Five Cities with Game-Changing Sustainability and Resilience Plans

Game-changing mega-projects in five cities promise cross-cutting impacts including low-carbon mobility, recreation, green infrastructure, societal improvements and mobile communications. By planning diverse and ambitious results, these resilient projects may take years to decades, yet they promise massive rewards.

Which are the five cities with game-changing plans or projects, and how will they do it? (in alphabetical order):

1. Atlanta BeltLine

Focus: Recreation, Mobility, Economic Redevelopment, Green Infrastructure

Timeframe: 0-20 (short to medium term)

The BeltLine is 22 miles of rail, trails, greenspace, housing and art development circling within 5.5 million population Metro Atlanta. While the City of Atlanta, with a population of 450,000, is only a small percentage of the Metro, it has taken a regional leadership role for the BeltLine under Mayor Kasim Reed–so far it appears to be paying dividends.

Part mobility solution, recreation opportunity and nature-art “acupuncture”, the BeltLine was conceived as part of master’s thesis by a Georgia Tech Student Ryan Gravel in 1999.

beltline mapBeltLine map courtesy BeltLine.org

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told Common Current: “The Atlanta BeltLine is a transformative development, bringing economic, environmental and social benefits to every neighborhood in the City. Four hundred million dollars of public investment has yielded more than one billion dollars in private investment, strengthening the economic vibrancy of neighborhoods.”

According to Mayor Reed, the BeltLine’s multiple benefits are increasingly evident. “We are already seeing the signs of renewed investment along the Southwest Trail, currently under construction. The BeltLine is remediating land impacted by decades of railroad and industrial use, bringing clear environmental improvements to the corridor. And finally, as we see families, friends, and neighbors coming together on the BeltLine each day, it’s clear that this project is strengthening social ties across the City of Atlanta.”

beltline performance

Kollaboration ATL–Kingsmen and Kavi Va: the Wizard of the BeltLine (Courtesy BeltLine.org)

Next steps are for the BeltLine to connect to the Atlanta MARTA and the city’s new streetcar systems–9 miles have been purchased for transportation rights of way and technical analysis is under way.

Debt allocation financing for the first phases of the BeltLine has been challenged as impacting other community services, including education. Boding well for the project, however, are the city’s recently improved credit rating and rising real estate market values, along with the quest of Millennials and Gen Z to ditch—or never buy–cars.

The BeltLine is a catalyzing force across sectors: non-profit groups Chattahoochee Now and Trust for Public Land are advocating that downtown Atlanta’s blighted and polluted Proctor Creek, and the area’s Chattahoochee River (one of the main sources of the city’s drinking water) watershed, be restored and integrated into BeltLine network planning.

2. Guangzhou Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)

Focus: Mobility, Economic Redevelopment

Timeframe: Now-Short term

Guangzhou is China’s newest megacity, with 10 million people. Its recent spike in traffic and smog prompted the Guangzhou Municipal Engineering Design and Research Institute, in partnership with the The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), to open the city’s Bus Rapid Transit System in 2010.

Unlike the world’s other large model BRT project, The Transmilenio in Bogota, which costs about $1 US dollar for riders, the fare of Guangzhou’s BRT is more affordable, at about 1.5 Yuan (thirty US cents). In terms of financing, capital costs of BRT systems are about half the per-mile costs of light rail and one-tenth the costs of metro lines.

Guangzhou’s BRT is exemplary not only for its 1,000,000 million daily trips (more than all of Asia’s BRT systems combined), but also because of its precedent-setting integration with zero carbon mobility including bicycling and pedestrian thoroughfares.

brt bike sharing

The system is lined with dedicated cycling lanes (a rarity in China), cycling changing lockers and other “last mile” amenities. Guangzhou’s bike sharing system was opened with the BRT in 2010 to solve ‘the last mile’ issue of BRT station access. The bike-sharing program has 113 stations with 5,000 bikes and around 20,000 people use the system every day–two-thirds of those trips were previously motorized.

Despite BRT’s rapid growth and good performance, there remain challenges in China in terms of public city street rights of way, as well as smooth integration with metro systems, light rail and other modes of public transport. Guangzhou is also planning a major extension of it metro system by 2016, trying to become one of China’s least car-dependent major cities.

Cars contribute the major source of stifling and even deadly smog in Guangzhou and Beijing, according to recent studies.

Based on Guangzhou’s lead, it’s clear that BRT can be considered as the lifeblood of a global trend toward a new urban mobility and planning paradigm.

call plus

3. Helsinki “Katsuplus” Mobility on Demand

Focus: Mobility, Communications

Timeframe: (0-10 year) (Short to medium term)

Helsinki, Finland, has realized more than perhaps any other city that most of our motorized experiences five or 10 years out will not only be intelligent, connected, and electric but they will be offered as part of a ride sharing service.

Sharing Economy amenities will increase the utility of the up to 50 percent of urban public space that is devoted to cars and car parking, while significantly cutting carbon and vehicle ownership costs.

“Call Plus,” provided by technology company Ajelo, includes car hiring services such as Uber, taxis, vanpools. Just as Uber offers rides through smart phone apps, Helsinki is ramping up a city-subsidized service where it is offering vanpool rides to anyone in the city of 620,000 at about half the price of a cab.

While 80 percent of the service is subsidized and 20 percent comes from operating revenues, those percentages are forecast to reverse as the program scales up with users while the city also builds out its “Green Network” of public transit and transit oriented development.

Expediting growth in operating revenue growth might be Ajelo’s acquisition by the Washington tech firm, Split, which plans to expand to trains, ferries, shared bikes and taxis.

Helsinki officials met for several days earlier this year with the City of Palo Alto, which is exploring mobility as a service within its highly specialized techno-cultural-education ecosystem that includes Stanford University, Zimride and Tesla Motors.

mayor garcetti Photo Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Los Angeles River courtesy of YouTube

4. Los Angeles River Revitalization

Focus: Green Infrastructure, Mobility, Recreation, Economic Redevelopment, Water Supply

Timeframe: 0-20 years (short to medium term).

Much of the Los Angeles River has been encased in a 43-mile long sarcophagus for nearly a century. Watch Grease or Chinatown and you’ve seen the sarcophagus, but not the river.  Mayor Eric Garcetti (above) wants to change that by awakening the potential of this powerful natural economic and cultural asset in the heart of the Los Angeles Basin.

With community visioning, (led by the Los Angeles Revitalization Corporation), planning, engineering and, the reawakened LA River can achieve huge wins:

  • restore rapidly depleted aquifers and filter polluted runoff, improving water quality in the river system, aquifers and the coastal waters (and beaches) of the Pacific
  • transverse jammed freeways with a human, aquatic and fauna habitat zone that acts as a low-carbon mobility corridor from the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains to the Pacific
  • catalyze untold neighborhood improvements, leading to flourishing real estate opportunities
  • help cool a city impacted by record drought and record average temperature increases

Think of the success of New York’s High Line. Now multiply that at least 100x in terms of project space, impact and dollar benefit, including potential for providing more usable water during times of prolonged drought.

Funding for the redevelopment project was boosted in spring 2014 by $1 billion provided by the Army Corp of Engineers in conjunction with state and city sources for an 11-mile “soft-bottomed” stretch between Griffith Park and Downtown.

Other financing for the project could come from California’s new Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts.

Of course the river redevelopment project will have to be phased in stages and sections. Flooding from extreme rains or the lack of river flows during ongoing drought, meanwhile, can be wild cards in designing floodplains as recreational areas and other natural riparian features.

Areas adjacent to the LA River contain important aquifers that can be recharged for local water supplies. Yet dangerous pollutants from poorly regulated military-industrial legacies–such as the persistent heavy metal Chromium 6–have also been repeatedly detected in the river or in nearby aquifers and storm drains.

ribbon park

5. Tianjin Ribbon Park and Waterway Restoration

Focus: Green infrastructure, Recreation

Timeframe: Now-10 years (Short to Medium Term)

Tianjin’s Ribbon Park (above) is the first soft-scaped, natural-edged restoration on the Haihe River in China’s arid north. The new 75-acre park restores stormwater retention in order to clean the river, cool the Central Business District and provide refuge for residents and visitors among native plants, trees and walking paths.

Tianjin (11 million), is an ancient gateway to inland Beijing from the sea, a historic port on Bohai Bay and center of industry and transportation, that includes a node on the nation’s high-speed rail line. Beginning around 1990, the city grew at a furious pace and in the process it channelized, diverted or even covered its natural waterways, just as Beijing did.

Ribbon Park is part of a national economic development plan is now attempting a green restoration on China’s vanishing waterways and adjacent polluted tidal flats. The Tianjin Eco-City, being developed by the Sino-Singaporean Development starting in 2008, is an adjacent “new city” planned for 350,000 by 2020.  The partially occupied development includes 6.6 kWh of solar power, wind power, EV charging centers and a national smart grid pilot.

Ribbon Park was designed by Hargreaves Associates of San Francisco to “slow water and encourage infiltration in one of the most engineered hydrologic basins in the region,” according to former Hargreaves senior associate Wright Yang, who worked on the project for five years.

The recently-opened 75-acre park adjacent to the downtown central business district provides stormwater and flood management through an alluvial plain that is an exemplary public park. “It’s the first park along the entire river that is soft-scaped and natural edged, said Yang, now an independent design consultant. “It is connecting people back to their land through the landscape.”

Connecting people and the cities of China back to their ecology is a timely model: China will be adding 100 million people to its cities over the next several years. The last 100-200 million new urbanites has come at great natural expense, with some cities going so far as to remove entire mountains to produce flat development surfaces.

These actions have led to severe erosion, impacted air quality from dust, not to mention urban heat island impact and endangering water supplies.

Ribbon Park and other Tianjin waterway improvements have the potential to be international lighthouse projects for eco-system services as public amenities, especially in the dense, high-value real estate districts of Eastern Asia.

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