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Do Bus Rapid Transit Systems Improve Equity? A Look at the Evidence

Tue, 2017-08-01 12:30

The bus lane in Bangkok. Photo by ICLEI EcoMobility

Some time ago, professor Christo Venter of the University of Pretoria sent me an intriguing message: Did I have data on how bus rapid transit systems, or BRTs, affect equity in cities? Impact evaluations for changes in travel time, cost, traffic fatalities and air pollution, not only in total but disaggregated by socio-economic group, geography or other factors? I pulled together everything I could find, including many articles published in the gray literature, but there wasn’t much.

Six years later, with great patience and the help of Gail Jennings (now at WWF) and support from Andrés Felipe Valderrama Pineda of Aalborg University, Venter has completed an extensive review of 68 publications that touch on equity and BRT, directly and indirectly, and published the results in the International Journal of Sustainable Transportation (he was also gracious enough to include me as a co-author).

Why Equity and Why BRT

If the three legs of sustainable development are social, economic and environmental, equity is sometimes defined as the overlap between social and economic. As a result, it’s not always given the consideration it deserves, as the economic and environmental components of sustainability get the most attention. WRI is working in its own way to help change this with the latest edition of our World Resources Report, “Towards a More Equal City.”

In the WRR – which spans several working papers, the latest of which tackles housing – we take equity as our entry point and ask how it affects economic and environmental outcomes in cities. This paper by Venter et al. comes at a timely moment in the development of the transport working paper, which will build on the work of Karen Lucas, Eduardo Vasconcelos, Karel Martens and Aaron Golub, among others, on social justice.

Bus rapid transit is a relatively recent mass transit “technology” capable of improving urban mobility through a package of interventions, including busway improvements, reducing travel times and costs, upgrading urban corridors, and mitigating carbon emissions and road safety risks. According to BRTData, there are currently 452 BRT corridors around the world, covering 5,655 kilometers, 205 cities and serving more than 34.3 million passengers a day.

We found in our review that many BRT projects are rhetorically positioned as pro-poor in developing countries and their political acceptability is often linked to a larger policy agenda aimed at alleviating poverty by improving access to transport and reducing costs. But we also found that, despite the mandate by international development institutions to help eliminate extreme poverty and the fact that many BRT projects have financial assistance from major development banks, methods to measure the impact on the urban underserved are not widespread.

Impacts on the Underserved

BRT implementation usually reduces travel time, travel cost, traffic fatalities and air pollutant emissions. But impacts on particular groups of society are reported in very few cases. Most of the few examples are positive but not all:

  • A study of Bogotá’s TransMilenio Phase 1 by Tito Yepes and myself found higher travel time savings for poor people (18 minutes per trip) than for middle income passengers (10 minutes). Low-income passengers, who would have paid two fares on the traditional system, saved 8 to 12 percent of their daily income.
  • Tiwari and Jain (2012) showed that both cyclists and bus users saw reduced travel times (on the order of a 33 percent reduction) when using the Delhi BRT corridor. As most non-motorized transport users are from low-income households, the benefit is likely to be progressive.
  • Scholl et al. (2016) found Lima’s integrated and flat fare pricing structure promotes BRT usage among the poor by reducing the cost of longer trips below those of traditional modes of transport.
  • An evaluation of Lagos’ BRT found the standardization of fares that used to vary by the hour brought cost savings to many passengers.
  • In a distributional analysis of costs and benefits for BRTs in Bogotá, Mexico City, Istanbul and Johannesburg by WRI, investment was found to be progressive. Benefits exceeded costs by a larger proportion for lower income groups than for higher income groups. In all cases except Istanbul, the highest income group experienced a net loss (costs exceeded benefits), indicating that BRT serves an income distributive function. However, very low income users are usually underrepresented as BRT riders because they are priced out by fares.
  • There is also evidence that it is possible for BRTs to exacerbate inequality. BRT has been used as a tactic to transform existing informal or semi-regulated public transport operations, like minibus networks. Some new systems in Latin America and South Africa have attempted to incorporate existing drivers and minibus owners into the BRT, but have met with limited success due to lack of driver qualifications. As a result, there can be negative spillover effects on both drivers and owners, which fall disproportionately on lower-income groups.

“An Evolving Project”

While this evidence gives an indication of progressive impacts, there are several caveats. The identification and measurement of equity impacts is hampered by the lack of a clear and consistent framework for analyzing equity that can be applied and compared across different locales. Better data are clearly needed to support more rigorous assessment of equity impacts in transport implementation.

Ultimately, as Christo Venter indicates:

Paratransit reform is an evolving project; no consensus has been reached about the most appropriate paths to be followed. But regardless of the path, it is important that authorities carefully consider equity impacts and mitigation of negative spillover effects via effective regulation and transitional strategies.

Bus rapid transit systems possesses characteristics that enable them to provide service to traditionally under-served populations better than other mass transit alternatives. Their relative low cost and rapid implementation can improve travel time and travel costs for low-income populations faster and more effectively than rail options. And if “complete streets” concepts are used, they can benefit pedestrians and bicycle users too.

Nevertheless, the impact of BRTs on equity is not automatic. They need planning and careful design and implementation. There is the potential for affordability and accessibility problems, displacement of low income dwellers as land prices increase due to better access (i.e., gentrification), as well as spillover effects on incumbent transport operators.

Darío Hidalgo guides the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities’ international team of transport engineers and planners.

To Improve Core Services, Cities Should Embrace Disruption

Wed, 2017-07-26 12:30

The iPod and streaming services disrupted the music industry. Can cities harness similar innovations? Photo by Toshiyuki Imai/Flickr

Innovative business models can turn entire industries on their head – just ask retail executives how Amazon has changed their world, mobility companies about Uber, or music magnates about Apple’s legacy. How we shop, move, and enjoy music is fundamentally different today from just a decade ago thanks to disruptive changes in these markets.

The phrase “business model innovation” rose to prominence in the startup culture of Silicon Valley, but public administrations could use the same principles to reshape urban life for more productive, sustainable and inclusive cities.

What Is Business Model Innovation?

An iconic example of an industry transformed by business model innovation in recent years is the music industry. At first, the iPod, accompanied by online file-sharing services, changed everything. Then online retail emerged as a cost-competitive alternative to store-based music sales. Together these changes brought the demise of many physical record shops. Nowadays, streaming services such as Spotify no longer sell records but rather provide access to music on demand. Such services are often offered on a “freemium” basis – free access to songs and playlists, interspersed with advertisements that can be turned off for a subscription fee.

The music industry’s evolution exemplifies several aspects of business model innovation:

  • The first is capitalizing on a new value proposition to the end user. In this case, music lovers benefited from greater choice of easily accessible, on-demand music at a lower cost.
  • Second, is the emergence of new channels for value creation. New supply chains, developed in parallel with new MP3 players and phones, helped move music from physical, store-based locations to online files and applications on users’ devices.
  • Finally, new models for capturing value emerged in the form of new cost structures and revenue models. Moving online cut costs for some, while selling access to streaming rather than ownership of a song makes recurring fee-based charges possible compared to one-off sales revenues.
What Does It Mean for Cities?

It is generally thought that new business models emerge in response to changing market conditions and consumer preferences. While not explicitly studied to date, these trends are also underway in cities worldwide. New and rapidly growing cities, changing living standards and consumer preferences, and new technologies are some of the drivers leading to the emergence of alternative business models for common city services. These include changes to mobility, housing and electricity consumption.

Business model innovations in mobility are some of the most visible. Ride sharing solutions – cars, bikes, and taxis that users pay to access, sometimes non-exclusively, rather than own – have exploded. Bike-sharing is taking off even in unlikely places, such as Bhopal, India, where more than 10,000 new users signed up within the first few weeks of the system’s operation. This trend is underpinned by a new value proposition, about point-to-point, no hassle mobility that is particularly attractive to urban users. While shared mobility options continue to coexist alongside public transit and private vehicles, they are becoming a larger part of the urban mobility mix.

In urban energy, decentralized solutions are another example where new business models are reshaping established value propositions, in this case between utilities and customers. By purchasing or leasing solar panels on their own property, city dwellers can exercise greater control over their energy supply, prioritizing lower carbon emissions. They can also establish a two-way relationship with the utility by selling electricity back to the grid or earning money from leasing roof space to a solar company. Decentralizing energy supply through onsite renewables reverses a long trend of increasingly centralized power generation in power plants far beyond city limits – a paradigm that in fact replaced earlier decentralized solutions, based on greater efficiency and economies of scale.

Finally, recent developments in urban land use and housing point toward competing value propositions that could radically change how urban development is carried out. In some cities in the United States and Asia, “transit-oriented development” is displacing decades of auto-centric policies based on the separation of residential and commercial land uses. This comes in response to people’s increasing preference for city-living over suburban lifestyles because they are able to easily access basic services and cultural amenities by walking or public transit. With a major affordable housing gap, estimated to affect 440 million households by 2025, developing country cities need to develop scalable approaches to city living too.

The Need for Experimentation and Governance

Business model innovation has critical implications for cities seeking greater sustainability. It suggests that the same core service needs – e.g., for mobility, energy, water and sanitation, housing – could be satisfied in a range of new ways, through potentially radically different models than are currently in place, including those that are more environmentally and socially sustainable.

But local governments need to actively shape developments in their city. Innovations, especially in their infancy, can have unexpected pitfalls. Cautionary tales about the negative impacts of short-term rental services such as Airbnb and “rogue” bike-sharing companies show local government’s essential role in providing proactive city leadership that anticipates, steers, and where necessary corrects development in real time.

Critically, this is not an all or nothing proposition. It’s clear from the experience of industries that have been disrupted that alternative and established ways of meeting the needs of end users can coexist even as one may be gradually displacing the other (e.g., in home entertainment, where ad-based television coexists with subscription-based services like Netflix).

Fundamental shifts are driven by processes of experimentation, learning and iteration. In the private sector, firms experiment with new ways of doing business to generate profit. In cities, local governments should take inspiration and exercise leadership in working hand-in-hand with the private sector to actively experiment with new value propositions and new channels for value creation and capture to deliver social and environmental benefits to all.

Anne Maassen is the Energy, Climate and Finance Associate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. She leads WRI’s work on Financing Sustainable Cities, an initiative with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, funded by the Citi Foundation, focused on helping cities develop business models to accelerate the implementation of sustainable urban solutions.

Friday Fun: How Pop-Up Clothing Shops Help Create More Equal and Sustainable Cities

Fri, 2017-07-21 19:50

The Street Store in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo credit: The Street Store

Everyone, in one way or another, relies on clothing every day. Clothing is essential to keeping us warm and protecting us from the elements. Yet, ill-fitting clothing or having no clothes at all can cause great hardship beyond exposure to the elements—it can hurt self-image and reduce ones chances of getting ahead. A poorly dressed person has little chance for success during a job interview and can be functionally barred from certain spaces in the city.

To help mitigate the negative impacts of homelessness, social entrepreneurs around the world are promoting creative solutions to help clothe the homeless through urban pop-up clothing shops. In addition to improving social conditions, these shops inspire positive environmental impacts through the reduction of waste. One successful urban clothing pop-up that’s inspired similar models around the world is the Street Store in Cape Town, South Africa.

The Street Store

Cape Town’s homeless population has few opportunities to acquire low-cost clothing. To help solve this problem, the Street Store was created in 2014 by the Haven Night Shelter Welfare Organization and M&C Saatchi Abel. The concept is simple, yet its impacts are great. The pop-up shop is setup one day every few weeks or months and is designed for those with low or no income. All the clothes are free. To gather donations, the company promotes the event on social media, including on Twitter and Facebook.

To gather donations, the company promotes the event on social media including Twitter and Facebook. Photo credit: Design Indaba/Vimeo

On the day of the event, cardboard signs with painted hangers line the sidewalks, letting people know what’s available and encouraging gifts. Donors drop off contributions and volunteers help organize the clothes by size and style. Patrons can visit and collect quality items for job interviews, work and everyday wear.

The first Street Store pop-up was a success. During the one-day event, 3,500 people visited. Further social impacts enabled by the Street Store were subtle, but equally important. Customers are treated with dignity—they are able to “shop” for clothes, regardless of ability to pay. According to one customer, “Shopping at the Street Store was for me, very nice—the people were accepting of me with friendly faces.”

Additionally, the Street Store’s reuse of clothing drastically expands the lifetime of each item. Reusing clothing reduces carbon dioxide emissions and waste, improving environmental sustainability.

Customers are able to “shop” for clothes, regardless of ability to pay. Photo credit: The Street Store


The success of Cape Town’s Street Store has inspired similar efforts around the world. The Street Store partnership provides open-source materials at no cost to social entrepreneurs. Today, more than 580 Street Stores have occurred globally across five continents.

Similar to the Cape Town store, the San Francisco pop-up is committed to promoting a more equitable city. They strive to pass on high-quality donations to the homeless, rather than items people don’t need or want.

“Right now, they don’t have the choice in where they live, where they eat,” organizer Deepika Phakke told SFGate. “The Street Store is about giving them respect and the power of choice. Saying to them, ‘Hey, you’re invited to the store and free to pick up whatever you want.’ That’s going to be empowering.”

More Street Stores are coming to a variety of cities, including Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Hasselt (Belgium) and Americana (Brazil). As the network grows, so will the empowerment of the urban homeless around the world.

Lori O’Neill is an intern for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities’ Building Efficiency Initiative.

Between the Road and the Built Environment: Exploring New Opportunities for Africa’s Cities

Wed, 2017-07-19 12:31

WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities recently convened experts in Nairobi for a workshop on equal cities for all. Photo by Talia Rubnitz/WRI

WRI Ross Center’s engagement with sub-Saharan African cities is emerging with new projects, research and training programs. In this series, we explore – and ask partners – how to pursue and maintain equal and sustainable cities, highlighting people, spaces, challenges and opportunities in the region.

“Urban green spaces in Africa are under attack,” said Wanjira Mathai, director of the Partnership on Women’s Entrepreneurship in Renewables (wPOWER) and WRI board member, at a recent workshop in Nairobi. As African cities expand, their “lungs” are disappearing; even as cities grow and spread, “we must invest in livable cities for the future,” she says.

On June 28, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities convened stakeholders from across sub-Saharan Africa in the first of a series of workshops to examine urban trends for the region and the potential for transformative change, particularly in Nairobi and Kampala. Participants came from academia, urban planning, business, the technology sector, community groups and other areas, discussing methods for innovation and working together to create more sustainable cities.

“The economic dynamism in cities isn’t a given,” said WRI Ross Center’s Kate Owens. “Our old business models aren’t working in all contexts. We need to innovate. We need to focus not only on the road and the built environment, but also on the space between the two, where the city exists.”

Urban Transitions 

Today, many of the conventional approaches to urban planning are failing residents. The growth of sub-Saharan African cities poses both enormous opportunities and challenges. More than half of Africa’s people will live in cities by 2040, including a great number of young people.

Wanjira Mathai and Joy Mboya exchanged ideas for a more sustainable and equal Nairobi. Photo by Dennis Nyongesa/WRI

The public and private sectors recognize the potential associated with this demographic transition, as well as the challenges, including ensuring access to good jobs for everyone and providing services that improve quality of life.

“Today, we are here to connect certain dots; through each other we can see something different,” said Akiva Beebe of the Center for Creative Leadership, who helped moderate the workshop. “How do we move faster and better together? How do we think about cities differently?”

Throughout the day-long event, attendees participated in group exercises, including writing the “headlines of tomorrow” to highlight major urban challenges and goals. These activities encouraged conversation, creativity, relationship-building and learning. They also highlighted the need to work at the mtaa or neighborhood level to test new ideas and business models for service provision. Instead of focusing on policy changes, institutional reform and large-scale infrastructure investment, participants highlighted the need to build legitimate governing bodies through active participation in the life of the city, provision of green spaces, pedestrianization, distributed energy systems and natural building materials.

Kate Owens presented on WRI Cities’ work and strategy for regional support. Photo by Dennis Nyongesa/WRI

Nairobi and Kampala

Local experts discovered potential for this alternative narrative in the experiences of Nairobi and Kampala.

Reflecting on a recent week-long arts festival, Joy Mboya, director of the GoDown Arts Centre, discussed the importance of intersecting art with the city itself. It wasn’t the fact that they held a festival that changed people’s engagement with the city, but how involved communities were in determining the content and description of the event, she said.

“We must mobilize Nairobians around civic pride and the space we all call home,” said Mboya. “Once we get people’s ideas and participation, we will see a kind of different city – one that is more exciting, liveable and fair.”

A presentation from Joy Mboya, Shuaib Lwasa and Musyimi Mbathi. Photo by Talia Rubnitz/WRI

Shuaib Lwasa, head of the Kampala Urban Action Innovations Lab and professor at Makerere University, reiterated the importance of community involvement and local-level activism for Kampala. “As a city, we need to move from knowledge for knowledge’s sake to knowledge for action,” he said. He highlighted the importance of partnerships in the community, strong leadership and the role of students, like those at Makerere’s Innovations Lab. He urged that informal neighborhoods be valued for the solutions they already offer in terms of employment opportunities and alternative service delivery. His research flips our understanding to suggest that the informal is the city.

Similarly, Musyimi Mbathi, head of the University of Nairobi’s Centre for Urban Research and Innovations, spoke to the importance of student action and engagement. “We are training the next generation of green champions in this country,” he said. “There is a big resource that remains out there, untapped.” His experience with service provision and informal distribution systems highlights how to incorporate action at the neighborhood level to begin reshaping the city toward a more sustainable and livable future.

“There is a massive opportunity if we collaborate and work together,” said Giles Bristow of the Ashden Foundation. Photo by Dennis Nyongesa/WRI

“The Opportunity Is Exponential” 

From the experience of Nairobi and Kampala, new priorities emerged around creating shared ownership of city visions, aligning investment projects with community needs, providing equal access to jobs and services and planning more intentionally to create an adaptive urban fabric that can weather and take advantage of change.

These topics represent important directions for future partnerships and projects, said Giles Bristow, director of programs at Ashden Foundation. “There is a massive opportunity if we collaborate and work together,” he said. “We need to be more intentional in our purpose to make this change a reality.”

“This is the beginning of a journey…the opportunity is exponential,” said Beebe.

Through establishing partnerships with local organizations, convening key stakeholders and improving data collection and transparency, WRI Ross Cities aims to increase its engagement in Africa. Stay tuned for more as we explore these priorities and search for a new approach.

Kate Owens is the Urban Development Manager for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

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

“Open Traffic” Provides Unprecedented Data to Urban Policymakers

Mon, 2017-07-17 12:30

Traffic data for Quezon City, the Philippines, from the Open Traffic portal

Cities are complex and fast changing organisms, especially in low- and middle-income countries where rapid population growth, urbanization and technological advances are creating a dynamic mix of opportunity and challenge. One major issue facing many cities is road safety.

On one hand, fleets of cars and motorcycles are growing rapidly, increasing risks to pedestrians and drivers as they overwhelm infrastructure and policy. Take a city such as Bogotá, where every year approximately 500 people lose their lives on the roads and thousands more are seriously injured; the majority, 89 percent, are people walking, bicycling or riding motorcycles.

On the other hand, decision-makers are beginning to understand and adopt a philosophy of shared responsibility and an integrated approach to road safety. More and more cities and countries are embracing systemic change rather than pinning their hopes on road users to behave perfectly under imperfect circumstances. This approach is often referred to as “Safe Systems” or “Vision Zero.”

These approaches can now be informed by an explosion in data on how people travel around cities, thanks to the advent of mobile phones and accompanying apps for mapping, ride-sharing, ride-hailing, planning public transport trips or any app that provides location-based services. The data generated could guide decisions in a more precise, timely and cost-efficient manner. But much of it is gathered by private companies that are constrained by privacy and business concerns, both in terms of releasing the personal information of customers and commercially sensitive data. Furthermore, the massive amount of data available must be proactively gathered and synthesized to actually be useful to policymakers.

In response to this, WRI recently helped launch Open Traffic, an initiative of the Open Transport Partnership that aims to help improve transport planning, traffic management and safety by facilitating the delivery of detailed traffic data to cities. The partnership, led by the World Bank, along with its founding partners Mapzen, the National Association of City Transport Officials (NACTO) and WRI, will enable leaders to make informed, targeted decisions about sustainable urban mobility and road safety and monitor the impact of these decisions, potentially saving thousands of lives and improving productivity too. The first iteration of the partnership focuses on one of the most fundamental problems: speed.

Open Data, Safer Speeds?

The speed limit in Bogotá is 80 kilometers per hour (50 mph). In reality, however, the city moves at an average speed of 20km/h during the day. A disproportionate number of fatal crashes occur at night when vehicles are able to travel at higher speeds due to free flow conditions. According to the UN, speed contributes to between one third and one half of fatal collisions globally – higher speeds allow lower response times and people simply can’t withstand the physical forces of high speed collisions.

Studies have shown that lower speed limits can actually help ease congestion in addition to improving safety. This was the case in Sao Paulo in 2016, when lower speed limits on major urban roads reduced congestion by 10 percent as well as reducing fatalities by 29 percent.

However, speed reduction proposals are often met with resistance and skepticism. Will congestion worsen? Will trips take longer? To make things more difficult, cities often don’t have information about which streets have the highest increases in speeds, which would help make more targeted interventions. As part of the Open Traffic initiative, city governments will have access to a platform that will help them answer these questions and gauge the benefits of policy changes like reducing speed limits from 80 km/h to 50 km/h.

Segment details for a route in Cebu City, the Philippines

This has been possible through Open Traffic’s data agreements with ride-hailing companies, fleet companies and other consumer apps which makes it possible to anonymize and aggregate their raw GPS data, converting them into real-time and historical traffic information. A global data platform of traffic speeds linked to OpenStreetMap road segments is already under development. This same data will also be accessible to the public under an open data license. The current data partners are Easy Taxi, Grab , Le TaxiNDrive and Miovision. Thanks to these companies, Open Traffic provides access to data for more than 500 cities all over the world.

Open Traffic will offer cities the opportunity to understand and measure the impacts of road safety interventions on safety and traffic flow. This applies both to identifying risks, such as dangerous speeds and the types of roads that encourage these, and measuring the impacts of traffic safety improvements, such as a street redesign or lowered speed limits. Furthermore, it will empower cities to study the impacts of traffic safety interventions in a fraction of the time and cost previously required. The data generated by Open Traffic will provide the opportunity to identify high speed areas to target, quickly establish a baseline, and review impacts of speed reduction, almost in real time. Most importantly, it will allow decision-makers to convey messages about the benefits of these interventions in a clear and transparent way.

Expanding the Dataset

Open Traffic was piloted in the city of Cebu in the Philippines in 2016, where municipal authorities were able to apply the data to adjust traffic light phasing. Initial studies showed that while a traditional traffic analysis process could take weeks of planning and cost up to $55,000, with Open Traffic a single person could generate more robust information almost instantly.

Since its launch in December 2016, the Open Transport Partnership has been seeking to secure partnerships with other data partners to make the platform truly global and to start generating new types of data, which will further aid city policymakers in improving safety and equality, and reducing emissions and congestion. The data will consider elements such as curb space utilization, lane space, parking inventory and trip-level data, among others. As well, as data is continually gathered over time, it becomes cumulatively more reliable; patterns by times of day, week and year will be better understood and visualized by the platform.

In Bogotá, where plans are currently underway to introduce low-speed zones of 30km/h and below by setting speed limits and redesigning streets, access to data provided through the Open Transport Partnership will enhance the city’s ability to refine these projects, and identify and communicate positive outcomes to citizens. The subsequent road safety changes will benefit everyone, but especially the majority who walk, bicycle and ride motorbikes.

Anna Bray Sharpin is a Transportation Associate; Claudia Adriazola-Steil is the Health and Road Safety Program Director; and Diego Canales is a Tools and Data Innovation Associate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Is the Tesla Model 3 Our Ride to a Sustainable Future?

Thu, 2017-07-13 12:30

The recently announced Tesla Model 3. Photo from Elon Musk/Twitter

This past weekend, Elon Musk shared the first images of a production Tesla Model 3—the much-anticipated new electric vehicle that had hundreds of thousands of people lining up last year to place preorders. It was the latest in a series of major recent announcements about the future of the automotive industry.

Earlier this month, Volvo Cars announced all of its new models will be electric or hybrid by 2019. Meanwhile, France announced it intends to end sales of gasoline and diesel cars by 2040, which follows similar goals in Norway (2025) and India (2030). Next month, General Motors may grab the headlines as its Chevy Bolt is expected to roll out nationwide.

All the attention on electric vehicles raises the question: Is this the path to sustainable mobility?

Yes: Electric vehicles can be a cleaner alternative to conventional vehicles.

We are paying a heavy toll for our reliance on conventional vehicles. Health care costs, lost productivity and other consequences of road pollution amounted to $3 trillion in lost GDP collectively among OECD countries, China, and India in 2010.

Electric vehicles offer a cleaner alternative, especially as more renewable energy is incorporated into the power grid. A recent study, factoring in emissions from the generation of electricity, shows the average battery electric vehicle in the United States today emits 214g of carbon dioxide per mile—far less than the 356g to 409g of carbon dioxide per mile produced by conventional gasoline vehicles.

Yes: A lot of people want to buy them.

What is perhaps most exciting about the Model 3 is the unprecedented demand. Never before has an electric vehicle—or any vehicle—had nearly half-a-million preorders a year before production. Electric cars officially have mass-market appeal. As a result, Bloomberg New Energy Finance is now projecting electric vehicles will account for more than half of new car sales by 2040 as demand increases and battery costs decline.

Electric vehicle market penetration is critical to efforts to address climate change. New electric cars will need to be more attractive, affordable, and accessible to consumers who are driving today, as well as billions of people reaching middle income around the world who will be driving tomorrow. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, electric car sales will need to go from zero to 60 in a hurry. Scenarios from the International Energy Agency suggest that to keep pace with a pathway to limit global warming to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), we need the global stock of electric cars to increase from 1 million in 2015 to more than 20 million in 2020 and more than 150 million in 2030.

No: Electric vehicles are not, by themselves, going to get us to sustainable mobility.

Anyone banking on selling millions more electric vehicles is ignoring the elephant in the room—and the billions of vehicles already on the road. Estimates of the annual cost of congestion in the United States, for example, exceed $100 billion. If the total number of cars continues to climb at its projected pace, we will not have a chance of limiting global warming, even if many of those cars are electric. Neither will selling cleaner cars solve the challenges of congestion, road safety, equal access to opportunity, or other mobility issues. This is why WRI and others champion the Avoid-Shift-Improve framework (see below), which emphasizes the types of investments that ultimately will allow people to move around in sustainable ways.

So Which Car Companies Will Embrace New Approaches for Tomorrow’s Markets?

Automakers should see this month’s news—and the news yet to come—as a call to action for a bolder transportation vision. WRI’s Elephant in the Boardroom paper outlines three ways companies might respond:

  1. Some will ignore the signals of market transformation. Investors are already looking to assess the leaders and laggards and better understand who is positioned to win or lose.
  2. Some will improve on existing options and make incremental progress. They may sell cleaner, more efficient vehicles, but that by itself is not enough to solve congestion or climate change.
  3. Some will embrace new business models and mobility services. We need more companies investing in the systems and services that meet customers’ mobility needs without putting more and more cars on the road. Bill Ford knows this. As he said in 2011:For most of [my 30 years at Ford Motor Company], I worried about how am I going to sell more cars and trucks. But today I worry about, what if all we do is sell more cars and trucks? What happens when the number of cars on the road doubles, triples or even quadruples?This seems to be part of the reason Ford made a leadership change this yearand is making investments in ride sharing and even bike sharing.

All these developments and recent announcements are welcome. But more is needed—quickly. It’s a race worth watching. Who will be the first to grow their business without simply selling more cars to more people?

The Avoid-Shift-Improve (ASI) Framework

The first aspect of sustainable mobility involves investments in options that allow people to avoid unnecessary trips, like walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and options for telecommuting from home and shared-work spaces. These strategies can also include Transport Demand Management solutions like congestion charging, which can disincentivize people from driving in crowded areas at busy times, thereby reducing unnecessary congestion.

The second aspect encourages investment in infrastructure that allows people to shift to other transport options that are better suited to move people around the cities of tomorrow, like walking, biking and public transit. Research shows that connected cities that have strong public transit systems and safe infrastructure for cycling and walking boost GDP, create new jobs and create considerable cost savings.

Combining solutions from each of these two aspects with the third—improvement of transportation technology like electric vehicles—is the only sure-fire way create safer, cleaner, more convenient, affordable and sustainable transportation. We already know that cities around the world are growing at unprecedented rates and those urban residents are going to have more money to invest in their transportation needs. The ASI Framework can be a guide to disrupting the current transport industry and ensuring that these growing communities reflect our vision of a more sustainable, equitable future.

Companies that want to embrace a new approach for tomorrow’s markets can find ways to advance the ASI Framework and move beyond outdated models of selling more cars to more people.

Eliot Metzger is a Senior Associate in WRI’s Markets & Enterprise Program.

Alyssa Fischer is the Strategy and Management Associate for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Confronting the Urban Housing Gap

Wed, 2017-07-12 09:31

Informal housing in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by Zoriah/Flickr

More than 1.2 billion city dwellers – one of every three people living in urban areas – lack access to affordable and secure housing. This housing gap is a major drag on the economy and the environment. The impact is severe in Asia and Africa, where 2.25 billion people are expected to be added to urban populations between now and 2050. If business continues as usual, slums will grow across the developing world, exacerbating inequality and threatening cities’ traditional role as drivers of economic growth.

The latest working paper of WRI’s flagship World Resources Report (WRR), “Towards a More Equal City,” draws on the knowledge of dozens of urban experts to examine whether meeting the needs of the urban underserved can improve the economy and environment.

Housing is often seen as falling into discrete categories such as public or private, formal or informal, individual or collective. Instead, we view housing options on a spectrum that combines different elements of ownership, space, services and finance. In some cases, land may be public while the dwellings on it are private. This spectrum allows a more nuanced analysis of the reality of housing markets in the global south and consideration of a wider range of possibilities.

While many challenges emerged, we focused on three that city officials can act upon and scale up.

Issue 1: The Growth of Informal or Substandard Settlements

As demand for housing has outstripped supply, informal and substandard settlements have proliferated. Since 1990, even as the proportion of global urban populations living in slums has declined, there has been an increase in the absolute number of people living in these areas.

Solution: Find ways to accommodate people where they are

While some call for “slum-free” cities, this is often code for displacement of people to the edge of town, which disrupts labor markets, social networks and lives and harms the city at large. Instead we suggest finding ways to upgrade existing slum areas, tapping into community knowledge and energy while retaining links to social and livelihood networks. This option is best for cities with large slum populations, except in locations with environmental or geographic risks.

An example is Thailand’s Baan Mankong program, which directs government infrastructure subsidies, soft housing and land loans to poor communities who then negotiate with land owners for formal tenure and use the funds to upgrade their housing. By 2016, 101,224 poor families in 345 cities had been fully upgraded under the program with secure land, decent houses and healthy living environments.

Issue 2: Overemphasis on Ownership

Home ownership is over-emphasized in urban development, which hurts those who lack the resources to buy a home or who need flexibility, such as those working in the informal economy. Subsidies meant to encourage home ownership are geared to those with regular, documented incomes, not those who work in activities like recycling, domestic help and construction that do not produce a paper trail in many parts of the world. Rentals are often not available to the urban poor, or are subject to great uncertainty about rights and responsibilities for both landlords and renters, with unclear processes for dispute resolution.

Solution: Expand rental markets for people of all income levels

Establishing legal protection for landlords and renters, while acknowledging informal sector activity, can help meet the housing needs of the urban poor while maintaining flexibility and encouraging market-driven development. This includes non-standard payment patterns and cooperative housing where tenants collectively purchase land and rent small plots within it. Vibrant rental markets foster a fluid labor market, a necessary prerequisite for economic prosperity in any city.

For example, authorities in Gauteng Province, South Africa, which includes Johannesburg, tackled a housing shortage of 687,000 units by making it legal to rent out formerly illegal informal backyard apartments. This made it easier for low-income people to find places to live and encouraged development of services without government subsidies.

Issue 3: Policies That Drive the Poor to the Periphery

In many cities, land is often tangled up in legal disputes, leaving it under-utilized or unused, even as new residents seek housing in the city. Building and land use regulations often impose costs and limit creative use of incremental improvements and innovative land management tools.

Solution: Convert under-utilized land, especially publicly held land, into affordable housing

Political will to address housing needs is critical. Rather than encouraging sprawl, existing urban land should be used for housing. City officials and real estate developers should revise rules and building standards to expand the availability of housing on under-used land.

For instance, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, 420 families live in the María Auxiliadora community land trust on land purchased and held in trust as community-owned property. The community’s unique governance structure rotates leadership among women in two-year terms, rejects men who engage in domestic violence and provides support to families. The land cannot be sold for profit, which keeps the housing affordable.

These solutions will help urban policymakers in fast-growing cities meet the demand for housing while encouraging economic development and cleaner, safer environments. Closing the housing gap by providing access to affordable, adequate and secure housing will benefit everyone, not just the poor and underserved, as cities become more productive, environmentally sustainable and truly places for all.

Download “Confronting the Urban Housing Crisis in the Global South: Adequate, Secure and Affordable Housing” from

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

Public Spaces: What Can Urban Planning Gain from the Mobile Internet Revolution?

Tue, 2017-07-11 18:33

Technological innovations can modernize urban planning and make policies and guidelines more efficient and accurate. Photo by verkeorg / Flickr

Our impressions of a city are formed mainly by the quality of public spaces. If they are not pleasant and preserved, or if they transmit a sense of insecurity, we will seldom return. Good planning of these spaces should be the rule, not the exception. In the series “Public Spaces,” originally published in Portuguese by TheCityFix Brasil, we explore different aspects related to public spaces that determine our daily experience in cities.

The world is experiencing unprecedented urban growth. By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. As cities modernize, urban residents are finding their lives increasingly optimized and automated by a series of technologies. But urban planning has not kept pace and it is still a challenge to build urban spaces that are conducive to people’s well-being and happiness.

In one of his most famous quotes, the architect Jan Gehl said, “We know more about healthy environments for gorillas, Siberian tigers and pandas than we know about a good urban environment for homo sapiens.” Although we live in the era of big data, the quality of data we have on cities is relatively poor and outdated. And yet we still use it to inform the norms and policies that guide the construction of our cities. The democratization of the internet and proliferation of smartphones, along with the daily emergence of new technologies, brings opportunities to change the way we plan streets, public spaces, neighborhoods and the city as a whole.

The fall in prices and miniaturization of mobile internet technologies has led to a data collection revolution: Almost everything we own collects data. Our watches, clothes, shoes, trash cans, cars, cell phones and houses collect information on our whereabouts. This network of data creates a constant flow of information, which we are often unaware of. According to Euan Mills, author of the essay “Planning by Numbers” and the planning lead at Future Cities Catapult, 2.9 million emails are sent per second, 20 hours of YouTube videos are uploaded per minute and 50 million Tweets are sent per day, not to mention the myriad of posts on social networks, Google searches and Amazon purchases that are continuously monitored.

Technology Exhibition at the City Planning Center of Liuzhou City, China. Photo by UTSEUS/Flickr

Opportunities for Improving Public Spaces

The combination of these vast amounts of data with processing power can be applied to improving public spaces in at least three ways, writes Mills:

  • By creating tools capable of monitoring and helping us quickly and efficiently understand what makes good public spaces successful
  • By constructing more specific public policies that can also be regularly adjusted on the basis of results
  • By making decision-making processes more inclusive and transparent

In practice, technology has already changed the way we live in cities. Broadly spread applications, like Airbnb and Uber, have changed the way we occupy the urban environment and move. Additionally, other innovations are changing the way we plan everyday commutes. This is the case with real-time traffic information made possible by Waze and Citymapper, not to mention the possibilities of sharing bicycles, cars and co-working spaces.

Innovations like these (and those that are yet to come) also have the potential to radically change the way we plan and build cities. If used in planning processes, they can draw more precise and efficient strategies to build more sustainable and accessible cities.

Technology optimizes and improves urban planning by allowing real-time monitoring systems and simulation. This can make the process of urban planning much more precise and provide information on whether dwellings are occupied, how streets are used and even how people feel in parks and public spaces.

It is already possible to observe steps in this direction. Solutions such as UrbanPlanAR, for example, explore augmented reality to simulate new buildings prior to construction. Others, such as Land Insight and Urban Intelligence, are creating policy databases and planning applications. Data consolidation helps to create tools that automatically evaluate development proposals using many variables, such as the microclimatic impact of the construction on the surrounding area; visual impacts of the project in the neighborhood; and gauge housing quality and even economic viability.

The ability to monitor the impacts of planning policies allows municipal policymakers to establish more flexible plans and create places where people really want to live. They can be instruments of change, adaptable to the needs of the population.

Above all, it is necessary to ensure that data is open and accessible to residents, that planning tools are transparent and that public policies and guidelines are clear and accountable. The result would be better-planned cities with public spaces tailored to fit and adaptable to the constantly changing dynamics of city life.

Priscila Pacheco is a Communications Analyst at WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities.

Reversing Mumbai’s Bicycle Decline Has Broad Implications for Quality of Life

Thu, 2017-07-06 23:22

Cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians navigate traffic in Mumbai, India. Photo by Adam Cohn/ Flickr

Bicycling is on the decline in India’s largest city; perhaps as few as 0.8 percent of a population of 12 million bicycles, according to one estimate, down from an already-low 6 percent measured in 2008. In a new op-ed for The Hindu, WRI’s Amit Bhatt writes the decline is indicative of a development agenda too focused on motorized transport.

Cycling has “socio-economic baggage” in India, Bhatt writes, seen as a mark of being lower class. But experience around the world – in Europe especially, but even in the car-centric United States and elsewhere – is showing that efforts to make city transport more bicycle-friendly pay dividends for pedestrian safety and the welfare of all citizens.

“As the modal share of bicycle increases, so does the quality of life of [a city's] citizens,” writes Bhatt. Or as Gustavo Petro, former mayor of Bogotá is reported to have said: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars; it’s where the rich use public transportation.”

Mumbai has tried improving bicycle infrastructure in the past but attempts were “feeble, unplanned and not thought through,” writes Bhatt. There was the Bombay-Kurla Complex, a ₹6.5-crore (about $1 million), 13-kilometer bicycle lane inaugurated in 2011. It was dismantled just four years later, after lack of maintenance and proper protection, and cars began to use it as a parking lane. It became a bus lane before that too was declared a failure and dismantled in 2016.

Now, Bhatt notes, most “big ticket” infrastructure projects in Mumbai “are planned and commissioned without fully understanding the implication of the costs and benefits, let alone the value of inclusive pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly design”:

Prime examples of this short-sightedness: the ₹1,600-odd crore Bandra-Worli Sea Link, which opened in 2010, and has an average daily traffic of around 37,500 vehicles, and the ₹1,436 crore Eastern Freeway with 23,000 vehicles. These projects are of no value to more than half of the city’s commuting population. They do not even permit motorized two-wheelers, let alone cyclists or pedestrians.

While buses are allowed on these flyovers/roads, they can’t use them as bus stops are at the lower level.

Projects aimed at smoother commutes for car-users seem to be the trend in Mumbai. Take the ₹15,000-crore Coastal Road or the ₹7,502-crore Versova-Bandra Sea Link.

Developing a plan for cycling is an afterthought, it would seem. For example, the Comprehensive Mobility Plan for Mumbai estimates an investment of ₹1.67 lakh crore. Of that, ₹178 crore is for developing cycling tracks, just a fraction over 1 percent.

What can be done? Bhatt encourages readers to write to their elected officials and city administrators, talk with their friends and family about the implications of transport policy on the well-being of all Mumbaikars, and perhaps become a Mumbiker yourself.

Read the full article on The Hindu for more.

Public Spaces: 10 Principles for Better Urban Renewal (Hint: Think Community Engagement)

Mon, 2017-07-03 19:27

Urban rejuvenation projects are most successful if they are designed with shared community goals in mind. Photo by Elisa Greco/Flickr

Our impressions of a city are formed mainly by the quality of public spaces. If they are not pleasant and preserved, or if they transmit a sense of insecurity, we will seldom return. Good planning of these spaces should be the rule, not the exception. In the series “Public Spaces,” originally published in Portuguese by TheCityFix Brasil, we explore different aspects related to public spaces that determine our daily experience in cities.

Nothing lasts forever without conservation and preservation. With cities, it’s no different. Different interventions in cities can alter built-up areas or public spaces to address social issues, environment or health problems, or even reactivate the local economy. In this context, the practices of renovation, requalification, revitalization and rehabilitation can be used to not only renew a city but help proactively solve a wide range of problems.

First, we need to differentiate terms that are often used synonymously but do not have exactly the same meaning. Briefly, “revitalization” is about recovering space or an existing construction; “renewal” deals with replacing or rebuilding and changing use; “requalifying” adds new functions while improving appearance; and “rehabilitation” is restoring but without changing function. Each of these processes therefore generates different results. All of them, however, are linked to the same idea: to transform urban spaces in order to rejuvenate them.

Projects like these often arise from the need to solve economic, social or environmental issues, but are carried out in ways that make success difficult. They need community participation to be embraced, but are often instead led by public-private partnerships that have few feedback mechanisms for community members to engage with. This is one of the most common criticisms of this type of intervention, in which large projects are conceived and constructed without any connection to the local reality.

New models of urban transformation should recognize that transformative change is no longer the responsibility of a single actor, organization, institution or sector. Change needs to be led by multi-stakeholder coalitions and movements, on the demand side as well as the supply side.

A report by the Australia-based consulting firm SGS Economics and Planning presents 10 principles for urban renewal that take the public interest into account, based on case studies in cities like London, Sydney, Melbourne, Hamburg and New York. According to the survey, much of the criticisms of urban renewal projects are a result of actions undertaken without the perspective and contribution of affected communities. Finding ways to include more participation could improve success rates. The report focuses mainly on renewal; however, the principles also apply to revitalization, requalification and rehabilitation:

1. Create “Shared Value”

Urban areas do not belong to a single group or individual but should offer value to many actors. All those who are part of the broader community as a whole – from workers and tourists, children and students, to the underserved and investors – should benefit from urban renewal. “Ultimately, the ‘communities’ for whom the value is created to share, should be those with long-term interests, not transient stakeholders with a primary focus on value extraction and repatriation,” write the authors.

2. Plan With Input From All

Delivering this shared value requires engaging with communities. Planners bringing an intervention into an existing space should share their vision and include people in the planning from day one, or risk it being rejected. Decision-making techniques such as cost-benefit analysis should be explained and employed to also promote “non-financial values,” helping communities feel a sense of ownership. The researchers also suggest the creation of a common platform where information about the process and the progress of the project can be shared transparently.

Superkilen Park in the Nørrebro neighborhood of Copenhagen. The work brings together elements from many of the more than 50 nationalities represented in the area. Photo from Bjarke Ingels Group/Flickr

3. Build a Long-Term Vision

In any extensive process of urban renewal, the initial goals of the project may change over time. Even so, a long-term vision should be locked in and changes for the sake of short-terms gains resisted, with flexibility growing as the timeline extends further into the future. “A commitment to the public interest and shared value needs an inclusive approach, and future development stages should have the flexibility to be able to adapt to market and social changes,” write the authors.

4. Agree on Non-Negotiables

Non-negotiation issues should be clearly understood by all stakeholders. These could include respecting existing lease terms, fixed quotas for affordable housing or protecting open spaces. The rights of renters and leaseholders should be guaranteed and stakeholders agree to a common set of design standards.

5. Agree on a Financial Profile

Studying how the space to be renovated is expected to yield from a financial perspective not only serves to set parameters for the project’s development options but is also critical to whether the public’s interests will be met. There are many options available to both provide returns on government investment in underserved areas but also safeguard communities from potential negative side effects, like rising taxes, and encourage a handoff to private developers in the future.

6. Establish Clear Development Goals

The planning process should develop and affirm clear objectives, not just desired outcomes. The best goals will be specific and measurable, and anticipate the physical, economic and social results of the project.

High Line Park in Manhattan is built over a disused elevated rail line. Photo by Mike Peel/Wikimedia

7. Establish Options to Achieve Development Goals

There are often multiple options for achieving the same development goals and they should be compared to one another as well as to baseline scenarios of what might happen without any intervention. The process will create “a much clearer picture of marginal benefits and costs associated with any particular development option,” the report explains.

8. Incorporate a Sense of “Localness”

Local characteristics and peculiarities should be captured and incorporated into the new project. These details may come from local standards, services offered in the region, the environment, the climate or other socio-cultural specificities. Finding ways to assimilate a sense of the local into the project will help people identify with it, separate it from other similar projects and generate community acceptance.

9. Evaluate Options With the Goal of Maximizing Net Community Benefits

Cost-benefit analyses are often viewed with skepticism, but the report notes there are well-documented techniques that allow for the inclusion of things communities care about most, like open space, social capital and heritage. Finding ways to incorporate them into a cost-benefit analysis is important for avoiding the scenario where “financial considerations or otherwise vague community aims end up dominating choices between options.”

10. Align the Procurement Model With the Planning Vision

Finally, the governance, implementation and contracting trajectories – how the project is actually carried out – should align with the unique vision laid out during the planning phase. Procurement targets should bespoke, rather than using “off-the-shelf” options. This may mean a greater role for the government as a developer in the early stages before handing off to private sector developers later.

“These principles are not locked in place, but are guiding principles to ensure urban renewal benefits the widest community possible,” write the authors. “The renewal of strategically important urban sites must have the needs of communities, both social and commercial, at its core.”

Paula Tanscheit is the Communications Analyst for WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities.

Making Air Quality Data Available to All: WRI, Development Seed, OpenAQ Partner to #FixtheAQGap

Thu, 2017-06-29 09:31

WRI recently announced a partnership with OpenAQ and Development Seed to help more users access – and contribute to – air quality data from around the world through the OpenAQ open source platform. This update, which originally appeared on OpenAQ’s Medium and has been adapted, explains some of the benefits.

OpenAQ is ecstatic to announce that we are partnering with the World Resources Institute and Development Seed to open up air quality data from more sources and to scale our system to meet growing demand for data.

The image below shows current country-level air quality data coverage across the world for the OpenAQ Platform. Significant gaps – the grey areas – remain, both in terms of countries not yet added and sources missing at the sub-national level. Our community of incredible users, WRI and Development Seed are helping to change that.

Demand Is Spiking

When we started this project two years ago, we had a hunch that people and organizations would be able do awesome work in the fight against air pollution, if there were just easier access to even existing air quality data sources.

And it turns out this hunch was correct – more than we would have ever initially guessed. We’ve seen a dramatic increase in data requests to our system over the past few months:

And the projects behind the data requests are where the magic happens. Software developers have built tools communicating real-time air quality to the public (e.g., Smokey the Air Quality Bot, Open Air Quality AppEnvi4All, hackAIR, AirVisual and Students have used the system for their classwork. Google’s public dataset program and various open-source projects (e.g., ropenaqpy-openaq and OpenAQ Data Visualizer) have helped make the data even easier to access and visualize. Companies have used the data to help calibrate their low-cost sensors or as a data layer for comparisons (e.g., Airveda and ARISense). Researchers have used the system to inform a real-time wild fire model and predict air quality in some of the most polluted places in the world.

Seeing this usage has been incredible, but it’s also been pretty demanding on our current system, as those of you who follow along on our #dev channel on Slack may have already noticed. We need to scale.

We Are Evolving

Since the start, OpenAQ has relied largely on volunteer contributions to our open source platform to add in air quality data from across the world – but also to build the technical backend infrastructure that supports our system. The next phase of re-tooling the platform to meet this increasing demand is a hefty and specialized task, and we’d rather the community focus as much as possible on building cool things off of the platform. So we’re working with WRI and Development Seed to make the following backend changes:

  • Move away from using the database as the main storage mechanism for the data. This will make the system less costly to maintain and more reliable for users.
  • Implement rate-limiting to ~30 requests per minute or roughly 1,000 requests per hour. This will make the system more useable for everyone.

If you’re interested in seeing our progress over the next couple of months, follow along — or even participate, if you’re interested – via #dev on our Slack Channel.

We are also adding more data. To date, we aggregate air quality data from 48 countries and 5,628 stations, largely through the incredible help of volunteers letting us know about government-level data sources and software developers who then are able to write adapters to ingest it (by the way, we looked this number up on Dolugen Buraalda’s handy site).

This coverage is great. But there are lots of data sources missing – both from other countries and within the countries where we already access data. We estimate there are roughly 70 countries out there with real-time air quality data of some sort.

WRI and Development Seed are helping our community add more data sources to the OpenAQ Platform. This will mean connecting with new partners at air quality agencies around the world, as well as having a team of folks writing data source adapters to existing data sources we have in our “new data” queue.

Help Us #FixtheAQGap

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be seeking YOUR input on potential new data sources through our #FixtheAQGap Campaign. It’s a big push to find those air quality data points that are out there but are falling through the gaps.

Do you know of air quality agencies we should be connecting with to access open data? Do you know of data sources already out there sharing data? Fill out this form, and let us know!

In our GitHub repo, we also have a pile of existing data sources, some of which have missing information (e.g., we can’t find the geographic coordinates for a set of stations, or perhaps a language issue is getting in the way and we can’t properly interpret the information). Check out this spreadsheet to see current gaps where we need help. Or check out our issues on GitHub. We’ll also be making calls out on Twitter, asking for help on specific items. Follow @Open_AQ, @WRIcities, and @developmentseed and help us #FixtheAQGap!

Chris Hasenkopf is the CEO and co-founder of

3 Reasons Renewable Energy Is Poised to Take Off in Developing Nations

Wed, 2017-06-28 19:00

Between 2009 and 2014, the cost of solar photovoltaic modules declined by 75 percent. Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith (DFID)/Flickr

You often hear about renewable energy success stories in cities in the developed world – places like Vancouver, which has committed to get 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources before 2050, or San Diego, which has promised to obtain 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035. Many initiatives exist to promote 100 percent renewable energy in these places, such as the Renewable Cities program at Simon Frasier University in Canada. But while much attention goes to the global north, cities in the global south are also poised to scale up their use of renewables, such as wind and solar.

What’s Different Now?

The potential of distributed renewables in cities is well-understood. The International Energy Agency estimates that rooftop solar could supply 30 percent of electricity needs of cities globally in 2050, and much of the global south is rich in solar radiation. But there are three emerging trends that make this moment particularly ripe for renewable energy in the developing world:

1. Declining costs

The cost of renewable energy has declined precipitously. Between 2009 and 2014, the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) modules declined by 75 percent, while the cost of wind turbines dropped by 33 percent. Furthermore, the cost of residential solar PV has been declining significantly in recent years: in 2015, it was competitive with natural gas generation in India and nearly so in China. Battery storage is also becoming less expensive, which will make distributed energy even more affordable. Between 2008 and 2014, battery costs have declined 20 percent each year.

 2. Political commitment

Many cities in the global south have made robust commitments to tackle climate change. For example, many of the hundreds of cities that have signed on to the Compact of Mayors, a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in urban areas, are in the global south. Palawan, Philippines; the Maldives; and Uganda’s Kasese District have all announced 100 percent renewable energy goals. Regulatory policies, such as feed-in tariffs (long-term contracts to renewable energy producers, offering a fixed price) and net metering (a billing mechanism that credits renewable energy system owners for the electricity they add to the grid), have spread beyond Europe and North America to municipalities in developing countries. Distributed renewables allow cities to make progress toward their climate goals and take more ownership over their electricity supply. And there is a realization that distributed renewables in cities can help countries fulfill two Sustainable Development Goals, one on ensuring modern energy access to all (Goal 7) and one on creating cities that are inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable (Goal 11).

3. Innovative finance and business models

While some are only in their nascent stages, there are a plethora of new finance and business models for distributed renewables. For example, pay-as-you-go (PAYG) programs, where companies rent solar home systems to consumers, who pay a small monthly fee often via their mobile phones, have taken off in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In less than one year, the number of households using PAYG systems in the region doubled to between 450,000 and 500,000 in 2015. Net metering, enacted for example in Cape Town, South Africa, and many states in India, has allowed households to not only be consumers of electricity, but prosumers, where they actually produce so much renewable power that they can meet their energy needs and sell the excess back to the grid. In Delhi, there is a roof rental model where homeowners can lease their roof space to solar project developers. Community-shared solar, which allows multiple individuals, many of whom may lack financial capacity or available on-site resources, to pool their resources to purchase PV systems, is gaining interest in urban areas of the global south.

A Renewable Revolution

Of course, for distributed renewables to continue to take off, there needs to be a strong enabling environment, with the provision of public finance to help mobilize private sector investment; well-enforced laws and regulations; well-coordinated, strong institutions; and community engagement and participation. As the renewable energy revolution gathers momentum in the cities of the global south, it is important to remember that it’s not just about environmental gains. As we note in a forthcoming paper from the World Resources Report, “Towards a More Equitable City,” expanding clean energy access also increases quality of life for all people – including the urban under-served – and brings economic benefits to cities overall. As Shakespeare wrote in “The Tragedy of Coriolanus,” “What is the city but the people.”

Michael Westphal is a Senior Associate on the sustainable finance team at WRI.

3 Ways Bhopal’s Bike Sharing System Breaks New Ground for India

Tue, 2017-06-27 23:21

Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Shivraj Singh Chouhan at the Bhopal bike sharing launch. Photo by Sarika Panda Bhatt

On Sunday, June 25th, Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, launched India’s first fully automated bicycle sharing system as part of the second anniversary of its much-talked-about smart cities program. This development comes just three weeks after Mysore launched the country’s first city-level bicycle sharing project.

The Public Bicycle Sharing system, or PBS, developed with the help of WRI, involves a fully automated system of 500 bicycles with over 50 docking stations across Bhopal, backed by a state-of-the-art IT system. As part of this completely automated system, users can pick up a cycle from any of the stations and deposit it at another without worrying about returning it to its original location.

The bike sharing system of Bhopal has many firsts but here are three reasons why it can help make bike sharing mainstream in India:

1. It’s Fully Integrated With Buses

The Bhopal Bike sharing system is the country’s first integrated and fully automated bicycle sharing system that connects MyBus, Bhopal’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system, with key residential and commercial nodes. By providing both first and last mile connectivity to the city bus system, it improves its efficiency.

In addition to service integration, the city offers flexible payment options, with one smart card that works for bike sharing, BRT and bus services. Bhopal City Link Ltd. is the single nodal agency that will oversee the operational monitoring of all three, making it a great example of institutional integration of public transport modes.

Milind Soman, model, actor and ambassador for India Vision Zero, inspects the dedicated cycle track before the launch of PBS in Bhopal. Photo by Sarika Panda Bhatt

2. It Puts Safety First

Pedestrians and cyclists comprise the largest number of road traffic crash victims in Indian cities. Many cities are therefore wary about developing cycling facilities due to fears they will only put more people in danger. But as part of Bhopal’s bicycle sharing project, the city is also developing physically segregated cycle tracks in the city. At launch there are 12 kilometers of five-meter wide tracks, the country’s widest physically segregated bicycle lanes. The city is also developing 55 kilometers of additional non-motorized transport paths, with work expected to start shortly.

3. It Takes the Long View

PBS is not a one-off project for Bhopal, but part of a targeted campaign to promote walking and cycling. It is hoped that what Paris’s Vélib’ system did for bicycle sharing in Europe, Bhopal PBS can do for India.

The effort kicked off with Raahgiri Day in September 2014 with major street closures to promote more pedestrian and cycling traffic. The resounding success of Raahgiri demonstrated that people were ready for another look at cycling.

The city is now using the concept of “tactical urbanism” to reimagine streets and public spaces so that they can be more people friendly. Bhopal is also in the initial stages of planning its first “smart street” project as part of this initiative, which will involve retrofitting an existing 1.5-kilometer stretch with dedicated facilities for walking and cycling along with other urban design features.

Much will depend on the operation and implementation of PBS going forward, but the early signs are good. 2017 is the 200th anniversary of cycling in the world. With the help of innovative efforts like PBS, this humble mode of transport is gradually coming back to help make India’s cities more pleasant, cleaner and safer.

Sarika Panda Bhatt is Manager of Cities and Transport with WRI India. Chandramauli Shukla is the CEO of Bhopal Smart City Development Corp Limited. Amit Bhatt is the Director of Integrated Transport at WRI India.

Finding Your Place in the Global Urban Movement to Fight Climate Change

Mon, 2017-06-26 22:30

Paris, Pittsburgh and a host of other cities are increasingly organizing around climate change. Photo by Benjamin Stäudinger / Flickr

For Pittsburgh, it’s a focus on improving air quality and creating renewable energy jobs. For Paris, it’s encouraging social mobility and reclaiming pedestrian areas. The common thread in these cities’ climate action plans is a commitment to pledges made by 197 parties in the landmark Paris Agreement.

“The only way to do right by Pittsburghers and Parisians is to abide by the principles of the Paris Agreement, which guarantees the future health and prosperity of both of our cities – and every other city in the world,” wrote Mayors William Peduto and Anne Hidalgo in The New York Times in response to President Donald Trump’s rationale for pulling the United States out of the pact.

Indeed, strong leadership on climate change is not new for city leaders. Reducing emissions and improving resilience are common concerns that are creating transnational networks of urban planners, policymakers and concerned citizens, including the C40, Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy and ICLEI. Cities account for nearly 70 percent of global carbon emissions and are vulnerable to some of the most damaging effects of climate change, including sea level rise and poor air quality – and most cities are growing, exacerbating these challenges.

WRI’s work with these urban networks and directly with more than 100 cities around the world has shown that the best solutions come from engaged citizens and neighborhoods, businesses and community groups. So what can one person do to help make cities healthier, more sustainable and more productive? Start by asking these three key questions.

How Do You Move?

If cities are the front lines of the climate fight, transportation is the first battle. Cities account for 40 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions from road traffic worldwide, which means that the way people live and move in cities offers an opportunity to dramatically reduce environmental impact. This can also be a window on unique local challenges. Do cyclists feel safe on the street? Is there an accessible, reliable bus system?

As an individual, you can take a stand for sustainable mobility by demanding well-connected public transport and safe biking infrastructure. For example, in Brazil, WRI helped Curitiba and Rio de Janeiro create and conduct feedback surveys about their bus rapid transit systems, or BRTs, to attract and retain more riders. This feedback led to safer, more comfortable public transit in both cities. Curitiba improved lighting and security, renovated infrastructure and added capacity. In Rio, passenger satisfaction rates rose from 1.7 to 5.8 (on a scale of 0 to 10). Making public transport safer and more accessible means fewer cars on the road, less congestion and lower emissions.

What Kind of Building Do You Live In?

The buildings where city-dwellers live and work account for 25 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. By demanding better energy performance from your city’s buildings or choosing to live in a lower-emissions building, you can make the case for efficiency.

In their new resilience strategy, officials in Da Nang, Vietnam, a city of more than a million people, are working to make energy efficiency a priority for developers and expand resources and knowledge on energy use in some of its biggest buildings. In addition to saving energy, building efficiency is one of the easiest ways to reduce climate changing emissions and improve local air quality. WRI’s Building Efficiency Accelerator project will be working with Da Nang on these and other initiatives this year.

How Do You Connect?

The last step comes down to asking the right questions of your city. Does your mayor have a climate action plan? How about a resilience plan? Are local emissions being measured? There is much that cities can learn from each other, but ultimately each place requires its own unique solutions.

Strengthening the way you connect with your fellow citizens and your city’s long-term agenda can improve the environment and your own well-being. Don’t wait for a climate plan in your city; you can lobby for better systems today, ranging from bike lanes to larger questions of more equitable development.

Porto Alegre, Brazil, for example, included robust individual indicators in its first municipal resilience strategy. WRI Brasil helped develop metrics for social cohesion, risk perceptions, economic resources and education. These indicators will ensure community needs are measured by policymakers and taken into account in the city’s longer-term plans.

WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities was founded on the idea that transformative urban change happens across more than one political administration and often over a decade or more. By keeping in mind these ways of thinking about urban sustainability, you can help ensure your city is moving in the right direction.

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.

Public Spaces: Participation as a Tool to Build More Democratic Cities

Thu, 2017-06-22 20:15

Understanding the needs of the population helps to design effective urban projects and create better cities and public spaces. Photo by Mariana Gil / WRI Brasil Cidades Sustentáveis / Flickr

Our impressions of a city are formed mainly by the quality of public spaces. If they are not pleasant and preserved, or if they transmit a sense of insecurity, we will seldom return. Good planning of these spaces should be the rule, not the exception. In the series “Public Spaces,” we explore different aspects related to public spaces that determine our daily experience in cities. In the third post, we explore social participation as a tool for building more democratic spaces and cities.

People influence the built environment, and the built environment influences people. This interrelation, though not always evident, appears in some daily subtleties. On one hand, the presence of urban furniture and good lighting invite people to occupy a space, and buildings that are surrounded by walls and poorly lit parks bring a sense of insecurity. On the other hand, when people occupy public spaces, they also have influence on the built environment around them. People make urban spaces more alive and human – community gatherings and street events breathe life into otherwise abandoned places. This exchange between people and spaces, as well as societal participation in planning these environments, helps to build more democratic and equitable public spaces and cities.

Daisy Found, a specialist in community engagement and participatory planning, believes that good processes of popular participation can generate significant contributions to decision making in cities. According to the specialist, “popular participation in planning the built environment is a form of politics, and it will only be effective if it is seen and managed as such. Better community involvement, or ‘social participation,’ is the process of using appropriate methods and tools to explore, negotiate and—very importantly—respond appropriately to the question of ‘who gets what, when and how?’”

Social participation becomes even more important in public spaces, particularly in ensuring that areas don’t become underutilized. Listening to people takes into consideration the needs and knowledge of the local community, and it has impacts on the scale of the project, depending on what level of decision-making feedback is solicited. This is important for two main reasons:

1)  Residents have experience-based knowledge about where they live that isn’t available to outside urban planners and public managers. The expertise of the local community is the most important element to ensure that projects meet the specific demands of the area where they will be implemented.

2)  Involving people in the planning of spaces around them generates a feeling of responsibility and pride in the outcome. People feel part of the environment and, at the same time, responsible for their quality, creating a virtuous circle of “placemaking.”

Why Promote Participation?

Collaborative workshop in São Paulo, Brazil. Photo by Mariana Gil / WRI Brasil Cidades Sustentáveis / Flickr

Social participation promotes active engagement in the debates and deliberations about the future of a city or a neighborhood. These dialogues should occur frequently and be encouraged. According to Daisy, it is possible to observe a growing interest in these conversations: “people know that a healthy democracy must be practiced, not just ‘affirmed,’ so that it can be maintained and evolve. They also know that this democracy needs to be discussed openly in public spaces.”

People have “the right to the city” and the right to shape the city. Sociologist Henri Lefebvre, author of “The Right to the City,” argues that regardless of their origin, those who live in a city—and therefore, use and impact the urban environment daily—have as much right to participate in the decisions concerning a particular area as those who own the land. The notion of “the right to the city” does not only concern the right to be in the city, but also to shape it, to build it and to use its spaces through social participation.

Social participation benefits the city and democracy. Today, it is possible to see that people do not feel adequately represented in the way city decisions are made. A planning process that promotes people’s involvement, from the project design stage through implementation, ensures the effective participation of residents in changes that will impact the place where they live and, consequently, impact their lives.

Urban Democracy

By reconciling the demands of society with the needs of the public sector, social participation helps to increase the effectiveness of projects and policies and of public management. The process is related to the decentralization of power, the sharing of responsibilities and the creation of channels that favor dialogue, transparency and the availability of information. It is, in short, to promote urban democracy.

Quality public spaces that meet the needs of the population result from good participatory processes. Photo by Mariana Gil / WRI Brasil Cidades Sustentáveis / Flickr

Good participatory practices, especially in regard to transparency in decision making, provide significant contributions to urban space policy, helping to create more democratic, equitable public spaces that are consistent with the needs and demands of the population. They generate strategic data to support fair and efficient decisions. They help to create new models of planning and governance, capable not only of listening to people, but also of bringing to the table what these voices have to say.

Dialogue with residents can be marked by demands, objections and criticisms. These conversations expose their problems: they may be dissatisfied with the gentrification of spaces, concerned about the impact of these changes and troubled by the inefficiency of the public sector in meeting local needs. As a result, unfortunately, municipal administrations typically avoid these conversations because they don’t want to open that can of worms. But the fact is: if what people say is heard and considered in the planning and management processes, the results will always be better and more solid than they would without this dialogue.

This text was adapted from the article “Talking Architecture with Strangers,” by Daisy Found, published in the compilation “Making Good – Shaping Places for People,” produced by Center for London and available here.

Originally published in Portuguese on TheCityFix Brasil

Toward Car-Free Cities: Stockholm Shows the Sometimes-Bumpy Road to Congestion Charges

Wed, 2017-06-21 09:31

A congestion charge system in Stockholm has helped lower traffic volume and pollution, but hasn’t been without controversy. Photo by Susanne Nilsson / Flickr 

Toward Car-Free Cities,” a blog series by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities’ Urban Mobility Team, explores the challenges and opportunities for Transport Demand Management (TDM) strategies. TDM focuses on reducing the demand for private vehicles through combining public policy and private sector solutions. It is an essential component for comprehensive sustainable transport planning that complements public transit, walking and biking.

Through the different lenses of New York CityBogotá, Stockholm and London, the series examines the social and political barriers that cities need to overcome to successfully implement TDM strategies. The blog series also discusses the future trends of TDM and its implications, particularly in the developing world.

Like many cities that have introduced or tried to introduce a congestion charge, there was initially widespread resistance to the idea in Stockholm. The system consists of 18 tolls at access points around the central city, active between 6:00 a.m. and 6:29 p.m., Monday through Friday, which charge varying fees to incentivize public transport – or at least not car use – during peak hours. The highest fees are during commuting hours, when tolls can triple from 10 to 30 Swedish krona ($1.14-3.43).

Before a six-month trial began in January 2006, the project was supported by only 36 percent of city residents. Complicating things was that infrastructure cannot be charged in Sweden, only taxed, meaning all revenue would flow to the national government which would also control the project design. Opponents therefore linked the charge to “existing negative attitudes to taxes, inequity, restricting freedom and mobility, public interventions and national interference in regional matters,” according to Jonas Eliasson of the Stockholm-based Center for Transport Studies.

But, as has been seen among other cities that have implemented congestion charges, something happened after the scheme entered into effect: people started to see the benefits.

An S-Shaped Curve

In July 2006, after the initial trial was completed, a referendum held in Stockholm and several surrounding communities found 53 percent of voters supported reintroducing the congestion charge. Since the referendum, support has continued to increase: a 2007 poll showed 66 percent support, and in 2013 there was over 70 percent support among Stockholm residents.

Similar shifts in public support have been seen in other cities implementing congestion charges, like London. Phil Goodwin of the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory suggests a S-shaped “gestation process” may be typical for road pricing schemes, where public opinion sours on the idea in the lead up to the start of the trial but gradually rises after.

Goodwin’s S-shaped “gestation process” for road pricing schemes. Source: Goodwin (2006).


There are a number of explanations for this change in public attitude, but Maria Börjesson et al. point to the following key points:

  1. Surprising Benefits

    Many residents were initially against the charge in Stockholm because they did not think there would be significant outcomes. During the trial period, however, traffic declined 21 percent compared to average volumes before the charge; five years later it was still down 20 percent, despite an increasing population. In addition to a decrease in traffic volume, 24 percent of commuting trips flipped from cars to transit, and commercial traffic decreased by 15 percent. The large reduction in traffic volume also led to reductions in vehicle emissions in the inner city by 10-15 percent (depending on the pollutant type), as well as increased traffic safety.

  2. Minimal Negative Effects

    Many residents were concerned about a plethora of negative impacts: being priced out of using the roads, being forced to change their travel behavior, overcrowded public transit and/or simply displacing congestion to other areas that were unaffected by the charge. Instead, they discovered that the changes were not as bad as they had expected, traffic volumes and congestion decreased and the public transit network was not overburdened by the increase in ridership.

  3. Familiarity

    Familiarity breeds acceptability. As people got used to being charged, they became less opposed to the idea of paying for a good that used to be free. It was, in fact, not just the public but also politicians who changed their attitudes and began to embrace the benefits of the congestion charge.

Traffic volume in Stockholm declined and has remained below pre-congestion-charge averages even as population increases. 2006b and 2007a mark the time between the end of the trial period (July 2006) and beginning of the official implementation of charging scheme (August 2007). Source: WRI (2017).

Achieving Political Support

While public and political attitudes are related, public approval is neither a sufficient nor necessary condition for political support, a fact that is well highlighted in New York City’s failure to implement congestion charging. Essentially, political support in Stockholm was garnered through what was called the Cederschiöld Agreement, a deal between various local and national stakeholders that ensures revenues from the charge are integrated into national investment planning processes. This provided both local and regional politicians with considerable control over the usage of the revenues and soothed fears that the national government might use the program’s success as an excuse to redirect infrastructure funds elsewhere.

The success of congestion charging in Stockholm has led to further experimentation. Since 2016, charges were raised for vehicles entering the inner city, while new charges were introduced for the Essingeleden motorway, the major artery around the city and the busiest road in the country. Preliminary results show a reduction in traffic congestions after the new charges. Sweden’s second-largest city, Gothenburg, also implemented a similar scheme in 2013.

The Stockholm case shows that public and political support can shift dramatically once people experience the actual effects of congestion charging. Eleven years later, the precarious trial has blossomed into a major component of city’s transport system.

Public Spaces: The Economic and Symbolic Value

Thu, 2017-06-15 19:23

Cities depend on each street and park to be a place that people want to be. Photo by La Citta Vita / Flickr

Our impressions of a city are formed mainly by the quality of public spaces. If they are not pleasant and preserved, or if they transmit a sense of insecurity, we will seldom return. Good planning of these spaces should be the rule, not the exception. In the series “Public Spaces,” we explore different aspects related to public spaces that determine our daily experience in cities. In this second post, we discuss the relationship between public spaces and their symbolic and real estate value.

Streets are the face of a city. They are  where everything happens, and where the community lives together. Along with them, parks and plazas transform urban life in terms of well-being and health of the population. The quality of these public spaces alter the value of land around them, promoting a series of social and economic impacts. People are attracted to places where they feel comfortable and with a sense of belonging. Business investments are also attracted by well-structured, well-maintained and well-administered sites. A city that seeks to enhance quality of life and, at the same time, the increase global competitiveness, needs to be attentive to the trends of the urban agenda. The need to create vibrant, healthy communities and prioritize sustainable transport leads cities to rethink and redesign its streets for a future where public space and residents are treated as a priority in urban planning.

The character of a place is defined by two main elements: location and context. The first is usually assessed according to the real estate value of the site and the income level of the population that lives there. The second refers to socio-economic issues and the multiple factors that define how neighborhoods operate.

An important element that adds to the complexity of the real estate market depends on how sites can be subject to different land uses. Old theories assumed that “a straight line” away from the city center could explain the cost of transport and that this, in turn, explained the distribution of land use in the city. However, today it is known that correlations between spatial configuration, functional land use and traffic and occupancy standards—and their direct relationship with the social, cultural and economic aspects of a city—influence the evolution of land-use over time.

The concept of placemaking adds to the debate on land value. This refers to the process of planning quality public spaces that contribute to the local community and is an essential aspect of creating local identities. By nature, real estate value refers to the value of the land. The implementation or upgrading of public spaces (parks or street space itself), has the potential to influence the dynamics of the real estate market in the region. The renovation of these spaces therefore aims to improve residents’ quality of life and attract new economic activities.

Open spaces, living spaces. Photo by Patrik Nygren / Flickr

The idea of public spaces and their associated value can vary greatly between the city center and the urban periphery. The very use of streets in residential areas, where human interactions naturally occur, differs from the central areas. Even the simplest urban space can have great symbolic importance for people.

Public spaces can create bonds between individuals from completely different backgrounds, but that pass through the same areas. Bill Hiller, Professor of Architecture and Urban Morphology at the University of London, suggests that these interactions in public spaces create a “virtual community,” which is noticed when the co-presence leads to interactions, communications and transactions.

The symbolic relevance of the site can also influence the real estate value of its surroundings. Remember that when we talk about public spaces, we are also including sidewalks, bike paths and access to transportation. For example, access to active modes of transport is a strong factor in the housing market. In a study, Fábio Tieppo mapped buildings close to the bike paths in São Paulo and saw that they had high land value. As he moved move further from the bike paths, however, he saw that property value quickly declined. In addition to access to active modes of transport, several studies also point to walkability as an important factor of urban real estate appreciation.

Sidewalks, bike paths, parks and squares are all locations of vital importance for life in the city. The relationship between residents and these spaces (and each other) must be preserved. As cities continue to grow, these spaces, and their economic, social and symbolic value, should always be at the forefront of urban planning.

This text was adapted from the article “Finding the value of urban space,” by Alan Penn, published in the collection “Making good – shaping places for people,” produced by the Center for London and available here .

Laura Azeredo and Lara Caccia contributed to this post.

Originally published in Portuguese on TheCityFix Brasil

Public Spaces: 10 Principles for Connecting People and the Streets

Fri, 2017-06-09 19:27

Public spaces have the power to connect people and cities. Image from Car Free NYC on Earth Day 2017. Photo by New York City Department of Transportation / Flickr

Our impressions of a city are formed mainly by the quality of public spaces. If they are not pleasant and preserved or, if they transmit a sense of insecurity, we will seldom return. Good planning of these spaces should be the rule, not the exception. In the series “Public Spaces,” we explore different aspects related to public spaces that determine our daily experience in cities.

Among city buildings, there is a network of spaces that create and strengthen connections at different levels of influence. In a book, they would be between the lines: the implicit meaning between concrete. Public spaces, which fill the urban gaps with life, are directly associated with the construction of what we call a city and influence the relationships that are created within them.

“When we refer to the streets and other public spaces of a city, we are actually talking about the city’s own identity. It is in these spaces that human exchanges and relationships, the diversity of use and the vocation of each place and the conflicts and contradictions of society are manifested,” explains Lara Caccia, Urban Development Specialist at WRI Brasil Cidades Sustentáveis, in her dissertation Urban mobility: public policies and the appropriation of space in Brazilian cities.

Public areas shape community ties in neighborhoods. They are places of encounter and can facilitate political mobilization, stimulate actions and help prevent crime. They are environments for interaction and exchange of ideas that impact the quality of the urban environment. While not considered “public spaces,” cafes, bookstores and bars have similar impacts. Public spaces also present health benefits, both physical and mental: people feel better and tend to be more active in attractive, public spaces.

Children play in a public space event in São Paulo, Brazil. Photo by Victor Moriyama / WRI Brasil Cidades Sustentáveis / Flickr

It is possible to go even deeper and relate the presence and planning of public spaces with democratic values. The culture of a place, its structure and social hierarchy reflect the way common spaces are planned, controlled and used. As Ben Rogers points out, the more diverse and lively urban spaces are, the more equal, prosperous and democratic society becomes. This assertion is based on the very definition of public space: an open, freely accessible and democratic environment.

A good public space is one that reflects diversity and encourages people to live together effortlessly, creating the necessary conditions for permanence, which invites people to be on the street. It is the vitality of spaces that attracts people. What guarantees this vitality is the possibility of enjoying urban spaces in various ways. Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people create and maintain public spaces. PPS discusses The Power of 10: a good public space needs to present at least ten possibilities. This includes different things people can do in it, and ten reasons to be there. Without the ten things, these areas become places of passage where people do not want to be for the simple fact that there is nothing that makes them stay. “The existence of quality and usable public spaces, with greater urban vitality, will increase the perception of security and democratization of these spaces,” says Lara.

Public spaces that encourage people to stay and coexist help make streets safer. Photo by New York City Department of Transportation / Flickr

It is a two-way street: people will be on the street if they feel safe and the street will be a safer environment the more people use them. Below, we present ten principles that should be considered for a high-quality public space. The elements relate with each other – active facades and constructions on the human scale, for example, are directly related to the promotion of the local economy. It is the combination between them that will ensure accessible, equitable and safe spaces for people.

1. Diversity of uses: Blending residential, office and commercial areas, such as bars, restaurants, cafes and local commerce, attracts people and makes the environment safer and friendlier. The diversity of uses generates external activities that contribute to the safety of spaces: more people on the streets helps to inhibit crime. This diversity, however, needs to cover all times of day. If the spaces are inviting and only busy during the day, they will still be unsafe places at night. Planning public spaces in a way that encourages the coexistence and the permanence of people is also a way of investing in security.

2. Active facades: Connection between the ground level of the buildings, the sidewalk and the street contributes to safety and the attractiveness of urban design. Visually more interesting streets are used more often by people. In addition, this relationship influences people’s perception of the city and how they are to use it: Jane Jacobs says that it is mainly streets and sidewalks that indicate how public space is perceived and used.

3. Social dimension and urban vitality: As an aggregator of people, public space has influence over the social dimension. Wide, accessible streets, squares, parks, sidewalks, bike paths and urban furniture stimulate interaction between people and the environment, generate a positive use of space and increase urban vitality. In addition to focusing on high-denisty, urban areas, it is crucial to consider the peripheries, guaranteeing quality public spaces to the population that does not live in the city center.

4. Human scale: High-scale, high-denisty construction can negatively affect people’s health. In his field studies, Jan Gehl noted that people tend to walk faster when passing empty or inactive areas, in contrast to the slower, quieter pace of walking in livelier, more active environments. Human-scale constructions have a positive effect on people’s perceptions of public spaces: they feel that they were considered in the planning process of that space.

Active neighborhoods and buildings encourage the use of public spaces. Photo by WRI Brasil Cidades Sustentáveis / Flickr

5. Lighting: Efficient and people-oriented lighting facilitates the occupancy of public spaces at night, enhancing safety. When installed on the pedestrian and cyclist scale, public lighting creates the necessary conditions to move more safely when there is no natural light.

6. Stimulating the local economy: Quality public spaces not only benefit people by offering leisure and living areas, but they also have the potential to boost the local economy. The safe and attractive conditions foster walking and cycling, leading to easy access of local commerce.

7. Local identity: Public spaces should be planned for the small businesses that characterize the neighborhood. Large enterprises (such as supermarkets or other chain companies) can contribute to the economy in general, but they have little participation in the scale of the neighborhood. Small businesses and ventures have significant long-term impacts, as well as add to the personality and identity of the place. When planning a public space it is necessary to take into account the social dynamics and cultural specificities of the area, in order to generate a strong relationship between people and place.

Considering local identity is important for people to take ownership of public spaces. Photo by Otávio Almeida / Flickr

8. Complete streets: Wherever possible, public areas should be thought of following the principles of Complete Streets and “shared spaces.” The Complete Streets concept defines streets designed to ensure the safe circulation of all users—pedestrians, cyclists, drivers and users of public transport. Sidewalks in good condition, infrastructure for bicycles, street furniture and signage for all users are among the elements that can compose a complete street.

9. Green areas: In addition to contributing to air quality and helping to ease temperatures in the summer, vegetation has the power to humanize cities by attracting people to outdoor activities. As cities become denser, access to green public spaces will become even more important as urban forestation can lower people’s stress levels and enhance well-being in cities. In addition, trees, plants and flowerbeds are strategic for urban drainage and maintenance of biodiversity.

10. Social participation: Involving residents in the design, planning and administration of urban public spaces or the neighborhoods in which they live is essential to maintain the quality of these spaces. Public spaces have different uses and meanings in each neighborhood and community. Resident involvement ensures that the nature and use of public space will meet the community’s distinct needs. If a space does not reflect the demands and desires of the local population, it will not be used or maintained. Social participation is a central element for the construction of safer, equitable public areas.

The way we live in cities is reconfigured every day, through the transformation of society and the emergence of new policies, technologies and alternative transportation options. Urbanization, densification and high motorization rates create planning challenges and instigate cities to think about new development models. In the midst of constant transformation, however, the importance of public spaces for quality of life remains constant. They continue to be spaces for exchange, coexistence and meetings. They continue to be vital for urban well-being. Beyond the walls that surround us, on the street is where life happens.

This text was adapted from the article “In Defense of the Street: 10 Principles for Public Spaces,” by Ben Rogers, published in the compilation “Making good – shaping places for people,” produced by the Center for London and available here.

Laura Azeredo and Lara Caccia contributed to this post.

Originally published in Portuguese on TheCityFix Brasil

Real Estate Regulation Act: A Potential Opportunity for Transit-Oriented Development

Thu, 2017-06-08 19:01

Photo by Prerna Mehta/WRI India

The real estate sector is one of the largest contributors to India’s GDP, and it is expected to grow by 30 percent over the next decade. However, it is also considered the “most ambiguous sector to transact under,” with insufficient regulations leading to numerous cases of consumer-developer conflicts and project delays.

After eight years of deliberation to streamline such irregularities, the landmark Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act (RERA), which was notified by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation in 2016, became fully operational on May 1, 2017.

This Central Act has made it mandatory for states and Union Territories (UTs) to establish their own Regulatory Authority (RA) and appellate tribunals which would enforce the provisions under the Act.

By acting as an umbrella regulatory authority and bringing in accountability from states and UTs, RERA seeks to bring transparency in the real estate sector, safeguarding the interests of home buyers and improving financing opportunities for builders and developers.

In February 2017, the Government of India’s Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) also announced the formulation of the National Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Policy. This policy looks at integrating land use and transport infrastructure to develop planned, sustainable urban growth centers. For instance, walkable and livable communes with high-density mixed land-use around transit corridors like the metros, monorail and bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors, are currently being constructed on a large scale.

Incidentally, these two forward-thinking policies share common ground – while RERA strives to reform the realty sector, TOD holds the potential to create synergies that eventually lead to sustainable cities with higher densities, increased economic activity and better public spaces. Hence, there lies an opportunity to integrate the two policies, by offering special status to TOD within RERA, paving the way to build compact, connected and equitable cities.

Addressing the TOD Link

In its essence, RERA is indeed a necessary intervention to organize the real estate sector and protect consumer interests. RERA will bring under its domain all projects qualifying as real estate and projects that have real estate as a component.

While complying with the provisions of RERA might lead to a temporary increase in property prices, proactive interventions like the government’s announcement in the Union Budget 2017, to award infrastructure status to affordable housing, will pave way for low-cost finances and increased investment in the sector. If the market has sufficient housing options to choose from, the sector is likely to break even and standardize housing costs for the future. Also, the Act is expected to reduce delays in projects through a single window clearance system.

However, the Act falls short on various counts. To begin with, the overarching guidelines specified in the Act makes no mention of TOD, a prime agenda of the MoUD. With a strong real estate component, one assumes that projects under TOD will have to adhere to RERA, leading to several concerns:

1) While single window clearances are targeted at reducing delays, the Act does not specify the list of approvals that can be sought through this system or its process. Typically, single window clearances do not take into account environmental impact assessments, fire department clearances and so on. Development projects are often held up for years due to lengthy approval processes, and if state-specific procedures are not clarified, it could lead to further delays and confusions.

2) The Act prohibits marketing strategies like pre-launch, that were earlier employed by developers to obtain the initial capital required for a real estate project. Instead, through a fund-channeling mechanism for project development, the Act guards the timely delivery commitment. In such a situation, developers will have to look for alternative sources of funding and financing including their own body. Such prohibitions could be especially detrimental for a new and progressive urban growth strategy like TOD.

3) With a process-oriented approach, RERA can ensure and eventually increase the possibility of obtaining funds for real estate projects. But comprehensive TOD projects, which aim for an infrastructural augmentation of an entire area along with a real estate component catering to a wide variety of users, might suffer for want of funds. This could have a negative impact on the implementation of TOD projects, especially in retrofit situations and at a corridor level.

A Way Forward

If TOD is given a special area status, it will formalize not just the workings of the real estate sector but also its associated infrastructure. By bringing in station area developments within its domain, RERA and TOD can go hand-in-hand, leading to comprehensive development. Regularization of the real estate sector could also benefit TOD projects in terms of procuring finances, streamlining land acquisition processes and timely delivery, thereby making it easier to launch and showcase them. As of today, several states are still in the process of finalizing their RERA rules, giving the concerned state governments an opportunity to incorporate TOD into RERA. This would give a huge impetus to operationalize TOD in Indian cities.

Originally published on WRI India, with inputs from Jaya Dhindaw, Sreekumar Kumaraswamy and Himadri Das

What About the People? Unlocking the Key to Socially Sustainable and Resilient Communities

Tue, 2017-06-06 19:46

Children play in flood waters after torrential rains in Kampung Melayu, Jakarta. Photo by Kate Lamb, Freelance journalist

Rapid urbanization, economic growth and climate change are putting increasing pressure on urban communities around the world. While strong physical structures are important, social relationships play a key role in determining urban communities’ resilience during adverse weather events.

Community resilience is influenced by the strength of neighborhood social networks and cohesion, two features that determine a community’s social sustainability (its viability, health and functioning). Interacting, getting along—with or in spite of social or ethnic differences—and collaborating on group initiatives help sustain communities in ordinary times and respond resiliently during times of crisis. These social factors can improve residents’ health, well-being, daily quality of life and collective capacity to cope with, and adapt to, disasters.

Built environments that promote social interaction can contribute to socially sustainable, resilient communities. City policy makers, planners and designers can adopt “socially-aware planning:” the intention to promote positive social interaction and social impacts through the mindful planning, designing, construction and management of cities.

Urban development projects and built structures, such as housing, public spaces and transit stops, can influence people to think and behave in ways that are indicative of strong networks and cohesion. Psychologists label these behaviors, thoughts and feelings “pro-community,” meaning that they benefit their communities. An action as simple as greeting neighbors regularly means that during a crisis, the lines of communication are already open. A new report—What about the people? The socially sustainable, resilient community and urban development by Cathy Baldwin and Robin King— uses case studies to explore how built environments influence pro-community behaviors, thoughts and feelings, evaluating their impact on community resilience. We discuss three here:

1.  Neighborhood Co-Design Projects Foster Socially Sustainable Communities 

Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Stalls beside Khayelitsha Metrorail station. Photo by Stokperdjie

Two crucial elementsurban form and community participation in urban developmenthave the greatest influence on community behavior, thoughts and feelings.

In Khayelitsha, a township in Cape Town, South Africa, the Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading Programme (VPUU), has transformed its previously rundown and dangerous streets into a safer, vibrant and more attractive place. Through a survey and interactive events, residents and professionals co-identified crime-related problems, community needs and organizational patterns in urban spaces. To deter crime in these locations, residents helped implement new features, including paved pedestrian walkways and street lighting, providing “safe routes” through dense informal settlements. These new features made the community safer. In fact, the murder rate dropped by 39 percent between 2003 and 2010, the highest in a low-income community. Additional positive social impacts include employment opportunities for residents and trauma counselling for women. These solutions foster positive community behaviors such as collaboration and feelings of pride and safety.

2.  Communities Experience Measurable Positive Social and Psychological Effects

Residents restore neighborhood squares in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Jan Semenza

Residents restore neighborhood squares in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Jan Semenza

While the Khayelitsha project provided distinctive social and economic benefits, a co-design project in Portland, Oregon, identified quantifiable clinical health benefits. The community conceived, designed, permitted and constructed three neighborhood pedestrianized squares with the objectives of improving participants’ social networks and mental wellbeing. With support from urban development professionals, residents implemented features such as community-designed street murals, benches, planter boxes, information kiosks with bulletin boards and hanging gardens. Psychologists systematically surveyed 265 participants before and after the intervention within a two-block radius of the sites. They measured mental health, sense of community, community capacity and social networks and recorded improvements seen through community empowerment, participation and collective action.

3.  Built Environments Influence Community Behavior Before and During Disasters

In many informal settlements, such as in Surat, India, community resilience is inhibited by poverty, low-quality built structures and exclusion from city government disaster planning. Including these communities in neighborhood management is the most immediate factor to address.

Where residents have strong networks but are vulnerable to, for example, flooding, resettlement requires a nuanced understanding of the social relationships and organizational strategies that enable resilience. In Jakarta, Indonesia, the diverse residents of riverside neighborhoods (kampungs) have strong social networks and cohesion, partially due to the close proximity of low-quality housing, and formal organizations that enforce participation in neighborhood cleaning (kerja bakti) and security systems (ronda).

The kampung of Manggarai, Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo by Mario Wilhelm

During floods, residents use their informal communications networks as a warning system, pooling resources and participating in clean-up activities. Despite attempted relocation, some kampung residents may return to their original dwellings if their networks and support systems are not also transferred. Adequate housing is an urgent priority, but, before relocating populations, planners must research the spatial and organizational features of neighborhoods to maintain social communities.

Designing for Social Networks and Cohesion Is the Crux of Community Resilience

By examining urban development and disasters across 12 countries, the report reveals the behaviors and feelings that stem from social networks and cohesion, emerge under the influence of urban form and community participation and are common to communities that are both socially sustainable and resilient:

  • Feeling connected and emotionally attached to neighborhood and community
  • Feeling safe and secure
  • Monitoring the neighborhood
  • Residing long-term
  • Regularly interacting with neighbors and participating in events
  • Being socially cohesive
  • Having community spirit
  • Having a voice and influence in neighborhood planning and governance

Projects involved different creative steps to influence these behaviors, which urban planners can tap into for implementing socially-aware planning:

  1. Incorporate clear social objectives into planning
  2. Conduct social research to understand the local interpretation of the urban landscape, and document communities’ social needs and strengths
  3. Employ democratic and inclusive community engagement and participation
  4. Match the evidence of communities’ needs and strengths with sensitive planning and design decisions
  5. Allow communities to co-design, implement, construct and manage spaces and infrastructure
  6. Create off-shoot community and economic development opportunities
  7. Include communities in ongoing monitoring and evaluation, ensure social objectives are honored and generate future learning

Government sustainability and resilience plans tend to prioritize the “hardware” of cities, but change is needed. Adopting the socially-aware planning process will make cities more robust and responsive to the needs of their residents. The report offers a global perspective and evidence from 12 countries to show its’ relevance and applicability everywhere. As adverse weather event events increase, people, as well as the planet, must be protected.

The report is available through Oxford Brookes University


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