Published on Sustainable Cities

My Father’s Ford – A New Model for Cities

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Ford ShowroomMy father is a Ford man he's driven nothing but since 1958. When I was a kid I would go with him every fall to the new models showroom party at Lange and Fetter Ford Motors in Trenton, Canada. I would get a balloon, some cake and maybe get to sit in a new car (spilled the cake on the new seat one year). Since being a kid I’ve always been amazed how car manufacturers manage to come out with yet another new version every year. Some years it would just be the lights that changed, in other years there might be a whole remake of the model, or an entirely new model might be introduced.

Now I’m a boring old man and drive a 2008 Toyota Camry. The back seat’s spacious enough for the girls, and I really would look like a fool with a middle-age crisis if I bought that red Mustang I coveted as a kid. Also, I now work on city issues, and let’s face it: an electric car (where electric generation has low carbon emissions) or a Smart Car is the way to go (after we get a smaller dog). But the way car manufacturers have provided new models every year for more than 80 years is a very important lesson for those of us working on cities.

No other product we buy this regularly has such a defined year of manufacture. I have no idea what year my computer was produced in, but they change more often than my cars. The girls are quick to point out my vintage fashion styles, but we have no idea what year I actually bought the clothes in. I know exactly what a 1967 Corvette looks like, or my first car, a ’76 Grand Fury (sold for scrap as its spacious roof could double as an aircraft carrier).

Car manufacturers are the best at conveying that every year they will innovate and provide an improved model. Sure, they do this mostly to sell more cars, but it gives them an enormous innovation advantage – if the big change isn’t ready this year, just make a relatively modest improvement, but always innovate.

We expect our cars to improve every year. We should expect the same from our cities. We should also cut our city managers and politicians some slack – innovating and improving a city is hard, it’s a process without a final product. We should be looking at the pace of improvement (or decline).

Whether or not you believe that, as a planet, we are about to drive off a cliff, it is incontrovertible that sustainable development is not possible without sustainable cities. You want to ‘save the world’ – help build better cities.

With this in mind a bunch of partners, including the World Bank, are introducing an annual table this June with information on the world’s 100 largest urban areas. The table will be a simple compilation of best information available on the cities. Most will come directly from the cities themselves, or their agencies like the Global City Indicator Facility, ICLEI, or C40. Not all of the data will be as good as people would like, nor can all cities be included, after all there are already over 600 cities in the world that will have more than one million residents by 2025, and finding data for just 100 is a very large task. Also, another 4000 plus cities – often very fast growing – have residents between 100,000 and one million. Each year this 100-city+ table will try to capture what’s happening in our larger cities and reflect those seemingly modest changes that, when combined, have an enormous impact.

This first year should be seen as the ‘Model T’ – Table. It is just the start, but an important one.


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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