This Unexpected City Is Forging A Sustainable Path

Photo: Kirsty Larmour

Cuba is often celebrated for its classic 1950s cars, historic buildings, vibrant music, and mojitos. But what about the environmental commitment of its citizens? During a recent stay in Havana, I noticed some incredibly creative ways locals are living a little greener. Although many of their routines stem from necessity, they inspired me to take some new eco-habits back home with me.

1. They walk, bus, and share rides.

Like New Yorkers, people in Havana are on the move at all hours of the day, coming and going to work and school, or for a night out. They crisscross the wide parks and plazas by foot and jump on a big metro bus for longer distances. And long before there were ride-sharing apps, people here would hail a local taxi, often a classic 1950s car, and share it with as many as could fit. These days, metro buses cover most of Havana, employers provide group transportation to the office, and decentralized work sites are encouraged so people don't have to travel as far.

2. They capture the power of the sun.

On a recent trip to Cienfuegos on the South Coast, I was happy to spot a solar hot water heater on the roof of the Casa Particular, or bed-and-breakfast, where we stayed. I then learned that the island had 10,500 solar water heaters as of 2015, and solar panels will likely soon be added to city schools and hospitals. Sunshine in Cuba is very strong, so it makes sense to tap that source of renewable energy.

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3. They work to save wildlife.

In order to protect the Cuban crocodile, 40 Cuban and 30 international conservation experts collaborated on a project in a wildlife refuge located in the south of the island. With the support of Cuban conservation groups and the Wildlife Conservation Society of the United States, they released 10 crocodiles into the wild wetlands on the Zapata Peninsula. They also shared plans for further research and monitoring of the crocodiles, among many other joint efforts to save the animals. With the help of the WCS, the Bronx Zoo in New York City was the first U.S. zoo to breed the Cuban crocodile.

4. They put the pedal to the metal.

Whether it's on an old-school city bike with no gears, the latest mountain bike, or a bike taxi, Cubans cycle often. Especially outside of Havana, where the pace of life slows down and traffic diminishes, the islanders ride around nonchalantly, perfectly balanced on two wheels as they go to work or the market. These days, groups of tourists on mountain bikes are asked to use tiny video cameras to record the adventure to help the country develop more sustainable tourism.

5. They hang it out to dry.

My grandmother believed that using the sun and wind as a dryer made the clothes cleaner and fresher, and I have continued her practice. In Havana and across the vast island of Cuba, on rooftops and in backyards, you can see clotheslines swaying in the breeze, festooned with brightly hued clothes. Just imagine the amount of electricity this saves a year.

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6. They hoof it.

Horseback riding is a big tradition in Cuba that carries on to this day. On my bus trip to the picturesque town of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage site, I saw horse-drawn carriages and a Cuban cowboy on horseback. In rural areas as well as towns across the island, you hear the clip-clop sound of horse shoes. This tradition helps limit the amount of petroleum that needs to be imported.

7. They live in the open air.

While air conditioning is found in many business offices, there is a great tradition of enjoying outdoor spaces, from balconies and patios to sidewalk cafes. The old-world architecture plays a role, with arcaded buildings providing shade on miles of sidewalks in the center of Havana. Life spills out into the small squares, parks, and tree-lined streets, but the favored destination for Habaneros and visitors is the famed seaside promenade, the Malecon, which stretches 5 miles along the Florida Straits. Waves crash against the sea wall, and a strong ocean breeze blows consistently. Known as the living room of the city, it's a popular meeting place for families, couples, runners, and fishermen.

8. They shop locally.

Cuban-grown coffee, freshly baked bread, and their local bottled water, juices, and ice cream can give you an authentic taste of the island. The verdant countryside produces tropical fruit in abundance that is sold fresh—no packaging needed. Pineapples, papayas, mangos, guavas, limes, and bananas are stacked up on the markets and tossed into canvas bags at purchase.

Cuba isn't the only place setting a good example. Check out this exciting conservation work on the beaches of Fiji.

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