Should the world be following Havana’s example?
Havana is a different kind of smart city. This city does not define itself by being a digital or an intelligent city, yet it is a city that has proved to be leading the world in terms of sustainable agriculture and low impact living.
Urban allotments in Havana
What Cuba has achieved is remarkable, and what really sums this up well is this statistic from a study from the World Wildlife Fund: ‘…if the world followed Cuba’s example we’d only need the resources of one Earth to sustain us indefinitely. By contrast, if the world followed the example of Australia’s capitalist economy, we’d need about 3.7 Earth-like planets.’
The only truly sustainable country
According to a report by the World Wildlife Fund, Cuba is the only country in the world able to balance living standards with ecologically sustainable practices. Cuba was the first country to sign the Kyoto Protocol, and the first to move to energy efficient light bulbs.
This revolutionary transformation in the way the city (and the country) function came about by chance and necessity.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Cuba saw an end to subsidised oil, which meant that power, energy, and fuel were scarce. Cubans found that food and construction building materials became in short supply, as previously these industries had relied heavily on the transportation industry.
The lack of fuel meant that food could not be transported from rural areas, which hit Havana hard. Cuba had to find the means to feed its population: its answer was to encourage the population to produce as much food as possible using very low impact methods. Urban allotments (called ‘organoponicos’) became the most common and valuable means of producing food in Havana. Residents of Havana began planting crops on porches, balconies, empty city lots, in their gardens, city parks, and where any space was available.
Organic Consumers Association states, ‘Key ingredients in the new agricultural model are the urban organic movement; traditional farming techniques like composting and intercropping (growing two crops together that benefit each other by warding off particular pests); new nontoxic biopesticides and biofertilizers; worker-managed collectives; quotas for farmers to ensure adequate supply for the whole country; and opening farmers’ markets where excess food crops can be sold by farmers for profit.’
Havana’s city government and the Cuban Ministry for Agriculture jointly formed an Urban Agriculture Department in 1994 focusing on securing land use rights and committing itself to providing free land to people wanting to grow food in the city.
At its height, Cuba produced a massive 90 per cent of its own food, all of which was organic. Urban agriculture in Havana fed 80 per cent of the city.
Today the city produces over half of its fresh produce.
Agriculture was not the only industry to suffer in the fall of the Soviet Union; the construction materials industry also suffered. Building materials became scarce and new housing construction dramatically decreased. Maintenance and repair of current housing also became very limited. This was due to the end of long-distance transportation that had been relied on for transporting materials. Local production became a necessity.
In response to this, materials are manufactured locally in small workshops using environmentally sustainable building materials. As they are produced and sold directly in the community, they have very low energy input and minor transportation costs. The project uses an alternative binder – CP-40 – which is one of the key materials used. It has significantly lower CO2 and SO2 emissions than Portland cement, and results in substantial energy savings.
As the only truly sustainable city in the world, Havana truly is a model example of what a successful smart city can be. Cities across the world can and should be learning from Havana’s example.
However, this green revolution may now be under threat from Cuba’s reintegration into the global economy. This will open the company to cheap oil and an industrialized food supply. Use of fertilizers has already increased thanks to oil exchange with Venezuela.
The question is now whether the government will continue to support sustainable agriculture given the increased access to fuel.