Toward a sustainable São Paulo

Adalberto Maluf is the São Paulo city director for the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40), a network of global cities focused on climate change mitigation, working in close partnership with the Clinton Climate Initiative. Arup got to know him while helping to design a new sustainable development project in São Paulo. I spoke with him about the issues facing the city.


What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

We support the city to help them deliver climate change mitigation and adaptation projects. We also help them develop policies to deal with the challenges of rapid urbanization, the need for sustainable mobility, and the need for improvements in the quality of life.

We have many different networks on energy efficiency, water and waste management, and sustainable transportation — both for clean vehicle fleets and bus rapid transit.

We also have larger developments like the Climate Positive Development Program, which is part of our Sustainable Communities Initiative network project, where we’re turning one area of the city into a very large $2B project called Park of the City, done by Brazilian developer Odebrecht. It’s one of 18 projects around the world selected to be part of the Climate Positive program. This is where Arup is supporting us.

What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities for São Paulo in terms of sustainability? How do they differ from other cities?

Well, it’s clear to me now that the Climate Positive Development Program is probably the best of the programs that we have been working on, because it brings together a selected group of 18 projects with the aim of putting together a best case or study model to actually meet the targets for an economically viable but also sustainable development. These are very much the challenges that the whole metropolitan area, like most of the developing world’s cities, faces: the dual challenge of rapid growth and the need to mitigate climate change. So I think the Climate Positive program is a pretty nice program.

In the case of São Paulo, the need to address transportation — sustainable mobility — and housing faster are combined. But in Brazil, cities have never had much of a tradition of integrating public policy. So transportation has its own agenda, housing has its agenda, social housing has its own agenda, and urban planning has its own agenda too. And many times these agendas were completely different.

Climate change is a challenge, but also an opportunity to finally be able to integrate our public policies

This is a challenge that we face, because you have a lot of coalition governments made of different parties with different goals and priorities, with strict levels of bureaucracy that somehow control the delivery of public policy as a whole. It is not easy to address all these different sectors. I think in our case climate change is a challenge, but also an opportunity to finally be able to integrate our public policies.

What happens also is every two years they have elections. Every two years they change the mayor and the governor. A lot of policies which are very good policies, or projects which were moving ahead — sometimes because of the change in politics they are replaced.

Mobility is definitely the most important issue in São Paulo. With the economic growth that we have faced in the last eight years, between 2004 to now, we have almost doubled the amount of cars in the streets. There is no infrastructure that can handle that trend. The problem is not only the infrastructure itself, the hardware of the city, but also the software. How can we manage the flow of goods and people, and who should have priority to use these roads? Should we give priority to cars that can move one or two people, or buses that can move 80?

São Paulo and Curitiba were the first cities in the world to develop bus rapid transit (BRT), which uses segregated bus lanes with very high-quality service: low-carbon fleets, high-quality buses, special operation. We’re trying to create a very comprehensive network around the city. The new mayor in São Paulo is going to expand the network by 150km within these next two years. This would be a revolution for sustainable mobility, making it cheaper and more effective. The government is also using cleaner buses: some that run on ethanol, hybrids, and now electrical buses using a cleaner and safer battery made of lithium iron phosphate.

Between 2004 to now, we have almost doubled the amount of cars in the streets. There is no infrastructure that can handle that trend

Can you tell me a little about how you share best practices between cities for the C40 program?

We are a city-driven network, so we tend to focus our agenda around whatever the cities request. So for example, this topic that I’ve been talking about, urban development — in 2007, when we first started to develop a project associated with it, we brought the city’s secretary of the environment to a workshop in London with many different secretaries from around the world. The secretary told us that it was the first time that he had heard about compact city strategy, the need for traffic-oriented development, the importance of mixed-use developments to foster local enterprise where people live, aimed at reducing the miles traveled per person and creating development in centralized, sustainable neighborhoods. So this became a topic on the city’s agenda.

Every time we have meetings, seminars, or online webinars, we take best practices from other cities around the network: long-term strategic planning, policies, and all the other things that need to be done to prepare cities for the increase in extreme-weather events. For example, implementing good practices for water management, retrofitting public buildings, or redeveloping areas around public transportation. There are many issues every week on our table.


We also bring in experts from other cities. We also do webinars and direct project assistance to discuss specific projects, and we travel together to showcase the projects on the ground all around the world. On a recent technical bus trip, we had city officials and bus operators from São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Bogota visit BRT and green fleets operations in Mexico City, London, Gothenburg, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. We also bring in partners, for example the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and Embarq, to share data and foster projects on sustainable transportation projects.

But also we have some work associated with very specific projects. São Paulo had a large-scale street light retrofit that they wanted to do. São Paulo has one of the largest street light systems in the world, with around 550,000 lights. 250,000 of the 550,000 were mercury street lamps. And, as you know, mercury lamps are horrible! They take a lot of energy and they’re big polluters. The opportunities for economic savings were great.

The city put together a plan to retrofit the lights with high-pressure sodium. Which is already good, because it produces 30% energy savings compared to mercury. But LA has moved to LEDs. So we shared the project that LA was doing, the result and all the evaluations. We developed a business model to show them the metrics of LED and say, with everything you’re doing to retrofit for sodium, why not go for LED! It’s cheaper, it’s better, and it requires less maintenance, which is also very expensive to the city. We brought people from LA who were experts, and a guy from São Paulo went to LA.

The team got very confident with all of the information, and they changed the project. The federal government took a while to get back the approval of the financing, so in the meantime we were discussing, “Why don’t we go 100% LEDs, let’s do 100% LEDs.” And then the city finally agreed, and they replaced the project for a new proposal of 100% streetlights retrofitted for LEDs.

Our main focus now is on sustainable mobility, cleaner fleets, and improving land use policies to create more livable communities

Because of this cooperation, São Paulo was able to begin using more energy-saving lamps. They have started retrofitting 20 tunnels for LEDs. This has already saved them more than 1.5 million reals in energy bills, so $750,000, just for retrofits that they have done in tunnels. The city has also retrofitted 290 schools and many other public buildings since them. It’s the start of a process which would save millions every year.

Our main focus now is on sustainable mobility, cleaner fleets, and improving land use policies to create more livable communities which have denser, more mixed-use developments and jobs closer to where people live. São Paulo will review its masterplan this year, and has finished a long-term planning process called São Paulo 2040. So São Paulo is on a good trajectory to transform its urban environment.

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