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The blog of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities on urban mobility, development and efficiency
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Sustainability in Westeros: King’s Landing’s Quest to Become a Green City

Fri, 2016-04-01 20:12

Dubrovnik, Croatia, where HBO’s Game of Thrones films scenes of King’s Landing. Photo by Víctor González/Flickr.

This post includes spoilers from season 4 of Game of Thrones.

KING’S LANDING, West. – King Tommen of House Baratheon has signed a decree that will work to make King’s Landing the most sustainable city in the Seven Kingdoms. The decree shocked many, as the capital city has long faced problems with waste management and pollution.

The king has asked his small council to create a Sustainable City Working Group to spearhead the efforts. First on their list: better the living conditions of the communities located outside the city walls. City officials will work to improve sanitation in these settlements and ensure residents have access to clean water. 20,000 gold dragons have also been allocated to repair existing living quarters and build new dwellings in Flea Bottom, one of the poorer areas of the city. The city is recommending that residents purchase additional rushes to better insulate the floors of their home.

King’s Landing is suffering from water and air pollution, clouding the sky and poisoning Blackwater Bay. Image Credit: IBAlex

Air pollution is another ongoing health issue in King’s Landing, with smoke from the many cook fires clouding the sky around city. Many have expressed concern that now that winter is coming, the pollution will only get worse.

“With winter upon us, I can only imagine how hard it will be to breathe once every home is lighting their fires,” one resident of Pigrun Alley told TheCityFix. The city hasn’t outlined a specific plan for reducing wood burning, but has said that it is “exploring ways to improve insulation in city buildings” and is “actively researching wood that produces less smoke when it burns.”

The decree also focuses on reducing food waste, and the Working Group will explore ways to reuse waste from royal events. With another food shortage in sight, preventing starvation will help the city avoid more riots.

The City Watch will work to improve mobility in the busiest areas of the city. During tourneys and other events, the city is often overrun with visitors, creating congestion in the streets and squares of King’s Landing from pedestrians, horses and carts. To reduce equestrian traffic, each horse stabled in the city will be assigned a number, with odd-numbered horses assigned to “Odd” days, and even-numbered horses dedicated to “Even” days. The small council has decided to rely more on ravens—rather than riders—to send out messages.

Copyright © Jeffrey L. Ward / Bantam and or Random House, Inc.

After the Battle of the Blackwater several years ago, the city has struggled to contain the wildfire that still coats the shore by the mouth of the Blackwater Rush. Hundreds of sea birds and fish washed ashore in the months following the battle, and communities bathing in the river have reported skin irritations and rashes.

King Tommen acknowledges the public’s concerns about the feasibility of the plan, but is confident that King’s Landing will be a model of sustainability for years to come.

“From this day on, the Hand, small council and I will work tirelessly to restore Blackwater Bay to its former glory and clean up King’s Landing. In the years ahead, swimmers will return to our banks, fishermen will catch bounties of fish and visitors from all lands will flock here to lay their eyes upon the pristine views from our capital city.”

Happy April Fool’s Day! This year, we’re taking a look at the fictional city of King’s Landing from the popular book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” and the HBO series “A Game of Thrones” to see what a sustainable city would look like in the kingdom. To learn more about the city where the show is filmed, take a look at this behind-the-scenes video.  

Unlock Bangalore: Making the Right Decisions for Sustainable Growth

Thu, 2016-03-31 21:46

To ensure a high quality of life for Bangalore’s residents, the city will need to address traffic congestion, urban expansion and energy efficiency. Photo by bionicgrrrl/Flickr.

Bangalore is India’s third most populous city and is among the top 100 cities that contribute to the global economy. 75 percent of Bengaluru’s income is from the service sector, with over ₹ 500 billion (approximately US $7.6 billion) from IT and real estate. Several Fortune 500 companies have their offices in Bangalore. In 2014, the city received the ninth highest number of foreign investment projects in the world.

While this growth has increased incomes, it has also led to infrastructure problems, like poor quality of water, unreliable power and traffic congestion. Public investments in infrastructure have not kept pace with growth, giving rise to self-provisioning solutions like diesel-powered generators, bore-wells and packaged water that have created environmental and health concerns. Bangalore needs to sustain its economic growth and improve quality of life for its citizens to maintain its appeal for investors and talent. In its attempt to address congestion, limit sprawl and improve efficiency, Bangalore has to now make key decisions on land-use, infrastructure, transport and energy.

Addressing Congestion

In the last 20-30 years, Bangalore has been building wider, faster roads and flyovers in response to the growing number of vehicles in the city. This approach has failed. Not only has it made it unsafe for pedestrians, but it has also resulted in the city having the sixth worst traffic jams in the world. With the metro still under construction, the city’s public bus operator, BMTC, carries the majority of the commuter load—42 percent. However, increasing costs and inefficient operations has resulted in a less than optimal quality of service. Every day, 5.2 million people commute via 6,700 buses operated by BMTC.

To actively address congestion and solve mobility and accessibility issues, Bangalore needs to (1) redesign roads to make them safer for all users, and specifically for pedestrians and cyclists, (2) improve speed and quality of bus-based mass transport, including bus rapid transit (BRT), in addition to Namma Metro, (3) integrate various modes of public transport and intermediate public transport through schedule, fare and physical integration, (4) develop progressive regulations for emerging shared mobility options like ridesharing, carpooling, shared bicycles and taxi aggregators and (5) ensure car-users pay the full cost driving, including the costs of parking and congestion.

Managing Urban Expansion

Bangalore has led the growth of India’s technology industries. These emerging economies are located in the suburbs and peripheries of the main city and have global access. While the core city is undergoing some transformation, the peripheries have seen rapid growth. From 2006 to 2012, the metropolitan region added 1228 square feet per minute. Over 10,000 gated residential developments now dot the region. Areas such as Whitefield and BIAAPA are manifestations of this growth. In order to manage expansion in a sustainable manner, Bangalore needs to:

  1. Move from a traditional static land-use approach for planning and development, and adopt a strategic spatial planning approach.
  2. Leverage the US $2 billion investment in Namma Metro by implementing transit-oriented development principles in its well-serviced core area.
  3. Develop peripheral and satellite ring roads as area-based development projects rather than mere road projects by integrating land-use and transport
  4. Adopt local area planning that allows for improved infrastructure and services for new and existing wards
Improving Energy Efficiency

BESCOM, the city’s electric utility, serves 8.9 million customers—almost the entire population of the city. However, the utility has been struggling to supply sufficient power to meet the 3400 megawatt peak demand. In 2015, due to technical challenges and dropping hydro reserves, the gap between demand and supply was almost 900 megawatts.

Bangalore consumes 40 million units every day, which is projected to increase to 74 million units by 2030. To meet this growing demand, Karnataka proposes to increase generation capacity by 22.5 gigawatts, of which 14.5 gigawatts will come from non-renewable energy sources. Distribution losses are at 14 percent, with additional transmission losses.

In order to reduce the demand-supply gap, the city needs to (1) identify and overcome information, technical and financial barriers to installation of rooftop solar PV, (2) focus on energy-efficiency and demand-side management via by promoting the use of energy efficient appliances and user education, (3) facilitate the procurement of renewables by large electricity consumers to reduce their dependence on diesel and other pollutants and (4) promote increased public participation in BESCOM’s decision making

Bangalore is at a critical juncture in its growth, where decisions today will be “locked-in” for the next 40-100 years. By addressing congestion that shifts the conversation from vehicles to people, managing urban expansion towards sustainable growth and implementing practices that provide clean, reliable energy for its people, Bangalore can move on to a path of improved livability and sustainability, and maintain its competitive status in the global economy.

This piece was originally published on Learn more about our talk series on Unlock Bengaluru here.

The Women Who Are Changing Mexico’s Cities

Wed, 2016-03-30 23:51

A woman bikes in Mexico City. Photo by Alejandro Luna/Flickr.

In Mexico, the issue of gender often goes unrecognized. A popular blog documents the all-too-common “all male panels” or public events where all the speakers or participants are men, or where women only occupy placeholder positions, like hostesses. Even in sustainable transport and city events, this can be common.

However, progress in women’s representation is slowly becoming a reality, thanks to a growing interest among women in professional fields—like urban and transport planning—typically associated with men.

Creating Progress for Gender Equality in Education, Government and Beyond

Only in 1953 were women granted certain the right to vote in Mexico. Other changes included the international non-discrimination standards set in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979). These laws laid the foundation for women’s right to jobs, education and more.

Women in Mexico only first gained access to higher education in 1960. In the 70s, many women began entering the fields of education, psychology and social work, but it was not until the 80s that women began to study a wider range of fields and in the late 90s that women began to enter jobs previously considered masculine. According to a study in 2004, women occupied only 31 percent of the jobs in engineering and technology while men occupied 69 percent.

In addition to the issue of women’s representation in education and entrance to professional fields, women in Mexico often face discrimination and challenges on the job. Cultural stereotypes of what being a woman should be—family, motherhood, a housewife—as well as resistance to women occupying managerial positions can make professional progress difficult. The lack of public policies helping women to participate in management and decision-making positions does not help.

The highest position occupied by a woman in Mexican government has been in federal ministries. The first time a woman occupied a position in a ministry was in the 70s, and since then, there have only been 30 at this level. Despite gradual progress in other aspects of society, there are still fewer women in decision making positions at the national level. Of all middle and senior management positions, just over 27 percent are occupied by women.

While there is less disparity in the social sciences, the disparity is greater in fields typically associated with masculinity in Mexican culture—urban planning, engineering and architecture. This has resulted in fewer women architects and engineers and also fewer women in decision making positions on urban issues. Despite this, the situation is slowly changing. Here, we take a look at a few women who serving as role models for women’s leadership in city issues traditionally dominated by men.

Adriana Lobo

Adriana graduated as a Civil Engineer at the Polytechnic School of the University of Sao Paulo and completed academic credits towards an MBA at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM). She began her career in the 90s directing planning projects in urban and regional transport in seven countries in Latin America and founded her own transport consulting firm in 2001, which she led for 2 years. In 2004, she became the Executive Director of CTS EMBARQ Mexico, making her one of the most specialized leaders in BRT and Integrated Transport systems not only in Mexico, but throughout Latin America. Adriana also manages a team of 25 women and 22 men.

Julia Martinez

Julia is known colloquially in Mexico’s climate change community as “The Biologist.” She studied biology at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and started her career working on climate change in Mexico in the early 90s. Climate change was just beginning to emerge as an issue, and Julia was one of the few women taking leadership. From 1995 until 2013, Julia worked in the public sector and in 2014 she joined CTS EMBARQ Mexico. Today, Julia is one of Mexico’s strongest activists on climate change and is one of the leading experts on energy efficiency in buildings. Julia now helps manage ambitious initiatives, such as the Building Efficiency Accelerator in Mexico, a partnership in support of the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative that works with cities to improve building efficiency.

Martha Delgado

Martha has been a recognized leader in sustainable development in Mexico for over 25 years. She studied education at the Intercontinental University and has worked in both the public sector and in civil society organizations. Despite opposition, Martha helped create the Mexico City’s public bike share system, ECOBICI. Thanks to Ecobici, Mexico City now sees 35,000 trips by bike on a daily basis. Martha also implemented the Bicycle Mobility Strategy and the program Let’s Bike. More than 20 years later, Martha remains an international leader on climate change.


Sara Topelson

Sara studied architecture at UNAM and art history at the National Institute of Fine Arts. From February 2000 to May 2003, she was the Director of Architecture and Historic Preservation at INBA. She also held the position of Sub-minister of Urban Development and Planning at the Ministry of Social Development. Sara was a key player at a national level in 2012 with the creation of the Ministry of Rural, Urban and Land Development, which separated urban issues from broader social development topics—an important step for urban reform. She was also Minister of the International Union of Architects (UIA), and she became its first woman president in 1996. Sara is currently the General Coordinator of the Center for Research and Documentation Foundation House and continues to lead as a project coordinator for Topelson Grinberg Architects.

Laura Ballesteros

She has worked in both the private sector and the public sector. Before becoming a deputy in the Legislative Assembly of Mexico City, she served as an advisor. She helped facilitate the city’s new Mobility Law and became one of the leading advocates for mobility. Today, she is the Sub-minister of Planning in the Ministry of Mobility of Mexico City, an agency that is also often exclusively male. In this new position, she has worked on the New Traffic Regulation with civil society, incorporating speed reductions and other measures to advance safe and sustainable mobility.


Claudia Sheinbaum

In 2004, Claudia was Minister of Environment in Mexico City and did something unimaginable and unbelievable: under her leadership the first city bike path was built. Claudia studied physics and received her Master’s and PhD in Energy Engineering in UNAM. At first, she was criticized for improving public transport with Metrobus, one of the great milestones in Mexico City’s recent history. Today, Metrobus is considered not only a success in Mexico but internationally. Claudia currently serves as the delegate from Mexico City’s Tlalpan district to improve mobility and development in the area.


Tanya Müller

Tanya has worked in Mexico City’s last two administrations, with Marcelo Ebrard and Miguel Angel Mancera in the Ministry of Environment. She holds a PhD in International Agricultural Economics and Management and works as an agronomics engineer. She founded and is currently the President of the Mexican Association of Nature Roofs, which researches and promotes green walls and roofs. She implemented the first green roofs project with Chapingo University and Zurich University, and made Mexico City a pioneer nation-wide by installing flat natural roofs. During her time with the Ministry of Environment, Tanya has made significant progress for energy efficiency issues and, under her leadership, both Ecobici and the Sunday “Move on Bikes” program have expanded. Additionally, she has significantly expanded the bike path network in Mexico City in order to encourage more cycling.

Gisela Méndez

Gisela studied architecture at the Technological Institute of Colima, and she has a Master’s degree in Urban, Regional and Environmental Policies from the University of Architecture of Venice and a PhD in Urbanism from UNAM. She directed the Planning Institute for the city of Colima and served as Director of Research and Capacity Building at CTS EMBARQ Mexico from 2012 until February 2016, when she became the Colima’s Secretary of Mobility—the first at the state level in the country. Gisela is a big inspiration, demonstrating the potential for local activism.


Who are the women leaders who inspire you? Share in the comments below!

What Has EMBARQ Co-Founder Lee Schipper to Do With a Book About Inspiring Successful Workshops?

Mon, 2016-03-28 21:32

EMBARQ Co-Founder Lee Schipper. Photo by EMBARQ.

Although Lee Schipper is not with us any more, for me his spirit is still there.

Many years ago, I met him at a meeting of the International Energy Agency in Paris and was fascinated by his inspiring talk. As representative of the European Commission, I invited him to further talks in Brussels. Through this professional exchange, we also became friends.

Then I got the notice of his death.

As cancer is also quite an issue in my own family, an idea came to my mind while writing my first book about workshops and trainings that guarantee success:

So what does all this have to do with sustainable cities?

To achieve sustainable cities, technology is important. But it is also about people and their interactions and commitments to putting great ideas into practice. Good workshops can support this. It is often not only about technology but also about the right use and implementation. Good trainings can help significantly.

As a professional facilitator, I accompany smart city developments with stakeholder involvement, and I see the urgent need for better workshops. Maybe you are also annoyed by boring, endless meetings without results? And you’d rather have workshops with high involvement, committed participants and a well-planned agenda? Then, get familiar with the principles of workshop facilitation!

I recognize that people want a change in thinking. As professional trainer, I am convinced that with better training sessions, you can teach people how to use new technologies and change city residents’ behavior. Additionally, we not only have to train the professionals, like craftsmen, but also politicians. To achieve this, understand the principles of didactics based on brain-research and psychology! Lee was a natural on that. He was a great trainer inspiring us with a lot of humor.

To summarize, innovative technologies are extremely important, but it is also about process and a changed behavior and mindset to get to sustainable cities! Lee was aware of that and hopefully his spirit will live on and continue inspiring us all to continue our work toward achieving sustainable and liveable smart cities.

I wish all Lee Schipper scholars success with their studies!

Birgit Baumann is donating 10 percent of her annual book sales to the Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship. Click here to learn more about her book “Blühende Workshops und Trainings mit Erfolgsgarantie” (forthcoming in English). Click here to subscribe to her newsletter and stay updated.

Friday Fun: How Innovators Are Using Mobile Apps for Informal Bike Share and Repair

Fri, 2016-03-25 20:18

In addition to extensive bike infrastructure, Copenhagen is a hotbed for innovative mobile apps connecting cyclists. Photo by Claudio Olivares Medina/Flickr.

Cities can do a lot to promote cycling, but the private sector and civil society can play a significant role in helping build a safe and convenient cycling culture. For example, innovative startups in Singapore and Copenhagen are developing mobile apps to make bike share even more flexible and user-friendly repairs more convenient than ever. By reducing the need for hard infrastructure, these innovators are creating informal bike share programs that can better respond to local context and needs.

Singapore’s Bike Share Startup Bypass Traditional Infrastructure

In 2015 a group of university students in Singapore launched ZaiBike, a bike share system that is inexpensive, accessible, and available 24/7. Users can locate and reserve available bikes—which Zaibike has purchased and equipped with their technology—via a mobile phone app, and they have 10 minutes to get to the bike and unlock it. At the end of their journey, they can leave the bike anywhere near their destination.

Singapore has experimented with bike share in the past but gave up due to low ridership. There was another attempt in 2014 when the Land Transport Authority issued a call for proposals and industry studies on how bikeshare could be implemented in the country, but no formal program exists to date.

ZaiBike’s founders believe that cycling is often the cheapest, fastest, and most convenient way to cover shorter distances. They also recognize the benefits that come with a less infrastructure-intensive bike share system. Unlike more formal bike share schemes, ZaiBike does not require specially manufactured bikes or docking stations. In addition to being more flexible and space-efficient, the system can easily be scaled up by simply acquiring more bicycles.

Launched at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, ZaiBike is currently working to expand to areas of the city that are farther from the university campus. The team is mindful of Singapore’s particular culture and infrastructure, including strong interest in mobile phone technology and potentially limited space for bike parking, and is continuing to design a system that is sensitive to the local context.

Connecting People with Bikes and Repairs in Copenhagen

On the other side of the planet, innovators in Copenhagen recently started Donkey Republic, a bike sharing system that has been likened to Uber and Airbnb. As with ZaiBike, Donkey users can locate, book and unlock bikes with an app at any time of day or night. However, one unique feature is that Donkey allows individuals to turn their bikes into rentals. Users are able to select a specific type of bike, which has either been purchased by the startup or is loaned out by bike shops and private owners. Owners can purchase a “donkey kit” containing an app-operated lock, a handlebar panel with instructions for the rider, and stickers to identify the bike as part of the system. Once a bike is in the Donkey system, the owner is free to rent it out.

As of now, this system lacks the type of flexibility that ZaiBike provides – so far Donkeys are only available at 15 specified locations across the city, though this may increase, as the startup aspires to expand to over 20 countries. Donkey Republic’s founders believe their system overcomes common frustrations with public bike share systems, such as lack of available docking space when a rider wants to return the bicycle or is charged extra fees for a journey that takes longer than expected.

For bicycle owners who may be deterred by the inconvenience of flat tires, another Copenhagen-based startup called Cycle Savers is coming to the rescue. This bike repair app brings the mechanic to the rider, anywhere, anytime. Those in need of help use the app to set their location, select a service and request a mechanic. The mechanic contacts the customer to arrange a time, then shows up and repairs the bike. This system is flexible and convenient, removing the limitations of bike shop hours and locations, and enabling people to work as mechanics on a flexible and freelance basis.

These startups prove that fresh ideas, motivation, and mobile technology can make it easier to bike in cities. What are your favorite bike apps? 

Three Paths, Three Continents: How Shenzhen, Buenos Aires and Kiev Are Lowering Energy Consumption in Their Buildings

Thu, 2016-03-24 21:16

By prioritizing energy efficiency in its own public buildings, the city of Buenos Aires is setting an example for building performance across Argentina. Photo by David Berkowitz/Flickr.

Shenzhen, Buenos Aires and Kiev’s experiences pursuing energy efficiency demonstrate that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to achieving better buildings. Each found a unique path to improve energy efficiency for a more sustainable and prosperous city.

Shenzhen Goes Above and Beyond National Building Standards

A decade ago, the southeastern Chinese city of Shenzhen was facing some very discouraging statistics. The city’s buildings were using nearly twice as much energy per square meter as those in Shanghai or Beijing and three times as much as those in developed countries. Voluntary building energy efficiency standards had been in place for three years but few developers spent the extra money on energy-saving design or equipment options. Shenzhen  decided to create new mandatory efficiency standards in November of 2006 that went above and beyond the then current national Chinese energy efficiency standards, making the city the first in China to release its own regulations for energy efficiency in buildings. These mandatory green building standards applied to affordable housing projects and required that all new housing projects be inspected to ensure they met standards and stricter energy reduction goals.

Shenzhen set energy conservation targets for various sectors, including a 15 percent reduction in public and office buildings, 20 percent for government buildings and a 50 percent reduction for energy use in newly constructed buildings. These building energy conservation goals represented 49 percent of Shenzhen’s total energy conservation targets in 2008 and helped put Shenzhen on the map as a model for other cities.

In May 2007, Shenzhen’s government launched a low-carbon eco-district, called the Guangming New Area, which promotes energy efficient industrial practices and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. In 2007, Guangming New Area was selected as China’s first Green Building Demonstration District to promote the idea of green buildings and energy efficiency to the rest of the country.

Buenos Aires Analyzes Energy Consumption Patterns to Set Goals

Like Shenzhen, Buenos Aires found itself challenged by poor efficiency in most of its buildings. The Argentinean capital lacked knowledge about the available solutions that could be used in its public buildings. To overcome this knowledge gap, the Environmental Protection Agency of Buenos Aires enacted the Program of Energy Efficiency in Public Buildings (PEEEP), which analyzes and monitors energy consumption patterns from five different public building types. PEEP gave the local government the data and clarity required to develop energy reduction policies.

Launched in 2008, PEEP was created with the goal of optimizing energy consumption in public buildings and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. To participate, the Environmental Protection Agency requires that participating buildings implement a number of measures, including energy audits, energy management tools and improvements to building operation and maintenance procedures.

The information gathered from PEEP was used by policymakers to draft the Energy Efficiency law, which was approved by the city council in 2009. The law has established guidelines for energy efficiency and mandates the adoption of energy efficiency measures in all public buildings. The law also requires that at least 50 percent of the savings generated from improved efficiency will be used to fund educational programs on energy efficiency. Other local governments in Argentina are now looking to the example set by Buenos Aires to establish similar programs.

Kiev Retrofits 1,270 Public Buildings

In the early 1990s, Kiev, Ukraine’s capital and largest city, was facing problems common to building efficiency: lack of funding, direction and awareness. After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine’s low retail energy prices and lack of energy conservation policies contributed to overall inefficiency. Ukraine’s economy was one of the most energy intensive in the world.

Starting in the late 1990s, Kiev’s local government started to address inefficient energy usage by implementing energy tariff reforms, including better metering and consumption-based billing for consumers. This allowed heat tariffs to be set at cost-recovery levels, providing economic incentives for consumers to reduce their use and acclimated Kiev residents to programs designed to improve energy efficiency. From 2000 to 2005, the Kiev City State Administration (KSCA) established the Kiev Public Buildings Energy Efficiency Project. Financed through a World Bank loan, a Swedish Government grant and KCSA funds, the project successfully retrofitted 1,270 public buildings in the city, including healthcare, educational and cultural facilities.

Savings from the retrofits were estimated at 333,423 Gigacalories, or about 26 percent of original heat consumption. The upgrades also improved building comfort levels, helped foster an energy efficiency services industry and raised public awareness of the importance of energy efficiency. Kiev’s retrofitting project is an example of how a city can benefit from partnerships both nationally and globally to find solutions to local problems.

There’s More than One Path to an Energy Efficient City

Shenzhen, Buenos Aires and Kiev are three examples of cities that have overcome a lack of technical knowledge, limited awareness of the options available and uncertainty about how to measure or understand building performance. These stories demonstrate just a few of the paths that a city can take to become a leader in energy efficiency. What path will your city take?

Creating a Common Narrative for Financing a Sustainable Urban Future

Wed, 2016-03-23 18:30

Bogotá’s Transmilenio bus rapid transit (BRT) system shows how capital providers and city planners were able to finance and implement a low-carbon project at an unprecedented scale. Photo by Claudio Olivares Medina/Flickr

Good ideas that get cities results are worth replicating. Sounds simple enough. But when it comes to scaling up and investing in sustainable urban solutions, it’s complicated.

With more than 400 cities making commitments to climate action through the Compact of Mayors, the world made significant progress at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) last year in Paris. Now that the negotiations are over and the commitments have been made, we face the challenge of financing and implementing sustainable urban projects that will improve the quality of life for residents and turn this collective vision into a reality.

WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, C40 and the Citi Foundation are partnering together to help cities around the world accelerate the implementation of low-carbon urban solutions. By drawing on WRI’s on-the-ground knowledge, C40’s unique network of global city leaders and the Citi Foundation’s agenda for urban economic progress, the Financing Sustainable Cities Initiative is developing new approaches to overcoming what is commonly, but mistakenly, seen as simply a financing gap.

Recent economic research estimates a US $4.1 to 4.3 trillion annual investment gap between the urban infrastructure we have and the amount we need. According to the traditional narrative, there is simply insufficient supply and financial appetite for sustainable urban projects. However, the situation is much more complex. Demand for sustainable solutions is growing, and investor appetite for new markets and non-traditional assets is increasing as well. So why is funding for sustainable urban projects often stuck at an impasse?

What really seems to be happening here is that these two sides are talking past each other. On the one hand, cities claim there is a lack of available financing for their projects. On the other hand, capital providers say that there isn’t a robust enough pipeline of viable, bankable projects. Without a common language and a forum for cities, service providers and capital providers to engage with one another in productive dialogue, potential projects become stalled during the idea phase, reinforcing the belief that there is a lack of financing or bankable urban projects.

Fortunately, we know that there are already a number of successful projects around the world that are delivering, funding and financing leading sustainable solutions in innovative ways. From on-demand rickshaws in Bangalore to energy efficient public lighting in Rio de Janeiro, this kind of innovation is the result of service providers, capital providers and cities talking with one another about technical and financial options that are available. Often, key players in the sector simply don’t know how public-private partnerships can help or how new financial products can provide alternative sources of investment. A process that is collaborative from the beginning is more likely to find innovative solutions to complex local challenges.

Bogotá’s Transmilenio bus rapid transit (BRT) system, for example, shows how capital providers and city planners were able to finance and implement a low-carbon project at an unprecedented scale. Since 2000, TransMilenio has grown from 14km to 112km of dedicated bus lanes that now carry 2 million passengers per day. By successfully aligning all stakeholders early, Transmilenio adopted a business model that drew investment from local sources and established a public-private partnership to manage operations. With integrated, collaborative planning and all sectors taking part in financing and implementing the BRT project, Bogotá has become healthier and more sustainable in the long term. The Colombian capital is proof that potentially game-changing solutions exist. However, cities need the mechanisms to explore flexible business models that take into account their unique needs.

Creating a global environment that is conducive to investment in sustainable urban projects will require close collaboration and open dialogue between cities, technology providers and capital providers. The Financing Sustainable Cities Initiative—which consists of a learning community, technical assistance, and a web-based engagement platform—is designed to help city decision-makers, financiers and technical experts better understand their choices and work with one another strategically. By facilitating knowledge sharing and best practice, and creating a space for innovation, the partnership between WRI, C40 and the Citi Foundation is helping to foster a conversation today for the thriving, sustainable cities of tomorrow.

World Water Day: How “Sludge” Can Power China’s Cities While Cutting Emissions

Tue, 2016-03-22 21:20

Sustainable sources of energy, like sludge-to-power, can help reduce air pollution in Beijing, China. Photo by Peter Dowley/Flickr.

Last December, Beijing’s city government issued a “red alert” for smog levels—the highest possible designation. Schools and construction sites closed, traffic was restricted, and air pollution reached 10 times the World Health Organization’s recommended limit. Meanwhile, residents in neighboring cities went about their daily routines despite air quality ratings up to three times worse than Beijing’s, and coal-burning factories continued to run.

Devastating smog is a too-frequent occurrence in Beijing and across northern China—and an acute reminder of the dangers of China’s rampant coal use. The national government has committed to peak its emissions before 2030 and increase the share of non-fossil fuel energy sources to 20 percent of the national energy supply by 2030. It’s currently pursuing a portfolio of emissions-savings technologies to achieve these goals and shift away from fossil fuels like coal.

One unexpected place where China has a major opportunity to reduce energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions is through its wastewater treatment systems. Bioenergy wastewater treatment plant technology can both reduce China’s emissions and improve water quality, and the country is beginning to invest in this approach in a significant way.

This World Water Day, we’re highlighting this world-class example of technological innovation, environmental sustainability and sound economics aligning at the nexus of water, cities and energy. Bioenergy, or “sludge-to-power” treatment, is a solution that should continue to be a part of China’s emissions-reducing strategies—and an example for other cities around the world.

How Sludge-to-Power Works

Bioenergy plants work by converting the organic matter, or “sludge,” left over from treated sewage into electricity. The plant heats the solid waste, then employs microbes to digest it, which produce methane. The plant then burns that methane to generate power for water treatment. Excess methane can generate electricity for the facility, or power cars as a substitute for compressed natural gas (CNG). Leftover solid waste is sterilized, and can be used as fertilizer for certain types of crops. Other sludge-energy byproducts – called biochar – can be used to grow potted trees on landfill sites to restore landscapes or on city streets to help lower temperatures and improve air quality.

A WRI study recently analyzed the potential for sludge-to-energy systems in Xiangyang, China. After examining nutrient recovery, energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, reclaimed methane and cost of sludge disposal systems, we found that sludge-to-energy systems can make a positive environmental impact. They reduce solid wastes, greenhouse gases and water pollution, all while saving money. Selling fertilizer, biochar and even extra energy back to the grid can create new revenue for a wastewater treatment plant.

City managers should start to see sludge as a resource, rather than as a waste product, that they can incorporate into low-carbon development plans. This is particularly important because China’s wastewater treatment plants produce 30 million tons of sludge per year that must otherwise be hauled away by truck and disposed of. Bioenenergy systems not only reduce those tons of solid waste that are usually spread on the land or in landfills, polluting streams and groundwater, they also reduce the greenhouse gases and other environmental impacts associated with thousands of truck trips to and from treatment plants.

A Growing Popularity in China

The idea is starting to take off in China. WRI’s study gave China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development science-based confidence to promote sludge-to-energy systems in other cities. A ministry official presented the benefits of sludge-to-energy systems at several major events in 2015 and early 2016 to audiences from wastewater and sludge management agencies, private companies from China and the United States, as well as international bilateral organizations. Last May, WRI hosted Chinese government officials from Beijing and other Chinese cities at DC Water’s Blue Plains sewage treatment plant in Washington, D.C. the first in North America to use an advanced Norwegian bioenergy system that is compact enough to fit in relatively cramped urban plants.

As a result of these and other efforts, four large cities in China—Beijing, Changsha, Chengdu and Hefei—began installing or are planning sludge-to-energy systems. Chengdu included five plants in its latest Five-Year Plan.

Based on WRI estimates, these plants collectively can help reduce 700,000 tons of emissions per year, comparable to one-third of the emissions produced each day by all the cars on U.S. roads. This relatively small contribution leaves plenty of room for improvement. Wastewater treatment in China produced more than 30 million tons of sludge in 2015. If 10 percent of that sludge was treated in a sludge-to-energy facility, the emissions reduction could reach 380 million tons of CO2/year, roughly equal to Ukraine’s emissions in 2012.

Additionally, the plants are expected to produce nearly 40 million cubic meters of compressed natural gas for taxis and city buses—enough to fill the tanks of 2 million taxis—while also powering the sludge disposal systems themselves.

These pioneering cities should be commended for their vision and investments, but many more lag far behind. WRI is now working with the World Bank and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to promote sludge-to-energy in other places around the world. Turning sewage into power is a win for everyone involved, and presents an opportunity for hundreds of other cities.

On International Day of Forests, a Look at How Trees Help Make Cities Healthier

Mon, 2016-03-21 23:22

The cherry blossoms blooming in Washington, DC. The city urban tree canopy is about 35 percent. Photo by Karen Blaha/Flickr.

While the words “forests” and “cities” don’t traditionally go hand in hand, urban forestry has started to bridge that gap. While some cities have minimal tree cover due to inadequate soil or a lack of space, others are nearly half covered by these leafy, carbon-storage machines. Additionally, in recent decades, cities around the world have started to think about urban forests and their benefits as the need for climate change mitigation has increased. On the whole, trees improve the quality of life for the millions who live and work in urban areas by filtering polluted air, reducing smog formation, preventing erosion and cleaning up contaminated land, supporting local wildlife, and sheltering buildings from heat and cold—saving up to 10 percent of the energy needed to regulate a building’s temperature.

On this International Day of Forests, here’s a look at three cities that have taken urban forestry to the next level:

Tokyo, Japan

Omotesando Avenue, Tokyo. Photo credit: Kakidai/Wikipedia.

After the city was bombed during World War II, the number of trees on Tokyo’s streets fell from 105,000 to 42,000—nearly 60 percent. In the years following, the city lost another 35,000 due to disease and as many were cut for firewood. Fire from the bombings destroyed much of Tokyo’s forest cover in addition to decimating street trees, creating large empty parcels of land as well.

In 1946, the city created a plan to secure 10 percent of urban lands for green areas and turn the barren parcels of land into urban parks. Beginning in 1948, the city started restoring street trees as well when new supplies of trees became available from nurseries. By 1980, the number of street trees exceeded 235,000.

As of 1990, 21,630 hectares of Tokyo’s green space is made up of forest, meant to help conserve water—one of the many benefits of tress for the natural environment. Tokyo’s urban forests and trees have also helped to supply the city with clean drinking water, a system of wastewater disposal and storm water control.

Belfast, Northern Ireland

Belfast, Northern Ireland from above. Photo by Destination

Ireland is called the “Emerald Isle” for the large amount of green space in its countryside, and it should come as no surprise that the same can be said for its cities. Formed in 1992, the Forest of Belfast in Northern Ireland includes all of Belfast City. Since the end of the Troubles in 1998, nearly 200,000 trees have been planted across parks, playing fields, streets, schools, factories, and along streets and river banks.

The Forest of Belfast’s management has brought together partners from local and central governments, environmental organizations and local citizens who become volunteer Tree Wardens. With the help of the Belfast City Council, support from European funding aimed at promoting peace and reconciliation has allowed the partnership to help 300 groups plant 90,000 trees in the last three years alone.

Until recently, the perception of forests in much of the United Kingdom has been that the “woods” are out in the countryside and are meant to provide habitat for wildlife and act as a means of timber production—and that cities have trees only for aesthetic beauty. There is now growing recognition that trees can provide a whole range of benefits to cities, thanks to the Forest of Belfast.

Washington, DC

Washington, DC. Photo by Moya Team/Wikipedia.

The District of Columbia has a long history of planning, enhancing and maintaining its urban forest. Beginning in 1872, Governor Alexander Shepherd ordered that 60,000 street trees be planted systematically to “improve the quality of life in the Nation’s capital.” Because of his actions, DC’s unofficial title became The City of Trees.

An 1889 Harper’s Magazine article even proclaimed “The city of Washington, the capital of the nation, exceeds in beauty any city of the world…. But above all, its magnificent trees, make it without peer.”

Since then, there has been a municipal agency responsible for tree maintenance across the city. As of today, DC’s urban tree canopy hovers near 35 percent, with nearly 2 million trees across the city. These trees remove 540 tons of pollution per year, store 526,000 tons of carbon and reduce the cost of energy usage in buildings by $2.6 million per year—resulting in an estimated $96,000 in avoided carbon emissions.

A Future of Urban Forests

So, city dwellers, let’s begin thinking of ways to better incorporate these trees and forests into our daily lives. While moving out to the country may have been the way to connect with nature’s benefits in the past, it’s not the only solution now.

Friday Fun: Crowdsourcing Apps Help Planners “Tame” Chaotic Bus Systems

Sat, 2016-03-19 02:11

A bus in La Paz’s informal sector. Photo by Jumaï Hadrien/Flickr.

Cities across the world are harnessing the power of technology to connect directly with citizens about pressing issues, from infrastructure planning to questions about how to spend their budgets. Now, transportation planners are getting in on the game in order to capitalize on the information that people have on their phones.

In contrast with cities in North America and Europe, bus systems in many cities around the world often rely on a mix between formalized public transport systems and informal networks of small, privately owned vehicles. Drivers of these small vehicle rely on receiving as many fares as possible in a day and, as a result, sometimes face complex incentives to provide faulty service. Attempting to reorganize bus systems can cause mass protests, as Quito, Santiago and other cities have learned.

However, some cities are experimenting with technology to make chaotic transport systems work better for people. Here are three cities using mobile apps to crowdsource information from people to help bring order to their public transport systems.

Mapathon – Mexico City, Mexico

Photo by Dani Simons/Flickr.

Despite recent interventions to organize its bus system, residents of Mexico City still rely on small, private buses called peseros for 60 percent of trips by public transport. Routes are unmapped, causing city officials to recommend that uninitiated visitors avoid using them.

In an effort to make some sense of these routes, fourteen organizations—including EMBARQ Mexico—joined forces to plan Mapathon CDMX, a gamified scavenger hunt to map these routes. From January 29 – February 14, 2016, over 3,500 people each downloaded the app and traveled the city’s buses, earning prizes for distance travelled as well as for taking routes with smaller percentages of passengers using smartphones. Data created by the mapathon will be publicly released and a hackathon is already in the works in the hopes that people will create apps and visualizations around the data that might just make Mexico’s buses a little more user-friendly.

Tramicida – La Paz, Bolivia

The streets of La Paz are dense, with upwards of 17,000 public buses of various types carrying only between 7 and 14 passengers on average. The result is a system of intense competition between bus drivers to travel only on the most profitable routes, fighting for passengers. Drivers often do not finish their routes or require passengers to pay an additional fee to get to their desired destination—what is locally termed trameaje.

In response, the government of Mayor Luis Revilla instituted in February a number of policies aimed at improving bus drivers’ behavior. They developed the app Tramicida—or “Route-icide,” which relies on riders to report when bus drivers fail to finish their route, charge too much or have an unclean bus. Citizens can take photos of the license plates and submit their complaints anonymously.

(App photo by Gobierno Autónomo Municipal de La Paz)

Findmyway – Cape Town, South Africa

 Private developers at WhereIsMyTransport? have been working directly with Transport for Cape Town (TCT) to develop a multimodal journey planning app that helps passengers navigate across the bus and rail systems. At the same time, it funnels (anonymized) data back to the local transport authorities that they can then use for planning purposes. While the app does not yet cover the informal minibus system, the developers are aiming to expand to these soon.

Users of the app also send reports back to planners about poor service or problems with vehicles, allowing TCT to have more direct engagement with users. As Madeline Zhu, WhereisMyTransport’s Head of Communications put it, they see “technology as a way to create a conversation between users and transit planners.”

(App photo by WhereIsMyTransport)

DC’s Metro Closure Shows Why Creating Trust in Public Transit Matters

Thu, 2016-03-17 02:59

The Washington, DC Metro. Photo by RJ Schmidt/Flickr.

Washington, D.C., one of the most powerful cities on Earth, has been thrown off-stride by a transit crisis. Starting March 16, the U.S. capital’s Metro system, which serves more than 710,000 passengers daily, closed down for 29 hours for emergency power cable inspections, two days after cable fires caused significant delays on three of Metro’s six lines. Weary customers found alternatives, but this is another transit disappointment in a metropolitan area that has dealt with old railcars, late trains and a lack of accurate schedules. Trust in Metro is at a low point. But, the shutdown isn’t just bad for the Metro; it has broader impacts for the whole of the city.

Public transit is essential to an environmentally sustainable urban future. But it requires public confidence in the transit system. To get people out of their personal cars, there needs to be an attractive alternative. The benefits for the entire city are clear: less traffic congestion, more productive time for commuters, reduced pollution, and better public health and safety. Without trust in the system’s reliability, though, it will be an uphill battle.

When people lose confidence due to unexpected closures and a lack of service predictability, they are more likely to turn to cars as a dependable and convenient way to travel. This may already be happening in Washington, where the Metro system has seen 40,000 fewer riders between 2010 and 2014 and a well-documented decrease in user satisfaction. Residents who live close to stations in transit-oriented developments are taking the metro less. Getting these people back to the metro will require offering them high quality, dependable service–but winning people back can take years of reliable service. This week’s system-wide closure may further erode rider confidence in Metro’s reliability.

Finding out what users of systems like Metro need and perceive can help. In Curitiba, Brazil, the QualiÔnibus satisfaction survey, supported by WRI, aimed to measure the strengths and pitfalls of the local bus rapid transit (BRT) system. By learning how users saw the system, the survey allowed planners to make meaningful changes, including improved security systems, better lighting, and improved infrastructure in stations and pathways. In Rio de Janeiro, similar surveys were conducted for the TransCarioca BRT system, ending in targeted improvements that raised user satisfaction from 1.7 to 5.8 on a 10-point scale. By using direct feedback from users, the city was able to make the changes customers wanted, ensuring continued success and safety.

The Washington, D.C. mass transit system would do well to increase responsiveness to specific rider complaints and safety concerns. Acknowledging the perception and satisfaction of transit riders is important, as we take on current challenges to safety and quality of service. Perhaps this week’s shutdown will provide the opportunity for implementation of such changes, as safety inspectors take stock of the condition of the Metro.

When the image of Washington’s Metro is one of broken elevators, delayed trains and electrical fires, it is hard for riders to trust the system. Acting on providing reliable, safe service would be a step toward turning drivers into transit customers, improving sustainability in this iconic city of monuments and cherry blossoms.

Three Stories of How the Internet of Everything Is Changing Transport

Tue, 2016-03-15 19:38
With the arrival of new and powerful technologies, and the declining costs of these technologies, some new possibilities are emerging for cities and their transport systems. For example, the Internet of Everything (IoE) can benefit cities by connecting people, processes, ...

Improving Street Lighting Can Be an Easy Win for Cities. Here’s Why National Governments Are Critical

Mon, 2016-03-14 21:29
Lighting represents about 15 percent of global power consumption and 5 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Street lighting alone represents about 3 percent of world electricity consumption. Extensive programs that replace obsolete street lighting systems—incandescent, mercury vapor, and ...

Friday Fun: Three Museums That Engage Visitors to Think about the Future of Cities

Fri, 2016-03-11 22:46
It’s not often that you encounter museums dedicated to urban planning and development. But they do exist, and they are presenting panoramas of urban areas, both historically and spatially. While many museums have traditionally focused on presenting valuable objects and ...

Public Space in Cities – What’s the Measuring Stick?

Thu, 2016-03-10 00:33
The famed American landscape architect and Central Park designer Fredrick Law Olmstead said that parks are the “lungs of the city.” However, many cities around the world—from growing Addis Ababa to sprawling Mumbai and dense Sao Paulo—currently lack adequate public ...

4 Priorities for a Conversation around Habitat III

Tue, 2016-03-08 22:09
Habitat III in Quito Ecuador this October will be an opportunity to galvanize local leaders to forge strategies for sustainable, equitable and resilient urban growth. But the stakes are high, and the conversation among policymakers and local leaders is still ...

How Can Africa Deliver on Its Ambitious Vision for Habitat III?

Mon, 2016-03-07 21:01
From February 24 – 26, 2016 African ministers and stakeholder representatives from numerous civil society organizations gathered in Abuja, Nigeria to discuss African priorities for Habitat III, the U. N.’s 20-year urbanization conference that takes place in October. At the end ...

Friday Fun: New Bike Infrastructure Projects from Hong Kong, Germany and Kuala Lumpur

Sat, 2016-03-05 03:36
The benefits of cycling—both for cities and people—are well known. For individuals, cycling can be an efficient, safe and cheap form of mobility as well as a good source of physical activity, helping to reduce obesity and other health risks. ...

In China and Beyond, Action Plans Provide a Path for Improving Building Efficiency

Wed, 2016-03-02 21:30
On February 23 the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) launched the Energy Efficiency in Buildings laboratory (EEB Lab) in Shanghai. In a city where 18.4 percent of emissions come from buildings, the EEB Lab is engaging local stakeholders ...

New Research Shows How BRT Ridership Is Making Bogota a Healthier City

Tue, 2016-03-01 02:04
Physical inactivity is one of the ten leading risk factors for death worldwide. Approximately 5.3 million people die prematurely every year due to cardiovascular diseases, breast and colon cancer and diabetes and other illnesses associated with sedentary lifestyles. According to The ...


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