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Metrolinx, the provincial government agency that oversees public transit in southern Ontario, including Toronto, recently found itself under fire for spending upwards of a quarter of a million dollars to refresh its brand. The agency says the primary impetus for the project is a lack of public understanding of what it does.
Research Metrolinx conducted in 2016 found that nearly half of the residents the agency serves don’t know what Metrolinx is or what role it plays. Still some charge that the transit agency is wasting taxpayers’ money on a mere stylistic logo change that has no connection to any real-world service improvements.
The uproar around this branding exercise raises some interesting questions. What is the role of branding in a public organization like Metrolinx? And are the benefits of a strong brand sufficient to justify this kind of expense?More Than a Competitive Edge
For many organizations, brands provide an important competitive advantage. Brands make one kind of soap or soda feel different from the others – more compelling, more attractive, more memorable.
This motivation may seem less important in the world of public transit, where there is generally less direct competition between systems. After all, it’s not like there’s another company with a sexier brand running buses and trains around Toronto.
But brands can perform other functions besides competitive differentiation. And some of these functions are actually very important for public transit.
A strong brand can create a sense of consistency, continuity and trust. In the world of public transit, trust is critical. Without trust in the system – and in the entity that operates it – citizens are less likely to leave their cars at home and choose the bus or train instead.
When that happens and ridership drops, the results go well beyond the financial impact of declining fare revenues. After all, public transit is essential to an environmentally sustainable urban future. Increased ridership delivers many benefits to cities: less traffic, less pollution, better public health and safety. Decreased ridership has the opposite effect.
This problem isn’t just theoretical. In Washington D.C., declining trust in the Metro transit system, from maintenance and safety issues that negatively impacted its brand, led to 40,000 fewer riders between 2010 and 2014. Three years later, efforts to reverse the drop continue to be hampered by a lack of public trust.More Than a Logo
The logo is the most visible element of any brand. But a brand is more than a logo, and a brand refresh like Metrolinx’s, if done well, generally encompasses much more.
A solid brand strategy connects isolated products or experiences to a bigger story with greater meaning. A bigger vision of the world and the brand’s place within it. We pay more for Nike shoes, for example, based on more than just the design and features of the shoes themselves. Nike’s simple swoosh logo contains layers of meaning and associations that connect to our own beliefs, desires and self-image.
Metrolinx isn’t selling shoes, but it is selling a vision. The organization is about to embark on what Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca has called a “once-in-a-generation, once in a lifetime” opportunity to expand transit in the region. This expansion will cost upwards of $34 billion. And Metrolinx can’t do it successfully without the cooperation and support of the community. The best way to earn that support is with a clear vision and a compelling story.
Oh, and it’s also helpful if more than half the people know you exist.
One more bonus: A compelling brand can galvanize employees and bring new value to the organization on multiple levels. Improved engagement can boost employee retention, lessening recruiting and training costs. Stronger alignment between departments can help teams focus better and improve operational efficiency. A greater sense of purpose and meaning can inspire employees across the organization – from front-line staff to executive leadership – to go the extra mile to help realize the vision.From Research to Empathy
Public statements from Metrolinx have made it clear that the brand project also includes a significant research component. This is typical in projects like this. In addition to the functions mentioned already (differentiation, telling a bigger story), brands also help organizations better understand and align with their customers.
Brand research, done well, creates empathy within the organization – a deeper understanding of what customers truly need and care about. This is especially important today, at a time when many public service organizations, including transit authorities, have been given new mandates to be more customer-centric.
Historically, transit authorities have been run by engineers with something of a “trust us we know best” attitude. Today, these organizations are being forced to come to grips with the high expectations of modern customers empowered by digital and mobile technology.
This difficult shift typically begins with efforts to create a customer-centric mindset within the organization at large. In the best-case scenario, customer research done in support of a brand refresh would accelerate these efforts, increasing customer empathy and, eventually, leading to better experiences for millions of riders.Risks Remain, But Not Acting May Be Worse
Of course, the best-case scenario doesn’t always come to pass. The truth is, many brand refresh projects fall short of the ideal. Some of them are less about solving real problems and more about a new coat of paint. A few even do more harm than good, distracting the organization from real, pressing problems instead of helping to solve them.
But for transit systems in particular, the risks of not acting may be even greater. If ridership declines due to a lack of trust or ability to keep pace with the needs and expectations of modern, digitally enabled citizens, cities will face more pollution, more traffic and more health and safety risks. And if community support declines in absence of a compelling story, planners will be unable to address these problems by improving transit infrastructure.
John Ounpuu is co-founder of Modern Craft, a Vancouver-based consultancy focused on helping brands keep pace with modern customers.
Addis Ababa’s light rail transit system (LRT), launched in October 2015 as the first LRT in sub-Saharan Africa, serves some 120,000 passengers a day. The LRT may help reduce travel times for some, and lead to a safer, cleaner transport system. But in a city of 4.5 million that’s still growing and facing many development challenges, there are growing pains.
As a partner city with the Bloomberg Initiative for Global Road Safety, WRI Ross Center recently conducted a road safety inspection of Addis’s LRT corridors to improve pedestrian safety and station accessibility. The inspection covered all 39 stations on the green and blue lines. Following the inspection, WRI Ross Center provided recommendations and guidance to the city on making the station areas more accessible, safer and geared toward pedestrians.Dangerous Crossings, High Speed Traffic
The findings from the study can be summarized in two main safety challenges.
First is the lack of safety measures in street and station designs. The 19.6-mile (31.6-kilometer) LRT passes through the city center and extends to the east, west and south of the city. It passes by open air marketplaces, bus terminals, stadiums, industrial zones and residential complexes. To facilitate last-mile connectivity, other modes of transport run alongside and feed into the LRT corridor, creating congestion and dangerous conditions.
Poor sidewalk conditions and road markings, lack of safe medians and traffic islands, poorly constructed ramps and stairs, and insufficient night lighting make accessing stations dangerous. In many cases, pedestrians are expected to cross four lanes of traffic in each direction with minimal protection from oncoming traffic.
The second major safety issue is speed. Ultimately, reducing road traffic speeds makes the biggest impact on pedestrian safety. The risk of pedestrian death from vehicle impact decreases rapidly at vehicle speeds below
In Addis, most pedestrian crossings to LRT stations are “at grade,” or street level. To better protect pedestrians, we recommended the city create raised crossings. These both reduce the speed of traffic, as cars needs to slow down to pass over them, and provide better protection to users.
While overhead crossings may seem safer as pedestrians are not coming into direct contact with traffic, research has shown that many people simply continue to cross at-grade because of the convenience, all while the city assumes safety protections have already been put in place because of the bridge.
In addition to the raised crossings, WRI Ross Center also recommended lower speed limits around stations during peak hours.Safer Streets for Safer Cities
In June 2017, WRI Ross Center shared its recommendations in detail with different transport agencies in the city. The Transport Management Agency, the leading agency on road safety in Addis Ababa, has developed a plan to implement the recommendations and WRI Ross Center is working very closely with them to provide technical expertise.
Research from WRI Ross Center demonstrates that mass public transportation systems can reduce motor vehicle use, significantly improve traffic safety, and reduce traffic-related injuries and fatalities. However, as the LRT system in Addis shows, seemingly small design decisions can make a big difference. It’s important to understand the interaction between different transport modes, in particular, to provide sustainable, safe and accessible transport for all road users.
As Addis Ababa develops an integrated transportation system for its growing population, road safety should be at the center of all projects.
Celal Tolga Imamoglu is the Road Safety Projects Manager at WRI Turkey Sustainable Cities.
Iman Abubaker is a Health and Road Safety Project Coordinator for WRI Africa.
By 2050, the global population is expected to soar beyond 9 billion people, 66 percent of whom may live in cities. Accompanying this stunning pace of urbanization will be a complex web of challenges related to consumption, pollution and water and energy stresses.
Recently, the concept of a circular economy has gained traction as a solution that would ameliorate the burden on natural resources while still encouraging economic growth. The concept is simple: minimize the disposal of waste and the need for raw materials by keeping existing materials and assets in the production cycle. This alternative economic system transforms our current linear economy, which “takes, makes and wastes” into one that reuses, recycles and repairs.
Though China embraced the circular economy from the mid-2000s, conversations about the circular economy are now taking place in many countries around the world, in particular developed countries. Large corporations, foundations and local governments have gotten behind the CE as the new way forward. But given that most of urban growth will take place in less developed countries, their rapidly urbanizing cities need to be included, and even prioritized.Circular Solutions in Developing Countries
People in developing country cities use “circular economy” principles every day – picking through waste, using less and repairing more. As Deputy Director for the UN Environment Programme, Ibrahim Thiaw, noted, “repairing is part of the DNA of developing countries.”
These practices are, by and large, driven by poverty: necessity is the mother of invention. But as these countries develop, the challenge will be to find ways to deploy systematically circular solutions that drive economic, environmental and social value. Here are three examples of CE in practice.
- In Xiangyang, China, government and business leaders came together to implement a sludge-to-energy program. Through this public-private partnership, the city built a biorefinery on the site of an existing wastewater treatment facility. The refinery takes sludge from the wastewater treatment process and combines it with local food waste to produce biochar and compressed natural gas. The project is reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 95-98 percent and financially breaking even by including sales of biochar and natural gas.
- The Integrated Waste Exchange in Cape Town, South Africa is a free online system that connects individuals, schools and businesses that wish to exchange their waste or excess materials. Developed by the city, this peer-to-peer exchange platform facilitates a circular flow of materials like batteries, textiles, metals and other materials while saving users money, conserving energy and reducing pressure on already constrained landfills.
- In Kolkata, India, several stakeholders came together to launch a bus service that runs entirely on renewable biogas. The firm that produces the biogas (from animal and plant waste) worked with the government to place biogas pumps around the city and partnered with Ashok Leyland, a major vehicle manufacturing company, to produce the buses. Riding the bus isn’t just sustainable, it’s cost-effective: because biogas is significantly less expensive than other fuels, bus fares will begin at just Re 1 (less than $0.02), a twelfth the cost of the next-cheapest bus.
These case studies illustrate three core principles often associated with successful CE programs:
- Collaborate outside your comfort zone. The circular economy often begets solutions that are cross-sector by nature. Implementing these solutions will require business models that are prepared to consider and involve stakeholders from various sectors throughout a supply chain.
- Work at the appropriate scale. In the example of an Integrated Waste Exchange, success at the city level is only possible through the development of an effective household program. Projects could be aimed at businesses, households or public services. Ultimately, the circular economy will transform each of these areas.
- Establish priority sectors. Inadequate waste management, energy access and food are persistent problems in developing country cities, making these sectors logical entry points to begin implementing a circular model.
While these instances of circular projects are encouraging, they remain largely isolated and disjointed. For developing cities to fully participate in the circular economy, they must be able to extend informal repair networks and isolated projects to a more intentional approach, systematized through policies.
The first step will be recognizing the circular economy as an opportunity that could offer a better path for development. Once incentives are established, cities should plan to enact the three lessons above – establish priority sectors, choose the right scale and collaborate. City governments in both developed and developing countries play a significant role in facilitating projects, and the circular economy is no exception.
Lastly, the emerging global network of circular economy experts should expand its horizons to include more work among developing-country cities. Securing funding for pilot projects will be crucial, as it was in the sludge-to-energy example. With this support network in place, developing cities can increase the pace at which they are able to pilot projects and scale them to a systems-level circular economy.
Juan-Carlos Altamirano is an Economist on World Resources Institute’s Economics Team.
Anne Maassen is the Energy, Climate and Finance Associate for Energy and Climate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Olivia Prieto was an intern with WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
There has perhaps been more attention paid to affordable housing this year than any in recent memory, but it took a tragedy to make it so. The horror of Grenfell Tower touched off a national conversation in the United Kingdom about inequality and the ways urgent community feedback gets lost in government bureaucracy. But more broadly, it is symptomatic of the insufficient attention given to affordable housing everywhere as the world becomes more and more urban.
A third of all urban dwellers worldwide – 1.2 billion people – lack access to safe and secure housing. The gap is worst in lower- and middle-income countries, where some cities are growing so quickly that governments cannot build out services and infrastructure fast enough to accommodate new arrivals. The result is millions living in inadequate conditions and fraying trust in governments.
In the same week that more than 80 people died in West London earlier this year, a Nigerian court ruled the government had acted unconstitutionally when it forcibly evicted more than 5,000 people from waterfront slums in Lagos. The population of Lagos has nearly doubled in the last two decades and is on track to surpass 24 million people by 2030.
Similar stories play out every day in cities around the world. In March, a landslide at Ethiopia’s largest dumpsite killed at least 65 people as it flattened precarious houses built on top. And during the run-up to the 2016 Olympic games, Rio is estimated to have displaced up to 60,000 people to make way for new facilities, highlighting the vulnerability of people in Brazil’s favelas.
If current trends continue, by 2025 as many as 1.6 billion people around the world will lack access to affordable, adequate and secure housing. As urban populations grow, the housing gap will widen, exacerbating inequality and threatening the traditional view of cities as reliable drivers of economic growth. These are the conclusions of our WRI Ross Center working paper on the housing crisis, part of a larger report on how to make cities more equal, safer and healthier places to live. This is an urgent challenge that will affect cities in all countries as we trudge towards a world of more than 9 billion people, 60 percent of whom will live in urban areas.
But there are solutions available that can improve the lives of people in cities – and improve cities at the same time.
The most critical recommendation is that city officials should not look to relocate people, but rather they should improve and secure existing areas of informal housing – and, critically, they need to involve communities in the process.
The conventional approach in too many places is to displace poor residents and destroy their homes to make way for new development. But this has an adverse effect on these populations. Many informal settlements and slums have strong social fabrics, home to people with economic and cultural ties to one another. These elements contribute to the kind of well-functioning neighborhoods that define great cities and could be harnessed by to accommodate people where they already are.
City leaders should encourage neighborhoods to develop from the ground up and build on this knowledge and energy rather than discarding it.
In Pune, a metropolitan area of more than 6 million people in India, the government began a redevelopment program in 2005 designed to improve conditions in slums. Three methods were used: relocation to new housing without community participation, upgrading of existing housing without community participation, and upgrading of existing housing with community participation. Those communities that took part in the participatory upgrading process experienced substantially better results, including improved living conditions and more functional neighborhoods with higher degrees of self-governance. In turn, they became less reliant on government assistance and had the organizational foundation to better address other problems, like insecurity and poverty. In the cases where communities were not involved in the process at all, many newly constructed facilities were eventually abandoned.
Even as it may look different from place to place, a bottom-up approach to fixing the housing gap and other related urban problems is one to be emulated. Organizations like Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) are working on similar participatory approaches elsewhere in Asia and Africa. SDI helps organize a network of thousands of urban poor “federations,” giving them access to lines of micro credit, stopping evictions and generally helping them voice community concerns in crowded and contested political spaces. Other examples include the Baan Mankong Collective Housing Program in Thailand, led by the Community Organizations Development Institute, and the Orangi Pilot Project in Pakistan, which has developed low-cost, community led-approaches to sanitation.
In cities, the reality is that the well-being of the under-served impacts the well-being of everyone, and housing is only one of the elements critical to the integrated approach that we need to create healthy, equitable and thriving cities. Forcibly relocating the poor will produce more inequality, higher infrastructure and transportation costs, higher carbon emissions and decreased productivity.
Context matters. The precise approach will be different for each geography, but we must find ways to preserve and encourage community and embrace everyone’s right to the city. These lessons are salient in neighborhoods and cities throughout the world, from Lagos to London, Paris to Pune.
Robin King is the Director of Knowledge Capture and Collaboration at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Rit Aggarwala says we should think of the city as a machine. “It requires capacity to handle the people, the traffic, the throughput, the sewage, the garbage, everything that a city is there to handle. And if it is overcapacity, it inevitably breaks down. That’s where we get traffic congestion, that’s where we get environmental degradation.”
Aggarwala, co-head of labs at Sidewalk Labs and former head of New York City’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, recently visited WRI to discuss the opportunities for technology to add to capacity and improve urban life worldwide.
Many cities in the global south simply are not prepared for the number of new residents they are seeing. Technology and big data can help, Aggarwala argues, but only if they are part of a larger plan for managing growth.
“If you plan for growth, you can make it okay,” he says. “If you don’t – if you ignore it, if you pretend it’s not going to exist, if you pretend that you can stop it by neglecting it – you actually get a terrible environmental catastrophe and you get a city that does not provide opportunity for its people.”Data for Decision-Making
“The millions and billions of activities and decisions and interactions that are going on in a big city at any given moment, humans can’t really keep track of all that,” Aggarwala says. “What technology offers is the opportunity to gather all of that information and process it and make available what’s necessary, what’s useful.”
Big data doesn’t necessarily mean big government, with centralized decision-making powers, he cautions. Big data can also enable decision-making at the individual and local level through user-oriented technologies like self-configuring transit networks and automated permitting and approval systems. “You can think not only about streamlining government, but in fact about driving government decisions down to the public in a way that’s responsive and also doesn’t just empower one group that might be advantaged in terms of interacting with government,” he says.
Accountability and equity are key, and urban decision-makers have an important part to play, Aggarwala says. From wi-fi access to car-sharing services, city governments can help ensure that technology benefits everyone, not just those who can pay the most.
“We know from cities all over the world that poorer people have longer commutes than wealthier people,” he says. “If we can improve traffic congestion, that will actually have a disproportionately greater impact on the poor people who are coming from longer distances.”Lessons from New York
From 2006 to 2010, Aggarwala worked for Mayor Michael Bloomberg where among other tasks he was responsible for “PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York,” which helped reduce the city’s carbon footprint by 19 percent from 2005 to 2013. He had three takeaways from the experience.
First, it’s important to include a wide range of stakeholders. “You can’t do this as a top-down plan,” he says. The Sustainability Advisory Board brought together a group of 17 leaders from different organizations to advise the city, and Aggarwala’s team met with more than 50 community groups through private and public meetings to collect ideas and feedback.
Second, it’s essential to tie decision-making to data and analysis. “‘If you can’t analyze it, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,’ as Mike Bloomberg always said. And what decision-makers need to do is provide evidence both for what they want to do and how they are doing as they progress.”
Lastly, Aggarwala believes that government should be ambitious and aggressive – but also focused.
“I think one of the things that the Bloomberg administration did very well was focus on policies that the city government had the power to determine, rather than trying to have programs and other things where it was trying to make up for the shortcomings in policy areas that it did not actually have authority over,” he says. “I think if every mayor in the world, if every city government in the world actually used all the tools at its disposal and thought creatively and aggressively about how to do that, cities would be more empowered and you would have more responsive cities that served their citizens better.”
Alex Rogala is a former editor of TheCityFix and currently a master’s student in urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
The renaissance of bike-riding is a welcome development, so let’s improve conditions for the users.
Orange, yellow, blue, green, rainbow … bike lanes in Chinese cities are quite colorful these days.
Thanks to the new bike-sharing business, one of the greenest and healthiest ways to travel – cycling – is experiencing a surprising renaissance in China. The new bike-sharing companies, such as Mobike and ofo, have placed more than 16 million shared bikes in at least 150 cities. They are changing the way people commute.
While cycling is becoming more fashionable than at any time in the recent past, there are more fundamental improvements in infrastructure that cities should make to create a safe, convenient and enjoyable cycling experience.
According to the World Health Organization, about 8 percent of traffic deaths in China are cyclists (excluding motorized two-and three-wheelers). Another survey in 2013 found that 85 percent of Chinese residents are not satisfied with their cycling environment. The reasons can be attributed to traffic safety, bike lane design and network coverage.
The World Resources Institute has conducted research on the relationship between vehicle speed and crashes. It found that higher speed contributes to more traffic incidents. Moreover, a crash speed of 50 kilometers per hour could put the fatality rate of vulnerable road users as high as 80 percent.
Cyclists are exposed to greater dangers when they share the roads with heavier, high-speed vehicles. Wide intersections are the blackspots for traffic safety in China because the complex traffic and conflict points create a hostile environment for cyclists to cross and turn.
Another safety issue is at bus stops, especially when cyclists find themselves obstructed and trapped by approaching buses. Lowering the speed limit of vehicles where bike users are present, narrowing the width of intersections and installing protected bicycle lanes with traffic-calming measures – especially, in suburban or peripheral areas where heavy vehicles roam the streets and cars travel at high speeds – can improve safety for cyclists.
Moreover, designing more friendly cycling spaces is important. Cyclists are forced to share limited space with parked cars, mopeds and delivery vehicles. In many places. Those vehicles block the bike lane and force cyclists to ride in the traffic lane or on sidewalks. This creates conflicts between bicycles, vehicles and pedestrians and has negative impacts on safety and comfort.
Cities have yet to formulate proper regulations and enforcement to manage this issues.
For cycling, a systematic approach is the best way to improve safety and comfort. For example, although Chinese cities are building extensive bike lanes, some are one-ways that end abruptly without connecting to other transport networks.
Piecemeal interventions can improve a section of road or an intersection but will not have much impact on the safety and further development of cycling. This suggests that cities should create cycling network plans linked with greater transportation infrastructure.
Some innovative cities have already proposed such plans. Shanghai, for example, is working on plans that will improve the safety of its cycling network.
Such networks, sometimes called “greenways”, not only connect bike lanes on urban roads, but also integrate them with recreation areas and multiple modes of transportation, such as subways and buses.
In addition to bike lane design, other bike facilities are also important to a safe and enjoyable cycling experience. Because of the overwhelming popularity of bike sharing, existing facilities cannot meet the demand. As a result, sidewalks are clogged with parked bicycles, especially around transit stations. This has created conflicts between cyclists, pedestrians and transit users.
Some policymakers have begun to think bike sharing is a nuisance. However, the issues can be mitigated by careful planning. Dedicated bike parking should be carefully designed to be meet the needs of bicycle users. Moreover, other facilities can help create a safe and enjoyable cycling environment – bicycle traffic lights, street lighting, bike lane pavement and shade, for example.
It is exciting to see that cycling is making a comeback in China. However, the growing demand has put a strain on the system. The decision-makers should respond to the increasing demand by providing new cycling facilities and upgrade the existing infrastructure to provide safe, convenient and enjoyable facilities for the cyclists.
However, it is still common to see policies that prioritize motor vehicles over bicycles. The decision-makers should put people at the heart of the process and utilize this opportunity improve the livability of cities.
The writers are researchers with the World Resources Institute. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
Kim Lua is a Senior Associate for the Health and Road Safety Program in the WRI China office.
Wei Li is a Research Analyst and Transport Planner in the WRI China office.
Islington is the most densely populated area in the United Kingdom, yet wandering around the quiet streets of the north London borough, it is difficult to appreciate just how many people live there. Handsome terraces, elegant squares and a plethora of parks disguise the fact that there are nearly 14,000 people packed into each square kilometer.
By comparison, anyone passing through Southwark, on the other side of the Thames, is immediately aware of the crowds of people who live and work in the area. New glass towers loom over the major roads while older council housing squat heavily on the back streets. Cars crawl through the famously congested roundabout and the air is heavy with pollution. Yet Southwark has fewer than 10,000 residents per square kilometer, significantly less dense than many of its more desirable northern neighbors, including Kensington, Chelsea, Hackney, Camden, Tower Hamlets and, of course, Islington.
Increasing the number of people living and working in an area can generate huge benefits for a city – if managed well. Productivity rises as people spend less time and money travelling and can share knowledge and ideas more freely. Businesses can reduce production costs when they have access to more suppliers and workers. And it’s cheaper to provide services such as health care, waste collection and transport when more people use them.
But there are also risks. For the first time, researchers have estimated the monetary value of these benefits, finding both positives and negatives for urban residents. Their findings are published in the first working paper from the Coalition for Urban Transitions, a network of more than 20 organizations committed to enhancing the economic, social and environmental performance of cities.Productivity Gains, Housing Costs
Drawing on more than 300 academic papers, “Demystifying Compact Urban Growth: Evidence from 300 Studies Across the World” demonstrates that increasing population density generates significant economic returns. The authors find that a 10 percent increase in the number of people living and working in an area enhances productivity by approximately $71 per person per year. Better access to jobs is worth another $62, while improved access to services and amenities is valued at $49. Increased population density is also associated with better environmental outcomes, including preservation of green space and greater energy efficiency.
All other things being equal, this suggests that compact cities like Hong Kong, New York and Paris are likely to be richer and more sustainable than sprawling cities such as Houston or Melbourne.
A more compact city is not a silver bullet, however: there are also risks associated with increasing population density. Careful urban planning is required to mitigate these risks, and deliver the potential economic and environmental benefits.
First, a 10 percent increase in the number of people living and working in an area can lead to more congestion, with an estimated cost of $35 per person a year. Significant investment in public transport, cycling lanes and pedestrian walkways is essential to ensure that people can move around the city without cars.
Second, this increase in density increases housing costs by $240 per person per year. Such growth in housing prices might benefit people who own their own homes or rent out property, but it is a challenge for renters. As low-income households are more likely to rent, there is a risk that compact city policies exacerbate inequality.
Governments can avoid an increase in housing costs through policies to increase housing supply. A steady flow of new homes coming on to the market can have a downward effect on housing prices, which may outweigh the upward effect caused by increasing population density.Lessons from London
In the 19th century, the city of London undertook a series of extraordinarily ambitious urban infrastructure projects that continue to shape the city. The world’s first underground railway was opened in 1863; today, the London Underground carries an average of 5 million passengers per day.
In the 1860s, a vast network of sewers and drains were constructed to serve the 3 million people living in London. These pipes ended the waves of dysentery, typhoid and cholera that devastated the city, and continue to be used by more than 8 million Londoners. These far-sighted investments enabled people to live and work in close proximity to each other, helping to sustain the city’s population and economic growth for more than a century.
A walk through London today suggests it is now struggling to manage population density. Despite the new Crossrail railway expansion and the proliferation of cycling lanes and iconic red buses on every street, many people continue to depend on cars. As a result, London has the worst air pollution in Western Europe. A normal day’s exposure is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes.
The problems extend from transport to housing. House prices in Islington have doubled in the last decade, a period when real wages stagnated. The soaring property prices are the favorite topic of struggling renters or prospective buyers. The city needs to build more than 50,000 homes a year to keep up with population growth, while redressing decades of neglect in the existing housing stock. The failures of London’s housing policy were made all too clear with the shocking fire that devastated Grenfell Tower and the lives of its residents.
Thousands of people move to London every year for the economic and social opportunities associated with this extraordinary city. Its dynamism is due in no small part to its high population density. However, the city’s strained transport system and spiraling house prices underscore the importance of strategic government intervention to manage the risks of crowding so many people into such a small area. Large-scale investment in public transport and housing are essential to ensure that compact cities are also livable and affordable.
This original version of this article was published in CityMetric.
Sarah Colenbrander is a researcher with the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development and senior economist with the Coalition for Urban Transitions. The working paper, “Demystifying Compact Urban Growth: Evidence from 300 Studies Across the World,” was prepared for the Coalition for Urban Transitions by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Edgar Pieterse, an urban scholar and founding director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, says there are two major challenges facing African cities today. First, the majority of urban residents don’t have access to decent housing or basic services, and second, there are few ways people can democratically shape the future of their cities.
Pieterse spoke with WRI during a workshop for the latest World Resources Report (WRR), on achieving more prosperous, sustainable and equitable cities for all. Research from the WRR shows that as much as 70 percent of residents in cities of the global south lack reliable access to core urban services like housing, clean energy and transport.
Countries in sub-Saharan Africa face some of the highest rates of urbanization as more and more people – many of them young and low-income – move from rural areas looking for economic opportunity. Up from the lowest ratio of urban dwellers in the world today, it’s estimated that more than half of Africa’s population will live in cities by 2040. Many urban areas are facing an overwhelming number of new residents.Tangible and Intangible Benefits
The good news is that some African cities are pushing forward with innovative solutions and finding success.
Take transit, a core service that can link residents to economic opportunities . “In Lagos, we’ve seen the emergence of a really important and significant integrated public transport system,” Pieterse says, “and we’ve also seen similar patterns emerge in cities like Addis and Johannesburg.” Four African cities now have bus rapid transit systems in operation, serving more than 460,000 passengers a day.
“Other examples of innovation,” Pieterse points out, “have been areas of community-driven housing and informal settlement upgrading.” Rather than removing residents from their homes, slum upgrading typically involves formalizing services and infrastructure for neighborhoods so that people can stay in place. In parts of Nairobi, for example, community groups and NGOs have successfully challenged slum clearance efforts and negotiated improvements with landlords.
These kinds of technical solutions provide tangible benefits to cities and communities, but Pieterse believes there’s intangible value too.
“They are finally getting an opportunity to be included in the resource allocation and the governance of these cities,” he says. “Public transport and investment in basic services and public housing all represent an opportunity for the excluded to now have a stake and a say in the future of their cities.”A Citizen-Driven Vision
Given the significant benefits of investing in infrastructure and services, Pieterse suggests three priorities for decision-makers to get Africa’s urban transition right.
“I would argue that, one, they need to get the evidence base right,” he says. Reliable data about demand for local transport options, or the gap in affordable housing in the city, for example, can help leaders understand critical challenges and opportunities.
Second, community engagement is important so the public has buy-in and can help shape solutions that are truly sustainable. “They’ve got to invest in participatory development processes so that they can get the citizens of the city to determine for themselves what the critical issues are and how they should be addressed,” Pieterse says.
Lastly, he says decision-makers should make sure they are encouraging healthy private sector investment that’s balanced with a resident-driven public agenda. “Make sure the investors who have an interest in making these cities work and in establishing a long-term base, that they themselves buy into this vision that has been driven by the citizens.”
“In thinking through how cities can gain confidence and capacity in dealing with urban challenges,” Pieterse says, “it is obvious that they will have to both invest their own resources in building the capacity of their leaders and their staff, but they also need to participate actively in various African and global networks…drawing on international networks and resources such as the World Resources Institute, Cities Alliance, and the African Urban Research Initiative.”
Alex Rogala is a former editor of TheCityFix and currently a master’s student in urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Cities across India are undertaking a variety of land-use, transportation and housing projects, but most plans do not consider the connection between the built environment and the health of residents. This is a mistake, according to new research by the University of Massachusetts and the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi recently published in Environmental Research.
More than 99 percent of India’s residents live in areas that do not pass the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines. Taken together, India and China accounted for half of all deaths attributed to ambient air pollution worldwide in 2015.
In many Indian cities, large numbers of people live in close proximity to road traffic and spend a great deal of time commuting. Their exposure to pollutants can vary based on neighborhood type, distance from the city center, and mode and length of commute, but these are all variables that policymakers can address. Land-use and transportation planning play important roles in influencing urban air quality.A Closer Look at Exposure
Daily exposure to air pollutants just from traffic in India can be as high as total daily exposure from all sources in developed countries. But only a limited number studies have been conducted on the details of exposure to traffic-related pollution in India and they have produced somewhat conflicting results.
Mode of transport and duration of travel are the two main determinants of exposure for commuters, with other factors playing a smaller role, including land use around the route, driving conditions (e.g., idling times and smooth vs. stop-and-go traffic) and total traffic volume. Since personal exposure takes into account pollution levels as well as time spent in the specific environment, longer commute times (due to traffic jams, congestion, etc.) can also contribute to higher exposure levels.
Overall, results have varied but air-conditioned cars and buses seem to have comparatively lower in-vehicle pollution levels than open-air vehicles, bicycling, or walking.
To help fill-in the data gaps, our study focused on in-vehicle exposure to fine particle pollution (PM2.5) and black carbon (or soot) in different modes of transport, particularly buses, auto-rickshaws and cars. Air quality data was collected along a 22-km (13.7-mile) stretch of Delhi, India’s capital where the average person spends between 60 to 120 minutes a day commuting, including parts of a highway as well as commercial and residential neighborhoods. In addition, personal exposure data was collected for a group of volunteers to understand their daily activity patterns and associated exposures.
The study concluded that auto-rickshaws, a popular mode of transport in Delhi and elsewhere in India, are associated with very high levels of air pollution exposure, both for fine particles and soot. On the other hand, air-conditioned public buses running on compressed natural gas have the lowest in-vehicle concentration of soot particles.
It was also evident that exposure during commuting can vary significantly from person to person: mode of transport, duration and route of the journey are all key factors. Furthermore, ambient levels of fine particles and soot were found to be strongly linked with in-vehicle concentration for auto-rickshaws, but it wasn’t as significant for buses. In simpler terms, on a typical morning in Delhi, travelling to work by auto-rickshaw is likely to expose you to a higher concentration of fine particles, compared to the same journey in a bus or a car with the windows rolled up. This is not entirely surprising, since auto-rickshaws are open vehicles and there are no barriers for protection. Furthermore, in-vehicle concentrations are often higher during traffic jams when vehicles are idle (typical idling times for Delhi vary between 18 and 37 percent of the total driving time).
Air pollution exposure in auto-rickshaws may be even higher elsewhere. Delhi’s public transportation and buses, as well as auto-rickshaws, run on compressed natural gas, which reduces soot emissions. Elsewhere, buses and auto-rickshaws use high-sulphur diesel fuel. Exposure levels while in auto-rickshaws then may be higher in other cities. Furthermore, the general preference of women to use auto-rickshaws over buses for personal safety means they can suffer from even higher levels of exposure.An Integral Component of Urban Design
India will be home to 14 percent of the global urban population by 2050. To minimize health effects, it is imperative that pollution control strategies (not to mention climate change mitigation) take into account the many ways people can be exposed to fine particulate matter, soot and other air pollutants.
Urban improvement and redevelopment projects that are focused on the promotion of public and non-motorized transportation, such as the government’s AMRUT program, should adopt reduction of air pollution exposure as a basic design principle. Better integration across national, state and local urban policymaking can pave the way for long-term improvements in breathability.
A careful assessment is required to understand in-vehicle exposure with respect to land use and traffic characteristics as well as fuel choices. But it is clear that investments in infrastructure that reduce travel times and create distinct motorized traffic, bicycle and pedestrian thoroughfares can improve the health of residents and commuters in multiple ways.
Pallavi Pant is a postdoctoral research associate at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the lead author of “PM2.5 Exposure in Highly Polluted Cities: A Case Study From New Delhi, India,” with Gazala Habib, Julian D. Marshall ad Richard E. Peltier.
As southeast Texas residents and officials conduct what’s certain to be a grim accounting of Hurricane Harvey’s deadly impacts, they will also turn their attention to rebuilding and recovery. When they do, they will face a clear choice: whether to return to past practices that put them at risk of devastating loss and damage, or to build back more resiliently, with policies and practices that better protect its residents, especially the most vulnerable.
It’s a choice that countless communities confront as climate change fuels more frequent and intense storms and higher sea levels, both of which increase the risk of flooding. These effects are being felt across the globe: in the past few days, as Harvey unfolded in the United States, floods from extreme monsoons killed more than 1,200 people in Southeast Asia.Climate Change’s Fingerprints
In the weeks and months ahead, scientists will work to unravel the connection between climate change and the likelihood of Harvey’s occurrence. In the meantime, we know that climate change very likely contributed to the storm’s devastating impacts. Climate change has resulted in higher sea levels, adding critical inches and feet to storm surge in coastal areas and reducing the capacity of drainage systems that flow into the ocean. And ocean water is warmer, feeding higher levels of atmospheric moisture that can fall as heavy rain (or snow).Houston’s Legacy of Flooding
Though Harvey’s deluge was unprecedented, flooding is far from a new phenomenon in Houston and surrounding Harris County, which acknowledges, “Flooding is Our Natural Disaster.” The region, home to the nation’s fourth largest city and vital energy infrastructure, has suffered other epic storms. Last year’s Tax Day Floods killed eight and damaged hundreds of apartments. In 2008, Hurricane Ike became the third costliest hurricane in U.S. history, ravaging Galveston, Harris County, and elsewhere. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison dropped 80 percent of the area’s average yearly rainfall in a single event, killing 23 people in Texas and causing as much as $9 billion in damage.
But the region also experiences the steadier assault of repetitive floods exacerbated by two factors: challenging topographical conditions and development pressures and patterns. In a groundbreaking 2016 series of reports on the causes of rising flood impacts in and around Houston, Texas Tribune and ProPublica journalists noted: “[E]xperts and federal officials say Houston’s explosive growth is largely to blame. As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater.” Indeed, in a recent case, the Texas Supreme Court nearly allowed downstream residents to sue Harris County for allegedly failing to follow through on a flood-control plan and permitting “unmitigated” upstream development that caused their homes to flood repeatedly.
When the city floods, it is often the poorest communities that suffer most. In Houston, flooding has inundated low-income neighborhoods, which occupy lands near chemical plants. Health officials are worried about pollutants spilling into the floodwater from surrounding toxic waste sites, but residents claim that they have received little help evacuating. Beyond finding food, clean water and shelter, these citizens will also struggle with recovery. Many couldn’t afford flood insurance, don’t have the money to restart their lives, and may have to pay for long-term government aid. Their voices, their needs and their priorities must be taken into account as the city recovers and rebuilds.The Road to a More Resilient Recovery
As destruction and immediate emergency response gives way to recovery, here are just a few of the strategies that federal and local officials can consider to increase resilience.
- Fund Climate-Resilient Rebuilding. Congress can ensure that federal disaster funds flow to projects that account for climate impacts and bolster resilience in the long-term, particularly in low-income communities. Ironically, just weeks before Harvey, President Trump repealed an Obama Administration standard that would have required federally funded projects to account for the broader, deeper floodplains that will result from climate change. The move came despite broad-based, bipartisan support for the potentially life- and cost-saving policy. As Congress takes up both disaster-relief and routine-spending bills, legislators can restore the requirements of the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard to better protect the public and taxpayer funds. Congress can also dedicate greater funding to hazard-mitigation initiatives, in which every dollar spent saves on average four-to-seven in future damages. Finally, Congress can promote innovative public-private partnerships following the model established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Rockefeller Foundation’s National Disaster Resilience Competition. Adequately funding recovery efforts through HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program will be especially important, as CDBG-DR programs must directly benefit low- and moderate-income communities.
- Promote Resilience in the Reauthorization of the Federal Flood Insurance Program. The disaster in Houston unfolds as Congress considers what to do about the battered National Flood Insurance Program, the nation’s single most important flood-risk reduction regime. Designed to discourage risky development through regulation and to provide a last line of financial defense for flooded homeowners and businesses, the NFIP has largely failed to accomplish the first of these goals and has a checkered record on the second. Its heavily subsidized—though sometimes still out-of-reach—rates encouraged development in risky areas. However, another problem, underscored by Harvey, is that far too few people actually carry coverage, which is mandatory only for homeowners with federally-backed mortgages in the areas identified as the highest risk on flood-insurance rate maps, many of which are out of date. Early estimates suggest that only two of every ten Houston-area residents in Harvey’s path of destruction have flood insurance. (In contrast, as many as half of Katrina-affected residents had insurance.). As Congress reconsiders the NFIP, it can bolster flood resilience by funding expanded efforts to update and improve flood insurance rate maps that underpin the system, but fail to account for future climate change. It can also ensure that flood insurance is affordable for the low- and moderate-income residents climate change will impact most. Finally, Congress can reconsider how the program deals with repetitively damaged properties, placing a greater emphasis on hazard mitigation and relocation out of harm’s way.
Locally, leaders and residents can redouble efforts to pursue smart water-management strategies that maximize natural infrastructure. They can rethink development in high-risk areas and pursue more stringent building codes to reduce the impacts of and risk to future development.
Hurricane Harvey’s human and economic costs continue to mount. As federal disaster-recovery dollars begin to flow, officials have a choice. They can opt to rebuild in business-as-usual fashion, or protect people and property with the resilient, far-sighted approach our changing climate demands. At the same time, Harvey must serve as a yet another reminder of the urgent need to curtail carbon emissions to avoid severe climate impacts.
Christina Chan is the Director of the Climate Resilience Practice at WRI.
Powering Cities in the Global South: How Energy Access for All Benefits the Economy and the Environment
Kumar is the sole provider for his family. He runs an ironing service in Bengaluru that brings in between $6 and $7.50 a day, enough to barely get by. When the power cuts out two to three times a day in the summer for as long as four hours, Kumar has to leave the irons dormant and he brings home much less.
Cities that are already struggling to provide clean, affordable and reliable energy to residents like Kumar are finding it challenging to keep up with the pace and scale of growth. But the challenge will only get steeper: more than 2.4 billion more people will live in cities by 2050, with growth mainly in Africa and Asia.
In 2012, only 58 percent of the urban population had access to electricity in low-income countries. Nearly 500 million urban residents worldwide used dirty cooking fuels like charcoal and wood, which contribute to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year. Switching to modern cooking fuels, such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and electricity, would dramatically reduce indoor air pollution, improving health and, in many cases, saving time and money. Cleaner cooking fuels also benefit the whole city, as household heating and cooking are significant sources of outdoor air pollution.
There are several examples of countries showing strong leadership in the transition to clean cooking. In the 1960s, less than 20 percent of Brazilian households had access to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) or natural gas. The government created national infrastructure for LPG production and distribution, developed a retail market for LPG distribution, and subsidized fuel for poor families. Now, 100 percent of urban households have access to LPG.2. Scale up distributed renewable energy
The 19th-century approach to electrification that relies primarily on expanding the grid cannot bridge the energy access gap in the global south alone. Distributed systems like solar panels offer affordability, reliability and productivity benefits to the under-served.
The average cost of electricity from residential rooftop solar in India and China is already within the same range as natural gas-fired electricity and continues to decline. In sub-Saharan Africa, too, solar is taking off. In 2015, the number of households using pay-as-you-go solar systems—where companies rent equipment to consumers for a small fee, often paid via mobile phone—doubled to between 450,000 and 500,000.
At scale, rooftop solar systems can offer savings due to the avoided costs of new transmission infrastructure, contribute to climate change mitigation, and create job opportunities.3. Increase energy efficiency of buildings and appliances
Residential and commercial buildings are the largest consumers of energy in urban areas. Relatively small changes to building codes and regulations can reduce energy use by up to 50 to 90 percent in new buildings and 50 to 75 percent in existing buildings. Using the best available individual household appliances and equipment can further reduce energy costs by 40 to 50 percent.
Better, cooler buildings also make cities more livable and resilient during heatwaves and bring health benefits. Every kilowatt-hour saved in cities that depend on power stations using dirty fuels reduces air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Countries in the global south have already demonstrated the benefits of energy efficiency measures. Ghana, which enacted the first air conditioner appliance standards in sub-Saharan Africa in 2000, is projected to save $775 million by 2020. In Mexico, national energy efficiency standards and labeling programs resulted in $3 billion savings to consumers from 2002 to 2014.Realizing Cities’ Full Potential
These solutions require action by many urban stakeholders, including national, state, and local governments, the development community, and civil society. Many cities in the global south are already acting, including hundreds that have signed on to the Compact of Mayors, a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in urban areas. Cape Town and Bengaluru have started net metering programs. Delhi has developed a roof rental model for solar systems. Tianjin has developed its own ambitious energy efficiency building code, above and beyond China’s national code. These efforts should be applauded, encouraged and replicated.
Without improving energy services for people like Kumar, many cities will fall short of their potential to drive economic growth, enhance the environment and create spaces where everyone can live, work and thrive. As Amartya Sen said, “Poverty is not just lack a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realize one’s full potential as a human being.”
Download “Powering Cities in the Global South: How Energy Access for Benefits the Economy and the Environment,” by Michael I. Westphal, Sarah Martin, Lihuan Zhou and David Satterthwaite, from WRI.org.
Michael Westphal is a senior associate in WRI Ross Center’s sustainable finance team.
Wrapping your head around Kibera is no easy task. This Nairobi neighborhood is home to more than a quarter of a million people who live in an area smaller than New York’s Central Park. Most residents lack affordable access to core city services. Reliable electricity, clean water, sanitation and healthcare are similarly out of reach for many.While living conditions are improving in some areas, development efforts have not been without controversy. Kibera residents often don’t have a voice in development, a common issue in fast-growing cities.
We visited Kibera with the Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), a nonprofit that swims against this current. KDI’s 16-person team works directly with community groups to redesign and reclaim public spaces for productive use. KDI has completed 10 projects ranging from drains to schools, all with a public space component.The Challenges of Living in Kibera
Kibera is composed of 13 villages on land technically owned by the government, yet some groups claim historical land rights dating back to the colonial era, while others hold official building permits dating back to the 1970s. Most residents are renters.
Without clear regulations, landlords have little incentive to improve living conditions, since they collect high rents regardless of the service provided. To meet the relatively high cost of living compared to their incomes, residents share tiny living areas. The average shack houses eight people in a 12 foot by 12 foot space. As open space disappears, owners are increasingly going vertical, with second stories cropping up across the skyline.
Many household activities, like washing clothes, spill into the small open spaces left. But these areas often lack proper drainage, sanitation, clean water supplies, electricity and comfortable spaces for social gathering. Without a fully functioning solid waste collection system or permeable green spaces, the neighborhood is still prone to flooding.
Over the past 10 years, the central government has initiated a number of housing and infrastructure upgrading projects. Formal services, from water lines to paved roads, are now available in some parts of Kibera. But larger development projects, led by stakeholders from outside the community, often pay little attention to meeting current residents’ needs and reducing vulnerability.
For example, these homes will soon be demolished to make room for a large highway. The project will likely bring benefits to the city, but there has been limited consultation with the community on how the new roadway might support development in Kibera.Acupuncture for the City
One of KDI’s overarching goals is to create a series of linked spaces that make the neighborhood more resilient, particularly to flooding. We wanted to understand how they have navigated the complexity of the neighborhood, and how their model differs from traditional approaches to slum upgrading.
Pascal Kipkemboi, community coordinator at KDI, is from the neighborhood and an expert in community engagement. He explained that projects like the playground, toilets, water vending and recycling site behind him are the result of rounds of proposals, applications, site visits and community discussions. Making this project a reality required shoring up the river bank to reduce flooding and improve water flow through the neighborhood.
KDI’s approach is similar to acupuncture relieving pressure points in the built form of the neighborhood. One example is a bridge that improved general neighborhood access and safety as well as reduced flooding risks. Here, the slums of Kibera stand in stark contrast to the new, mid-rise apartment complex the government is building—only the bridge connects the two worlds.
Evans Somba, a community associate, ensures that each project reflects the needs and desires of the neighborhood. The more democratic process takes months, but “the longer the process, the more it reflects the needs of the population and the more long-lasting it will be,” said one team member.
One need KDI surfaced: clean, serviced and safe spaces for gathering and household chores. This project converted a flood-prone area into an active community space. For 5 Kenyan shillings (about $.05) that go to a non-profit run by the neighborhood, people can wash their clothing, take a quick shower or use the toilet.Community-Led Development
KDI worked with one community to rebuild an informal school, Anwa Junior Academy. KDI partnered with an education non-profit, Dignitas, to strengthen leadership and improve instructional quality. Just 60 percent of families with kids attending can pay fees, making it difficult to retain teachers. This raises the challenge of how to better connect the neighborhood to the city so that residents have easier access to all types of opportunities.
The results do not replace the need for the central government to provide basic services, but it does indicate that it is possible to work with the community to reconfigure small spaces for big impact. KDI’s model is slowly changing the lives of residents with small investments and lots of engagement.
Our visit with the Kounkuey Design Initiative showed us how important and difficult it is to find new ways of upgrading informal spaces that are collaborative, productive and sustainable. KDI’s approach is promising, but also time consuming, raising questions about how we can work together to scale up collaborative design to increase the pace of transformation.
Kate Owens is the Urban Development Manager in Washington, DC, for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Talia Rubnitz is a Communications Assistant for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Winner Take All? Richard Florida’s ‘New Urban Crisis’ Part of Growing Global Focus on Unequal Cities
Cities are growing rapidly in more places than ever before, but this growth is not always accompanied by prosperity.
The specter of inequality – and fear that it could short-circuit economic development – has been rising in the global urban agenda for some years. With the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2016, governments committed to not only make cities safer, more resilient and more sustainable, but also more inclusive. The New Urban Agenda, agreed to by world leaders at Habitat III in Ecuador a year later, promises “cities for all.” (We launched our new World Resources Report focused on how to build a more equal city at Quito as well.)
In this year’s “The New Urban Crisis,” influential urbanist Richard Florida examines the troubling development that in “the greatest urban migration in human history, urbanization has ceased to be a reliable engine of progress.” While cities produce an outsized share of global economic activity, that success has been accompanied by extreme competition that crowds out those without the resources to compete. Cities seemingly choke on their own success, becoming less accessible even as they become more populous and economically productive.
This is an interesting turnaround for Florida. Fifteen years ago, he argued very successfully that to succeed, cities needed to figure out how to attract and cater to the “creative class” – hyper educated, mostly non-minority young people who fuel the service economy. Now, he notes that cities are leaving other residents behind.
Unequal gains are the harbinger of a new urban crisis, Florida argues. But while he writes mainly about U.S. cities, his central insight into “winner-take-all urbanism” is perhaps even more applicable to cities in developing countries. How to deal with growing informal settlements, and the voids in city governance and services that surround them, is the central challenge for cities of the global south.A New Wave of Urbanization
The roots and remedies of inequality in the fast-growing cities in the global south are different in significant ways from large North American cities.
In places like India, many new urban migrants settle into neighborhoods that receive little support from municipal governments and exist in a legal grey area. Most residents of these informal settlements, or slums as they are often called, have no legal right to the land they occupy. As a result, they can be removed with little notice or compensation, sometimes violently—a kind of gentrification on steroids. Such displacement disrupts neighborhoods, erodes trust in governance and exacerbates sprawl.
Today’s rapidly growing cities are also expanding differently than those of the past, with many seeing population growth far outstripping economic growth, putting a strain on resources available per capita.
Our research shows that many of the least-equipped cities are experiencing the biggest booms in population while falling behind on the provision of core urban services, like transportation and housing. Places like Nairobi, Bangalore and Bogotá have far fewer resources available per capita than cities of the global north. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are seeing the highest rates of urbanization. Taken together, the UN projects they will account for 90 percent of the world’s urban growth by 2050.
Florida notes that when cities in North America, Europe and Japan were growing fastest, they could bring the hinterlands along with them, as urban populations needed goods and services. This was a boon to manufacturing and industrial activities of all kinds, not to mention agriculture. Now, globalization has broken these links, leading to large populations of under- or unemployed living in peripheral areas far from services and commerce.
In absolute numbers, there are more people living in urban poverty than a decade ago, and in some cities, even the share of residents below the poverty line is growing. Only 54 percent of residents in African cities, for example, have access to adequate sanitation.Urbanism for All
The concept of “urbanism for all,” which arises in the last chapters of Florida’s book, echoes language that’s risen to the fore in global urban debates in recent years. By inviting investment “in people and places,” Florida’s thinking aligns with the hypothesis behind our own research: cities and their residents can only thrive when services are better for everyone.
In the latest working paper in the World Resources Report, Robin King et al. write that low- and middle-income cities should focus on finding ways to “upgrade” existing slums, rather than leveling them, and involve residents in the process in order to capitalize on existing labor markets, social networks, and other positive elements of well-functioning neighborhoods.
Florida’s solutions to the worst of contemporary urbanism’s ills range from similar encouragement of bottom-up development in slums to the appointment of city leaders to national representative bodies and adjusting international aid policies to focus on city-building instead of nation-building. Cities can get on the right track by avoiding the pitfalls of patchwork development that leave less-advantaged residents living far away from the urban core, transit options, and knowledge hubs, like universities, he writes.
The challenges are daunting. But cities in the global south may have an advantage over their wealthier counterparts in at least one respect: much of them has yet to be built.
More resources will be spent on urban infrastructure over the next century than in all human history. This gives leaders across Asia and Africa, where the majority of new construction will take place, a window of opportunity to reshape their cities through investments in infrastructure, public spaces, and communities that would make many American mayors green with envy.
Our effort, through the World Resources Report, “Towards a More Equal City,” has been to assemble practical ways to assist policymakers and other stakeholders. There is no better time to implement solutions that help cities work better for everyone.
Ani Dasgupta is the Global Director of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, WRI’s program that galvanizes action to help cities grow more sustainably and improve quality of life in developing countries around the world.
Cities across the global south are in a bind. As they absorb more residents, providing access to core services like housing and energy – already a challenge – is getting even harder. Policymakers are looking for answers, and Alain Bertaud, a senior research scholar at the NYU Stern Urbanization Project, says they should look elsewhere than existing large cities.
Speaking to WRI during a workshop for the latest World Resources Report (WRR), “Towards a More Equal City,” on achieving more prosperous, sustainable and equitable cities for all, Bertaud says many rapidly growing cities will need to break from the status quo. Traditional urban policies are too often geared toward preventing change rather than encouraging it.“No Precedent”
Bertaud has a wealth of experience to draw from. He served as principal urban planner at the World Bank until 1999, where he worked on policy and infrastructure development in South Asia as well as transition economies like China, Russia and Eastern Europe. He’s also served as a resident urban planner in Bangkok, San Salvador, Port au Prince, Sana’a, New York, Paris, Tlemcen and Chandigarh.
“Cities in developing countries are very different, depending on whether you’re talking about Asia, Latin America or Africa,” Bertaud says. “I think that in the case of Asia and Africa, we are going to see a massive urbanization that has no precedent.”
The world’s urban population is expected to increase by 2.5 billion people by 2050, with more than 90 percent of the growth in Asia and Africa. “Unfortunately, most of the cities in [these regions] have regulations and also a pattern of urban investment which are inherited from other cities,” he says. Many are simply not prepared to deal with the scale of change.
Bertaud believes that it’s the cities that embrace rapid urbanization that will be the most successful – not those trying to slow it down.
Where does he look for examples? “We have cities like Ahmedabad in India that have created innovative regulations for developing land very fast,” he says. “We can also take the example of China in a certain way. China has been able to develop urban infrastructure very fast.” Another is Hyderabad, also in India, where city officials have done away with restrictive regulations that prevent the efficient use of urban land.Focus on Mobility and Affordability
But it’s critical to recognize that there is no silver bullet. “There are about a thousand things that cities need to do to be able to cope with urbanization,” Bertaud says.
Most migrants to cities are poor. To ensure inclusive growth that benefits everyone, cities should take a flexible approach to land management, without minimum standards of consumption for land and housing. More than 881 million people live in informal settlements in the global south – about one-third the urban population. Reforming land use regulations and policies can help remove obstacles and disincentives that block new housing for low-income residents, as the second working paper in the WRR series explores.
“Basically, I think that every person responsible for urban development should focus really on two aspects: mobility and affordability,” Bertaud says. “Mobility to let low-income people move, not to some industrial area…but to be able to look for jobs all around a large metropolitan area. And affordability, to make sure that the land supply, and the floor space supply, and the housing supply is such that everybody has access to it.”
Bertaud contends that pollution and global warming are two urgent issues, but that they should be thought of as constraints on development, rather than objectives. This is not explicitly expressed as such.
“Too often, I think that recently, reducing pollution has become an objective per se, and therefore the easiest way to reduce pollution is to prevent development,” he says. “The challenge is really to take pollution and global warming extremely seriously but to try to find solutions that still provide mobility and affordability to low-income people.”
Fortunately, there are a number of solutions that are good for both people and the planet. Bus rapid transit corridors have helped Mexico City improve air quality while increasing access to jobs. Creative climate adaptation plans can similarly meet development and environmental objectives. And research shows that pursuing compact urban growth strategies in India can save up to 6 percent of GDP and simultaneously reduce emissions.
Alex Rogala is a former editor of TheCityFix and currently a master’s student in urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
India’s urban transport sector has seen tremendous change in the last 15 years. This series examines the evolution of for-hire vehicles (FHVs), the regulatory response to it and its place in the mobility network of the future.
Street-hail vehicles dominated the taxi and FHV market generally for the greater part of the 20th century. However, public opinion turned against traditional services in the 1990s, resulting in policy shifts that arguably led to a deterioration of the sector and lower-quality service. This opened the doors to private dispatch services to provide a better experience. These two phases in India’s FHV market are fundamental to understanding how the current regulatory framework evolved and why it is proving so controversial to regulate app-based services today.Phase 1: Street-Hail
Street-hail vehicles were the first FHVs in India and continue to operate to this day. Primarily, these include individually owned and operated city taxis and auto-rickshaws that can be hailed-off the street, from a designated stand or, more recently, via the web or mobile services.
Taxis were first introduced to India in 1911 to compliment horse-drawn wagons. Auto-rickshaws hit Indian streets in 1959. Institutionalized under the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988, city taxis and auto-rickshaws are qualified to operate commercially and provide point-to-point transport services for a regulated fee. Each state sets rules for issuing permits, pricing mechanisms, driver requirements and vehicle guidelines. Such extensive regulation was premised on customers’ inability to assess the quality of drivers and their vehicles before trips and the efficiency of controlling prices. As explored in part three of this series, this premise is challenged today by app-based services that allow customers to view driver ratings and real-time pricing before hailing a ride via the internet.
Auto-rickshaws and city taxis were well-received in India, given the lack of adequate mass transit networks and low personal vehicle ownership. They provided a vital service to all urban dwellers, connecting commuters to the nearest mass transit station and facilitating daily trips to work and to markets.
However, as personal vehicle ownership grew in the 1990s and 2000s, several Indian cities began to reconsider street-hail vehicles, due to high levels of congestion and air pollution. Led by Delhi, several cities instituted a cap on the total number of permits that could be issued to private taxis and auto-rickshaws.
Permit caps have been used extensively around the world to balance supply and demand, protect driver income, and ensure quality service for commuters. Bruce Schaller, former deputy commissioner for New York City’s Department of Transport, writes that “decades of experience with taxi regulation have shown the need to retain more extensive regulations, including numerical controls and fare regulation, for ‘flag’ service (e.g., taxi stands and street hail) to prevent oversupply, fare gouging and chaotic street conditions.”
However, in many Indian cities, permit caps led to a deteriorating street-hail experience. The price of permits skyrocketed on the black market to 600 times the government price, while drivers struggled to make a living due to exorbitant hikes in daily vehicle rents. Commuters found it increasingly difficult to hail vehicles off the street in low-density or non-lucrative areas of the city, as bargaining, overcharging and refusing trips became commonplace.Phase 2: Dispatch Services
Discontent among some commuters, combined with growing demand for reliable transport services in India’s fast-growing cities, created a business opportunity.
The turn of the century brought mobile phones to urban India. Drivers could now be contacted while they were on the road. By the mid-2000s, several companies were operating large fleets of centrally organized taxis in major cities. Mega Cabs pioneered the model in Delhi in 2001, after which Meru Cabs, Easy Cabs and Tab Cab entered the market. These companies could access capital in ways that individual taxi owners could not. At the peak of the model, Meru Cabs, Mega Cabs and Easy Cabs operated 22,000 cabs across 20 cities.
Commuters could now call one number and book a ride anywhere in the city. An air-conditioned car (or auto-rickshaw would arrive at their doorstep within a stipulated time. Overnight, dispatch taxi services, or “radio taxis,” became known for their reliability and quality of service. Drivers were less likely to refuse trips or bargain over fares, which street-hail services had become notorious for. Dispatch services began to corner the market for those that could afford their services and for longer trips such as to the airport or train station.
As the dispatch market grew, state governments regarded these services as a new “luxury” segment of FHVs. The other category under the luxury segment, “tourist taxis,” were earmarked for package rental services for inter- and intra-city travel, but not for point-to-point services. The perceived need for dispatch services, that the street-hail and tourist taxi market could not fulfill, led to the relatively non-controversial introduction of new regulations.
New “radio taxi” rules were first launched by Chandigarh, Delhi and Maharashtra in 2006. They brought changes in three areas. First, a company was now required to be the provider of the service, not an individual. Second, the manner of how a taxi could be hailed was expanded to include booking by phone or website. And third, a higher quality vehicle type, including air-conditioning, was required. Apart from these, not much changed. Dispatch services were still required to ply at government-approved rates and vehicles and drivers had to be compliant with the Motor Vehicles Act.
The introduction of these rules had a major effect on the market, however. They opened the doors for private investment in transit, previously the domain of public agencies and individual permit holders only. Market reports estimated that the dispatch taxi market was worth at least $2 billion, an opportunity that private investors responded to quickly. Meru Cabs raised $75 million alone, and the number of competitors in each city exploded.
However, the bulk of this funding was earmarked to increase the size of company fleets, rather than to improve responsiveness or other aspects of the user experience. Meanwhile, the market was shifting again with the advent of smartphones and the gig-economy, which was about to revolutionize how users access transit options everywhere.
Part three of the series will explore in-depth the rise of Ola, Uber and other ride-hailing apps, and what lies beyond for India’s for-hire vehicle sector.
Jyot Chadha is the Director for Urban Innovation at WRI India Sustainable Cities.
Ojas Shetty is a Research Consultant with the Urban Innovation team at WRI India Sustainable Cities.
India’s burgeoning cities are famous the world over for their startling vibrancy – and, sometimes, their startling problems. A new national policy, enshrining more transit-friendly development principles, aims to steer urban planning in the world’s largest democracy towards more compact and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and streets.
The World Bank projects that India will lead the global urban surge in the decades ahead, adding 404 million urbanites by 2050. However, to date, much of this growth has been unplanned, leading to sprawl and all its attendant effects like longer trips, higher use of private vehicles and more air pollution. The New Climate Economy estimates sprawl could cost India’s economy as much as 6 percent of GDP every year by 2050. Horizontal growth is even cutting into the hinterlands. In 2010, McKinsey estimated that India could save 6.2 million hectares of arable land through more effective land-use planning by 2030.
New policy, adopted by the Ministry of Urban Development in May, seeks to shift current practices to encourage denser, healthier, more productive cities. The National Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Policy recommends transit and land use strategies for compact, mixed-use development, that gives citizens access both to open space and transport services.An Inflection Point?
The National TOD Policy is critical to achieving the goal of livable, well-connected communities. Currently, only a small handful of cities and states in India have TOD strategies. The policy will provide a much-needed impetus to encourage more local governments to implement TOD concepts into their urban planning.
Such strategies can spur investment in multimodal connectivity (buses, bicycles, transit, walking, and cars), improvements to pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and development near transit stations. It might not be too dramatic to say that such an official encouragement may represent an inflection point where compact, coordinated and connected development starts to become the norm across Indian cities.
The National TOD Policy highlights the government’s resolve to address issues faced by existing and emerging urban areas. However, the ultimate success of such policies depends on cross-disciplinary integration and partnerships at various tiers of government – not to mention the private sector.
WRI India applauds the new policy and urges policymakers to consider next steps:
- Government at all levels should review and revise existing policies and regulations to include TOD and promote better understanding of TOD through communications materials.
- State governments should direct cities to include TOD in their development plans. If they are already prepared, amendments should be issued.
- States should monitor progress by setting up special departments for TOD implementation. This will ensure that crucial factors, such as financing and governance, are well addressed.
- City planners should consider the unique needs of individual neighborhoods and evaluate the best use of existing infrastructure.
- City governments should also identify and create an inventory of informal housing, so TOD is not a stepping stone to gentrification.
The use of transit-oriented development as an urban growth strategy is relatively new in India. Translating policy to action will require a multi-pronged approach. States and cities should take a contextual approach based on local trends, market behavior and city requirements. But if implemented well, the new TOD policy could improve the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions.
Prerna Vijaykumar Mehta is the Manager for Urban Development and Accessibility at WRI India Sustainable Cities
Merlyn Mathew is a consultant with WRI India Sustainable Cities
India’s urban transport sector has seen tremendous change in the last 15 years. This series examines the evolution of the for-hire vehicles sector, the regulatory response to it and its place in the mobility network of the future.
Indian cities are growing at an unprecedented rate and an accompanying surge in the demand for transport services is inevitable. Forecasts suggest that by 2031, urban Indians will take nearly half a billion trips a day. Today, most of these journeys are completed on foot or bicycle, but as cities continue to sprawl and the distance traveled increases (from 11 kilometers on average in 2011 to 15 kilometers by 2031), the need for motorized trips will grow.
In cities like Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai, public transit makes up the largest share of motorized trips, but for-hire-vehicles, such as city taxis and autorickshaws, have long played a significant role as well. An integral part of many Indian cities, they often fill the gap between public and private transport. The recent growth of large, privately run fleets and the development of on-demand technology have increased the options available to commuters, while also changing the way these services are accessed.
This raises important questions about the future of the sector. Will mobility in Indian cities be categorized by separate public and private options, or will there be varying shades of shared options? Can innovations reduce travel time and meet rising demand, while also reducing emissions?A Changing Market
In India, the for-hire vehicle (FHV) sector has been dominated by city taxis and autorickshaws for decades. Every day, millions of people employ their services in a range of contexts, from “last-mile” connectivity along public transit routes, to a cheaper alternative to owning a private vehicle, to simply providing more reliable service than public transit. According to the Comprehensive Mobility Plan for Greater Mumbai, FHVs accounted for 1.4 million trips a day or 16 percent of the city’s motorized mode share in 2015.
But over the last 15 years, private sector investments, advancements in technology and the increasing use of mobile phones have transformed how people interact with FHVs. Now, urban commuters may choose to hail a taxi or autorickshaw the old-fashioned way, but they can also call, text, WhatsApp or e-hail them, or even request just a seat in a shared taxi or bus.
The trajectory of the FHV market in India can be broken into four phases, which will be explored in greater detail over the course of this series.
Phase 1: The first phase of FHVs in India, beginning in 1959, is iconic with its black and yellow taxis and autorickshaws. Similar to the yellow medallion taxis of New York and the tuk-tuks of Thailand, these ecosystems are largely informal and unorganized but continue to this day. Though many regard city taxis and auto-rickshaws as dependable and affordable, they are also notorious for refusing rides, bargaining over fares and providing poor income to drivers.
Phase 2: Recognizing the opportunity for formalized FHV services, several fleet management companies started emerging at the turn of the century to better organize drivers. They allowed commuters to pre-book a vehicle via phone or website. A vehicle would then be dispatched from a central base or call center. Known in India as the radio taxi or fleet taxi model, this second phase systematized a relatively unorganized sector and brought in measures of quality control.
Phase 3: Further improvements in mobile technology ushered in the “aggregator” or “on-demand” phase. Companies no longer had to own a fleet, and factors such as customer discovery, driver routing and dispatch became simpler and more automated. Companies simply connected drivers to commuters via smart phones. Aggregator services are also expanding to include bigger vehicles, such as buses, and using crowdsourcing technology to develop new routes that better meet customer demand.
Phase 4: We are only beginning to see the fourth phase, of mobility as a service with more seamless, multi-modal commuting experiences. In cities such as Helsinki, Paris, Las Vegas and Singapore, access to transit is becoming a commodity. The vision is of a digital platform on which you can buy units of mobility across all modes of transport, from public to shared to private, instead of paying for individual bus tickets, cab rides or buying a car. In India, we are seeing the initial building blocks of such an ecosystem being put into place. A plethora of apps are already in the market, leveraging crowdsourcing and open data to provide real-time information, allow for cashless transactions and enable commuters to choose from a range of options.The Future of Urban Mobility in India?
The connected vision of multi-modal transit in Indian cities, where for-hire vehicles blend seamlessly with public transit options, is still in its infancy. Most mass transit options such as city buses and suburban rail networks continue to be managed by public agencies. Private players have tried to step up and plug service gaps, but they have been thwarted by regulatory barriers.
The future depends on smart regulation and nuanced public policy that can balance a legitimate concern for the public good, commuter safety and system efficiency, with the innovations and investment that the private sector can provide.
Jyot Chadha is the Director for Urban Innovation at WRI India Sustainable Cities.
Ojas Shetty is a Research Consultant with the Urban Innovation team at WRI India Sustainable Cities.
For the first time in over two decades, transit ridership in New York City is on a downward trend—and we should have seen it coming.
Once a trailblazer for investment in mass transit, New York’s subway system is starting to show its age with consistent delays, numerous breakdowns and overall crumbling service. Despite its relatively high rate of farebox return (73 percent), the Metropolitan Transit Authority is scrambling to pull together resources to keep the system afloat for its 5.7 million daily riders. So far, fare hikes and cutbacks on train frequency have proven to be about as successful as Band-Aids covering a crack in the Hoover Dam.
Funding for transit systems around the U.S. have been plagued for decades, as they rely heavily on government subsidies, which receive just a small slice of the Highway Trust Fund pie. And that piece continues to shrink as the federal gas tax remains unadjusted for inflation since 1993.
To solve the problems that are only now surfacing in New York, Mayor De Blasio has proposed a logical, yet bold plan in an election year: to increase taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent of city residents, individuals making more than $500,000 a year. The hike would mean their income tax rate would go from 3.88 to 4.41 percent, raising nearly $800 million a year to fix the deteriorating subway. In addition, a portion of the funds would go toward helping riders who fall below the federal poverty line with half-price fares, nearly 800,000 individuals.
The initiative is logical from an economics perspective because it equally distributes economic burden, but it’s also one of first times a sitting politician has proposed such a “Millionaires’ Tax” to fix a transit network that is traditionally, and predominately, relied on by lower- and middle-income residents. The mayor’s strategy can be further classified as a vertical equity scheme, where those who have the ability to pay more, should pay more.
As cities like New York, and others around the globe, continue to battle the growing urban crisis of crumbling transit infrastructure and widening inequality, strategies like the one proposed by Mayor De Blasio may be a sign of how future public utilities will be financed—especially with a shrinking middle class and a federal government unwilling to step in.
Taxing the wealthy to improve public transit has been successful across the globe. In Nottingham, home of the legendary Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, new parking fees (a proxy for taxing income) helped pay for two new tram lines and other bus and rail improvements in just four years In Seattle, a new ordinance increases the income tax for high-earning residents to pay for affordable housing programs, public transit and other critical city needs. When asked for comment, the mayor called it a “fight for economic stability, equity and justice.”
Still, a similar measure in New York would be a significant, given its size, wealth and global importance. As De Blasio’s proposal moves ahead, several questions must be considered: Is this model sustainable? Can it be adopted elsewhere? Will it raise enough funds to fix the Transit Authority and reverse ridership declines?
In the meantime, all eyes are on New York…so “start spreading the news.”
Since 2012, BRTdata.org has provided up-to-date information on bus rapid transit systems (BRTs) in more than 200 cities, from passenger data to coverage and costs. Developed in partnership with the Centre of Excellence for Bus Rapid Transit, International Energy Agency and Latin American Association of Integrated Transport Systems and Bus Rapid Transit, the site is the most comprehensive online database of bus corridor systems available worldwide.
But over the years, the criteria used to classify BRT systems has undergone changes. In an effort to maintain consistency , WRI is making changes to align its corridor definition with the benchmarks and quality standards established by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
Implemented for the first time in Curitiba, Brazil, BRTs have the capacity to transform cities by improving public transit at relatively small cost, reducing harmful carbon emissions and increasing productivity. BRTs are already present in cities on five continents, and BRTData.org was created in part to track its spread and various implementations.
As its grown, however, a need to establish stricter quality standards has become apparent, as recognized by the BRT Standard Technical Committee. Following their recommendations, from now on, BRT corridors will be defined as one or more contiguous lanes served by one or multiple bus lines with a minimum length of three kilometers that has segregated or exclusive bus lanes. If the segregated lane is aligned to the curb, at least one of the following elements must be present: (1) prepayment of the tariff; (2) priority traffic signaling; (3) a boarding level or (4) a unique brand and logo.
These changes resulted in the exclusion of a total of 94 systems/corridors from BRTData.org. The new database accounts for 358 registered corridors in 164 cities totaling 4,874 kilometers of infrastructure. All these networks benefit 32.2 million passengers per day.
For cities, it is important to have widely applicable standards that make comparisons and performance indicators meaningful. Quality of service can also be better verified by following clearly defined parameters. The BRT TransOlímpica corridor in Rio de Janeiro, for example, underwent an evaluation earlier this year and received a silver rating from the BRT Quality Standard Technical Committee. Implemented as part of the Rio de Janeiro commitments to host the 2016 Olympic Games, TransOlímpica has 17 stations spread over 26 kilometers and meets a daily demand of 40,000 passengers. The assessment serves not only as validation but points to things to improve as well.
But even beyond improving individual systems, the standards have the potential to help planners replicate the most effective approaches in cities without BRTs. By following this standard, BRTData.org will enable more accurate research and continue serving as the most comprehensive hub of BRT data worldwide.
When you hear the word “nature,” what do you think about? A pristine beach? Maybe your favorite wild animal? Nature means different things to different people. But do you think of nature as a powerful source of protection from storms, rising sea levels and other negative impacts of climate change?
Climate change is no longer a distant threat. We are living with the reality of it, right here and right now. The impacts of climate disruption from Florida to Fiji, and everywhere in between are clear, costly and widespread, as storms, floods and droughts become more severe and less predictable. Storms are costing the world $300 billion a year, and 68,000 people are being displaced every single day.
We can’t afford to do nothing – literally.
An estimated 840 million people around the world live with the risk of coastal flooding, many in coastal cities. For these communities, the health of their economies is directly related to the health of coastal ecosystems. For example, in 2012, while Hurricane Sandy did tremendous damage to the eastern United States, coastal wetlands likely saved more than $625 million in additional flood damages across coastal communities in 12 states. And, in the Philippines, mangroves are expected to avert more than $1.6 billion in damages for 1-in-25 year events, and $1.7 billion in damages from 1-in-50 year events.
Seawalls, breakwaters and sand bags often come to mind first for disaster preparedness tools, but these are not the only options. And sometimes they aren’t even the best option. Natural resources, including coral reefs, mangroves, wetlands, sand dunes and healthy beaches, offer the first lines of defense to slow waves, reduce flooding and protect coastal people and property.
Coral reefs protect 200 million people around the world. A healthy coral reef can reduce 97 percent of a wave’s energy before it hits the shore, and just 100 meters of mangroves can reduce wave height by 66 percent. These nature-based solutions are cost-effective, self-maintaining and adaptable to sea-level rise. And they also offer other benefits to communities that traditional “grey infrastructure” solutions simply can’t, including improved water quality, more fish and new ecotourism opportunities. In fact, there are more than 70 countries and territories across the world that have “million dollar” coral reefs – reefs that generate more than one million dollars in value per square kilometer.
Economists, engineers, insurers and conservationists are together developing new science, models and strategies to evaluate and leverage the protective services of this natural infrastructure, including coral reefs and beaches, and to make sure they can be restored after damaging storms.
Indeed, one of the most promising new developments to maximize the value of nature is the possibility of actually putting an insurance policy on it – to protect the health and protective services of these ecosystems and ensure they are restored after extreme storms hit. This combination of insurance and science could be a powerful step toward protecting and improving the health of reefs and beaches so they can continue to protect us.
The Nature Conservancy is currently designing and testing the first-ever insurance mechanism to leverage the protective services of reefs and beaches to create new financing for restoration and protection. If successful, similar insurance might cover other naturally protective systems like mangrove forests and coastal marshes and even oyster reefs.
The increased threats of severe storms and climate impacts are here today – but so too are replicable and scalable nature-based solutions. We need action at all levels, from the international to the local, to shift our behavior and thinking around nature and drive investment in nature at a level equal to the value it provides us.
Now is the time to examine the full suite of solutions available to protect and sustain coastal communities and economies – and that includes taking a closer look at the potential of insuring nature to ensure nature keeps protecting us.
Kathy Baughman McLeod is the Managing Director for Risk and Investment at The Nature Conservancy. To learn more about The Nature Conservancy’s work on insuring reefs and beaches, visit nature.org/insuringnature.
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