Havana: Sustainable Today, Sustainable Tomorrow?


While looking for communities that have actively contributed to the sustainability discourse, or have been associated with the movement, I came across an unlikely candidate to write about. Havana, the rolling car museum, and more broadly Cuba, has been hailed as one of the regions to be actively living a sustainable lifestyle.

This title, interestingly, was not a result of environmental progressivism. The American embargo followed by the cutting off of trade from the soviet bloc, created an atmosphere of instability, famine, and poverty in the nation. Stemming from the lack of export markets and curbing of import goods, the Cuban government, in the 90s began instating measures to first create a localized agrarian base. Heavy machinery that symbolized the green revolution in the country was replaced by peasant labor, organic seeds and local foods replaced cash crops. Cooperatives were formed with the intent to create a framework that worked towards equitable distribution of food resources. The video below is a BBC on urban farms in Havana.

This brief glimpse into the recent history of the region provides a pleasant segue into discussing modern day Havana, the capital of the country. Julio César Pérez Hernández is one of the foremost planners for the city, having received both a Cuban and American education. He’s been responsible for envisioning a 21st century Havana. According to published research, housing and transportation are key issues that a planner would need to reconcile with. The sustainability aspect is but a green veneer in various planning documents proposed for the city. It mainly consisted of creating tree filled corridors and open parks, an idea that reflects ideals of the global north. It doesn’t, in my opinion, speak to the unique culture of resilience that has sprouted in Havana. Urban greening, whose definition changes with location, was described quite aptly;

“Urban greening projects are appealing for more than economic reasons. They are connected to peoples’ desire to be useful, to contribute to their communities, to be self-sufficient, and to promote projects which are conducive to socializing across barriers of age, gender, race, etc.” – Elin Zurbrigg

This understanding of the urban greening movement reflects the Cuban spirit, while speaking of inclusiveness and sustenance.

There are positive aspects too, though, of adopting ideas from the west. Pedestrian corridors, polycentric city structures are a good beginning to exclude a lifestyle that’s carbon-intensive. It also ties in perfectly with the food systems’ measure of market location. They prefer using a much smaller unit of meters instead of miles/kilometers to decide accessibility to locally grown food. (1 meter = 0.0006 miles)

Yet, the impression I gleaned from the amorous tone towards the colonial architectural relics and emphasis on old Havana, is one of a lost opportunity. It aims to attract both foreign tourists and investors, laying the seeds of an economy that puts the needs of the outsider over the needs of the domestic. My impression maybe unfledged, having not had found information regarding the cities plan for sea level rise, or planning for resilience of the changing climate. The food industry, a beacon of hope in the success of the sustainability discourse worldwide, does face threats due to higher tropical temperatures. Also given Cuba’s location in the Gulf, it is vulnerable to hurricanes, a phenomenon that is predicted to increase in frequency as this century passes by.

It’s interesting to revisit the planner’s Equity, Economy and Ecology triangle, keeping Cuba in mind. The relevance of economy, in our case, is debatable. Till 2011, the state handled all services and sectors, and the standard competitive model striving for continuous growth and promising economic progress indicators held no significance in the nation. From a purely sustainability perspective, the growth in the country appears to be paradoxical. Prior to 2011, while international organizations (including the video above) hailed Cuba as the model for sustainable living, domestically, a desire to be able to live on their own terms was inoculated amongst the citizens. The nation was physically abandoned by its wealthy, and the remaining populace had to survive under a regime that quelled personal wealth accumulation, in an atmosphere that gave few opportunities for growth anyway.

Cuba underwent economic reforms in 2011, giving individuals the capacity to be self-employed. With the country taking baby steps towards privatization of markets, it’ll shape up to be the ideological battlefield between sustainability and the modern capitalist economy. Interviews conducted by Al Jazeera indicate that the new model is revisiting Che Guevara’s conception of the “New Man”, one who imagines a system drastically different from the normative redistributive socialism which envisaged material wealth. This debate should be had again, in the nation that seems to have escaped the ills of modern day capitalism, and is constantly questioning the Castro regime. Only this time, instead of the anthropocentric view of socialism, it should begin to locate itself on the planner’s sustainability triangle; one that speaks equally about equity, economy and the environment.

As an afterthought, I would also be really keen to see more academic work that studies modern day Havana.