97 percent of rural Sierra Leoneans who lack access to the grid, individual solar home systems and decentralized generators can provide crucial electric power for a multitude of purposes. In town centers, street lamps run on solar power, and solar radios help citizens communicate and learn about current events. Both homes and community buildings like churches and schools can purchase individual solar energy systems to generate electricity.

The usefulness of solar energy in Sierra Leone creates economic opportunities. Open-air markets selling solar components are common, and installation companies can profit from the demand for new systems. Other entrepreneurs have built solar recharging stations and charge small fees for people to power their smartphones and other mobile devices. Using Sierra Leone’s cell network, which uses solar-powered relay stations, businesses can communicate and share data more easily and optimize earnings.

Despite the explosion of solar technology, obstacles hinder greater national access to electricity. Not all solar panels are created equally, and not all vendors can tell the difference between low-quality and high-quality panels. Moreover, some dishonest manufacturers will claim that their products are better quality than they are or even sell non-functioning parts. Even if everything works, not all Sierra Leoneans have the technical skills to properly install solar systems, making progress slower.

Financing more decentralized solutions can be difficult. Sierra Leone does not offer subsidies to people looking to buy solar home systems, and many people in rural areas are not close enough to banks to get loans. For these reasons, not everyone can afford all of the components needed to generate electricity. Centralized power, especially in urban areas, will need to offset the shortcomings of off-grid systems.

Solar power has the potential to greatly increase energy access in Sierra Leone and accelerate its economic growth. Both internationally financed central power systems like Solar Park Freetown and private solar setups in rural areas will create jobs and provide a stable source of energy for millions.

– Ted Rappleye

Sources: Gulf News, Awareness News Sierra Leone, The World Bank
Photo: Forbes