If you think that national — or even state — governments are the first to rein in air pollution, think again. Cities are usually ahead. They experiment with strategies to improve air quality and share breakthroughs. What’s more, their successes are often replicated by slower-moving state and national policymakers.

It doesn’t mean cities are all good. In fact, cities are big polluters. But cities, especially those in developing countries, have an advantage when they look to improve their air. They benefit from knowledge gained from past mistakes made in developed countries that faced health-harming air pollution decades ago. The mistakes eventually led to innovative ways to curb pollution, so now cities in developing countries can take shortcuts to effective solutions.

It’s an exciting moment, says environmental expert Rohit “Rit” Aggarwala, formerly New York’s director of long-term planning and sustainability and now a Columbia University professor. He worked with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on such green projects as the High Line, which turned a disused elevated railway track into an urban garden walkway that absorbs carbon while beautifying the city.

Riders exit through a futuristic bus station in Curitiba, Brazil, where Bus Rapid Transit was pioneered. (Zhu/Creative Commons)

Emerging economies can lead

Aggarwala says India, for instance, is in an ideal position to take advantage of innovations that will provide quality of life and economic growth to its citizens. “If you look at any of the challenges facing India’s cities — air quality, traffic and transportation, housing, and climate resilience — all of those challenges are directly solved by the same initiatives that reduce carbon emissions,” he says.

Successful strategies devised in emerging economies already are being adopted in cities around the world. Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, which began in Curitiba, Brazil, in the 1970s, is now “the hottest thing,” Aggarwala says. “It’s all over Europe and the United States. It was a Brazilian invention, and for 20 years transportation planners looked at it as a poor man’s subway. Now they think it might actually be better than a subway.”

The New Delhi Metro serves a city of more than 14 million people and turns a profit. (© AP Images)

He also points to the New Delhi Metro: “[It] is profitable on an operating basis because the density of ridership is so high that even at remarkably low fares it’s still creating positive income.” India can meet that demand and provide an environmentally positive service of high value. A huge population placing a uniform demand upon a transportation system does not exist in New York or London, which require subsidies in addition to fares to meet operating costs.

Aggarwala said he envisions the day “when the United States, Europe, Japan and other countries are looking at Indian models on how to do things.”

Solar panels bring electricity to remote areas without a conventional grid. (CC by Barefoot College)

Thoroughly modern power

Cities in Brazil, India and other emerging economies can leapfrog over old-style, inefficient electricity grid infrastructure and keep the lights on with microgrids. A coal-fired power plant needs an expensive, conventional grid, Aggarwala says. But distributed energy generation does not: “You will often find that a rooftop solar installation, coupled with a battery, can keep a household or an isolated village powered, and is actually going to be cheaper, more reliable and much cleaner.” Here, money is not spent stringing wires to connect to a far-away generating station.

Cities in developing countries are in an ideal position today, Aggarwala says, because they can achieve “clean development — urban development that takes the best from Western countries, but is in fact smarter” as it deploys proven strategies and innovations to chart a new path.