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Urban Development

My Favorite City. There, I Picked One.

Dan Hoornweg's picture

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Sao Paulo Skyline

Anyone with more than one child knows never to answer the question ‘who’s your favorite?’.  Professionals working with cities should also heed that advice. But I was at a dinner party last week and our host demanded we pick a favorite city. “No dessert and no one leaves the table without picking a favorite city,” she insisted.

Toronto, my hometown, certainly has all the necessary ingredients to be among the world’s best, but it is not living up to its potential, yet. Montreal and Vancouver are great Canadian cities, and Calgary and Edmonton are solid innovators. Winnipeg has IISD, a great world-class organization, and good canoeing near-by, but too many mosquitos and long winters.

Summerlicious and the Resilience of Cities

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Cafe PleiadeAnyone who’s ever been knocked down knows that getting back up can be hard. The 10th Anniversary of Toronto’s ‘Summerlicious’ festival last weekend is a great example of how a city picked itself up after a solid blow.  

During Summerlicious (and its seasonal twin, ‘Winterlicious’), restaurants offer two weeks of enticing prix fixe lunches and dinners.  The festival, which originally started with 35 high-end restaurants, had more than 180 restaurants participating this year. The restaurant special helped the city recover from the precipitous drop in tourism when Toronto was hit by SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in April 2003.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang — Call Me Maybe

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang movie posterWow, Carly Rae Jepsen is Canadian. I had no idea. Ya, ya, my daughters are quick to remind me that I’m not the most up-to-date pop-culture aficionado, but I learned the other night on ABC news that Jepsen is Canadian. And that her catchy, upbeat song — Call Me Maybe — seems to be sticking like bubble gum in everyone’s mind these last few weeks. ABC News nominated her as ‘entertainer of the week’.

Welcoming foreigners and foreign influences into your home (even if they are Canadian) is never easy. For example, the same ABC newscast was aghast about how this year’s US Olympic uniforms are made in China. About a half-dozen US companies were surveyed, and of course all agreed they could quickly make the uniforms in time for the Olympics. None mentioned, however, that they would likely be more expensive than making them in China.

What Katherine Boo’s book tells us about the modern city: garbage has more mobility than citizens do

Sintana Vergara's picture


Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. Random House, 2012.

Mumbai Slum, Girl on SwingKatherine Boo’s book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” digs deep into life in a Mumbai undercity. The author escapes the dichotomies that roll off our tongues when we speak of places that are replete with disparity; instead she spends seven years interviewing and observing, and brings us a story of life, hope, and despair in Annawadi, a slum precariously perched between an international airport and a sewage pond. What emerges is a sensitive, careful, complex portrait of characters that use the means at their disposal – hard work, political connections, lies, or prayers – to climb over the high walls that separate their city from the rest of Mumbai.

Using trash as a thread to tell the story, Boo illustrates both the feudal nature of life in Annawadi and the absolute segregation – the boundaries, to use Richard Sennett’s term – between the slum residents and those who live on the other side of the great big wall dividing the slum from the international airport. The narration is centered on Abdul and his family, who make money by selling recyclable materials from the city’s garbage. Their relative wealth has afforded them a position above the trash pickers’ – they own a small storage facility that allows them to purchase waste from collectors and sell it to waste dealers.

A New York Minute

Dan Hoornweg's picture

New York City skyline

I never thought I’d say this but I disagree with David Letterman. He loves to lampoon the closing of Broadway in certain places for a pedestrian walkway and a tree or two. I’m now sitting on Broadway between West 34th and 35th Streets, coffee in hand, and my great MacBook Air – there’s even free wireless. The Macy’s on the corner is under renovation and promises to open anew as ‘the world’s largest store’ (hmm, I’ve seen that claim before). The weather is gorgeous; people are flowing by like a rushing river, and I have a couple of hours before my train leaves for DC.

Social Tectonics and the Trust of Cities

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Trust signThe strength of a country, and especially the strength of a city, is its ability to react to, and repair, the social fissures that originate wherever three or more humans live together. Social tectonics is the natural fracturing along societal lines like wealth, education, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, even color of skin, shapes of noses, or sports team preferences. Humans are amazingly adept at finding things in others to be wary of.

Social tectonics is active everywhere. No government or leader can stop it – but much can be done to reinforce our societies, institutions and cities, as well as reducing stresses. Like observant seismologists, social scientists sense where stresses are increasing and approaching breaking points. For example, the Occupy Movement that has popped up in many American cities represents growing stress in people who see too much concentration of wealth. The Arab Spring is a fracture between the general populace and the few who concentrated political power.

From one billion cars to one billion bicycles

Sintana Vergara's picture

Bike path in New York City

In 1993, when I was 10 years old, my family took a trip to Beijing, where the large boulevards provided us with an image that seemed reversed: bicycles everywhere, punctuated by the occasional car. The young and old rode nearly identical two-wheeled machines to get where they needed to, and the internal combustion engines were sidelined, weaving their way through an army of peddlers. At that time, writes Kristof in 1988, 76% of road space in China’s capital was taken up by bicycles – and one in every two people owned a bicycle (that’s 5.6 million bikes for 10 million people).

Fast forward 20 years: Beijing’s traffic patterns are impressive for a very different reason. Cars now clog the streets, slowing down rush hour traffic to 9 miles per hour, and bicycles have all but disappeared. Chinese consumers have overwhelmingly embraced the car - from 1990 to 2000, their number increased from 1.1 to 6 million (a 445% leap). The hunger for cars is growing; China is now home to over 78 million cars, of which 6.5 million are in Beijing alone.

Rio+20 and Its Shades of Grey

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Copacaban PavementSustainable development always seems to come in shades of grey; excuses, obfuscation, conflicting demands, entrenched interests, and inertia can overshadow clarity on what needs to be done ‘on Monday morning’. But for some reason, like Rio de Janeiro’s iconic black slate and white marble sidewalks, sustainable development seemed to be a lot more black and white at last week’s big UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

Maybe it was the more than 20 hours that I spent stuck in traffic that helped bring clarity; or being one of the 50,000 visitors, each spending an average of $10,000 to travel, and emitting about 3.5 tonnes of CO2e (coincidentally what the global average annual per capita emissions needs to stay below, if we want to remain within a warming of 2° C). Flight delays getting there and back were more than 50 hours; leave alone the 24 hours in-the-plane. Was the Rio journey worth it?

Cities Act as Talks Go On

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Bill Clinton and C40 Mayors

Yesterday in downtown Rio, in Forte de Copacabana, there was an entirely different atmosphere than at the Rio+20 negotiations out in Rio’s suburbs. The public — some waiting as long as three hours — filed through the city’s impressive expo on sustainable development. The festive and hopeful mood of school-children and local ‘Cairiocas’ seemed to buoy the mood of the mayors and officials in the main auditorium.

Some 2000 guests looked on as mayors and their friends like Bill Clinton (via video conference), national government, business and World Bank representatives launched a new initiative to reduce methane emissions though solid waste management. The C40 Solid Waste Network in partnership with the World Bank will focus on providing cities with technical assistance to develop projects that reduce methane gas production.

Supporting People-Smart Regions

Peter Head's picture

Apollo synthetic diamondThe Ecological Sequestration Trust has had a busy two months hosting workshops and meetings in India, China, Africa and the UK to discuss how to help these demonstration regions become more resilient and successful.

During this time, I also attended the UrbanTec Conference in Beijing and was struck by how various presentations on ‘smart cities’ emphasized that ICT systems were the key to building more resource efficient and resilient cities.

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