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sustainable cities

Davos Sees Challenges, ‘Smart Cities’ Seize Opportunities: Finding Sustainable Solutions Via Public-Private Dialogue

Christopher Colford's picture



As the world’s policymakers and business leaders converge in Davos, Switzerland for tomorrow’s opening of the World Economic Forum, there’s certainly no shortage of global threats for them to worry about during the WEF’s annual marathon of policy seminars and economic debates. A world of anxiety enshrouds this week’s conference theme of the “New Global Context,” judging by the WEF’s latest Global Risks Report: Its analysis of 28 urgent threats and 13 ominous long-term trends offers a comprehensive catalogue of extreme dangers to social stability and even human survival.

As if the Davos data isn’t worrisome enough, several just-issued scientific studies – which document worsening trends in climate change, humanity’s imminent collision with the limits of the planet’s resilience and the intensifying damage being wrought by voracious consumption-driven growth – trace a relentlessly gloomy trajectory.

Relieving some of the substantive tension, there’s also often a puckish undercurrent within each year’s Davos news coverage. Poking holes in the self-importance of Davos’ CEOs and celebrities – with varying degrees of lighthearted humor or reproachful reproof – has become a cottage industry, springing up every January to chide the mountaintop follies of “the great and the good.” Skeptics often scoff that the lofty pronouncements of Davos Deepthink have become almost a caricature of elite self-importance, and there’ll surely be plenty of the customary sniping at the insularity of Davos Man and at the insouciance of the globalized jet set as its over-refined One Percent folkways become ever more detached from the struggles of the stagnating middle class and desperate working poor.

Despite such Davos-season misgivings, it’s worth recalling the value of such frequent, fact-based knowledge-exchange events and inclusive dialogues among business leaders and thought leaders. Some of the Davos Set may revel in after-hours excess – its Lucullan cocktail-party scene is legendary – yet the substantive centerpiece of such meetings remains a valuable venue for expert-level policy debates, allowing scholars to inject their ideas straight into the bloodstream of corporate strategy-setting. The global policy debate arguably needs more, not fewer, thought-provoking symposia where decision-makers can be swayed by the latest thinking of the world’s academic and social-sector experts. Judging by the fragmented response to the chronic economic downturn by the global policymaking class, every multilateral institution ought to host continuing consultations to help shape a coherent policy agenda.

Focusing on just one area where in-depth know-how can serve the needs of decision-makers: The World Bank Group has long been tailoring world-class knowledge to deliver local solutions to client countries about one of the trends singled out in this year's WEF list of long-term concerns – the worldwide shift from “predominantly rural to urban living.” The biggest mass migration in human history has now concentrated more than 50 percent of the world’s population in cities, leading this year’s Global Risks Report to assert that the risk of failed urban planning is among the top global concerns.

“Without doubt, urbanization has increased social well-being,” commented one WEF trend-watcher. “But when cities develop too rapidly, their vulnerability increases: pandemics; breakdowns of or attacks on power, water or transport systems; and the effects of climate change are all major threats.”

Yet consider, also, the potential opportunities within the process of managing that trend toward ever-more-intense urban concentration. What if the prospect of chaotic urbanization were able to inspire greater city-management creativity – so that urban ingenuity makes successful urbanization a means to surmount other looming dangers?

For an example of the can-do determination and trademark optimism of the development community – with the world’s urbanization trend as its focus – consider the upbeat tone that pervaded a conference last week at the World Bank’s Preston Auditorium, analyzing “Smart Cities for Shared Prosperity.” With more than 850 participants in-person, and with viewers in 92 countries watching via livestream, the conference – co-sponsored by the World Resources Institute (WRI), Embarq, and the Transport and Information & Communications Technology (TICT) Global Practice of the World Bank Group – energized the world’s leading practitioners and scholars across the wide range of transportation-related, urban-focused, environment-conscious priorities.

(Thinking of the Preston gathering’s Davos-season timing and full-spectrum scope: It sometimes strikes me that – given the continuous procession of presidents, professors, poets and pundits at the Preston podium – there could be a tagline beneath Preston's entryway, suggesting that the Bank Group swirl of ideas feels like “Davos Every Day.”)

Amid its focus on building “smart cities” and strengthening urban sustainability, the annual Transforming Transportation conference took the “smart cities” concept beyond its customary focus on analyzing Big Data and deploying the latest technology-enabled metrics. By investing in “smart” urban design – and, above all, by putting people rather than automobiles at the center of city life – the scholars insisted that society can reclaim its urban destiny from the car-centric, carbon-intensive pattern that now chokes the livability of all too many cities.

The fast-forward series of “smart cities” speeches and seminars reinforced the agenda summarized by TICT Senior Director Pierre Guislain and WRI official Ani Dasgupta – formerly of the Bank Group and now the global director of WRI’s Ross Center on Sustainable Cities – in an Op-Ed commentary for Thomson Reuters: “We can either continue to build car-oriented cities that lock in unsustainable patterns, or we can scale up existing models for creating more inclusive, accessible and connected cities. Pursuing smarter urban mobility options can help growing cities leapfrog car-centric development and adopt strategies that boost inclusive economic growth and improve [the] quality of life.”

Seize the space! Reclaiming streets for people

Verónica Raffo's picture

Increasing numbers of citizens all over the world are demanding that urban planners and political authorities in their cities “get it right” when designing public urban spaces. People living in cities, both in developed and developing countries are reclaiming streets as public spaces, demanding urban planners to re-design streets to ensure a more equitable distribution of these public spaces, and prioritizing the allocation of streets for people to walk, cycle and socialize. This was the central topic discussed last week at the “Future of Places” conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
 
How do we contribute to a more equitable society by building more equitable cities?  In an increasingly urbanized world, urban mobility is central to citizens’ social and economic wellbeing. However, current urban transportation systems – based primarily on the movement of private motorized vehicles – have prioritized road space and operational design of streets for automobiles over other modes of transport, which has caused many social, environmental and economic consequences, therefore reducing urban livability and equitable access.
 
The values of urbanity and mobility are being rethought all over the world, and Latin American cities are no exception to this questioning of how cities are to be developed today. One of the answers to sustainability issues lies in the concept of proximity, which combines different dimensions of the urban proposals that the 21st century requires. These dimensions include public health – particularly the fight against sedentary habits – as well as density, compactness, closeness, resilience, and livability of the public space. These all point to a new urban paradigm that all creative cities wish to adopt in order to attract the knowledge economy and guarantee social cohesion.

Urbanization as opportunity

LTD Editors's picture

Urbanization deserves urgent attention from policy makers, academics, entrepreneurs, and social reformers of all stripes. Nothing else will create as many opportunities for social and economic progress. The urbanization project began roughly 1,000 years after the transition from the Pleistocene to the milder and more stable Holocene interglacial. In 2010, the urban population in developing countries stood at 2.5 billion. The most important citywide projects -- successes like New York and Shenzhen -- show even more clearly how influential human intention can be. The developing world can accommodate the urban population growth and declining urban density in many ways. One is to have a threefold increase in the average population of its existing cities and a six fold increase in their average built-out area. Another, which will leave the built-out area of existing cities unchanged, will be to develop 625 new cities of 10 million people -- 500 new cities to accommodate the net increase in the urban population and another 125 to accommodate the 1.25 billion people who will have to leave existing cities as average density falls by half.

Competitive Cities: Which Are They, and Why Should We Care?

Alexandra M. Cech's picture

With the majority of the world’s population now urban, cities are rising in prominence. Growing attention is being paid to cities’ potential to increase incomes and create jobs – whether through financial services and electronics manufacturing in Chennai, regionally integrated manufacturing around Guangzhou, or social and physical transformation in Medellin. Less prominent cities are asking how they can attain better economic performance. Hence economic competitiveness has become a preoccupation for city leaders – by which we mean a city’s ability to spawn, expand and attract businesses that create jobs for its residents, and to enlarge the overall economic pie.
 
So, how do cities make themselves more competitive? This year, the World Bank is investing in a Competitive Cities Knowledge Base (CCKB) initiative – a joint project between the World Bank Group’s departments working on Private Sector Development and Urban Development. The project includes in-depth case studies of economically successful cities across all continents. According to our current analysis, six of the most interesting cities for this work will be Bucaramanga (Colombia), Patna (India), Bandung (Indonesia), Agadir (Morocco), Kigali (Rwanda) and Izmir (Turkey). We are in the process of confirming these conclusions before beginning each of the case studies.


 

Cities’ Elusive Quest for a Post-Industrial Future

Stefano Negri's picture



What do rusting industrial cities have in common with outmoded BlackBerries? In this era of constant technological progress, talent mobility and global competition, it's striking how many similarities can be drawn between cities and companies, and the need for both to continuously adjust their industrial strategies to avoid oblivion or bankruptcy.

Cities can lose their vigor and vitality just as surely as a once-hot product can lose its cutting-edge cool. RIM, the maker of the the once-ubiquitous BackBerry,
has been leapfrogged by companies with more nimble technologies; Kodak, once synonymous with photography, went bankrupt when it failed to make the transition
from film to digital. The roll call of withering cities – once proud, yet now reduced to rusting remnants – shows how cities, like companies, can lose their historic raison d’etre if they fail to hone their competitive edge.

Heavy industries like steelmaking and automobile assembly once powered some of the world’s mightiest economic urban areas: Traditional manufacturing industries shaped their identity, giving their citizens income and pride. But globalization, competition, shifting trade patterns and changing consumer trends are continuously reshaping the competitive landscape, with dramatic impact on cities and people. Over the past century, industrialized regions like the Ruhr Valley of Germany, the Midlands of Great Britain and the north of France – along with the older shipbuilding cities around the Baltic and North Seas, and the mono-industrial cities of the former Soviet Union – have struggled to make the transition to different industries or toward a post-industrial identity. Their elusive quest for a post-industrial future has had a dramatic impact on their citizens.

The same issue has become daunting in recent decades for aging manufacturing regions in the United States, which have suffered the prolonged erosion of their industrial-era vibrancy. That kind of wrenching change is bound to soon confront other cities in the developing world, as they struggle to adapt their urban cores, civic infrastructure and industrial strategies to an era that puts a higher premium on nimble cognitive skills and advanced technologies than on bricks-and-mortar factories, blast furnaces and big-muscle brawn.

For fast-growing cities in the global South, many of which are urgently seeking solutions amid their sudden urban growth, there could be many lessons in the experience of older cities in the developed world in making such a transition.

A series of recent conferences among urban policymakers and practitioners – backed by a wide range of rigorous academic research and practical client-focused experience in building competitiveness – provide insights that city leaders and the World Bank Group’s practitioners can leverage as they craft programs for transformative urban strategies. 

Competitive Cities: Driving Productivity and Prosperity

Christopher Colford's picture



The future will be won or lost in the world’s cities. With half of humanity now living in cities – and with the breakneck pace of urbanization likely to concentrate two-thirds of the world’s population into metropolitan regions by 2050 – getting urbanization right is the over-arching challenge of this globalizing age.
 
Urban policy is now at the top of the news due to the bankruptcy filing of forlorn Detroit, which has long been a symbol of urban decay. Yet the urbanization drama goes far beyond the de-industrializing North: The destiny of cities worldwide will determine the success or failure of virtually every development priority – and it will be especially vital for job creation, innovation and productivity growth, environmental sustainability and social inclusion.

“Rapid urbanization is the defining trend of the 21st Century,” said Sanjay Pradhan, Vice President of the World Bank Institute, as he outlined the daunting statistics to a New York City Global Partners  conference on “Business Innovation and Entrepreneurship: City Strategies” at Columbia University. “Nearly two billion new urban residents are expected to stream into the world’s cities by 2030 – most of them, in developing countries.”

Managing the growth of emerging megacities will be daunting: The urban populations of Africa and South Asia are poised to double within the next 20 years. An additional 310 million working-age people – about 35 percent of the coming expansion of the global work force – will soon arrive in just 600 of the world’s largest cities. With a worldwide network of densely developed cities destined to become the driver of prosperity, the prime centers of opportunity will be those cities that can attract and  energize all forms of productive capital – of the financial, technological and intellectual varieties.

Cities accelerate economic transformation because of their intense population density, which encourages social and economic interactions with greater “social friction” than non-urban settings, as Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser emphasizes in his influential work, “Triumph Of The City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier.” Spontaneous and serendipitous exchanges of ideas turn cities into vibrant hubs of innovation, helping generate 70 percent of global GDP and making cities the world’s focal points of innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity and culture.

In a relentlessly competitive world – which is both “flattened” with a level playing field (as journalist Tom Friedman contends) and “spiky” with intense concentrations of wealth and talent (as urbanologist Richard Florida argues) – competitiveness will depend on both local creativity and global connectivity.

If they can assert what Edwin Heathcote of the Financial Times calls  “urban ingenuity,” cities that clearly define their distinctive identity will thrive by embracing their economic vocation and enhancing their strengths in global value chains. Those urban nodes of creativity that are efficiently networked through technology, transportation and trade connections will be able to take maximum advantage of opportunities that require a global sensibility and a global frame of mind.

Cities: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Giftwrapped building in AmsterdamJesus and Muhammad traveled to the wilderness to develop their teachings. Even Gautama Buddha is said to have sat quietly beneath the rural Bohdi tree while he waited for enlightenment. But once they knew what needed to be said, all three men travelled to the closest city to convey the message.

It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a city to change the world. Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, and influential mortals like Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Eva Peron, Marie Antoinette, Chairman Mao; they all gave their impassioned speeches, teachings, and at-times arm-twisting arguments, in cities. Cities are where the spokespeople for civilization come to urge the rest of us to follow a new path.

Belo Horizonte, no Brasil, busca melhorar a eficiência energética

Nicholas Keyes's picture

Belo Horizonte City Skyline

Belo Horizonte está decidida a ser conhecida por seu compromisso com a sustentabilidade. Nos últimos anos, a iluminação pública foi trocada por um sistema mais eficiente, conduziu-se um inventário de emissão de gases causadores de efeito estufa e foram criados programas de compras públicas e construções sustentáveis. A empresa responsável pelo serviço de limpeza pública e tratamento de resíduos gera eletricidade a partir do biogás gerado no aterro sanitário. A cidade se orgulha de seus parques públicos e de sua área verde – com tamanho duas vezes maior que o recomendado pela Organização Mundial de Saúde (OMS).

Brazil’s “Beautiful Horizon” Looks to City-Wide Improvements in Energy Efficiency

Nicholas Keyes's picture

Belo Horizonte City Skyline

The city of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, is determined to be known for its commitment to sustainability.  In recent years, the municipal government has switched public lighting to a more efficient system, conducted a greenhouse gas inventory, and created programs for sustainable public purchasing and building certification.   The utility responsible for public cleaning services and waste treatment generates electricity using biogas from landfills.  The city prides itself on its public parks and on having twice the green area inside the municipal boundaries than is recommended by WHO guidelines. The name of the city itself means “Beautiful Horizon”. Read this post in Portuguese (Leia este post em português.)

Women in the City: Will the world’s female mayors please stand up?

Artessa Saldivar-Sali's picture

After Newsweek’s third annual Women in the World summit two weeks ago, I started to wonder about where women stand in the massive wave of urbanization our world is facing. The UN study, The World’s Women 2010, tells us:

  • Only 14 women in the world were either Head of State or Head of Government in 2010.
  • In only 23 countries do women comprise over 30 percent in the lower house of their national parliament.
  • On average, only 1 in 6 cabinet ministers in the world is a woman.
  • Only 13 of the 500 largest corporations in the world have a female Chief Executive Officer.

But what about female Mayors? As the most visible face of local politics and the closest link to their constituents, do women occupy more positions in the city leadership? The global breakdown is below:

Graphic: Share of women among mayors

But why, one may ask, is the leadership of women particularly relevant to sustainable cities? The National Democratic Institute gives a number of reasons:


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