Health and environment
Our cities are rapidly expanding, and with them motorization is increasing at an unchecked pace. Unless the global community takes meaningful strides to address the impact of these trends on the most vulnerable in our society, we will be met by a catastrophic health emergency.
Every three minutes a child or young person dies as a result of road traffic injury. A quarter of a million children and adolescents die on the world’s roads every year. Road traffic injury is the fifth-leading cause of death for children aged 5 to 14 years old.
Beyond the headline figure, for every child who dies, another suffers an irrevocably life-changing disability. For each disability, there are several serious injuries.
In New York this week, governments are meeting for a High-Level Political Forum to assess progress on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG 11: to make cities “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.”
High-Level Political Forums offer the opportunity to share successes and pave the way to scale up activity to really move towards the 2030 SDG targets. But this is only possible if countries commit to reporting progress made (or not made), so we can understand baseline activities and share in each other’s successes and challenges. That is why the FIA Foundation is calling for a summit for child and adolescent health to put young people at the top of the urban policy agenda.An Unequal Burden
By 2030, the world is likely to have 43 megacities (those with more than 10 million inhabitants), mostly in developing countries. By 2050, two thirds of the world’s population are likely to be living in cities or other urban centers. In New York this week, countries have the option to submit what are called Voluntary National Reviews to share examples of proactive efforts to achieve the SDGs. It is clear from the reviews submitted that, despite the alarming trends, sustainable transport remains an abstract concept for many countries.
While 95 percent of reporting countries made reference to transport, just 38 percent described specific policy measures or case studies on sustainable transport. A functional and inclusive transport system is crucial to a successful, vibrant city – but how the infrastructure develops, and for whom, are every bit as important as the routes themselves.
Cities across the world have been guilty of designing streets to serve the car-driving minority, and marginalizing the poorest who use public transport, walk or bicycle. From New York to Nairobi, we can see where fast-flowing highways bisect residential areas, presenting a lethal obstacle course for those on foot, while throwing up toxic smog poisoning the lungs of everyone – outside and even inside cars.
The burden of vehicles in cities is carried most heavily by the poorest, but also the youngest.
The joint Overseas Development Institute and WRI Ross Center report, “Securing Safe Roads,” explores varied road safety challenges and their interaction with the political economy.
In New York City, for example, the child population is evenly spread at around 30 percent of the total. Yet children account for 43 percent of crash victims in lower-income East Harlem compared to 15 percent in the affluent Upper East Side. The World Health Organization says that “many of the children who are victims of this man-made calamity are poor. Attempts to address road safety for children are, therefore, inextricably linked to notions of social justice.”
In African cities, up to 90 percent of children walk to school, but less than 1 in 10 fast roads shared by pedestrians and vehicles (roads with speeds over 40 kilometers per hour) actually have any sidewalks. In urban areas, the dirtiest arterial roads are built away from expensive areas, but the same consideration is often not extended to the city’s poorest.
Urban air pollution is a significant contributor to childhood mortality rates, causing and exacerbating a wide range of serious respiratory and development issues, alongside long-term health conditions. In many cities, vehicles are responsible for a high proportion of air pollution, particularly near busy roads.
Urban traffic pollution particularly affects children because harmful emissions from cars and trucks are delivered directly at street level into their mouths and noses. It has the greatest impact on children under five, killing more than 127,000 each year. Three hundred million children currently live in areas where outdoor air pollution exceeds international guidelines by at least six times.Walking the Talk
Solutions to this great urban challenge are not, however, elusive. By drawing together transport, environment, public health and planning in a holistic approach, cities can begin to reorient around people, not vehicles. Positive examples of smart, intentional urban design and policy have shown that authorities can transform urban spaces into a walkable, livable, healthy environments and make significant inroads to address injuries, air pollution and climate change.
The Global Designing Cities Initiative, for example, works with 40 cities to demonstrate the impact and benefits of changing the hierarchy of street use and design to focus on pedestrians, cyclists and children. London has become the first city in the world to explicitly adopt a public health-first approach to urban planning that encourages active transport and reduces vehicle journeys to improve health outcomes for all.
A summit on child and adolescent health would ensure that the special vulnerability and importance of young people is not lost in these efforts and becomes a more integral part of the SDG reporting process.
As a global community, we have committed to a safe and sustainable transport systems for all by 2030 – including our most vulnerable. It is an ambitious target we should all be proud to work towards and the solutions are within our reach. But for now it remains talk, and our children need action.
Natalie Draisin is the Director of the North American Office and UN Representative for the FIA Foundation.
Climate change is already harming people’s health. In August last year, over 45 million people in India, Bangladesh and Nepal were affected by unprecedented monsoon flooding, while last year’s Atlantic hurricane season was the costliest on record. The scale of both disasters can be partially attributed to rising global temperatures.
The good news, though, is that efforts to tackle climate change could make people healthier. Bold action to reduce greenhouse gases from buildings, transport and waste could improve physical and psychological wellbeing right here, right now.
This is the finding of a new paper published by the Coalition for Urban Transitions on the benefits of low-carbon cities. The authors reviewed over 700 papers to understand the social and economic impacts of measures to reduce carbon emissions in urban buildings, transportation and waste. They conclusively find that climate action can improve people’s health by reducing the incidence of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, injuries and infections.Safer Transport
Outdoor air pollution is a global killer, leading to the premature deaths of around 4.2 million people each year. Another 1.25 million people are killed in road crashes every year. In China alone, shifting people out of cars and on to buses or bikes could avoid over half a million preventable deaths annually.
Many people choose not to walk or cycle because of the risk: half of the global road fatalities occur among pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. Segregated bike lanes and sidewalks can protect these vulnerable commuters, encouraging more people to cycle and walk. The resulting shift out of cars is not only good for people’s physical fitness, but also for the climate.
Some researchers have estimated the monetary value of these health benefits. A commuter who switches from driving to cycling for five kilometers each way, five days a week, would experience health benefits worth about $1,900 per year.
Globally, 450 million people suffer from mental disorders, placing those troubles as one of the leading causes of ill-health and disability. Investing in buildings with natural light, pleasant temperatures and green space could improve the wellbeing of occupants immensely.
The evidence shows that improving the energy efficiency in commercial buildings reduces the number of work days lost due to respiratory illnesses, allergies, flu, depression and stress. When workers moved from conventional to green office buildings, their absences due to illnesses and stress fall especially fast.
The health benefits of energy efficiency are even more pronounced in people’s homes. In Ireland, insulating homes yields has led to fewer sick days and reduced hospital admissions. These health improvements could be worth nearly twice as much as the savings from reduced energy consumption.
Cycling to your sustainable office and back to your well-insulated house would benefit the environment. But to those for whom that may not be enough, this new evidence on the scale of the health benefits may help. It is clear that ambitious climate action in cities can provide multiple tangible benefits for people.
Governments have many options to both improve health and cut emissions. They can introduce building codes that require landlords and homeowners to improve building efficiency. They can establish mandatory performance standards for light bulbs, appliances and vehicles. And they can design taxes, fees and charges to incentivize people to behave in more sustainable ways. Congestion pricing, for instance, along with road design changes can help deter people from driving and encourage them to take up other modes of transport.
These may seem like costs, but in fact, when weighed against the catastrophic impacts of climate change, that can be better understood as investments. Ambitious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in cities would not only help avoid damages, but address a whole range of other risks, from traffic accidents to air pollution to inequality. Climate action, in short, can help create healthier cities for all.
Catlyne Haddaoui is a Research Analyst at the Coalition for Urban Transitions.
Municipal leaders face hundreds of difficult choices every day. With so many needs and worthy programs, how does one choose where to invest limited funding? In the face of pressing human needs, cities too often decide that funding for environmental programs will have to wait.
But pitting people against nature in this way offers a false choice.
We need not decide between supporting people in cities and protecting the natural systems that we all need to survive. Rather, by bringing more nature to cities and managing our collective resources well, we can help achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and meet The Nature Conservancy’s ambition to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.
SDG 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities, aims to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” It is not only the engineered urban development solutions that will help the world achieve this goal – natural systems have a critical role to play. In fact, by protecting and enhancing biodiversity, we can actually better serve the needs of the billions of people around the world who live in cities.
Nature has a clear and significant role to play in SDG 11, and a path to success is laid out in the New Urban Agenda, a global declaration of “cities for all,” that was codified at the 2016 Habitat III conference in Ecuador. The New Urban Agenda acknowledges and articulates the connections between greener cities and healthier, more resilient cities, and calls for the benefits of nature to be equally accessible to all residents.
This collective vision for “well-planned urbanization” that accounts for how the built and natural environments work in tandem, not in opposition, to make our cities more livable will be key as cities around the world swell to adapt to growing human populations. Creating and protecting safe, inclusive and accessible green spaces can bring myriad benefits to cities.
But nature can do even more. As cities grow and resources are strained, nature can improve human health and well-being by reducing particulate matter in the air we breathe (SDG 3); it can contribute to clean water and sanitation by protecting source water (SDG 6); and when plans incorporate the needs of local residents, access to nature can help address some of the impacts of inequality (SDG 10).
Urban conservation doesn’t have to be a separate goal for city leaders to add onto their already busy agendas. It’s an approach that can help city leaders meet their existing goals across many sectors – economic growth, public health, waste management, thriving neighborhoods that attract residents and businesses.
Cities need nature. And cities can lead the world.
Working collaboratively, cities can drive policy on biodiversity protection, climate adaptation and mitigation and wastewater management to solve national and global challenges.
Together, we can make life in cities better for all of us.
Joel Paque is Global Cities Program Director at The Nature Conservancy.
Climate action is rarely a primary consideration when investments are made in cities. Roads and transport networks are built to improve mobility, homes to provide shelter, offices to create places to work.
But with more than three-quarters of global emissions coming from urban areas, and a majority of the global population living there, it is increasingly critical that urban actors consider climate change in their decision-making.
Drawing on evidence from more than 700 academic papers, our new research for the Coalition for Urban Transitions provides a systematic review of the wider benefits – and sometimes costs – of climate action in urban areas.
Results show that we may be under-appreciating the extent that low-carbon investments can contribute to a wide set of urban challenges.
Indeed, in some cases addressing seemingly unrelated urban issues – around public health, employment, poverty, and sanitation – may be hard to achieve without also reducing carbon emissions and improving climate resilience.
In three areas these benefits are especially notable:1. Improving Public Health
Combating climate change can lead to significant health benefits for citizens. Up to 3 billion people rely on open fires for heating, cooking, and lighting, leading to 4 million deaths from indoor air pollution. When health benefits are taken into account, solar lighting and clean cook stoves can save up to 60 times the investment costs.
Poor heating and ventilation also contribute to chronic ill-health. While the direct savings on energy bills are sufficient to generate an attractive return on investment, the monetized health benefits associated with improving indoor environmental quality can be more than 10 times the value of energy savings.
The value of health benefits from investments in cycling infrastructure is another area in which cities can save money while improving public health. The money saved by improving infrastructure can amount to more than five times the cost of investment. Extrapolating across Europe, this suggests that the health benefits from cycling could be worth $35-136 billion annually.
Motor vehicle crashes are responsible for 1.3 million global deaths each year and over 78 million injuries. Where public transport networks are well developed, transport-related injuries are more than 80 percent lower.2. Creating Green Jobs
Investments in upgrading existing buildings and raising the energy efficiency of new buildings in OECD cities could lead to the creation of 2 million net jobs annually in the period to 2050. Equivalent investments in non-OECD cities could generate anywhere from 2 million to 16 million jobs annually in the same period.
Investments in expanding public transport and improving vehicle efficiency could also lead to the creation of more than 3 million net jobs annually in OECD cities, and a minimum of 3 million and up to 23 million jobs annually in non-OECD cities, in the period to 2050.3. Reducing Inequality
Many actions that combat climate change will benefit the poorest in society. For example, between 16 percent and 50 percent of the total benefits associated with programs to retrofit existing buildings in Europe are in the form of improved health, thermal comfort, living conditions and productivity of residents. This is especially true for residents who are relatively poorer.
Another way in which creating greener cities reduces the effects of inequality is through improving public transport systems. People from lower income brackets typically spend more time commuting and will benefit from faster and more efficient networks. Public transport networks which will also reduce carbon emissions are therefore found to disproportionately benefit the urban poor.
Vulnerable populations often have poorer health than the average. They may also be more likely to live and work in polluted areas. As a result, marginalized groups benefit disproportionately from interventions which improve air quality.Policy Implications
Previous research has demonstrated that low-carbon investment in cities can generate substantial economic returns. But the economic case may not on its own generate the level of action needed to prevent dangerous climate change.
Furthermore, in the face of a range of urban challenges, including poverty, air pollution, poor transport networks and insufficient housing, policymakers with finite time and resources need actions that can target multiple issues.
The benefits for health, jobs and equality identified by our analysis are not guaranteed. The distribution of benefits and their scale will vary from city to city and from the way that policies and programs are designed and implemented. But as a first step, viewing climate change as connected with, and in cases, inseparable from, a wider set urban challenges, can open new opportunities for action.
While climate change will remain an issue that is long-term, global, and relatively uncertain, the benefits of climate action – in cleaner air, new jobs and more inclusive cities – can be seen as near-term, local and relatively certain.
The Coalition for Urban Transitions is a special initiative of the New Climate Economy jointly hosted and managed by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.
Andrew Sudmant is a Research Fellow and Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Leeds.
Andy Gouldson is Professor of Environmental Policy and Dean of Interdisciplinary Research at the University of Leeds.
In just 10 years, from 1996 to 2006, Bogotá’s traffic fatalities dropped by half. Despite facing challenges common to many cities – inadequate infrastructure, congestion, pollution, inequality and crime – the Colombian city has become a powerful example of urban transformation.
Many elements contributed to this success, including the city’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system, Transmilenio, which debuted in 2000; the creation of an ambitious network of bike lanes; and improved pedestrian sidewalks and crossings. But how did political, financial, institutional and power dynamics contribute? A new research project by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has revealed an unforeseen synergy between general public safety actions in Bogotá and efforts to lower traffic mortality.The Strategy: Link Road Safety to Other Issues People Care About
The 1990s were a turbulent decade for Colombia, with record levels of violence and homicide. Citizens demanded a government response. In Bogotá, a suite of enforcement, social marketing and education policies were enacted, under the banner “Life is Sacred.” As part of this program, the administration linked traffic deaths to wider problems of crime and murder in the city, and framed it as a part of a public health crisis.
This approach galvanized public attention around “traffic violence.” Targeted social marketing and education programs encouraged people to expect safe and courteous behavior from their fellow citizens and promoted recognition of societal norms in public spaces, particularly traffic regulations. The resulting shift in perspective also generated increased support for changes to public transport and public space.
These programs had unexpected benefits for road safety. For example, one “Life is Sacred” policy set earlier closing times for night clubs to reduce alcohol-fueled violence. A welcome side effect was a reduction in drunk driving, which resulted in significant gains for road safety. It demonstrated that Bogotá’s actions to reduce violent crime could have an impact on traffic fatalities as well.Other Potential Strategies
Our research also looked at two other cities which struggle with road safety and sustainable mobility options: Mumbai and Nairobi. We examined local political dynamics in all three cities and outlined key challenges and opportunities for catalyzing action to improve road safety.
The research did reveal some gains, notably the creation of a non-motorized transportation policy for Nairobi and court-mandated road safety interventions in Mumbai.
But we also found that it can be difficult to gain traction politically when discussing road safety in isolation. The issue is often seen as a matter of personal responsibility, rather than a question of public health or government service.
In addition to the strategy above, our research identified three more ways to make progress with road safety: tying road safety to other issues, such as traffic congestion; building alliances at all levels of government, including local, regional and national; and producing a dedicated road safety plan with short-, medium- and long-term aims and objectives to build lasting solutions and avoid prioritizing “quick wins” only.
These strategies are not failsafe. Even in Bogotá, there is still progress to be made. There, road fatality numbers have plateaued and the new “safe system” based road safety plan hopes to catalyze further action. But its dramatic progress in public perception and political action related to road safety make it a point of reference around the world. The city has shown that a multi-level approach, combining technical know-how with socially and politically savvy campaigns, can unite citizens and decision-makers in a common goal: saving lives.
This article was originally published on WRI’s Insights.
Anna Bray Sharpin is a Transportation Associate for Health and Road Safety at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Would you spend $8 per year to see your community reduce rates of obesity, heart disease, anxiety and asthma? Still not convinced? What if that investment also reduced energy costs and increased property values?
Urban trees can transform city neighborhoods, contributing to a wide range of public health gains. Investing an additional $8 per person, on average, in planting and maintaining urban trees in American cities, could have a significant impact. Yet across the United States, cities are losing about 4 million trees per year.
The humble street tree is an ecological powerhouse. Study after study has shown multiple benefits to people and society. Trees, and other urban green spaces, can help manage runoff during rainstorms. They help clean and cool the air, reducing harmful air pollutants and air temperatures on city streets. They lend beauty to our communities and increase property values. And time spent in natural environments has demonstrated mental health benefits.
A new report, “Funding Trees for Health,” from The Nature Conservancy, The Trust for Public Land and Analysis Group, raises the concern that a combination of reduced budgets; the ravages of drought, storms, and pest infestations; and lack of investment is quickly stripping cities of the benefits that trees provide.
The paper finds that a significant percentage of the gap between current funding for trees and the amount that cities spend today could be offset by the public health gains that city trees provide.
Every year, between 3 and 4 million people around the world die as a result of outdoor air pollution and its lifelong impacts on human health. Urban trees can serve as pollution barriers and even filter the air. A 2016 analysis of average costs and impacts across nearly 250 major cities found that trees offer comparable benefit to traditional solutions, with the potential to save tens of thousands of lives.
Now, Analysis Group’s research on major U.S. cities finds that that urban trees could account for $25 million in annual savings related to health care costs and lost work days from air pollution alone.
While the situation varies city by city, our analysis demonstrates that a green urban future is not an impossible dream, and it’s affordable in most places if policymakers and others commit to making this critical investment.
The paper offers several specific examples of innovative public sector partnership and private sector investments that highlight the full societal value of urban trees. However, municipal leaders in communities of all sizes can begin to address significant health challenges by thinking creatively about the role of nature in cities and towns.
A range of complimentary solutions will be necessary, including changes to how building codes handle open space and incentivize trees on private property; efforts to break down municipal government silos so that parks and environmental departments are better positioned to collaborate with public health departments; and public education efforts to communicate the role that trees can play.
Some cities are already leading efforts to prove the value of urban trees. For example, in Louisville, Kentucky, city leaders are partnering with the University of Kentucky Medical School and others to demonstrate the link between urban trees and cardiac health via the Green Heart Project. The project is a five-year urban laboratory that will plant as many as 8,000 trees in a neighborhood, then conduct a clinical trial to track their effect on the health of local residents.
All cities, big or small, can begin exploring ways to create links between the health sector and urban forestry agencies. The key is connecting public health outcomes to urban trees. Communication and coordination between a city’s parks, forestry and public health departments can reveal new sources of funding for tree planting and maintenance. Working together, the health sector and the urban forestry sector can achieve a healthier, more verdant world.
Robert McDonald is Lead Scientist for the Global Cities program at The Nature Conservancy and lead author of “Funding Trees for Health.” He researches the impact and dependencies of cities on the natural world, and helps direct the science behind much of the Conservancy’s urban conservation work. He holds a PhD in Ecology from Duke University and has published more than 50 peer-reviewed publications, and a recent book, “Conservation for Cities.”
Bogotá, Colombia was recently named the least safe transit system for women, largely due to an epidemic of sexual assault (defined here as any type of unwanted sexual touching). According to a survey, conducted in Colombia and Bolivia as part of the Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship last year, 38 percent of female TransMilenio users, Bogotá’s bus rapid transit system, have been assaulted. While the case of TransMilenio is extreme, Bogotá’s system is far from alone in facing this crisis. In El Alto, Bolivia, 20 percent of female users, or one in five, have been assaulted.
The conditions within transit systems, such as extreme crowding, isolation and lack of accountability, often contribute to sexual assault and cause perpetrators to go unpunished. However, cultural norms also play a role in normalizing and trivializing violence against women. The sustainable transport community needs to recognize this and work toward changing both conditions and culture—including its own.Sexual Assault Is a Public Health Crisis
The risk of sexual assault violates women’s right to access public space safely, and assault can have lingering consequences for victims. One study found that one-third of groping victims suffer lasting psychological consequences and nearly two-thirds are forced to change their behavior in some way—many begin closely monitoring their proximity to others (a behavior known as hypervigilance). For public transit-dependent users, avoiding crowds may be impossible. One user of TransMilenio described her continuing stress, six years after she was assaulted:
“I was waiting for TransMilenio, and this guy came up behind me and started rubbing his genitals against me. I thought it was because the platform was so crowded, but when I got on TransMilenio, he stayed behind on the platform. He was looking at the other women, surely to do the same to them. I still don’t feel comfortable on TransMilenio. You’re always on the defensive so they don’t touch you, watching out to see who’s in front of you, who’s behind you, who’s all around you.”
This constant state of stress and hypervigilance impacts users’ emotional and psychological wellbeing and can erode trust of those around them. Less than half of assault victims on TransMilenio believed their fellow passengers would intervene if they witnessed an assault, as compared to 67 percent of women who had not suffered an assault.Crowded Conditions Foster Assaults
TransMilenio’s legendary crowding creates an atmosphere where riders can harass women with little fear of legal or social consequences. The crowding normalizes very intimate contact with strangers. As a result, physical sensations that would normally be clear indications of assault may be ambiguous. In the most crowded vehicles, it may not even be possible to tell who, of the half-dozen people in one’s immediate proximity, is doing the touching. Both victims and witnesses have discussed feeling unable to intervene because of this ambiguity and anonymity.
Even in less crowded conditions, the normalization of intimate contact lowers the chance that the assaulter will be detected. Many women describe feeling someone pressing up against them and assume it’s because of the crowded conditions, only to realize later that the contact was inappropriate. In general, women who did not or could not confront their assaulter in the moment (whether or not they legally reported them), express more negative feelings in the aftermath.A Culture That Discourages Action
Some people in both developing and developed countries view sexual assault as something the victims bring on themselves. An interview excerpt from Bolivia illustrates this sentiment:
“Put on a thick jacket! Don’t comb your hair! But if you go around in really tight jeans, people are going to look at you. They’re going to touch you.”
Both men and women expressed similar opinions, although many respondents of both genders also rejected the idea that women are responsible for their own victimization. A recent campaign in Curitiba, Brazil captured this alternate belief: “Today I left the house wearing makeup, but it wasn’t for you.”
Other interviewees felt both the frequency and effects of sexual assault were overstated, such as these two Colombian respondents:
“There are women who, to feel important or to be rebellious, use these mechanisms to denounce an assault to get revenge if someone evaded the fare, or didn’t let her pass, or went in front of her. It’s very common.”
“When you go to a place where there are a lot of people, there’s going to be groping. But women, just like men, feel sexual desire, so about 15-20 percent of women enjoy that this happens to them, true? But since the feminist movement appeared, women complain about everything.”
While opinions like these are troublingly common, it is worth noting that many respondents, both men and women, wholeheartedly rejected these ideas.
However, sexism is not just a problem among transit users. All three of the previous excerpts came from interviews with transit planners of varying ages. When raising awareness about assault on public transit, advocates for sustainable transport must not neglect examining their own perspectives.The Path to Safer Transit
To successfully address sexual assault on transit, advocates need to raise awareness among both transit users and transit planners that assault is a real problem with serious consequences. It is critical to identify cultural and technical measures to reduce future assaults and make women feel safe using public transport. Drawing on the perspectives of women who have experienced assault will help gauge the effectiveness of potential remedies. For example, based on a victim’s experience with ambiguous assaults, it may be helpful to focus on empowering victims and witnesses to react in a way that avoids conflict. Addressing sexual assault is vital for improving women’s physical and emotional safety as they take transit.
In recent months, TransMilenio took an important step toward addressing sexual assault, as representatives met with several victims during the final stage of the Lee Schipper study. While awareness of existing resources, such as the Purple Hotline (offered by the Secretary of Women), is low, new recommendations include targeting awareness campaigns toward both men and women and the training of and building trust in transit police officers.
With massive population growth in store for cities across the Global South, the fact that many cities struggle to provide effective waste collection to serve the current population levels is worrying. Poor waste collection practices — such as the indiscriminate dumping of refuse due to inadequate equipment and insufficient (or even non-existent) separation of different types of trash — can have severe negative effects on the environment and urban residents’ health. In Lagos, Lilongwe, Mexico City, and Dhaka, a combination of government, non-profit, and business interests are working to revolutionize their cities’ trash collection, with a focus on engaging ordinary citizens in recycling and composting.
The Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) is responsible for waste management across Lagos. Through public-private partnerships, the agency has modernized and formalized waste cart pushing, bringing informal waste collectors into the formal economy. Inner-city areas with narrow roads are now reached via mini skip trucks and automotive tricycles instead of wheelbarrows and push carts. This allows operators to collect more waste on fewer trips. It also adds ease and dignity to the process, and ensures proper disposal to official landfills since each operator is accountable to a regulating body that enforces good practices and monitors service delivery. Finally, LAWMA encourages women to get involved in the sector now that most collection has transitioned from intense cart pushing to automated activities.
Estimates show that the number of people living in Lilongwe will have more than doubled by 2030, yet even with the current population, the local authority can barely collect all of the waste that is generated: a 2008 study showed that the city could only collect and safely dispose of 30 percent of the city’s waste. In this context, women and young people, supported by the nonprofit sector, are seizing opportunities. Our World International is a local NGO working in Kawale, a traditional housing area in Lilongwe to mobilize women and youth to form waste entrepreneurship groups. Equipped with basic compost training, the entrepreneurs make compost manure and sell it to landscaping companies or individuals for use in gardens. While the motivation of the waste entrepreneurship groups is to earn a living, they are also cleaning up the city, especially in low-income areas with limited government collection services.
Disposing of solid waste is one of the biggest challenges in Mexico City. The government is pushing for a cultural change, urging residents to separate their waste, approximately 50 percent of which can be reused. Since 2012, the government of the Federal District has been implementing the Plan Verde (Green Plan) to encourage recycling. Under this plan, garbage trucks collect organic waste on certain days and inorganic waste on other days. Plan Verde also disseminates information about consumer habits, encouraging residents to buy products with the recycling emblem or made from natural materials like paper or glass. The plan recommends avoiding the purchase of overly-packaged products and limiting the amount of plastics used. Temporary market places have been installed in various locations around the city where residents can trade their recyclables using a points system they can then use to buy fresh produce.
With landfills in Dhaka reaching their full capacities, the municipality and community actors are working to improve the treatment of biodegradable waste, which represents 74 percent of the city’s waste. Waste Concern, a social business, has started a food composting program in Dhaka’s largest slums and residential areas to teach communities how to process food waste they can sell as compost. Large Indonesian composting drums were brought in to conceal the waste and minimize odor. Several families use one drum, and earn USD$12 per month from each compost drum. Waste Concern has also expanded to more affluent residential areas, with a similar door-to-door training and waste collection program. This program is done at a price that allows the organization to cross-subsidize its operations. Waste Concern is now in the process of formulating a larger integrated waste management program between 19 cities, including Dhaka, in cooperation with the city government.
Check out more of the discussion on cities as engines of change on URB.im and contribute your thoughts to the conversation.
This post was originally published on URB.im.
Public Bicycle Sharing (PBS), or bike share, as it is more popularly known, was first introduced in Amsterdam in 1965. While the concept spread to various European cities, it remained largely experimental in nature and small in scale. It wasn’t until the late 1990s and early 2000s—with the incorporation of advanced smartcards and progress in Information and Communication Technology (ICT)—that bike share came to be viewed as an innovation with significant potential to promote cycling and sustainable urban mobility.
Since then, bike share has witnessed tremendous growth and widespread adoption. As of 2013, there were 639 bike share systems across 53 countries, with a combined fleet of nearly 650,000 bicycles.
Studies have shown that bike share increases modal share for cycling, creates safer roads, improves health, and reduces gender disparities. Bike share also wields benefits for traditional modes of transport, as it has the potential to reduce stress on congested systems in dense urban areas and increase access to public transport in less dense regions by acting as a last mile connector. Around the world, bike share has come to be seen as an effective instrument in the sustainable urban mobility arsenal.
India, however, remains behind the curve in bike share. Several small scale pilots have been attempted in cities like Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Delhi, and Mumbai. Unfortunately, these attempts have failed to scale-up into large city-wide systems, and are no longer active. While they were primarily led by well-intentioned individuals, the lack of significant government support prevented the expansion of these initiatives beyond the pilot stage.
In the future, it is essential that the planning of these systems incorporates both the lessons learned from Indian pilot initiatives and the best practices from successful systems around the world.
The 5 key lessons for Indian cities looking to implement bike share systems are:1. Go Big
The utility of a bike share system increases exponentially with its scale and coverage. If a system is too small – with too few locations or too few cycles – it is unlikely to serve as a convenient mobility option for most people. Small bike share pilots are largely unsuccessful precisely because they are small, rather than due to any inherent problem with the concept. Therefore, a serious implementation of a city-wide bike share system must commit to a sufficiently large scale.2. Invest in Quality
Bike share systems are among the cheapest public transport systems to deploy; however, excessively focusing on cost minimization can be counter-productive. Skimping on the quality of hardware and software impacts both operational efficiency as well as the image of the system. Bike share systems with high-quality components, comprehensive ICT capabilities as well as cohesive communications and branding strategies are most likely to be successful.3. Get the Business Model Right
There are a wide variety of business models and contractual arrangements for procuring and operating bike share systems. While cities must choose the model that works best for them, it is critical that the motives of the operator align with the interests and goals of the city. In many cases, poorly structured contracts have led to situations of moral hazard, where the financial outcomes for the operator are not strictly tied to the quality and performance of the bike share system.4. Adapt to the Indian Context
As with any new concept, unique aspects of the Indian urban context which may impact the utility and performance of bike share systems need to be identified and addressed. Some of these include, for example, the lack of familiarity with automated systems, a predominantly cash-based economy, and the wide range of socio-economic backgrounds of potential system users. Local governments will have to closely evaluate the social and economic landscape in their city and adapt system features to ensure maximum inclusivity and access.5. Build Interest
Modal shares of cycling have been falling across Indian cities over the last decade. For a bike share system to be successful, it is necessary that people be willing to consider cycling as a viable mode of transport. Thus, it is vital that any city striving for a successful bike share system undertake awareness, interest, and incentive building exercises of various forms. These exercises should encourage people to initially try the system and later work to convert casual users into regular users.
While slow to start, many Indian cities are now expressing a strong desire to implement large, city-wide bike share systems, with Delhi, Mysore, Gandhinagar, and Bhopal at the forefront of this movement. These cities would do well to follow these principles, as the success of this ‘first wave’ of city-scale bike share systems in India will be critical for widespread adoption across the country.
Pedestrian-oriented streets not only are safer, improve air quality, and encourage physical activity, but also facilitate commercial and social activity. Although China has rapidly urbanized in the past few decades, many cities across the country are still not easily walkable. According to the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment (CCICED), 82 percent of Chinese residents indicated that they are not satisfied with the walkability of their city. With increasingly large cities, China’s urban population has experienced a decrease in quality of health, caused in part by heavy air pollution and sinking levels of physical activity.
Given the growing concerns about public health as well as the benefits of pedestrianization, creating vibrant, walkable streets is becoming an urgent priority in Chinese cities. On the national stage, China has designed and put forward its national urbanization plan which encourages pedestrianization. On the local level, cities are exploring a variety of strategies for pedestrianizing their streets and open spaces to benefit urban development. Moving forward, it is critical that China both prioritizes its pedestrian population and monitors the results of these changes.Economic Development, but Potential Negative Impacts
In China, pedestrian-only streets are the most common type of pedestrianization projects — with more than 100 cities containing at least one. Pedestrian streets bring considerable economic benefits to cities. Beijing’s Wangfujing, for example, was visited by 250,000 people per day at its peak, while Shanghai’s Nanjing Road crests at 2 million – the highest in China. Taking advantage of the foot traffic, commercial development typically lines the majority of these streets. Modern pedestrian streets usually feature shopping malls with wide streets, exemplified by Wangfujing Street and Nanjing Road. Recently, historical redevelopment in traditionally narrow alleys and old buildings has gained popularity.
However, among the commercial success underlies major problems. Noise pollution, displacement of residents during transition phases, and traffic congestion often harm their effectiveness and appeal. Therefore, a more comprehensive approach is needed to create walking environments that benefit cities as a whole and avoids these problems.Pedestrian Zones in Shanghai: Transforming a Waterfront
Beyond pedestrian streets, Chinese cities are also exploring larger pedestrianization zones which offer heightened walkability to connect open spaces with other modes of transport. Particularly notable among them is The Bund in Shanghai. Attracting millions of visitors to the area, The Bund is the signature waterfront area in central Shanghai. However, the old Bund was not well designed for pedestrians, sporting an 11-lane highway (partly elevated) that cuts through the area. Furthermore, the huge amount of pedestrians also strained the capacity of the sightseeing deck.
In response to these problems, Shanghai’s Government implemented a massive retrofitting project between 2008 and 2010. By removing seven lanes from the street, the project reduced 70 percent of vehicle traffic in the area. The project also tore down the elevated section of the highway and replaced it with crosswalks, increasing overall pedestrian connectivity. Lastly, the endeavor expanded the area of the sightseeing deck by 40 percent and redesigned the open spaces along the river. More recently, the city expanded the walkable area into a 7-km non-motorized transport zone along the river to boost space for walkers. With such good results, other cities are pedestrianizing similar areas as well.Looking Forward: Prioritizing Citizens over Cars
Although pedestrianization is gaining momentum in China, most projects are currently focusing exclusively on commercial development and tourism. As a result, the average citizen still lacks walkable public spaces. Because foot traffic generally consists of daily commuters, ignoring these individuals places walking citizens in an unsafe and undesirable walking environment. In order to address this gap, political will, viable financing, and proper technical capacity all need to be put into place.
China has a long tradition of vibrant street life and is looking to revive those roots. In fact, the Chinese word for “shopping”(逛街) literally means “strolling around the streets”. Indeed, among many Chinese citizens, walking has not lost its popularity despite the widespread motorization of urban life. Although some cities have seen a decrease in walking in the past decades, many of them still have a robust walking population, and some cities are even experiencing a growth in pedestrian traffic.
It is time for Chinese cities to design or redesign their streets for pedestrians in big ways. Simultaneously, it is also critical that cities monitor and evaluate the social and environmental impacts of pedestrianization projects so that other cities can learn from their experiences. Improving the walkability of streets and other public spaces is imperative for building on China’s walking tradition for a sustainable future.
Nossa Cidade (“Our City”), from TheCityFix Brasil, explores critical questions for building more sustainable cities. Every month features a new theme. Leaning on the expertise of researchers and specialists in WRI’s sustainable urban mobility team in Brazil, the series will feature in depth articles on urban planning, sustainable mobility, gender, resilience, and other key themes for sparking more sustainable development in our cities.
Flipping on the TV might seem like an innocent way to unwind after a hard day of work. But for the first time in history, a sedentary lifestyle is reducing the average life expectancy in Brazil by five years. Already, 48.7 percent of the adult population is sedentary. This number is projected to increase, causing physical, social, and economic damage to society.
While encouraging healthy habits is essential to combatting this trend, urban design also plays an important role in fostering healthy lifestyles. Ultimately, how we design our cities influences how people live in them.
The concept of active design is key to understanding how cities can improve public health. Championed by New York City’s Center for Active Design, active design prioritizes walking and cycling, and mass transport like buses, in the built environment. In Brazil, Cidade Ativa (active city) promotes changes to the urban environment that encourage a more active and healthy lifestyle.
So how are these ideas implemented on the ground? The Center for Active Design recently created the “Active Design Guidelines: Promoting Physical Activity and Health in Design” , which contains several recommendations that may be used by cities and planners for designing urban spaces that foster active transport.
Below, we explore some of these tactics that urban planners can use to get people off their car seats and onto the sidewalk:Mixed Use Neighborhoods Are More Vibrant
A diverse mix of land uses—homes offices, schools, shops, and cultural sites—in one neighborhood encourages more people to walk. A diverse mix of land uses and buildings can make for an interesting walk, and can stimulate people to live near their offices. Devoting space for social and economic activities can fill a neighborhood with people and life.
- Residential areas should be located near parks, squares, and recreational areas. Connected streets are conducive to walking. Quality public spaces within 10 minutes of home also encourage neighborhood walking.
- Neighborhoods with grocery stores and markets close to home and work are associated with healthier diets and lower rates of obesity, according to several studies. In contrast, areas with fast-food restaurants tend to have higher rates of obesity.
- The Center for Active Design found an inverse relationship between obesity and urban density along transit stops and bus lanes. Residents who use public transportation tend to walk more, which is correlated with lower rates of obesity.
- Public transport should be located on connected streets. This expands access to pedestrians and makes public transport more convenient.
- Quality transit stations: protection from sun and rain, comfortable seating, and wide sidewalks all make public transport and public spaces more friendly and accessible.
- Parking spots can have a major impact on walkability. Planners should consider the effect that parking spaces can have on an individual’s decision to walk, bike, or use public transit. Generally, when parking is available, drivers will use it. The greater the supply of parking, the less motivation that people have to be active.
- Plan public spaces on a large scale. When people have greater access to parks, physical activity levels tend to be higher.
- When routes are visible and safe in parks and public spaces, pedestrians and cyclists are more likely to use them.
- Squares and parks should haves drinking fountains, playgrounds for children, bike paths, sports fields, or other types of public facilities.
- Planners should also consider the cultural preferences of the local population. Public space should be designed for all ages equitably. Placing facilities for physical activity of children and adults in the same place means that everyone can participate in public spaces equitably.
- Cities should establish partnerships with organizations and volunteers to maintenance public spaces. When volunteers and organizations commit to taking care of public spaces, they become meaningful to those communities.
People who walk and bike regularly are better off physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually, and financially. The city can be a powerful facilitator of physical activity, encouraging people to walk, bike, and take public transit by design. Rethinking the role of urban design in transport decision making not only can help cities become more efficient and improve quality of life, but can also make communities healthier.
Growing physical inactivity at a global scale is causing more people to suffer from chronic diseases every day. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 31 percent of adults 15 years old and older were insufficiently active in 2008, leading to 3.2 million deaths worldwide. Furthermore, the top five leading chronic diseases linked to physical inactivity cost the global economy $6.2 trillion in 2010.
However, an active design approach to architecture and urban planning has the potential to make daily physical activity an ingrained feature of city life. By focusing on the role that parks, sidewalks, and walkable public spaces play in healthy communities, active design encourages physical activity. Cities that adopt active design have been shown to increase residents’ physical activity and improve public health.Istanbul Embraces Cycling for an Active City
Many cities have recently focused on integrated transport planning, walking, and cycling as elements of active design. In Turkey, both the central government and local governments have been supporting cycling culture and infrastructure. For example, in recent years, cycling projects have become more important and popular in Istanbul. With 14 million people living in dense communities, the city has faced intense traffic congestion and low air quality. To improve livability and public health, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IMM)—the agency responsible for cycling projects— is turning to active design targets, pledging to build 1,050 km of cycle lanes in Istanbul by 2023.A Comprehensive Manual for Decision Makers
EMBARQ Turkey’s Safe Cycling Design Manual for Istanbul addresses the challenges of cycling planning in Istanbul and provides guidelines for improvements. The report gathers input from NGOs and cyclist associations, creates standardized tools for developing safe and accessible cycling infrastructure, and provides recommendations for how district agencies can improve cross-coordination.
One challenge of cycling in Istanbul is a lack of integration with other modes of transport. While there is bicycle parking at several ferry ports, subway, and bus rapid transit (BRT) stations, they are not adequate, given Istanbul’s size. Furthermore, overcrowding makes it prohibitively difficult to carry a bike on public transport. There are 20 buses currently equipped with bike racks, but bike space needs to be expanded across all modes of transportation.
The exact number of cyclists in Istanbul is not known, and collision data is unreliable. This can make planning difficult. To decide on the route of a bike lane, planners and designs need know about the estimated number of cyclists in a given area, their preferences and safety expectations, as well as the slope, width, and conditions of the street. Since the IMM rarely has this granular information, district agencies and NGOs need to come together to work on cycling projects, as they are more familiar with the experiences of local cyclists.
According to surveys in the Manual, cyclists in Istanbul prefer to ride short distances (5-6 km). The majority of respondents stated that their bicycle trips were no longer than 60 minutes and that their trips generally end within the same district or an adjacent district. 90 percent of respondents believe that there are major problems with cycling infrastructure. 50 percent feel unsafe, as unconnected bike lanes can lead to dangerous contact between cyclists and cars. Lastly, 35 percent of cyclists think that there is a lack of signs on the road, making it difficult to navigate the city safely.
Bike lanes should be designed with this data in mind. They should both serve neighborhood life and integrate with public transit systems. Additionally, routes for cyclists should be coherent, direct, and continuous. Improvements to current roads and safe bike parking are necessary to ensure convenience and safety.Making Istanbul a City Designed for Cycling
In order to combat a growing rate of physical inactivity, local decision makers need to raise awareness about cycling as a viable transport option and implement accessible infrastructure across Istanbul. This will require better coordination between the IMM, district authorities, NGOs, and cyclist associations. The manual, which was awarded an Excellence Honorable Mention from the Center for Active Design in New York, provides valuable guidance for local authorities, planners, and designers to create integrated, connected, and accessible bike infrastructure throughout the city. With strong management and active design, Istanbul can make cycling safer and more convenient for all residents.
There are countless ways to analyze—and visualize—sports. For instance, there’s a wide spectrum of where and how sports are played in cities around the world. Professional sports typically take place in expensive stadiums, which are expected to draw crowds of fans and consumers. On the other hand, amateur sports happen at a much more local level. Sports often play a large role in cities and frequently receive a lot of attention from both elected officials and the public.
So how are amateur and professional sports venues producing different economic and social impacts in cities across the globe?Making Space for Soccer in India
Space for recreational soccer fields has become an increasingly pertinent issue in India, especially in Mumbai. Many companies have formed to develop unused land in response to the demand for soccer space, and they construct fields “in the unlikeliest of places.” These fields are usually small and hastily built on any land that’s available, but they’re providing ample opportunities for soccer aficionados to play and diverting public attention away from field hockey.
Developing these informal fields in Mumbai offers the city numerous benefits. From an economic perspective, small business owners in this new industry have been able to capitalize on otherwise unusable properties and city residents are participating inexpensively. From a social perspective, this development is providing city residents with space for physical activity and has been a source of inspiration for aspiring professional athletes.In the Dominican Republic, Baseball Takes All
In the Dominican Republic, baseball is the official national sport. Baseball requires little equipment, and is a “ubiquitous” part of Dominican life, providing many young players with the chance to become professional athletes. A couple unique aspects of Dominican baseball are the training programs for aspiring professionals and huge athletic facilities that exist for the country’s almost 30 major league teams. The city of San Pedro is well known for fostering successful baseball players, and houses the majority of major league-sponsored facilities.
Although baseball infrastructure has produced many economic benefits, it’s also had some social drawbacks. “Baseball factories” stimulate the economy with foreign money. In San Pedro specifically, baseball funds help finance public works projects, like plazas. However, the social ramifications of these baseball facilities in the Dominican Republic are typically negative. In contrast to the American system, in which many children play sports through school, Dominican children turn to buscones—people who often take advantage of rising athletes, acting as both coaches and agents. In fact, it’s commonly said that “parents risk a son’s childhood with baseball instead of going to school.”In China, Basketball is Both a Recreational Activity and an Emerging Profession
China currently is home to around 300 million professional and amateur basketball players. In Beijing, common playing areas include public courts or schools, and recreational basketball is in high demand. At the professional level, there is a need for professional basketball facilities across the country. However, it’s uncertain whether the planned facilities—if and when they are constructed—could generate enough fan interest to be profitable.
In China, whereas the economic benefits of investing in basketball infrastructure are mixed, the social benefits are generally positive. Economically, amateur sports offer facilities the chance to profit from people who are eager to play. However, for professional basketball to grow in popularity, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) will have to invest in infrastructure for the league. Even though the CBA has played in the stadiums remaining from the 2008 Olympics, 800,000 new courts have been planned for development. Socially, recreational basketball can create a sense of community for China’s many only children, and the CBA promotes cultural diversity within the teams. Instead of players leaving to play for international teams, like those from the Dominican Republic, Chinese teams have been actively recruiting American players, like Stephon Marbury.Sports for Sustainable, Healthy, Vibrant Cities
Around the world, sports serve many purposes. They can be an athlete’s profession, an avid player’s recreational outlet, or a team-building activity for anyone. Sports infrastructure varies widely, making it well-suited to sports’ many purposes. Across India, the Dominican Republic, and China, it’s clear that sports and sports infrastructure play an influential role in city and national development. From an economic perspective, they provide opportunities for new industries and encourage international funding. From a social perspective, they provide recreational outlets and cultural diversity, and, occasionally, professional opportunities.
Looking forward, it’s likely sports infrastructure will receive increasing attention from cities, especially as the process of greening sports facilities and implementing sustainable architecture becomes a bigger part of the discussion.
This is the second installment of the China’s Clean Air Challenge series, exclusive to TheCityFix. This series examines the increasing social, environmental, and economic impacts of serious air quality issues in Chinese cities, and investigates the source of emissions and sustainable solutions.
Toward the end of 2011, episodes of severe pollution levels in China started attracting worldwide attention. Global media employed terms like “airmageddon” and “airpocalypse,” sparking considerable discussion and debate on social media.
Nearly four years later, air pollution remains a pressing issue in Chinese cities. Last month, journalist Chain Jing released Under the Dome, an independently produced documentary investigating both the causes and effects of China’s toxic levels of air pollution. Within 48 hours, the video had gone viral, reaching over 100 million views. Although viewers have now been restricted from accessing the 103-minute documentary within China, the impact of the film’s message among Chinese citizens has already been forceful.Public pressure mounts
Air quality has long been a problem in Chinese cities, but it wasn’t until late 2011 when the public started to express significant frustration. Chinese social media platform Weibo has since become a major venue for public discussion. This type of grassroots communication has brought air pollution and its consequences to the center of public consciousness. PM2.5—the air pollutant most associated with respiratory health risks—is now a household phrase. But the problem continued to worsen, and in 2013, PM2.5 in Beijing spiked to 25 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization. Today, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection reports that cities across China suffer more than 100 days of extreme haze—when PM2.5 concentrations reach four to five times the acceptable levels—per year. Local governments have responded quickly to inform the public about proper protection responses and implement emergency emissions reductions, but public pressure for further action has never been higher.
Even before Under the Dome—and despite its censorship—public awareness of the reality and consequences of living with air pollution has been steadily approaching fever pitch.Chinese government responds
Public outrage over deteriorating air quality in China did eventually prompt government response. On September 12, 2013, China’s State Council released the Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Air Pollution, setting a road map for air pollution control from 2013-2017 in three key megalopolis regions: Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the Yangtze River Delta, and the Pearl River Delta. The Action Plan states that the regions’ annual average concentrations of PM2.5 should be reduced by 25 percent, 20 percent, and 15 percent, respectively.
More recently, the national government released a new plan that aims to build long-term momentum towards better air quality across the country. This plan pulls from three previous attempts at air pollution control:
The current combination of regional action plans and national strategies make China’s “war on pollution” a much more robust and far-reaching approach to addressing noxious air pollution.The way forward for better air quality
Implementing the Action Plan requires initiative at the local, provincial, and national levels. Some notable features of the Action Plan include:
- Distributing responsibilities and conducting performance assessments: The central government has assigned 80 tasks to various national ministries and has signed agreements with 31 individual provinces to make sure air quality improvement targets are achieved.
- Curbing emissions from industrial sources: Six emissions standards have been issued since September 2013, covering variety of industrial and manufacturing industries.
- Managing vehicle emissions: The central government will strengthen vehicle emissions standards by 2018 and has established a timetable to transition to cleaner sources of fuel. At the local level, older car models will soon be phased out the market.
- Restructuring economic and energy sectors: One notable example of these efforts is that the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region introduced measures to reduce coal consumption.
- Enhancing air quality management: Several ministries are improving air quality forecasting and scientific research has focused on identifying the sources of pollution. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has issued technical guidelines for developing a comprehensive emissions inventory and assessing energy efficiency that will guide local, on-the-ground work.
Whether because of public sentiment, globally influential campaigns like Under the Dome, or the sheer reality of how much air pollution costs China, the government is now taking the issue very seriously. Now is the time for the country’s growing civil society sector to keep engaging key stakeholders for continued action and bring forward sustainable solutions that clean the air and improve quality of life.
Walk through any public square or park in most Chinese cities and you’re likely to see—and probably hear—a colorful group of elderly residents dancing and singing to their favorite classical Chinese songs. The dancing grannies, as they are known, have become a permanent fixture of Chinese urban life. But they have also aroused the anger of nearby residents who complain of the noise that often runs late into the evening. Responding to this outcry, China’s national government recently announced guidelines in an attempt to regulate, but not completely ban, the dancers.
Far from settling the issue, the government’s attempt to rein in the dancing has only sparked more discussion of the grannies and their loud music, and has arguably failed to deal with the chief complaint: the noise that disturbs nearby residents. Despite the complaints, we think these grannies deserve some appreciation for their contributions to vibrant urban life.Where did the grannies come from?
The practice of the elderly gathering to dance in China’s public squares probably began in the 1990s, according to The New York Times. This was a period when many state-owned enterprises were downsizing and laying off workers, precipitating a rise in unemployed elderly with little to occupy their time. In recent years, however, conflicts have erupted as the dancing culture has irritated younger residents of the city who complain about the noise and disruption. There have been reports of human feces dumped on dancers from nearby buildings. In one city, a group of residents pooled funds to buy a rival loudspeaker to drown out the grannies’ dance music.
It’s no coincidence that the grannies emerged around the same time China’s economy underwent a dramatic transformation. As China’s economy moved from a controlled, planned economy to a market-driven one, the elderly were largely left behind. Before China’s economic reforms, cities were typically planned around the danwei, or work unit. Citizens were supposed to live, work, and play in one fixed community. While the reforms have unleashed unprecedented economic growth and new opportunities for millions, Chinese cities have been slow to provide adequate spaces for community interaction and recreation.The need for community space in Chinese cities
China’s rapid urban development has led to sprawl as well as the destruction of older neighborhoods—like Beijing’s hutongs—where human-scale spaces foster a sense of community. Strolling through ancient alleyways, observers will find residents playing xiangqi (Chinese chess) or chatting on a neighbor’s doorstep. This is also what American urbanist Jane Jacobs described in New York as the eyes on the street that contribute to neighborhood security and safety. However, this type of informal community life is typically absent from newer subdivisions of massive high-rise apartments.What can China’s cities learn from the dancing grannies?
China’s dancing grannies shouldn’t be thought of as a quaint anachronism. Concerns over noise and disruption to neighbors are legitimate, and could be addressed through modest regulations—such as prohibiting dancing at certain times and in certain places. But the grannies also provide valuable lessons to urban planners and designers.
The phenomenon of the dancing grannies exemplifies the concept of insurgent space which urban planning scholar Jeffrey Hou uses to describe the urban spaces where certain (often minority) groups spontaneously exercise their right to use public space. They’re also engaging in physical activity and promoting public health, which will be crucial to creating healthier cities in China.
In this sense, the grannies have responded to a failure in planning by taking matters into their own hands. It’s similar to pedestrians who, in a park or green space, create dirt paths by “voting with their feet”—indicating where a path should run.
As China hopes to move an additional 250 million people into cities over the next 10 years, there is a small window of time to start designing new cities and neighborhoods that have ample public space and green space for physical activity. If cities plan for more recreational spaces, they can avoid or at least reduce conflicts between neighbors and dancers. Additionally, the actions of groups like the dancing grannies could prove a powerful and free way to foster community and interaction among urban residents, revitalizing cities.
Walking is the most democratic way to get around. It is the oldest mode of transport, the most common in the world, it’s free, and it may even help you burn a few calories.
Nevertheless, people are walking less and less. As cities have become more sprawled, highways have replaced sidewalks, creating significant obstacles to walking safely. Sidewalks with broken concrete, narrow widths, and illegally parked vehicles on them are further evidence that walking has is slowly being suffocated by other modes of transport that are less healthy for both people and cities.
We need a shift back to pedestrian-friendly streets. Enhancing the quality of city sidewalks not only attracts more pedestrians, but also helps to create enjoyable public spaces where people want to spend their time.
While they’re decreasing in number, these places do exist already. Living sidewalks can be found in many cities in Brazil and around the world where city leaders have made active transport a priority. Instead of just paving a small strip along broad avenues dominated by automobiles, these cities have decided to enrich their walkable public spaces, emphasizing interaction between people.
To support make walking both accessible and safe, sidewalks should be constructed with these eight complementary and interconnected principles in mind. Together, they not only make for vibrant sidewalks, but contribute directly to the development of active and healthy cities.
Meet the eight principles of the sidewalk:1. Proper sizing
Sidewalks are made of up three zones: the free zone, where people actually walk; the service zone, where street furniture like benches or trashcans are located; and the transition zone, which gives those on the sidewalk access to buildings lining the street. Understanding the relationship between these components is key for designing appropriately sized sidewalks.2. Quality surfaces
The material used to construct sidewalks needs to be consistent, firm, stable and slip-resistant. In order to ensure that a sidewalk functions properly, designers must be aware of how the sidewalk is being constructed and the quality of the handiwork.3. Efficient drainage
Waterlogged streets, paths, or sidewalks are unsuitable for walking. Sidewalks that accumulate water become useless, as pedestrians will likely end up diverting their route through car-filled roads, risking their safety.4. Universal accessibility
The sidewalk, as a public space, should be accessible to a wide spectrum of users—including those with limited mobility. This means designing spaces that serve those in wheelchairs, on crutches, pregnant women, the elderly, and others with special mobility needs. Listing out the different potential users and their mobility limitations during the design process can help ensure the final product will meet the needs of all pedestrians.5. Secure connections
Pedestrians often transition to other modes of public transport, and need to be able to safely access stations. It’s important that sidewalks are connected and integrated within larger transport networks.6. Attractive spaces
Streets are a fundamental part of the urban environment. Sidewalks can play an important role in making the urban experience more enjoyable. Interesting, vibrant sidewalks that can captivate people and make walking more attractive will ultimately facilitate more physical activity while reducing traffic congestion.7. Permanent security
Day or night, weekday or weekend, sidewalks are always open for us. However, there are fewer people out on foot during certain times of the day and week, leading to potentially unsafe situations given the lack of friendly eyes on the street. Adopting strategies to positively influence safety and security can further encourage walking and help all city dwellers feel more at home in their city.8. Clear signage
Just like drivers of motor vehicles, pedestrians need clear information so that they can both orient themselves in the city and understand the rules and guidelines of particular sidewalks.
This article was originally published in The Indian Express.
As Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, announces a package of assistance on road safety through Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Global Safety Initiative, here is an ugly truth: India has one of the worst road safety records in the world, with around 1,37,423 road traffic fatalities in 2013. This makes up about 10 percent of road crash fatalities worldwide. In absolute numbers, more people die in road crashes in India than anywhere else in the world.
It is estimated that 17-18 percent of these fatalities occur in urban areas. This poses a serious threat as the country is rapidly urbanizing. A recent evaluation of road traffic fatalities in Delhi shows that pedestrians and bicyclists accounted for 63 percent of total fatalities, against 11.4 percent for the country as a whole.
Million-plus cities as well as small and medium towns have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of fatalities per million population. They also record more road traffic accidents in the evening, which could be attributed to higher speeds, drunk driving and poor visibility. Allahabad recorded the greatest increase in fatalities per million people — 405 percent from 2001 to 2009 — followed by Agra (319 percent).
Things will probably get worse before they get better. Traffic fatalities increased by about 5 percent per year from 1980 to 2000, and since then have increased by about 8 percent per year.
Domestic vehicle sales increased from 97 lakh in 2008 to almost 2 crore in 2014. There is a strong correlation between the increase in vehicles and increase in road fatalities. Some estimates suggest traffic fatalities will grow five-fold in India by 2050 if we do not take adequate action.
Global experience shows that building safer motor vehicles and re-engineered road geometry does not translate into a better road safety record. There are success stories, like Sweden, where a “vision zero” approach to road safety was able to bring down fatalities to five or six annually. The US, on the other hand, managed to bring down the risk of road fatalities per kilometers traveled. However, the total kilometers traveled has grown exponentially in the past decades, hence total road traffic fatalities continue to be high.
Rather than focusing on improving the safety of fast-moving vehicles, the international road safety discourse now focuses on two objectives: reducing the average speed of vehicles and, importantly, reducing the total volume of vehicle kilometers traveled. Together, this is known as a “sustainable transport approach” to road safety. It includes the redesign of urban streets and transport systems so that greater emphasis is put on public transport, non-motorized transport and transit-oriented development. The sustainable transport approach can also be categorized by the Avoid-Shift-Improve (ASI) framework, where the objectives are: avoid growth in vehicle kilometers traveled; shift trips to safer and more sustainable modes, like public transport and non-motorized transport, and improve the general condition of transport in terms of safety, time, cost, comfort.
This means India needs a two-pronged approach to road safety, with an equal emphasis on reducing the risk of fatality per kilometer traveled and reducing the number of vehicle kilometers traveled.
There is a critical list of best practices under each approach. Reducing the risk of fatality means strict enforcement of traffic rules — drunk driving, helmet use, seat belts and child restraint, as well as air bags. It means improving the behavior of all road users: lane driving, keeping to speed limits, using and respecting pedestrian crossings etc. It also means improving road geometry — identifying accident-prone spots and re-engineering them. And finally, it means ensuring that the vehicles manufactured are safer. Governments and planners should require many of these standards by law and build a strong system for their enforcement.
Reducing the number of vehicle kilometers traveled means increasing safe access to presently vulnerable road users — bicyclists and pedestrians. Planners should make access to urban streets safer through better design and adequate space for pedestrians and other non-motorized transport users. It also means encouraging alternate, preferably non-motorized, forms of transport, such as cycle rickshaws, for shorter or local commutes. The use of mass-transit systems such as buses and trains to assist long-distance commutes is strongly recommended.
Planners should rationalize new road infrastructure investments by asking if it is a priority if only a small percentage of commuters own or drive cars. In Mumbai, for instance, just 14 percent use private cars or two-wheelers, whereas the majority spend a large part of their commute as pedestrians or users of public transport. As is often repeated within the transport sector, a rich nation is not one in which the poor have cars but one in which the rich use public transport.
More than 1.2 million people worldwide are killed in road traffic crashes every year, and an additional 20 to 50 million are injured. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), if urgent action is not taken, these figures will increase by about 65% over the next 20 years, making road traffic crashes the fifth-leading cause of death by 2030. Half of these road fatalities occur just in ten countries, and Turkey has the dubious honor of being among those ten. The Turkish Statistical Institute indicates that in 2013, an average of ten people died and approximately 750 people were injured every day due to traffic crashes in Turkey.
EMBARQ Turkey recently concluded its Road Safety Lab (RSLab), a two-year long project that aims to assess the state of road safety in key Turkish cities and offer transport planning and urban design solutions. The project offers insight for cities worldwide: while human error is a factor in road safety, road design is also a critical determinant of traffic fatalities. An outsized portion of crashes in these cities occured in just a few particularly dangerous locations. Identifying and improving the design of these “blackspots” is a powerful strategy for saving lives on urban roads.The role of engineering and design for safer roads
At RSLab’s closing meeting, Beste Gülgün of the WHO pointed out that road fatalities are not merely the result of “accidents.” Deaths caused by road traffic crashes are structural and can be avoided through comprehensive and cost-effective precautions. This is why the United Nations and the WHO have launched the Decade of Action for Road Safety for 2011-2020 to mobilize more than 100 countries and prevent a total of five million deaths from traffic crashes by 2020.
Speed management, drinking and driving, and helmet or seatbelt use are widely acknowledged risk factors in road safety management. However, road safety challenges cannot be attributed solely to human error, as drivers and other road users adapt their behavior to many external factors. Therefore, road infrastructure design plays a crucial role in reducing fatalities and injuries. According to the Handbook for Road Safety Measures, simply lighting previously unlit roads can reduce fatalities from traffic crashes by 60%, for example.Where can cities start when improving road design?
In most cases, a few traffic safety hot spots account for a high proportion of crashes. According to RSLab presenter Andre Münche from PTV Group, 50% of avoidable accidents occur only on 10% of the road network. One powerful method to improve road safety – called blackspot management – involves identifying particular locations that are highly problematic and resolving site-specific problems that might be causing human error.
With the support of Bloomberg Philantropies and 3M, the RSLab team has identified 25 critical blackspots for road traffic crashes across five Turkish cities and made a number of reccomendations to improve each blackspot. These range from traffic signalization and pedestrianization designs to improved lighthing. EMBARQ Turkey estimates that these measures could prevent more than 500 crashes and approximately 70 injuries annually. According to RSLab Project Lead Tolga Imamoğlu, a road safety inspection is also a cost-effective measure to include when building new roads. Road safety inspections reduce traffic crashes on average by 30%, with a 1:10 cost-benefit ratio.
Identifying the right blackspots, however, can be challenging; it requires quality data and road design expertise. Imamoğlu mentioned that data accuracy can be hampered by a range of factors such as incorrect GPS information or lack of tracking on the status of injuries after crashes. RSLab Project Analyst Kiarash Ghasemlou emphasized that a well-organized, comprehensive, and accessible data collection system is crucial to correctly identifying blackspots.Turkey’s speed management problem
Beyond blackspot management, speeding also plays a significant role in crashes and resulting fatalities in Turkey. According to Mustafa Ilıcalı of Bahçeşehir University, 43% of fatalities and injuries from traffic crashes in Turkey are due to speeding. Ilıcalı pointed out, however, that this trend in Turkey is not surprising, given the lack of attention paid to speeding offences. Ilıcalı’s statistics showed that only 18 out of 1,000 drivers receive tickets for speeding in Turkey, compared to 456 of 1,000 in Australia and 558 of 1,000 in the Netherlands. Given the staggering number of road fatalities in Turkey and lack of comperehensive enforcement, speed management has become a focus of numerous organizations and agencies like the WHO and the Turkish Road Association.
One issue brought up by many participants at the RSLab closing meeting was the tension between current transport policies that emphasize making cities safe for pedestrians and those prioritizing the mobility of cars. Although many stakeholders, especially in Turkey, voice similar concerns, conceiving urban mobility more broadly as the safe movement of people through sustainable transport policy and planning is a way of resolving this tension. Road safety as a public health problem is not an isolated issue. Rather, it is closely linked with behaviors and trends in other areas such as access to public transport or level of vehicle emissions. As one aspect of sustainable transport policy, better road design through methods can make roads safer for all users, whether on foot, on bikes, or in cars.
View photos from the closing meeting of RSLab on Flickr.
The city is like an organism, and the swift movement of people and goods is the oxygen that sustains its well-being. When this circulation is inhibited, it significantly compromises the quality of urban life. For example, private cars account for less than one-third of trips in cities worldwide, but are responsible for 73% of urban air pollutants. Per capita, private cars generate three times more greenhouse gas emissions than public transport systems like buses. In the last year, the transport sector accounted for 46.9% of Brazil’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.
Rapid global urbanization comes with the potential to accelerate current climate change trends, and transport emissions may even triple by 2050. In addition to the severe consequences for the global climate, rising greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles also have a direct impact on human health. Air pollution contributed to 3.7 million deaths worldwide in 2012. It’s also estimated that urban air pollution contributes to 7,000 premature deaths per year in metropolitan São Paulo and reduces life expectancy by 1.5 years on average.
These challenges require urgent action to reduce the negative public health and environmental impacts of urban transport. One of the main paths for achieving this is through better urban planning and design. The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlights the importance of building denser cities with mixed land uses to reduce sprawl. To do this, we need to shift to a “3C” model of urban growth: connected, compact, and coordinated. These are the key proposals of transit-oriented development (TOD) strategies, which focus on adapting urban spaces to the scale of pedestrians and cyclists, providing quality, efficient public transport, and designing safe, connected spaces around transit hubs to improve connectivity and accessibility.
Designing efficient, low-carbon cities and transport systems can improve health and the climate. A 2013 EMBARQ study shows that 11 new bus rapid transit (BRT) projects in Mexico, Colombia, China, India, and South Africa have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 31.4 million tons over the next 20 years. This amount is equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 6.5 million cars.
As defined in its National Plan on Climate Change (NPCC), Brazil aims to reduce carbon emissions by between 36.1% and 38.9% by 2020. To achieve this, the country has an important ally: investment in urban transport infrastructure provided by the Growth Acceleration Program (PAC). More than 80 Brazilian cities now have the opportunity to use federal funding to enhance transport corridors, implement TOD strategies, and in the process improve public health and air quality. It is expected that these investments will prioritize active transport and mass transport systems and help to reverse the country’s trend towards car ownership and motorcycle use.
A study by the Climate Observatory indicates that Brazil could be on track to meet the voluntary emissions reduction commitments outlined in the NPCC, but also signals a worrying increase in energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, mainly due to fossil fuel consumption from transport. While we still face many challenges to shifting planning and investment to a low-carbon path, there are potential solutions at hand. Current negotiations over funding sources that would subsidize the costs of public transport, such as from taxing fossil fuels, can help build cleaner fleets and make sustainable transport more viable in Brazilian cities.
These is the pathway we need to breathe better in our cities.
This article was originally published in Portuguese in the Revista NTU Urbano.
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