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London Illustrates the Benefits – and Risks – of Compact Growth

Wed, 2017-09-20 13:13

London from above. Photo by Michael Garnett/Flickr

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

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

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

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

Productivity Gains, Housing Costs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from London

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

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

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

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

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

This original version of this article was published in CityMetric.

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

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

Mon, 2017-09-18 13:30

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

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

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

Tangible and Intangible Benefits

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

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

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

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

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

A Citizen-Driven Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mon, 2017-09-11 13:30

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

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

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

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

A Closer Look at Exposure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Integral Component of Urban Design

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

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

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

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

After the Deluge: How Houston Can Rebuild With Resilience

Sat, 2017-09-09 01:20

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

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

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

Climate Change’s Fingerprints

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

Houston’s Legacy of Flooding

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

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

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

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

The Road to a More Resilient Recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thu, 2017-09-07 13:15

Bucaramanga, Colombia. Photo by Adam Cohn/Flickr

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

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

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

1. Accelerate the shift to cleaner cooking

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

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

2. Scale up distributed renewable energy

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

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

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

3. Increase energy efficiency of buildings and appliances

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

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

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

Realizing Cities’ Full Potential

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

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

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

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

Navigating Kibera Through Community Design

Wed, 2017-09-06 13:15

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

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

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

The Challenges of Living in Kibera

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

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

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

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

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

Acupuncture for the City

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

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

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

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

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

Community-Led Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sat, 2017-09-02 01:37

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Wave of Urbanization

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urbanism for All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wed, 2017-08-30 09:31

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

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

“No Precedent”

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on Mobility and Affordability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

50 Shades of Shared: How For-Hire Vehicles Got Their Start in India

Mon, 2017-08-28 09:31

Taxis emerge in Indian Cities during Phase 1 and 2. Saad Akhtar/Flickr

India’s urban transport sector has seen tremendous change in the last 15 years. This series examines the evolution of for-hire vehicles (FHVs), the regulatory response to it and its place in the mobility network of the future.

Street-hail vehicles dominated the taxi and FHV market generally for the greater part of the 20th century. However, public opinion turned against traditional services in the 1990s, resulting in policy shifts that arguably led to a deterioration of the sector and lower-quality service. This opened the doors to private dispatch services to provide a better experience. These two phases in India’s FHV market are fundamental to understanding how the current regulatory framework evolved and why it is proving so controversial to regulate app-based services today.

Phase 1: Street-Hail

Street-hail vehicles were the first FHVs in India and continue to operate to this day. Primarily, these include individually owned and operated city taxis and auto-rickshaws that can be hailed-off the street, from a designated stand or, more recently, via the web or mobile services.

Taxis were first introduced to India in 1911 to compliment horse-drawn wagons. Auto-rickshaws hit Indian streets in 1959. Institutionalized under the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988, city taxis and auto-rickshaws are qualified to operate commercially and provide point-to-point transport services for a regulated fee. Each state sets rules for issuing permits, pricing mechanisms, driver requirements and vehicle guidelines. Such extensive regulation was premised on customers’ inability to assess the quality of drivers and their vehicles before trips and the efficiency of controlling prices. As explored in part three of this series, this premise is challenged today by app-based services that allow customers to view driver ratings and real-time pricing before hailing a ride via the internet.

Auto-rickshaws and city taxis were well-received in India, given the lack of adequate mass transit networks and low personal vehicle ownership. They provided a vital service to all urban dwellers, connecting commuters to the nearest mass transit station and facilitating daily trips to work and to markets.

However, as personal vehicle ownership grew in the 1990s and 2000s, several Indian cities began to reconsider street-hail vehicles, due to high levels of congestion and air pollution. Led by Delhi, several cities instituted a cap on the total number of permits that could be issued to private taxis and auto-rickshaws.

Permit caps have been used extensively around the world to balance supply and demand, protect driver income, and ensure quality service for commuters. Bruce Schaller, former deputy commissioner for New York City’s Department of Transport, writes that “decades of experience with taxi regulation have shown the need to retain more extensive regulations, including numerical controls and fare regulation, for ‘flag’ service (e.g., taxi stands and street hail) to prevent oversupply, fare gouging and chaotic street conditions.”

However, in many Indian cities, permit caps led to a deteriorating street-hail experience. The price of permits skyrocketed on the black market to 600 times the government price, while drivers struggled to make a living due to exorbitant hikes in daily vehicle rents. Commuters found it increasingly difficult to hail vehicles off the street in low-density or non-lucrative areas of the city, as bargaining, overcharging and refusing trips became commonplace.

Phase 2: Dispatch Services

Discontent among some commuters, combined with growing demand for reliable transport services in India’s fast-growing cities, created a business opportunity.

The turn of the century brought mobile phones to urban India. Drivers could now be contacted while they were on the road. By the mid-2000s, several companies were operating large fleets of centrally organized taxis in major cities. Mega Cabs pioneered the model in Delhi in 2001, after which Meru Cabs, Easy Cabs and Tab Cab entered the market. These companies could access capital in ways that individual taxi owners could not. At the peak of the model, Meru Cabs, Mega Cabs and Easy Cabs operated 22,000 cabs across 20 cities.

Commuters could now call one number and book a ride anywhere in the city. An air-conditioned car (or auto-rickshaw would arrive at their doorstep within a stipulated time. Overnight, dispatch taxi services, or “radio taxis,” became known for their reliability and quality of service. Drivers were less likely to refuse trips or bargain over fares, which street-hail services had become notorious for. Dispatch services began to corner the market for those that could afford their services and for longer trips such as to the airport or train station.

As the dispatch market grew, state governments regarded these services as a new “luxury” segment of FHVs. The other category under the luxury segment, “tourist taxis,” were earmarked for package rental services for inter- and intra-city travel, but not for point-to-point services. The perceived need for dispatch services, that the street-hail and tourist taxi market could not fulfill, led to the relatively non-controversial introduction of new regulations.

New “radio taxi” rules were first launched by Chandigarh, Delhi and Maharashtra in 2006. They brought changes in three areas. First, a company was now required to be the provider of the service, not an individual. Second, the manner of how a taxi could be hailed was expanded to include booking by phone or website. And third, a higher quality vehicle type, including air-conditioning, was required. Apart from these, not much changed. Dispatch services were still required to ply at government-approved rates and vehicles and drivers had to be compliant with the Motor Vehicles Act.

The introduction of these rules had a major effect on the market, however. They opened the doors for private investment in transit, previously the domain of public agencies and individual permit holders only. Market reports estimated that the dispatch taxi market was worth at least $2 billion, an opportunity that private investors responded to quickly. Meru Cabs raised $75 million alone, and the number of competitors in each city exploded.

However, the bulk of this funding was earmarked to increase the size of company fleets, rather than to improve responsiveness or other aspects of the user experience. Meanwhile, the market was shifting again with the advent of smartphones and the gig-economy, which was about to revolutionize how users access transit options everywhere.

Part three of the series will explore in-depth the rise of Ola, Uber and other ride-hailing apps, and what lies beyond for India’s for-hire vehicle sector.

Jyot Chadha is the Director for Urban Innovation at WRI India Sustainable Cities.

Ojas Shetty is a Research Consultant with the Urban Innovation team at WRI India Sustainable Cities.

New Transited-Oriented Development Policy Has Big Implications for India’s Cities

Wed, 2017-08-23 14:50

A hypothetical development using transit-oriented development principles along a metro rail. Graphic by Neha Mungekar and Nikhil Chaudhary/WRI India

India’s burgeoning cities are famous the world over for their startling vibrancy – and, sometimes, their startling problems. A new national policy, enshrining more transit-friendly development principles, aims to steer urban planning in the world’s largest democracy towards more compact and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and streets.

The World Bank projects that India will lead the global urban surge in the decades ahead, adding 404 million urbanites by 2050. However, to date, much of this growth has been unplanned, leading to sprawl and all its attendant effects like longer trips, higher use of private vehicles and more air pollution. The New Climate Economy estimates sprawl could cost India’s economy as much as 6 percent of GDP every year by 2050. Horizontal growth is even cutting into the hinterlands. In 2010, McKinsey estimated that India could save 6.2 million hectares of arable land through more effective land-use planning by 2030.

New policy, adopted by the Ministry of Urban Development in May, seeks to shift current practices to encourage denser, healthier, more productive cities. The National Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Policy recommends transit and land use strategies for compact, mixed-use development, that gives citizens access both to open space and transport services.

An Inflection Point?

The National TOD Policy is critical to achieving the goal of livable, well-connected communities. Currently, only a small handful of cities and states in India have TOD strategies. The policy will provide a much-needed impetus to encourage more local governments to implement TOD concepts into their urban planning.

Such strategies can spur investment in multimodal connectivity (buses, bicycles, transit, walking, and cars), improvements to pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and development near transit stations. It might not be too dramatic to say that such an official encouragement may represent an inflection point where compact, coordinated and connected development starts to become the norm across Indian cities.

Indian cities and states that have TOD policies. Table by WRI India

The National TOD Policy highlights the government’s resolve to address issues faced by existing and emerging urban areas. However, the ultimate success of such policies depends on cross-disciplinary integration and partnerships at various tiers of government – not to mention the private sector.

WRI India applauds the new policy and urges policymakers to consider next steps:

  • Government at all levels should review and revise existing policies and regulations to include TOD and promote better understanding of TOD through communications materials.
  • State governments should direct cities to include TOD in their development plans. If they are already prepared, amendments should be issued.
  • States should monitor progress by setting up special departments for TOD implementation. This will ensure that crucial factors, such as financing and governance, are well addressed.
  • City planners should consider the unique needs of individual neighborhoods and evaluate the best use of existing infrastructure.
  • City governments should also identify and create an inventory of informal housing, so TOD is not a stepping stone to gentrification.

The use of transit-oriented development as an urban growth strategy is relatively new in India. Translating policy to action will require a multi-pronged approach. States and cities should take a contextual approach based on local trends, market behavior and city requirements. But if implemented well, the new TOD policy could improve the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions.

Prerna Vijaykumar Mehta is the Manager for Urban Development and Accessibility at WRI India Sustainable Cities

Merlyn Mathew is a consultant with WRI India Sustainable Cities

50 Shades of Shared: The Evolution of India’s Taxis, Rickshaws and Other For-Hire-Vehicles

Mon, 2017-08-21 19:16

Photo by Chris Bird/Flickr

India’s urban transport sector has seen tremendous change in the last 15 years. This series examines the evolution of the for-hire vehicles sector, the regulatory response to it and its place in the mobility network of the future.

Indian cities are growing at an unprecedented rate and an accompanying surge in the demand for transport services is inevitable. Forecasts suggest that by 2031, urban Indians will take nearly half a billion trips a day. Today, most of these journeys are completed on foot or bicycle, but as cities continue to sprawl and the distance traveled increases (from 11 kilometers on average in 2011 to 15 kilometers by 2031), the need for motorized trips will grow.

In cities like Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai, public transit makes up the largest share of motorized trips, but for-hire-vehicles, such as city taxis and autorickshaws, have long played a significant role as well. An integral part of many Indian cities, they often fill the gap between public and private transport. The recent growth of large, privately run fleets and the development of on-demand technology have increased the options available to commuters, while also changing the way these services are accessed.

This raises important questions about the future of the sector. Will mobility in Indian cities be categorized by separate public and private options, or will there be varying shades of shared options? Can innovations reduce travel time and meet rising demand, while also reducing emissions?

A Changing Market

In India, the for-hire vehicle (FHV) sector has been dominated by city taxis and autorickshaws for decades. Every day, millions of people employ their services in a range of contexts, from “last-mile” connectivity along public transit routes, to a cheaper alternative to owning a private vehicle, to simply providing more reliable service than public transit. According to the Comprehensive Mobility Plan for Greater Mumbai, FHVs accounted for 1.4 million trips a day or 16 percent of the city’s motorized mode share in 2015.

But over the last 15 years, private sector investments, advancements in technology and the increasing use of mobile phones have transformed how people interact with FHVs. Now, urban commuters may choose to hail a taxi or autorickshaw the old-fashioned way, but they can also call, text, WhatsApp or e-hail them, or even request just a seat in a shared taxi or bus.

The trajectory of the FHV market in India can be broken into four phases, which will be explored in greater detail over the course of this series.


Phase 1: The first phase of FHVs in India, beginning in 1959, is iconic with its black and yellow taxis and autorickshaws. Similar to the yellow medallion taxis of New York and the tuk-tuks of Thailand, these ecosystems are largely informal and unorganized but continue to this day. Though many regard city taxis and auto-rickshaws as dependable and affordable, they are also notorious for refusing rides, bargaining over fares and providing poor income to drivers.

Phase 2:  Recognizing the opportunity for formalized FHV services, several fleet management companies started emerging at the turn of the century to better organize drivers. They allowed commuters to pre-book a vehicle via phone or website. A vehicle would then be dispatched from a central base or call center. Known in India as the radio taxi or fleet taxi model, this second phase systematized a relatively unorganized sector and brought in measures of quality control.

Phase 3: Further improvements in mobile technology ushered in the “aggregator” or “on-demand” phase. Companies no longer had to own a fleet, and factors such as customer discovery, driver routing and dispatch became simpler and more automated. Companies simply connected drivers to commuters via smart phones. Aggregator services are also expanding to include bigger vehicles, such as buses, and using crowdsourcing technology to develop new routes that better meet customer demand.

Phase 4: We are only beginning to see the fourth phase, of mobility as a service with more seamless, multi-modal commuting experiences. In cities such as Helsinki, Paris, Las Vegas and Singapore, access to transit is becoming a commodity. The vision is of a digital platform on which you can buy units of mobility across all modes of transport, from public to shared to private, instead of paying for individual bus tickets, cab rides or buying a car. In India, we are seeing the initial building blocks of such an ecosystem being put into place. A plethora of apps are already in the market, leveraging crowdsourcing and open data to provide real-time information, allow for cashless transactions and enable commuters to choose from a range of options.

The Future of Urban Mobility in India?

The connected vision of multi-modal transit in Indian cities, where for-hire vehicles blend seamlessly with public transit options, is still in its infancy. Most mass transit options such as city buses and suburban rail networks continue to be managed by public agencies. Private players have tried to step up and plug service gaps, but they have been thwarted by regulatory barriers.

The future depends on smart regulation and nuanced public policy that can balance a legitimate concern for the public good, commuter safety and system efficiency, with the innovations and investment that the private sector can provide.

Jyot Chadha is the Director for Urban Innovation at WRI India Sustainable Cities.

Ojas Shetty is a Research Consultant with the Urban Innovation team at WRI India Sustainable Cities.

New York’s Plan to Save Subway Seen as a Test for New Ways to Support Transit

Wed, 2017-08-16 22:47

New York Subway. Photo by Adrian Scottow / Flickr

For the first time in over two decades, transit ridership in New York City is on a downward trend—and we should have seen it coming.

Once a trailblazer for investment in mass transit, New York’s subway system is starting to show its age with consistent delays, numerous breakdowns and overall crumbling service. Despite its relatively high rate of farebox return (73 percent), the Metropolitan Transit Authority is scrambling to pull together resources to keep the system afloat for its 5.7 million daily riders. So far, fare hikes and cutbacks on train frequency have proven to be about as successful as Band-Aids covering a crack in the Hoover Dam.

Funding for transit systems around the U.S. have been plagued for decades, as they rely heavily on government subsidies, which receive just a small slice of the Highway Trust Fund pie. And that piece continues to shrink as the federal gas tax remains unadjusted for inflation since 1993.

To solve the problems that are only now surfacing in New York, Mayor De Blasio has proposed a logical, yet bold plan in an election year: to increase taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent of city residents, individuals making more than $500,000 a year. The hike would mean their income tax rate would go from 3.88 to 4.41 percent, raising nearly $800 million a year to fix the deteriorating subway. In addition, a portion of the funds would go toward helping riders who fall below the federal poverty line with half-price fares, nearly 800,000 individuals.

The initiative is logical from an economics perspective because it equally distributes economic burden, but it’s also one of first times a sitting politician has proposed such a “Millionaires’ Tax” to fix a transit network that is traditionally, and predominately, relied on by lower- and middle-income residents. The mayor’s strategy can be further classified as a vertical equity scheme, where those who have the ability to pay more, should pay more.

As cities like New York, and others around the globe, continue to battle the growing urban crisis of crumbling transit infrastructure and widening inequality, strategies like the one proposed by Mayor De Blasio may be a sign of how future public utilities will be financed—especially with a shrinking middle class and a federal government unwilling to step in.

Taxing the wealthy to improve public transit has been successful across the globe. In Nottingham, home of the legendary Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, new parking fees (a proxy for taxing income) helped pay for two new tram lines and other bus and rail improvements in just four years In Seattle, a new ordinance increases the income tax for high-earning residents to pay for affordable housing programs, public transit and other critical city needs. When asked for comment, the mayor called it a “fight for economic stability, equity and justice.”

Still, a similar measure in New York would be a significant, given its size, wealth and global importance. As De Blasio’s proposal moves ahead, several questions must be considered: Is this model sustainable? Can it be adopted elsewhere? Will it raise enough funds to fix the Transit Authority and reverse ridership declines?

In the meantime, all eyes are on New York…so “start spreading the news.”

BRTData Enhances Indicators to Improve Accuracy and Comparisons

Tue, 2017-08-15 14:47

Bogotá, Colombia’s BRT, TransMilenio. Photo by Claudio Olivares Medina / Flickr

Since 2012, has provided up-to-date information on bus rapid transit systems (BRTs) in more than 200 cities, from passenger data to coverage and costs. Developed in partnership with the Centre of Excellence for Bus Rapid Transit, International Energy Agency and Latin American Association of Integrated Transport Systems and Bus Rapid Transit, the site is the most comprehensive online database of bus corridor systems available worldwide.

But over the years, the criteria used to classify BRT systems has undergone changes. In an effort to maintain consistency , WRI is making changes to align its corridor definition with the benchmarks and quality standards established by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

Implemented for the first time in Curitiba, Brazil, BRTs have the capacity to transform cities by improving public transit at relatively small cost, reducing harmful carbon emissions and increasing productivity. BRTs are already present in cities on five continents, and was created in part to track its spread and various implementations.

As its grown, however, a need to establish stricter quality standards has become apparent, as recognized by the BRT Standard Technical Committee. Following their recommendations, from now on, BRT corridors will be defined as one or more contiguous lanes served by one or multiple bus lines with a minimum length of three kilometers that has segregated or exclusive bus lanes. If the segregated lane is aligned to the curb, at least one of the following elements must be present: (1) prepayment of the tariff; (2) priority traffic signaling; (3) a boarding level or (4) a unique brand and logo.

These changes resulted in the exclusion of a total of 94 systems/corridors from The new database accounts for 358 registered corridors in 164 cities totaling 4,874 kilometers of infrastructure. All these networks benefit 32.2 million passengers per day.

For cities, it is important to have widely applicable standards that make comparisons and performance indicators meaningful. Quality of service can also be better verified by following clearly defined parameters. The BRT TransOlímpica corridor in Rio de Janeiro, for example, underwent an evaluation earlier this year and received a silver rating from the BRT Quality Standard Technical Committee. Implemented as part of the Rio de Janeiro commitments to host the 2016 Olympic Games, TransOlímpica has 17 stations spread over 26 kilometers and meets a daily demand of 40,000 passengers. The assessment serves not only as validation but points to things to improve as well.

But even beyond improving individual systems, the standards have the potential to help planners replicate the most effective approaches in cities without BRTs. By following this standard, will enable more accurate research and continue serving as the most comprehensive hub of BRT data worldwide.

Can Reef and Beach Insurance Improve Coastal Resilience?

Mon, 2017-08-14 16:04

Aerial photography of Punta Gorda, on Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coast. Photo by Carlton Ward

When you hear the word “nature,” what do you think about? A pristine beach? Maybe your favorite wild animal? Nature means different things to different people. But do you think of nature as a powerful source of protection from storms, rising sea levels and other negative impacts of climate change?

You should.

Climate change is no longer a distant threat. We are living with the reality of it, right here and right now. The impacts of climate disruption from Florida to Fiji, and everywhere in between are clearcostly and widespread, as storms, floods and droughts become more severe and less predictable. Storms are costing the world $300 billion a year, and 68,000 people are being displaced every single day.

We can’t afford to do nothing – literally.

An estimated 840 million people around the world live with the risk of coastal flooding, many in coastal cities. For these communities, the health of their economies is directly related to the health of coastal ecosystems. For example, in 2012, while Hurricane Sandy did tremendous damage to the eastern United States, coastal wetlands likely saved more than $625 million in additional flood damages across coastal communities in 12 states. And, in the Philippines, mangroves are expected to avert more than $1.6 billion in damages for 1-in-25 year events, and $1.7 billion in damages from 1-in-50 year events.

Seawalls, breakwaters and sand bags often come to mind first for disaster preparedness tools, but these are not the only options. And sometimes they aren’t even the best option. Natural resources, including coral reefs, mangroves, wetlands, sand dunes and healthy beaches, offer the first lines of defense to slow waves, reduce flooding and protect coastal people and property.

Coral reefs protect 200 million people around the world. A healthy coral reef can reduce 97 percent of a wave’s energy before it hits the shore, and just 100 meters of mangroves can reduce wave height by 66 percent. These nature-based solutions are cost-effective, self-maintaining and adaptable to sea-level rise. And they also offer other benefits to communities that traditional “grey infrastructure” solutions simply can’t, including improved water quality, more fish and new ecotourism opportunities. In fact, there are more than 70 countries and territories across the world that have “million dollar” coral reefs – reefs that generate more than one million dollars in value per square kilometer.

Economists, engineers, insurers and conservationists are together developing new science, models and strategies to evaluate and leverage the protective services of this natural infrastructure, including coral reefs and beaches, and to make sure they can be restored after damaging storms.

Indeed, one of the most promising new developments to maximize the value of nature is the possibility of actually putting an insurance policy on it – to protect the health and protective services of these ecosystems and ensure they are restored after extreme storms hit. This combination of insurance and science could be a powerful step toward protecting and improving the health of reefs and beaches so they can continue to protect us.

The Nature Conservancy is currently designing and testing the first-ever insurance mechanism to leverage the protective services of reefs and beaches to create new financing for restoration and protection. If successful, similar insurance might cover other naturally protective systems like mangrove forests and coastal marshes and even oyster reefs.

The increased threats of severe storms and climate impacts are here today – but so too are replicable and scalable nature-based solutions. We need action at all levels, from the international to the local, to shift our behavior and thinking around nature and drive investment in nature at a level equal to the value it provides us.

Now is the time to examine the full suite of solutions available to protect and sustain coastal communities and economies – and that includes taking a closer look at the potential of insuring nature to ensure nature keeps protecting us.

Kathy Baughman McLeod is the Managing Director for Risk and Investment at The Nature Conservancy. To learn more about The Nature Conservancy’s work on insuring reefs and beaches, visit

Global Solutions, Local Scale: Recycling Efforts Show Promising Path for Climate Action

Thu, 2017-08-10 14:55

It’s time for cities and businesses to take charge on recycling. Photo by Mo Riza/Flickr

Now that cities can no longer rely on the U.S. federal government to take serious action on the global threat of climate change, many are seeing a path to success through collaboration. Legions of businesses, cities and nonprofits are banding together to support global solutions on a local scale.

This collaborative self-reliance has been a growing trend over the years, with groups such as the Compact of Mayors and We Mean Business using the collective power of outside players to support effective climate action not only in the United States, but across the world. Local governments are saddled with the responsibility of providing the services needed to promote the well-being of their residents and communities, and achieving those goals often requires the support of businesses and nonprofits.

Here in the U.S. we have seen the powerful results that can be achieved when these groups work together in the uphill battle to recycle right.

Despite the common misperception that recycling is universal in the U.S., only half of American households have access to curbside recycling infrastructure. This represents a tremendous lost opportunity for communities to prosper from the environmental and economic benefits that recycling can provide. The public wants to break this cycle. As referenced in The Recycling Partnership’s 2016 State of Curbside Report, 94 percent of the U.S. population wants to recycle.

Recycling is an effective way for cities to reach their climate commitments because it reduces the amount of waste that enters landfills and extends the useful life of existing materials. The methane and carbon dioxide released by landfill waste add to the greenhouse gas emissions that are adversely affecting the climate. In 2015 alone, recycling in the U.S. prevented 410 million tons of greenhouse gases from being emitted, equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 43 million homes. What’s more, 20 jobs are generated for every 10 tons of recycled materials, versus just one job for the same amount of landfill waste, underscoring the promising impact recycling can have on the nation’s economy.

How can we improve recycling efforts to unlock these benefits for all communities? The answer lies in an innovative partnership model that brings together corporations with city and state governments.

CEO of The Recycling Partnership Keefe Harrison. Photo by The Recycling Partnership

In the last three years alone, The Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit, has applied funding from more than 30 corporations, such as Procter and Gamble, Coca-Cola and Target, to improve curbside recycling infrastructure in more than 420 U.S. cities. Although the scope of work in each city is varied, projects include improving the recycling infrastructure and system itself through placing new blue curbside recycling carts and training city staff and communications campaigns that raise awareness about recycling programs and educate residents on how to recycle properly.

The Recycling Partnership works closely with each city to help make the most of their recycling programs. This often involves expert analysis of the local system, funding and development of targeted campaigns and infrastructure improvements, and personal assistance to ensure that city officials have the tools and knowledge they need for long-term success. Such hands-on involvement improves curbside recycling programs, reducing costs for cities and improving service for residents.

Making recycling more convenient for residents directly reduces the amount of waste headed to landfills and creates immediate, substantial benefits. Beyond the positive effect on climate change, the more a city recycles, the more jobs and revenue that can enter its communities, lifting up residents of every background and income level.

Despite the federal government’s disheartening announcement that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, all is not lost. As progress on recycling has shown, cities and businesses can do much on their own to plant the seeds for a low-carbon future.

Keefe Harrison is CEO of The Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit transforming recycling in cities and towns across the United States.

Building Better Cities for Pedestrians Means Connecting the ‘Last Mile’

Tue, 2017-08-08 20:27

Planning for pedestrians involves considering the entire mobility system. Photo by Mariana Gil / WRI Brasil

We are all pedestrians. Even if a car is your primary means of transportation, you are a pedestrian from the moment you park your vehicle and walk to your destination. This is also true if you use the bus, subway or bicycle.

But if that’s the case, why aren’t cities more walkable? The lack of attention and funds for pedestrian infrastructure in many places stems from political, economic and cultural challenges. It also stems from how we think of mobility.

Much of the time when cities study foot traffic, they consider only journeys completed entirely on foot. With this measure, governments decide if pedestrian infrastructure should receive funding. But such trips aren’t the only pedestrian journeys in a city. Many people walk long distances to or from bus or subway stations. These trips to and from public transit are called “last mile” trips, and are arguably one of the most important for pedestrians and the smooth functioning of public transit systems.

A Virtuous Cycle

Ignoring last-mile connectivity can create a destructive cycle for a public transit system, as fewer riders use the service and fewer resources are invested in it. Paying closer attention can boost ridership and investment in surprising ways.

Security, or perceived security, while walking or cycling to a station can determine a person’s willingness to use the service in the future. For example, a person may not feel comfortable walking even 100 meters if next to a highway that allows high-speed travel. However, a person may be willing to walk or bike much further if along a well paved, tree-lined route with sufficient lighting.

A survey last year by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority sought to demonstrate the benefits of investments in improving pedestrian access to subway stations. In a sample of 62 projects that received “relatively small” investments totaling $13 million, the study concluded a return of more than $24 million over 30 years. Improvements in bicycle infrastructure were calculated from an analysis of accident data. The implementation of 141 bicycle projects is estimated to have prevented 84 accidents per year in the area surrounding the six surveyed stations. When calculating the average expenses associated with injuries and damage caused by bicycle accidents, the study estimated the changes saved some $11 million.

“Improving station access for walkers and cyclists not only makes Metro more attractive to those who currently live and work within walking and biking distance from each station, but helps promote ridership from new growth as it comes on line near Metro stations. Together, by better connecting both existing and future land uses, relatively small investments can have lasting financial benefits for Metro, its funders, and the region,” the report states.

Improving pedestrian access can mean more people utilize public transport. Photo by Mariana Gil / WRI Brasil

The research also points out that improving access to stations on foot was directly linked to an increase in the system’s revenue. “Improving bicycle and pedestrian access to Metrorail stations helps stabilize rail ridership and reduce growth in public subsidy to Metro,” it says.

Secure Access

Good infrastructure planning for pedestrians is a key factor in sustainable mobility. As cities build and expand their transportation systems, there is a growing need for integrated planning, implementation, and evaluation of projects that can take into account the many ways pedestrians interact with a city’s transport systems.

Acessos Seguros,” by WRI Brasil, for example, provides guidelines on how to address the need for improved accessibility around public transit stations, taking into account the unique characteristics of each location. These factors many range from the number of people the system needs to accommodate to land use and historical and environmental characteristics. The 8 Principles of the Sidewalk,” meanwhile, shows that sidewalks can and should be much more than a paved path, helping people move safely and quickly through cities.

Cities must understand that urban design affects the way society behaves. Recognizing the advantages of foot traffic and the effect investments in pedestrian infrastructure can have on mass transit is the first step toward holistic planning that centers around people.

Paula Santos is the Accessibility and Urban Mobility Coordinator at WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities

Paula Tanscheit is a Communications Analyst at WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities

This was originally published in Portuguese on TheCityFix Brasil

Sheela Patel on the Urban Housing Crisis: Think Big, Act Local

Mon, 2017-08-07 18:50

The walk to water for one resident of Dharavi in Mumbai. Photo by Meena Kadri/Flickr

From evictions and skyrocketing rents to substandard infrastructure and services, many residents in cities across the global south face acute housing challenges. And the problem is growing. According to estimates, one-in-three people in cities are unable to access affordable and secure housing, leading to burgeoning slums in many fast-growing cities.

Sheela Patel, chair of Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI), recently sat down with WRI to discuss the latest installment of the World Resources Report, “Confronting the Urban Housing Crisis in the Global South: Adequate, Secure and Affordable Housing.”

For decades, Patel has been a champion for the needs of the urban poor. In 1984, she founded the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres, an Indian NGO that partners with communities to expand access to housing and basic services for the urban poor. Today, she is well known across India, Africa and Latin America for her work with SDI extending lines of micro-credit, stopping evictions, and helping organize networks of urban poor to better advocate for their own concerns.

Here, we share three of her key messages.

The Scale of the Problem

The global housing gap is enormous and it’s not getting better, Patel says. Currently, 330 million households in cities around the world, equivalent to 1.2 billion people, do not have access to affordable and secure housing. By 2025, this number is estimated to grow by 30 percent, to 1.6 billion people.

All this growth means that decisions made now will have a significant impact on housing for decades to come. As urbanization intensifies in Asia and Africa, the challenge will get worse without a change in approach.

“We are at a very critical point at which we have to make decisions not only to address the challenges of the deficits today,” Patel says, “but that that process will help us deal with the increase that cities will face [in the future].”

There’s No One Size-Fits-All Answer

Patel echoes a key finding of WRI’s research: there’s no one size-fits-all solution. Instead, practitioners should explore a range of approaches that have proved promising in cities around the world.

“One of them, which is very close to our heart, is the one that looks at upgrading existing informal settlements,” she says. Participatory slum “upgrading” provides residents secure tenure and basic services in the places they already live, rather than relocating them to locations devoid of economic opportunity, and includes their input in the process.

Much of Patel’s work around the world has been focused on upgrading slums in a way that is resident-driven. This model has been demonstrated in several contexts, including India and Thailand, but runs counter to the approach in many cities of simply displacing or relocating slum residents to the urban periphery to make way for new construction within the city. WRI’s research suggests this only exacerbates the growth of slums and inequality in cities.

Looking at the Bigger Picture

Finally, Patel notes that the housing gap is not only a problem for the poor but affects the proper functioning and development of entire cities. “The city is like the human body; you can’t just take care of one part and expect everything else to function,” she says.

Indeed, the report notes that the housing problem is so severe, it threatens the traditional view of cities as reliable drivers of economic growth. At a global level, even as the proportion of urban residents in poverty has declined in recent decades, their absolute number has increased.

“When two-thirds of a city are living in a situation where its garbage is not picked up, its residents are being evicted, they don’t have access to clean water, they don’t have access to safe sanitation, you are creating a situation that jeopardizes the health and well-being of the whole city,” Patel says.

A primary goal of the World Resources Report is to examine whether meeting the needs of the urban under-served can achieve more economically prosperous, environmentally sustainable and socially equitable cities for all. Good housing, Patel and the working paper argue, is fundamental to people’s physical and financial security, economic productivity, and health. Rethinking housing policy then is a truly transformative intervention for cites; it must be viewed as part of a holistic approach to development and planning and not simply another special project.

For more from Sheela Patel on the urban housing crisis, watch a full-length interview here.

Confronting the Urban Housing Crisis in the Global South: Adequate, Secure and Affordable Housing” is the latest working paper in WRI’s flagship World Resources Report, “Towards a More Equal City.”

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

Harnessing Tanzania’s Explosive Urbanization Requires Central Support for Local Goals

Fri, 2017-08-04 12:30

Dar es Salaam, the capitol of Tanzania, is fast on its way to becoming a megacity with a population projected to more than double by 2030. Photo by Hendri Lombard/World Bank

Tanzania is undergoing a remarkable transformation. Its urban population is projected to grow from less than 15 million people in 2012 to more than 60 million people by mid-century.

Most of this growth will take place in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s cultural and economic hub. It’s fast on its way to becoming a megacity with a population projected to more than double from 4.4 million in 2012 to 10.8 million in 2030. Still, other cities like Mwanza and Dodoma are also projected to see major increases in population in the years ahead.

So far, this urban growth has been largely informal and unmanaged. In most cases, cities have evolved without clear spatial planning or vision, leading to insufficient infrastructure to meet basic needs, let alone keep pace with rapid growth.

This is made worse by climate change. Increases in temperature, unpredictable rainfall and intense droughts have already led to food shortages, water scarcity, flooding and power outages in many cities. Low-income and other marginalized urban residents are particularly vulnerable to these impacts.

A new report from the Coalition for Urban Transitions, written by experts from the African Centre for Cities, International Institute for Environment and Development, Economic and Social Research Foundation, and Overseas Development Institute, offers some recommendations, noting that managing this transition will require new ways to link national resources and expertise with local priorities.

Catching Up to Get Ahead

Better Urban Growth in Tanzania” highlights the catalytic role that national government can play in coordinating and aligning the activities of the many stakeholders working in cities – local governments, the private sector and civil society – with the aim of improving resilience, productivity and wellbeing for all.

Tanzania needs to raise significant resources to catch up with current needs and keep pace with those of future residents. More than 70 percent of Dar es Salaam’s population already lives in unplanned settlements without adequate housing, clean drinking water or safe sanitation. Only a quarter of Tanzania’s urban population in total have water connected to their homes.

One of the benefits of denser urban areas is that investments in core infrastructure, such as power and sanitation, can reach many more people for comparatively lower costs than in rural areas. Urban population growth can also create agglomeration economies, whereby the presence of larger markets and more workers enables greater specialization. This increases the productivity of industry and services. More compact and connected cities can enable people to reach jobs and markets more easily, laying the foundations for long-term economic growth.

The report recognizes the importance of spatial planning, but acknowledges how difficult this can be in cities like Dar es Salaam, where most of the population live in informal settlements. It recommends using land titling and infrastructure investments to reinforce good land use planning. For example, mass transit infrastructure should effectively connect housing with services and employment.

Of course, all of these programs cost money. The report offers a menu of financing options that central governments can use to fund core urban infrastructure. It also advocates for the central government to establish an enabling regulatory environment so that businesses feel confident investing in the country and cities are legally permitted to collect and manage local revenue.

Long-Term Planning From a National Perspective

Now is the time to think long term and get Tanzania’s urban development right. The policy and investment decisions made today will determine the success of its cities for decades to come.

The Coalition for Urban Transitions, hosted by WRI as an initiative of the New Climate Economy project, provides targeted support to national-level policymakers, who often hold different tools than municipal governments, to help shape towns and cities. It aims to provide a trusted, independent and objective basis for thinking about urban transitions at a national level.

Rapid urban population growth offers a window of opportunity to reduce poverty, create jobs and adapt to climate change. Well-planned cities are key to sustaining long-term economic growth and reducing environmental impacts. Yet Tanzania’s cities cannot do this alone; their success will ultimately depend on the ambition and support of central government too.

Download “Better Urban Growth in Tanzania” from

Joel Jaeger is the Communications Specialist for the New Climate Economy project, hosted by WRI.

Rachel Spiegel is an intern for the New Climate Economy project, hosted by WRI, supporting the engagement and communications teams. 

Car Pride, Bus Shame: 2017 Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship Awarded to Joanna Moody and Rafael Pereira

Thu, 2017-08-03 12:49

Formed in memory of Lee Schipper, founder of EMBARQ, the scholarship is awarded annually to advance the field of sustainable mobility. Photo by Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brasil/ Flickr

The Lee Schipper family and WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities are pleased to announce that Joanna Moody and Rafael Pereira have been selected to receive the 2017 Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship.

Joanna Moody will explore “car pride” and attitudes toward sustainable transportation to better understand personal choice of transport modes. She aims to measure how people attribute their social status and personal image to car ownership and other transportation choices to inform future sustainable transportation planning and policymaking.

Rafael Pereira’s research will investigate the impact of transport investments on existing inequalities in public access to economic opportunities. Pereira will focus his research on Rio de Janeiro and develop a model to evaluate access to educational, health and employment opportunities that can be applied to other cities in developing countries.

Meet the Recipients

The Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship was established in 2012 to celebrate the EMBARQ founder and recognized researcher Lee Schipper’s vision and contributions to the fields of sustainable transport and energy efficiency. The scholarship awards two extraordinary candidates up to $10,000 to advance transformative research in efficient and sustainable transport.

Winning proposals will advance the field through contributions to data collection, problem diagnosis, policy analysis and comparative analysis. The scholarship is international in nature and open to researchers and students of all fields.

“This support will allow me to expand data collection on ‘car pride,’ ‘bus shame’ and other modal biases in two cities in Latin America, allowing for greater regional breadth in comparing strength, direction and distribution of modal biases in global metropolitan areas,” said Moody. “By sharing my results, I hope to help policymakers and academics shape sustainable transportation initiatives and campaigns to encourage users to adopt active, multi-modal travel lifestyles.”

Pereira’s work will focus on Rio. “The award will greatly contribute to my research by allowing me to harness the capabilities of GPS data to evaluate how transport investments related to recent sports mega-events have reshaped inequalities in people’s access to opportunity,” said Pereira.

“We are extraordinarily excited to award scholarships to two such outstanding researchers,” said Holger Dalkmann on behalf of the scholarship board. “Both Ms. Moody’s and Mr. Pereira’s research have the potential to adjust how we think about developing sustainable transit systems and how we can effectively encourage shifts in public behavior to take full advantage of such systems.”

A Vision Continued

The 2017 scholarship received a total of 61 applications, representing 19 different countries. After the review committee carefully evaluated the applicants, nine finalists were selected to submit full research proposals. From this group of nine, two finalists, Moody and Pereira, were selected to be interviewed.

Moody and Pereira will present the findings of their research in January 2018, at the annual Transforming Transportation conference in Washington, DC. Their final research reports will also be made available in the spring of 2018.

In addition to this year’s two awardees, Kelly Blynn, Diana Ramirez-Rios, Prateek Bansal, Rumana Islam Sarker, Jamey Volker and Lindsay Blair Howe have been designated as honorable mentions, in recognition of their top-tier proposals.

Lee Schipper dedicated his professional life to the efficient use of energy in mobility. He was an international physicist, researcher and musician who co-founded EMBARQ in 2002. Under his direction, EMBARQ expanded into Mexico, China, India and beyond, as he pushed to incorporate data-driven solutions to meet transport challenges. EMBARQ become a signature initiative of WRI in 2014.

He Schipper inspired and shaped the thinking of a generation of students and professionals, and was widely recognized for challenging conventional wisdoms within the field of sustainable transport. This scholarship not only celebrates his unique vision, but also helps propel those who are carrying on his work.

For more information about Lee Schipper and how to donate to the Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship, please visit

Matthew Kessler-Cleary is the Executive Assistant to the Director of Strategy and Global Policy of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Opening the Floodgates to a New Climate Economy in Mexico City

Wed, 2017-08-02 13:15

With climate change, Mexico City faces floods, droughts and an opportunity to address much more. Photo by Kasper Christensen/Flickr

The Metropolitan Area of the Valley of Mexico, as Mexico City’s wider metropolitan area is locally known, faces a two-fold dilemma. In recent years, the intensity of rains has increased, straining drainage systems and causing severe flooding in low-lying areas. At the same time, the water supplies available for daily use has declined.

Both problems are highly correlated with the effects of climate change, but they are also a consequence of urban sprawl and lack of long-term adaptation measures. The situation sheds light on the effects of climate change in large urban areas and both the opportunities and challenges facing cities around the world in the years ahead.

Consequences of a Changing World

Changing precipitation patterns in Mexico’s capital have followed what scientists have predicted for elsewhere too: rainfall events are becoming more intense, yet shorter and scarcer. The World Meteorological Organization reports a steady increase in the intensity of rainfall for the Valley of Mexico since the beginning of the 20th century. On June 28 of this year, for example, 7.5 billion liters (1.9 billion gallons) of rainwater fell over the city in just a few hours.

Additionally, the city is seeing higher temperatures. The frequency of heatwaves by decade has increased significantly since the end of the 19th century. By 2030, average temperatures during the coldest months are expected to increase by 1.25 degrees Celsius.

The combination of these two trends puts the city at risk of serious flooding and an unprecedented water crisis. Hotter temperatures are increasing demand for water in a city where already nearly 20 percent of residents lack consistent, daily access. Drought is more likely thanks to more rapid evaporation in lakes, rivers and reservoirs. More intense but scarcer rains also disrupt the natural filtration process by which the city’s crucial underground aquifers recharge.

Urban sprawl aggravates the looming threat. Extracting, transporting and pumping the water needed to provide basic services to the entire city is a great challenge in and of itself. The city imports about 37 percent of its water from remote sources and 35 percent is lost due to leaks and theft along thousands of kilometers of pipelines. The lack of compact urban development elevates the costs of transporting and pumping water to and from the city and makes it more likely large amounts will be lost along the way.

Uncontained urban sprawl is also cutting into conservation lands, mostly located south of the city, and mountainous areas around the Valley of Mexico. Conservation lands provide highly valuable ecological services. They allow soils to properly filter water, absorb it and eventually recharge aquifers. Covering them in asphalt cuts off these processes and adds to the city’s drainage and sewage problems as more and dirtier water ends up in the system.

Forest lands on the slopes of hills and mountains allow rainwater to runoff and recharge reservoirs and lakes. However, settlements along the Valley of Mexico’s rim, many of them informal, prevent the natural flow of water downhill and increase the amount of sediment in water bodies. Landslides and mudslides too are a major problem as communities creep onto more and more marginal land.

Accelerating the Transition to a New Climate Economy

Building more compact, sustainable cities, with responsive and coordinated local governments, is one of the key goals of the New Climate Economy, an international initiative managed in part by WRI. There are several steps that could help Mexico City address its two-fold water crisis and reap environmental, economic and social benefits at the same time:

  1. Use every policy instrument to densify the city and stop sprawl. A more compact and connected urban area is one of the best ways to reduce pressure on the city’s drainage and water systems.
  2. Prioritize public transportation. The transport sector contributes 46 percent of total emissions in the Valley of Mexico in large part due to Mexico City. Expanding low-emission public transport should be at the forefront of urban development policies.
  3. Stop expansion into mountainous areas and restore and protect conservation lands. The water cycle is being obstructed by development that hampers proper runoff along mountain slopes and reduces soil absorption rates. Droughts and floods are more likely and aquifers are draining quickly.
  4. Improve existing climate adaptation plans. Innovative, new approaches will be needed to create a water model that will sustainably meet the city’s needs in the decades ahead. A growing population – 2 million more people by 2030 – and accelerating climate change will only add to problems. Potential solutions include rainwater collection systems that operate in parallel with the city’s drainage system to supply more freshwater. Similar ideas should be considered as part of the city’s climate plans.

Megacities like Mexico City offer large windows of opportunity to shift our models of urban development towards more sustainable patterns. Major policy changes could have a large impact on more than just climate change adaptation and mitigation, providing benefits like better access to electricity, sanitation and housing. However, the room for maneuvering is decreasing. We must act now to contain the most harmful effects of climate change and ensure a healthier, safer more productive future for residents.

Tomislav Lendo is Executive Director of the Human Sustainable Development Foundation.

Ricardo Smith is a Policy Analyst at the Human Sustainable Development Foundation.


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