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In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Breaking Car Addictions Starts in the Workplace

Thu, 2016-09-22 21:30

CAMG, Administrative City of Minas Gerais, started a few measures to reduce employees car dependency. Photo by Ana Paula Hirama / Flickr

The WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities’ Sustainable and Livable Cities Initiative supports key leaders in China, India and Brazil in improving urban quality of life and environmental sustainability. WRI’s blog series on the Initiative will highlight some of the projects that are working to create better cities.

Without dramatic change in cities, the world will hold more than 2 billion cars by 2050, putting human health and the planet at risk. Belo Horizonte, Brazil is finding that changing the world’s car-centric culture starts in the workplace.

Local governments throughout Brazil have long-struggled with how to solve the problems caused by rising car ownership, such as air pollution, traffic congestion and auto crashes. Cities like Porto Alegre and São Paulo have experimented with Traffic Demand Management (TDM) policies like license plate restrictions, increased parking prices and more, but they’ve met with mixed results. Many Brazilian cities simply lack the necessary public transport infrastructure, economic stability and political will to make city-wide TDM policies feasible.

Changing Travel Habits in the Workplace

A project in Belo Horizonte offers a solution.

WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities partnered with the state government of Minas Gerais to encourage more sustainable transportation habits by the workers of the Cidade Administrativa de Minas Gerais (CAMG, Administrative City of Minas Gerais). The state government headquarters employs about 17,000 people, many of whom spend more than two hours per day commuting by private car or motorcycle.

WRI researchers and staff from CAMG started with a step-by-step guide on how to develop a corporate mobility plan, researching employees’ commuting habits and workplace infrastructure and transportation-related costs to develop a Corporate Mobility Diagnosis Report. From there, the two organizations identified potential opportunities for decreasing employees’ vehicle use while improving their commutes and overall quality of life.

When WRI and CAMG asked workers driving cars and motorcycles every day about what would make them change their habits, 84 percent said a high-quality public transport system. Forty-nine percent said they would use the city’s Bus Rapid Transit system, MOVE, if lines connected to stations close to CAMG.

So now CAMG is working with Belo Horizonte’s Transit Agency (BHTRANS) to replace two bus lines with faster, cheaper and more reliable MOVE lines. The new lines will also connect important bus terminals not served by previous bus routes, giving more CAMG workers access to public transit. These new services will start operating in late 2016.

CAMG is also installing bike parking and showers for employees, and a new bike lane will connect the office to the nearest public transit terminal. CAMG is also considering implementing carpool policies and parking fees to further discourage private vehicle use and incentivize more sustainable commuting options.

A Good Policy for Employees and for Companies

If done correctly, CAMG’s plan will save employees money and commuting time while also reducing car use.

There are benefits for CAMG and other companies that implement TDM policies, too. Policies that improve quality of life and value employees’ time have the power to attract and retain talent. According to Fortune Business Magazine, 90 of the 100 Best Places to Work in 2014 had corporate mobility plans in place.

Scaling Up Success

The Belo Horizonte project was not only an opportunity for CAMG, but for city officials to experience the process and benefits of a workplace TDM plan. Now, Belo Horizonte is planning to launch the first corporate mobility public policy in Latin America. The city-wide policy will require large companies to implement a corporate mobility plan in order to offset the impact of thousands of employees’ daily commutes. This pioneering policy will become an example for other Brazilian cities to follow, as well as cities around the world.

The Sustainable and Livable Cities Initiative was made possible through the generous support of the Caterpillar Foundation.

Improving Life for the Urban Under-Served Makes Cities Better for All – But That’s Not the Only Reason to Do It

Tue, 2016-09-20 23:40

Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN Habitat, at preparatory meeting for Habitat III in Surabaya, Indonesia. Photo by Anjali Mahendra

The New Urban Agenda – a vision of inclusive, resilient, sustainable cities where everyone has access to resources and economic opportunity – will be center stage next month at the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, known as Habitat III.  Held only once every 20 years, the objective of this third global gathering on urban development in Quito, Ecuador, is for countries to adopt an agenda to guide sustainable urban development over the next two decades.  Agreed at the United Nations on September 10, the Agenda created after gathering responses from the international community on multiple earlier drafts, points to the need to tackle inequality in the world’s cities as one crucial way to achieve this.

Sustainability is understood typically as being based on three pillars – equity, environment and the economy.  A new World Resources Report, Towards a More Equal City, suggests that starting with equity can help achieve gains along the other two pillars towards a sustainable city that works for all. Economic concerns often take precedence when urban policy is made, and environmental concerns have drawn attention in recent years with the focus on climate change and the potential risks to and resilience of cities. But inequality in access to services has exacerbated and has created heavy economic and environmental costs.

At a recent panel discussion to promote the World Resources Report (WRR) in Surabaya, Indonesia, urban specialists offered perspectives on equity as an entry point in moving a city along a pathway of transformative change towards greater sustainability. David Dodman, of the International Institute for Environment and Development, cited “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better”, arguing that health and social problems are worse in more unequal societies. Joseph D’ Cruz of the United Nations Development Program, emphasized that crime and conflict are reduced when there is a shared prosperity and when cities do not grow in an ‘enclave’ sort of way.  D’Cruz noted that an urban economy benefits when all residents can afford to be consumers, strengthening the overall market ecosystem.  Ajay Suri from the Cities Alliance brought up the tangible example of Agra, India, where slum upgrading, drainage improvements and increased sanitation services improved the waste management in the city, encouraging tourism and providing sustainable income for the poor.

Leave No One Behind

But while improving life for those who lack access to services makes cities better for all, that’s not the only reason to do it. Panelists were unanimous that urban change agents need to address the needs of the under-served, independent of other benefits to the city.  D’ Cruz conveyed that there is a responsibility to help the under-served – and to leave no one behind.  George Soraya of the World Bank, emphasized that development should not be directed simply at the urban wealthy. The fundamental question is:  do mayors want the poor to be actively part of the city?

The experts pointed to a number of critical factors needed to enable transformative change that starts with urban equity:

  • Government ownership. Rubbina Karruna of the UK Department for International Development, cited the commitment of 23 mayors of towns and cities in Bangladesh to improve urban sustainability.
  • Multi-sector approach. Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini offered details on the transformation of the kampungs (urban neighborhoods) in Surabaya, where there was a concerted effort to address many sectoral issues, including wastewater management, flood control, education, health and small- and medium-sized enterprise development.
  • Land tenure for marginalized city dwellers. Rose Molokoane of Shack/Slum Dwellers International asserted that when there is threat of eviction from the lack of tenure, it is difficult improve informal settlements.
  • Community participation. Molokoane emphasized that it is essential to consider the organization of the community and to involve the community in planning, using the phrase, “Nothing for us, without us.” In Kenya, people use illegal electricity connections because they lack access to it legally.  Karruna brought up the example of a community-led infrastructure finance facility in Zimbabwe, which has brought construction jobs to the community.  Communities need to be actively involved.
  • Adequate finance.  D’ Cruz said that cities must generate and manage their own finances, instead of relying solely on national or provincial transfers.

As the first World Resources Report papers roll out during Habitat III and beyond, let us hope that the importance of a more equal city is firmly rooted in the New Urban Agenda – for the benefit of the city and for transformative urban development, but most significantly because cities should leave no one behind.

Nossa Cidade: The Challenges of Connecting Brazil’s Metropolitan Regions

Mon, 2016-09-19 20:07

Evening commute in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by EMBARQ Brasil / Flickr


Nossa Cidade (“Our City”), from TheCityFix Brasil, explores critical questions for building more sustainable cities. Leaning on the expertise of specialists at WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities, the series features in depth articles on urban planning, sustainable mobility, resilience, road safety and other key themes for a healthy urban environment. Each month, a new subject explores the sustainable development of our cities from a different angle. 

One of the main reasons many Brazilians dream of owning their own car is that cars give them the ability to travel great distances quickly with autonomy and security. For years, Brazilian urban development has prioritized individual transport, heightening the desire of owning a private car and discouraging collective transit infrastructure. If increasing public transit use within a city is challenging, one can only imagine the challenge of intercity mobility, especially in larger metropolitan areas.

Despite the scarcity of public transit, the number of Brazilians commuting daily, from one city to another, is increasing. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the number of people traveling to a different city daily for work or school rose 93.9 percent from 2000 to 2010. In 2000, 7,327,041 people commuted, and, in 2010, that number jumped to 14,357,834.

Traffic jam of individual, personal vehicles in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by EMBARQ Brasil / Flickr

According to the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA), between 2000 and 2010, the population of metropolitan areas grew above the national average for population growth. City centers, however, grew well below the average. According to IPEA, high property prices in major cities and low purchasing power for the average citizen shape this trend. Despite significant rates of urban employment, Brazilians tend to live outside of city centers, where land is cheaper. By commuting daily, Brazilians risk hours in traffic, environmental abuse and quality of life. Furthermore, when citizens drive individually and increase the number of road vehicles, these burdens exponentiate. However, despite these concerns, it is difficult to dissolve the dream of car ownership without an intercity public transportation service.

Additionally, car-centric, intercity infrastructure amplifies the financial burden of commuting. For example, inhabitants of Brazil’s urban areas dedicate about 15 percent of their annual income to their daily commutes, spending on average five times more on private transport than public. Several other issues, including access to better healthcare, education and culture, are linked to the ease of intercity travel. Without a proper mobility system, Brazilians are denied important services and are placed under socio-economic stresses.

Niterói, metropolitan region of Rio. Photo by Marinelson Almeida / Flickr

The Economy Suffers from Time Lost to Commuting

How citizens manage their time affects the economy. For example, long commutes can lead to “sacrificed production,” meaning the longer one’s commute, the less time one spends producing goods or contributing to society. According to the Federation of Industries of the State of Rio de Janeiro (FIRJAN), annual losses in the Brazilian economy from metropolitan congestion reach 111 billion reais (US $34.8 billion), the equivalent of 4.4 percent of Brazil’s GDP. Furthermore, more than 17 million workers spend an average of 114 minutes commuting in each direction. Among Brazil’s 37 metropolitan areas, Rio de Janeiro has the longest travel time: 2.8 million workers travel an average of 141 minutes each way. As a result, the annual cost of “sacrificed production” in Rio exceeds 19 billion reais ($5.7 billion USD), equivalent to 5.9 percent of metropolitan GDP.

Upon identifying these problems within Brazil’s urban planning and transit infrastructure, in early 2015, the Brazilian government enacted the Statute of Metropolis, outlining general guidelines for planning, managing and implementing public policies in metropolitan areas. The Statute gives Brazilian cities a three-year period to deliver their Integrated Urban Development Plans (PNDI), which specify guidelines for strategic projects, actions and investments, as well as zoning guidelines. These development plans are up to the discretion of the cities but must meet the standards of the Statute. Furthermore, PNDIs are intended to spur social participation and promote transparency and dialogue between governmental officials and civil society.

São Paulo has integrated city transport but lacks intercity connectivity. Photo by Mariana Gil, WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities / Flickr

Cities across Brazil are evaluating their current successes and developmental goals as they shape their PNDIs. For instance, São Paulo, home to 39 cities and 21 million people, has a serious lack of connectivity, meaning developing a robust PNDI is essential. For example, intercity bus lines do not link the greater metropolitan area with the capital city. Integration only occurs between the intercity bus, metro and trains from the São Paulo Metropolitan Train Company (CPTM). “It is up to us, organized society, to implement the Statute. And for that, we have to create an inter-federal governance structure. A council bringing together representatives of government, private sector and civil society to discuss the metropolitan issues, “said Luiz José Predetti, Director of the São Paulo Metropolitan Planning Company SA (Emplasa) during a WRI Brasil event in Rio de Janeiro last September.

Unlike São Paulo, Curitiba’s transport system serves as a model for metropolitan transport. The state’s capital is a pioneer for implementing bus rapid transit (BRT)—a system that prioritizes public transport over cars. Since the 1980s, Curitiba’s Integrated Transport Network (RIT) has successfully connected cities in the metropolitan area. Nevertheless, there are still ways Curitiba can improve its transport system. For example, enhancing its Green Line operation would further strengthen interconnectivity in the region.

The expansion of Curitiba’s Green Line can further improve intercity transportation in the region. Photo by mariordo59 / Flickr

Similar to Curitiba, cities in Florianópolis also serve as examples for metropolitan transit management. In April, governmental officials implemented the Urban Mobility Plan of Florianópolis (PLAMUS), an initiative to enhance public transport in the region, including bike lanes and BRT. A technical study, conducted between 2014 and 2015 with the support of WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities, preceded the Mobility Plan to diagnose problems of urban mobility in Florianópolis’s 13 cities.

Future Changes Show Promise for Integrated Transport

In order to solve mobility problems and meet the Statute of Metropolis guidelines, Rio de Janeiro is already working on its PNDI. “When we do not have a model, a design, and are just doing more of the same, we cannot guarantee a sustainable development process. In the metropolitan area of Rio de Janeiro, urban expansion is 60 square kilometers (23 square miles) per year. We make a Herculean effort to improve the existing infrastructure. Building a solid planning effort, as we are doing here, is very exciting, “said Vicente Loureiro, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Chamber, at an event held in June by the State Government in partnership with WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities.

In addition to PNDIs, the Metropolitan Chamber, with support from the World Bank, is formulating a Strategic Plan for Integrated Development of the Metropolitan Urban Region of Rio de Janeiro, or “Shaping the Metropolis.” WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities is on the plan’s Advisory Board, a body made up of civil society, the private sector and academia. This group will propose strategies and guidelines for consideration when preparing “Shaping the Metropolis.” This plan is intended to guide governmental decisions for the next 25 years. The guidelines discuss six aspects of metropolitan life: economic expansion, natural and cultural heritage, mobility, housing and social facilities, sanitation and environment and space reconfiguration. It will serve as an example of integrated management to other Brazilian metropolitan areas.

Originally published in Portuguese at TheCityFix Brasil.

History in the Making: Habitat III Negotiators Release Final Draft of the New Urban Agenda

Thu, 2016-09-15 22:31

Quito, Ecuador will host Habitat III in October. Photo by Claudio Alvarado Solari / Flickr

Last week, the final draft of the New Urban Agenda (NUA)—the document at the center of Habitat III in Quito next month—was released. After an unexpected stalemate at the Preparatory Committee in Surabaya in July, Habitat III negotiators convened this week in New York to finalize the text, which will lay the groundwork for global urban development for the next 20 years. After a marathon, 38-hour closed door session of informal negotiations, delegates were able to find common ground on many of the most challenging issues, including language around the Right to the City, the future of UN-Habitat and its role in Habitat III implementation and many more minor, but still vexing, topics.

The final draft includes references to or endorsements of many essential issues, including the role of voluntary commitments from cities and stakeholders, follow-up reporting processes and the importance of national urban policies. Despite these positive steps, the draft lacks clear linkages to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, specific reference to a platform for action and clear guidance for country and stakeholder reporting expectations. These issues will be critical as decision-makers and stakeholders prepare for Quito.

The Quito Implementation Plan and Stakeholder Action

Ambitious action from non-state actors will be key to effectively implementing the New Urban Agenda and ensuring a positive legacy for Habitat III. Many stakeholders have raised questions and concerns about how non-state actors can get involved in Post-Quito implementation. Paragraphs 21 and 154 of the Agreed Draft of the NUA emphasize the importance of these activities, but there is not a specific reference to the Secretariat’s Quito Implementation Plan or any other action platform linked to the Lima-Paris Action Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals. This raises concerns that securing buy-in and commitments from diverse stakeholders may be a challenge.

National Urban Policies That Empower Cities

Strong and inclusive national urban policies will be central to scaling action for sustainable cities at all levels of government. Paragraphs 89-91 outline the need for countries to create and implement national urban policies that decentralize decision-making power into the hands of local and sub-national decision-makers and equip them with the resources and financial mechanisms they need.

However, it’s important that these policies empower cities and sub-national regions to find their own solutions. In the forthcoming weeks, stakeholders should be on the look-out as countries gear up to announce commitments for this kind of national legislation in Quito.

Ensuring a Strong Reporting Process

Paragraphs 161 through 169 call for “voluntary, country-led, open, inclusive, multi-level, participatory, and transparent follow-up and review of the New Urban Agenda…tak[ing] into account contributions of national, sub-national, and local levels of government and…supplemented by contributions from the United Nations system, regional and sub-regional organizations, major groups and relevant stakeholders.” This reporting process, which will be led by UN-Habitat, has the potential to ensure that the New Urban Agenda is not another document lost to time, but rather a force of action, propelling stakeholders across sectors to make commitments and create change.

To ensure effectiveness, however, there needs to be clear guidance on how countries and other stakeholders will be expected to support the reporting process, especially in light of the SDG’s and Paris Agreement’s reporting requirements. These important international processes are only minimally referenced or omitted entirely in the New Urban Agenda, but they should be leveraged to benefit the NUA follow-up process. The reporting process and guidance for countries should be discussed in depth and agreed in Quito in order to make the most of the resulting energy and momentum.

Contentious Issues Remain: Future of UN-Habitat and the Right to the City

One of the more controversial issues throughout the Habitat III negotiations has been the concept of the Right to the City, which has been championed by many Latin American countries, and is seen as a mechanism to create better, more collaborative relationships between authorities and urban residents. Though the phrase remains in the text (Paragraph 11), the commitment to this concept has been watered down so as only to note that some cities refer to the “shared vision of cities for all” as the “right to the city.” While this compromise was accepted by advocates, they remain disappointed by the status of what they see as a central tenet of a progressive future for urban development.

The final hurdle for negotiators was the role of UN-Habitat, which ended in a compromise essentially passing the buck to the General Assembly to act as a non-partisan evaluator of the “effectiveness, efficiency, accountability, and oversight of UN-Habitat” (Paragraph 172). This debate, which has been a constant refrain since the beginning of the negotiations, has focused on the role of UN-Habitat as an organization, rather than how the UN System as a whole can more proactively support and manage one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century—sustainable urban growth. This compromise, thanks to the timing of the new Secretary General appointment and the long-awaited UN reform, provides an opportunity to rethink how the New Urban Agenda can be implemented and supported by the greater UN.

What to Look for in Quito

As the world gears up for Quito, countries and non-state actors alike should begin to solidify their commitments and develop ambitious action agendas, keeping in mind that cities have an essential role in achieving not only the goals of the New Urban Agenda, but also the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. Interested parties should keep an eye out for opportunities to participate in more in depth discussions of reporting frameworks, ideas for future UN support of the New Urban Agenda and stronger linkages to the other global processes. Moving forward together, we can use the New Urban Agenda as a guide to share the vision of a sustainable, equitable urban future with decision-makers and ensure that our energy and resources are going towards creating cities for all.

Driverless Uber and nuTonomy: A Future to Cheer or Fear?

Wed, 2016-09-14 01:58

Uber’s Self Driving Car Undergoes Testing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Foo Conner / Flickr

The future is here, or it is very close: Uber announced “driverless” car services in downtown Pittsburgh; nuTonomy, a MIT spin-off technology company, just started commercial trials of autonomous taxis in Singapore.  These developments come way before car manufacturers and technology experts have set their ambition (see table below). This seems to be very exciting news, but will the development of autonomous vehicles be similar to other advances in the car industry, like hydrogen fuel cell vehicles or electric vehicles?  These technologies are still growing but at a much slower pace than initially expected.

Driverless Car Market Predictions. Information from Driverless Car Market Watch

Uber and nuTonomy are undergoing full-scale tests, with staff on-board the vehicle: a driver with fingertips on the steering wheel and an expert taking notes and measurements on a laptop computer. For now, a driver is still needed to comply with current regulations. In Pittsburgh, these test rides will be free; you may be selected randomly as the lucky passenger. Still, testing signals a big step for automation in real world conditions that may excite many and reduce fears after Tesla’s assisted driving (autopilot) crashes in the U.S. and China.

Dream Come True or Nightmare in the Making?  

Sci-Fi movies from Dudu in 1971 to The Incredibles and I, Robot in 2004, have sparked our imagination on cars with brains, which take us effortlessly from point A to point B. It seems like a waste of time to operate individual vehicles. With autonomous cars, you can use that time for other activities, like reading, texting or searching for Pokémon without endangering others.

As ZIP Car founder Robin Chase rightly points out, all this may be a dream. Moreover, shared vehicles could save people zillions of dollars, save lives and save emissions (if vehicles are electric and powered with clean energy).  But this could go really wrong if the autonomous cars go back home, increasing traffic and vehicle miles; or keep running around the block, which Chase calls “zombie cars.”

The key, according to Chase’s analysis, is having proper regulations so this new technology is used in shared, rather than individual, vehicles: planning rules are changed so parking is no longer a must; the tax system is changed based on pay-as-you-ride and not on ownership; cars are electric and powered by clean sources; and it becomes necessary to rethink labor security and how income is taxed. She claims, and I agree, that the change is here—in Google Autonomous Vehicles in California, Tesla tests and now in Singapore and Pittsburgh, thanks to Uber and nuTonomy. It is best to recognize the high cost of doing nothing, and it is time to seize the opportunity, at least in the U.S.

It is important to get all the pieces of this puzzle right, first with adequate regulation for shared mobility, then a good set-up for electric vehicles and finally clear rules for shared vehicles.

Do Autonomous Cars Matter in Developing Countries?

Probably yes, but we need to be cautious.  Most developing countries are still far from being car-oriented. City travel is still mostly composed of walking, bicycling and public transport. This is something that needs to be preserved, rather than replaced, with shared autonomous electric vehicles. The great disruptive invention of the last century, the car, has not yet taken hold in many emerging economies. It is best if cars do not become the predominant mode of transport, as megacities in the global south are also the most congested, polluted and unsafe metropolises of the world.

According to Tom-Tom Traffic Index 2016, seven out of the top ten most congested cities are in developing countries, and two are in transition economies. The only city in a developed country is Los Angeles, coming in at number ten.  Can you imagine already-crowded Mexico City with “zombie cars” multiplying road congestion?

Rank of Congestion Level by City. Information from TomTom

Ignoring the advent of disruptive technologies, like self-driving Ubers and nuTonomys, would be a mistake.  But placing policy bets in this future may be an even bigger mistake. Why not still focus on the basics: good urban design, compact and connected with diverse uses; high-quality design for pedestrians, safe bicycle paths and high-quality public transport.  At the end of the day, public transport is shared mobility at its best, and some of it is already electric and autonomous: the driverless metro.  Autonomous public transport may be the best focus, with last mile connectivity in smaller shared vehicles, providing on-demand flexible services.

Driving Forward with Autonomous Vehicles

The vision of zero ownership is very compelling, with safe, autonomous electric cars powered by a clean grid, but it is not complete.  It needs to be coupled with an active promotion of walking, bicycling and attractive, efficient public transport.  This is not far from what Tim Papanderu, the former the Chief Innovation Officer for San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and now Google employee, promoted for his city: 50% shared autonomous electric cars and 50% walking, bicycling and public transport, which contrasts the current 64% individual, polluting and inefficient car use.

This may be the basis for a triple zero vision: zero traffic deaths, zero harmful emissions, zero ownership. Uber’s and nuTonomy’s driverless cars (and Google´s, Volkswagen’s, GM´s, Ford’s, Toyota’s, Tesla´s, BMW’s, Dalmier´s, etc.) are very welcome, as long as they are coupled with strong regulations and an adequate transition process, as Robin Chase suggested. 

Friday Fun: 4 Olympic Viewing Parties Transformed Public Spaces into Virtual Arenas

Fri, 2016-09-02 20:51

A Crowd Gathers on Rio’s Olympic Boulevard to Watch and Support Their Team. Photo by ConMen / Vimeo

The Summer Olympics are the largest sporting event, with 205 participating nations and billions of television viewers around the world. From the 1996 Games in Atlanta to the 2008 Games in Beijing, the Olympic TV audience grew from 3.2 to 4.7 billion viewers. Regardless of politics or cultural controversies surrounding the Games, one thing remains clear: people want to watch.

But, the growing trend of public viewing parties has transformed how people experience these events, moving televisions from living rooms or local bars, into city plazas and stadiums. This year, Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Suva (Fiji), Kingston (Jamaica) and Kakuma (Kenya) transformed their public spaces with Olympic broadcasts, bringing citizens together and creating open access to the Games.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil:

Olympic Boulevard in Rio Attracted Thousands During the Games. Photo by Jonas de Carvalho / Flickr

Rio de Janeiro, host of the 2016 Olympics, created the largest live viewing party in the history of the Games, allowing everyone to partake in the electric atmosphere. The Olympic Boulevard, located on the newly renovated Porto Maravilha, was decorated with large broadcast screens, food trucks and the Amanhã (Tomorrow) stage. Over the course of the Olympics, the Boulevard became a main attraction for thousands of daily visitors to enjoy live music and art performances. For Rio, hosting the Games was about more than sports, as the city sponsored an entire culture program, Celebra, to showcase Brazil’s cultural diversity. “The idea is to integrate the city with the Games,” stated city governmental officials. Using the Games and their virtual broadcasting to highlight Brazilian culture and identity, the city created a memorable and inclusive Olympic celebration.

Live-Broadcast Screens and Giant Murals Decorate the Olympic Boulevard in Rio. Photos by Jonas de Carvalho / Flickr

Suva, Fiji:

‘Go Fiji Go’ HD (Rio Olympics Rugby Song 2016) from Shabir Nabi on Vimeo.

On August 12, more than 4,000 spectators gathered in the National Stadium of Fiji’s capital city to watch their rugby team defeat Britain for the nation’s first Olympic medal. By halftime, fans were already singing and dancing, united by their national sport.

People from all over Fiji traveled to the capital city, Suva, to watch the match. The Fiji Village reported that 51-year-old Peni Matai traveled eight hours by minibus from the village of Serua, where there is no access to television. All over the island, banks and shops closed for a few hours to watch the match.

Winning Olympic gold was more than a sports victory—it has become a national symbol of hope unity. For a country that has experienced four coups d’etat in the last 27 years, and in 2014 held its first election since 2006, hope and unity are rare and important. Upon seeing thousands of Fijians cheering under one flag in National Stadium, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama remarked that “Rugby has always lifted the spirit and always brought us together. Right now, whatever political party, there’s no difference. Everyone is coming together to celebrate.”

Kingston, Jamaica:

Rio 2016 – Jamaicans celebrate record-breaking runner Usain Bolt from Stephen Greaves on Vimeo.

Usain Bolt’s 100m sprint may have taken only 9.81 seconds, but the celebrations he ignited in Kingston, 3,600 miles away, continued well into the night. Fans lined the streets of the capital city to watch Bolt make history on giant live screens. Not even heavy summer rain was enough to deter the fans, as they brought traffic to a standstill amidst the wave of cheers, banging pots and booming stereos.

For those who could not join the street party, anywhere else would do. Shoppers in a MegaMart in Kingston crowded around the TV section as the race began. Just as the streets of Kingston were erupting, so were the isles of the MegaMart. In Jamaica, home to the fastest man in the world, a ten second race is more than enough to celebrate.

Kakuma, Kenya:

Refugee Children Intently Watch the Games in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. Footage courtesy of Amnesty International.

The world’s largest refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya is home to over 150,000 people. This summer, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) partnered with the humanitarian organization  FilmAid to broadcast the Olympic Games inside the camp. For many refugees, this was their first time watching the Games and was a chance to connect with the world outside of the camp. Additionally, this year marked the first time the Olympics had a Refugee Olympic Team, and five of the athletes were from Kakuma. So, for Kakuma, viewing the 2016 Olympics was incredibly special. Throughout the duration of the tournament, everyone in the camp was glued to the screen, cheering for the athletes they watched train for months before.

The two week viewing event in Kakuma became a source of hope and inspiration to the refugees living there. Magu Ngumo, Creative and Content Director at FilmAid, underscored the importance of the event: “Screening the Olympics in Kakuma is a chance for young refugees to see the athletes and themselves represented, not just as victims of war and disaster, but as individuals who have dreams.”

Olympic viewing parties enable the Games to transcend stadium walls, bringing people together in city centers and public spaces and providing an opportunity for citizens to engage with their communities. All they need is a big enough screen.


Refugees in Kakuma watch Team Refugees compete at Rio Olympics- Footage Courtesy of Amnesty International from malcolm on Vimeo.

An Olympic Legacy: Why Rio’s Residents Now Have a Different City at the End of the Games

Tue, 2016-08-23 20:38

Passengers board Rio de Janeiro BRT, Transoeste. Photo by EMBARQ Brasil / Flickr

The Olympics have given us the opportunity to meet the wonderful city of Rio de Janeiro. The landscape of Guanabara Bay, the famous beaches, Sugarloaf Mountain, Lagoa and the tropical forest are so beautiful, it feels natural that the Portuguese selected this place as the capital of their empire, while Napoleon’s Army occupied the Iberian Peninsula. Rio de Janeiro remained the capital of Brazil after its independence, until the foundation of Brasilia in 1960. Today, it remains the symbol of the whole country.

Rio, like many host cities before, has tried to harness the Olympic experience to showcase the friendly face of Brazil and leave a legacy. This friendly face is evident in the beautiful opening ceremony, the incredible sports arenas and fair treatment of the entire Olympic family. Rio was a great Olympic host amid a political crisis, an economic recession and great social disparity. Given the economic and social state of Brazil, however, is legacy worth the Olympic cost?

Rio’s reported Olympic budget is 37.6 billion reais ($11.9 billion), of which 24.1 billion reais ($7.6 billion) are for city infrastructure and 7 billion reais ($2.2 billion) are for the Olympic committee. Like Olympic Games before, the final costs are higher than initial projections. All the Olympic Games between 1960 (Rome) and 2012 (London) had cost overruns of 179 percent, and London was the most expensive in history ($14.8 billion), with cost overruns of 101 percent. Rio is not far behind, already reporting cost overruns of 51 percent.

The Olympics are not the only event Brazil has organized in recent years. It hosted the FIFA World Cup, the World Youth Congress and Pope Francis, Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development and the World Games of the Armed Forces. In order to prepare for these events, Rio had to advance its mobility infrastructure, particularly its mass-transit. While it has been costly, the city created necessary infrastructure that otherwise would not have been built or would have taken decades. Large city projects include a metro extension, the construction of a downtown light rail, a large-scale renewal in the old urban port area (now Porto Maravilha), the construction of several BRT lines (Transoeste, Transcarioca and Transolímpica), bicycle path advancement and public space and sports venue improvement.

The metro extension of 16 kilometers (10 miles) opened on June 30, just days before the Games, to Olympic families and attendees of ticketed events. It connects the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana to the suburb of Barra de Tijuca, the Olympic park. During construction, the cost of the project doubled from about 5 billion reais ($1.4 billion) to 9.7 billion reais ($2.8 billion, $175 million per kilometer).

The light rail (VLT Carioca), a 28 kilometer (17 mile), single line, came into service on June 5, two weeks after the announced date. It has an estimated cost of 1.2 billion reais ($370 million, $13 million per kilometer).

The new BRT lines in Rio have been launched gradually, expanding with each major event. Transoeste, a 56 kilometer (34.7 mile) line from Barra de Tijuca to Santa Cruz, opened in 2012 for Rio+20. It services 250,000 passengers per day and cost $343 million ($6 million per kilometer). Transcarioca, a 39 kilometer (24.2 mile) line opened for the FIFA World Cup Football in 2014. The line connects the international airport to Barra de Tijuca, carrying 450,000 passengers daily and had a cost of $758 million ($19 million per kilometer). Transolímpica, a 26 kilometer (16 mile) line, was put into partial operation on July 10 of this year, for the Olympics. So far, the line has cost $400 million ($15 million per kilometer). In total, Rio constructed 121 kilometers (75 miles) of BRT in just seven years. This accomplishment stands out when compared with Mexico City, which completed 125 kilometers (77.6 miles) in 11 years and Bogotá, which completed 113 kilometers (70.2 miles) in 18 years.

Perhaps the most impressive Olympic project is the renewal of the urban port, Porto Maravilha, encompassing five million square meters (1.93 square miles) in the old industrial harbor area. The project includes the demolition of an elevated highway, construction of a road tunnel, enabling of public spaces and construction of the Museum of Art and the Museum of Tomorrow. The total cost of the project was $2.2 billion financed through real estate development in city.

Mayor of Rio Eduardo Paes is very happy with the city’s infrastructural improvements. Changing the city is impressive. International events are able to create this transformation by drawing on federal support and private participation. We all enjoy the Olympics, but the inhabitants of Rio will continue to enjoy a different city at the end of the Games.

Originally published in Spanish on El Tiempo

Rio Olympics’ Legacy: Urban Mobility

Mon, 2016-08-22 23:31

The TransCarioca BRT offered improved transport during the Olympics and beyond. Photo credit: Mariana Gil/WRI

The Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the first South American city to host the modern games, famously faced challenges in the run-up to the event – from construction delays to a polluted venue to worries about the Zika virus and urban crime – many of which have been overcome. But there’s a question that always comes up for Olympic cities after the torch is extinguished: was it worth for its residents? In Rio’s case, as for previous Olympic host cities, the long-term benefit may be in doubt, but is definitely yes when it comes to public transport.

In advance of the games, the length of mass transit systems in Rio, mostly Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) were more than double what had been promised for the Olympics, from 76 to 156 kilometers (47 to 97 miles). The downtown Light Rail System (LRT) was not part of the Olympic transit promise, while metro extension increased from 4 to 16 km (2.5 to 10 miles).

These improvements set the groundwork for a world-class mass transit system for Rio, but it depends on strong follow-up. The next city administration, which takes office in January 2017, needs to secure financing to finish the TransBrasil BRT corridor. If service reserved for Olympic ticket holders is transferred to city residents after the games, as expected, and the TransBrasil line is completed, the number of daily mass transit trips will increase substantially. According to city forecasts, the share of daily trips made by mass transit – BRT, metro, train — is likely to increase from 18 percent to 63 percent of all daily trips. How did that happen?


Numbers reveal that Rio delivered more than what was promised for transport

Rio has learned from experience. Before being selected to host the 2016 Olympics, Rio de Janeiro failed in two previous attempts, in 2004 and 2012. Both times, transport plans relied heavily on implementing metro rail lines and motorways. The history of difficulties in financing rail construction cast doubt on whether transport would be in place on time.

Hosting mega-events has been part of the Rio’s strategy since the 1992 Earth Summit. For the 2007 Pan American Games, two new metro lines and a light rail transit system connecting the international and domestic airports to the west zone of the city were promised, but never implemented.

In its third, successful attempt to host the Olympic Games, Rio knew the city needed a realistic and coherent proposal. The focus of its transit strategy changed from rail to bus, featuring innovative BRT corridors. The backbone of the transport plan included a high-performance bus based transit network integrated with existing boat and rail systems. And beyond getting cars off the road and moving visitors, athletes and locals where they need to go, the new BRT system would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using a more fuel-efficient fleet.

When evaluating Rio’s proposal, the International Olympic Committee requested extensive studies to estimate the capability of TransCarioca BRT to handle the extra demand. WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities proved that BRT would not only suffice but also provide better value. Relatively minor changes in station layout and mix of services made it possible to achieve significant gains in system capacity and performance.

Maps compare what the city promised to the Olympic Committee and what was implemented

Maps compare what the city promised to the Olympic Committee and what was implemented

There is already evidence that BRT has had a positive impact in Rio. Rider surveys  have shown encouraging results: nine of every 10 respondents said the cost of travel had decreased or stayed the same with BRT compared to other means of transport, while two-thirds had a favorable impression of the connected bus network. The survey showed that for the regular commuters who are the system’s primary users, travel time has been cut by about 35 percent. This type of feedback will continue to inform recommendations to improve the BRT network.

There are pending challenges for when the Games are over, like fully integrating all public transport modes and finishing the implementation of the BRT network. But the Olympics offered Rio the possibility of having a public transport network that is capable of shaping its future urban development, making it a more compact, connected and coordinated city. Rio has the potential to become a flagship for reliable and sustainable mobility, inspiring other cities in Latin America. That would truly be an Olympic legacy.

This blog is also posted on WRI Insights

Historic Reform to Transform the Urban Model in Mexico

Fri, 2016-08-19 19:58

Mexican cities, like Guadalajara, strive for urban reform. Photo by Alex Lomix / Flickr

Mexico is an eminently urban country. 78 percent of the Mexican population lives in an urban locality of more than 2,500 inhabitants, and 63 percent live in urban centers with more than 15,000 inhabitants. Urban development should be a priority for Mexico’s public and political agenda, and the country needs to resolve these problems holistically. It needs to invest in the development and implementation of a compact, connected, coordinated and competitive urban vision. The great challenge to establish planning instruments that allow cities to have the financial resources, institutions, policies, programs and incentives necessary and appropriate to achieve an urban transformation at the local scale.

Over the past six years, Mexico has been working towards a goal to “increase productivity and democratize [its] economy, as well as ensure the effective exercise of social rights to all Mexicans, connecting human capital with economic opportunities to reduce gaps of inequality and promote wider social participation.” At the same time, the country is committed in various international forums to move towards a low carbon economy which, among other things, means reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) 30 percent by 2030. The role of cities here is significant: all 93 cities in Mexico (concentrated in 56 metropolitan areas) with over 100,000 inhabitants, contribute 88 percent of the total gross output of the country and account for 83 percent of employment in Mexico.

Cities are the doors that open our economy and connect us to the rest of the world. However, our current urban model is characterized by being distant, dispersed and disconnected (3D). Cities lose competitiveness; our urban model does not guarantee access to a clean environment, decent housing, and a healthy life but, on the other hand, leads to social and spatial inequality (35 million inhabitants today spend more money on transportation than on basic needs) and greater traffic congestion and pollution (inhabitants of Mexico City lose 3.3 million man-hours a year to traffic congestion).

CTS EMBARQ Mexico has consistently advocated for urban reform to reverse this trend. There is some progress in this direction:

  1. The creation of the Ministry of Agricultural, Territorial and Urban Development (SEDATU) to plan, create, coordinate, manage and implement land management policies, ensuring decent housing and urban and rural development.
  2. The development of the National Development Plan (NDP) which, for the first time, incorporates urban targets that promote sustainable urban mobility, public space and dense and compact growth.
  3. The publication of the National Urban Development Programme (PNDU) and the National Housing Programme, with clearer and more specific definitions of the new urban model for Mexican cities.
  4. Changes in some operating rules for credit and housing subsidies.

But these advances have not been consolidated, meaning that there have been no significant changes in the pattern of our cities or in the quality of citizen life. Heading to Habitat III, there are still several outstanding issues to address in Mexico that are essential in promoting new sustainable urban models. The first is to reform the General Law on Human Settlements (LGAH), which dates from 1976 and was last updated in 1993 (the last renovation was in 2014). It focuses on the regularization of land tenure and massive housing construction. The shift towards a sustainable model will need to require profound changes in the legal framework and must consider:

  1. The long-term planning, linking plans and budgets
  2. Mechanisms for metropolitan management
  3. Integration of policies for land use and mobility
  4. Compact, coordinated and connected cities
  5. Sustainable urban mobility
  6. Land management instruments
  7. Funding Mechanisms

The second challenge is to establish a portfolio of institutional, financial, fiscal and planning instruments that allow us to implement a legal framework that can strengthen institutional planning and progress. Finally, it is essential to establish and standardize urban technical standards, regulations and local planning to ensure the consistency between various levels of government.

The time is now to move from good intentions to policy implementation: institutional, programmatic and budgetary. Mexico needs to reform its cities and provide citizens with equal access to opportunities in order to ensure a higher quality of life.

Originally published in Spanish on TheCityFix Mexico

Of Lords and Ladies: Exposing Mexico City’s Corruption, Unsafe Roads and more

Tue, 2016-08-16 19:26

Ecobici rider traverses the busy road in Mexico City. Photo by Alejandro / Flickr

A video went viral earlier this month in Mexico. Ari Santillan, urban activist and contributor to TheCityFix Mexico, was biking home after work on a dedicated bus-bike lane in Mexico City when a car, driving illegally in the lane, started harassing him to get out of the way. Ari refused to do so, angering the driver, who became more aggressive. When Ari finally found a police officer, the driver tried to run him over. Luckily, Ari was able to jump off his bike and leave the incident unscathed.

What happened next has become an all too common scene in Mexico. The driver, an upper-middle class man driving an Audi, got out of his car, threw the bike to the sidewalk and started shouting at Ari—and then at the police officer. When the officer tried to stop him from getting into his car and driving off, this man, now known as “Lord Audi,” started to push the officer away. Eventually the man managed to escape the officer’s grip and drive off, dragging with him an EcoBici bike that a fellow citizen had parked in front of the car to stop him from driving away.

Far from being a unique occurrence, this kind of event is becoming more and more recurrent in Mexico—a country with a profound class division, plagued with corruption issues. Particularly in Mexico City, people from all socioeconomic levels are fed up with their living conditions and tired of the rich and powerful acting above the law and doing as they please, without any fear of punishment.

A Problem Reaching Across Society

This incident highlights several problems facing Mexico City. For decades, the city followed a car-centric model of development, and investment in public transport fell. As a result, the city is now “the most congested city in the world,” according to a report released by TomTom in March 2016.  However, the local population views actions against excessive car use negatively, and local officials often don’t want to risk of taking unpopular actions. Because of this, the city is plagued by road safety issues, particularly for cyclists and pedestrians, who often find themselves in vulnerable and dangerous situations on the streets.

A further problem is the prevalence of what can be described as the law of the jungle, where self-interest is the main driver for people’s actions, without regard for their neighbors. Recently, there have been multiple cases of people believing and acting as if their socioeconomic status puts them above the law—including a media mogul who ordered his bodyguards to hit a government official and rob his cellphone as revenge for forcing them to obey the law; and a young woman who, after being pulled over for DUI, tried to bribe the police while cursing at them. Faced with an authority unwilling to do anything to solve the problem, the victims of this kind of behavior—everyone who isn’t a member of this social class—have no choice but to document the incidents and denounce them in social media. This is where the Lord/Lady designation comes from—as a way of mocking this sense of entitlement.

Lastly, the video simply highlights the lack of enforcement on the part of public authorities. Many police officers in Mexico have little training, work under unfavorable conditions and do not know how to deal with these kinds of incidents. And when they do know how to handle this kind of situation, a bigger problem arises—corruption. In the end, most Lords and Ladies do not have to face justice, as a quick bribe or exertion of influence will get them out of trouble.

What Can Be Done?

Cities Safer by Design, an urban design guide published by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, aims to promote safer streets by changing the way we build and design our cities.  The ideas and principles presented in the guide can be used from this point forward by Mexico City’s authorities to redesign the streets. Currently, streets in Mexico City do not provide enough safety to its most vulnerable users.

Additionally, there needs to be a shift in how Mexican citizens consider themselves part of society. There’s currently a general lack of empathy and social awareness noticeable at all social strata. Public awareness campaigns, through the government or private actors, can be a good way of changing the common mentality. For example, “Yo me fijo, yo respeto” (I’m aware, I respect), a campaign that Mexico City’s government launched earlier this year, is part of the Vision Zero strategy to reduce traffic fatalities.

Corruption and lack of enforcement will continue to be tough challenges to tackle. However, there has been recent progress through campaigns that invite people to denounce acts of corruption they’ve witnessed, through NGOs dedicated to fighting corruption and through policies that have improved working conditions in police departments across the country.

Perhaps There’s Hope After All

There’s an undeniable shift taking place in the public conversation around these kinds of incidents—mainly as a result of widespread social media. Perhaps this kind of awareness will finally create the profound change needed to make Mexico City, and cities across Mexico, safer and more just places for all. 

Three Lessons for Unlocking Efficient Cities for All

Fri, 2016-08-12 00:05

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home of the Johnson Controls Headquarters, strives to enhance efficiency in city buildings. Photo by zekedawg00 / Flickr

Urban efficiency is all about linking the potential of buildings, energy and infrastructure to create smarter, more sustainable cities. But what does success look like, and how do cities get there?

This past June, 34 city mayors, sustainability directors and energy efficiency professionals gathered at Washington, DC’s National Press Club for a roundtable discussion, led by Johnson Controls, to discuss this very question—what does the implementation of urban efficiency measures in US cities look like?

Three key messages recurred throughout the discussion: the need for involving community members in decision making, the ability for government to play a variety of roles in different contexts and the importance of demonstrating the many positive environmental, social and economic impacts of energy efficiency projects.

Involving the Community in Decision Making

More often than not, decisions about communities are made without the input of community members. Multiple city representatives from the roundtable expressed how important it is to change methods of governance, noting that if leadership and top-level decision making do not reflect the interests of community members, community projects won’t be successful. Yet in order for this to happen, governments need to be open to co-production. Involving—not just engaging—the community in the decisions that will impact them is the only way to get buy-in from residents and build trust and awareness.

Georgetown University’s Dr. Francis Slakey shared a story at the beginning of the roundtable about building trust to create community involvement. “Glenda and the $8 Transformation” tells the story of a woman from a low-income neighborhood in Tennessee who was reluctant to implement a local organization’s “solutions” for her high electricity bills. When approached, she immediately distrusted government agencies and organizations who she felt had long since abandoned her. Yet after continued discussion and engagement with her community, the woman followed the organization’s suggestion and—to her surprise—ended up seeing a 66 percent reduction in her electricity bill the very next month. With this, trust was re-established.

When Glenda’s electricity bills decreased substantially, she told her neighbors about this “$8 transformation,” who in turn told their neighbors, and suddenly a sense of community was established, complete with neighborhood barbeques—something that had been missing for as long as Glenda could remember.

Stories like these highlight the importance of establishing trust in a community—the first step in building awareness and creating buy-in from residents for changes in the community.

Finding the Right Role for Government

As outlined in a recent report from World Resources Institute, Accelerating Efficiency: 8 Actions by Urban Leaders, governments can take several roles to improve urban efficiency: 1) as regulators, 2) as owners or investors and 3) as conveners or facilitators.

First, when government serves as a regulator in the energy efficiency space, it becomes responsible for adopting and enforcing building energy codes, which establish a minimum level for energy performance. However, these codes are generally written as prescriptive standards, and several participants noted that this stringency can inhibit innovation and greater systems-level efficiency. They can “lock in” existing methods, and—unless updated regularly—may not represent best-in-class practice or technology.

As a regulator, government can also be a source of grants or incentives. Participants discussed the possibility of using innovative government programs, such as Property-Assessed Clean Energy programs (PACE), to ease the financial burden on building owners as they try to go beyond the existing energy code. They noted that many home owners and organizations often have trouble securing financing for the last part of a loan to make energy efficiency improvements, but that cities can provide financing (revolving loans) or credit enhancements based on energy savings and incentive programs with local utilities.

Second, as owners of buildings and infrastructure, governments can lead by example. One city representative at the roundtable highlighted the importance of showcasing energy efficiency projects—like publicly displaying energy performance information on municipal buildings and investing in net-zero-energy schools. Another city representative discussed how they installed solar technology and combined heat and power technology to turn wastewater sludge into energy in order to meet the city’s renewable energy targets. They realized that the community could benefit from these new clean energy resources and services while also creating a new source of revenue and greater efficiency for the city.

Third, as conveners, governments can mobilize resources and facilitate interaction among stakeholders in order to improve energy efficiency. One city representative mentioned that they assigned a Chief Information Officer (CIO) to serve as the focal point for sustainability initiatives and community trust-building. Another representative discussed how cities can commit to meeting the minimum level of demand for a long-term power purchase agreement in order to enable solar installations for residential and non-profit organizations.

But Efficiency Isn’t Just About Energy  

In addition to the many environmental benefits of energy efficiency projects, many city representatives noted the positive economic and social benefits as well. One city mayor referred to a LED streetlight initiative in which the city converted 6,900 traditional streetlights to LEDs. An investigation into this city’s streetlights showed that 10 percent of the streetlights were not functional—a dark reality for public safety in some of the city’s neighborhoods. While this project saved the city 60 percent of its energy bill, the street lighting improvements also helped create a lighter and brighter environment for residents.

Energy efficient LED streetlight initiatives can also impact citizens’ happiness, as noted by another city mayor, who saw community satisfaction rates nearly quadruple after project completion. And in some cities, streetlights are going beyond their traditional illumination powers and providing energy metering data to city governments and utility companies. One city participant noted that the control systems on newly installed LED streetlights alerted them to voltage issues that had previously gone undetected.

Learning from One Another to Overcome Common Challenges

Despite these inspiring examples, challenges still exist in bringing urban efficiency to the next level. Common problems include data access and privacy, complex decision making processes surrounding multi-family buildings and lackluster performance of “low energy” buildings.

The Urban Efficiency Roundtable provided cities from across the country an opportunity to connect, share experiences and discuss opportunities for the future. In the end, it’s this kind of open dialogue and communication that will be the key to making our cities more efficient—identifying what works, replicating it and scaling it.

Managing Behavior and “Building Culture” for Greater Efficiency

Tue, 2016-08-09 21:41

Building owners and tenants strive to heighten building efficiency in modernizing cities, like Hong Kong. Photo by ¡kuba! / Flickr

In the past few years, large commercial building owners and managers have expressed growing interest in using behavioral strategies to improve their buildings’ performance. That interest often takes the form of “occupant engagement,” whereby tenants are encouraged to adjust their habits to save energy or water. Researchers estimate that behavioral strategies can save 25 percent of energy in homes and between five and 30 percent in commercial buildings. However, despite burgeoning interest, commercial building owners and their facilities managers have barely begun to unlock the potential of behavioral strategies. Achieving these tremendous benefits first requires an understanding of the people and culture of a building.

Big Potential in Need of Better Strategies

Building owners and managers often overlook the many simple changes they have the power to make. “Energy efficiency is a complex societal problem that needs a multi-pronged approach. Policy, rate structures and utilities all make a difference, but in the end, the motivation for change remains with corporate entities and individuals,” says Stephen Selkowitz, a researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In a recent research paper, Alan Meier and co-authors argue that building owners and operators “have the technical means to reduce energy use, [but] social, organizational and technical constraints limit ability and motivation. These include low status, customer service practices, poor feedback on occupant environment, little energy data, and technology shortcomings.” Understanding and addressing these human factors is essential to creating effective behavioral strategies.

Managing a Changing Building Culture

Technology is only as good as how it is used. Often overlooked is the fact that this relationship works both ways—any technology incorporated into a building can ultimately change behavior. If building operations staff encounter new or unfamiliar technology, then it is important to understand the impact on the “culture” of the building. Just as technology and science are some of the biggest drivers of deep changes across societies, the same is true at the scale of a building.

To manage cultural change in buildings and enable cooperation among all the participants in the building lifecycle, researchers Lamberto Tronchina and Massimiliano Manfren have recommended that building owners use common terminology and definitions; performance metrics; and building design and operation management approaches (particularly those that are integrated, data intensive, model based). These steps provide the foundation for better building operations and greater energy savings.

Top-Down and Bottom-Up Approaches

Why does one building and its staff perform flawlessly while another similar building struggles to keep up? It often depends on the management approach used in the building’s operations group: top-down vs. bottom-up.

For example, someone operating within a top-down paradigm is more likely to put together a training program that emphasizes instructions and references to authoritative sources—rather than creative problem solving and peer-to-peer networking. A top-down manager will expect thorough and rapid adoption and compliance with their “system.”

But imposing an unfamiliar system may end up creating changes for staff that are unwelcome, imposed and superficial, lacking meaning for their everyday lives. If so, the manager will have set themselves up as the sole authority and will probably experience more unexpected failures and disruptions to the system they established. They will receive more calls to come fix things, rather than staff fixing problems themselves. The result will be an account that requires heavier, more intensive servicing. This means higher costs and more demands on time, in addition to poorer results.

On the other hand, a bottom-up or social approach requires patience and a belief that a few changes can move operations and management staff in the direction they need to go in order to better manage the building. Understanding the mechanics of a building includes understanding people. Meier and coauthors recommend:

“(1) recognizing the building as a social system and using real buildings and users to experiment with solutions; (2) supporting increases in the visibility and professionalization of building operators and operations; (3) improving technical capabilities for seeing and managing energy in buildings; and (4) improving coordination between indoor environmental quality and energy efficiency, helping ensure that efficiency technologies meet their energy performance expectations without leading to unnecessary deterioration of the workplace environments.”

People matter. Considering their habits and their subtle differences when making management decisions can create more engaged occupants and managers and tilt future outcomes in desired directions. Deeper buy-in among personnel leads to greater support over the longer-term and, with it, more consistent outcomes and realized savings.

The Big Gap in Habitat III: Making the New Urban Agenda Actionable

Tue, 2016-08-09 02:35

City Buses in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo by World Resources Institute / Flickr

On July 25, over 4,000 participants and negotiators from 142 countries came together for Habitat III’s Preparatory Committee Meeting in Surabaya, Indonesia. The purpose of the meeting was to finalize the New Urban Agenda (NUA)—a vision for the cities of the future and a path for achieving it. While Surabaya didn’t change the core message of the New Urban Agenda—that the future of cities is of vital importance, and that the nations of the world must come together to ensure that our urban future is a sustainable, equitable and prosperous one—there are still numerous issues of contention to resolve in the months ahead. Negotiators must now reconvene in New York later this summer before the final compromise can be affirmed in Quito in October.

One of the biggest challenges moving forward is coming to consensus about Part C of the declaration: Follow-Up and Review, one of the most hotly debated areas of the New Urban Agenda. A primary criticism of Habitat II was the lack of structured follow-up processes, which led to a lack of momentum in driving action in pursuit of its commitments. Creating an implementation mechanism that mobilizes action across sectors and levels of government will be critical.

The Intricacies of Implementation

The challenge here lies in the diverse governance structures of many of the big players. If the New Urban Agenda contains language that is too strong, will countries find themselves in hot water for agreeing to conditions they aren’t prepared or legally allowed to implement? And who has the power to execute and implement the New Urban Agenda’s vision—will this responsibility lie with federal governments? Or does that power primarily lie in subnational and local hands? Because the NUA is not a legally binding document, perhaps the best way forward is to create text that encourages countries to act within their own legal and governance frameworks, rather than coming to agreement on lowest common denominator verbiage that lacks the strength to push the envelope on what cities can and should be.

Similarly, how closely should the New Urban Agenda align with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their indicators? Some argue that the NUA should serve as an implementation mechanism of the SDGs in order to give it additional strength and visibility on the global stage, whereas others prefer it be a stand-alone platform. If the NUA does link with the SDGs, does it align with all Goals, or only Goal 11 on cities?

Furthermore, there is the issue of how the UN Development System can support and enable the New Urban Agenda, and what the role of UN-Habitat will be moving forward. On the one hand, some argue to keep the role and future of UN-Habitat separate from the declaration, find a solution later under a new Secretary General and wait for a potential overhaul of the entire UN System. Others want to strengthen the role and prominence of UN-Habitat.

However, the key question that must be answered, but which has been discussed the least, is what can be done differently within the UN system to support the fundamental changes needed for more sustainable cities. Skipping this question to immediately distribute responsibilities and power amongst UN agencies will not help realize the New Urban Agenda.

A Possible Solution?

Anticipating these vexing issues of implementation, the UN-Habitat Secretariat debuted their Action Platform—the Quito Implementation Plan (QIP). The QIP will serve as an online gateway for different types of stakeholders—including the private sector, NGOs and grassroots organizations—to publicly present their commitments and implementation initiatives in one centralized place. The idea is to raise awareness around different activities and opportunities for collaboration.

While the Implementation Plan is a step in the right direction, there is still considerable work to be done. The platform currently allows stakeholders to add initiatives and classify them according to six types of commitments—like Social Cohesion and Equity and Urban Housing & Basic Services. However, some stakeholders have advocated expanding the types of initiatives and aligning the platform more closely with the Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA)—a similar platform created around the Paris Climate Agreement. Doing so will allow stakeholders to align and build upon the existing initiatives emerging from other global processes. Linking to other, more prominent frameworks with global support (like the LPAA and the SDGs) will help build momentum and bring credibility to the platform.

Additionally, the QIP lacks quality assurance, clarity around the initiative approval process and the follow-up and reporting mechanisms needed make the New Urban Agenda a success. A good idea would be to draw upon the lessons learned from the LPAA, to revise the categories and build on the momentum of strong existing initiatives like the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction and SLoCaT/PPMC, rather than starting something new.

The Path to Quito

In the weeks ahead, the world will watch as the delegations negotiate the final intricacies of the New Urban Agenda and come to a final compromise in New York. Especially interesting to watch will be the future of the Secretariat’s new Quito Implementation Plan. As Quito draws near, the pressure on the negotiators to create a New Urban Agenda that is not only visionary but also actionable will be at an all-time high.

From the Bahamas to the Seychelles, Island Nations Fight Climate Change with Better Buildings

Tue, 2016-08-09 00:53

A Busy Saint John Street in the Small Island Nation of Grenada. Photo by Kayla Sawyer/ Flickr

Facing environmental vulnerabilities like increasingly high temperatures, more frequent storm surges and a rising sea level, small island states have long been on the front lines of the fight against climate change. This existential threat has made some of the world’s smallest countries big players on the global climate stage. Now they have new weapon: more efficient buildings.

Building efficiency is already a part of the strategies of many island states to curb climate change and adapt to a changing climate. Of 189 nations submitting Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to address climate change, only 57 of them mentioned building energy efficiency, according to a WRI review. However, 12 of the nations that did include building efficiency are small island states.

Building efficiency has big potential to deliver long-term, cost-effective greenhouse gas emissions reductions, but it can also have adaption benefits, reducing the costs of achieving both mitigation and adaptation goals over the long haul. Research shows that every dollar spent on improving buildings saves an average of $2 in energy infrastructure costs—both in developed and in developing countries, like many small island states.

Building Right the First Time

Buildings are long-term investments—they last for generations. Therefore, it’s important to make the right choices when they are built. Building codes can help ensure high-quality buildings, and they are some of the most affordable policy tools that decision-makers can use to reduce operating costs and greenhouse gas emissions from new construction. In addition, these policies can make buildings more climate-resilient by requiring buildings to be elevated (to keep them above flood waters and storm surges) and better ventilated and insulated (to cut down on fossil fuel use, especially in areas where fossil fuels are imported).

For example, the Bahamas has developed an adaptation plan that includes energy-efficient buildings. In its building code, the Bahamas will require new and renovated buildings to use efficient lighting, cooling systems, building materials and construction methods. The country also uses financial incentives for efficient buildings with on-site energy production to discourage energy use from the national power grid and encourage local, renewable sources. These measures will make buildings and their occupants more resilient to extreme heat and energy disruptions that may result from storm surges or other extreme weather events.

Similarly, the Caribbean country of Dominica plans to adopt and provide training for a Green Building Code, and Grenada called for energy efficiency building codes in order to reach its national goal of a 30 percent reduction in emissions from 2010 levels by 2025.

Don’t Forget Existing Buildings

Because buildings last for 40 to 100 years or more, retrofitting the technology in existing buildings is an important opportunity for improving energy performance and resilience. For example, the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean, is retrofitting buildings to incorporate rainwater harvesting, solar cells and other sustainable building features. Grenada, Palau and Saint Vincent and Grenadines also listed retrofits within their NDCs as ways they plan to mitigate climate change.

Reducing Emissions, Attracting Visitors

As climate change threatens beachfront resorts that provide a main source of revenue for many island nations, building efficiency strategies can encourage economic growth while also cutting emissions and resource use. The Bahamas plans to promote energy conservation, efficiency and renewable energy in hotels and other tourist destinations. According to the country’s national climate commitment, this will lead to a more sustainable tourism industry—a growing selling point for travelers. Grenada also encourages resorts to adopt energy-efficient infrastructure. In fact, the island nation plans to make hotels so energy-efficient that they will cut emissions by 20 percent. The plan includes a tax incentive for solar panels and solar water heaters at hotels.

Furthermore, the 32 national hotel associations in the Caribbean that participate in the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association have recognized the link between a successful island economy and climate change. The association created Caribbean Hotel Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Action (CHENACT), which works to increase the competitiveness of hotels through lower operating costs and an environmentally-positive image. Participating hotels have generated energy savings of 20 – 30 percent with a 5 year payback period. As demonstrated through CHENACT, improving building efficiency in tourism simultaneously strengthens the backbone of island economies, reduces emissions and helps local industries adapt to the effects of climate change.

The Unfairness Factor

Climate change is a global problem, but its effects aren’t felt equally around the world, and small islands are among the most vulnerable places on Earth. There’s an unfairness factor here, since these islands generally have some of the lowest emissions on the planet, even as their citizens and leaders are taking some of the boldest climate action.

This is truly an example of leadership from which the rest of the world can learn. These small island states are demonstrating that, for building efficiency, climate change mitigation and adaptation are two sides of the same coin and that every nation, no matter how large or small, can contribute to solving climate change.

LEARN MORE: For updates on buildings as a solution for cities of the future subscribe to the Building Efficiency Initiative newsletter. For more on what you and your leaders can do, read Accelerating Building Efficiency: Eight Actions for Urban Leaders.

India Is One Step Closer to Safer Roads with the Motor Vehicle (Amendment) Bill 2016

Fri, 2016-08-05 20:43

Buses, Privately-owned Vehicles and Pedestrians Navegate the Bustling Streets of Bangalore, India. Photo by EMBARQ Sustainable Urban Mobility by WRI / Flickr

Every year, approximately 1.25 million people die in road traffic crashes. In 2015, India recorded 146,133 road traffic fatalities, which means that the country accounts for over 11 percent of the global numbers. While India is home to roughly two percent of all motorized vehicles globally, its roads are some of the most dangerous in the world. Experts agree that road safety needs a safe systems approach. A big deterrent to this in India, however, is the Motor Vehicles Act (MVA) 1998, which prioritizes vehicles. This is soon going to change.

In August 2014, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) drafted a new Road Transport and Safety Bill for public comment. Several revisions were made, but the bill still faced significant political opposition. The bill was criticized as being too revolutionary, and too top-down. In November 2015, India became a signatory to the Brasilia declaration and committed to reducing road fatalities by 50 percent by 2020.

To meet this commitment, MoRTH took a consultative approach by establishing a Group of Ministers to look into the issue and get buy-in from state governments. This group decided that an amendment to the Motor Vehicles Act 1998 which upheld the key principles of the Road Transport and Safety Bill would be the best way forward. As a result, on August 3rd, the Union Cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, finally approved the amended Motor Vehicle Bill 2016.

Some of the key provisions of the amended bill include:

  • Promoting Public Transport: State governments will be allowed to grant exemptions for stage carriage and contract carriage permits in order to promote public transport services. Studies show that investments in public transport have the potential to improve traffic safety, and reduce crashes, thereby saving lives.

Credit: WRI India

  • Protecting People: The Bill puts great emphasis on the safety of children and vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists. State governments have been empowered to enforce strategies for safer public spaces.

Credit: WRI India

  • Using Technology: Electronic enforcement in high density areas, especially in cities with populations of over one million, centralized databases for issuing licenses and permits, and capitalizing on new technologies in vehicle design, alternative fuels, and retrofitting will help India keep its commitment to the Brasilia declaration.

Credit: WRI India

  • Increasing Penalties: The Bill proposes harsher penalties to serve as a deterrent for unsafe driving practices, like drunk-driving and over-speeding. This will be done via enforcement practices like a points-based system that has a co-relation between the severity of the offense with the penalty imposed, which will be a combination of fines, imprisonment, impounding of vehicles, and cancellation of licenses or permits.

Credit: WRI India

While the Bill is yet to be debated in Parliament, one thing is for sure, India’s roads have claimed far too many lives, and this amendment is bringing us closer than ever to having a comprehensive piece of legislation that is aimed at positively impacting traffic safety.

Originally Published by WRI India

Nossa Cidade: Redesigning One of São Paulo’s Peripheral Streets for Safety

Thu, 2016-08-04 21:06

São Miguel Paulista is the first Area 40 (25 mph zone) implemented in São Paulo to undergo urban design interventions. Photo by Mariana Gil / WRI Brazil


Nossa Cidade (“Our City”), from TheCityFix Brasil, explores critical questions for building more sustainable cities. Leaning on the expertise of specialists at WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities, the series features in depth articles on urban planning, sustainable mobility, resilience, road safety and other key themes for a healthy urban environment. Each month, a new subject explores the sustainable development of our cities from a different angle. 


Traffic kills: every year more than one million people lose their lives in accidents, and, within just 15 years, this number could more than double, reaching 3.6 million deaths annually. In Brazilian streets, the fourth most lethal in the world, nearly 47,000 people died in 2013. This number is still growing—proof that the country is not giving road safety the attention it deserves.

The price of road insecurity is high—16 billion reais ($5 billion USD) per year, according to the National Observatory for Road Safety—but improving road safety doesn’t have to be expensive. In July, World Resources Institute released the Portuguese version of Cities Safer by Design, a practical guide for urban planners and local governments to transform their streets into safer places for all.

Past editions of Nossa Cidade discussed making streets safer through sound urban design principles, how accidents can be avoided with infrastructure changes and Brazil’s plans for the Decade of Action for Road Safety. This edition of Nossa Cidade will explore São Paulo’s urban design intervention to reduce accidents and save lives.

Urban design has the power to change the city. By designing cities that focus on walking and cycling, developers can create a safe and accessible urban environment. Expanding sidewalks, reducing speed limits, implementing safe crosswalks and refuge islands and creating access to public transport are some implementable measures that can help achieve this goal.

One example is the city’s “Area 40” zones, where signs and built infrastructure limit car speeds and keep people safe. In São Paulo, eleven of these areas already exist, but São Miguel will be the first area to see a design overhaul, with the implementation of new infrastructure beginning later this year. The other ten areas have yet to schedule similar projects.

São Miguel area that will receive updates. Map by WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities

Located in the east of São Paulo, 24 kilometers (15 miles) from the city center, São Miguel is home to approximately 370,000 people. The high concentration of department stores makes São Miguel a major center of commerce and causes an intense flow of pedestrians in the area. Many of the neighborhood streets, however, cannot support this demand—the sidewalks are narrow and often clogged, the crossing times for people are short and there are few crosswalks available. In 2015, Marechal Tito Avenue, the main street in Sao Miguel’s central zone, was considered the most deadly street in São Paulo.

A Current Street View of São Miguel. Photo by Mariana Gil / WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities

A Current Street View of São Miguel. Photo by Mariana Gil / WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities

São Miguel needs a safer environment for all residents, especially for the most vulnerable road users: pedestrians and cyclists. In order to facilitate this change, WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities, together with the city of São Paulo and other partners, is working on an urban renewal project for the central area of São Miguel.

São Miguel Mais Humana (“A More Human Sao Miguel”) involves a variety of neighborhood projects, including putting in new crosswalks, revitalizing public squares, expanding sidewalks and creating new bike paths. This is a pioneer project for Latin America—no other Latin American city has developed similar proposals for as large of a space as São Miguel, which has a contiguous area of 500 thousand square meters (.2 square miles).

The Mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, believes that the interventions will contribute to more diverse transport use. The mayor has also highlighted the area’s potential for revitalization and public activity: “Neighborhood centers are active, vibrant areas where many people walk every day. That’s why it is so important to focus efforts on these locations. By improving urban neighborhood centers, we are also improving people’s lives. This process improves pedestrian mobility by giving them space, and therefore their right to move and feel good in their city,” he said.

The changes are an opportunity to show the local community that the city can work better for them. In an interview with WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities, Adalberto Dias de Souza, Deputy Mayor of São Miguel, said “this is the first project to be implemented in the periphery. And for São Miguel this is very important. Access to transportation, the redesign of public spaces and the reduction of accidents and deaths—these are fundamental changes to the community, “he said.

The São Miguel redesign project has two main objectives: saving lives and revitalizing a peripheral area of the city, rather than a central area that typically receives attention. “São Miguel is the region of São Paulo with one of the highest accident indexes, when considering the accident rate per square kilometer. We want to help the neighborhood change that. This is the main goal: to save lives,” emphasizes Brenda Medeiros, Urban Mobility Director of WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities, during an interview.

Changes That Save Lives 

Road safety interventions in São Miguel will be implemented in different phases. The first stage of the project involves 18 different mechanisms to improve safety for the local population. One project involves raising the crosswalk to the level of the sidewalks, easing pedestrian crossing and forcing drivers to slow down as they pass by.

Proposed Amendments to the Intersection Between Streets Dr. José Guilherme Eiras and Pedro Soares de Andrade. Credit: WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities

At a prominent roundabout, developers will work to widen sidewalks and install a bike path. In addition, the area will receive new vegetation and street furniture to make the environment more pleasant for pedestrians.

Planned Changes. Credit: WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities

Square José Caldini, the heart of São Miguel, will also undergo a process of redesign to give more space to the people. The sidewalks will be expanded, the tree in the center of the square will be preserved and the area will receive new signs, refuge islands and street furniture to provide more comfort and safety.

Planned Changes. Credit: WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities

Measures such as these are life-saving. For example, for every meter subtracted from the distance of a pedestrian street crossing, the chance of fatality falls by six percent. For longer journeys across streets, refuge islands can reduce the number of pedestrian accidents and pedestrian deaths between 57 and 82 percent. Furthermore, when crosswalks and refuge islands are elevated to sidewalk level, ten percent of cars slowdown in the middle of the block.

These changes will be gradual, but they will help transform the center of São Miguel into a safer, more accessible and attractive place. As Luis Antonio Lindau, Director of WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities, encourages “we need to shift the concept of progress away from the expansion of road capacity. Cities can do more than that, engineering offers more than that. And people deserve more than that.”

Originally published in Portuguese at TheCityFix Brasil.


Supercharging Investment in Sustainable Infrastructure: Perspectives from Boston

Tue, 2016-08-02 02:52

A View of Tremont Street in Boston. Photo by Yu-Jen Shih / Flickr

Milton Bevington is Senior Advisor to the City of Boston under the City Energy Project. He guest-authored this post on the City of Boston’s work on sustainable infrastructure finance.

The potential threat which climate change presents to the economy, public health, and structural integrity of cities worldwide has recently become hard to ignore. Mitigating climate change requires a significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and adapting to its effects will require cities to prepare buildings and people for changes like sea-level rise and extreme weather events.

It happens that some of those strategies can reduce operating expenses as well: more efficient buildings use less energy, more resilient buildings reduce catastrophic costs associated with storms. A complicating factor is that those projects often require a sizeable capital investment, while governments everywhere are already challenged to fund basic social needs like education, public safety, and sanitation. As it turns out, finding sustainable ways to finance sustainability without raising taxes is quite difficult.

To address that issue, a small group of finance experts working around the world are developing promising new models of sustainable infrastructure finance — that is, ways to fund necessary investment in upgrades to city infrastructure without raising taxes. The group recently met in Brazil to share ideas and work together to develop best practices. The City of Boston currently chairs this elite group, known as the C40 Sustainable Infrastructure Finance Network, and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh currently co-chairs the C40 steering committee.

This recognition is due in part to the inception of the City Energy Project in 2014, and Boston’s sponsorship of the Climate Finance Series, which aims to make the City a global center of climate finance excellence.  A centerpiece of the City’s response to climate change is Renew Boston Trust, a market-based, self-funded finance program that aims to supercharge local investment in building efficiency, renewable energy, and climate resiliency.

At the recent Financing Sustainable Cities Forum, hosted by C40, the City of Rio de Janeiro, the Citi Foundation, and WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, participants heard how cities in the Americas, Europe, and Africa are using the tools of finance to create more sustainable models of funding infrastructure, among them new ways of procuring, budgeting, contracting, and financing projects without the use of taxpayer funds.

A key takeaway of the forum was that capital tends to flow where it is treated best, and there was consistent emphasis on improving cities’ access to private risk capital by enhancing the so-called bankability of projects. Translation: in order to attract private investors (the most sustainable financing model in the long run), infrastructure projects must guarantee them both a return on their money as well as the return of their money.

Photo Credit: C40 Cities

Bankable projects are characterized by guarantees and self-liquidating business models –  for example, a building efficiency project which generates more reductions in operating costs annually than is required to repay its construction loan and which carries savings and cost guarantees from a large multi-national with triple-A credit. For a city government, making that happen requires new ways of thinking about project development, implementation, and financing.

Even without climate change, a city’s infrastructure ages and it costs money to deliver important services. Perhaps the greatest value of more sustainable models of financing infrastructure is that so-called bricks-and-mortar investments compete far less with important mission-critical investments like fire fighting apparatus, squad cars, and textbooks.  Instead, projects pay for themselves by capturing operating savings, relieving taxpayers of their normal responsibility to support that funding through their taxes.

For the benefit of current and future generations, the City of Boston intends to continue leading the effort to bring these new methods for financing sustainable infrastructure to light.

Boston is a leader in climate change mitigation and adaptation at the city level through its membership in other city-based organizations like 100 Resilient Cities and the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, and will host the US-China Climate-Smart/Low-Carbon Cities Summit in the Summer of 2017.

This piece was originally published on C40 Cities

Friday Fun: How Pokémon Go Is Creating a New Generation of Urban Explorers

Fri, 2016-07-29 18:30

A Pokemon Go player catches a Pokemon while walking outside. Photo by Penn State / Flickr

In the past few weeks, if you’ve seen people roaming around, staring at their phones and spontaneously shouting with glee, or crowds of people inexplicably congregating in parks, there’s a good chance you’ve witnessed someone playing Pokémon Go. Since its release on July 6th, Pokémon Go has taken over cities around the world. With an estimated 26 million players in the United States, it’s the biggest mobile game in U.S. history. In fact, on a daily basis, more people have used Pokémon Go maps than Google Maps—the developer for the maps in the game.

In contrast to its strictly visual predecessor, Pokémon Go requires a more active gaming lifestyle. The smartphone app utilizes GPS, geotagging, cameras and maps to integrate the gaming experience into a semi-virtual reality. Like the original Pokémon, the objective of the game is to catch different Pokémon creatures. However, in the new version, players must leave the confines of their homes and roam city streets, parks and popular landmarks to find Pokémon. Some Pokémon prefer certain environments over others, inspiring players to visit nearby bodies of water and recreational areas. Users visit “Pokéstops,” which are mapped to real-world public spaces, to collect Pokémon and assorted items, encouraging the use of public transit and walking over private vehicles.

Urban developers and city officials have been trying to inspire smart city planning for years, underscoring the environmental, health and economic benefits of a walkable city. What planners have continuously struggled with, Pokémon Go has achieved overnight. Pokémon Go has enhanced urban exploration and engagement, leaving us to wonder if the cartoon has uncovered the secret to effective urban planning.

Pokemon Go players on the DC Metrobus. Photo by Oren Levine / Flickr

Encouraging Urban Exploration to ‘Catch Em All’

Pokémon Go goes against the grain of indoor and sedentary videogames, as it promotes active exploration and engagement with people and places around the city. It pushes people out of their homes to enjoy sunshine and fresh air. Players get to explore new neighborhoods, restaurants, parks and landmarks, developing a newfound appreciation for their city and breathing life into public spaces that were previously empty. Gamers are even meeting new neighbors and talking to strangers about how many Pokémon they’ve caught.

This dynamic gaming experience is introducing exercise to a previously motionless activity. Many have reported sore legs from walking and running miles at a time. In the game, players collect eggs that will hatch only after they’ve walked two, five or ten kilometers (one, three or six miles). The game may also incentivize use of public transit due to the large number of Pokémon on and near transit stops. The Metro in Los Angeles created a Twitter account for gaming riders, tweeting tips on where to capture the cartoon creatures.

Pokémon Go is even impacting local business by attracting Pokémon, as well as humans, to their businesses. Signage promoting the game, as well as a purchasable “Lure Mode,” which attracts Pokémon for 30 minutes at a time, is helping business owners increase their revenue.

Local businesses like Frank & Oak are attracting customers using Pokemon Go signage. Photo by Jamey M. Photography / Flickr

An Innovative and Powerful Tool for Civic Engagement 

With greater pedestrian activity and exploration comes enhanced awareness. Players are not only developing a greater sense of what their city has to offer, but some people are also becoming more aware of mobility and environmental issues. Many are now noticing their neighborhoods do not promote walking, detecting flaws in transit infrastructure and discovering unhealthy, urban ecosystems.

This newfound awareness has triggered dialogue between gamers and city leaders, heightening civilian engagement. Pokémon Go’s popularity has inspired some city officials and stakeholders to play into the game culture. Some are using the app as a platform to shed awareness to local issues, promote political events and incentivize visits to landmarks. By sparking conversation with players, leaders are harnessing the interactive power of Pokémon to awaken a new generation of urban stakeholders and activists.

But is this engagement always civil? There is a fine line between genuine interest in visiting landmarks and inappropriate, even dangerous behavior. Some players are capturing Pokémon in the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, Arlington National Cemetery, the 9/11 Memorial in New York and Auschwitz in Poland. For some, merging the game world with reality has proven quite dangerous, even resulting in robberies and getting hit by a car.

 Future Urban Planning in a Pokémon World  

Pokémon Go has exhibited successful aspects of urban planning that cities may learn from. The mobile game integrated cities, pedestrians and local officials to form a more cohesive, lively and well planned urban system. Through aligning city programs with interactive incentive, leaders may be able to expand upon the success of Pokémon Go to promote smart and sustainable cities while enhancing civilian awareness and respect.


Pokemon Go – Official Launch Trailer from Stephan Pilon Lectez on Vimeo.

Live from Surabaya: Setting the Stage for the New Urban Agenda

Wed, 2016-07-27 00:50

A Street View of Surabaya. Photo by hectorlo/Flickr

This week in Surabaya, Indonesia marks the last preparatory session (PrepCom3) before the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016. The conference will bring together national governments, sub-national actors, decision-makers and civil society to create a vision for the next 20 years of sustainable, equitable, prosperous urban development—a document referred to as the New Urban Agenda.

Day 1

Surabaya is a fitting place for PrepCom3. As Dr. Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN-Habitat, referenced in his opening statement Monday, the name Surabaya comes from the words “suro” (shark) and “boyo” (crocodile), which—as legend has it—fought each other for supremacy. Eventually, the two creatures agreed to a truce and set boundaries—the shark had dominion over the sea, while the crocodile took the land. Over the years, they fought over the river, but in the end, the crocodile ruled over the estuarine area that forms the foundation of present-day Surabaya. This begs the question—can the member states at PrepCom3 come to an agreement and lay the foundation for a New Urban Agenda (NUA) for 2030 and beyond?

The Indonesian Government has shown a strong commitment to the NUA, and this spirit should help lead the way toward a declaration for inclusive, sustainable and resilient urban development. The member states’ statements have indicated general acceptance with the current text, but there are some places where there needs to be stronger language and more clarity. Delegates have until Wednesday to finalize the text of the New Urban Agenda before its release in October at Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador.

As outlined in World Resources Institute’s response to the Zero Draft of the New Urban Agenda, member states should focus on several key aspects in the coming days:

    1. Create a robust process for review and reporting. The draft text of the Zero Draft calls for UN-Habitat to prepare biennial reports, consistent with the reporting on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, but it is vague on the types of reporting and review by member states, as well as the roles of the private sector, civil society and other non-state actors.
    2. Strengthen linkages with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement. While the text references the SDGs many times, the final declaration should more fully commit to aligning NUA implementation, monitoring and reporting with SDG frameworks. While the draft recognizes the need to be consistent with the objectives of the Paris Agreement, including pursuing efforts to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 °C, the final declaration could emphasize the active role that cities can play in achieving the nationally determined contributions. Cities are responsible for more than 70 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions, and many cities have proven to be leaders on climate action.
    3. The role for the urban agenda in the UN System. There is some disagreement among member states on what is the role of UN-Habitat post-Habitat III. This needs to be resolved vis-à-vis other UN organizations, as the implementation of Habitat III UN system needs to be rooted in a strong UN city agenda.

Stay tuned for daily updates from Surabaya. To read more about the New Urban Agenda and WRI’s response to the Zero Draft, click here.


Thinking “Incrementally”: Addressing the Global Housing Deficit by Engaging the Poor

Tue, 2016-07-26 19:30

The Quinta Monroy housing project. Photo Credit Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile/Flickr

Surprising many in the architectural community, this year’s prestigious Pritzker Prize went to Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. Though the award—often regarded as the Nobel Prize of architecture—prompts images of iconic skyscrapers or cultural centers, Aravena initially achieved fame for his firm’s work with the Quinta Monroy community, an affordable housing project that took a novel “incremental” process to house 100 families.

The award underscored the importance of affordable housing. An estimated billion homes are currently needed in order to meet the world’s demands for urban housing. While traditional affordable housing solutions have either focused on government-created social housing—which is frequently expensive and often leads to social deterioration for communities —or on private production—which has a dismal track record of meeting the urban poor’s needs—Aravena’s project and others like it prove there’s another way. An “incremental” approach, where the urban poor are involved in constructing their own homes slowly over time, can reduce housing costs while giving community members a say in designing their residences.

Numerous examples from across the globe illustrate that government-supported incremental construction—particularly with meaningful participation and input from residents themselves—can create dignified, sound and affordable housing for underserved communities.

Designing for Incremental Growth in Chile

In 2002, the Chile Barrio program, a national initiative led by Chile’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning, contracted Aravena’s firm, Elemental, to find a way to re-house a community of 100 families living in a slum settlement in the northern coastal city of Iquique. The government would subsidize the housing costs at $7,500 per family, and residents could keep living in their same 5,000-square-meter area.

Through community engagement and planning workshops, Aravena arrived at the idea of taking an incremental approach, building only the physical foundations, walls, stairs, kitchen and bathrooms of the homes. These components comprise the half of a house that’s typically the most difficult for a family to provide for themselves. Families could then incrementally design and build the rest of their homes over time.

The scheme allowed Aravena’s team to cost-effectively construct homes, and residents secured a more stable place to live that they could customize to their liking. Some were even able to rent out extra rooms and develop home-based livelihoods, while children enjoyed new open spaces to play right in front of their homes. Hailed as a success, the project ensured community members were neither alienated nor displaced to the urban periphery, and property values reportedly (PDF) exceeded $20,000 within a year.

Aravena’s firm ELEMENTAL recently released design plans for four of their social projects as open source for public adaptation. Photo credit ELEMENTAL

Community-led Planning in Thailand

Thailand’s Baan Mankong Program also offers lessons in incremental housing through a decentralized, community-led process. Launched in 2003 by the Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI), the program directs small but flexible government subsidies and loans to community-level lending and savings groups, with a strong emphasis on an inclusive, collective process. Receiving input from all members of the community, these resident-led groups decide how they’d like to invest the money—from reconstructing or upgrading individual homes to reblocking or relocating entire neighborhoods. Additionally, the Baan Mankong Program provides technical and financial support from government staff, community architects and planners where needed, enabling residents to address complex tenure security needs, land redistribution, housing improvements, service delivery and more.

With control in the hands of residents and flexible financial support, the collective process at the heart of Baan Mankong has allowed communities to build larger units  at half the cost of hiring a contractor. Within five years, the program had engaged more than 1,000 communities in hundreds of cities and towns, and as of 2014 had reached almost 100,000 households.

Informal homes and businesses built alongside a railroad track and underneath an elevated highway in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo Credit Michael Coghlan/Flickr

Recognizing the Incremental Approach as Part of a Greater Housing Policy

These programs illustrate a central lesson: that giving residents control of both housing construction and funding can be an effective solution for meeting housing demand. As housing researcher John Turner noted as far back as 1972, “The satisfaction of housing needs by central institutions is an impossibility for governments with very small budgets and faced with rapidly growing masses of people with very small incomes.”

While this kind of approach certainly can’t serve all urban residents—projects can take longer than conventional social housing efforts, and can be constrained by the level of public sector support they receive—any inclusive housing policy should consider resident-led, incremental processes.

A forthcoming WRI working paper looks at informal housing in the broader context of access to affordable housing within the city and urban services challenges. This paper will be part of the next World Resources Report (WRR) on Sustainable Cities, which explores how cities can become more economically prosperous, environmentally sustainable and socially equitable.


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