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Public Spaces: The Economic and Symbolic Value

Thu, 2017-06-15 19:23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Azeredo and Lara Caccia contributed to this post.

Originally published in Portuguese on TheCityFix Brasil

Public Spaces: 10 Principles for Connecting People and the Streets

Fri, 2017-06-09 19:27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Azeredo and Lara Caccia contributed to this post.

Originally published in Portuguese on TheCityFix Brasil

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

Thu, 2017-06-08 19:01

Photo by Prerna Mehta/WRI India

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addressing the TOD Link

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Way Forward

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

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

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

Tue, 2017-06-06 19:46

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

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

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

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

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

1.  Neighborhood Co-Design Projects Foster Socially Sustainable Communities 

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

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

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

2.  Communities Experience Measurable Positive Social and Psychological Effects

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

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

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

3.  Built Environments Influence Community Behavior Before and During Disasters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The report is available through Oxford Brookes University

China’s Clean Air Challenge: $3 Billion Air Pollution from Transport in Chengdu

Thu, 2017-06-01 19:37

Chengdu, China encourages cycling and walking to mitigate air pollution from fossil fuels. Photo by Richy / Fickr

This is the third installment of WRI’s China’s Clean Air Challenge blog series. This series examines the increasing social, environmental and economic impacts of the serious air quality challenge in Chinese cities and investigates the sources of emissions and sustainable solutions.

Economic loss from transport-related air pollution in Chengdu, China, was $3 billion in 2013, and that number is on the rise. Private cars and trucks are the biggest emitters, contributing $2.2 billion in losses, 73 percent of the total. With increasing motorization between 2005 and 2013, economic costs from emissions more than doubled.

A significant portion of this economic loss stems from the health impacts of air pollution. There is a strong link between air pollution, particularly ultra-fine particle pollution (PM2.5), and cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer. More than one billion Chinese citizens are considered exposed to PM2.5 and therefore at risk for premature death and chronic illness, which result in a lower quality of life, the loss of a productive labor force and high medical expenses. In 2013, air pollution caused 1.2-1.6 million premature deaths in China. Furthermore, air pollution’s environmental impacts, such as smog and damaged ecosystem services, make the city less attractive to corporate investment.

Chengdu, the fourth largest city in China, has over 15 million residents and 4 million vehicles, with 27 percent of PM2.5 emissions coming from transport, increasing risks to public health, the environment and the economy.

How Chengdu Can Reduce Emissions in the Transport Sector

WRI China is providing recommendations to Chengdu’s government under WRI’s Sustainable and Livable Cities Initiative, on methods to reduce transport-related emissions. The recommendations focus on a package of transport demand management (TDM) measures and technological innovations that can be implemented in three phases, starting with strictest, regulatory measures and moving toward market-based solutions.

Phase 1: New regulations and clean mobility choices

  • Control vehicle ownership: Limit the purchase of new vehicles to less than 100,000 per year.
  • Strict parking management: Raise parking fees and fines in the central district. Introduce smart parking management with varying fees, according to the district and time of day.
  • Restrict traffic: Limit vehicle use under an “odd-even” system where license plate numbers are used to determine which vehicles can be used on which days.
  • Encourage new mobility: Promote electric and hybrid vehicles and introduce strict emissions standards and green technologies, especially for trucks. Encourage a sharing economy for driving, cycling and freight transport.

Phase 2: Enhanced market-based measures

Chengdu should supplement regulatory measures with more market-based approaches to dissuade people from driving. The city could follow the examples of Singapore, Tokyo and Hong Kong by raising parking fees in the central district and introducing a high vehicle-ownership fee. Revenue from these fees could be used to improve the public transport system, increasing ridership up to 60 percent.

Phase 3: New technologies

By 2030, more than 20 million people will live in Chengdu, and the number of daily trips could easily surpass 50 million. Chengdu needs to plan now to enable its public transport system and road network to adapt. The city should adopt advanced information technologies and transport demand management measures such as low emission zones, congestion charging, shared mobility and autonomous vehicles.

Chengdu as a Model for Stronger Urban Future

By 2050, there will be 2.5 billion more people in the world’s urban areas, with 90 percent of this growth concentrated in Asia and Africa. With more Chengdu-sized megacities popping up around the globe, it will be increasingly important to follow WRI China’s recommendations and protect urban air quality from transport-related emissions. Minimizing economic loss from emissions and ensuring healthier environments and residents will create a stronger urban future.

How Can China’s Green Building Sector Grow Fivefold by 2030? 3 Cities Show Us the Way

Wed, 2017-05-31 19:32

Beijing skyline in the evening. Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen/ Flickr

China has grand plans to green its buildings.

The country’s national climate commitment calls for 50 percent of all new buildings constructed by 2020 to be certified green buildings, while its 13th Five-Year Plan prioritizes building efficiency. Following through on these commitments would grow the country’s green building sector from 5 to 28 percent by 2030, representing a $12.9 trillion investment opportunity.

In the face of these goals, China is undergoing massive urbanization, which could increase buildings’ energy use by as much as 40 percent in the next 15 years.

The question now is: How can those responsible for building construction—namely, cities, towns and developers—deliver on the lofty goals set by the national government?

This is a key question on global decision-makers’ minds, including at next week’s 8th Clean Energy Ministerial in Beijing, which brings together energy ministers from 24 countries.

Some Chinese cities are starting to show us the path forward on how to improve building efficiency in the face of massive development and urbanization. Three shared their stories at a recent event in Beijing:

Changning District: Benchmarking Buildings Through Energy Performance Data

You can’t change what you don’t measure. Energy monitoring systems collect data about buildings’ energy use to improve operators’ understanding of how and when they consume energy. Operators can then optimize a building’s energy performance by adjusting heating or cooling systems, lighting levels or hours of operation, leading to significant savings.

Shanghai’s Changning District put in place an energy monitoring platform that now tracks 160 of the district’s 165 public buildings. Thanks to the project, 32 buildings have been retrofitted to achieve an average 20 percent energy savings. To encourage the remaining 133 public buildings to renovate, the district is considering using a third-party ranking system to rate buildings on their energy performance, a strategy that’s proved effective in other locales.

The district also provided 23 million yuan ($3.34 million) in subsidies to help building managers make their buildings more efficient. This lowered the payback period for the private sector, which in turn encouraged them to invest an additional 140 million yuan ($20.33 million).

Changning Road in Changning District. Photo by Chris He/Flickr

Wuxi City High-Tech Industrial Development Zone: Linking Financial Incentives with Green Building Certification

Wuxi City High-Tech Industrial Development Zone is the engine of the Wuxi economy. With 560,000 residents in a city of 6.5 million, the zone contributes 17 percent of Wuxi’s economic activity. But the zone’s economic output also comes with outsized energy demand from buildings housing factories, offices and other facilities.

To drive the construction of energy-efficient buildings, Wuxi issued an innovative investment guidance policy in February 2016: incentives for buildings that meet criteria under two green building certification programs, LEED and China’s national three-star rating system.

Buildings that achieve the highest green building ratings in either certification program receive 500,000 yuan ($73,620) from the district government; buildings with the next-highest level of certification are eligible for a 200,000-yuan ($29,050) incentive. Similar incentives are in place for the use of heat pump technology, solar photovoltaic systems, and other energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.

While it’s still early to see the full impact of this incentive program, Wuxi is clearly leading by example: the district has already achieved the highest level of the latest LEED certification for the new Wuxi Xinwu District Ecological Civilization Pavilion Project, one of only 36 buildings in the world to do so.

Wuxi at night. Thomas Depenbusch / Flickr

Suzhou Taihu New City: Developing a New City with Green Buildings

As China continues to urbanize, entire new cities are being built from scratch. Suzhou Taihu New City in Jiangsu province is one example. Currently in the planning and design stages, Suzhou Taihu New City will house 200,000 residents and focus on high-end service industries such as education and training, research and development, tourism and finance.

All of Suzhou Taihu New City’s buildings will be designed to receive at least a two-star rating from China’s national green building certification program. The city will also boast a green building demonstration area, constructing several projects like zero-energy schools and monitoring their energy performance.

Suzhou Taihu New City will be completed in 2020. New cities and other urban construction sites emerging across China would do well to learn lessons from its planning and design process.

A Model for Other Cities

Ambitious national policies and strong local examples are all positive signs that China is moving forward on building efficiency. But its cities still face several challenges: comprehensive urban planning, implementing policies and regulations, deploying available energy efficiency technologies and developing effective business and financial models.

There are immediate opportunities for China to bridge the gap between its green building ambitions and implementation. First, the Building Efficiency Accelerator (BEA), a global partnership coordinated by WRI, provides opportunities for cities to showcase examples of innovative building efficiency programs, and to connect with global technical experts to take local action. Chinese districts that join the BEA will be able to tap into this expertise and use the platform to share their leadership and successes.

Second, cities in China and in all countries around the world will be more successful when their national governments build support for action at the ministerial level, and equip them with the necessary financial and technical support. Energy ministers can demonstrate their support for city-level building efficiency action at the Clean Energy Ministerial, raising the urgency and visibility of this too-often invisible action: reducing the energy consumption of our buildings.

EDITOR’S NOTE, 5/31/17: This post’s headline originally indicated that China’s green building sector would grow 500 percent by 2020. It is actually poised to grow fivefold by 2030. We regret the errors.

With National Urban Policies, the Process Is the Goal

Sat, 2017-05-27 01:12

Paris, France hosted the International Conference on National Urban Policies this month. Photo by Metro Centric / Flickr

An expanding body of research shows that cities are truly the nexus of the global agenda. But as cities have been recognized as key to a host of global aims, it has become increasingly complex to parse through priorities, processes and international mandates. In this, however, officials and others are starting to identify a powerful tool: national urban policies.

The past two years have seen startlingly busy global development discussions, and cities have played a core role in each. Last year saw adoption of the New Urban Agenda, for instance, which clearly requires action in cities. The previous year, governments negotiated and adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Brasília Declaration on Road Safety and other global compacts — all of which will require significant investment in urban solutions to achieve their aims.

Together, these accords mean a profound restructuring of the international development landscape. National urban policies can be a major instrument for identifying the overlapping priorities of these agreements and establishing a cohesive development strategy that supports progress against all of them together.

National urban policy received a significant boost ahead of last year’s Habitat III conference, when national governments adopted the New Urban Agenda. The run-up to the conference saw major players debating everything from the scope and legal details of such policies to the very language used in naming the concept.

Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Agencia de Noticias Andes / Flickr

Evidence of the growing interest in national urban policies was on display last week in Paris, where the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Cities Alliance and UN-Habitat hosted a major conference on the issue. This was the second such event held by these partners, and it brought together ministries, mayors, thought leaders and practitioners from six continents.

A significant part of the conference’s aim was simply to establish a common vocabulary. Despite growing interest, the phrase “national urban policy” often is used without much explanation — as a concept that everyone knows is needed but is rarely defined. Those gathered in Paris attempted to arrive at a common definition and language to support the conversation on this issue and to share good practices.

Despite the continued debate over the precise definition of national urban policy, there is agreement around some basic tenets. A national urban policy needs to offer a unifying vision for urban development within a country, for instance. It needs to establish a framework that empowers cities to implement and incentivizes investment in design solutions that align with priorities articulated within the policy.

But new to the conversation is the suggestion that the value of these policies is not solely in the resulting legislative framework. Rather, the process of analytical, inclusive, thoughtful decision-making is a central goal. The real value in a national urban policy, this way of thinking argues, is in conversations involving stakeholders from all parts of the urban community — and the aim of trying to foster a more comprehensive view of the challenges and priorities faced by a country’s cities as they grow.

Rules of the Game

Some countries have been experimenting with national urban policies in a variety of forms over the past few decades. But the New Urban Agenda has created renewed interest in the concept, for several reasons.

Since the agenda’s adoption in October, it has become increasingly clear that one of the key obstacles to implementing the agreement is a disconnect between national commitments and local action. As Joan Clos, who  oversaw Habitat III, observed during his address last week in Paris, national governments still do not fully understand their role in urbanization — continuing to consider it something of a “natural disaster” rather than a social and economic trend to be leveraged for progress.

In fact, Clos suggested, national governments have the opportunity — responsibility, even — to establish the “rules of the game.” In addition to setting a vision for their cities, countries must establish a financing and implementation framework to realize that vision.

The structure of this framework will dictate who is responsible for implementation, the powers and resources they have to achieve their goals and the monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to ensure follow-through. Without strong, effective “rules” within the national urban policy, neither cities nor countries can achieve the goals set out within the foundational vision.

A well-constructed national urban policy can establish a clear, cohesive vision for sustainable urban growth and development. At the same time, it can create systems that empower cities with the freedom to make the right choices on sustainable solutions for their unique contexts — and to ensure the financial resources to invest in them.

That’s exciting for many, but last week’s conversations in Paris also had a remarkably common refrain: People must be at the center of national urban policies. It is essential that these policies see urbanization as more than just territorial planning.

Rather, they must take up a holistic view of the urban challenge and work to connect the seemingly “siloed” sectors that make up a city. By connecting transport, housing, water, governance and the myriad other functions that make up the urban fabric, national urban policies can create integrated visions for cities that serve their residents equally and improve quality of life for all.

Asunción, Paraguay. Photo by Alex Steffler / Flickr

A good example comes from Paraguay. After the establishment of their national urban policy —  Municipal Organic Law 3966 — the government set up a National Habitat Committee that involves 67 institutions from different sectors and levels of government. This committee revised the country’s development plan, and one of the primary objectives of this process was to increase investment in low-income housing stock.

From this initiative, Paraguay has escalated annual construction from 2,000 units to 10,000 units and has worked to relocate vulnerable residents from flood-prone areas while creating additional green space for all city residents. Part of the work overseen by Housing and Habitat Minister Maria Soledad Núñez has been to incorporate the priorities of the New Urban Agenda and the SDGs into the projects executed under the law.

What did they find in this process? Through creating and implementing Paraguay’s policy, Núñez reported last week in Paris, it became clear that the key to getting things done was to have both the Housing and Finance Ministries at the table — and to involve cities and stakeholders in the decision-making process from Day 1.

Bridging the Gap

Still, even as lessons such as Paraguay’s experience begin sparking global interest among national governments, a key question remains: Why should cities care about national urban policy? What do they get out of it, besides an overly prescriptive mandate from on high?

Answers again can be found in the idea that with national urban policies, the process is the real goal, not necessarily the mandate that results from that process. By involving cities and local stakeholders in the development process, these policies will reflect city challenges and create better infrastructure for providing the kinds of resources cities need. This can take many forms, but ultimately it is rooted in the decentralization of decision-making power and revenue creation.

Because each city has a unique set of challenges, national urban policy can empower cities to create the change they need and make the decisions that best suit their situations. Rather than prescribe a set of solutions, these policies should provide cities with the capacity and resources to achieve the country’s environmental and social development goals in line with the global agreements to which they have committed.

Further, cities should see these frameworks as an opportunity to take a seat at the table and reinforce their key role in solving national and global challenges. By leveraging their power in this context, cities can command a more central voice in the national decision-making process and more control over the resources needed to achieve their goals.

There are two primary views dominating the urbanization conversation today. The first is that local-level decision-makers should take back the power — the “If Mayors Ruled the World” line of thinking. The second puts the power in the hands of multilateral groups organized around nation states, giving cities almost no voice. Susan Parnell of the African Centre for Cities, in her remarks as last week’s keynote speaker, noted that both are equally simplistic.

National urban policies are a way to bridge that gap, prioritizing transformative actions that both benefit cities and are required from cities. As urban and national actors move forward from Habitat III and develop strategies to achieve the ambitious goals we set for ourselves, it is essential that we acknowledge and emphasize the urban nexus of the global agenda — where cities play a role in achieving the New Urban Agenda, the Paris Agreement and the SDGs.

Without this deep understanding, we will be fated to create policies and investments that are inefficient and duplicative, and which leave key players out of the conversation.

Originally published by WRI’s Alyssa Fischer on Citiscope

Voices of Efficiency: Dinh Quang Cuong, Amit Prothi and Da Nang’s Plans for a Resilient, Efficient Economy

Mon, 2017-05-22 22:23

Da Nang, Vietnam. Photo by Jean-Pierre Bluteau / Flickr

The government of Da Nang, Vietnam has prioritized building efficiency as part of its new Resilience Strategy to address public health and economic risks from climate change. In 2016, the city began working with the global Building Efficiency Accelerator (BEA) partnership. Local leaders are developing ways to signal to property developers, owners and building managers that efficiency is a public priority, and it is essential to work together to implement locally-relevant efficiency actions.

To understand more about driving action on efficiency in Da Nang, WRI’s Shannon Hilsey talked with two local change agents: Dinh Quang Cuong is the Director of the Climate Change Coordination Office and the Chief Resilience Officer for Da Nang. Amit Prothi is an Associate Director for 100 Resilient Cities, working out of the Singapore office on resilience challenges in Da Nang. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Shannon: Why did you choose to work on energy efficiency?

Cuong: I chose to work on energy efficiency in Da Nang because I was encouraged by the city’s vision and policies for energy and the environment. City planners are trying to build Da Nang into an environmental city. It is an active and modern city, engaging with both adaptation and mitigation, with some initiatives focusing on energy efficiency. I was also encouraged by the Paris Agreement in 2015, when Vietnam committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 8-25 percent by 2030. Da Nang is one of the most important parts of the country to take action on that commitment.


Amit: I come from an architecture and urban planning background. When I was a student, I became more and more interested in sustainable urban development. I’ve been striving throughout most of my career to look at how urban development can be more sustainable. Not just buildings, but how complete cities can be more sustainable. When you look at where urbanization is happening globally, much of it is in Asia. I wanted to get involved with how to make a difference in Asian cities because right now we are at a point where much of the projected urban development hasn’t happened yet. We have an opportunity to set into place new practices that are resource efficient and that see bigger returns.

Da Nang is a great example: The city has grown from 660,000 people in 1997 to more than 1 million now, and it is projected to double by 2030. To accommodate current and future residents, the city must continue to develop and expand. We have the opportunity to influence this development, including a stronger focus on building efficiency.

How does building efficiency fit into Da Nang’s economic, environmental and social goals? And, more specifically, as experts that have worked on resilience plans for Da Nang, how can energy efficiency support the city’s resilience efforts?

Amit: Da Nang is one of Vietnam’s five major cities, and it is one of the fastest growing. It is also one of the most attractive travel destinations in Southeast Asia, so foreign direct investment funnels into the city, spurring large-scale urban development. 100 Resilient Cities supported Da Nang to develop its Resilience Strategy. During that process, we identified economic resilience to be a key element: How does Da Nang ensure it stays economically viable in the future? When the city reaches 2.5 million people in 2030, will there be jobs for everyone? A key stress that was highlighted during our discussions is the power supply—while it is sufficient today, could it be problematic as Da Nang keeps growing? Hotter periods related to climate change are expected to increase energy demand in the future. Additionally, Da Nang has ambitions to develop clean industries utilizing advanced technology. Will the city be able to access a sustained power supply that is required to support such industrial development? This is where the BEA comes into play. It gives Da Nang the timely and much-needed opportunity to explore how to become more resilient to power shocks and continue expansion of its industrial and service base to accommodate future growth of the city.

What actions is Da Nang taking to improve building efficiency, and why were these actions selected? What are the main challenges to implementing them?

Cuong: Da Nang has been working on building efficiency for many years. Looking to the future, the city is planning to implement energy solutions for 2017- 2022 in four key areas: 1.) how to enhance energy savings in hotels and public buildings; 2.) how to develop recycled energy in the city; 3.) how to save energy in industrial manufacturing and 4.) how to use energy efficiently in public lighting areas. We are trying to plan areas in the city where we can develop solar energy.

Within the framework of the BEA, there are three areas: 1.) how to build policy about energy savings; 2.) implement energy saving management solutions in one hotel (2-3 stars) and 3.) set indicators to track the progress of energy savings in the city and within the project. We are creating a guiding document to encourage relevant agencies in the city to cooperate with each other on how to supervise and track the progress of energy savings in Da Nang.

One of the biggest challenges in implementing building efficiency is securing financial resources. We have high demand, but resources are limited. The second challenge is that energy efficiency is a fairly new field, and not all people clearly understand the benefits. Third, it is really difficult to influence investors to spend money on energy efficient technologies and persuade them on the cost-benefits of doing so. Last, but not least, the regulations from the central government aren’t strong enough to be effective and aren’t very adaptable.

Amit: Right now, the building construction industry in Vietnam is used to the old products. There is an evolving market for newer energy-efficient products, but those tend to be costlier. As the market expands, and the up-front cost of building energy efficiency starts to go down, you will see more of the market picking this up on its own. Cuong talked about what the government is trying to do, but, from the private side, there hasn’t been much awareness. What I’m hopeful for in Da Nang stems from tourism and the big hotel chains. As those big groups focus more on energy efficiency, most likely from a branding and resource efficiency point of view, they can lead the charge on building efficiency.

How did the leadership and vision emerge for this project? Who have the critical players been, and what roles did they play?

Cuong: The approach of the city is to include not only city government but also the private sector, universities and research institutions in the BEA project. All of these players are important for the development of BEA activities in Da Nang. Therefore, identifying one key player is hard. But, from my perspective, the city government is the leader in this process.

Amit: The country has made a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the highest level. That mandate is trickling down to cities, like Da Nang, to see how they can start to address this at their end, particularly given that they will be growing quickly. Da Nang has capacity needs, both in terms of knowledge and resources. This is an area that requires a considerable amount of investment. We are trying to position Da Nang at the receiving end of global funds, knowledge, technology and resources.

Cuong, as the Chief Resilience Officer, can become the long-term champion of these issues. When he retires, he can look at what he has done for urban resiliency for our children and grandchildren. That’s my hope.

Toward Car-Free Cities: The Inalienable Right to Park in Bogotá

Fri, 2017-05-19 19:28

Cars Park Illegally in Colombia’s Capital City, Bogotá. Photo by Carlos Felipe Pardo / Flickr

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

A particular TDM strategy, parking policy, is key for managing urban travel demand. This blog explores the current parking challenges facing Bogotá, Colombia, and how they fit into a larger agenda for expanding mass transit and improving mobility infrastructure in the city. Through the different lenses of New York City, Bogotá, Stockholm and London, the series examines the social and political barriers that cities need to overcome to successfully implement TDM strategies. The blog series also discusses the future trends of TDM and its implications, particularly in the developing world. 

Despite growing automobile ownership in Colombia, only 14.8 percent of residents actually own their cars. This rate is especially low when compared with other countries: 23 percent in Chile, 24.9 percent in Brazil, 27.5 percent in Mexico and 79.7 percent in the United States. While a small portion of the population owns cars, parked cars dominate the streets of Colombia: on sidewalks, blocking bicycle lanes and on many streets despite “No Parking” signs. Every now and then I venture out to remind drivers of their wrongly-parked cars, only to receive strong negative responses. I got tired of taking pictures and publishing them on social media because nothing changes. A scarce police force in Bogotá attempts to control illegal parking, but the officers are largely unsuccessful. Recently, however, singers dressed as traffic cones have reinforced control, persuading drivers to park legally, with some success.

The parking challenge was highlighted as a global problem by The Economist, which suggests that eliminating free (or low-cost) parking is an effective way to reduce congestion, pollution and urban sprawl. They indicate that the biggest single difference between streets in Los Angeles, London and Tokyo is parking. While Los Angeles promotes parking, London has some regulations and Tokyo prohibits on-street parking entirely. For decades, Japanese authorities have requested proof of parking space ownership as a requisite for getting a new vehicle license.

What can we do to solve the parking problem? Trying to address this challenge through increasing the supply of parking means finding space for cars to park. This requires business, offices and homes to dedicate more space for parking. This option was appealing for and implemented in many cities, but the result brought the city even further from a solution. Large plots of land were used for parking lots around offices, parks and shops, making it increasingly difficult to access destinations on foot and by bicycle, and fostering environments in which public transport is very costly. This poses a great burden on the city, one that is well-documented in The High Cost of Free Parking.

Seeing as the supply-side approach is largely ineffective and even detrimental, I propose this alternative, three-pronged strategy: 1) Eliminate parking minimums, the requirement that each building should have a given minimum number of parking spaces and establish limits to parking supply in zones with public transport availability (already in place in London, São Paulo and Medellin); 2) Eliminate price caps, or limits to parking fees, for off-street parking and 3) Mange on-street parking and parking in city-owned, public spaces, including the use of variable parking fees (like San Francisco and Moscow).

Parking minimums make real estate more expensive and promote motorization. Therefore, zoning regulations that eliminate parking minimums make a big difference in reducing costs and promoting use of public transport. As a result of not having a minimum parking requirement, The Shard, the tallest building in London (with 87 floors), has only 48 parking spots. In Bogotá, where the zoning code requires parking minimums, BD Bacatá, the tallest building (with 67 floors), has 433 private and 334 public parking spots. The good news is that Bogotá is starting to think of eliminating parking minimums.

“Well-intentioned” price caps on off-street parking also result in the promotion of excessive car use, and have the unintended consequence of reducing parking lot availability. Price caps have become a deterrent to land owners dedicating space to parking lots. If price caps are set at a low rate, cars will take advantage of the cheap, long-term parking, leading to a loss in revenue for the owner and ultimately the closure of the lot. This has been observed in Bogotá since the introduction of price caps in 2003: the city has more cars, but the availability of off-street parking is down, to the point that parking lots are an “endangered species,” forcing hardcore car users to park illegally.

Alongside eliminating parking minimums and price caps for off-street parking, cities should strive to adequately manage on-street parking. A publication by GIZ, authored by Paul Barter, provides guidance on this topic. If on-street parking is free or managed informally at relatively low cost, we will continue to see cars on top of sidewalks, bike lanes and other forbidden places. Instead, however, if cities charged for on-street parking, parking would be regulated. Revenue from on-street parking can be used for enforcement and for improvements in public space and quality of public transport services. A conservative estimate for the revenue Bogotá could collect from on-street parking is around US $50 million per year. While parking-meters have been around since 1935, Bogotá has not jumped aboard the train, and is therefore missing out on a huge financial opportunity. However, plans for regulating on-street parking are underway.

Managing parking is a key component of effective and efficient urban mobility. If Bogotá wants to improve upon its current parking challenge, the city must work to dismantle the current parking regulations.

This was originally published in Spanish on El Tiempo and TheCityFix México

How to Attract Private Investment to Energy-Efficient Buildings? Follow the 5 “S’s”

Thu, 2017-05-18 21:24

Energy efficiency building monitoring system. Photo by Argonne National Labs/Flickr

The 2017 Sustainable Energy for All Forum kicked off with a stark warning: The world is not on track to reach its 2030 energy goals, including those on efficiency. To speed action, leaders in government and finance will need to better coordinate policy and investment to move more money toward clean energy.

More than ever before, investors see opportunities to make money in energy infrastructure upgrades like efficient buildings, clean transportation and renewable energy generation. But to create healthy investment markets, financiers say that governments need to adopt regulation and foster voluntary programs. Good public policies can complement and drive private investment to building efficiency. How? In the buildings sector, we hear at least five ways.


Investors seek predictable outcomes. Without clear policy or guaranteed returns, private investors are unlikely to lend to building efficiency projects.

Governments can establish policies that set expectations for the building sector. Cities that adopt and enforce building energy codes, for example, can quickly increase local demand for energy efficiency technology. Stable demand means a stable market for finance. Tanya Müller García, Secretary of Environment for Mexico City, said at the forum that the city’s new construction regulation, which includes energy efficiency standards for the first time, is beginning to create more demand for voluntary energy efficiency.

Private investors also want evidence that the money they lend will be repaid. In new markets where a record of repayment does not yet exist, governments that guarantee repayment can better attract investment. Risk-sharing agreements, such as one between the Government of India and the World Bank, designate who will take financial losses and by how much, taking some burden off of financial institutions.

Berlin is pushing forward innovative approaches to efficiency. Photo by VV Nincic / Flickr


High transaction costs can undercut investor profits. To reduce these costs within their portfolios, investors look for markets with high demand and large transaction sizes. Commercial financiers typically aren’t interested in an investment until it reaches a scale of around $10 million, as Bruce Schlein, a sustainability and finance leader at Citi, noted in a forum panel.

To create the scale needed for commercial investments, government action can aggregate demand for finance from multiple projects. The Berlin Energy Agency, for example, creates pools of public and private building efficiency projects to make them attractive to energy service companies that provide technical assistance and funding. To date, the program has reduced energy bills by more than $199 million.


Investors need a way to assess bundles of projects, rather than looking one by one. In established markets like auto sales or student loans, lenders have common standards for categorizing financial products and risks. The financial sector is only beginning to use these for buildings.

Existing market standards, including green building certifications like EDGE, LEED and others, are often familiar to investors. Investors may, therefore, better understand projects that use these certifications, which can increase the likelihood of investment. Governments can use policies such as financial incentives to encourage broader adoption of these existing market standards, which can help increase the demand for building efficiency technologies to meet those certifications.

Project documentation standards, like the Investor Confidence Project protocols, make projects comparable by standardizing the data points provided to and assessed by financiers. Standard data also allows investors to assess multiple projects quickly, categorize them by risk and sell them in groups to a secondary market, as is beginning to happen in initiatives like the Warehouse for Energy Efficiency Loans (WHEEL) in the United States. Secondary markets in turn enable larger-scale investments and greater confidence in returns.


The building market’s fragmented nature presents challenges for investors looking for profit. Even in a single city or district, investments in building efficiency could involve a wide variety of technologies (air conditioning, boilers, lighting), property types (homes, offices, schools) and decision-makers (building managers, homeowners).

To complicate matters, each market segment involves different barriers and motivations for investments in efficiency. For example, homeowners are often motivated by a desire for a comfortable temperature in their house, but any costly or inconvenient upgrades discourage action. Businesses tend to be more concerned about productivity and their reputation, and will therefore be more likely to consider the lifecycle costs of their investment.

Governments and NGOs need to design mechanisms that appeal to the varying motivations of building decision-makers in different market segments. For institutional real estate investors, for example, Carbon Trust demonstrated why greener commercial buildings are attractive investments: They rent at a premium, have lower vacancy rates, and make employees happier and more productive.

Jakarta in the evening. Photo by Osrin/Flickr


Cities that only offer short-term or one-off building efficiency policies are unlikely to develop the scale or stability needed to transform their real estate market toward demanding efficiency. But governments that develop a long-term vision with a sequenced package of policies create a healthy market for building investment.

The government of Jakarta, for example, adopted both a new energy code for all buildings and a tax rebate for buildings that exceeded standards, encouraging investment by those that simply want to comply with the law and more investment by those who see efficiency as an opportunity to reduce costs or improve their business. As of May 2016, the program was saving around $68 million every year.

The pathway to commercial financing may also follow a sequence. Bruce Schlein of Citi observed that the company’s investments in energy efficiency often stemmed from an early combination of philanthropy and government support. To replicate this elsewhere, government, finance and civil society groups in local markets should cooperate closely on stepping stones to success.

Building Efficiency Accelerator: Putting Principles into Action

Each of these methods align with actions cities are taking in the Building Efficiency Accelerator (BEA). Cities that join the BEA partnership commit to implementing a building efficiency policy and a demonstration project, which often then mature into a project or program investment pipeline.

As the 28 Building Efficiency Accelerator cities move to implement their actions in 2017 and fund the implementation of future efforts, their commitments are complementary and reinforcing. Clear policies encourage investments, and investor interest encourages government action – getting us back on track to deliver against our 2030 Sustainable Energy for All goals. The combination leads to strong markets for building efficiency that attracts more private investment at less public cost: an efficient solution for clean, affordable energy.

Toward Car-Free Cities: Why Congestion Charging Failed in New York

Mon, 2017-05-15 22:40

Traffic Congestion Plagues New York City’s Times Square. Photo by Javi Sánchez de la viña/Flickr

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

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

In 2016, New York City had the third worst traffic congestion in the world. New Yorkers spent an average of 89 hours sitting in traffic, and, due to increased vehicle traffic, car speeds are declining city-wide. From 2010 to 2015, the average traffic speed in Manhattan’s Midtown region decreased 20 percent, to 5.21 mph. Due to the inability of traveling efficiently on city roads, congestion is putting New York City’s future economic growth and competitiveness at risk. Currently, it is estimated that traffic congestion costs the region US $13 billion each year, and this number is expected to grow.

To combat individual car-use, New York City decided to employ congestion changing, a well-known strategy for TDM, where vehicles are charged a fee to enter Manhattan during peak hours. City officials saw it as a viable option to solve their congestion challenges.

The Congestion Charging Proposal

In 2007, former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg introduced congestion charging legislation as part of his PlaNYC Sustainability Plan. After Bloomberg’s proposal was introduced to the New York State Legislature, a commission explored different approaches for implementation. The commission ultimately decided to charge a US $8 daily fee to all cars traveling in Manhattan between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. Tolls collected on various city bridges and tunnels would offset the charge to ensure no driver would pay more than US $8 per day. The proposal stated that proceeds from the charge would be used for improving mobility infrastructure. Most New York City residents supported the plan, as a result of its promise to enhance city infrastructure: In a 2008 poll, 59 percent of residents voted in favor and 38 percent were opposed.

The Barriers to Gaining Approval

Unlike other cities that have implemented congestion charging, New York City needed to get approval from three legislative bodies: New York City Council, both houses of the New York State Legislature (Senate and Assembly) and the Governor of New York.

The City Council supported congestion charging by a vote of 30-20. While the Senate was expected to approve the plan, the Assembly was not supportive, thereby blocking the vote and allowing the short window to acquire federal funding to close. Without funding, the bill died and, with it, the congestion charging plan.

Weighing Fees and Congestion

Most of the Assembly’s opposition stemmed from members representing the outer boroughs of the city (Queens and Brooklyn), highlighting the financial impact on people (although only 5 percent of residents commute by car and would pay the congestion charge).  Their main arguments included the feasibility of using public transit as an efficient alternative to driving, the cost-benefit of saving time driving versus the charge and looking at congestion charging as a realistic means to decrease city congestion.

The plan gained support through a strategy developed by the Mayor, key constituents, elected officials and advocacy groups. There was extensive public outreach and involvement to connect the benefits of congestion charging to improving transportation options and achieving sustainability goals. In the end, however, this strategy wasn’t enough. For a congestion charging proposal to pass, it is critical to persuade elected officials, for they hold the vote. In New York City, many small interest groups have the ability to influence the decisions of elected officials, but, in this case, there was an apparent lack of communication.

The Future of TDM in NYC

Since the proposal’s demise, there have been several attempts to revive congestion charge in Manhattan. An ongoing discussion includes introducing tolls for all East River crossings into Manhattan. Currently, only the tunnels are tolled, while the bridges are free. The Move NY Fair Plan, a bill introduced in 2016, would toll bridge crossings, and revenues would fund public transit and road infrastructure. The bill was introduced in the New York State Senate but has yet to be voted on.

New York City remains an example of how difficult it is to influence public opinion, elected officials and ultimately implement TDM strategies. The lessons from New York are helpful in advancing a successful agenda for implementing TDM measures in other cities around the world. In upcoming blogs, this series will explore diverse global experiences to provide valuable input to planners and decision makers facing urban mobility challenges.

4 Steps to Promote Safer Speeds that Save Lives

Sat, 2017-05-13 01:14

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Implements Zona 30 Low-speed Zones. Photo by Mariana Gil / WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities

This week is UN Global Road Safety Week, focused on the theme “Slow Down, Save Lives.” WRI works to make cities around the world safer and more sustainable by implementing street design and regulations that reduce vehicle speeds while supporting walking and cycling. There is a growing body of evidence on the impacts and wider benefits of such efforts, which we’ll explore in blog posts this week. 

Roughly 3,400 people around the world die every day from traffic crashes. In most of the Low and Middle Income Countries (LMIC), more people die in traffic crashes annually than from violent crimes. While the location and circumstance of the traffic fatalities differ, between one-third and one-half of them have something in common: speed. Humans can only stand so much force from crash impact, and much of this is determined by vehicle speed. In the city of Mumbai, 91 percent of total crash fatalities are attributed to excessive speeding. In the United States, more than 9,200 crash fatalities a year are due to speeding.

There are a few key actions communities can take  that can reduce—or even help eliminate—traffic deaths and serious injuries. Here are four basic steps:

1. Set a safe speed limit.

Achieving safe speeds starts with safe speed limits. The surprising reality is that only 47 countries currently have suitable laws on urban speeds, representing 13 percent of the global population.

The speed limit should be set and enforced based on the type of road, the quality of the road infrastructure and the safety level of the local vehicle fleet. This can happen at the national, state or local level, or at all three. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends speed limits of 30 kmph (19 mph) on urban streets with high volumes of pedestrians, cyclists or motorcyclists, and up to 50 kmph (31 mph) on urban arterials with fewer pedestrians. Seemingly small differences in speed really matter. There is a 10 percent potential for death if a pedestrian is hit by a speeding vehicle at 30 kmph (18.64 mph), which doubles to 20 percent at 35 kmph (22mph). At 50 kmph (31 mph), the likelihood of death is more than 80 percent. In the first month of reduced speed limits on two major arterials in São Paulo in 2015, fatal crashes fell by 29 percent from the year before.

Pedestrian death risk increases at higher vehicular speeds. Graphic by WRI Health and Road Safety team

2. Promote and enforce the speed limit.

In many places, even if speed limits do exist, they may not be enforced by authorities or known and followed by drivers. Technology like speed cameras can help. For instance, Washington, D.C. saw a 60 to 80 percent reduction in speed violations within four to six months of camera deployment. During the same period, the city experienced a 70 percent reduction in traffic fatalities.

Whatever the means of enforcement, cities should adopt a low tolerance for speeding. In many cities, speeding drivers are not given tickets until they are 10 kmph (6 mph) or even 16 kmph (10 mph) over the speed limit. But an increase of only 10 kmph can be the difference between life and death.

3. Design streets for their speed limits.

A driver’s choice of travel speed is influenced by the characteristics of the road, so street design is critically important. Narrow lanes are proven to reduce speeds, along with resulting in more attentive driving. Partial lane-narrowing designs, known as chicanes and chokers, help to slow down vehicles midblock. They also reduce the distance a pedestrian has to travel to cross a road. Chicanes can reduce crashes with injuries by 54 percent, while chokers help to reduce speeds by up to 14 percent. Speed humps and speed cushions can reduce crashes with injuries by 50 percent. Raised crossings also require cars to slow down, and help to improve the driver’s awareness of pedestrians. Evidence from Latin American cities shows that raised crossings result in a 10 percent reduction in midblock speeds. Details on these and other evidence-based measures can be found in WRI’s Cities Safer by Design report.  

The impacts of safer street designs. Graphic by WRI Health and Road Safety team

4. Get communities on board.

Most people aren’t aware of how speed affects their safety and well-being, or that these issues can be addressed. Print, broadcast and online media campaigns help build awareness. However, the most effective means of getting attention and changing public perception takes direct engagement, imagination, and local flavor.

In New York, the “That’s why it’s 30” campaign featured advertisements making fun of New Yorkers’ tendency to “know everything,” while speed-activated signs displayed a digital skeleton to speeding drivers. Like a growing number of cities, New York has also had great success with tactical urbanism – making temporary changes to an intersection, street or neighborhood to allow citizens to experience the benefits of better street design and slower speeds for themselves. In many cases, such temporary interventions wind up becoming so popular that they are made permanent, such as the iconic Broadway redesign. These measures  are so effective that the WHO is encouraging Slow Down Days for Global Road Safety Week this week.

The “That’s why it’s 30” campaign in New York was launched in 2010 to make residents aware of the speed limit and the risks of exceeding it. The 30 mph speed limit has since been reduced to 25 mph for even greater safety. Photo by NYC Department of Transportation

As communities experience the benefits of lower speeds, they will begin to demand them, as has been seen in London. Starting in the 2000s, the city introduced small 20 mph zones to improve safety in some neighborhoods. This intervention reduced fatalities by 23 percent within the zones, and by 3 percent in adjacent areas. The benefits were so well received that by 2016, 9 out of 13 inner-London boroughs had adapted 20 mph limits.

As awareness of the benefits of safer speeds gains momentum, the demand for decision makers to design safer and more enjoyable streets will continue to grow.

The Need for Safe Speeds: 4 Surprising Ways Slower Driving Creates Better Cities

Tue, 2017-05-09 18:41

Pedestrians cautiously approach the intersection of speeding cars in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by Bernard Spragg/ Flickr

This week is UN Global Road Safety Week, focused on the theme “Slow Down, Save Lives.” WRI works to make cities around the world safer and more sustainable by implementing street design and regulations that reduce vehicle speeds while supporting walking and cycling. There is a growing body of evidence on the impacts and wider benefits of such efforts, which we’ll explore in blog posts this week. 

Traffic crashes kill 1.25 million people every year and cause permanent disability to millions more. No matter the location, speed is frequently a factor.

Deaths and serious injuries are the painful and highly visible result of a lack of road safety, but we have lost more to high car speeds than we realize. What about fear of children playing on sidewalks, walking to school, or learning to ride a bike? What about people who struggle to pay high transport costs, but don’t feel safe commuting by bike?

Speeding cars can limit physical activity, use of public space and quality of life, and the impacts are felt most by the least advantaged. Lower-income residents often live in close proximity to roads with dangerously fast-moving traffic. They are also more dependent on walking, biking or public transport, which are most exposed to the danger of speeding cars. These negative impacts are even more dramatic in developing countries, where a rapid increase in car and motorcycle ownership is taking place on roads with little speed regulation.

Unfortunately, this can literally be a matter of life and death. But establishing safer speeds in cities can not only save lives, it can also generate many other benefits in the process:

1. Lower speeds save lives.

Every 1.6 kilometer-per-hour (1 mph) reduction in vehicle speeds on urban streets results in a 6 percent decrease in traffic fatalitiesLower speed limits reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries for a combination of reasons. For one, driving at very high speeds can result in tunnel vision and decreased depth perception for the driver . At lower speeds, drivers have a wider field of vision and are more likely to notice other road-users.

Figure 1: A driver’s field of vision is reduced to tunnel vision at higher speeds. Graphic by: WRI Health and Road Safety team, image adapted from Google Street View

At lower speeds, even if a crash does occur, the consequences will be less severe, especially if it involves a pedestrian, cyclist or motorcyclist.  A pedestrian has a  90 percent chance of survival if hit by a vehicle moving at 30 kmph (18.64 mph). This decreases to 70 percent at 40 kmph (24.85 mph) and less than 20 percent at 50kmph (31 mph).

Figure 2: The risk of a pedestrian or cyclist dying in a collision increases with vehicle speed. Graphic by WRI Health and Road Safety team

Driving at lower speeds also enables drivers to stop within a shorter distance. The stopping distance of a vehicle is a combination of the distance travelled during the driver’s reaction time and the distance it takes for the car to stop after the brakes are applied. At higher speeds, a car travels further during this reaction time and the stopping distance is greater. This affects the rate of momentum at the point of a crash, and therefore the possibility of survival.

Figure 3: Car stopping time required at different speeds. Graphic by: WRI Health and Road Safety team

2. Safer speed limits don’t necessarily make trips longer.

Many people fear that slowing the speed limit in urban areas will dramatically increase journey time. However, average road speeds in cities are more determined by the frequency of intersections than speed limits.

A safer speed limit can achieve more uniform speeds and reduce dangerous midblock acceleration, while adding little to overall journey times. Research from Grenoble, France has shown that a speed limit of 30 kmph (18.64 mph) rather than 50 kmph (31 mph) only added 18 seconds of travel time between intersections 1 km (.62 miles) apart.  Lower speed limits may even reduce congestion in some cases, as they reduce the likelihood of bottlenecks. This has been observed in Sao Paulo, where lowering the speed limit on major arterials reduced congestion by 10 percent during the first month of implementation, while fatalities also dropped significantly.

Figure 4: Research in Grenoble, France found that a lower speed limit had a marginal impact on trip time. Graphic by: WRI Health and Road Safety Team, adapted from Ville30

3.  Designing for safer speeds fosters healthier communities.

Lower car speeds create a more comfortable environment for pedestrians and cyclists. Street design that encourages safer speeds—such as narrower lanes and wider sidewalks, raised crosswalks and curb extensions—also provide more space for pedestrians and make it easier to cross the road. Details on these and other measures can be found in WRI’s Cities Safer by Design report.

With speed-slowing infrastructure, cities may see positive trends in residents opting to walk or bike instead of driving. London is currently employing these measures to encourage more walking trips, and anticipates it will reap health and economic benefits. One study found that the United States could save $5.6 billion in health care costs if one in 10 adults started walking regularly. Residents opting to take fewer trips by car also means fewer harmful emissions and a reduced overall risk of traffic collisions.

4. Slower speeds are good for the economy.

Studies have found that streets that are more inviting for walkers and cyclists are more vibrant and economically successful than streets with high volumes of fast-moving traffic. Benefits include increased real estate value and higher spending on retail and services, boosting the local economy. For example, when street designs with narrower lanes slowed traffic in the Mission District of San Francisco, nearly 60 percent of retailers reported increased spending by local people, and nearly 40 percent reported an overall increase in sales. Meanwhile, London’s Kensington Street saw a 13 percent increase in the price of apartments when safety and design improvements were made to the streetscape, and estimates that better shopping access for pedestrians will generate millions of pounds in increased retail spending.

The research is now abundantly clear: Getting drivers to slow down can improve the quality of life for all city dwellers.

Subsidizing Congestion? India’s Current Fiscal Policy for Public Buses and Private Vehicles

Wed, 2017-04-26 19:54

Taxing Private Vehicles and Fuel Can Change How Cities View Transport. Photo by Adam Cohn / Flickr

Revenue generated from taxation allows governments to invest in infrastructure and resources that allow for the delivery of essential services. Broadly speaking, these investments are expected to work towards improving the quality of life for the country’s citizens.

However, India’s fiscal policy for public buses – the mainstay of public transport in the country –appears to contradict this objective. A previous blog post on this topic has highlighted the contribution of taxation to both higher bus fares and poorer service quality in India. This blog focusses on another aspect of India’s distorted tax policy towards bus-based public transport: its contribution to traffic congestion across urban India.

Traffic congestion results when there are too many vehicles for the available road space. While a multitude of factors often combine to result in gridlock, arguably the most important contributing factor has been the explosive growth in vehicles in India; a 6.2-fold increase in the number of registered vehicles in less than two decades, from 33.79 million in 1996 to 210 million in 2015. This unprecedented increase has severely overburdened major roads in most cities, leading to endemic gridlock.

Conventional measures favored by governments to reduce congestion, such as road-widening or the construction of flyovers and underpasses, have provided no long-term relief to the problem. This is because increasing roadway capacity induces demand. Realizing that the newly-widened road offers a faster commute, more people (and hence vehicles) start to use the road until all the extra space created by the widening of the road has been filled by new vehicles. A more comprehensive solution is to utilize road space more efficiently by prioritizing high-occupancy public transport, such as buses, over private vehicles. This requires a two-pronged approach: 1. improving the quality of public transport to incentivize usage and 2. discouraging people from using private vehicles. In this regard, a good fiscal policy can play a major role.

Taxation can serve several purposes for a government. Apart from revenue generation, it can also be used to influence citizen behavior – by taxing unhealthy or unsustainable practices at higher rates, discouraging their use. Mexico, for example, introduced an additional excise tax on sugar-sweetened drinks in 2013, estimated to have reduced consumption of sugary drinks by close to 12 percent in a year. The added revenue from such tax measures has, in several cases, been used for the amelioration of problems caused by such behavior. For instance, California increased taxation on cigarettes in 2012 and used the additional revenue to fund cancer research.

The same fiscal logic works to combat traffic congestion: higher taxes on vehicles and fuel can serve as a strong disincentive to purchase and use private vehicles, especially for non-essential trips. The increased revenue can be used to fund improvements in road-based public transport and walking infrastructure. Unfortunately, Indian fiscal policy, instead of nudging users away from private transport and towards public transport, is either indifferent between the two or provides undue benefits to private users at the cost of public transport. Two major aspects of this policy deserve note:

Direct taxes (Motor Vehicle and Passenger Tax): Better known as “road tax,” this is a state tax levied to meet the costs of construction and maintenance of roadways. Certain states also levy a passenger tax on the revenue generated from ferrying passengers by State Road Transport Undertakings (SRTUs). These two taxes form the bulk of direct taxes paid by SRTUs. While private vehicles (cars and bikes) also pay Motor Vehicle Tax, it is a one-time payment, usually a percent of the vehicle’s value. SRTUs, on the other hand, pay Motor Vehicle Tax either quarterly or annually based on their bus capacity, revenue or routing (depending on the state).

Extrapolations from Ministry of Road Transport and Highways data yield the average annual Motor Vehicle Tax per bus. Adding to this the average Passenger Tax and assuming that (a) a typical bus lasts 8 years and (b) a non-AC bus costs approximately 3.5 million rupees (US $54,000), it is possible to estimate the lifetime direct tax per SRTU bus as a percent of its value. In many states, public buses face a significantly higher direct tax burden than private cars or bikes, as the following comparisons from Indian States Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Punjab detail:

A comparison of tax rates for public and private vehicles in India. Graphic by Aloke Mukherjee

Taxes on fuel: Several countries use revenue from fuel taxes to subsidize or otherwise support mass transit. In the U.S., for example, approximately 16 percent of revenue from excise duty on gasoline is earmarked for mass transit. The UK provides a fuel subsidy from existing fuel duties to transit operators in the form of the Bus Service Operators Grant to keep bus operating costs manageable. Higher retail fuel taxes serve as a deterrent to private vehicle use for nonessential trips, and can also subsidize public transport. In India however, SRTUs (apart from Rajasthan) currently pay the same rate of tax on diesel purchased as private vehicles. In fact, from 2013 to 2015, bulk purchasers were expected to pay a significantly higher rate per-liter for fuel purchased, due to the dual-pricing scheme introduced by the UPA government, effectively subsidizing private vehicles at the cost of public transport.

India’s fiscal policy towards public transport is rather lopsided, often taxing public buses far higher than private vehicles. While increasing taxes on private vehicles is rarely a popular move, the long-term benefits of rationalizing road taxes in favor of public transport outweigh the short-term political costs. However, it is important that public transport service quality and supply is rapidly improved, rather than a sole fiscal disincentive towards using private vehicles.

Originally published on WRI India

Unaffordability Is a Problem, but Sprawl Is a Terrible Solution

Fri, 2017-03-31 19:38

While housing may be less expensive outside of city-center, urban sprawl does not make cities more affordable. Photo by Kasper Christensen / Flickr

Many hard-working families spend more than they can afford on housing and transportation, leaving them with insufficient money to spend on other essential goods such as food and healthcare. This is a tragedy. It results, in part, from public policies that favor expensive housing and transportation options over more affordable alternatives.

There are many possible ways to reduce housing costs but some are much better than others. A cheap house is not truly affordable if located in a sprawled, automobile-dependent area with high transportation costs, and households can rationally spend more than is generally considered affordable for a house located in a walkable urban neighborhood where they don’t need a car. True affordability therefore requires policies that increase affordable-accessible housing. Many cities have a shortage of such housing, forcing low- and moderate-income households to spend more than they can afford.

The recently released 2017 International Housing Affordability Survey (IHAS) finds that housing costs are excessive in many cities. This is indeed a serious problem, but the solutions they recommend, which consist primarily of sprawl, would further harm many lower-income households. Much better solutions exist.

Household Affordability Now Considers Transport Costs

Affordability refers to a household’s ability to purchase basic goods such as food, clothing, shelter, transportation and healthcare. In the past, affordability was often defined as households spending less than 30 percent of their budgets on housing, but since households often make trade-offs between housing and transportation costs, many experts now recommend evaluating affordability based on lower-income households’ ability to spend less than 45 percent of their budgets on housing and transport combined.

The following two graphs illustrate the problem. The first shows the portion of household budgets devoted to various goods. Apart from the highest quintile, all income categories spend more than 45 percent (indicated by the orange line) on housing and transportation.

Most households spend more on housing and transportation than is considered affordable, indicated by the dashed line. These costs are regressive: their share of household budgets is inversely related to income. Based on U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey data ( Graphic by Todd Litman

Of course, these cost burdens vary depending on household circumstances. Since approximately a third of lower-income households own their homes and a quarter don’t own vehicles, these average statistics understate the cost burdens on those that pay rents or mortgages and own cars.

The second figure shows spending by lower-income households (average of first and second income quintiles), assuming that home-owning households spend 70 percent less on housing, and car-fee households spend 70 percent less on transportation, than overall averages, and with adjustments to other spending based on their budget. This indicates that lower-income households that pay rents or mortgages and own a motor vehicle devote approximately 60 percent of their budgets to housing and transport, approximately 30 percent more than is considered affordable.

Considering just the two lowest income quintiles, housing and transportation are affordable for those that own their homes or don’t own a car, but consume nearly 60 percent of household budgets that pay mortgages or rents and own a car, leaving insufficient money to spend on other essential goods such as food and healthcare. Based on U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey data ( Graphic by Todd Litman

Urban Expansion Does Not Increase Affordability

The IHAS deems housing unaffordability to be caused by constraints on urban expansion, but this misrepresents the issue. Consider the cities it ranks as most and least affordable:

Urban Expansion Does Not Increase Affordability. Graphic by Todd Litman

The cities it categorizes as the least affordable are attractive, economically successful and geographically constrained coastal cities, while all those that expanded their residential areas are unconstrained, inland urban regions. I’m sure they are nice places to live, but are inappropriate models for increasing affordability in large, economically successful, rapidly growing cities.

It makes no sense to suggest that constrained cities such Sydney, Vancouver and Hong Kong can become affordable by expanding like unconstrained cities such as Decatur, Racine and Springfield. Geographically constrained cities must grow up, not out. The key to affordability in geographically constrained cities is to allow more affordable infill housing by reducing restrictions on compact housing types (townhouses and multi-family housing) and eliminating minimum parking requirements.

The IHAS argues that high housing prices are caused by urban containment boundaries that limit urban expansion, but researchers who examine this conclude otherwise. A detailed study found that, in fact, few U.S. jurisdictions have effective urban containment boundaries but virtually all restrict affordable infill by requiring large size parcels, forbidding multi-family housing in residential neighborhoods and imposing generous minimum parking requirements, which reduce housing affordability and density. Most other countries have fewer restrictions on urban infill, greater affordability and higher home ownership rates.

Sprawling Cities Spend More on Transport and Other Services

Sprawled cities have significantly higher transportation costs than their compact counterparts, something that the survey disregards. These costs are illustrated by recent analysis, summarized in the table below. It compares the United States’ 25 largest compact cities and 25 largest sprawled cities. Compact city households devote an affordable 40.4 percent of their budget to housing and transportation, compared with sprawled cities’ unaffordable 49.9 percent. This can be explained by the sprawled cites’ much lower Walk Score ratings and higher automobile commute mode shares, which require most adults to own a personal automobile. Compact city residents have more affordable transport options, offering thousands of dollars in annual transport cost savings. Of course, not every household takes advantage of these potential savings. Many spend more on automobiles than is essential, for convenience or status sake, but having the ability to reduce vehicle ownership and associated costs can significantly increase affordability.

Sprawling Cities Spend More on Transport and Other Services. Robert Steuteville. Graphic by Todd Litman

The IHAS argues that sprawled urban regions are more livable due to increased affordability and reduced traffic congestion. This is not entirely true. Sprawled community’s lower single-family housing cost are often offset by higher transportation costs, resulting in lower overall affordability, and although more compact cities tend to have more intense traffic congestion, this is more than offset by shorter average trip lengths and lower automobile mode shares. As a result, compact city compact development tends to reduce congestion costs overall.

For example, a major Phoenix, Arizona study found that residents of older neighborhoods with more compact and mixed development, more connected streets, better walking conditions and better public transit services experienced less congestion and spent less total time traveling than did residents of newer, lower-density, automobile-dependent suburbs. Urban residents’ commute trips averaged about seven miles and shopping trips three miles, compared with almost eleven and four miles, respectively, in suburban areas.

There are additional costs of sprawl including higher infrastructure costs, higher traffic fatality rates, higher rates of obesity and associated health problems, reduced mobility options for non-drivers and associated increases in drivers’ chauffeuring costs. Analyzing 2,500 Latin American municipal budgets, Rico and Solé-Ollé found that in urban areas with less than 25 residents per acre, each 1 percent increase in per capita land area increases municipal costs by 0.11 percent. Similarly, de Duren and Compeán found that per capita municipal water, sewage and garbage collection costs in Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Mexico tend to be minimized at a relatively dense 90 residents per hectare. This indicates that public services tend to be most efficient at densities of 40-100 residents per hectare within or adjacent to existing urban areas. Compact development typically reduces the costs of providing a given level of public service by 10-30 percent compared with sprawl.

Misguided public policies can drive up urban housing prices and reduce overall affordability, including restrictions on housing density in urban neighborhoods, the commodification of housing and urban fringe housing development. For example, Mexico’s federal housing finance policies encourage development of inexpensive housing in automobile-oriented urban fringe areas, which caused residents to significantly increase transportation costs compared with housing in more accessible, multi-modal neighborhoods.

Compact Cities are Affordable

Sprawl reduces overall accessibility, which decreases employment opportunities, particularly for economically disadvantaged people. Upward mobility is significantly higher in compact areas than sprawling areas. This results from better job access and less income segregation in more compact areas.

More compact development can also help households generate more long-term wealth by allowing them to shift spending from vehicles, which rapidly depreciate, to housing, which tends to appreciate in value. Choosing a home in a walkable urban neighborhood rather than an automobile-dependent, urban-fringe location can typically provide a household with about US$6,000 in annual transportation cost savings, which can finance about US$100,000 in additional housing investment. A household can build an additional US$65,000 in equity in a decade by choosing a more expensive urban home that requires less spending on transportation instead of a cheaper house at the urban fringe with higher transportation costs.

This is not to suggest that cities should never expand, but, to be resource efficient and maximize overall accessibility, the expansion must be compact and multi-modal, with good walking, cycling and public transit in order to maintain transportation affordability.

Originally published on Planetizen 

Overcoming the Knowledge Gaps for Transit-Oriented Development: What’s Lacking?

Tue, 2017-03-28 18:44

Transit-oriented development can bring economic, cultural and societal benefits to urban residents. Photo by Bradley Schroeder / Flickr

With an increase in their rate of urbanization, many low- to middle-income countries are feeling additional demand for services, amenities and infrastructure. To address this, several cities have followed unorganized development practices (like building bigger and faster), only to meet additional challenges down the road—displacement, uncontrolled migration, greater traffic, higher land prices, insufficient affordable housing and more.

Transit-oriented development (TOD)—a strategy for creating walkable, compact urban areas with a mix of uses around transit systems—can avoid many of these negative effects and bring economic, cultural and societal benefits to the residents of these expanding cities. However, TOD requires an integrated approach to project implementation at all levels of the planning process, and this can be a challenge for cities worldwide. Decision makers must familiarize themselves with the supporting mechanisms to enable TOD if they are to effectively implement this development strategy, but few resources and tools exist at a global level for building capacity and knowledge.

So how do we overcome these barriers, and what’s needed to take them to scale?

A Lack of Common Knowledge Contributes to Common Barriers

Without an extensive knowledge base, TOD remains vulnerable to three reoccurring implementation challenges: coordinated planning, regulatory frameworks and project funding.

First, a lack of coordination between land and transportation planners has historically prevented an integrated planning approach to land, transportation and economic development. This disconnect has led to lost time, increased infrastructure costs, poor health and the loss of public space. For example, in Warsaw, Poland a demand for housing was not paired with the creation of a transportation network. The result was resident dependence on private vehicles and increased congestion on available road networks. To achieve TOD, participating agencies must set clear objectives for growth, ensuring project momentum through political transitions and between development departments while securing citizen support.

Second, an absence of supportive TOD policies in cities has prevented progress by creating isolated areas of development with little foresight for long-term growth. TOD projects require policies that permit high-density and mixed-use developments, often supported by form-based codes that respond quickly to changing economic patterns and space needs. Without local mechanisms in place for land redevelopment, TOD is restricted by national regulations and financial constraints.

Lastly, because TOD is a capital-intensive venture, initial funding for large-scale projects is difficult for many cities to secure. By creatively using and combining financing mechanisms, cities like São Paulo, Brazil are able to tap into value capture instruments that produce the highest returns for their communities. These models can also indicate which projects and technologies are the most advantageous, but local decision makers often aren’t familiar with the options available to them.

The success of Curitiba’s transport-oriented development strategy can be a model for others. Photo by / Flickr

Key Lessons from Brazil and Beyond

Although the context of a city is always different, many examples of success in TOD have revealed four common lessons for getting it right: the importance of political economy, planning and regulation, finance and implementation.

A strong planning and regulatory framework can help address political economy concerns by ensuring that TOD projects are developed and maintained throughout implementation. Once a project has been accepted, a strong planning and regulatory framework can help integrate individual initiatives into the larger vision for the city or region. The success of Curitiba is widely credited to the vision and agency of its former mayor, Jaime Lerner, who supported investment in public transit systems and green city initiatives. Curitiba’s zoning codes and design parameters were readjusted to attract new development while maintaining the integrity of the city at the institutional level. The Curitiba example also provides insight on the coordination, handover and delivery of TOD projects, as the city established a network of agencies to protect the interests of those who interact with the city at every level.

The appeal of TOD lies in the distribution of transportation modes and the opportunities that are created for those who use transit in that area. For a project to truly encompass inclusive TOD, there must be provisions that offer affordable housing, grow access to a diverse job base and preserve local culture. Unfortunately, this task can become challenging at the finance and implementation stage. To attract private investors, the public sector must be willing to not only take on initial financing, but also promote incentives for affordable housing preservation and production.

For example, Brazil’s Outorga Onerosa do Direito de Construir (OODC) instrument allows developers to build at increased density in exchange for a fee. These funds are then shared with under-developed areas of the city. In São Paulo, for example, between 20 to 30 percent of these funds are then allocated to affordable housing.  Another financial innovation includes tying specific funds to TOD by making loans to developers to build affordable housing as part of the larger city plans. Examples here include the Transit Oriented Affordable Housing Fund of San Francisco, the Arlington County (Virginia) Affordable Housing Trust Fund and the Denver (Colorado) Regional Transit Oriented Development Fund.

New Tools Are Needed to Fill the Knowledge Gap

While extensive research has been conducted on TOD in North American and European cities, little knowledge has been compiled on regulatory frameworks and financing mechanisms in the Global South—particularly with an eye to inclusion and equity. For a project to be successful, decision makers need to become familiar with the challenges related to TOD and how they can support each stage of the implementation process. As global urbanization continues, cities will need to meet the mobility, housing, social and economic needs of their residents in a way that is equitable and sustainable. Transit-oriented development can be critical for achieving this, but new tools, information and resources are needed to empower cities to meet the challenge at scale.

The Urban Transport Crisis in Emerging Economies

Mon, 2017-03-27 20:16

Medellin, Colombia integrates transport infrastructure to solve its transit challenges. Metroplús/WRI/Flickr

Developing cities worldwide face a severe and worsening transport crisis. A new book, “The Urban Transport Crisis in Emerging Economies,” reports that urban transport problems are following a perverse pattern: While education and healthcare tend to improve as developing cities grow wealthier, transport problems worsen. The book looks at twelve of the world’s major emerging economies—Brazil, China, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, Turkey and Vietnam. While far from identical, the growth of their transport problems has triggered similar challenges. Although measures to deal with the urban transport crisis are disparate, there are some shared trends. Nine commonly adopted or proposed “interventions” or “solutions” are summarized below:

1.      Road Infrastructure

Experiences in many countries illustrate that road construction may only reduce traffic congestion in the short term. In the long run, increased road capacity fuels additional travel demand. In light of this evidence, transport professionals need to understand that they cannot build their way out of traffic congestion, particularly when this marginalizes other modes such as cycling and walking.

Traffic congestion and reduced pedestrian space in newly-built grade-separated junctions in Ankara, Turkey. Photo by Ela Babalık-Sutcliffe

2.      Rail-based Public Transport

Cities around the world are prioritizing the development of mass transit. Aided by a strong economy in recent decades, many Chinese cities have been developing new urban rail systems. However, in most other developing countries, urban rail is expensive to build, is not always affordable and is often poorly integrated with other transport modes. To shift current mode-based planning approaches, cities need strategic and comprehensive public transport masterplans. These masterplans need to define rail (or bus rapid transit, see below) as the backbone of the public transport network, and buses and informal vans as the feeder systems.

Shanghai Metro Line. Photo by Emcc83 / wikimedia

3.      Road-based Public Transport

Bus rapid transit (BRT) systems are an appealing and effective public transport option for many cities around the world, especially rapidly-growing ones. BRTs can mimic rail-based systems, or function as a simpler network of segregated bus lanes. A main attraction is their lower cost compared to rail. Curitiba’s BRT is a landmark system worldwide. Being one of the first major transport innovations to emerge from a developing country, it inspired many other cities (in both developed and developing countries) to build their own BRT systems. Recently, Guangzhou inaugurated the largest BRT system in Asia.

4.      Support for Non-motorized Modes

Few cities are currently investing substantial amounts in cycling and walking infrastructure. These investments often target small pockets or disconnected urban corridors. In many places, cycling is still seen as a leisure activity rather than a form of everyday transport. Bogotá, however, is a rare exception in terms of investments in cycling infrastructure. Here, cycling rates have grown from around half a percent in 1996 to approximately six percent in 2014. With 392 km (244 miles) of segregated bicycle lanes, it has the largest network in Latin America. In Brazil, support for cycling is increasing, and a large cycling network has been developed in São Paulo. For instance, the city’s Minhocão elevated highway is closed to all vehicular traffic on weekday nights and all day on Sundays, allowing dedicated use by pedestrians and cyclists. In China, bicycle-sharing programs are being introduced to revive the cycling tradition, but there are mixed results.

São Paulo’s walking and cycling infrastructure enables residents to travel without motorized vehicles. Photo by Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brasil

5.      Awareness-raising Campaigns

Raising awareness among citizens on the harmful effects of car dependence and on the benefits of safer, more equitable, livable designs for streets is crucial. Campaigns are taking place in many countries, but their success in reversing travel habits has been minimal. To induce reform, attention needs to shift to professional training and education. To tackle these issues, the Indian government has created financial assistance for professional training, sponsoring Centers of Excellence in Urban Transport.

Sidewalks encroached by motorcycles in an Indian city. Photo by Sujaya Rathi/CSTEP

6.      Pricing Mechanisms

Central to improving urban transport is evaluating the full social and environmental costs of different transport modes. In many countries, however, there is great political reluctance to introduce any measures that curtail the use of private cars because drivers are usually among the powerful local elites. Some pricing and taxation schemes are counterproductive. For example, in India, due to institutional inefficiencies, buses are taxed more than personal vehicles. Road pricing or parking schemes have been implemented in just a handful of countries. One example is Tehran, which has had a limited traffic zone (essentially a large charging zone around its downtown) for several decades. Better enforcement in recent years has reportedly led to some improvements in air quality and traffic flow.

7.      Vehicle Access Restrictions

There has been some experimentation with vehicle access restrictions, with limited success so far. Mexico City has prohibited all cars from circulating one day a week, and vehicles are required to stay off the road one Saturday a month. In addition, cities in China, including Shanghai and Beijing, have introduced restrictions on private vehicle ownership by limiting the issuance of license plates.

As Beijing limits car use, more cyclists take to the streets. Photo by Benoit Colin/WRI/Flickr

8.      Control of Land Use

Cities are slowly recognizing the need to adopt land-use policies that encourage using public transit. This requires that development be concentrated along urban corridors and, especially, at rail and BRT stations, according to the principles of Transit-oriented Development (TOD). While the application of TOD is context-dependent, uncontrolled, low-density sprawl is rarely appropriate.

9.      Technological Solutions

Some developing countries, particularly in Asia, are harnessing and employing technological improvements. Inexpensive smartphone-based taxi or ridesharing services and on-demand parking payments are becoming increasingly popular, especially with younger travelers. In Indonesia, apps such as GrabTaxi and Go-Jek (the local equivalent of Uber) are becoming widespread. There is also growing interest in Intelligent Transport Systems. India has launched the Smart Cities Mission, an urban renewal and retrofitting program targeting 100 cities, which enlists technology.

Go-Jek motorcycle-taxis in Jakarta. Photo by Dorina Pojani

To provide more equitable, accessible and sustainable city transport, a radical overhaul of urban mobility policies and practices is necessary. Measures discussed above cannot yield satisfactory results if employed in isolation. Implementing packages of measures is necessary, leading to impacts greater than the sum of their individual parts.

From Waste to Watts: How Sewage Could Help Fix India’s Water, Energy and Sanitation Woes

Thu, 2017-03-23 01:21

Water-intensive agriculture, rapid urban expansion, increases in industrial activity and growing energy production are driving India’s water demand upward. Photo by Samuel Benoit/Flickr

As India’s summer intensifies, many states are already in the midst of a drought—and the hottest days have yet to arrive. At the same time, water-intensive agriculture, rapid urban expansion, increases in industrial activity and growing energy production are driving the country’s water demand upward. More than half of India is now considered severely water stressed.

Part of the problem is that India still manages its water as an infinite resource on a linear model of withdrawal, consumption and disposal. But a more efficient management model is to look at water from a “circular economy” perspective. Water’s usability doesn’t need to end once it washes down the drain. Rather, we can see industrial and domestic wastewater as a valuable resource from which usable water, nutrients and even renewable energy can be extracted.

Reusing Wastewater through Sludge-to-Energy Plants

Wastewater treatment facilities in most towns are rudimentary, as shown here. Photo by Vittal Boggaram/WRI

Sludge-to-energy systems can make the dream of a circular economy a reality by turning waste into an input, instead of just an output. These systems can be developed as independent, decentralized units that require minimal outside energy for operations. From raw sewage, they generate three useful products: energy, digestate and water that can be reused for agriculture, industry and even domestic uses such as watering gardens and flushing toilets.

Here’s how it works: Wastewater treatment plants first separate sewage into solid “sludge” and liquid water. This methane-rich sludge then undergoes two processes—thermal hydrolysis and anaerobic digestion—to quickly and efficiently remove pathogens and harness biogas. The resulting biogas can then be used as on-site energy to power the wastewater treatment plant, or can be purified further and sold as natural gas. In addition, the solid digestate left over after anaerobic digestion can be used to enhance soil. (However, the presence of certain heavy metals in the digestate, can make it unsuitable for land applications.)

A plant’s financial needs and the technical capacities of its operators can inform which kind of sludge-to-energy technology and system is chosen, and they can be installed in existing wastewater treatment plants, reducing the need for new infrastructure. This saves time, space and money.

A Win-Win for India

Sludge-to-energy systems can also help in another way. India’s urban populations have grown so drastically that sewage treatment systems cannot keep up with the amount of human waste being generated. There are only enough treatment systems in India to treat 37 percent of the country’s sewage—and that’s if they were all operating at maximum capacity. In reality, even less than 37 percent of sewage is probably treated—the rest is often dumped in waterways or on land. Untreated sewage contains large concentrations of pathogens and other contaminants that can make people sick.

Despite emerging policies to deal with urban sanitation, there’s been limited uptake of traditional wastewater treatment facilities due to barriers such as high installation and maintenance costs, the large amount of energy required to run such units, and the need for trained technical staff. In addition, traditional facilities require large amounts of additional space in India’s already-dense urban areas. Non-traditional, smaller sludge-to-energy systems could overcome these barriers by selling natural gas and digestate for revenue, and by using biogas to meet energy needs on-site. Sludge-to-energy systems can help wastewater treatment become financially feasible, provide renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions—all while helping to meet India’s growing water and sanitation needs.

Implementing Sludge-to-Energy Systems in India

WRI India is currently leading research on the potential for implementing sludge-to-energy systems in Indian cities. Past WRI research found that sludge-to-energy systems in Xianyang, China would yield sizable economic, environmental and social benefits—can the same be said for cities in India? Our research in India will map the policy and institutional landscapes of the water and wastewater sectors, consider which designs and approaches match India’s needs, and identify the potential for such systems to increase resilience to water stress. By harnessing resources from wastewater, Indian cities may be able to simultaneously gain a clean source of water, energy and improved sanitation.

Originally published on WRI Insights

With Mobile App Rewards for Cycling and Walking, Would You Continue to Drive?

Mon, 2017-03-20 19:59

Biking in Odense, Denmark. Photo by Rhys Thom / Flickr

Modern technology has revolutionized the way people interact with urban mobility and their cities. People’s movements have become inextricably linked with technology, in particular their smartphones. Today’s technology can call a car service, track your movement, alert you when the next bus is arriving and count your steps. What about taking this relationship a bit further—can it change people’s behaviors?

Experts around the globe are researching how to reduce the number of privately-owned, conventionally-fueled vehicles on the road. When one thinks of alternate modes of transport, one often thinks of biking in Europe. Although the Europeans are famous for cycling as a day-to-day routine, there are still many preferring to drive. So, how we can change their preference to public transportation, carsharing systems, electric vehicles, cycling and walking to reduce carbon dioxide emissions?

Empowering Technology to Transform Transportation

Horizon 2020 EMPOWER Project is using a rewards system to influence people’s transport choices, stemming from the mobile technology in our pockets. With 12 partners—one being WRI Turkey Sustainable Cities—EMPOWER is developing incentive schemes for cities, corporations and communities that are tested in LivingLabs in Goteborg, Helsinki, Manchester and Enschede. These experiments provide data about the most preferred incentives and services most relevant to each city.

Furthermore, EMPOWER is collaborating with 7 Take-up Cities (TUCs)—Budapest, Milan, New Castle, Reading, Antwerp, Odense and Bologna—on methods to fall out of love with private cars. The TUCs test a whole host of travel-smart initiatives including real-time information, reward and point challenges and the use of social networks to transform the transportation market and push individuals to choose sustainable modes. These apps, such as Commute Greener, Smart and Zwitch—not developed but adapted by EMPOWER—provide an open and flexible architecture for creating positive incentives in cities and industries.

EMPOWER intends to convert the loyal car-user into someone that chooses more sustainable modes. Therefore, when people first register, the app may require them to enter information about how they travel around the city. Based on what they say, the system sets tailored targets on a daily/weekly/monthly basis. According to the scheme developed, the reward could be a free coffee in a local shop, a bike product or a ticket to a movie.

Odense Will Cut Car-use by 15 Percent

Odense, the third-largest city in Denmark, aims to shift 36 thousand daily short car trips to cycling or walking, therefore reducing private car-use by 15 percent for trips less than 5 km (3.1 miles). To reach the target, Odense has chosen to promote cycling with positive incentive schemes focused on tracking trips, challenges and gamification. For instance, the city promotes cycling among students in a class of four- to seven-year-olds with a game called “Biking Friend.” For adults, they have another cycling app called “Ta’ Cyklen Danmark” (Go Bike Denmark).

In addition to cycling, Odense is developing walking campaigns with regular events at local markets, bakeries and supermarkets based on the app “Endomondo” (pictured below). When the app users reach a certain point threshold, they can earn prizes like those mentioned above. In addition to incentives, in order to reach the 15 percent target, Odense is focusing on increasing awareness of the campaigns. By utilizing social media platforms and creating flyers, cards, posters, magazine articles and decorating to-go coffee cups, Odense is educating the general public and paving the way toward its goal.

While many of these apps are still in their infancy, they are having a tangible impact. For example, even though “Biking Friend” started in August 2016, there has been a significant increase in the number of students cycling instead of driving to school since city representatives made 34 school visits to promote the campaign.

You Can Also Be a Part of EMPOWER!

 Although the TUCs are already chosen, cities and corporations can still benefit from EMPOWER’s incentive solutions. Interested groups can benefit from the EMPOWER Toolkit, mobile apps, workshops and conferences.

For more information:

Swapping Parking Spots for Bike Lots Can Transform India’s Cities

Wed, 2017-03-15 21:24

The Seeds for Change project in Gurugram, India, reclaimed four car parking spots to make space for 40 bicycles. Photo by Amit Bhatt/WRI

One city in India is swapping its cars for bikes.

WRI India and Nagarro Software, in partnership with Udaan NGO and NASSCOM Foundation, recently launched the Seeds for Change project in Gurugram, India, reclaiming four car parking spots to make space for 40 bicycles. The initiative, modelled after the country’s car-free “Raahgiri Days,” plans to replicate the pilot project in other parking lots throughout the city over the coming months.

By swapping car parking spaces for the humble cycle, Gurugram has taken a step toward a more sustainable future. While it’s a small step, this is the country’s first “pocket parking” initiative, which could lead to bigger changes in city planning.

A big deterrent to cycling, apart from safe streets, is safe spaces to park, as most spaces are taken up by car and motorcycle parking. The re-imagining of parking space for bikes will not only sensitize people towards walking and cycling, but will pave the way for creating cities for people rather than vehicles.

Fewer Cars, Better Cities

Roughly 300,000 cars enter Gurugram every day, and an equal number exist within the city. With more than 600,000 cars on the streets, traffic congestion is an obvious byproduct.

So are air pollution and road traffic crashes. All these cars are one reason why the city has seen a severe to very unhealthy air quality index and records around 450 road traffic deaths per year.

The Seeds for Change initiative is part of a larger concept known as “tactical urbanism.” It allows stakeholders and locals to work on new concepts without substantial political and financial commitments. The actions can be temporary or permanent, depending on the need of the location. Across the world, this movement is also referred to as “city repair,” “guerilla urbanism,” “pop-up urbanism,” or “DIY urbanism.”

While Gurugram is the first city in India to pursue tactical urbanism to shift transport from cars to cleaner transport modes, it’s already proven successful in other cities around the world. Car-shaped racks were installed at a parking spot in Buenos Aires to reclaim space for 10 bicycles; they then caught the attention of authorities, who increased the initiative to include 40-such cycle parking spaces. The city of Sao Paulo, Brazil made permanent mini public parks from parking spots along the roadside, providing a safe space for cyclists and walkers. City authorities in San Francisco designed some areas with sharp corners as seating spaces with planters. One NGO in Mexico introduced similar mobile parks, or “parklets on wheels,” to create safe public spaces.

Reclaiming Parking Spots for Bikes in Gurugram, India. Photo by Amit Bhatt/WRI

Small Changes for Bigger Impact

But perhaps what’s most exciting about Seeds for Change—and tactical urbanism more broadly—is the potential for success and replicability.

This technique brings about miniscule pop-ups that are striking and easily noticed by people, yet do not disturb daily life with large-scale changes. It also doesn’t require a huge amount of financing.

The project includes all stakeholders since the conception. The process of implementing a tactical urbanism project brings people on streets to experience its dynamics. They take charge of designing their environment, and feel responsible for its success and maintenance. Each stakeholder may have an individual solution, which can be synchronized in one design.

And finally, there’s a complete focus on place-making. While Gurugram has several private buildings like the Signature Tower and Gateway Tower as its landmarks, it lacks public spaces such as a Connaught Circle of Delhi or a Times Square of New York. Seeds for Change gives identity to the spaces around the city, creating an image and allowing people to identify with it. This brings a sense of belongingness to the public spaces that are accessible to all.

Seeds for Change can start the conversation on cities’ prioritizing people over cars. Citizens will identify with city corners, and will become responsible for them. This makes it more likely for vibrancy and greenery to increase, transforming formerly car-centric areas into safe spaces. And throughout India, the tactical urbanism movement can become an example of urban renewal via small-scale interventions.


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