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How Belmopan City in Belize got smart about climate resilience

10 October 2023

Building resilient and sustainable cities isn’t a new concept. Sixty years ago, Belmopan in Belize was developed out of necessity.

How Belmopan City in Belize got smart about climate resilience
Belmopan is also referred to as the Garden City. Image credit: Shutterstock

Back in late August, tropical storm Idalia formed in the Caribbean Sea, a few hundred miles off the coast of Belize.

The storm gathered intensity as it moved north, brushing Cuba, and eventually slamming into low lying areas of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in the USA as a force four hurricane.

It left a trail of devastation in its path.

Nearly 60 years ago, Belize was victim to similar destruction.

Hurricane Hattie, a force five hurricane made land along the Belize coastline, with devastating consequences.

Winds gusting up to 180mph and a 4m storm surge hit the country, which was virtually destroyed overnight.

More than 400 people lost their lives and Belize City was almost flattened with over 70% of buildings being completely destroyed.

For a population that lived primarily along the coastline, the impact of Hurricane Hattie, which caused $600M worth of damage in today's money, is still felt today.

Rebuilding and relocating

After the shock had subsided and the clear-up operation began, the government took an unusual decision.

Rather than just rebuild, however difficult that would be, the authorities decided that a new capital city was needed.

One that was protected from further natural disasters and resilient to a changing climate.

Hence Belmopan City, the new capital city of Belize, was established 50 miles inland and at least 40m above sea level.

A growing population

While the Garden City, as it’s now known, has the smallest population of any capital city in the Americas, it’s not immune to the modern-day problems that growing cities experience all around the world.

Between 2000 and 2010, Belmopan experienced rapid population growth of over 17% per year.

This was driven not just by internal immigration but also inward immigration from other areas of Central America and across the Caribbean, as well as from further afield.

The growth has caused its own problems. Infrastructure that was built in the 1960s is under strain.

Developing a long-term, city-wide growth strategy that incorporates capacity planning in areas such as transport, water infrastructure, waste management and recycling are now top of the political agenda.

Smart cities

The city government has been adept at looking for solutions to problems, such as being part of the Global Covenant of Mayors and looking at how smart cities function.

Waste management is a typical example.

With 47% of waste being organic waste, much of it currently ends up decomposing in landfills and the rest being burnt.

A new waste separation initiative, including the collection of organic waste, means that shortly, Belmopan will have a new energy source as it turns that organic waste material into methane.

It will also put an end to the burning of rubbish, which in turn means better air quality for all.

Other initiatives include developing a food security strategy by encouraging multiple small-scale garden projects and the uptake of sustainable construction technologies.

As cities of all sizes and geographic locations continue to grow and develop, planners, engineers and politicians must think collectively, strategically and long-term.

Wherever the city is, and whatever its historical context, it must work for the citizens that call it home.

Learn more about resilience across the world through the Brunel International Lecture Series.

  • Sharon Palacio, Mayor of Belmopan at Belize