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Live from Habitat III: National Policy, Local Empowerment and Climate Change

Thu, 2016-10-20 06:33

Urban World Leaders Gather for Habitat III Plenary Session. Photo by Agencia de Noticias ANDES / Flickr

WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities is reporting on Habitat III from Quito, Ecuador. Follow our daily coverage on TheCityFix.

Habitat III, the third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, officially began on Monday, October 17th in Quito. On Wednesday, urban leaders from around the world gathered for two plenary sessions. Both sessions focused around three main elements, as speakers strove to unite the participants toward implementing a strong, robust and effective New Urban Agenda (NUA).

The third day of Habitat III hosted the fifth and sixth high-level plenary sessions. While the plenary primarily centered on Habitat III and the NUA, country representatives discussed distinct national urban policies and frameworks, the role of decentralization in urban planning and the link between climate change and sustainable development.

1. National Urban Plans

The success of the New Urban Agenda relies almost entirely on the ability of participating countries to create and update national urban plans and other institutional frameworks focused on enabling effective management of urban development. Processes of enhancing institutional capacity and garnering widespread political will to improve cities for all can be galvanized behind a National Urban Plan.

Recognizing the impact of creating a specific national policy for urban growth, many nations have already taken up this approach. Plenary participants from Togo noted that “Togo has been chosen as a pilot country by the UN for integrating the SDGs into national development programs and strategies,” and that a new national housing strategy has been implemented to address unhealthy conditions in informal settlements and land tenure issues. Papua New Guinea has also embedded urban planning into its political planning, creating the National Urbanization Policy that spans from 2010 to 2030 along with plans for a national slum upgrading policy and affordable land and housing programs. This national-level buy-in to a better vision of cities has guided social policies in many countries already, and if further encouraged, will continue to provide new perspectives on managing urban growth.

2. Decentralization of Urban Development Planning

Within these national urban policies, however, many delegates specified that more effective models of governance would be needed for a successful New Urban Agenda; namely, in decentralizing the process for urban decision-making within a broader, national plan. Many of the represented nations highlighted that bringing a more distributed approach to decision-making could prove useful in the action phase of the NUA.

Togo’s delegate, for example, went on to elaborate that “effective decentralization and good governance” would prove vital to continuing their progress on housing policy. By highlighting decentralization, this distributed and inherently participatory approach can allow for customized and locally appropriate thinking to be the driver of solutions. Representatives from Azerbaijan also noted that state-level plans would be formulated under the umbrella of a national-scale plan for urban development. Meanwhile, India is “empowering municipalities and other local-level institutions” to create and implement appropriate policies. Galvanizing support under a national plan is a start, but giving decision-making power back to cities and regional authorities allows for a closer view of what works to make a given city more livable and sustainable.

3. Intersection of Climate Change and Urban Development

Throughout Wednesday’s plenaries, country representatives drew attention to the harmful impacts of climate change on urban regions and the role cities must play to mitigate these effects. Seeing as cities emit 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, a representative from Finland noted that they play a crucial role in the implementation of the Paris Agreement. To fit within the global framework, the delegate encouraged cities to develop local climate change and mitigation strategies, linking climate change and urban planning.

While climate change is not often aligned with urban development, and has therefore taken a backseat throughout most of the proceedings, it was an important theme in the day’s plenary sessions. A distinguished representative from Papua New Guinea declared: “climate change is a key to development challenges.” To echo these sentiments, a delegate from the Seychelles called for NUA implementation to heavily encompass climate change provisions. The island nation challenged all governments to take climate change seriously and to achieve the commitments of the NUA accordingly. By reinforcing the relationship between climate change and development, representatives demonstrated the importance of integrating the NUA into other global processes, coordinating the NUA with climate goals in the Paris Agreement. “Cities should adopt a climate agenda that is closely linked with their growth,” said a delegate from Morocco. By aligning growth with climate policies, cities can protect their people and environment, while ensuring sustainable development. The Moroccan representative highlighted the upcoming COP22 in Marrakesh, Morocco’s capital, as an opportunity to link the implementation of the NUA with climate change agreements.

While Wednesday’s plenary sessions reflected a mosaic of nations, the call to action was singular. A cohesive and shared vision of a sustainable urban future will be empowered by national urban actions that empower all levels of regional and local actors in addressing urbanization, especially as it relates to global climate goals.

Follow our daily coverage of Habitat III on TheCityFix.

Live from Habitat III: Inclusive and Well-planned Cities For All

Wed, 2016-10-19 04:52

Quito, Ecuador hosts Habitat III. Photo by Sakeeb Sabakka / Flickr

WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities is reporting on Habitat III from Quito, Ecuador. Follow our daily coverage on TheCityFix.

Habitat III, the third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, officially began on Monday, October 17th in Quito. On the second day of the conference, governmental leaders from around the world gathered for two plenary sessions. Speakers addressed country-specific urban challenges and strove to unite the participants toward implementing a strong, robust and effective New Urban Agenda (NUA).

With Habitat III fully underway, Ministries of Housing from around the world gathered for two high-level plenary sessions. The speakers discussed what Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda can do for global cities, the status of urban development in their countries as well as desired outcomes from the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. These remarks often centered on specific national policies, but three themes resounded throughout the day: inclusive cities; accessible and affordable housing and the importance of integrated planning.

1. Inclusive Cities: Leave No One Behind

Throughout the proceedings, participants noted that inequality is often exacerbated in urban centers, where economic opportunity and social services cannot keep up with the rate of urbanization. Therefore, the success of Habitat III is dependent on the ability to promote inclusive growth while implementing a robust vision of future cities in the New Urban Agenda. Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development of Canada, explained that creating: “inclusive communities means promoting diversity, protecting needs of underrepresented groups and ensuring that no one is left behind.”

Following Duclos’ remarks, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro urged plenary participants to invest in inclusive communities that promote shared prosperity for all urban residents. He noted that cities where residents value inclusivity are often the most innovative and successful in accomplishing global goals like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To Maria Nuñez, Minister Executive Secretary of the National Secretariat for Housing and Habitat of Paraguay, the mark of an inclusive society is participatory planning. She called for the NUA to inspire “participatory processes from the outset” that take into account diversity while managing solutions at the local scale. Similarly, Eneida de Leon, Minister of Housing of Uruguay, noted the importance of “bringing the decisions back to society; this is what will strengthen coexistence.” The delegate went on to say that this shift in approach must also promote the notion of buenvivir, or “living well,” for all who live in cities today, or will do so in the future.

2. Housing as Entry Point to Equality

A global deficit in affordable housing also came to the forefront in delegates’ addresses. But, many cities are taking action to close the gap. Jan Claude Mbwentchou, Minister of Housing and Urban Development of Cameroon noted: “building housing for all social groups” as one of the most crucial challenges, occasioned by “rural exodus and population growth.” As a result, the Cameroonian government is re-launching public investment to reduce a deficit in housing, and demonstrated collaborative effort within its plans to; “build and plan for 50,000 housing units,” while providing “new incentives…to combat unhealthy and unclean housing.”

One solution that many country representatives highlighted was the integration of a plan for affordable housing into broader national plans. Diene Farba Sarr, Minister of Urban Renewal, Habitat and Living Environment of Senegal, detailed the country’s plans for a broad-scale “new policy of economic and social development… and framework of the Emerging Senegal Plan.” This policy framework “attaches importance to urban renewal,” and is poised to “produce 15,000 new housing units each year,” while also strengthening slum upgrading programs. This comprehensive approach to development planning can ensure that burgeoning cities are better able to accommodate an influx of new residents and provide a better quality of life for those already living in urban areas.

3. Integrated Planning Ensures Stronger Communities

This devotion to implementing more integrated planning was the another common thread in Tuesday’s plenary sessions. Ministers highlighted the importance of integrating planning measures across governmental levels, metropolitan areas and sectors; Minister of International Affairs of Kiribati Atarake Nataara described how the NUA “acknowledges the significance of building partnerships at the global, regional, national, subnational and local levels.” It is this multi-level and multi-sectoral coalition-building that can lead to widespread buy-in on more comprehensive policies.

Julian Castro, on the other hand, urges participants to embrace integrated urban planning specifically across metropolitan sectors. He said that by integrating policy and focusing on how communities are connected, cities will become more resilient and sustainable. For example, Castro noted that as cities continue to grow, they will increasingly rely on the rural agricultural lands that grow their food. By planning across these areas, he claimed, food security will improve through advanced coordination.

However, by the end of the conference proceedings, what most participants are hoping for is the establishment of robust follow-up mechanisms. Nearly all participants in Tuesday’s plenary sessions described the desire for a robust monitoring, reporting and implementation platform and proclaimed their support for this enhanced implementation in their countries, to ensure cities are inclusive, well-planned and provide adequate housing for all. Long-term vision and sharing of results seems to be something that all participants can agree on.

Follow our daily coverage of Habitat III on TheCityFix.

Managing Behavior and “Building Culture” for Greater Efficiency

Tue, 2016-08-09 21:41

Building owners and tenants strive to heighten building efficiency in modernizing cities, like Hong Kong. Photo by ¡kuba! / Flickr

In the past few years, large commercial building owners and managers have expressed growing interest in using behavioral strategies to improve their buildings’ performance. That interest often takes the form of “occupant engagement,” whereby tenants are encouraged to adjust their habits to save energy or water. Researchers estimate that behavioral strategies can save 25 percent of energy in homes and between five and 30 percent in commercial buildings. However, despite burgeoning interest, commercial building owners and their facilities managers have barely begun to unlock the potential of behavioral strategies. Achieving these tremendous benefits first requires an understanding of the people and culture of a building.

Big Potential in Need of Better Strategies

Building owners and managers often overlook the many simple changes they have the power to make. “Energy efficiency is a complex societal problem that needs a multi-pronged approach. Policy, rate structures and utilities all make a difference, but in the end, the motivation for change remains with corporate entities and individuals,” says Stephen Selkowitz, a researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In a recent research paper, Alan Meier and co-authors argue that building owners and operators “have the technical means to reduce energy use, [but] social, organizational and technical constraints limit ability and motivation. These include low status, customer service practices, poor feedback on occupant environment, little energy data, and technology shortcomings.” Understanding and addressing these human factors is essential to creating effective behavioral strategies.

Managing a Changing Building Culture

Technology is only as good as how it is used. Often overlooked is the fact that this relationship works both ways—any technology incorporated into a building can ultimately change behavior. If building operations staff encounter new or unfamiliar technology, then it is important to understand the impact on the “culture” of the building. Just as technology and science are some of the biggest drivers of deep changes across societies, the same is true at the scale of a building.

To manage cultural change in buildings and enable cooperation among all the participants in the building lifecycle, researchers Lamberto Tronchina and Massimiliano Manfren have recommended that building owners use common terminology and definitions; performance metrics; and building design and operation management approaches (particularly those that are integrated, data intensive, model based). These steps provide the foundation for better building operations and greater energy savings.

Top-Down and Bottom-Up Approaches

Why does one building and its staff perform flawlessly while another similar building struggles to keep up? It often depends on the management approach used in the building’s operations group: top-down vs. bottom-up.

For example, someone operating within a top-down paradigm is more likely to put together a training program that emphasizes instructions and references to authoritative sources—rather than creative problem solving and peer-to-peer networking. A top-down manager will expect thorough and rapid adoption and compliance with their “system.”

But imposing an unfamiliar system may end up creating changes for staff that are unwelcome, imposed and superficial, lacking meaning for their everyday lives. If so, the manager will have set themselves up as the sole authority and will probably experience more unexpected failures and disruptions to the system they established. They will receive more calls to come fix things, rather than staff fixing problems themselves. The result will be an account that requires heavier, more intensive servicing. This means higher costs and more demands on time, in addition to poorer results.

On the other hand, a bottom-up or social approach requires patience and a belief that a few changes can move operations and management staff in the direction they need to go in order to better manage the building. Understanding the mechanics of a building includes understanding people. Meier and coauthors recommend:

“(1) recognizing the building as a social system and using real buildings and users to experiment with solutions; (2) supporting increases in the visibility and professionalization of building operators and operations; (3) improving technical capabilities for seeing and managing energy in buildings; and (4) improving coordination between indoor environmental quality and energy efficiency, helping ensure that efficiency technologies meet their energy performance expectations without leading to unnecessary deterioration of the workplace environments.”

People matter. Considering their habits and their subtle differences when making management decisions can create more engaged occupants and managers and tilt future outcomes in desired directions. Deeper buy-in among personnel leads to greater support over the longer-term and, with it, more consistent outcomes and realized savings.

Friday Fun: How Pokémon Go Is Creating a New Generation of Urban Explorers

Fri, 2016-07-29 18:30

A Pokemon Go player catches a Pokemon while walking outside. Photo by Penn State / Flickr

In the past few weeks, if you’ve seen people roaming around, staring at their phones and spontaneously shouting with glee, or crowds of people inexplicably congregating in parks, there’s a good chance you’ve witnessed someone playing Pokémon Go. Since its release on July 6th, Pokémon Go has taken over cities around the world. With an estimated 26 million players in the United States, it’s the biggest mobile game in U.S. history. In fact, on a daily basis, more people have used Pokémon Go maps than Google Maps—the developer for the maps in the game.

In contrast to its strictly visual predecessor, Pokémon Go requires a more active gaming lifestyle. The smartphone app utilizes GPS, geotagging, cameras and maps to integrate the gaming experience into a semi-virtual reality. Like the original Pokémon, the objective of the game is to catch different Pokémon creatures. However, in the new version, players must leave the confines of their homes and roam city streets, parks and popular landmarks to find Pokémon. Some Pokémon prefer certain environments over others, inspiring players to visit nearby bodies of water and recreational areas. Users visit “Pokéstops,” which are mapped to real-world public spaces, to collect Pokémon and assorted items, encouraging the use of public transit and walking over private vehicles.

Urban developers and city officials have been trying to inspire smart city planning for years, underscoring the environmental, health and economic benefits of a walkable city. What planners have continuously struggled with, Pokémon Go has achieved overnight. Pokémon Go has enhanced urban exploration and engagement, leaving us to wonder if the cartoon has uncovered the secret to effective urban planning.

Pokemon Go players on the DC Metrobus. Photo by Oren Levine / Flickr

Encouraging Urban Exploration to ‘Catch Em All’

Pokémon Go goes against the grain of indoor and sedentary videogames, as it promotes active exploration and engagement with people and places around the city. It pushes people out of their homes to enjoy sunshine and fresh air. Players get to explore new neighborhoods, restaurants, parks and landmarks, developing a newfound appreciation for their city and breathing life into public spaces that were previously empty. Gamers are even meeting new neighbors and talking to strangers about how many Pokémon they’ve caught.

This dynamic gaming experience is introducing exercise to a previously motionless activity. Many have reported sore legs from walking and running miles at a time. In the game, players collect eggs that will hatch only after they’ve walked two, five or ten kilometers (one, three or six miles). The game may also incentivize use of public transit due to the large number of Pokémon on and near transit stops. The Metro in Los Angeles created a Twitter account for gaming riders, tweeting tips on where to capture the cartoon creatures.

Pokémon Go is even impacting local business by attracting Pokémon, as well as humans, to their businesses. Signage promoting the game, as well as a purchasable “Lure Mode,” which attracts Pokémon for 30 minutes at a time, is helping business owners increase their revenue.

Local businesses like Frank & Oak are attracting customers using Pokemon Go signage. Photo by Jamey M. Photography / Flickr

An Innovative and Powerful Tool for Civic Engagement 

With greater pedestrian activity and exploration comes enhanced awareness. Players are not only developing a greater sense of what their city has to offer, but some people are also becoming more aware of mobility and environmental issues. Many are now noticing their neighborhoods do not promote walking, detecting flaws in transit infrastructure and discovering unhealthy, urban ecosystems.

This newfound awareness has triggered dialogue between gamers and city leaders, heightening civilian engagement. Pokémon Go’s popularity has inspired some city officials and stakeholders to play into the game culture. Some are using the app as a platform to shed awareness to local issues, promote political events and incentivize visits to landmarks. By sparking conversation with players, leaders are harnessing the interactive power of Pokémon to awaken a new generation of urban stakeholders and activists.

But is this engagement always civil? There is a fine line between genuine interest in visiting landmarks and inappropriate, even dangerous behavior. Some players are capturing Pokémon in the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, Arlington National Cemetery, the 9/11 Memorial in New York and Auschwitz in Poland. For some, merging the game world with reality has proven quite dangerous, even resulting in robberies and getting hit by a car.

 Future Urban Planning in a Pokémon World  

Pokémon Go has exhibited successful aspects of urban planning that cities may learn from. The mobile game integrated cities, pedestrians and local officials to form a more cohesive, lively and well planned urban system. Through aligning city programs with interactive incentive, leaders may be able to expand upon the success of Pokémon Go to promote smart and sustainable cities while enhancing civilian awareness and respect.

 

Pokemon Go – Official Launch Trailer from Stephan Pilon Lectez on Vimeo.

Urban Planning “Games”: A Novel Approach to an Old Problem

Thu, 2016-05-26 23:32

Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Gabriel Garcia Marengo/Flickr

How do you liven up discussions around urban planning, get participants thinking outside of the box and get people to take a holistic and inclusive approach to community planning? Why not try a game?

Games are emerging as a useful platform for fostering meaningful dialogue on today’s most pressing urban development issues. Through simulations, role playing and even the use of LEGO blocks, interactive urban development and planning games can provide a fun and engaging way of bringing disparate groups of stakeholders to the table. These games remove the threatening atmosphere often felt in more formal meetings, and allow participants to more casually communicate with one another while collectively evaluating different paths of development.

Games can help simplify complex and seemingly insurmountable problems by detangling components and breaking them down into smaller, more comprehensible pieces. Furthermore, games that require role playing can force participants out of their comfort zone helping them to begin to understand and view problems from a different perspective, such as through the eyes and experiences of a bicyclist, bringing light to issues they may normally overlook.

Recognizing the value of games, the United Nations in collaboration with the makers of Minecraft, the Urban Land Institute, MIT and countless other institutions have developed interactive games as teaching and outreach tools to facilitate learning and decision making between stakeholders of all ages and backgrounds.

Putting TOD Games in Action in Mexico and Turkey

Recently, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities’ team in Mexico co-developed a role playing, LEGO-based game to supplement their Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Guide for Urban Communities, inviting players to explore a range of development strategies at different scales for a city and facilitating a discussions of the benefits of zoning and transit-oriented development (TOD).

Players are assigned roles, representing different government agencies or sectors, private developers and the public. With a map of a specific site, they use colorful LEGOS that represent different land use types (e.g. commercial, residential, industrial) and stickers to denote different types of sidewalks (e.g. with or without trees), cycle paths (e.g. two-way), and traffic lanes (e.g. dedicated bus lanes) to build and visualize different development scenarios.

DOTS game in Mexico. Photo by Benoit Colin/WRI

The game serves as a vehicle for bringing to life the principles of TOD and has proven to be an effective technique in engaging the public and professionals from multiple sectors in talking about TOD.

Given the game’s success in Mexico, the Ross Center’s team in Turkey incorporated a session of the game into the 2015 Livable Cities Symposium in Istanbul in November 2016. The workshop introduced the topic of transit-oriented development (TOD) and allowed participants to explore the concept through the redesign of an actual squatter settlement (Kucuk Armutlu), located next to the university where the Symposium was held. The workshop provided an interactive environment for participants from various disciplines—from urban planning and environmental engineering to the private sector and academia—to learn how they can better design communities in an actual low-to-middle income neighborhood isolated from public transport, both by natural barriers and a major highway.

Players were divided into two teams. One group was assigned to represent  a  ‘business as usual’ approach, requiring members to develop recommendations within the confines of current legal restrictions, such as zoning that does not allow mixed-use development, and planning conventions that typically take a top-down strategy. The other group was tasked with taking a more ‘radical’ approach, allowing recommendations to include reforming laws and planning processes. Both teams focused on three main problems facing the community: disjointed scales of planning; disconnected modes of transit that are physically inaccessible by the community; and a lack of vibrant public space.

In addition to addressing real problems and facilitating an understanding of TOD in the design process, the game attempts to foster meaningful collaboration between players of diverse backgrounds. Each player must shed their professional and educational beliefs and take on an assigned character, making decisions through that person’s eyes.

This was the most challenging part of the game. Many of the engineers, urban designers, architects and others found it difficult to support new and contrary ideas to what they normally believe. Another challenge that the players faced was learning to interact with one another and accept different perspectives. In fact, what was most revealing about the workshop and the game was that with honest and enthusiastic participation and discussion, it was still possible to establish common ground.

Players acknowledged the importance of active participation from diverse stakeholders in the decision-making process. The participants’ motivation and excitement demonstrated the importance of instilling empathy in players during the strategic decision-making process. Greater empathy fostered better communication and collaboration and helped players to better plan for all people. Participants realized that planners in Turkey and beyond need to actively engage the public in the planning process—a practice that is largely non-existent today.

As Jane Jacobs explains in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Pioneering Open Government Innovations in São Paulo and Austin with the OGP Subnational Pilot Program

Tue, 2016-04-19 21:27

Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo by Gabriela Sakamoto/Flickr.

Cities are where real progress is made for sustainable development. They’re where governments are closest to their citizens and where essential public services like education, health and transport are delivered to people. However, with this proximity comes a responsibility for cities to be more transparent, accountable, and responsive to their citizens’ needs. A more open government at the local level can directly improve quality of life for all.

Last week (April 12, 2016), the Open Government Partnership—a global organization that works with countries voluntarily committing to greater openness and transparency—announced that it is opening up membership to subnational governments, including cities, municipalities and regional bodies. Fifteen pioneers in open government were selected for their commitment and leadership in driving innovation and reform at the local level.

To celebrate this step forward, we’re highlighting two of the fifteen urban pioneers—Austin, Texas and São Paulo, Brazil—who have made incredible strides towards improving people’s quality of life through open government.

Open Data for Better Transport in São Paulo, Brazil

With 11.3 million residents, São Paulo is one of the OGP’s largest subnational nominees. The city has been working towards a more open government by focusing on technology and has opened up data and decision making processes to support public participation. For example, the new Open São Paulo Portal has enabled more citizens to be part of decisions made about the budget as well as services like transport and education. The Open São Paulo Portal served as the starting platform for two laboratories, Mobilab and LabProdam, and continues to provide a collaborative space for citizens, tech innovators and the public sector to advance collective goals like better mobility.

Mobilab is a partnership between São Paulo’s public transport and planning agencies, private operators (like Easy Taxi), local citizens, universities and innovators. Established in response to public protests and dissatisfaction with public transit services and rising bus fares, Mobilab was founded on the principles of public participation and open data. The city recognized the need to innovate new transport solutions while also increasing transparency and public satisfaction. Opening up data from traffic signals, parking meters and public transit GPS systems, the lab has supported the creation of many mobile apps that have improved the way transit users plan their trips and travel throughout the city.

Similarly, LabProdam is an organization looking to “develop tools aimed at improving social participation, transparency, innovation, and integrity and conduct discussions and activities on open government, especially in the area of technological innovation”. One product they’ve developed is the Contador de Ciclista or “Cyclist Counter,” which measures the use of bike lanes throughout the city using simple technologies like webcams and mobile apps. The cycling data is then made public for cycling advocates, city planners and elected officials.

Citizen Engagement in Urban Planning in Austin, Texas

Over the past five years, Austin has embraced the open government movement as well as democratic innovation and citizen engagement. For example, instead of an executive decision by city officials, the city council openly debated their application to join the OGP pioneer program. A Council Resolution was passed to support the city’s participation, showing support for the principles of transparency, accountability and responsiveness.

Two excellent examples of civil society engagement are Imagine Austin and Code Next—initiatives that are helping to shape Austin’s urban environment through citizen engagement. Imagine Austin, a master planning and visioning effort adopted in 2012, is founded on co-creation and co-implementation with citizens, community organizations and businesses. The initiative created Austin’s long-term plan, guiding regional development for the past four years. During the two-year planning process, Imagine Austin received over 18,500 public inputs through community forums, social media campaigns, local media outlets, surveys and other media.

Building on recommendations that came from the Imagine Austin planning process, CodeNext is a new, collaborative initiative that revises and updates Austin’s zoning and land use codes. The project works with the community “to preserve, protect and enhance the City’s natural and built environment.” While urban zoning and planning codes are typically considered highly technical in nature, CodeNext is helping to demystify urban development among citizens—drawing on the community’s perspectives and using their input to shape the city’s development.

Creating a Culture of National and Local Collaboration

Over the next 18 months, Austin, São Paulo, and the rest of these 15 selected subnational governments will make progress towards becoming more transparent, accountable, responsive and participatory cities. Additionally, the national governments participating in the OGP will work with urban pioneers both in the pilot program and beyond to help create and implement city-level open government initiatives and policies through national action plans.

Cities will play a large role in helping the world achieve its climate and sustainable development goals—from the Paris Agreement to the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda. By prioritizing open government, these cities will also help create a more inclusive and equitable future.

Unlock Bangalore: Making the Right Decisions for Sustainable Growth

Thu, 2016-03-31 21:46

To ensure a high quality of life for Bangalore’s residents, the city will need to address traffic congestion, urban expansion and energy efficiency. Photo by bionicgrrrl/Flickr.

Bangalore is India’s third most populous city and is among the top 100 cities that contribute to the global economy. 75 percent of Bengaluru’s income is from the service sector, with over ₹ 500 billion (approximately US $7.6 billion) from IT and real estate. Several Fortune 500 companies have their offices in Bangalore. In 2014, the city received the ninth highest number of foreign investment projects in the world.

While this growth has increased incomes, it has also led to infrastructure problems, like poor quality of water, unreliable power and traffic congestion. Public investments in infrastructure have not kept pace with growth, giving rise to self-provisioning solutions like diesel-powered generators, bore-wells and packaged water that have created environmental and health concerns. Bangalore needs to sustain its economic growth and improve quality of life for its citizens to maintain its appeal for investors and talent. In its attempt to address congestion, limit sprawl and improve efficiency, Bangalore has to now make key decisions on land-use, infrastructure, transport and energy.

Addressing Congestion

In the last 20-30 years, Bangalore has been building wider, faster roads and flyovers in response to the growing number of vehicles in the city. This approach has failed. Not only has it made it unsafe for pedestrians, but it has also resulted in the city having the sixth worst traffic jams in the world. With the metro still under construction, the city’s public bus operator, BMTC, carries the majority of the commuter load—42 percent. However, increasing costs and inefficient operations has resulted in a less than optimal quality of service. Every day, 5.2 million people commute via 6,700 buses operated by BMTC.

To actively address congestion and solve mobility and accessibility issues, Bangalore needs to (1) redesign roads to make them safer for all users, and specifically for pedestrians and cyclists, (2) improve speed and quality of bus-based mass transport, including bus rapid transit (BRT), in addition to Namma Metro, (3) integrate various modes of public transport and intermediate public transport through schedule, fare and physical integration, (4) develop progressive regulations for emerging shared mobility options like ridesharing, carpooling, shared bicycles and taxi aggregators and (5) ensure car-users pay the full cost driving, including the costs of parking and congestion.

Managing Urban Expansion

Bangalore has led the growth of India’s technology industries. These emerging economies are located in the suburbs and peripheries of the main city and have global access. While the core city is undergoing some transformation, the peripheries have seen rapid growth. From 2006 to 2012, the metropolitan region added 1228 square feet per minute. Over 10,000 gated residential developments now dot the region. Areas such as Whitefield and BIAAPA are manifestations of this growth. In order to manage expansion in a sustainable manner, Bangalore needs to:

  1. Move from a traditional static land-use approach for planning and development, and adopt a strategic spatial planning approach.
  2. Leverage the US $2 billion investment in Namma Metro by implementing transit-oriented development principles in its well-serviced core area.
  3. Develop peripheral and satellite ring roads as area-based development projects rather than mere road projects by integrating land-use and transport
  4. Adopt local area planning that allows for improved infrastructure and services for new and existing wards
Improving Energy Efficiency

BESCOM, the city’s electric utility, serves 8.9 million customers—almost the entire population of the city. However, the utility has been struggling to supply sufficient power to meet the 3400 megawatt peak demand. In 2015, due to technical challenges and dropping hydro reserves, the gap between demand and supply was almost 900 megawatts.

Bangalore consumes 40 million units every day, which is projected to increase to 74 million units by 2030. To meet this growing demand, Karnataka proposes to increase generation capacity by 22.5 gigawatts, of which 14.5 gigawatts will come from non-renewable energy sources. Distribution losses are at 14 percent, with additional transmission losses.

In order to reduce the demand-supply gap, the city needs to (1) identify and overcome information, technical and financial barriers to installation of rooftop solar PV, (2) focus on energy-efficiency and demand-side management via by promoting the use of energy efficient appliances and user education, (3) facilitate the procurement of renewables by large electricity consumers to reduce their dependence on diesel and other pollutants and (4) promote increased public participation in BESCOM’s decision making

Bangalore is at a critical juncture in its growth, where decisions today will be “locked-in” for the next 40-100 years. By addressing congestion that shifts the conversation from vehicles to people, managing urban expansion towards sustainable growth and implementing practices that provide clean, reliable energy for its people, Bangalore can move on to a path of improved livability and sustainability, and maintain its competitive status in the global economy.

This piece was originally published on wri-india.org. Learn more about our talk series on Unlock Bengaluru here.

Live from Mexico City: The Impact Today’s Cities Can Have on Tomorrow

Tue, 2015-10-13 04:51
TheCityFix is coming to you live from Mexico City this week, where EMBARQ Mexico is hosting the 11th annual International Congress on Sustainable Cities and Transport (“XI Congreso”) today through Wednesday. The conference is aimed at helping cities work toward ...

7 Proven Principles for Designing a Safer City

Thu, 2015-07-23 09:31

An aerial view of the metro-bus system in Mexico City, Mexico. The city’s recent bus-rapid transport system has helped alleviate major congestion. (Photo: EMBARQ Sustainable Urban Mobility / Flickr)

Traffic accidents kill more than 1.2 million people every year, nearly the same amount that die from HIV/AIDS. But there’s an undervalued approach to making the world’s roads safer—good urban design.

While most traffic safety initiatives tend to focus on behavioral approaches—such as helmet- and seatbelt-wearing campaigns—a new publication from the EMBARQ sustainable mobility initiative of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities finds that seven design principles can help cities dramatically reduce road deaths. Here’s a visual look at how local officials and planners can design safer and more sustainable urban environments:

1.  Avoid urban sprawl.

Cities that are connected and compact are generally safer than cities that are spread out over a large area. Compact Stockholm and Tokyo have the lowest traffic fatality rates in the world—fewer than 1.5 deaths per 100,000 residents. Sprawling Atlanta, on the other hand, has a death rate six times that, at 9 fatalities per 100,000 residents.

Cities should aim for smaller block sizes, pedestrian-oriented streets, and dense housing that allows for convenient, walkable access to transport, entertainment and public spaces. Doing so reduces the need for car travel and ensures a safe space for walking and cycling.

2.  Slow down road traffic.

Lower automobile speeds, particularly below 25-31 miles per hour (40-50 kilometers per hour) drastically reduce the risk of fatalities.

Cities can implement low-speed zones and “area-wide traffic calming,” including speed humps, curves in the road called chicanes, curb extensions and raised pedestrian crossings. Research shows that speed humps can reduce vehicle speeds from more than 22 mph (36 kph) to less than 15 mph (25 kph). Paris, for example, has been using this kind of tool to design roads citywide to meet 30 kph (19 mph) speed limits.

3.  Ensure main streets are safe for everyone, not just cars.

Ensuring safety is particularly important for main roads, where pedestrians and motorists often mix. A growing movement for “complete streets” means that all types of users have safe crossings and dedicated road space.

For example, refuge islands and medians give pedestrians a safe place when crossing the road. Mexico City found that for every one meter increase in unprotected road width, pedestrian crashes increased by 3 percent.  The city recently rebuilt its Avenida Eduardo Molina as a complete street, featuring dedicated transit, bike lanes and a green central median for pedestrians. Similar but less dramatic changes in street design in the city have resulted in a nearly 40 percent drop in fatalities.

Avenida Eduardo Molina in Mexico City—an arterial with dedicated bus lanes, protected bike lanes, rebuilt sidewalks, and a green central median at some segments—accommodates mass transport, mixed vehicular traffic,bicycling, and walking. 

4.  Create dedicated space for pedestrians.

More than 270,000 pedestrians lose their lives each year on the world’s roads. If pedestrians lack quality space, they are exposed to greater risk. Basic sidewalk space is necessary, but pedestrian-only streets and street plazas can also be effective tools for protecting walkers.

In the past few years, New York City has led a global shift toward eliminating street spaces for cars and turning them into “street plazas,” improved sidewalks and car-free areas. For example, a large section of Times Square is now only accessible to walkers and cyclists.  The city saw a 16 percent decrease in speeding and a 26 percent reduction in crashes with injuries along streets with pedestrian plazas.

5.  Provide a safe, connected network for cyclists.

Studies from several cities find that injury rates go down and more people bike when there is dedicated infrastructure like off-street trails and dedicated bike lanes.  These cycling networks should also connect residential areas to business and retail, schools, parks and mass transport.

Bogota, Colombia found that adding more than 100 km (62 miles) of bikeways helped reduce bicyclist deaths by 47.2 percent between 2003 and 2013 , and increased bicycle use from just over 3 percent of all daily trips to over 6 percent.

6.  Ensure safe access to high-quality public transport.

High quality public transport carries more people, and experiences fewer crashes than private vehicle travel. Research shows that a bus rapid transit (BRT) system can reduce traffic deaths and severe injuries by 50 percent.

It’s not enough to just provide this public transit, though—city planners must also ensure safe access for commuters. Belo Horizonte, Brazil recently launched MOVE BRT, carrying an estimated 700,000 passengers per day. The city rebuilt streets in its center and created dedicated bus lanes with clearly marked crossings and easy pedestrian access. This system makes it safe for commuters to ride the bus, as well as to wait for and get onto the bus.

Pedestrian access to a median BRT station.

7.  Use data to detect problem areas.

Cities can use data analysis to identify key streets where all the above solutions can be integrated. This means having good traffic crash data that can be mapped and analyzed, seen here using the PTV Visum Safety software to create heat maps of crash locations.

For example, London used data analysis and mapping to analyze its crash data and learned that a rise in cyclist deaths came from crashes with large trucks delivering goods into the city center. The city has since developed a pilot program to reschedule deliveries for low-cyclist hours.

We live in a rapidly urbanizing world, with cities expected to hold 70% of the global population by 2030. Designing safe cities now can protect current residents as well as those to come.

To learn more about how urban design can make cities safer, read the report Cities Safer by Design here.

Friday Fun: City Planning in the Virtual World of Gaming

Fri, 2015-07-17 21:26

Players have the choice to create a green, healthy city, or ruthlessly industrialize. (Photo: Beyond Sims / Flickr)

The real world is looking a lot more digital. With increasingly advanced software and the rise of the “sand box” gaming genre (video games that enable players to freely design their environments) has come a flurry of city building simulators.  Beginning in 1989 with Sim City, these games have allowed players to architect their own city, virtually constructing anything from roads and bridges, to parks, shopping malls, and skyscrapers.  Not surprisingly, with the capacity to create futuristic, functional, and realistic looking cities, the popularity of these games has grown exponentially.

While strictly classified as video games, city builders and “sand box” games are having a major impact on real world urban design by inspiring dialogue and educating individuals on how to create sustainable cities.

A Virtual Denmark: Minecraft as a Learning Tool for Danish Students

Consider Minecraft, the largest-selling independent video game ever made.  As a “sand box” game, Minecraft allows players to design and construct every aspect of their environment in a nearly infinite amount of space—placing unlimited possibility in the hands of gamers and, apparently, entire countries.  According to the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, the entire country of Denmark was recently recreated on a 1:1 scale in the world of Minecraft, allowing players to log in, explore, and modify their model.  Creators Simon Kokkendorf and Thorbjørn Nielsen Geodatastyrelsen aspire to educate their fellow Danish citizens on the geography and design of their country’s cities.  Below is a video of the virtual Denmark:

Sparking Discussion, Fostering Education

While the primary objective behind these city building games is to offer players an entertaining experience, gameplay also pushes gamers to learn about how cities work.  In many of these games, players must balance transport, industry, crime-prevention, and energy consumption with economic growth, or risk losing everything. Placing industrial parks too close to residential neighborhoods, for example, harms health; while poor design in roads, infrastructure, and investment creates congestion and stifles growth.

A simulation of Chicago built and designed in the recently released video game, Cities: Skylines. (Photo: Jim Jahey / Reddit.)

Of course, playing these games alone does not make one into a city designer or urban planner. Rather, these games offer players a chance to think about and be rewarded for pursuing sustainable approaches to city design.  Indeed, the majority of these games encourage players to forge cities that run on renewable energy and prioritize quality of life.  And, as the gaming market continues to grow, so does the opportunity to spark conversations about sustainability and educate individuals about the basics of good urban design.

Perhaps these games’ greatest and longest lasting impact is their ability to generate dynamic communities. Both urban planners interested in teaching tools as well as gamers looking to improve their skills have reached out to one another online.  There are countless websites and forums dedicated to discussing these games, connecting two communities who would otherwise remain disconnected.  Online, players discuss real world problems, share research, and collectively brainstorm how to build successful virtual cities.  At the very least, city building games are starting conversations and fueling passion around sustainable urban planning.

Cities: Skylines and the Future of City Builders

Cities: Skylines simulates a life for every citizen that comes to live in the player’s metropolis (or quaint town, depending on a player’s skill). Citizens take a variety of routes into town, hold independent jobs, and have varying purchasing power at markets — each individual impacts congestion and the economy uniquely. The game also allows players to implement various policies—such  as whether or not to charge for mass transit—and allows players to create  industrial parks, office areas, and residential zones.  Since its release this year, it has been rated by some as the best and most realistic city builder game to reach the market.

But does Cities: Skyline’s realism, extraordinarily complex engine, and educational capabilities make it useful for practicing city planners?  No—not yet, at least.  Cities: Skylines impressively simulates real urban environments, but some critical details are left out, such as dedicated bus lanes, bike lanes, construction time, socio-economic lines, and any measurement of decay over time (people do age, but that’s it).

The game does, however, allow users to modify its code, introducing features that game developers did not initially think of or have time to introduce.  Users are already beginning to tap into the potential of the game for real-world applications, creating modifications (mods) that permit players to export their in-game cities as real world maps that can be read by open source mapping software.  Conversely, it is also possible to import real world maps into the game.

While urban designers and planners are a way off from integrating these games into their work, the future of city building games appears extremely bright.

Reimagining Mumbai

Thu, 2015-06-25 23:30

It is time for Mumbai to embrace strategic spatial planning and local area plans as a sustainable path forward. Photo by Tarun R/Flickr.

This article originally appeared on WRI-India.org

How can Mumbai become a Smart City that the nation is proud of? The recently published Draft Development Plan (DP) for Mumbai was so poorly received by various stakeholders that Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis scrapped it on the 21st of April, 2015. It has to be reworked in just four months – an opportunity to bring in much needed change in the planning discourse.

Since the DP followed a traditional process of proposing land uses and development control regulations, it is no surprise that the plan did not deliver on the local needs, sentiments and aspirations of citizens. This process of development planning is mandated by the State’s Town Planning Act, a remnant of outdated British laws, which were made when the current complexities of large metropolitan cities were not yet imagined.

Previous development plans for Mumbai too, have faced challenges, such as prolonged delays of up to 15 years, indicating clearly that they are no longer realistic or nimble enough to respond to a changing city. These generalized plans typically did not respond to local variations and needs, did not have infrastructure plans linked to them, and did not manage to implement several reservations such as open spaces, local roads, dispensaries etc.

If the future of the city is pegged on a plan that is open to comments from citizens only once in 20 years, then this is a recipe bound to backfire. What then is the alternate that the city can explore?  The answer lies in strategic spatial planning.

Strategic Spatial Planning separates the visioning tool from the regulatory tool. It envisions the city’s future while formulating strategic decisions and projects that will help leapfrog over the current and potential challenges of the city.  This tool is not legal in nature, and serves as a platform for various stakeholders to freely express opinions, conduct negotiations and arrive at agreements without the fear of repercussions. This negotiated planning method brings together various government departments (planning, physical and social infrastructure, and funding agencies) along with local businesses, religious groups, resident welfare associations, NGOs and citizens themselves.

While the process could be messy to start with, it results in a ‘co-produced’ vision for the city. Strategic Spatial Planning provides a long term vision, alternate future options and strategic projects that are linked to clear budgets. These strategic projects bring about a collective structural change to the city addressing the real needs of stakeholders, irrespective of the number of departments that need to be co-opted to manage implementation.

Typically anchored by a strong government agency, or a mayor in international contexts, such a paradigm shift in planning is critical to prevent large metropolises from succumbing to becoming diseconomies. The traditional regulatory land-use plan could continue to be used for giving out building permissions and sanctions as well as providing a legal certainty for actionable inter-sectoral projects rolling out of this visioning tool.

Actionable projects are to be realised at the smaller disaggregated scale of the Local Area Plan (LAP). These LAPs need to be mandated to ensure participation of local stakeholders in the plan making process to incorporate local knowledge, dynamism and local values. Due cognizance of these local area priorities, at regular intervals, should go back upward to inform the strategic plan and the regulating plan to ensure realistic planning and budget allocations.

Mumbai being the largest and most populous city in Maharashtra has a plethora of agencies helping to run the city. The instrument of the local area plan must serve as the common platform for the planning agencies and the services provisioning agencies to come together in a coordinated manner.

Agencies and experts in international cities, such as Europe and South America for example, have chosen strategic spatial planning and local area plans as a real alternative to static land use, regulatory control and statistical extrapolations. It is time Mumbai followed suit.

Smart Cities No Longer an Urban Legend

Thu, 2015-06-25 19:12

 

Ahmedabad has overcome a variety of challenges to ensure smart development. Photo by sandeepachetan/Flickr.

This article was originally published in The Economic Times.

Today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally launches the government’s ambitious Smart Cities initiative, which aims to tackle key issues resulting from India’s rapid urbanization.

In addition, the ‘Atal Mission’ and ‘Housing for All by 2022’ will also be announced. Both initiatives are very welcome for the development of the country as they will kick-start the process of building new smart cities and rejuvenating existing urban centres to become more sustainable, thriving cities.

A first in many respects, the new process of launching a competition where cities bid for smart city funding is inspiring. This has worked well at helping gather thoughts and ideas towards defining smart cities, and innovative approaches towards how these can be implemented. The competition idea has also meant that key stakeholders have been involved quite early on in the planning, and see themselves as ready partners in the process of building cities.

Going forward, it will be interesting to witness the growing levels of engagement from the public in general, and from planning agencies in particular, in the implementation process of smart cities. The Center encourages planning and public participation in the process; city and state authorities will need to champion the effort to make it a success. The Smart Cities effort also provides the platform for strategic planning.

It is very important for people to work from a vision for the future, rather than be limited by the legalities of a master plan. We need to move from compliance-based incremental changes, to starting with a big vision of what the city needs, coming up with strategic projects, and support that vision and plan with strong laws and processes to achieve sustainable change.

Ahmedabad is a great example of how a city, having outlined a long-term vision for itself and anticipated how to get there, has overcome several obstacles to ensure smart development. The key is to envision the desired change right from the start and strive towards it.

For example, Ahmedabad has been using the unique Development Plan, Town Planning Scheme (DP-TP) approach of creating a vision through the DP and ensuring local area implementation that engages the local population through the TP scheme.

The bus rapid transit system, Janmarg, is now 88 km and ensures trunk connectivity in all major city roads.

Launched in 2009, the system includes features of the highest global standards and is considered a best practice of BRTs in south Asia. Bengaluru is another example of a city having implemented sustainable public services. The country’s largest bus system, operated by the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation, was transformed by the introduction of the Bangalore Intra-city Grid (BIG) system in 2013.

This integrated system optimizes routes for improved efficiency, quality of service and capacity. Still in its early stages, BIG currently serves over 1,50,000 passengers a day. When fully implemented, the network will improve public transport experience for 2.5 million commuters daily. Bengaluru has also seen community participation in its planning processes.

In March 2013, World Resources Institute (WRI) experts partnered with the community at Hosur Sarjapur Road Layout, a fast-developing area in Bengaluru, to pilot a neighborhood improvement plan using this bottom-up approach. Key urban issues, including mobility, accessibility, signage, place identity, biodiversity and public spaces were studied at the neighborhood scale.

Through various stakeholder meetings, the community was encouraged to come forward with their ideas, challenges, fears, hopes and aspirations for what they wanted their neighborhood to look like.

The community was mobilized to not only define clear areas that could be improved, but also to create and test a sustainable, implementable vision for the area.

Acknowledging that the government’s 100 Smart Cities initiative is ambitious, it is important to build capacity to meet this ambition. We will require a revision and reoriented strategic planning processes, as well as pulling together a ready pool of specialists, technical experts, professionals and private players to participate.

There must also be a strong political will to implement the changes required to make our cities healthier, liveable and smarter.

Three Enabling Factors for Building Urban Resilience

Wed, 2015-06-10 21:19

Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam has partnered with Rotterdam in the Netherlands to learn from each other’s experience and collaborate on a Climate Adaptation Strategy. Photo by BBC World Service/Flickr.

Due to climate change, hundreds of millions of people in urban areas across the world will be exposed to rising sea levels, greater inland flooding, more frequent and intense storms, and regular periods of both extreme heat and cold in the coming years. Despite these risks, many cities have not yet addressed resilience—the capacity to not only bounce back after a natural disaster, but also strengthen protection to future hazards and learn from the experience.

Cities often lack the technical and financial capacity to invest in resilience building. Particularly in developing countries, cities face a range of pressing challenges—from providing basic services, to ensuring affordable housing, developing sustainable transport, and increasing economic opportunity. Because of these immediate and pressing issues, city leaders often do not prioritize projects, like early warning systems, or policies, like zoning codes, that can build the long-term capacity of their communities to properly respond to climate hazards. Especially far down on the list of priorities are the governance-related changes necessary for ensuring that efforts are actually implemented and are effective.

In order to overcome these challenges, it is essential that leaders develop repositories of context-specific information, share their information and insights, and coordinate among departments. Acting on these three enabling factors will ensure that cities worldwide achieve the level of resilience they require.

1. Develop context-specific information

It’s critical that city officials have accurate and full information about the potential impacts of various hazards in their city and how different areas of the city and various communities might be impacted differently. For example, a storm with significant storm surge will cause much more significant damage along the coastline but a storm with high wind speeds and low storm surge will affect different neighborhoods. This information needs to be collected and updated by each city itself; it is not the kind of information that can be shared across cities.

After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, New York City became an exemplar for developing context-specific information. In 2013, Mayor Bloomberg updated PlanNYC to “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” emphasizing urban resilience. The comprehensive plan has updated flood maps and other city-specific information, and contains actionable recommendations for protecting the city’s coastline, buildings, infrastructure, and communities from future climate risks.

2. Share information and lessons learned

An important step towards building resilience is sharing this information and properly communicating it to the public. With accurate and timely hazard information, communities—especially vulnerable populations—can better respond to climate threats, particularly when supported with evacuation routes and emergency transport options. Furthermore, cities can learn a lot from one another, so sharing information about their experiences with successful policies and programs is invaluable.

For example, Rotterdam and Ho Chi Minh City are topographically similar cities, and Rotterdam is helping city officials in Ho Chi Minh City create and implement a Climate Adaptation Strategy through the Connecting Delta Cities Network. This type of partnership is critical for developing not only financial resources, but technical capacity as well.

3. Coordinate among departments, sectors and jurisdictions

Coordination is often already a significant challenge for city departments and sectors. However, proactively building climate resilience requires coordinating actions between many departments, and may even require new mechanisms for collaboration between both departments and civil society. Particularly when cities build resilience to climate change through projects in specific sectors, communication and coordination across sectors can maximize efficiency and economic savings. If stakeholders fail to communicate, efforts to build resilience may result in maladaptation.

For instance, floods affecting Bangkok and the surrounding region in 2011 divided the city center from peri-urban populations because of the government’s decision to create floodwalls protecting the city. By not coordinating between jurisdictions outside the urban core, officials were unable to meet the pressing needs of the vulnerable populations north of the city that were badly affected by flooding.

Ensuring Success across Differing City Contexts

Around the world, cities are at different stages of resilience planning. Some have developed stand-alone resilience plans, some have integrated resilience into their master plans or urban development plans, and others are choosing to build resilience within a sector or through specific projects. Regardless of the strategy that decision makers adopt, the more context-specific information they have, the more they share information with citizens and other stakeholders, and the more coordination they foster, the more likely they will be to build resilience that is sustainable over time. Researchers, practitioners and city officials are gathering in Bonn this week (June 8-10, 2015) at the ICLEI Resilient Cities Congress to discuss how they can work together to facilitate climate resilience building in a more effective way than ever before. This is no small task, but cities around the world are beginning to act.

How China Can Leverage High-Speed Rail for Compact Urban Development

Tue, 2015-05-19 21:36

High speed rail connects Zhengzhou with other Chinese cities and has potential to spur compact urban development across the country. Photo by Andrew Stokols.

Many large Chinese cities have developed around transport corridors. Hangzhou and Suzhou, for example, grew wealthy from their position on the Grand Canal, which connected northern and southern China. Today, the country’s high-speed rail (HSR) system is proving to be an equally powerful catalyst for urban development.

China’s HSR system presents an opportunity for transit-oriented development (TOD) around new stations. However, due to a variety of factors, development around stations has often failed to occur in a controlled or compact manner. A more coordinated strategy for TOD around HSR stations could help Chinese cities develop in more compact and sustainable ways.

High-Speed Rail Expands Rapidly Across China

Since 2008, China has built the world’s largest high-speed rail system. Just a decade ago, China had virtually no high-speed rail lines. Today, it has over 12,000 km of passenger-dedicated high-speed rail lines connecting most major Chinese cities. By 2020, the network will connect all provincial capitals and cities with a population of over 500,000—around 90 percent of China’s population.

China’s rapid rollout of high-speed rail is the result of not only massive government investment, but also the low cost of building rail in China. Several factors contribute to these low costs of construction, including China’s low labor costs and the government’s ability to easily procure land. New HSR lines are often built as elevated viaducts across long distances. This method has several advantages: it provides the level surface that high-speed rail requires, and also reduces the amount of farmland that needs to be acquired between cities. The focus on saving costs and maximizing speed, however, has also meant that many new stations are built far outside the city center, where land-acquisition costs are lower.

New Towns Mushroom around HSR Stations

In attempt to capitalize on the high property values caused by transit development, many Chinese cities have proactively planned new districts next to HSR stations. Along the Beijing-Shanghai HSR line, for example, 16 out of 24 cities have planned new urban areas adjacent to HSR stations, as many local officials view HSR as an opportunity to spur local economic growth. Officials even compete with one another to convince national authorities to locate stations in their cities.

The outcome of such development remains unclear. Indeed, a few of these new districts—mostly those in large cities—are on their way to become bustling urban districts, such as the new developments around the East Station of Hangzhou, the provincial capital of Zhejiang province. Many others in smaller cities have languished, like the one in Dezhou, Shandong province (1hr and 20 min south of Beijing by high-speed train). There, a massive plaza dumps passengers into farms and villages far from the city center. Some of these vacant areas may experience development when housing demands catch up, but others will likely remain “ghost towns”.

A high-speed rail station in Dezhou, China was built far outside the city center, amid farmland. Photo from Google Maps.

High Speed Rail Produces Mixed Results for Transit-Oriented Development

Multiple factors influence whether development around high-speed railway stations is successful or not. While transit-oriented design is typically considered a strategy that cities can use to concentrate development around intra-urban transit nodes, like subway and bus stops, it can also be applied to development around inter-city nodes, like HSR stations. The following recommendations would help China leverage its HSR system to spur compact and sustainable urban development:

  • Station location matters: How vibrant new districts are depends largely on how well they can attract businesses, workers, and developers. Yet, in many situations, the decision of where to build new stations is influenced by political factors. For example, large Chinese cities with greater bargaining powers are able to negotiate with the China Railway Company (CR) to place HSR stations closer to city centers, whereas smaller cities might have stations located further out, sometimes over 20 km away. Stations far from the city center with poor public transport connections will be less successful. Additionally, new development could contribute to sprawl and the reduction of productive agricultural land on the periphery of cities.
  • Coordinating regional development: Coordinated planning among cities to avoid inter-city competition is important. Cities served by HSR often aspire to become regional growth hubs. But fierce competition for investments may actually hinder economic growth. Therefore, better coordination in national and regional planning is necessary to ensure that new towns develop compactly.
  • New financing models: In the most successful cases of TOD, the rail company develops and owns the land surrounding stations. Hong Kong’s MTR, considered one of the more successful examples of this model, owns property developments surrounding Hong Kong’s metro stations, like malls, which allow it to fund its rail operations. Japan’s private railroads have also been successful with this model.

Developing and maintaining public transit systems requires sizable investment. Funding transit development through property development around stations offers a way for the central government to reduce its costly subsidies. Furthermore, coordinated development around stations will ultimately increase ridership.

A new “directive” issued by the State Council last year may herald changes on the horizon. Calling for better integration between rail stations and adjacent urban development, the document promotes the ownership and development of land by (CR). But this recommendation doesn’t come with any concrete legal changes.

More clarification and substantive reforms will be needed before China can truly capitalize on its high-speed rail to foster more sustainable urban development.

What Cities Can Learn From Porto Alegre about Inclusive Planning

Mon, 2015-05-18 22:12

Redevelopment of Porto Alegre, Brazil’s port has been contentious, as planning has lacked public participation and respect for local culture. Photo by marcusrg/Flickr.

The sunset in front of Guaiba River, Usina do Gasômetro, and Mauá Port are iconic symbols of Rio Grande do Sul’s capital, Porto Alegre (“Porto” means port in English). Porto Alegre is a city full of life and history, and its famous port contributes to the local culture. However, this important piece of public space has been closed since redevelopment began in 2013.

The local government solicited bids and hired a developer to revitalize the area, leaving out a critical factor: citizen participation. Porto Alegre’s residents were excluded from the entire planning process, despite being the people most affected by development and changes to the port.

In response, the citizen-driven movement “Cais Mauá de Todos” is leading a campaign for social engagement, representing the voices of Porto Alegre’s residents. Cais Mauá de Todos understands that an equitable city must include the local population in decision making processes, as they are the ones who use—and depend on—public spaces on a daily basis. Everyone benefits from an inclusive planning process, because when citizens and local government cooperate, the process is perceived as legitimate, gaining social and legal support to move forward without major barriers.

There have been two proposals to revitalize the port. One came from the city and private developers without public consultation. The other, proposed by Cais Mauá de Todos, has widespread support from technical experts—like architects, sociologists, historians, lawyers—as well as the general public.

Rather than criticizing the city-led proposal, it’s important to take a look at how each proposal was developed and the consequences of their plans. By examining the debate around Porto Alegre’s port from a variety of different perspectives, we can better understand how various types of planning processes contribute to the revitalization and transformation of public spaces.

Cluttering the Port with Malls and Office Towers

The proposal selected by the city includes plans to developer high-rise office towers. Rendering from Office of Jamie Lerner.

Through a public bidding process, the city chose a proposal that integrates the dock area with the river. But there have been two controversies surround the selected proposal. The first is that the population was left out of the planning process. The second is that the proposal included plans to construct two 14-20 floor office towers near the road to city hall. At the other end of the space, the proposal included plans to build a hotel 20 floors tall, a 13,000 m² shopping center, and a convention center.

Community organizations and activists argue that the historic center around Porto Alegre’s capital building doesn’t need this kind of infrastructure, and that investment should be directed to other parts of the city. The proposal would keep the pier’s nine warehouses for bars, restaurants, and shops. The proposal even suggests establishing a university in the area to keep the pier active at all times of the day.

There are important questions surrounding this proposal: does Porto Alegre need another shopping center in a place that is famous for its sunset and views of the river? Discussion of this unsettled question continues, as development has been stalled due to issues with the project’s environmental permit.

In addition to a mall, the city’s proposal includes plans to develop restaurants and shops along the riverfront. Rendering from the Office of Jamie Lerner.

An Urban Port for All

Architect Maria Helena Cavalheiro designed a rival proposal, called “Manifesto Mauá”. Endorsed by Cais Mauá de Todos, Maria’s proposal was presented during a debate on April 17, 2015 at the Architecture Department at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. Her proposal prioritizes public spaces, and integrates the redeveloped port into the broader urban environment without sacrificing its historical and cultural characteristics. One example of this is the flood retaining wall that was installed between the docks and the city in the 1940s–leaving the port vulnerable to flooding. In Maria’s proposal, this retaining wall would be relocated to protect the docks from the Guaiba River as well.

Architect Maria Helena Cavalheiro’s design for the port area uses a park to connect the city and the Guaiba River. Rendering by Maria Helena Cavalheiro/personal archive.

The road along the port has already been taken over by cars and high-speed buses. Many of the buildings have parking lots on their ground floors. Maria’s proposal would expand walkable public space where there is currently a road. This pedestrian section would go all the way to Gasômetro and integrate with the city’s historical center, where the Public Market, Church of Sorrows, the Customs Square, and Casa de Cultura Mario Quintana are located. To ease traffic, a tunnel would be constructed as well as two secondary roads. Additionally, Maria would close down the last stretch of the train in the heart of the city, and replace the tracks with a bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor that would connect the Port to Gasômetro.

Porto Alegre’s story offers critical lessons for cities looking to revitalize public spaces that are central to local identity. No matter the end result, it’s crucial that planners and city leaders ensure citizen participation in their decision making processes so that development is equitable and consistent with local needs.

This article was originally published in Portuguese on TheCityFix Brasil

How a Chinese Megacity is Innovating Finance for Transit-Oriented Development

Mon, 2015-05-04 21:43

To ensure sustainable urban development, Shenzhen, China has been experimenting with several innovative strategies for financing transit infrastructure. Photo by Chris/Flickr.

China’s rapid urbanization has dramatically increased the need for public transit infrastructure.  To accommodate these changes, it’s estimated that China needs to expand urban rail by at least 3000 kilometers by 2020—approximately a $4 trillion investment.

In Chinese cities, funding for large-scale urban transit infrastructure traditionally comes from two sources: sales of land development rights and bank loans. However, these approaches can not only financially burden city governments, but also lead to costly urban sprawl.  Recently, the city of Shenzhen has been successfully experimenting with alternative approaches to overcome these significant challenges. Shenzhen’s experience demonstrates that financing transport infrastructure by harnessing the value of land can also be an opportunity for sustainable transit-oriented development (TOD) in Chinese cities.

Sustainable Development Needs Sustainable Financing

Building a transit station on a given plot of land expands access to transport, which typically raises the value of the surrounding properties as a result. For the average Chinese city, it’s estimated that this added value—known as land premiums—amounts to roughly US $300 million – $1.6 billion. These land premiums from the surrounding property make up about 20 – 90 percent of the cost of developing a single subway line, and can be a potential source of funding for transport infrastructure projects, which often either end up too expensive to be worth the investment or rely on large subsidies from local governments to keep them operating.

This way of capturing land value is commonly known as rail plus property (R + P) development. Since R+P means that one entity develops both rail and property, the future revenue from the property compensates for the construction costs of building rail. This strategy incentivizes developers to build compact developments around stations, as doing so allows them to cash into higher land premiums. R+P has already proved successful in Hong Kong and is a promising solution for making TOD a reality in Chinese cities as well.

Four Strategies for R+P Development

The first Chinese city to successfully pilot R+P at scale, Shenzhen is using four strategies to bring TOD to the region.

1. Innovative Financing Arrangements

Shenzhen realized early on that R+P requires a proper financing arrangement, as city-owned metro operators are not only responsible for the costs and risks of metro construction, but also the new business of property development. Therefore, Shenzhen decided to split land premiums with developers so that projects could be completed without overburdening either side.

In the beginning, metro company had to pay concession fees to obtain land development rights through auction, despite receiving reimbursements from the city to ease its financial burdens. However, since 2011, the city has directly granted land to the metro company as an equity asset, thanks to the national government’s decision to pilot land policy reforms in Shenzhen. To further reduce the costs and risks associated with R+P, the metro company will be allowed soon to form a partnership with developers to share the costs and gains of property development and hedge against fluctuations in the real estate market.

2. Planning Integration

To ensure dense, mixed-use development around transit stations, Shenzhen coordinates agencies and simultaneously adjusts its master plans, detailed land use plans, and transit plans. Planning authorities and the metro company work together continuously to evaluate land values and plan for integrated transit infrastructure and urban development.

To encourage denser development and mixed land uses, Shenzhen created a new type of land use so that planners and developers can co-determine land use and density already at the implementation stage. The city also reformed its zoning code to allow for more flexible commercial, residential, and office development on land parcels that were previously designated for transport use only.

3. Flexible Zoning

Shenzhen expanded land development rights, issuing development rights according to land uses on different building floors. This encourages mixed-used development, as commercial, residential, and underground transit building rights can be obtained separately.

An example of development plans for a metro station, with standard zoning codes on the left and Shenzhen’s new zoning codes on the right. Previously, it was impossible to develop land for other types beyond transport (colored in gray). Now, the zoning codes allows for mixed-uses, (colored by primary land use type). Graphic by WRI.

4. Multi-Stakeholder Dialogue

Shenzhen also has introduced multiple ways for stakeholders to engage one another and work across silos. In particular, the city encourages dialogue between different departments and coordinates with developers to match projects to market demand. In fact, the local planning institute and the metro company have worked closely from the very beginning of the financing and planning stages. Finally, strong leadership and external consulting services can also prove critical to managing complicated urban development. The city realizes that R+P development hinges not only on carefully designed public policies but also on efficient operations at the firm level.

Paving the way for the future

Shenzhen’s success has profound implications for other Chinese cities. If Shenzhen can successfully implement R+P under the same regulatory and legislative environment, other Chinese cities can follow suite. However, R+P does not offer quick wins. In Shenzhen, it took over a decade to implement viable solutions. Hong Kong also took about a decade to make a profit. Change won’t be possible without a booming real estate market, a mature capital market, a capable and willing private sector, and—more importantly—a strong political will that is open to new approaches. Given the need for sustainable transit-oriented development in China, leaders can’t afford to overlook Shenzhen’s successes and the opportunities that R+P presents.

To learn more about Shenzhen and TOD in Chinese studies, click here.

Friday Fun: Lessons and Innovations from India’s Temporary City, the Kumbh Mela

Sat, 2015-05-02 00:38

A spiritual gathering of millions of people in India, the Kumbh Mela can be considered a temporary urban environment and offers many fascinating insights for urbanists. Photo by AlGraChe/Flickr.

In January, 2013, a city emerged on the banks of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in Allahabad, India. Temporary bamboo and fabric structures appeared on a floodplain that had been underwater just weeks before. Metal plates were laid down for roads, pontoon bridges were constructed, and health facilities were erected. From January 14 to March 10, as many as 34 million people are estimated to have passed through the festival, which occupies an area larger than that of Athens, Greece. And then, as March came to a close, everything was taken down and recycled, not to return to Allahabad for the next 12 years. The settlement vanished.

This gathering is called the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious festival and pop-up city like none other in existence. Beyond its magnificence and scale, Kumbh Mela has many lessons for urbanists on how to create and maintain a city that works for people.

A Place of Public Ritual

The Kumbh Mela has been called the largest gathering in the world. It is a pilgrimage destination that rotates every three years between the four cities of Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik, and Ujjain, the dates determined according to Zodiacal calculations on the positions of the Sun, Moon, and Jupiter. The festival always occurs on a river or confluence of rivers where, it is believed, Lord Vishnu spilled a drop of amrita (the nectar of immortality) as he flew away from a battle. Pilgrims, at a predetermined time, wash themselves in the river to remove themselves of sin. In addition to the primary ritual of bathing in the waters, attendees also engage in devotional singing, a mass feeding of holy men and poor, and assemblies where religious doctrine is debated.

All of these people, however, must also have water, food, and places to sleep. The gathering demonstrates exaggerated versions of the problems cities face, but has also been the driver of many potential solutions to these problems.

A Valuable Site for Learning and Innovation

The sheer size and temporary nature of the gathering make it an unmatched laboratory for urban planners and designers, who can watch urbanization (and de-urbanization) occur at a fast-forward pace. A team from Harvard closely documented the 2013 event from beginning to end, and has recently released their findings as a book.  They highlight that the process is necessarily tightly controlled and administered, and planned for months ahead of time by a centralized team. The construction included 35,000 toilets, 340 miles of water infrastructure and 95 miles of roads, all in the duration of a few months. The temporary settlement takes the form of a planned grid, and has 14 sectors with height limits, dividing walls, and even gardens.

The event has also become a laboratory for innovative tech solutions. Ramesh Raskar of MIT Media Lab, along with several partners at Ink, has created Kumbhathon, a movement which has engaged in several “Buildathons,” working with the government, private sector, and civil society in the city of Nashik (the next hosting city) to develop innovative solutions to the festival’s pressing problems. These solutions include cashless and smartphone-less payments for housing and services, bike-sharing, smartphone apps for navigation that show where crowds are thickest, crowdsourcing of location data to find missing people, and data collection to prevent the outbreak of epidemics. These solutions, while created to address the unique circumstances of a pop-up city, all have applications beyond the festival, both in other large gatherings and in everyday city life.

The Kumbh Mela is remarkable for the devotion its attendees display. The rituals, the colors, and the music all contribute to a striking event. Perhaps equally astounding, however, is the fact that the gathering, despite its constraints, is able to function at a basic level, delivering necessities and services to people. The fact that solutions can be found even under these extraordinary conditions is a signal to other city leaders that they can foster learning and innovation under comparatively ordinary circumstances. They can take note of the Kumbh Mela’s progress, learn from it, and bring a bit of this ephemeral city home with them.

What Cities Can Learn From Greater Toronto’s Transit-Oriented Development

Wed, 2015-04-22 03:16

An icon of Toronto, the city’s streetcar not only provides mobility within the urban core, but also integrates with regional transport to ensure transport access to residents on the periphery, as well. Photo by superherb/Flickr.

While there are many inspiring examples of walkable, transit-oriented cities in Europe, there’s also plenty to learn from Canada. For example, with the extraordinary help of Jane Jacobs and other leaders, Toronto has been able to successfully keep expressways out of its historic urban core. Beyond that, leaders have also focused on expanding transit connectivity beyond the city center and into suburban communities.

Thanks to strong leadership and long-term vision, Greater Toronto managed to both build a compact, mixed-use urban hub and expand transit connectivity across the region.

Building on a Vibrant Urban Core

Spadina Avenue is a remarkable example of a complete street, with dedicated lanes for its vintage streetcars, spacious sidewalks, bike lanes, and slow traffic. Passing through the city’s lively university district, it is lined by a continuous stretch of shops, cafes, and restaurants, making it a vibrant place. King Street, similarly, has bike lanes and the city’s iconic streetcar, but the lack of segregated bike lanes makes bike commuting slightly precarious. Fortunately for safety advocates, the average speed on the street is just 7-10 km/hr.

Along the lake, there is bustling construction activity as the city advances its ambitious waterfront redevelopment project. New condominiums are sprouting up along the refurbished Light Rail line, which will have segregated tracks and a large amount of public spaces. With good access to a range of mobility options, Toronto is demonstrating exemplary transit-oriented development (TOD) on the edge of its dense core.

Bringing Bus Rapid Transit to the Suburbs

York—a rapidly growing suburb north of Toronto—is another great example of advancing TOD around bus rapid transit (BRT). The city has plans to build 80 kilometers of rapid transit using buses, and will invest in 20 kilometers of light rail development. The project, called VIVANext, is becoming a standard for good quality BRT in North America. The main line has dedicated median lanes and high quality stations, and buses are large and comfortable. The York Rapid Transit Corporation, with the support of the Government of Ontario, is in the first phase of its ambitious plan.

This project is not just a transit network. It’s about developing complete streets with good sidewalks, landscaping, pedestrian infrastructure and lighting.  As part of the region’s development strategy, the BRT system will provide connectivity to the thriving tech community in Toronto’s core, which is home to IBM, Honeywell, and mores. So far, the plan is working. There are new buildings for offices and condominiums close to the BRT stations, and many more are under construction.

As is common in many cities, there was considerable debate over which transport option to pursue, and the community was divided. In the end, local authorities committed to BRT, but the agreed upon design allows for light rail to be added in the future—a move Ottawa has already done with its Transitway system. Currently, York’s bus system operates frequently and extensively, providing connectivity directly to locations outside the main transit corridor. This is an immense benefit to those who live on the city’s periphery and need access to the center for jobs and education.

While many residents own cars, the investment in transit has been well-received. “The people out here are not anti-transit … you have to make the service time-competitive and reliable, and people will use it,” said Peter Miasek, President of Transport Action Ontario and Vice President of the Unionville Ratepayers Association.

Planning from the Metropolitan Perspective

These two examples from Greater Toronto show that it is possible to advance development around transit if the right mix of ingredients is in place. In both Toronto and York, there is strong leadership from elected officials as well as skilled, results-oriented implementation teams. This has helped each city tackle the difficulties often encountered in decision-making, advancing strong plans, and implementation. Furthermore, leaders have also leveraged adequate levels of funding for preparation and implementation. Without reducing the quality of service to save money, transport leaders have invested in strong design, branding, and communications in order to give public transit an attractive image.

As a result, Toronto doesn’t have just a dense and mixed-use core. It is also bringing accessible transit to the suburbs with remarkable success.

Why planning for expansion helps build sustainable, equitable cities

Mon, 2015-04-06 21:37

São Paulo has historically struggled to expand fast enough to match rapid population growth, resulting in many informal favelas housing residents in the city’s periphery. Photo by Gabriel Cabral/Flickr.

Consensus is building around the many benefits of compact cities. Overall, compact cities use fewer resources, produce fewer carbon emissions, and provide better quality of life for their inhabitants than their sprawled counterparts. In rapidly urbanizing countries in the global south, however, many medium-sized cities are expected to double their populations in the coming decades. This increase will strain efforts to achieve compact urban development. While some of these cities have densities three times higher than those of cities in industrialized economies, some degree of urban land expansion is inevitable. If current trends continue, the amount of developed land in these cities could triple between 2000 and 2030.

With these issues in mind, New York University (NYU) created the Urban Expansion Initiative in 2013. The basic concept of the Initiative’s making room approach is simple. It entails working directly with city leaders to realistically assess where urban populations are expected to expand so that strategic plots of land can be identified as sites for public space, infrastructure, or transport, and then acquired before they are lost to development.

By planning for future growth in this way, cities can ensure that development happens in a way that is compact, sustainable, and equitable.

Rapidly growing cities face challenges for sustainability

Planning for growth is a challenging task. The planning process around the making room approach must be long-term, but this timeline often conflicts with city leaders’ short-term interests. This approach requires significant investment from local and sometimes national governments, and can involve difficult negotiations with landowners. Where possible, the Initiative attempts to influence cities to avoid direct payment when purchasing land and instead rely on land value capture financing to compensate the owners. Such methods can be challenging for cities because they require financial expertise and political will to ensure that compensation makes its way to the existing land owners.

The consequences of failing to plan for expansion are clear. In Brazil, beginning in the 1940s, development began to expand beyond the boundaries over which the municipal government had jurisdiction. Control over development in these areas was then functionally ceded to residents and real estate speculators, resulting in often-chaotic, uneven development that would leave disconnected, empty spaces. Additionally, many developers didn’t provide basic services and some committed outright fraud. Due in part to these trends, a comparatively large proportion of São Paulo’s slum (favela) population now resides in the city’s periphery, where they face long commutes and lack adequate infrastructure. Fortunately, the city has shifted toward more compact growth in recent years. But had leaders taken a closer and more realistic look at rapid population growth from the beginning, they could have taken a more calculated approach to development and avoided many of the city’s current growing pains.

The making room approach can help control the risk of uneven expansion

By contrast, the benefits of the making room approach—if applied effectively—are equally clear. Purchasing and retaining land for arterial roads and public space can cost-effectively avoid many of the potential drawbacks of rapid urbanization. Creating infrastructure or public spaces retroactively and without available development-free land costs three to nine times as much and is more damaging to existing communities than making room tactics. And, while there have been innovative efforts to provide efficient and integrated transport for residents of informal communities, these innovations would not be necessary if neighborhoods had proper access to road infrastructure in the first place.

With greater knowledge of and control over growth, city leaders can influence urban expansion to generate compact and transit-oriented development.

Balancing growth in a comprehensive vision for integrated development

While these benefits are compelling, cities should put the making room approach in perspective given the importance of each city’s unique context. To properly manage expansion, cities should balance expansion with added density and integrate regional and metropolitan planning in a comprehensive vision for development. This can include analysis to better understand natural and ecological networks, economic geography, growth patterns, transit connectivity between settlements, and other relevant factors. Bangalore, India has already moved toward such an approach by creating a Revised Structure Plan for 2031 for its metropolitan region. The plan attempts to shape urban expansion through a detailed land capability analysis, which examines land to determine its suitability for particular uses. While the likelihood of full implementation remains uncertain, the plan itself represents a vital step toward ordering and steering urban growth in sustainable ways.

Furthermore, in order to pursue the making room approach, cities must ensure they have the appropriate mechanisms for procuring land. Otherwise they risk missing out on opportunities for shared prosperity and equitable growth. Beyond the traditional means of land acquisition or even land value capture, city leaders should explore new models of partnership with land owners such as land pooling mechanisms and the town planning schemes seen in Gujarat, India.

The Urban Expansion Initiative has grown rapidly in the past year, expanding its efforts from its pilot countries of Colombia and Ethiopia to India, Mexico, Ecuador, Malaysia, and China. However, the scale of the issue is far greater than any single initiative can address. Now more than ever, city leaders must take a serious look at the future of urban land, and make sure that they capitalize on opportunities to ensure efficient and sustainable growth.

Overcoming China’s institutional barriers to sustainable urban transport

Thu, 2015-02-19 02:41

As it stands, bureaucracy and lack of government accountability are some of China’s greatest barriers to achieving sustainable urban mobility. Photo by Jonathan/Flickr.

China’s top-down system of decision-making has been the root of many transformative changes in the past. So why has it recently been so hard to rally city leaders behind low-carbon transport?

The answer has two sides: institutional complexity and lack of political will. While local development and reform commissions have the authority to set low-carbon goals for a city, the responsibility for actually formulating and implementing policy changes is in the hands of planning bureaus, land development bureaus, construction bureaus, transport commissions, and police departments. This means that proposals for low-carbon transport development often get stuck in gridlock. Departments remain isolated from one another, tasks are ambiguously divided among different government agencies, and no one is ultimately held accountable for making sure that ideas become reality. The result is that city governments end up continuing business as usual without making progress towards low-carbon urban mobility.

The need for institutional reform is urgent, given the rapidly evolving landscape of China’s urban transport sector. Today’s institutional structure was formed at a time when the country’s mobility needs and transport infrastructure looked very different. However, this bureaucratic structure is now undermining local governments’ ability to deliver effective, sustainable transport solutions to the pressing issues of traffic congestion, air pollution, and road safety.

Institutional fragmentation is not the whole picture  

Although reform is important for making progress, integrating various institutions under one department—often proposed as a solution—may not prove as effective as imagined. It could even cause city leaders to overlook other factors that are equally vital for building an effective, low-carbon transport system.

Institutional challenges are typically more complicated than fragmentation alone. Indeed, urban transport administrations in China are fragmented along spatial, functional, and sectoral lines. Enforcing parking laws, for example, involves traffic police, construction bureaus, transport commissions, and city management bureaus. However, the system of Metropolitan Planning Organizations seen in the United States demonstrates that a fragmented institutional model can function well with proper coordination. Furthermore, integration can bring its own host of unique problems: potential abuses of power, internal inefficiencies, and increased operational overhead costs.

Overemphasizing the role of an integrated urban transport institution leaves city leaders vulnerable to overlooking other factors necessary for effective policy-making, like the need for robust data. Moreover, integrated institutions can still be constrained by limited funding, impacting their ability to collaborate across agencies and hold different government actors accountable.

Designing a new institutional paradigm

Although some of China’s largest cities—like Shenzhen, Beijing, and Chengdu—have already begun exploring various ways to approach institutional reform, the results have been mixed. Even where there is strong political will, reform efforts have faced resistance from vested interests and have taken years to achieve the goals they set out to accomplish.

Addressing the growing demand for a shift in institutional structure, WRI China recently published Shaping up Sustainable Transport Authorities in Chinese Cities, a working paper that provides a deepened understanding of why the existing structure fails to deliver sustainable transport policies. Additionally, the working paper draws on in depth case studies of Chinese cities to generate a set of practical recommendations for reform:

  • Strategic alignment: The responsibilities of new urban transport institutions should align with the city’s visions for low-carbon urban transport development.
  • Informed decision-making: Conventional urban transport decision-making in Chinese cities is usually governed by a small group of decision-makers who have limited information. Establishing advisory committees, setting up research centers in collaboration with local universities, encouraging healthy competition among different research centers, promoting information sharing, and setting up policy monitoring and evaluation mechanisms are important measures for improving the decision-making process.
  • Coordination: No matter how integrated an urban transport authority is, nothing will change if traffic police and planning bureaus are reluctant to work with authorities. Advisory committees and regular meetings can help top decision-makers engage in productive dialogue and be unified in their approach to policy design and implementation.
  • Accountability: The working paper suggests greater transparency in the decision-making process and a long-term transition to bottom-up public participation in order to avoid potential abuses of power and ensure accountability.
  • Financial empowerment: Financial independence is essential for empowering transport authorities to carry out its new responsibilities effectively. Possible new funding sources such as municipal bonds, authorized fees or taxes, land value capture, and private investments through public-private partnerships can help cities in financial distress.
  • Talent management: By proactively seeking out new talented employees, building capacity, and creating an attractive working environment, city governments can ensure smooth transitions and capture the full benefits of institutional reform.

City governments are struggling to keep up with China’s rapid urbanization and have faced structural challenges to meeting the growing urban population’s mobility needs. Institutional reform can address these bureaucratic obstacles to help make sustainable transport a reality.

Learn more in the Shaping up Sustainable Transport Authorities in Chinese Cities working paper from WRI China.

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