Can Cusco lead the way for other midsized cities?

A view of Cusco, Peru. The city, which is a prime tourist destination, has experienced an increase in inhabitants and prevalence of carbon emitting vehicles. Photo by: Antoine 49 / CC BY-NC-ND

Situated in a fertile valley in the Andes Mountains of Peru, the city of Cusco was once the thriving capital of the Inca Empire. Temples, palaces, schools, roads and a fortress came together to form the city, which many believe was built in the shape of a puma — a sacred animal for the Inca.

Today, the city of just over 400,000 inhabitants has become a prime destination for tourists seeking a blend of culture and history. But mixed in with remnants of the city’s Inca and subsequent Spanish colonial past is the noise and congestion of modern life. Cars, trucks and buses have flooded streets originally designed for pedestrians, and traffic police direct the flows of people and automobiles.

Since 2000, Cusco has added nearly 40,000 new inhabitants every five years in addition to its annual flow of tourists, and the prevalence of carbon emitting vehicles on crowded city streets has also risen. In Peru, carbon dioxide emissions per capita reached 1.8 metric tons, up 80 percent from 2003, according to the World Bank.

The world won’t come close to reaching goals laid out in last year’s historic Paris climate conference without taking cities into account — and midsized cities like Cusco are critically important.

A group of 291 rapidly growing midsized, middle-income cities in emerging economies are projected to account for more than one-quarter of global income growth and over one-third of energy-related emissions growth in the next two decades, according to a report from The New Climate Economy.

“For a long time, most of the population was going to the larger cities ... But now we are observing a very large growth in midsized cities,” Dario Hidalgo, director of Integrated Transport at the World Resources Institute Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, told Devex. “It’s where urbanization is happening the most.”

Midsized cities are the megacities of tomorrow and building sustainable transportation systems in these cities can help to curb their rapid emissions growth. Midsized cities that install clean rail and bus systems and accessible biking and walking paths can set themselves on a more sustainable course and leapfrog the dirty technologies and investments many of the world’s megacities are currently struggling to retrofit.

But while it is critically important to build sustainable transportation in midsized cities, it can also be difficult for development professionals and local officials to drive resources and attention to these kinds of projects.

Local capacity for change in midsized cities is often in short supply. The brightest minds in urban planning, engineering and sustainable infrastructure often flock to large metropolises with greater opportunities.

Another reason is a lack of demand for sustainable transportation projects. Midsized cities tend not to suffer from the outrageous commuting times that plague bigger urban centers, even if they still employ inefficient and environmentally harmful means of transportation. Basic public transit systems that rely on vans or small buses satisfy most people’s needs. The construction of more sophisticated mass transit systems like metros or bus rapid transit feel like low priorities for policymakers with smaller constituencies.

It might seem surprising then that in Cusco the world’s largest multilateral donor is working to jumpstart a transportation transformation — one that prioritizes people over automobiles. And transportation experts hope the effort will catalyze action in other midsized cities in the region and around the world.

Seeing an opportunity in Cusco

The effort in Cusco began as a conversation about a highway. Cusco’s city government was looking for funds from Peru to construct an urban highway to improve the flow of cars. The World Bank, already in dialogue with the country about tourism projects, was pulled into the planning discussion.

The World Bank came in to lend its support, but as the bank’s project team leader told Devex, the multilateral institution saw an opportunity to “elevate the discussion” around transportation in midsized cities like Cusco by adding a sustainability component that focused on nonmotorized transport and pedestrians.

“[The poor] can’t afford to have a car, but maybe they don’t need it,” said Ramon Munoz-Raskin, a transport specialist at the World Bank and team leader for the Cusco Transport Improvement Project. “We give them sidewalks, we give them pedestrian corridors, we give them the walking environment and the cycling environment so that their mobility approach doesn’t need to be rethought towards cars.”

“The mayor fell in love with the concept,” Munoz-Raskin said.

The bank approved the $153 million project in early 2014. It includes the development of what Munoz-Raskin described as “an urban boulevard,” with bikeways, public transportation stops and other pedestrian friendly accommodations. It also includes the development of a mobility and public space plan for the city, to identify a pipeline of pedestrian-first mobility projects.

“Historically there’s been a neglect to intermediate cities,” Munoz-Raskin said, adding that development organizations and national governments often focus on large cities for their sustainable transportation efforts because in those places they have technocrats to work with.

“In this case, we had to build that technical capacity,” the bank official added.

The final design of the “urban boulevard” is projected to be completed in 2017 and the mobility and public space plan to be finished this year, supporting a series of mobility projects in the city of Cusco, some of which have already started.

Looking beyond Cusco

Transportation experts inside and outside the World Bank hope that successful transportation reform in Cusco will provide a valuable case study for government officials around the world at the national and local levels, as well as for development professionals eager to work in midsized cities.

A good first step is choosing where to work.

When asked what he would do if tasked with jumpstarting a sustainable transportation project in a midsized city in Africa, Munoz-Raskin said he would “ask around to see which cities take pride in being innovative … which cities have mayors that are actually looking forward to partnering, to pursuing ideas that challenge conventional wisdom and that will make their cities more livable and sustainable.”

Others appeal for support at the national level. Hidalgo at WRI explained that some national governments, such as Colombia’s, have sustainable mobility policies that include funding and technical assistance pathways to support cities making commitments to sustainable transportation. A supportive national government can help to overcome barriers facing midsized cities, Hidalgo said.

Transportation reform in Cusco, if successful, could point towards replicable models for midsized cities. But Cusco also highlights precisely what a unique set of ingredients is needed for success.

“The constellation of stars happened, and I think we are very lucky. And when there is an opportunity like this one, we better make very good use of it,” Munoz-Raskin said.

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About the author

  • Jeff tyson 400x400  1

    Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, DC, he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the United States, and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.