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Good ideas that get cities results are worth replicating. Sounds simple enough. But when it comes to scaling up and investing in sustainable urban solutions, it’s complicated.
With more than 400 cities making commitments to climate action through the Compact of Mayors, the world made significant progress at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) last year in Paris. Now that the negotiations are over and the commitments have been made, we face the challenge of financing and implementing sustainable urban projects that will improve the quality of life for residents and turn this collective vision into a reality.
WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, C40 and the Citi Foundation are partnering together to help cities around the world accelerate the implementation of low-carbon urban solutions. By drawing on WRI’s on-the-ground knowledge, C40’s unique network of global city leaders and the Citi Foundation’s agenda for urban economic progress, the Financing Sustainable Cities Initiative is developing new approaches to overcoming what is commonly, but mistakenly, seen as simply a financing gap.
Recent economic research estimates a US $4.1 to 4.3 trillion annual investment gap between the urban infrastructure we have and the amount we need. According to the traditional narrative, there is simply insufficient supply and financial appetite for sustainable urban projects. However, the situation is much more complex. Demand for sustainable solutions is growing, and investor appetite for new markets and non-traditional assets is increasing as well. So why is funding for sustainable urban projects often stuck at an impasse?
What really seems to be happening here is that these two sides are talking past each other. On the one hand, cities claim there is a lack of available financing for their projects. On the other hand, capital providers say that there isn’t a robust enough pipeline of viable, bankable projects. Without a common language and a forum for cities, service providers and capital providers to engage with one another in productive dialogue, potential projects become stalled during the idea phase, reinforcing the belief that there is a lack of financing or bankable urban projects.
Fortunately, we know that there are already a number of successful projects around the world that are delivering, funding and financing leading sustainable solutions in innovative ways. From on-demand rickshaws in Bangalore to energy efficient public lighting in Rio de Janeiro, this kind of innovation is the result of service providers, capital providers and cities talking with one another about technical and financial options that are available. Often, key players in the sector simply don’t know how public-private partnerships can help or how new financial products can provide alternative sources of investment. A process that is collaborative from the beginning is more likely to find innovative solutions to complex local challenges.
Bogotá’s Transmilenio bus rapid transit (BRT) system, for example, shows how capital providers and city planners were able to finance and implement a low-carbon project at an unprecedented scale. Since 2000, TransMilenio has grown from 14km to 112km of dedicated bus lanes that now carry 2 million passengers per day. By successfully aligning all stakeholders early, Transmilenio adopted a business model that drew investment from local sources and established a public-private partnership to manage operations. With integrated, collaborative planning and all sectors taking part in financing and implementing the BRT project, Bogotá has become healthier and more sustainable in the long term. The Colombian capital is proof that potentially game-changing solutions exist. However, cities need the mechanisms to explore flexible business models that take into account their unique needs.
Creating a global environment that is conducive to investment in sustainable urban projects will require close collaboration and open dialogue between cities, technology providers and capital providers. The Financing Sustainable Cities Initiative—which consists of a learning community, technical assistance, and a web-based engagement platform—is designed to help city decision-makers, financiers and technical experts better understand their choices and work with one another strategically. By facilitating knowledge sharing and best practice, and creating a space for innovation, the partnership between WRI, C40 and the Citi Foundation is helping to foster a conversation today for the thriving, sustainable cities of tomorrow.
Last December, Beijing’s city government issued a “red alert” for smog levels—the highest possible designation. Schools and construction sites closed, traffic was restricted, and air pollution reached 10 times the World Health Organization’s recommended limit. Meanwhile, residents in neighboring cities went about their daily routines despite air quality ratings up to three times worse than Beijing’s, and coal-burning factories continued to run.
Devastating smog is a too-frequent occurrence in Beijing and across northern China—and an acute reminder of the dangers of China’s rampant coal use. The national government has committed to peak its emissions before 2030 and increase the share of non-fossil fuel energy sources to 20 percent of the national energy supply by 2030. It’s currently pursuing a portfolio of emissions-savings technologies to achieve these goals and shift away from fossil fuels like coal.
One unexpected place where China has a major opportunity to reduce energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions is through its wastewater treatment systems. Bioenergy wastewater treatment plant technology can both reduce China’s emissions and improve water quality, and the country is beginning to invest in this approach in a significant way.
This World Water Day, we’re highlighting this world-class example of technological innovation, environmental sustainability and sound economics aligning at the nexus of water, cities and energy. Bioenergy, or “sludge-to-power” treatment, is a solution that should continue to be a part of China’s emissions-reducing strategies—and an example for other cities around the world.How Sludge-to-Power Works
Bioenergy plants work by converting the organic matter, or “sludge,” left over from treated sewage into electricity. The plant heats the solid waste, then employs microbes to digest it, which produce methane. The plant then burns that methane to generate power for water treatment. Excess methane can generate electricity for the facility, or power cars as a substitute for compressed natural gas (CNG). Leftover solid waste is sterilized, and can be used as fertilizer for certain types of crops. Other sludge-energy byproducts – called biochar – can be used to grow potted trees on landfill sites to restore landscapes or on city streets to help lower temperatures and improve air quality.
A WRI study recently analyzed the potential for sludge-to-energy systems in Xiangyang, China. After examining nutrient recovery, energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, reclaimed methane and cost of sludge disposal systems, we found that sludge-to-energy systems can make a positive environmental impact. They reduce solid wastes, greenhouse gases and water pollution, all while saving money. Selling fertilizer, biochar and even extra energy back to the grid can create new revenue for a wastewater treatment plant.
City managers should start to see sludge as a resource, rather than as a waste product, that they can incorporate into low-carbon development plans. This is particularly important because China’s wastewater treatment plants produce 30 million tons of sludge per year that must otherwise be hauled away by truck and disposed of. Bioenenergy systems not only reduce those tons of solid waste that are usually spread on the land or in landfills, polluting streams and groundwater, they also reduce the greenhouse gases and other environmental impacts associated with thousands of truck trips to and from treatment plants.A Growing Popularity in China
The idea is starting to take off in China. WRI’s study gave China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development science-based confidence to promote sludge-to-energy systems in other cities. A ministry official presented the benefits of sludge-to-energy systems at several major events in 2015 and early 2016 to audiences from wastewater and sludge management agencies, private companies from China and the United States, as well as international bilateral organizations. Last May, WRI hosted Chinese government officials from Beijing and other Chinese cities at DC Water’s Blue Plains sewage treatment plant in Washington, D.C. the first in North America to use an advanced Norwegian bioenergy system that is compact enough to fit in relatively cramped urban plants.
As a result of these and other efforts, four large cities in China—Beijing, Changsha, Chengdu and Hefei—began installing or are planning sludge-to-energy systems. Chengdu included five plants in its latest Five-Year Plan.
Based on WRI estimates, these plants collectively can help reduce 700,000 tons of emissions per year, comparable to one-third of the emissions produced each day by all the cars on U.S. roads. This relatively small contribution leaves plenty of room for improvement. Wastewater treatment in China produced more than 30 million tons of sludge in 2015. If 10 percent of that sludge was treated in a sludge-to-energy facility, the emissions reduction could reach 380 million tons of CO2/year, roughly equal to Ukraine’s emissions in 2012.
Additionally, the plants are expected to produce nearly 40 million cubic meters of compressed natural gas for taxis and city buses—enough to fill the tanks of 2 million taxis—while also powering the sludge disposal systems themselves.
These pioneering cities should be commended for their vision and investments, but many more lag far behind. WRI is now working with the World Bank and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to promote sludge-to-energy in other places around the world. Turning sewage into power is a win for everyone involved, and presents an opportunity for hundreds of other cities.
While the words “forests” and “cities” don’t traditionally go hand in hand, urban forestry has started to bridge that gap. While some cities have minimal tree cover due to inadequate soil or a lack of space, others are nearly half covered by these leafy, carbon-storage machines. Additionally, in recent decades, cities around the world have started to think about urban forests and their benefits as the need for climate change mitigation has increased. On the whole, trees improve the quality of life for the millions who live and work in urban areas by filtering polluted air, reducing smog formation, preventing erosion and cleaning up contaminated land, supporting local wildlife, and sheltering buildings from heat and cold—saving up to 10 percent of the energy needed to regulate a building’s temperature.
On this International Day of Forests, here’s a look at three cities that have taken urban forestry to the next level:Tokyo, Japan
After the city was bombed during World War II, the number of trees on Tokyo’s streets fell from 105,000 to 42,000—nearly 60 percent. In the years following, the city lost another 35,000 due to disease and as many were cut for firewood. Fire from the bombings destroyed much of Tokyo’s forest cover in addition to decimating street trees, creating large empty parcels of land as well.
In 1946, the city created a plan to secure 10 percent of urban lands for green areas and turn the barren parcels of land into urban parks. Beginning in 1948, the city started restoring street trees as well when new supplies of trees became available from nurseries. By 1980, the number of street trees exceeded 235,000.
As of 1990, 21,630 hectares of Tokyo’s green space is made up of forest, meant to help conserve water—one of the many benefits of tress for the natural environment. Tokyo’s urban forests and trees have also helped to supply the city with clean drinking water, a system of wastewater disposal and storm water control.Belfast, Northern Ireland
Ireland is called the “Emerald Isle” for the large amount of green space in its countryside, and it should come as no surprise that the same can be said for its cities. Formed in 1992, the Forest of Belfast in Northern Ireland includes all of Belfast City. Since the end of the Troubles in 1998, nearly 200,000 trees have been planted across parks, playing fields, streets, schools, factories, and along streets and river banks.
The Forest of Belfast’s management has brought together partners from local and central governments, environmental organizations and local citizens who become volunteer Tree Wardens. With the help of the Belfast City Council, support from European funding aimed at promoting peace and reconciliation has allowed the partnership to help 300 groups plant 90,000 trees in the last three years alone.
Until recently, the perception of forests in much of the United Kingdom has been that the “woods” are out in the countryside and are meant to provide habitat for wildlife and act as a means of timber production—and that cities have trees only for aesthetic beauty. There is now growing recognition that trees can provide a whole range of benefits to cities, thanks to the Forest of Belfast.Washington, DC
The District of Columbia has a long history of planning, enhancing and maintaining its urban forest. Beginning in 1872, Governor Alexander Shepherd ordered that 60,000 street trees be planted systematically to “improve the quality of life in the Nation’s capital.” Because of his actions, DC’s unofficial title became The City of Trees.
An 1889 Harper’s Magazine article even proclaimed “The city of Washington, the capital of the nation, exceeds in beauty any city of the world…. But above all, its magnificent trees, make it without peer.”
Since then, there has been a municipal agency responsible for tree maintenance across the city. As of today, DC’s urban tree canopy hovers near 35 percent, with nearly 2 million trees across the city. These trees remove 540 tons of pollution per year, store 526,000 tons of carbon and reduce the cost of energy usage in buildings by $2.6 million per year—resulting in an estimated $96,000 in avoided carbon emissions.A Future of Urban Forests
So, city dwellers, let’s begin thinking of ways to better incorporate these trees and forests into our daily lives. While moving out to the country may have been the way to connect with nature’s benefits in the past, it’s not the only solution now.
Cities across the world are harnessing the power of technology to connect directly with citizens about pressing issues, from infrastructure planning to questions about how to spend their budgets. Now, transportation planners are getting in on the game in order to capitalize on the information that people have on their phones.
In contrast with cities in North America and Europe, bus systems in many cities around the world often rely on a mix between formalized public transport systems and informal networks of small, privately owned vehicles. Drivers of these small vehicle rely on receiving as many fares as possible in a day and, as a result, sometimes face complex incentives to provide faulty service. Attempting to reorganize bus systems can cause mass protests, as Quito, Santiago and other cities have learned.
However, some cities are experimenting with technology to make chaotic transport systems work better for people. Here are three cities using mobile apps to crowdsource information from people to help bring order to their public transport systems.Mapathon – Mexico City, Mexico
Despite recent interventions to organize its bus system, residents of Mexico City still rely on small, private buses called peseros for 60 percent of trips by public transport. Routes are unmapped, causing city officials to recommend that uninitiated visitors avoid using them.
In an effort to make some sense of these routes, fourteen organizations—including EMBARQ Mexico—joined forces to plan Mapathon CDMX, a gamified scavenger hunt to map these routes. From January 29 – February 14, 2016, over 3,500 people each downloaded the app and traveled the city’s buses, earning prizes for distance travelled as well as for taking routes with smaller percentages of passengers using smartphones. Data created by the mapathon will be publicly released and a hackathon is already in the works in the hopes that people will create apps and visualizations around the data that might just make Mexico’s buses a little more user-friendly.Tramicida – La Paz, Bolivia
The streets of La Paz are dense, with upwards of 17,000 public buses of various types carrying only between 7 and 14 passengers on average. The result is a system of intense competition between bus drivers to travel only on the most profitable routes, fighting for passengers. Drivers often do not finish their routes or require passengers to pay an additional fee to get to their desired destination—what is locally termed trameaje.
In response, the government of Mayor Luis Revilla instituted in February a number of policies aimed at improving bus drivers’ behavior. They developed the app Tramicida—or “Route-icide,” which relies on riders to report when bus drivers fail to finish their route, charge too much or have an unclean bus. Citizens can take photos of the license plates and submit their complaints anonymously.
(App photo by Gobierno Autónomo Municipal de La Paz)Findmyway – Cape Town, South Africa
Private developers at WhereIsMyTransport? have been working directly with Transport for Cape Town (TCT) to develop a multimodal journey planning app that helps passengers navigate across the bus and rail systems. At the same time, it funnels (anonymized) data back to the local transport authorities that they can then use for planning purposes. While the app does not yet cover the informal minibus system, the developers are aiming to expand to these soon.
Users of the app also send reports back to planners about poor service or problems with vehicles, allowing TCT to have more direct engagement with users. As Madeline Zhu, WhereisMyTransport’s Head of Communications put it, they see “technology as a way to create a conversation between users and transit planners.”
(App photo by WhereIsMyTransport)
Washington, D.C., one of the most powerful cities on Earth, has been thrown off-stride by a transit crisis. Starting March 16, the U.S. capital’s Metro system, which serves more than 710,000 passengers daily, closed down for 29 hours for emergency power cable inspections, two days after cable fires caused significant delays on three of Metro’s six lines. Weary customers found alternatives, but this is another transit disappointment in a metropolitan area that has dealt with old railcars, late trains and a lack of accurate schedules. Trust in Metro is at a low point. But, the shutdown isn’t just bad for the Metro; it has broader impacts for the whole of the city.
Public transit is essential to an environmentally sustainable urban future. But it requires public confidence in the transit system. To get people out of their personal cars, there needs to be an attractive alternative. The benefits for the entire city are clear: less traffic congestion, more productive time for commuters, reduced pollution, and better public health and safety. Without trust in the system’s reliability, though, it will be an uphill battle.
When people lose confidence due to unexpected closures and a lack of service predictability, they are more likely to turn to cars as a dependable and convenient way to travel. This may already be happening in Washington, where the Metro system has seen 40,000 fewer riders between 2010 and 2014 and a well-documented decrease in user satisfaction. Residents who live close to stations in transit-oriented developments are taking the metro less. Getting these people back to the metro will require offering them high quality, dependable service–but winning people back can take years of reliable service. This week’s system-wide closure may further erode rider confidence in Metro’s reliability.
Finding out what users of systems like Metro need and perceive can help. In Curitiba, Brazil, the QualiÔnibus satisfaction survey, supported by WRI, aimed to measure the strengths and pitfalls of the local bus rapid transit (BRT) system. By learning how users saw the system, the survey allowed planners to make meaningful changes, including improved security systems, better lighting, and improved infrastructure in stations and pathways. In Rio de Janeiro, similar surveys were conducted for the TransCarioca BRT system, ending in targeted improvements that raised user satisfaction from 1.7 to 5.8 on a 10-point scale. By using direct feedback from users, the city was able to make the changes customers wanted, ensuring continued success and safety.
The Washington, D.C. mass transit system would do well to increase responsiveness to specific rider complaints and safety concerns. Acknowledging the perception and satisfaction of transit riders is important, as we take on current challenges to safety and quality of service. Perhaps this week’s shutdown will provide the opportunity for implementation of such changes, as safety inspectors take stock of the condition of the Metro.
When the image of Washington’s Metro is one of broken elevators, delayed trains and electrical fires, it is hard for riders to trust the system. Acting on providing reliable, safe service would be a step toward turning drivers into transit customers, improving sustainability in this iconic city of monuments and cherry blossoms.
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