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The blog of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities on urban mobility, development and efficiency
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Beyond Uber: How the Private Sector is Disrupting Mobility

Tue, 2017-10-31 13:13

A taxi cab protest in Portland, Oregon, over ride-sharing services is recorded by an onlooker. (Photo by Aaron Parecki/Flickr)

In August 2017, Uber passed the 500 million rides mark in India. In under four years, the company has expanded to 29 cities and worked with close to half a million drivers. India’s homegrown competitor, Ola Cabs, is growing just as rapidly. But despite the sheer volume of attention – and business – that these companies have garnered, the disruption in urban mobility today goes deeper than the taxi industry.

According to Tracxn, a start-up tracking platform, 2,436 companies were founded globally in the transport technology sector in 2016. Of these, only 125 operated in the on-demand taxi space. A recent evaluation conducted by WRI India confirms the diversity of the field, finding that so-called “new mobility” companies are making an impact in four broad categories.

Mapping New Mobility

New mobility is a loose term that refers to models using technology to deliver transport in new ways. The most talked about disruptions have centered on re-inventing ownership and delivery, using data and connectivity in new ways, and reducing or even eliminating the use of non-renewable resources.

As is true of all markets amid a major disruption, there is little clarity today on how these models will impact cities tomorrow. What is clear, however, is the need to understand the change, indeed to “count it” – to track its evolution, evaluate its impact, and identify risks and opportunities.

WRI India recently reviewed the business models of 150 companies that applied to our accelerator programs between 2014 and 2017. We also interviewed representatives from 60 companies, including start-ups and business units within larger companies. Based on these reviews, we then classified the companies into 21 categories based on different criteria, including target audience, services offered and business model. The 21 categories were grouped based on additional factors such as area of disruption, technology employed and potential impact to arrive at four major areas of activity.

These categorizations can help us understand the various ways new mobility is changing urban transport:

  1. Shared mobility refers to models in which transportation options are shared among users, like Uber, Lyft and Ola Cabs, and was indeed the largest sector. While all mass transit and public transit modes are essentially shared modes, the term “shared mobility” is often colloquially used for models in which the sharing aspect has been accelerated by the use of mobile technology and smartphone apps. There are a further three categories of shared mobility models:
    • Ride sharing is the simultaneous sharing of transport services among commuters travelling in the same direction at the same time. It includes carpool, taxi share, auto-rickshaw share and bus aggregator
    • Ride hailing or ride sourcing refers to for-hire-vehicles setup using the internet that are used consecutively by commuters, such as taxis, motorcycle taxis and auto-rickshaws. These companies are referred to as aggregators and on-demand companies in India.
    • Vehicle sharing is the consecutive use of assets without ownership. These models allow commuters access to vehicles such as bicycles, cars and motorbikes for short periods of time.
  2. Commuter experience refers to models that somehow support an improved mobility experience for users, often via information sharing that helps people make better decisions. In India, there are broadly two areas in which private enterprises have emerged:
  3. Product innovation refers to businesses that are working to modify or improve transportation assets and vehicles. In India, activity has been limited in this segment, but is expected to grow on the back of the government’s recent electric vehicle commitments. We have mapped businesses across three main segments:
  4. Data-driven decision-making refers to models that use technologies such as sensors and GPS data to provide additional insight to drivers and planners. This is a nascent segment in the Indian market with a few niche products emerging from early stage companies and bespoke solutions from large IT companies. Two major categories so far are:
Implications for Cities

Advocates of new mobility credit the kinds of business outlined in the survey with a host of positive changes, including improving access to transport services and shifting people from “just in case” vehicle ownership to “just in time” vehicle access. On the flip side, sceptics have raised concerns about the impact on vehicle kilometers travelled, emissions and congestion.

The uncertainty and high stakes of the new mobility transition for cities and people are described by Robin Chase, co-founder of ZipCar and WRI board member, as a “heaven or hell” scenario.

“We get hell by taking a wait and see approach,” she says. Autonomous vehicles replace the private car and it becomes cheaper to have yours circle the block or drive home instead of parking. Autonomous delivery vehicles replace store fronts. Drivers of all kinds lose their jobs, despite more cars than ever on the road. And tax revenues that support road infrastructure plummet.

If most autonomous vehicles are operated in shared fleets and offer shared trips though, things could be different. “Instead of spending $9,000 a year on your own car,” Chase says, “when we combine car sharing and ride hailing and buy a seat in a shared autonomous vehicle, we can get door-to-door transport at the speed of private car travel for the cost of a subway ticket. This transforms people’s access to opportunity.”

City administrators everywhere are struggling to craft appropriate responses in this rapidly shifting landscape. In their quest to be more equitable, productive and sustainable, cities must set a vision for what they want to achieve (e.g., the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities), rather than letting technology set the agenda. They must also use all the policy tools at their disposal to shape outcomes: regulatory, infrastructural and financial. This will require convening and coalition building, re-thinking investments, and leveraging new technologies to upgrade formal and informal transport systems.

Jyot Chadha is the Director of the Urban Innovations Program at WRI India.

Jon Kher Kaw on Transformative Solutions for South Asia’s Growing Cities

Mon, 2017-10-30 13:13

Jon Kher Kaw, a senior urban development specialist at the World Bank, believes the most pressing challenge for urbanization in South Asian cities is accommodating the overwhelming number of new residents.

Reflecting on his wealth of experience working with cities in South Asia, Kaw recently spoke with WRI during a workshop for WRI’s flagship World Resources Report (WRR), “Towards a More Equal City.” He spoke about the region’s acute challenges and potential opportunities. The World Bank projects that around 250 million more people will be living in South Asian cities by 2030. “How we manage that [growth] to make cities continue to be productive and livable centers for people will be very, very important,” Kaw says.

Of course, South Asia isn’t a monolithic region, and cities need diverse solutions tailored to their local context. Nevertheless, Kaw sees patterns in how cities transform and says there are common solutions that have proven environmental and economic benefits.

Improving intra-city connectivity through bus rapid transit (BRT) systems and containing urban expansion through land use policies are two opportunities for tackling common challenges across the region, according to Kaw. BRTs can improve access to jobs, reduce time lost to congestion and make people more productive at relatively little cost. Managing sprawl, likewise, can help reduce a city’s carbon footprint and improve resource efficiency, although cities will need to address affordability concerns with more compact development.

As for cities that show progress, Kaw points to the example of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. “The city has transformed quite dramatically over the last 10 years. Today, [it] is a very different city from five years ago; it has very much improved in terms of connectivity as well as how land is managed within the city. There’s a lot of improvements in the urban space and freeing up land for productive and livable uses.”

Clearer Governance for More Efficiency and Accountability

For promising and innovative ideas to translate to change on the ground, there should be clear responsibilities outlined for each level of government, Kaw says.

City-level decision makers need to be responsive to immediate city needs and ensure basic services for all residents. “On the national government front, I think it’s important to set the urban agenda up front, thinking in terms of being very clear on their role on issues such as creating a system of cities [and] coordinating how cities come together,” he says. “Also, things like fiscal transfers and empowering local governments to make decisions on how to manage cities will be very, very important.”

Getting the relationship right between municipal and national governments is not easy, but it is imperative to making cities more financially effective and accountable to their residents.

Kaw suggests that cities should be empowered to leverage local assets. “What I mean is not only to just invest in capacity building but also to think about how to leverage on, for example, land value capture,” he says. “Only then can you think about how cities can be sustainable in the longer term.”

Alex Rogala is a former editor of TheCityFix and currently a master’s student in urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

China’s Clean Air Challenge: Time to Cut Maritime Pollution

Wed, 2017-10-25 13:13

China’s maritime sector is responsible for a large share of air pollution in coastal cities. Photo by IFPRI -IMAGES/Flickr

While cars and trucks are often blamed for air pollution, it’s time to bring ships into the equation. The maritime sector—mainly ships and ports—contributes a large share of air pollutant emissions in coastal cities and casts a deathly pall over coastal communities. Ships are the particularly noxious sources of sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, fine particulate matter and other air pollutants that are bad for human health. Shipping represents about 15 percent and 13 percent of global nitrogen and sulfur oxides from anthropogenic sources.

China has taken notice by incorporating maritime emissions into its national five-year-plan for transportation. As the world moves toward a cleaner economy, port cities and coastal nations will watch closely to see if China’s policies are effective at reducing maritime emissions.

Ship Emissions Hurt Coastal Communities

In major port cities, shipping activities represent a substantial share of total emissions—for example, around half of sulfur oxides in Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Shenzhen. Ships also contribute to more than 8 percent and 11 percent of sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides, respectively, in Chinese coastal cities. It is significant enough to raise the awareness of coastal emission control.

These emissions put a city’s development at risk. Increased illness and premature death caused by air pollution reduce quality of life, as well as labor productivity. Pollution also makes cities less attractive to talented workers, thereby reducing cities’ competitiveness.

There is a strong link between air pollution exposure and cardiovascular diseases, such as ischemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. Children, the elderly and the poor are the most vulnerable groups. Air pollution caused 5.5 million premature deaths worldwide in 2013, costing $5.11 trillion in welfare losses around the world—and that may be a conservative estimate.

The ship pollution has taken a toll on global coasts. In 2013, ship emissions led to more than 24,000 premature deaths in East Asia, with 18,000 fatalities in mainland China alone. However, studies of the health impact of global shipping are still limited.

China Moves Toward Green Ships and Ports

Greening ships and ports is a plank of the Ministry of Transport’s 13th-Five-Year Plan. It declares that by 2020, ship sulfur and nitrogen oxides and particulate matter emissions should be reduced by 65 percent, 20 percent and 30 percent respectively, relative to 2015, in China’s three most prosperous coastal regions – Pearl River Delta (PRD), the Yangtze River Delta (YRD) and Bohai Rim.

In the meantime, the ministry has issued action plans for pollution control of ships and emissions control for major ports. Some most important policies and solutions include:

  • Introduce domestic emission control areas (DECAs): China is setting DECAs in its three major coastal regions, requiring ships to use marine fuel of no more than 5,000 parts per million sulfur content through 2019. From 2020, the government will consider stricter requirements of 1,000 parts per million sulfur content, and to extend the geographical scope of DECAs. However, it is still behind the schedule of the existing DECAs set by the International Maritime Organization.
  • Draw cleaner power from the shore: China has been encouraging shore power—the provision of electricity to a ship at berth from a source on land—in recent years. This allows ships to shut down dirty engines while drawing cleaner electricity while they can. 493 berths will be equipped with shore power by 2020, and the government is subsidizing implementation.
  • Switch ships to cleaner fuels: Right now, most ships are powered by heavy fuel oil. But, by 2020, China aims to double its LNG-fueled vessels, a move supported by adding LNG facilities to port terminals.
  • Connect seaports with railways: Freight right now is unloaded from ships and carried inland mostly by trucks. Trucking, an emissions-intensive process, could be avoided if railways were directly connected with ports and operations synced for greater efficiency.

In recent years, WRI China has focused on promoting low emission zones not only in urban land areas, but also in coastal areas, researching how to reduce emissions from ships. What we see so far is that this not only requires better policies, technologies and financing solutions, but also knowledge and awareness from China’s government, industry and the public.

As the first step, we have developed guidelines to evaluate emission inventories and the social impact of maritime air pollution. By working with partners, we are conducting a training program in several Chinese cities, such as Qingdao and Guangzhou, with the aim to test our methodologies and influence policies with science-based evidence, and finally seek to scale our efforts regionally among maritime stakeholders and achieve a healthier coastal environment.

Su Song is a Research Associate in the WRI China Office.

Are Trains Better Than Bus Rapid Transit Systems? A Look at the Evidence

Mon, 2017-10-23 13:13

Brisbane, Australia’s South East Busway saw both a ridership increase and time travel reduction, in comparison to previous commutes. Photo by Harshil Shah/ Flickr

The world’s great public transit systems: Tokyo’s Metro, London’s Tube, Honk Kong’s MTR…and Mexico City’s bus rapid transit corridors? Trains are often seen as the pinnacle of modern urban transport infrastructure. They’re green and efficient, supported by permanent, complex track infrastructure. Bus rapid transit systems, on the other hand, are less flashy and often associated with their slow cousins, the local buses.

But in a new study published in Transport Reviews researchers Jesper Ingvardson and Otto Nielsen from the Technical University of Denmark point to data that suggests there’s little that separates the two approaches in many contexts.

Ingvardson and Nielsen compare 86 metro, light rail transit (LRT) and bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors using several variables: travel time savings, increase in demand from riders, modal shift, and land use and urban development changes. In some cases, the much more economical BRTs matched and even outperformed rail.

Travel Time and Ridership

The study starts by looking just at whether BRT can reduce travel times and improve mass transit ridership on its own.

There are large variations across BRT systems regarding travel time, making it difficult to draw broad conclusions, but overall they saw declines. While Metrobüs in Istanbul produced travel time savings of 65 percent compared to previous commutes, the Bus-VAO lane in Madrid led to 33 percent savings and the South Miami-Dade Busway just 10 percent.

Ridership gains after a new BRT corridor also varied: 150 percent in Istanbul, 85 percent in Madrid and 50 percent in Miami. Ridership gains are associated with travel time savings, but also derived from other factors such as the frequency of buses, station quality, vehicle type and user information systems.

Converting Drivers to Mass Transit

An interesting impact of mass transit implementation is its effect on drivers. In the 13 cities where Ingvardson and Nielsen studied BRTs, the number of riders who shifted from car trips ranged from 5 percent (Stockholm) to 40 percent (Adelaide), with a simple average of 17 percent. This figure is similar for the 24 LRTs (average 16 percent) and slightly lower than for the two metro systems included in the study (average 23 percent).

One caveat to these conclusions is that BRT and LRT corridors tend to be much smaller than metro corridors in terms of total volume of riders. The notable exception is Istanbul’s Metrobüs, which serves more than 600,000 passengers a day, 4 to 9 percent of which would otherwise be car users.

Land Values and Development

Despite the permanence of train tracks, Ingvardson and Nielsen found no significant difference in how BRTs, LRTs or metro impact land value. Land value increases ranged as high as 30 percent for BRT corridors; 32 percent for LRT; and 20 percent for regional rail and metro corridors. In several BRT and LRT cases, no increase in land value was observed; for the Coaster rail corridor in San Diego, a negative value was recorded.

Land value comparisons are difficult, however, because of varying assessment methodologies, distances to stations, and before and after time periods. It’s likely these conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt. The particular mass transit mode is less important than other factors, like access conditions, the urban environment, and service characteristics (e.g., frequency, speed, comfort and pricing). For the 41 projects with quantitative data, the differences in land values achieved by the different modes are not significant.

BRT, LRT and regional rail also show increased residential and commercial development around stations. Nevertheless, the improved access provided by transit is an insufficient driver of better land use. Other complementary activities, like changes in regulations, government support for investment in real estate, and investment in pedestrian connectivity, are required to achieve urban development goals. The most recognized case is Curitiba, Brazil, where 45 percent of the long-distance motorized trips in the BRT vicinity use the buses. There is also evidence of positive urban development impacts from the BRTs in Ottawa, Boston, Cleveland and Los Angeles.

There Is No Superior System

Ingvardson and Nielsen recognize that there are limitations in the data collected, analytical methodologies and even in the distinction between transit modes. There isn’t always a clear difference between light, regional or metro rail, for example, or between bus rapid transit and bus priority corridors.

Despite these limitations, the researchers conclude that BRTs can improve travel times, modal share and urban development at rates similar to those reported for light rail and metro. This evidence contradicts conventional wisdom. It is not possible to categorically say trains have greater benefits than BRT; they are not always superior. Context matters, not just the material of the wheels or the permanence of the tracks.

Dario Hidalgo is Director of the Integrated Transport Practice for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Fortaleza and São Paulo Experiment with Street Transformations

Wed, 2017-10-18 13:13

Temporary street redesigns in São Paulo and Fortaleza transform spaces for cars into spaces for people. Photo by Victor Moriyama/WRI Brasil/Flickr

Who has the right to the city? While giving priority to pedestrians may seem obvious, many cities have been built around reliance on the automobile and now struggle to reclaim streets for pedestrians or fail to see the value in doing so. Temporary and short-term redesigns are one low-risk way some cities are experimenting with taking back streets for pedestrians.

Following a growing trend, last month, Brazil converted two car-dominated areas of Fortaleza and São Paulo into pedestrian spaces, demonstrating the benefits of more human-centric urban development.

‘City of the People’

Cidade da Gente, or “City of the People,” is the first traffic-calming street transformation intervention in Fortaleza. In Cidade 2000, a residential neighborhood with local markets by day and a bustling restaurant district by night, the project reversed traditional road priority from vehicles to pedestrians. Cars were not completely excluded – one lane of traffic and parking spots were still available – but Cidade da Gente turned 1,200 square meters of parking space and traffic lanes into a pedestrian area for 15 days.

The city wants to involve residents in shaping their public spaces and measure how people interact with the new space. The transformation used paint, potted plants, benches and cones to create a bigger and improved area for pedestrians, expanding previously narrow sidewalks and adding street crossings and curb extensions to improve safety. One traffic lane was removed and the speed limit was also reduced. During the first weekend, the city administration used the area for musical performances, professional workshops and health screenings.

The goal of the initiative was to cultivate champions of human-oriented urban design and to show residents and cities what can be done to enhance public space. For two weeks, residents were able to provide feedback on the new urban design through an online platform developed by the city in partnership with the University of Fortaleza. Public opinion was overall positive, petitioning for the intervention to remain after the pilot period. Initially planned for 15 days, the city is now continuing the changes indefinitely.

“This is the first place in the city that we transformed from a car area into a large square,” said Mayor Roberto Claudio. “We took advantage of the flat infrastructure and put in a number of facilities to create a high-quality public space. We started with a pilot project so everybody can experiment and evaluate; then we will listen to the population. If we have support, our obligation will be to expand the policy. We believe this idea will thrive and go to other places in Fortaleza.”

Residents of all ages found new uses for the space in Fortaleza. Photo by Rodrigo Capote/WRI Brasil/Flickr

WRI Brasil, as part of the Bloomberg Initiative for Global Road Safety, partnered with the Global Designing Cities Initiative and Vital Strategies to provide technical support for the project. “It was incredible to see people getting back that space,” said Rafaela Machado, a road safety specialist for WRI Brasil. “Just after the initial paintings, people were already using the street furniture, taking pictures and asking if it would be permanent. It is a pleasure to see a place that used to be a parking lot turn into a joyful and vibrant public space.”

A Safer São Paulo

In São Paulo, another temporary intervention caused residents of the Santana neighborhood to reconsider the way they relate to urban design. In response to a challenge posed by the 11th São Paulo Architecture Biennial, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and Citi Foundation conducted a temporary urban intervention in partnership with WRI Brasil, the Bloomberg Initiative for Global Road Safety, Global Designing Cities Initiative, and city-run Traffic Engineering Company, CET-SP.

The intervention near Santana subway station and bus terminal, a very busy commercial area, included bright patterns and colors on street surfaces, with different types of traffic-calming measures, such as widening the pedestrian refuge medians, curb extensions and creating a mini roundabout. Two parking areas were turned into active areas, and obstacles like potted plants and traffic cones were positioned so people could not cross the street in dangerous places. Together, these changes organized traffic flows and reduced vehicle speeds, improving pedestrian safety.

São Paulo residents painted a roundabout in a busy intersection of Dr. Cesar and Salete Streets, transforming the space over night. Photo by Victor Moriyama/ WRI Brasil/ Flickr

The goal of the São Paulo project was to show residents how road safety can be improved through impactful design solutions and demonstrate the enhanced experience of walking through more “complete” streets.

Diogo Lemos, a road safety analyst at WRI Brasil, said that after a bus stopped for two ladies to cross the street, one of them said, “I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 82 years, and a bus has never stopped so promptly for me to cross.”

“As the design of the street changes, so does the behavior of people – pedestrians, drivers, cyclists and all other users,” Lemos said.

WRI Brasil staff carried out research to understand how people of all ages move near the Santana subway station and bus terminal in São Paulo. Photo by Victor Moriyama / WRI Brasil/ Flickr

The WRI Brasil team took advantage of the transformation to interact with pedestrians and analyze their flow around Santana metro and bus station. The residents marked on a map how they traveled to and from the station and highlighted high-risk areas in the neighborhood.

Both interventions show that building better, safer and healthier urban environments does not require large and costly new infrastructure. Spaces like these can be built with minor investments in any city and residents quickly recognize their benefits. Though both projects were well-received, the experience in Fortaleza in particular catalyzed a bigger change. The city expects to incorporate feedback from residents into the Cidade 2000 low-speed area project and implement similar interventions in other parts of the city.

The original version of this article appeared in Portuguese on WRI Brasil.

Bruno Felin is a Communications Specialist at WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities.

Amazon’s Challenge Shows Importance of Good Transit for Cities

Mon, 2017-10-16 13:13

Washington, D.C., a contender in the race for Amazon’s second headquarters, has extensive cycling infrastructure. Photo by World Resources Institute

Amazon’s recent announcement that it is seeking to build a second headquarters in a major North American city has sent cities from Los Angeles, to Chicago, to Toronto scrambling to outbid each other in an attempt to woo the corporate behemoth. Interestingly, as part of its request for proposals, Amazon explicitly expressed a preference for cities with access to good public transit.

Amazon is just one of a series of companies explicitly targeting urban locations with good access to public transit. Companies as diverse as GE, McDonalds, Caterpillar and Aetna are relocating from less easily accessible suburban office parks to downtown office buildings. This corporate migration to cities mirrors the overall population globally, as cities become ever more important centers of economic growth and activity.

In developed markets, in particular, generational preferences and economic imperatives in an increasingly competitive digital economy are driving the current wave of urbanization. While the baby boomer generation was known for its suburban migration, Generation Xers initiated the surge of youth into developed markets’ city centers, and the millennial generation has followed suit thanks to their preference for living in close proximity to work, public transit and entertainment. In the United States, for instance, the share of 25-34 year-olds who prefer close-in neighborhoods (within three miles of a city’s central business district) quintupled from 1990 to 2010. And young adults as a percentage of the total urban population in the United States rose from just 25 percent in 1990 to 40 percent in 2015.

Corporations have followed millennials into the cities as it allows them to take advantage of network effects and recruit a more highly educated workforce, both of which are crucial for continued success in today’s digital economy. Researchers have shown that innovators are more productive when living in proximity to other potential collaborators, highlighting the reason that innovation hubs such as Silicon Valley, New York, London, Tokyo and Toronto have remained among the most innovative cities for years. In fact, all of these cities are among the “global elite” on A.T. Kearney’s Global Cities Index, in part as a result of their strong ecosystems for businesses and innovation.

Amazon’s clear preference for quality public transportation highlights both the challenges and opportunities for cities during this ongoing wave of urbanization. In many cities around the world, rapid urbanization has resulted in increased congestion and strained public transit services. The New York City subway system, for instance, has experienced dramatic service challenges over the last few years as ridership has risen rapidly. Overcrowding on the London Underground has also increased steadily year over year, leading to warnings by public officials that the city’s growing population could overwhelm the system within the next 15 years.

To address congestion challenges, cities will increasingly need to implement innovative transportation solutions that meet the needs and preferences of growing urban populations. As discussed in the Global Trends 2017-2022 Report, “The Centrality of Governance,” cities are increasingly exploring the use of new technologies such as autonomous vehicles, ride sharing and drone delivery.

Cities are also repurposing older technologies to help reduce congestion and improve public transit. For instance, bus rapid transit – the use of dedicated lanes and specialized on- and off-boarding stations – is currently enjoying a popular resurgence. Dockless bike-sharing has also taken off, combining innovations such as sharing platforms and mobile devices, with the traditional transportation mode of the bicycle. Ofo and Mobike, two leading bike-sharing companies, are both worth over $3 billion and have aggressively expanded across China, Singapore, the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

There is no single answer to growing urban congestion; a mix of new technologies and systems will help cities cope with transport challenges. Those cities that are able to address their congestion issues in locally appropriate ways will gain a competitive advantage, attracting top talent and major corporations, bringing jobs, prosperity and enhanced quality of life to residents.

Paul A. Laudicina is a Partner and Chairman Emeritus of A.T. Kearney, and Chairman of the Global Business Policy Council. In addition to more than 40 years of private-sector experience, Paul has served in the public sector, including as legislative director to then U.S. Senator Joseph Biden from 1977 to 1982.

Do Brands Matter in Public Transit?

Thu, 2017-10-12 13:13

Metrolinx is undergoing a major brand refresh costing a quarter million dollars. Photo by Arild/Flickr

Metrolinx, the provincial government agency that oversees public transit in southern Ontario, including Toronto, recently found itself under fire for spending upwards of a quarter of a million dollars to refresh its brand. The agency says the primary impetus for the project is a lack of public understanding of what it does.

Research Metrolinx conducted in 2016 found that nearly half of the residents the agency serves don’t know what Metrolinx is or what role it plays. Still some charge that the transit agency is wasting taxpayers’ money on a mere stylistic logo change that has no connection to any real-world service improvements.

The uproar around this branding exercise raises some interesting questions. What is the role of branding in a public organization like Metrolinx? And are the benefits of a strong brand sufficient to justify this kind of expense?

More Than a Competitive Edge

For many organizations, brands provide an important competitive advantage. Brands make one kind of soap or soda feel different from the others – more compelling, more attractive, more memorable.

This motivation may seem less important in the world of public transit, where there is generally less direct competition between systems. After all, it’s not like there’s another company with a sexier brand running buses and trains around Toronto.

But brands can perform other functions besides competitive differentiation. And some of these functions are actually very important for public transit.

A strong brand can create a sense of consistency, continuity and trust. In the world of public transit, trust is critical. Without trust in the system – and in the entity that operates it – citizens are less likely to leave their cars at home and choose the bus or train instead.

When that happens and ridership drops, the results go well beyond the financial impact of declining fare revenues. After all, public transit is essential to an environmentally sustainable urban future. Increased ridership delivers many benefits to cities: less traffic, less pollution, better public health and safety. Decreased ridership has the opposite effect.

This problem isn’t just theoretical. In Washington D.C., declining trust in the Metro transit system, from maintenance and safety issues that negatively impacted its brand, led to 40,000 fewer riders between 2010 and 2014. Three years later, efforts to reverse the drop continue to be hampered by a lack of public trust.

More Than a Logo

The logo is the most visible element of any brand. But a brand is more than a logo, and a brand refresh like Metrolinx’s, if done well, generally encompasses much more.

A solid brand strategy connects isolated products or experiences to a bigger story with greater meaning. A bigger vision of the world and the brand’s place within it. We pay more for Nike shoes, for example, based on more than just the design and features of the shoes themselves. Nike’s simple swoosh logo contains layers of meaning and associations that connect to our own beliefs, desires and self-image.

Metrolinx isn’t selling shoes, but it is selling a vision. The organization is about to embark on what Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca has called a “once-in-a-generation, once in a lifetime” opportunity to expand transit in the region. This expansion will cost upwards of $34 billion. And Metrolinx can’t do it successfully without the cooperation and support of the community. The best way to earn that support is with a clear vision and a compelling story.

Oh, and it’s also helpful if more than half the people know you exist.

One more bonus: A compelling brand can galvanize employees and bring new value to the organization on multiple levels. Improved engagement can boost employee retention, lessening recruiting and training costs. Stronger alignment between departments can help teams focus better and improve operational efficiency. A greater sense of purpose and meaning can inspire employees across the organization – from front-line staff to executive leadership – to go the extra mile to help realize the vision.

From Research to Empathy

Public statements from Metrolinx have made it clear that the brand project also includes a significant research component. This is typical in projects like this. In addition to the functions mentioned already (differentiation, telling a bigger story), brands also help organizations better understand and align with their customers.

Brand research, done well, creates empathy within the organization – a deeper understanding of what customers truly need and care about. This is especially important today, at a time when many public service organizations, including transit authorities, have been given new mandates to be more customer-centric.

Historically, transit authorities have been run by engineers with something of a “trust us we know best” attitude. Today, these organizations are being forced to come to grips with the high expectations of modern customers empowered by digital and mobile technology.

This difficult shift typically begins with efforts to create a customer-centric mindset within the organization at large. In the best-case scenario, customer research done in support of a brand refresh would accelerate these efforts, increasing customer empathy and, eventually, leading to better experiences for millions of riders.

Risks Remain, But Not Acting May Be Worse

Of course, the best-case scenario doesn’t always come to pass. The truth is, many brand refresh projects fall short of the ideal. Some of them are less about solving real problems and more about a new coat of paint. A few even do more harm than good, distracting the organization from real, pressing problems instead of helping to solve them.

But for transit systems in particular, the risks of not acting may be even greater. If ridership declines due to a lack of trust or ability to keep pace with the needs and expectations of modern, digitally enabled citizens, cities will face more pollution, more traffic and more health and safety risks. And if community support declines in absence of a compelling story, planners will be unable to address these problems by improving transit infrastructure.

John Ounpuu is co-founder of Modern Craft, a Vancouver-based consultancy focused on helping brands keep pace with modern customers.


Addis Ababa’s New Light-Rail Network Gets a Safety Audit

Mon, 2017-10-09 13:13

Pedestrians arrive at Atklit Tera Station in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo by Tolga Imamoglu/WRI Turkey Sustainable Cities

Addis Ababa’s light rail transit system (LRT), launched in October 2015 as the first LRT in sub-Saharan Africa, serves some 120,000 passengers a day. The LRT may help reduce travel times for some, and lead to a safer, cleaner transport system. But in a city of 4.5 million that’s still growing and facing many development challenges, there are growing pains.

As a partner city with the Bloomberg Initiative for Global Road Safety, WRI Ross Center recently conducted a road safety inspection of Addis’s LRT corridors to improve pedestrian safety and station accessibility. The inspection covered all 39 stations on the green and blue lines. Following the inspection, WRI Ross Center provided recommendations and guidance to the city on making the station areas more accessible, safer and geared toward pedestrians.

Dangerous Crossings, High Speed Traffic

The findings from the study can be summarized in two main safety challenges.

First is the lack of safety measures in street and station designs. The 19.6-mile (31.6-kilometer) LRT passes through the city center and extends to the east, west and south of the city. It passes by open air marketplaces, bus terminals, stadiums, industrial zones and residential complexes. To facilitate last-mile connectivity, other modes of transport run alongside and feed into the LRT corridor, creating congestion and dangerous conditions.

Atklit Tera Level Station currently. Graphic by WRI Ross Center for Sustainble Cities

Recommended design changes to improve road safety. Graphic by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

Poor sidewalk conditions and road markings, lack of safe medians and traffic islands, poorly constructed ramps and stairs, and insufficient night lighting make accessing stations dangerous. In many cases, pedestrians are expected to cross four lanes of traffic in each direction with minimal protection from oncoming traffic.

The second major safety issue is speed. Ultimately, reducing road traffic speeds makes the biggest impact on pedestrian safety. The risk of pedestrian death from vehicle impact decreases rapidly at vehicle speeds below

In Addis, most pedestrian crossings to LRT stations are “at grade,” or street level. To better protect pedestrians, we recommended the city create raised crossings. These both reduce the speed of traffic, as cars needs to slow down to pass over them, and provide better protection to users.

Accessing stations is not safe for vulnerable road users. Photo by Tolga Imamoglu/WRI Turkey Sustainable Cities

While overhead crossings may seem safer as pedestrians are not coming into direct contact with traffic, research has shown that many people simply continue to cross at-grade because of the convenience, all while the city assumes safety protections have already been put in place because of the bridge.

In addition to the raised crossings, WRI Ross Center also recommended lower speed limits around stations during peak hours.

Safer Streets for Safer Cities

In June 2017, WRI Ross Center shared its recommendations in detail with different transport agencies in the city. The Transport Management Agency, the leading agency on road safety in Addis Ababa, has developed a plan to implement the recommendations and WRI Ross Center is working very closely with them to provide technical expertise.

Research from WRI Ross Center demonstrates that mass public transportation systems can reduce motor vehicle use, significantly improve traffic safety, and reduce traffic-related injuries and fatalities. However, as the LRT system in Addis shows, seemingly small design decisions can make a big difference. It’s important to understand the interaction between different transport modes, in particular, to provide sustainable, safe and accessible transport for all road users.

As Addis Ababa develops an integrated transportation system for its growing population, road safety should be at the center of all projects.

Celal Tolga Imamoglu is the Road Safety Projects Manager at WRI Turkey Sustainable Cities.

Iman Abubaker is a Health and Road Safety Project Coordinator for WRI Africa.

Beyond “Take, Make, Waste”: Developing Cities Show the Possibilities of the Circular Economy

Wed, 2017-10-04 13:13

Sidewalk shoe-repair stands demonstrate how some emerging countries embrace the circular economy. Photo by Panoramio/Wikimedia

By 2050, the global population is expected to soar beyond 9 billion people, 66 percent of whom may live in cities. Accompanying this stunning pace of urbanization will be a complex web of challenges related to consumption, pollution and water and energy stresses.

Recently, the concept of a circular economy has gained traction as a solution that would ameliorate the burden on natural resources while still encouraging economic growth. The concept is simple: minimize the disposal of waste and the need for raw materials by keeping existing materials and assets in the production cycle. This alternative economic system transforms our current linear economy, which “takes, makes and wastes” into one that reuses, recycles and repairs.

Though China embraced the circular economy from the mid-2000s, conversations about the circular economy are now taking place in many countries around the world, in particular developed countries. Large corporations, foundations and local governments have gotten behind the CE as the new way forward. But given that most of urban growth will take place in less developed countries, their rapidly urbanizing cities need to be included, and even prioritized.

Circular Solutions in Developing Countries

People in developing country cities use “circular economy” principles every day – picking through waste, using less and repairing more. As Deputy Director for the UN Environment Programme, Ibrahim Thiaw, noted, “repairing is part of the DNA of developing countries.”

These practices are, by and large, driven by poverty: necessity is the mother of invention. But as these countries develop, the challenge will be to find ways to deploy systematically circular solutions that drive economic, environmental and social value.  Here are three examples of CE in practice.

The sludge-to-energy plant in Xiangyang, China. Photo by Xiaotian Fu/WRI

  • In Xiangyang, China, government and business leaders came together to implement a sludge-to-energy program. Through this public-private partnership, the city built a biorefinery on the site of an existing wastewater treatment facility. The refinery takes sludge from the wastewater treatment process and combines it with local food waste to produce biochar and compressed natural gas. The project is reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 95-98 percent and financially breaking even by including sales of biochar and natural gas.
  • The Integrated Waste Exchange in Cape Town, South Africa is a free online system that connects individuals, schools and businesses that wish to exchange their waste or excess materials. Developed by the city, this peer-to-peer exchange platform facilitates a circular flow of materials like batteries, textiles, metals and other materials while saving users money, conserving energy and reducing pressure on already constrained landfills.
  • In Kolkata, India, several stakeholders came together to launch a bus service that runs entirely on renewable biogas. The firm that produces the biogas (from animal and plant waste) worked with the government to place biogas pumps around the city and partnered with Ashok Leyland, a major vehicle manufacturing company, to produce the buses. Riding the bus isn’t just sustainable, it’s cost-effective: because biogas is significantly less expensive than other fuels, bus fares will begin at just Re 1 (less than $0.02), a twelfth the cost of the next-cheapest bus.

These case studies illustrate three core principles often associated with successful CE programs:

  1. Collaborate outside your comfort zone. The circular economy often begets solutions that are cross-sector by nature. Implementing these solutions will require business models that are prepared to consider and involve stakeholders from various sectors throughout a supply chain.
  2. Work at the appropriate scale. In the example of an Integrated Waste Exchange, success at the city level is only possible through the development of an effective household program. Projects could be aimed at businesses, households or public services. Ultimately, the circular economy will transform each of these areas.
  3. Establish priority sectors. Inadequate waste management, energy access and food are persistent problems in developing country cities, making these sectors logical entry points to begin implementing a circular model.
Making Habits into Systems

While these instances of circular projects are encouraging, they remain largely isolated and disjointed. For developing cities to fully participate in the circular economy, they must be able to extend informal repair networks and isolated projects to a more intentional approach, systematized through policies.

The first step will be recognizing the circular economy as an opportunity that could offer a better path for development. Once incentives are established, cities should plan to enact the three lessons above – establish priority sectors, choose the right scale and collaborate. City governments in both developed and developing countries play a significant role in facilitating projects, and the circular economy is no exception.

Lastly, the emerging global network of circular economy experts should expand its horizons to include more work among developing-country cities. Securing funding for pilot projects will be crucial, as it was in the sludge-to-energy example. With this support network in place, developing cities can increase the pace at which they are able to pilot projects and scale them to a systems-level circular economy.

Juan-Carlos Altamirano is an Economist on World Resources Institute’s Economics Team.

Anne Maassen is the Energy, Climate and Finance Associate for Energy and Climate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Olivia Prieto was an intern with WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

The Crisis in Affordable Housing Is a Problem for Cities Everywhere

Mon, 2017-10-02 13:13

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower brought to light the global challenge of urban inequality and affordable housing. Photo by Wasi Daniju/Flickr

There has perhaps been more attention paid to affordable housing this year than any in recent memory, but it took a tragedy to make it so. The horror of Grenfell Tower touched off a national conversation in the United Kingdom about inequality and the ways urgent community feedback gets lost in government bureaucracy. But more broadly, it is symptomatic of the insufficient attention given to affordable housing everywhere as the world becomes more and more urban.

A third of all urban dwellers worldwide – 1.2 billion people – lack access to safe and secure housing. The gap is worst in lower- and middle-income countries, where some cities are growing so quickly that governments cannot build out services and infrastructure fast enough to accommodate new arrivals. The result is millions living in inadequate conditions and fraying trust in governments.

In the same week that more than 80 people died in West London earlier this year, a Nigerian court ruled the government had acted unconstitutionally when it forcibly evicted more than 5,000 people from waterfront slums in Lagos. The population of Lagos has nearly doubled in the last two decades and is on track to surpass 24 million people by 2030.

Similar stories play out every day in cities around the world. In March, a landslide at Ethiopia’s largest dumpsite killed at least 65 people as it flattened precarious houses built on top. And during the run-up to the 2016 Olympic games, Rio is estimated to have displaced up to 60,000 people to make way for new facilities, highlighting the vulnerability of people in Brazil’s favelas.

If current trends continue, by 2025 as many as 1.6 billion people around the world will lack access to affordable, adequate and secure housing. As urban populations grow, the housing gap will widen, exacerbating inequality and threatening the traditional view of cities as reliable drivers of economic growth. These are the conclusions of our WRI Ross Center working paper on the housing crisis, part of a larger report on how to make cities more equal, safer and healthier places to live. This is an urgent challenge that will affect cities in all countries as we trudge towards a world of more than 9 billion people, 60 percent of whom will live in urban areas.

But there are solutions available that can improve the lives of people in cities – and improve cities at the same time.

The most critical recommendation is that city officials should not look to relocate people, but rather they should improve and secure existing areas of informal housing – and, critically, they need to involve communities in the process.

The conventional approach in too many places is to displace poor residents and destroy their homes to make way for new development. But this has an adverse effect on these populations. Many informal settlements and slums have strong social fabrics, home to people with economic and cultural ties to one another. These elements contribute to the kind of well-functioning neighborhoods that define great cities and could be harnessed by to accommodate people where they already are.

City leaders should encourage neighborhoods to develop from the ground up and build on this knowledge and energy rather than discarding it.

In Pune, a metropolitan area of more than 6 million people in India, the government began a redevelopment program in 2005 designed to improve conditions in slums. Three methods were used: relocation to new housing without community participation, upgrading of existing housing without community participation, and upgrading of existing housing with community participation. Those communities that took part in the participatory upgrading process experienced substantially better results, including improved living conditions and more functional neighborhoods with higher degrees of self-governance. In turn, they became less reliant on government assistance and had the organizational foundation to better address other problems, like insecurity and poverty. In the cases where communities were not involved in the process at all, many newly constructed facilities were eventually abandoned.

Even as it may look different from place to place, a bottom-up approach to fixing the housing gap and other related urban problems is one to be emulated. Organizations like Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) are working on similar participatory approaches elsewhere in Asia and Africa. SDI helps organize a network of thousands of urban poor “federations,” giving them access to lines of micro credit, stopping evictions and generally helping them voice community concerns in crowded and contested political spaces. Other examples include the Baan Mankong Collective Housing Program in Thailand, led by the Community Organizations Development Institute, and the Orangi Pilot Project in Pakistan, which has developed low-cost, community led-approaches to sanitation.

In cities, the reality is that the well-being of the under-served impacts the well-being of everyone, and housing is only one of the elements critical to the integrated approach that we need to create healthy, equitable and thriving cities. Forcibly relocating the poor will produce more inequality, higher infrastructure and transportation costs, higher carbon emissions and decreased productivity.

Context matters. The precise approach will be different for each geography, but we must find ways to preserve and encourage community and embrace everyone’s right to the city. These lessons are salient in neighborhoods and cities throughout the world, from Lagos to London, Paris to Pune.

Robin King is the Director of Knowledge Capture and Collaboration at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Video: Rit Aggarwala on the Promise of Big Data and a More Responsive City

Mon, 2017-09-25 13:08

Rit Aggarwala says we should think of the city as a machine. “It requires capacity to handle the people, the traffic, the throughput, the sewage, the garbage, everything that a city is there to handle. And if it is overcapacity, it inevitably breaks down. That’s where we get traffic congestion, that’s where we get environmental degradation.”

Aggarwala, co-head of labs at Sidewalk Labs and former head of New York City’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, recently visited WRI to discuss the opportunities for technology to add to capacity and improve urban life worldwide.

Many cities in the global south simply are not prepared for the number of new residents they are seeing. Technology and big data can help, Aggarwala argues, but only if they are part of a larger plan for managing growth.

“If you plan for growth, you can make it okay,” he says. “If you don’t – if you ignore it, if you pretend it’s not going to exist, if you pretend that you can stop it by neglecting it – you actually get a terrible environmental catastrophe and you get a city that does not provide opportunity for its people.”

Data for Decision-Making

“The millions and billions of activities and decisions and interactions that are going on in a big city at any given moment, humans can’t really keep track of all that,” Aggarwala says. “What technology offers is the opportunity to gather all of that information and process it and make available what’s necessary, what’s useful.”

Big data doesn’t necessarily mean big government, with centralized decision-making powers, he cautions. Big data can also enable decision-making at the individual and local level through user-oriented technologies like self-configuring transit networks and automated permitting and approval systems. “You can think not only about streamlining government, but in fact about driving government decisions down to the public in a way that’s responsive and also doesn’t just empower one group that might be advantaged in terms of interacting with government,” he says.

Accountability and equity are key, and urban decision-makers have an important part to play, Aggarwala says. From wi-fi access to car-sharing services, city governments can help ensure that technology benefits everyone, not just those who can pay the most.

“We know from cities all over the world that poorer people have longer commutes than wealthier people,” he says. “If we can improve traffic congestion, that will actually have a disproportionately greater impact on the poor people who are coming from longer distances.”

Lessons from New York

From 2006 to 2010, Aggarwala worked for Mayor Michael Bloomberg where among other tasks he was responsible for “PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York,” which helped reduce the city’s carbon footprint by 19 percent from 2005 to 2013. He had three takeaways from the experience.

First, it’s important to include a wide range of stakeholders. “You can’t do this as a top-down plan,” he says. The Sustainability Advisory Board brought together a group of 17 leaders from different organizations to advise the city, and Aggarwala’s team met with more than 50 community groups through private and public meetings to collect ideas and feedback.

Second, it’s essential to tie decision-making to data and analysis. “‘If you can’t analyze it, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,’ as Mike Bloomberg always said. And what decision-makers need to do is provide evidence both for what they want to do and how they are doing as they progress.”

Lastly, Aggarwala believes that government should be ambitious and aggressive – but also focused.

“I think one of the things that the Bloomberg administration did very well was focus on policies that the city government had the power to determine, rather than trying to have programs and other things where it was trying to make up for the shortcomings in policy areas that it did not actually have authority over,” he says. “I think if every mayor in the world, if every city government in the world actually used all the tools at its disposal and thought creatively and aggressively about how to do that, cities would be more empowered and you would have more responsive cities that served their citizens better.”

Alex Rogala is a former editor of TheCityFix and currently a master’s student in urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Make Cycling Safer in China – By Design

Fri, 2017-09-22 13:13

Chinese Citizen Cautiously Bikes Around Beijing. Photo by Benoit Colin/WRI

Originally appeared at ChinaDaily

The renaissance of bike-riding is a welcome development, so let’s improve conditions for the users.

Orange, yellow, blue, green, rainbow … bike lanes in Chinese cities are quite colorful these days.

Thanks to the new bike-sharing business, one of the greenest and healthiest ways to travel – cycling – is experiencing a surprising renaissance in China. The new bike-sharing companies, such as Mobike and ofo, have placed more than 16 million shared bikes in at least 150 cities. They are changing the way people commute.

While cycling is becoming more fashionable than at any time in the recent past, there are more fundamental improvements in infrastructure that cities should make to create a safe, convenient and enjoyable cycling experience.

According to the World Health Organization, about 8 percent of traffic deaths in China are cyclists (excluding motorized two-and three-wheelers). Another survey in 2013 found that 85 percent of Chinese residents are not satisfied with their cycling environment. The reasons can be attributed to traffic safety, bike lane design and network coverage.

The World Resources Institute has conducted research on the relationship between vehicle speed and crashes. It found that higher speed contributes to more traffic incidents. Moreover, a crash speed of 50 kilometers per hour could put the fatality rate of vulnerable road users as high as 80 percent.

Cyclists are exposed to greater dangers when they share the roads with heavier, high-speed vehicles. Wide intersections are the blackspots for traffic safety in China because the complex traffic and conflict points create a hostile environment for cyclists to cross and turn.

Another safety issue is at bus stops, especially when cyclists find themselves obstructed and trapped by approaching buses. Lowering the speed limit of vehicles where bike users are present, narrowing the width of intersections and installing protected bicycle lanes with traffic-calming measures – especially, in suburban or peripheral areas where heavy vehicles roam the streets and cars travel at high speeds – can improve safety for cyclists.

Moreover, designing more friendly cycling spaces is important. Cyclists are forced to share limited space with parked cars, mopeds and delivery vehicles. In many places. Those vehicles block the bike lane and force cyclists to ride in the traffic lane or on sidewalks. This creates conflicts between bicycles, vehicles and pedestrians and has negative impacts on safety and comfort.

Cities have yet to formulate proper regulations and enforcement to manage this issues.

For cycling, a systematic approach is the best way to improve safety and comfort. For example, although Chinese cities are building extensive bike lanes, some are one-ways that end abruptly without connecting to other transport networks.

Piecemeal interventions can improve a section of road or an intersection but will not have much impact on the safety and further development of cycling. This suggests that cities should create cycling network plans linked with greater transportation infrastructure.

Some innovative cities have already proposed such plans. Shanghai, for example, is working on plans that will improve the safety of its cycling network.

Such networks, sometimes called “greenways”, not only connect bike lanes on urban roads, but also integrate them with recreation areas and multiple modes of transportation, such as subways and buses.

In addition to bike lane design, other bike facilities are also important to a safe and enjoyable cycling experience. Because of the overwhelming popularity of bike sharing, existing facilities cannot meet the demand. As a result, sidewalks are clogged with parked bicycles, especially around transit stations. This has created conflicts between cyclists, pedestrians and transit users.

Some policymakers have begun to think bike sharing is a nuisance. However, the issues can be mitigated by careful planning. Dedicated bike parking should be carefully designed to be meet the needs of bicycle users. Moreover, other facilities can help create a safe and enjoyable cycling environment – bicycle traffic lights, street lighting, bike lane pavement and shade, for example.

It is exciting to see that cycling is making a comeback in China. However, the growing demand has put a strain on the system. The decision-makers should respond to the increasing demand by providing new cycling facilities and upgrade the existing infrastructure to provide safe, convenient and enjoyable facilities for the cyclists.

However, it is still common to see policies that prioritize motor vehicles over bicycles. The decision-makers should put people at the heart of the process and utilize this opportunity improve the livability of cities.

The writers are researchers with the World Resources Institute. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Kim Lua is a Senior Associate for the Health and Road Safety Program in the WRI China office.

Wei Li is a Research Analyst and Transport Planner in the WRI China office.

London Illustrates the Benefits – and Risks – of Compact Growth

Wed, 2017-09-20 13:13

London from above. Photo by Michael Garnett/Flickr

Islington is the most densely populated area in the United Kingdom, yet wandering around the quiet streets of the north London borough, it is difficult to appreciate just how many people live there. Handsome terraces, elegant squares and a plethora of parks disguise the fact that there are nearly 14,000 people packed into each square kilometer.

By comparison, anyone passing through Southwark, on the other side of the Thames, is immediately aware of the crowds of people who live and work in the area. New glass towers loom over the major roads while older council housing squat heavily on the back streets. Cars crawl through the famously congested roundabout and the air is heavy with pollution. Yet Southwark has fewer than 10,000 residents per square kilometer, significantly less dense than many of its more desirable northern neighbors, including Kensington, Chelsea, Hackney, Camden, Tower Hamlets and, of course, Islington.

Increasing the number of people living and working in an area can generate huge benefits for a city – if managed well. Productivity rises as people spend less time and money travelling and can share knowledge and ideas more freely. Businesses can reduce production costs when they have access to more suppliers and workers. And it’s cheaper to provide services such as health care, waste collection and transport when more people use them.

But there are also risks. For the first time, researchers have estimated the monetary value of these benefits, finding both positives and negatives for urban residents. Their findings are published in the first working paper from the Coalition for Urban Transitions, a network of more than 20 organizations committed to enhancing the economic, social and environmental performance of cities.

Productivity Gains, Housing Costs

Drawing on more than 300 academic papers, “Demystifying Compact Urban Growth: Evidence from 300 Studies Across the World” demonstrates that increasing population density generates significant economic returns. The authors find that a 10 percent increase in the number of people living and working in an area enhances productivity by approximately $71 per person per year. Better access to jobs is worth another $62, while improved access to services and amenities is valued at $49. Increased population density is also associated with better environmental outcomes, including preservation of green space and greater energy efficiency.

All other things being equal, this suggests that compact cities like Hong Kong, New York and Paris are likely to be richer and more sustainable than sprawling cities such as Houston or Melbourne.

A more compact city is not a silver bullet, however: there are also risks associated with increasing population density. Careful urban planning is required to mitigate these risks, and deliver the potential economic and environmental benefits.

First, a 10 percent increase in the number of people living and working in an area can lead to more congestion, with an estimated cost of $35 per person a year. Significant investment in public transport, cycling lanes and pedestrian walkways is essential to ensure that people can move around the city without cars.

Second, this increase in density increases housing costs by $240 per person per year. Such growth in housing prices might benefit people who own their own homes or rent out property, but it is a challenge for renters. As low-income households are more likely to rent, there is a risk that compact city policies exacerbate inequality.

Governments can avoid an increase in housing costs through policies to increase housing supply. A steady flow of new homes coming on to the market can have a downward effect on housing prices, which may outweigh the upward effect caused by increasing population density.

Lessons from London

In the 19th century, the city of London undertook a series of extraordinarily ambitious urban infrastructure projects that continue to shape the city. The world’s first underground railway was opened in 1863; today, the London Underground carries an average of 5 million passengers per day.

In the 1860s, a vast network of sewers and drains were constructed to serve the 3 million people living in London. These pipes ended the waves of dysentery, typhoid and cholera that devastated the city, and continue to be used by more than 8 million Londoners. These far-sighted investments enabled people to live and work in close proximity to each other, helping to sustain the city’s population and economic growth for more than a century.

A walk through London today suggests it is now struggling to manage population density. Despite the new Crossrail railway expansion and the proliferation of cycling lanes and iconic red buses on every street, many people continue to depend on cars. As a result, London has the worst air pollution in Western Europe. A normal day’s exposure is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes.

The problems extend from transport to housing. House prices in Islington have doubled in the last decade, a period when real wages stagnated. The soaring property prices are the favorite topic of struggling renters or prospective buyers. The city needs to build more than 50,000 homes a year to keep up with population growth, while redressing decades of neglect in the existing housing stock. The failures of London’s housing policy were made all too clear with the shocking fire that devastated Grenfell Tower and the lives of its residents.

Thousands of people move to London every year for the economic and social opportunities associated with this extraordinary city. Its dynamism is due in no small part to its high population density. However, the city’s strained transport system and spiraling house prices underscore the importance of strategic government intervention to manage the risks of crowding so many people into such a small area. Large-scale investment in public transport and housing are essential to ensure that compact cities are also livable and affordable.

This original version of this article was published in CityMetric.

Sarah Colenbrander is a researcher with the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development and senior economist with the Coalition for Urban Transitions. The working paper, “Demystifying Compact Urban Growth: Evidence from 300 Studies Across the World,” was prepared for the Coalition for Urban Transitions by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Video: Edgar Pieterse on Housing and the Democracy Deficit in African Cities

Mon, 2017-09-18 13:30

Edgar Pieterse, an urban scholar and founding director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, says there are two major challenges facing African cities today. First, the majority of urban residents don’t have access to decent housing or basic services, and second, there are few ways people can democratically shape the future of their cities.

Pieterse spoke with WRI during a workshop for the latest World Resources Report (WRR), on achieving more prosperous, sustainable and equitable cities for all. Research from the WRR shows that as much as 70 percent of residents in cities of the global south lack reliable access to core urban services like housing, clean energy and transport.

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa face some of the highest rates of urbanization as more and more people – many of them young and low-income – move from rural areas looking for economic opportunity. Up from the lowest ratio of urban dwellers in the world today, it’s estimated that more than half of Africa’s population will live in cities by 2040. Many urban areas are facing an overwhelming number of new residents.

Tangible and Intangible Benefits

The good news is that some African cities are pushing forward with innovative solutions and finding success.

Take transit, a core service that can link residents to economic opportunities . “In Lagos, we’ve seen the emergence of a really important and significant integrated public transport system,” Pieterse says, “and we’ve also seen similar patterns emerge in cities like Addis and Johannesburg.” Four African cities now have bus rapid transit systems in operation, serving more than 460,000 passengers a day.

“Other examples of innovation,” Pieterse points out, “have been areas of community-driven housing and informal settlement upgrading.” Rather than removing residents from their homes, slum upgrading typically involves formalizing services and infrastructure for neighborhoods so that people can stay in place. In parts of Nairobi, for example, community groups and NGOs have successfully challenged slum clearance efforts and negotiated improvements with landlords.

These kinds of technical solutions provide tangible benefits to cities and communities, but Pieterse believes there’s intangible value too.

“They are finally getting an opportunity to be included in the resource allocation and the governance of these cities,” he says. “Public transport and investment in basic services and public housing all represent an opportunity for the excluded to now have a stake and a say in the future of their cities.”

A Citizen-Driven Vision

Given the significant benefits of investing in infrastructure and services, Pieterse suggests three priorities for decision-makers to get Africa’s urban transition right.

“I would argue that, one, they need to get the evidence base right,” he says. Reliable data about demand for local transport options,  or the gap in affordable housing  in the city, for example, can help leaders understand critical challenges and opportunities.

Second, community engagement is important so the public has buy-in and can help shape solutions that are truly sustainable. “They’ve got to invest in participatory development processes so that they can get the citizens of the city to determine for themselves what the critical issues are and how they should be addressed,” Pieterse says.

Lastly, he says decision-makers should make sure they are encouraging healthy private sector investment that’s balanced with a resident-driven public agenda. “Make sure the investors who have an interest in making these cities work and in establishing a long-term base, that they themselves buy into this vision that has been driven by the citizens.”

“In thinking through how cities can gain confidence and capacity in dealing with urban challenges,” Pieterse says, “it is obvious that they will have to both invest their own resources in building the capacity of their leaders and their staff, but they also need to participate actively in various African and global networks…drawing on international networks and resources such as the World Resources Institute, Cities Alliance, and the African Urban Research Initiative.”

Alex Rogala is a former editor of TheCityFix and currently a master’s student in urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

How Commuting Choices Influence Quality of Life in India’s Cities

Mon, 2017-09-11 13:30

Research in Delhi found exposure to air pollution is significantly higher in open-air auto-rickshaws and buses compared to other modes of transport. Photo by Alex Graves/Flickr

Cities across India are undertaking a variety of land-use, transportation and housing projects, but most plans do not consider the connection between the built environment and the health of residents. This is a mistake, according to new research by the University of Massachusetts and the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi recently published in Environmental Research.

More than 99 percent of India’s residents live in areas that do not pass the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines. Taken together, India and China accounted for half of all deaths attributed to ambient air pollution worldwide in 2015.

In many Indian cities, large numbers of people live in close proximity to road traffic and spend a great deal of time commuting. Their exposure to pollutants can vary based on neighborhood type, distance from the city center, and mode and length of commute, but these are all variables that policymakers can address. Land-use and transportation planning play important roles in influencing urban air quality.

A Closer Look at Exposure

Daily exposure to air pollutants just from traffic in India can be as high as total daily exposure from all sources in developed countries. But only a limited number studies have been conducted on the details of exposure to traffic-related pollution in India and they have produced somewhat conflicting results.

Mode of transport and duration of travel are the two main determinants of exposure for commuters, with other factors playing a smaller role, including land use around the route, driving conditions (e.g., idling times and smooth vs. stop-and-go traffic) and total traffic volume. Since personal exposure takes into account pollution levels as well as time spent in the specific environment, longer commute times (due to traffic jams, congestion, etc.) can also contribute to higher exposure levels.

Overall, results have varied but air-conditioned cars and buses seem to have comparatively lower in-vehicle pollution levels than open-air vehicles, bicycling, or walking.

To help fill-in the data gaps, our study focused on in-vehicle exposure to fine particle pollution (PM2.5) and black carbon (or soot) in different modes of transport, particularly buses, auto-rickshaws and cars. Air quality data was collected along a 22-km (13.7-mile) stretch of Delhi, India’s capital where the average person spends between 60 to 120 minutes a day commuting, including parts of a highway as well as commercial and residential neighborhoods. In addition, personal exposure data was collected for a group of volunteers to understand their daily activity patterns and associated exposures.

The study concluded that auto-rickshaws, a popular mode of transport in Delhi and elsewhere in India, are associated with very high levels of air pollution exposure, both for fine particles and soot. On the other hand, air-conditioned public buses running on compressed natural gas have the lowest in-vehicle concentration of soot particles.

Measurements for all modes were collected by a network of volunteers in Delhi, riding a mix of cars, auto-rickshaws, buses and walking. Measurements for exposure in auto-rickshaws and buses were made by research staff.

It was also evident that exposure during commuting can vary significantly from person to person: mode of transport, duration and route of the journey are all key factors. Furthermore, ambient levels of fine particles and soot were found to be strongly linked with in-vehicle concentration for auto-rickshaws, but it wasn’t as significant for buses. In simpler terms, on a typical morning in Delhi, travelling to work by auto-rickshaw is likely to expose you to a higher concentration of fine particles, compared to the same journey in a bus or a car with the windows rolled up. This is not entirely surprising, since auto-rickshaws are open vehicles and there are no barriers for protection. Furthermore, in-vehicle concentrations are often higher during traffic jams when vehicles are idle (typical idling times for Delhi vary between 18 and 37 percent of the total driving time).

Measurements for all modes were collected by a network of volunteers in Delhi, riding a mix of cars, auto-rickshaws, buses and walking. Measurements for exposure in auto-rickshaws and buses were made by research staff.

Air pollution exposure in auto-rickshaws may be even higher elsewhere. Delhi’s public transportation and buses, as well as auto-rickshaws, run on compressed natural gas, which reduces soot emissions. Elsewhere, buses and auto-rickshaws use high-sulphur diesel fuel. Exposure levels while in auto-rickshaws then may be higher in other cities. Furthermore, the general preference of women to use auto-rickshaws over buses for personal safety means they can suffer from even higher levels of exposure.

An Integral Component of Urban Design

India will be home to 14 percent of the global urban population by 2050. To minimize health effects, it is imperative that pollution control strategies (not to mention climate change mitigation) take into account the many ways people can be exposed to fine particulate matter, soot and other air pollutants.

Urban improvement and redevelopment projects that are focused on the promotion of public and non-motorized transportation, such as the government’s AMRUT program, should adopt reduction of air pollution exposure as a basic design principle. Better integration across national, state and local urban policymaking can pave the way for long-term improvements in breathability.

A careful assessment is required to understand in-vehicle exposure with respect to land use and traffic characteristics as well as fuel choices. But it is clear that investments in infrastructure that reduce travel times and create distinct motorized traffic, bicycle and pedestrian thoroughfares can improve the health of residents and commuters in multiple ways.

Pallavi Pant is a postdoctoral research associate at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the lead author of “PM2.5 Exposure in Highly Polluted Cities: A Case Study From New Delhi, India,” with Gazala Habib, Julian D. Marshall ad Richard E. Peltier.

After the Deluge: How Houston Can Rebuild With Resilience

Sat, 2017-09-09 01:20

Flooded coastal cities following Hurricane Harvey. Photo by Daniel J. Martinez/The National Guard/Flickr

As southeast Texas residents and officials conduct what’s certain to be a grim accounting of Hurricane Harvey’s deadly impacts, they will also turn their attention to rebuilding and recovery. When they do, they will face a clear choice: whether to return to past practices that put them at risk of devastating loss and damage, or to build back more resiliently, with policies and practices that better protect its residents, especially the most vulnerable.

It’s a choice that countless communities confront as climate change fuels more frequent and intense storms and higher sea levels, both of which increase the risk of flooding. These effects are being felt across the globe: in the past few days, as Harvey unfolded in the United States, floods from extreme monsoons killed more than 1,200 people in Southeast Asia.

Climate Change’s Fingerprints

In the weeks and months ahead, scientists will work to unravel the connection between climate change and the likelihood of Harvey’s occurrence. In the meantime, we know that climate change very likely contributed to the storm’s devastating impacts. Climate change has resulted in higher sea levels, adding critical inches and feet to storm surge in coastal areas and reducing the capacity of drainage systems that flow into the ocean. And ocean water is warmer, feeding higher levels of atmospheric moisture that can fall as heavy rain (or snow).

Houston’s Legacy of Flooding

Infrastructure planning plays a huge role in climate resilience. Flickr/John Chandler

Though Harvey’s deluge was unprecedented, flooding is far from a new phenomenon in Houston and surrounding Harris County, which acknowledges, “Flooding is Our Natural Disaster.” The region, home to the nation’s fourth largest city and vital energy infrastructure, has suffered other epic storms. Last year’s Tax Day Floods killed eight and damaged hundreds of apartments. In 2008, Hurricane Ike became the third costliest hurricane in U.S. history, ravaging Galveston, Harris County, and elsewhere. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison dropped 80 percent of the area’s average yearly rainfall in a single event, killing 23 people in Texas and causing as much as $9 billion in damage.

But the region also experiences the steadier assault of repetitive floods exacerbated by two factors: challenging topographical conditions and development pressures and patterns. In a groundbreaking 2016 series of reports on the causes of rising flood impacts in and around Houston, Texas Tribune and ProPublica journalists noted: “[E]xperts and federal officials say Houston’s explosive growth is largely to blame. As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater.” Indeed, in a recent case, the Texas Supreme Court nearly allowed downstream residents to sue Harris County for allegedly failing to follow through on a flood-control plan and permitting “unmitigated” upstream development that caused their homes to flood repeatedly.

When the city floods, it is often the poorest communities that suffer most. In Houston, flooding has inundated low-income neighborhoods, which occupy lands near chemical plants. Health officials are worried about pollutants spilling into the floodwater from surrounding toxic waste sites, but residents claim that they have received little help evacuating. Beyond finding food, clean water and shelter, these citizens will also struggle with recovery. Many couldn’t afford flood insurance, don’t have the money to restart their lives, and may have to pay for long-term government aid. Their voices, their needs and their priorities must be taken into account as the city recovers and rebuilds.

The Road to a More Resilient Recovery

Texas Army National Guard rescue Houston residents as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey continue to rise, Aug. 28, 2017. U.S. Department of Defense/Flickr

As destruction and immediate emergency response gives way to recovery, here are just a few of the strategies that federal and local officials can consider to increase resilience.

Locally, leaders and residents can redouble efforts to pursue smart water-management strategies that maximize natural infrastructure. They can rethink development in high-risk areas and pursue more stringent building codes to reduce the impacts of and risk to future development.

Hurricane Harvey’s human and economic costs continue to mount. As federal disaster-recovery dollars begin to flow, officials have a choice. They can opt to rebuild in business-as-usual fashion, or protect people and property with the resilient, far-sighted approach our changing climate demands. At the same time, Harvey must serve as a yet another reminder of the urgent need to curtail carbon emissions to avoid severe climate impacts.

The original version of this blog appeared on’s Insights.

Christina Chan is the Director of the Climate Resilience Practice at WRI.

Powering Cities in the Global South: How Energy Access for All Benefits the Economy and the Environment

Thu, 2017-09-07 13:15

Bucaramanga, Colombia. Photo by Adam Cohn/Flickr

Kumar is the sole provider for his family. He runs an ironing service in Bengaluru that brings in between $6 and $7.50 a day, enough to barely get by. When the power cuts out two to three times a day in the summer for as long as four hours, Kumar has to leave the irons dormant and he brings home much less.

Cities that are already struggling to provide clean, affordable and reliable energy to residents like Kumar are finding it challenging to keep up with the pace and scale of growth. But the challenge will only get steeper: more than 2.4 billion more people will live in cities by 2050, with growth mainly in Africa and Asia.

In the latest working paper of WRI’s flagship World Resources Report, “Towards a More Equal City,” we highlight three solutions for cities in the global south:

1. Accelerate the shift to cleaner cooking

In 2012, only 58 percent of the urban population had access to electricity in low-income countries. Nearly 500 million urban residents worldwide used dirty cooking fuels like charcoal and wood, which contribute to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year. Switching to modern cooking fuels, such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and electricity, would dramatically reduce indoor air pollution, improving health and, in many cases, saving time and money. Cleaner cooking fuels also benefit the whole city, as household heating and cooking are significant sources of outdoor air pollution.

There are several examples of countries showing strong leadership in the transition to clean cooking. In the 1960s, less than 20 percent of Brazilian households had access to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) or natural gas. The government created national infrastructure for LPG production and distribution, developed a retail market for LPG distribution, and subsidized fuel for poor families. Now, 100 percent of urban households have access to LPG.

2. Scale up distributed renewable energy

The 19th-century approach to electrification that relies primarily on expanding the grid cannot bridge the energy access gap in the global south alone. Distributed systems like solar panels offer affordability, reliability and productivity benefits to the under-served.

The average cost of electricity from residential rooftop solar in India and China is already within the same range as natural gas-fired electricity and continues to decline. In sub-Saharan Africa, too, solar is taking off. In 2015, the number of households using pay-as-you-go solar systems—where companies rent equipment to consumers for a small fee, often paid via mobile phone—doubled to between 450,000 and 500,000.

At scale, rooftop solar systems can offer savings due to the avoided costs of new transmission infrastructure, contribute to climate change mitigation, and create job opportunities.

3. Increase energy efficiency of buildings and appliances

Residential and commercial buildings are the largest consumers of energy in urban areas. Relatively small changes to building codes and regulations can reduce energy use by up to 50 to 90 percent in new buildings and 50 to 75 percent in existing buildings. Using the best available individual household appliances and equipment can further reduce energy costs by 40 to 50 percent.

Better, cooler buildings also make cities more livable and resilient during heatwaves and bring health benefits. Every kilowatt-hour saved in cities that depend on power stations using dirty fuels reduces air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Countries in the global south have already demonstrated the benefits of energy efficiency measures. Ghana, which enacted the first air conditioner appliance standards in sub-Saharan Africa in 2000, is projected to save $775 million by 2020. In Mexico, national energy efficiency standards and labeling programs resulted in $3 billion savings to consumers from 2002 to 2014.

Realizing Cities’ Full Potential

These solutions require action by many urban stakeholders, including national, state, and local governments, the development community, and civil society. Many cities in the global south are already acting, including hundreds that have signed on to the Compact of Mayors, a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in urban areas. Cape Town and Bengaluru have started net metering programs. Delhi has developed a roof rental model for solar systems. Tianjin has developed its own ambitious energy efficiency building code, above and beyond China’s national code. These efforts should be applauded, encouraged and replicated.

Without improving energy services for people like Kumar, many cities will fall short of their potential to drive economic growth, enhance the environment and create spaces where everyone can live, work and thrive. As Amartya Sen said, “Poverty is not just lack a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realize one’s full potential as a human being.”

Download “Powering Cities in the Global South: How Energy Access for Benefits the Economy and the Environment,” by Michael I. Westphal, Sarah Martin, Lihuan Zhou and David Satterthwaite, from

Michael Westphal is a senior associate in WRI Ross Center’s sustainable finance team.

Navigating Kibera Through Community Design

Wed, 2017-09-06 13:15

A young man walks through Kibera, a famous Nairobi neighborhood. Photo by Talia Rubnitz/WRI

Wrapping your head around Kibera is no easy task. This Nairobi neighborhood is home to more than a quarter of a million people who live in an area smaller than New York’s Central Park. Most residents lack affordable access to core city services. Reliable electricity, clean water, sanitation and healthcare are similarly out of reach for many.While living conditions are improving in some areas, development efforts have not been without controversy. Kibera residents often don’t have a voice in development, a common issue in fast-growing cities.

We visited Kibera with the Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), a nonprofit that swims against this current. KDI’s 16-person team works directly with community groups to redesign and reclaim public spaces for productive use. KDI has completed 10 projects ranging from drains to schools, all with a public space component.

The Challenges of Living in Kibera

Kibera is composed of 13 villages on land technically owned by the government, yet some groups claim historical land rights dating back to the colonial era, while others hold official building permits dating back to the 1970s. Most residents are renters.

Without clear regulations, landlords have little incentive to improve living conditions, since they collect high rents regardless of the service provided. To meet the relatively high cost of living compared to their incomes, residents share tiny living areas. The average shack houses eight people in a 12 foot by 12 foot space. As open space disappears, owners are increasingly going vertical, with second stories cropping up across the skyline.

Many household activities, like washing clothes, spill into the small open spaces left. But these areas often lack proper drainage, sanitation, clean water supplies, electricity and comfortable spaces for social gathering. Without a fully functioning solid waste collection system or permeable green spaces, the neighborhood is still prone to flooding.

Over the past 10 years, the central government has initiated a number of housing and infrastructure upgrading projects. Formal services, from water lines to paved roads, are now available in some parts of Kibera. But larger development projects, led by stakeholders from outside the community, often pay little attention to meeting current residents’ needs and reducing vulnerability.

For example, these homes will soon be demolished to make room for a large highway. The project will likely bring benefits to the city, but there has been limited consultation with the community on how the new roadway might support development in Kibera.

Acupuncture for the City

One of KDI’s overarching goals is to create a series of linked spaces that make the neighborhood more resilient, particularly to flooding. We wanted to understand how they have navigated the complexity of the neighborhood, and how their model differs from traditional approaches to slum upgrading.

Pascal Kipkemboi, community coordinator at KDI, is from the neighborhood and an expert in community engagement. He explained that projects like the playground, toilets, water vending and recycling site behind him are the result of rounds of proposals, applications, site visits and community discussions. Making this project a reality required shoring up the river bank to reduce flooding and improve water flow through the neighborhood.

KDI’s approach is similar to acupuncture relieving pressure points in the built form of the neighborhood. One example is a bridge that improved general neighborhood access and safety as well as reduced flooding risks. Here, the slums of Kibera stand in stark contrast to the new, mid-rise apartment complex the government is building—only the bridge connects the two worlds.

Evans Somba, a community associate, ensures that each project reflects the needs and desires of the neighborhood. The more democratic process takes months, but “the longer the process, the more it reflects the needs of the population and the more long-lasting it will be,” said one team member.

One need KDI surfaced: clean, serviced and safe spaces for gathering and household chores. This project converted a flood-prone area into an active community space. For 5 Kenyan shillings (about $.05) that go to a non-profit run by the neighborhood, people can wash their clothing, take a quick shower or use the toilet.

Community-Led Development

KDI worked with one community to rebuild an informal school, Anwa Junior Academy. KDI partnered with an education non-profit, Dignitas, to strengthen leadership and improve instructional quality. Just 60 percent of families with kids attending can pay fees, making it difficult to retain teachers. This raises the challenge of how to better connect the neighborhood to the city so that residents have easier access to all types of opportunities.

The results do not replace the need for the central government to provide basic services, but it does indicate that it is possible to work with the community to reconfigure small spaces for big impact. KDI’s model is slowly changing the lives of residents with small investments and lots of engagement.

Our visit with the Kounkuey Design Initiative showed us how important and difficult it is to find new ways of upgrading informal spaces that are collaborative, productive and sustainable. KDI’s approach is promising, but also time consuming, raising questions about how we can work together to scale up collaborative design to increase the pace of transformation.

Kate Owens is the Urban Development Manager in Washington, DC, for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Talia Rubnitz is a Communications Assistant for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Winner Take All? Richard Florida’s ‘New Urban Crisis’ Part of Growing Global Focus on Unequal Cities

Sat, 2017-09-02 01:37

New high-rises crop up next to the Kibera informal settlement in Nairobi, June 2017. Photo by Dennis Nyongesa/WRI

Cities are growing rapidly in more places than ever before, but this growth is not always accompanied by prosperity.

The specter of inequality – and fear that it could short-circuit economic development – has been rising in the global urban agenda for some years. With the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2016, governments committed to not only make cities safer, more resilient and more sustainable, but also more inclusive. The New Urban Agenda, agreed to by world leaders at Habitat III in Ecuador a year later, promises “cities for all.” (We launched our new World Resources Report focused on how to build a more equal city at Quito as well.)

In this year’s “The New Urban Crisis,” influential urbanist Richard Florida examines the troubling development that in “the greatest urban migration in human history, urbanization has ceased to be a reliable engine of progress.” While cities produce an outsized share of global economic activity, that success has been accompanied by extreme competition that crowds out those without the resources to compete. Cities seemingly choke on their own success, becoming less accessible even as they become more populous and economically productive.

This is an interesting turnaround for Florida. Fifteen years ago, he argued very successfully that to succeed, cities needed to figure out how to attract and cater to the “creative class” – hyper educated, mostly non-minority young people who fuel the service economy. Now, he notes that cities are leaving other residents behind.

Unequal gains are the harbinger of a new urban crisis, Florida argues. But while he writes mainly about U.S. cities, his central insight into “winner-take-all urbanism” is perhaps even more applicable to cities in developing countries. How to deal with growing informal settlements, and the voids in city governance and services that surround them, is the central challenge for cities of the global south.

A New Wave of Urbanization

The roots and remedies of inequality in the fast-growing cities in the global south are different in significant ways from large North American cities.

In places like India, many new urban migrants settle into neighborhoods that receive little support from municipal governments and exist in a legal grey area. Most residents of these informal settlements, or slums as they are often called, have no legal right to the land they occupy. As a result, they can be removed with little notice or compensation, sometimes violently—a kind of gentrification on steroids. Such displacement disrupts neighborhoods, erodes trust in governance and exacerbates sprawl.

Today’s rapidly growing cities are also expanding differently than those of the past, with many seeing population growth far outstripping economic growth, putting a strain on resources available per capita.

Our research shows that many of the least-equipped cities are experiencing the biggest booms in population while falling behind on the provision of core urban services, like transportation and housing. Places like Nairobi, Bangalore and Bogotá have far fewer resources available per capita than cities of the global north. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are seeing the highest rates of urbanization. Taken together, the UN projects they will account for 90 percent of the world’s urban growth by 2050.

Florida notes that when cities in North America, Europe and Japan were growing fastest, they could bring the hinterlands along with them, as urban populations needed goods and services. This was a boon to manufacturing and industrial activities of all kinds, not to mention agriculture. Now, globalization has broken these links, leading to large populations of under- or unemployed living in peripheral areas far from services and commerce.

In absolute numbers, there are more people living in urban poverty than a decade ago, and in some cities, even the share of residents below the poverty line is growing. Only 54 percent of residents in African cities, for example, have access to adequate sanitation.

Urbanism for All

The concept of “urbanism for all,” which arises in the last chapters of Florida’s book, echoes language that’s risen to the fore in global urban debates in recent years. By inviting investment “in people and places,” Florida’s thinking aligns with the hypothesis behind our own research: cities and their residents can only thrive when services are better for everyone.

In the latest working paper in the World Resources Report, Robin King et al. write that low- and middle-income cities should focus on finding ways to “upgrade” existing slums, rather than leveling them, and involve residents in the process in order to capitalize on existing labor markets, social networks, and other positive elements of well-functioning neighborhoods.

Florida’s solutions to the worst of contemporary urbanism’s ills range from similar encouragement of bottom-up development in slums to the appointment of city leaders to national representative bodies and adjusting international aid policies to focus on city-building instead of nation-building. Cities can get on the right track by avoiding the pitfalls of patchwork development that leave less-advantaged residents living far away from the urban core, transit options, and knowledge hubs, like universities, he writes.

The challenges are daunting. But cities in the global south may have an advantage over their wealthier counterparts in at least one respect: much of them has yet to be built.

More resources will be spent on urban infrastructure over the next century than in all human history. This gives leaders across Asia and Africa, where the majority of new construction will take place, a window of opportunity to reshape their cities through investments in infrastructure, public spaces, and communities that would make many American mayors green with envy.

Our effort, through the World Resources Report, “Towards a More Equal City,” has been to assemble practical ways to assist policymakers and other stakeholders. There is no better time to implement solutions that help cities work better for everyone.

Ani Dasgupta is the Global Director of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, WRI’s program that galvanizes action to help cities grow more sustainably and improve quality of life in developing countries around the world.

Video: Alain Bertaud on Breaking the Mold for Urban Development, Balancing Climate Goals

Wed, 2017-08-30 09:31

Cities across the global south are in a bind. As they absorb more residents, providing access to core services like housing and energy – already a challenge – is getting even harder. Policymakers are looking for answers, and Alain Bertaud, a senior research scholar at the NYU Stern Urbanization Project, says they should look elsewhere than existing large cities.

Speaking to WRI during a workshop for the latest World Resources Report (WRR), “Towards a More Equal City,” on achieving more prosperous, sustainable and equitable cities for all, Bertaud says many rapidly growing cities will need to break from the status quo. Traditional urban policies are too often geared toward preventing change rather than encouraging it.

“No Precedent”

Bertaud has a wealth of experience to draw from. He served as principal urban planner at the World Bank until 1999, where he worked on policy and infrastructure development in South Asia as well as transition economies like China, Russia and Eastern Europe. He’s also served as a resident urban planner in Bangkok, San Salvador, Port au Prince, Sana’a, New York, Paris, Tlemcen and Chandigarh.

“Cities in developing countries are very different, depending on whether you’re talking about Asia, Latin America or Africa,” Bertaud says. “I think that in the case of Asia and Africa, we are going to see a massive urbanization that has no precedent.”

The world’s urban population is expected to increase by 2.5 billion people by 2050, with more than 90 percent of the growth in Asia and Africa. “Unfortunately, most of the cities in [these regions] have regulations and also a pattern of urban investment which are inherited from other cities,” he says. Many are simply not prepared to deal with the scale of change.

Bertaud believes that it’s the cities that embrace rapid urbanization that will be the most successful – not those trying to slow it down.

Where does he look for examples? “We have cities like Ahmedabad in India that have created innovative regulations for developing land very fast,” he says. “We can also take the example of China in a certain way. China has been able to develop urban infrastructure very fast.” Another is Hyderabad, also in India, where city officials have done away with restrictive regulations that prevent the efficient use of urban land.

Focus on Mobility and Affordability

But it’s critical to recognize that there is no silver bullet. “There are about a thousand things that cities need to do to be able to cope with urbanization,” Bertaud says.

Most migrants to cities are poor. To ensure inclusive growth that benefits everyone, cities should take a flexible approach to land management, without minimum standards of consumption for land and housing. More than 881 million people live in informal settlements in the global south – about one-third the urban population. Reforming land use regulations and policies can help remove obstacles and disincentives that block new housing for low-income residents, as the second working paper in the WRR series explores.

“Basically, I think that every person responsible for urban development should focus really on two aspects: mobility and affordability,” Bertaud says. “Mobility to let low-income people move, not to some industrial area…but to be able to look for jobs all around a large metropolitan area. And affordability, to make sure that the land supply, and the floor space supply, and the housing supply is such that everybody has access to it.”

Bertaud contends that pollution and global warming are two urgent issues, but that they should be thought of as constraints on development, rather than objectives. This is not explicitly expressed as such.

“Too often, I think that recently, reducing pollution has become an objective per se, and therefore the easiest way to reduce pollution is to prevent development,” he says. “The challenge is really to take pollution and global warming extremely seriously but to try to find solutions that still provide mobility and affordability to low-income people.”

Fortunately, there are a number of solutions that are good for both people and the planet. Bus rapid transit corridors have helped Mexico City improve air quality while increasing access to jobs. Creative climate adaptation plans can similarly meet development and environmental objectives. And research shows that pursuing compact urban growth strategies in India can save up to 6 percent of GDP and simultaneously reduce emissions.

Alex Rogala is a former editor of TheCityFix and currently a master’s student in urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.


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