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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.

Invictus: Elinor Ostrom’s Gift

Julianne Baker Gallegos's picture

Elinor OstromAfter months of expectation and years of very hard (and in some cases, not hard enough) work towards the goal of sustainable development, heads of state and environmentalists alike are gathering at Rio+20 to determine what we’ve accomplished in the last two decades and how we’re going to pave the road that lies ahead.

Up until the day before departing for Rio, I approached this conference with a sense of foreboding. Like many, I thought Rio+20 would lead to disappointment and heart-break for environmentalists; on the one hand because we’d find out we’re farther behind than we expect on our road towards sustainable development, and on the other, because we’d realize that our representatives are unwilling to compromise to the degree that our planet needs to survive. Then, on June 12th, I changed my mind.

What a Waste: Time to Pick It Up

Dan Hoornweg's picture

What a Waste publication coverAsk any city manager or mayor what their top priority is and you’re likely to get ‘solid waste’ as an answer. You would think in today’s age we would have solved the waste management challenge and moved on to the next slightly more glamorous municipal service. Not so; and more than ever cities now need to pick it up a notch on solid waste management.

Solid waste is still probably the world’s most pressing environmental challenge. In poorer countries, solid waste can use up to more than half of a city’s overall budget; around the world there are more solid waste workers than soldiers; and despite the more than $225 billion spent every year on solid waste, in many low income countries less than half the waste is collected in cities.

Mining the City: A Proposal to Move the World

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Cities are already a major source of raw materials, recycling more than 400 million tonnes a year of paper and metal from their urban ore. In some particularly good countries more than 90 percent of their discarded aluminum cans are ‘mined’ and recycled into new aluminum. In a few cities, old landfills have even been mined to recover past discarded metals. Another link between cities and the mining industry might be replicating contests held by two important mining companies.

In March 2000 Goldcorp announced a very unusual challenge. The company offered $575,000 in prize money, plus put all of its usually highly proprietary geologic data for its Red Lake, Canada property on line. The company needed help on where best to next look for gold. More than one thousand virtual prospectors from more than 50 countries responded. Their suggestions were prescient and highly profitable. The contest took a small niche gold mining company and made it a global player: share prices increased more than 50-fold since 1993.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Cities

Dan Hoornweg's picture
  1. Number SevenBe Proactive. There’s much any city can do today. Even without sufficient budget or authorization from ‘senior levels’ of government, every city has a full menu of things that can be carried out immediately, generating positive momentum and goodwill. Business rewards the active entrepreneur, and the public desperately wants active cities. The rewards are great.
     
  2. Plan – Plan Right. All cities carry out master plans for their key services, long-term infrastructure needs, and land use planning. Before starting these plans, the end needs to be clear. They are guidance documents, aspirational, and ways to rally supporters and give fair hearing to opponents. But a plan, no matter how good, can never be seen as a finished product. Before starting the plan an agreement is needed that the city is moving forward on this issue: the plan is the vehicle to bring along as many supporters as possible and identify potential potholes and trouble en route. Like a city, good plans are living documents. 

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