Sustainable Cities: Past, Present, Future

shanghai greening

Eurozine‘s editor Almantas Samalavicius recently interviewed me on the evolution of sustainable cities. A wide-ranging topic, we covered everything from my 2007 book, How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings, to other past work with the United Nations, national administrations and cities of the United States, China, and South Korea, to the emergence of the sharing economy, net zero buildings and zero-car districts. What came to light by looking back is that the concept and actuality of sustainable cities have come a long way.

Where our cities will go, nobody knows and that’s what makes this emerging field so exciting. All we know for sure is that much of the action on climate change and resilience have been taking place in cities around the world. In the expansive interview, we touch upon China’s attempt to manage its 663 largest cities using sustainability Key Performance Indicators software (that I helped Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development devise), London’s rewilding of the Upper Lea Valley, the bikesharing system of Paris, West Coast US urban fruit exchanges and Brooklyn’s Maker movement.

Twenty years ago, I could have never foreseen the seemingly limitless growth of urban sustainability-focused resources (including Sustainable Cities Collective!). With the exploding interest in the area by practitioners, educational and research institutes, business, government at all levels, and neighborhood activists, we are on the cusp of an amazing epoch in human and biological history.


Planning Sustainable Cities as Smart Hives

Recently I explained how cities benefit from open data-enabled “swarms” of sustainability apps for energy, the built environment, mobility, food and more, transforming them into “Smart Hives.” The focus was on the rise of citizen-business user sharing apps and crowd-sourced capabilities emerging in the Silicon Valley as the Next Big investment wave. Let’s look at how global cities can plan capacities to attract and facilitate these emergent Sharing Economy swarms.

Metro Smart Hives need to be in the right place and affordable, with the right amenities, including convenient access to whatever the nectar may be–jobs, education, entertainment, social activities or sustenance. Since we can’t fly like our winged honeybee friends, Smart Hives will offer diverse mobility options that don’t require owning a car. The emerging car-reduced or perhaps even car-free era (Hamburg, Germany is planning a car-free central city by 2034) will require scenario planning for infrastructure that anticipates swarm apps making mobility easy, efficient and cost-effective.

We’ve known for many years that public transit planned with transit-oriented development (or vice-versa) can make cities globally competitive and locally equitable. Now we’re seeing that the future of global urbanity provides more well-planned connectivity points for low-carbon and also zero carbon forms of mobility. Guangzhou (China), for instance, provides in conjunction with its Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system bike-sharing stations, secure and weatherproof parking for bicycles, and interchanges for dedicated pedestrian and bike ways. Madrid’s parking rewards transport that reduces greenhouse emissions, and more and more cities around the world are dedicating parking space and permitting benefits for shared mobility.

Upfront, the planning, design and investment in Smart Hives will require new practices to support the emerging technologies in infrastructure simulation, analysis and visualization. Energy and resource scenario planning is particularly critical with climate change exacerbating the need for cities to both reduce GHGs and to become more resilient to climate impacts.

The open data-powered swarms of apps can be complemented by scenario modeling tools that provide cost-benefit analyses. Take Autodesk’s BIM for Infrastructure and Autodesk’s Infraworks 360 engineering tools (disclosure: Autodesk is a client), which can model building energy use, potential for use of renewables and estimated impacts of green infrastructure (such as green roofs, bioswales, permeable pavement) on stormwater treatment versus conventional hardscaped systems. Once data is inputted, including open source city data, these scenario planning and visualization tools have the potential to provide everyone from planners to financiers energy, water and resource impacts according to climate conditions, infrastructure options and building retrofit strategies.

Meanwhile, citizen participation will make the government-facilitated elements of Smart Hives more effective and conducive to people’s needs. NGO Ecocity Builders and local government planners and citizens produced the Medellín (Colombia) Ecosystem World Map on ESRI’s GIS platform, which shows photos and narratives of local sustainability in action by mapping useful resources and crowd-sourced neighborhood projects.

Boundlessgeo provides the technology for the US national broadband map. Enter an address and you get available broadband providers and speed of services. While to some that might sound insignificant, with this kind of information planners or community advocates can assess whether or not people’s homes, businesses or neighborhoods are living up to the 2012 United Nations’ declaration that Internet access is a basic human right, along with shelter, food, clean water and education.

Of course, Smart Hives will also provide city resource and safety managers with critical information as they monitor water delivery, water use and natural conditions, including floods, heat events and even superstorms. IBM has developed a variety of sensor-based systems including a city-wide command center that is now alerting Rio de Janeiro residents of potential pending natural disasters. (This capability was developed in response to a series of superstorm-induced mudslides in 2011 that killed 1,700 residents). Integrating 30 city agencies, the system uses weather monitoring combined with geo-location sensors to send out real-time alerts to people in harm’s way, based on neighborhoods most at risk to potential rapid flooding or mudslides.

The era of sharing open data enabling the emergence of cities as Smart Hives is only just the beginning of a global green economy that will prosper in some locations while lagging in others.

City leaders and agencies will need to be anticipatory in terms of policy and data management while remaining transparent and flexible. Los Angeles through a new chief innovation officer position, for instance, is joining Seoul, Singapore, San Francisco, New York, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Barcelona in opening city data access to public, private and NGO developers.

With some forethought around privacy safeguards and flexible city policies, we can prepare for new more efficient and sustainable ways of planning, managing and living in our cities. Shaping cities through efficient, creative teams of government, citizens, NGOs and the private sector will make our cities—and our increasingly urban global economy–buzz with higher quality of life and new economic opportunities.

(image: Hive City)


Open data, swarms of sustainable apps to make cities smart hives


The amazing growth of sharing apps promises to mark the spring of 2014 as the beginning of a new era demonstrating the power of the swarm. Just as the summer of 1998 marked the beginning of the mainstream Dot Com era and the spring of 2008 saw the advent of global social media, the April IPO of Opower marks a new digital-physical era, the collaborative economy.

The collaborative economy will make cities more convenient, less costly and more sustainable. To provide a mental model of this new world, think of cities as hives for “swarms” of physical activities optimized by, or made possible through open urban data schemes. Earlier this month, I presented this concept in Vienna (ranked as one of Europe’s top smart cities) at IconVienna, a Central European investment forum on smart cities and innovation.

Cities are similar to beehives as they provide the physical locations for the activities of the swarms they host. Of course, both cities and hives need to be in the right place to attract and maintain the largest, healthiest swarms. For beehives, it doesn’t hurt to have access to sunlight, water and flowers. (Admission: I’m an urban beekeeper) Swarms of bees, if they are wild, decide on locating in a hive according to consensus (15 bees must approve of the location) and then they develop optimal social structures according to simple rules and communications.

Cities or metros set laws, regulations and policies at the level of the hive. But emerging swarms, based on digital maps of locations and characteristics of “flowers,” optimize according to physical needs, desires and energy. When bees find flowers, they go back to their hive and dance to show the location of pollen-laden flowers.

Imagine if bees could compare with other nearby swarms how much energy they were using (as Opower enables its users to do), how much other swarms were gathering and the quality of their haul. Or if Airbnb offered swarms an easy way to find convenient unused hives, saving much energy and reducing greenhouse gases in the process.

More and more we humans are using rich digital maps and pricing information for sharing rental rooms, office space, cars, bikes, food, and energy use. Our pollen dance will be our testimonials, use patterns, geo-location, and referrals.

Some swarms will get smaller or even die off, while other swarms will grow until they divide and form new swarms based on emerging needs and changing conditions. Open data will reduce urban traffic congestion: no longer must cars circle downtown blocks as real-time parking rates and open spaces become transparent. Even more sustainable are those who are deciding to telecommute or use public transit on days when they know that parking costs are spiking or when spaces are unavailable.

Likewise mobility and housing availability will be based on shared uses through sharing and peer-to-peer platforms such as ZipCar, LyftUber, and Airbnb. Walkability data through Walkscore already allows people to analyze and select the most walking-friendly housing, jobs and vacations, so they don’t even have to depend (or spend!) on cars or transit. At a TEDx Mission a while back, I showed how hacktavists use open data from the Paris Velib bikeshare program to map bicycle availability in real time.

For energy use, besides Opower, companies such as C3 Energy and Stem provide Big Data energy analytics for businesses and industries, so they can reduce energy consumption through more intelligent use of utilities. These applications differ from sharing platforms, but still rely on bottom-up use strategies based at the level of digitized electrons—with energy being the last realm of digitization in our society, after communications, entertainment, and financial or healthcare services.

In Vienna, the hive and swarm concept I presented was met with excitement. European Union contingents of investors are planning trips to explore San Francisco Bay Area sharing economy start-ups as a result. The European Union is spending $92 million Euros on an ambitious smart city funding and strategy effort as part of its Horizon 2020 program, yet I was told that swarm-type user-centric applications have been largely overlooked so far. That omission is not surprising, as even in the US, cities such as Los Angeles are only now preparing to open up their data.

Hives (cities) must offer not only the best amenities, such as high quality of life, transit on demand and walkability, but they also must reduce restrictive policies favoring business as usual in order to enable massive, easy and open access to city data.

The swarms are coming: if you’re a city leader, you can block them or anger them. Or you can accommodate the swarms and share in the eco-efficiency and abundant honey they make when they prosper.


Green cities, technologies and future to conVERGE in SF

Energy, mobility and Big Data in cities will coalesce at the VERGE conference in San Francisco Oct. 14-17. As GreenBiz chairman and host Joel Makower describes it: “VERGE is how technology, and particularly data, creates and accelerates business opportunities that transform companies while addressing the world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges.” I’ll be there to report on everything from news and alliances to a special microgrid that will be created especially for the event.

In addition to reporting for Sustainable Cities Collective and Common Current I will be representing a new global initiative by Germany’s Fraunhofer-Society called the Morgenstadt City Insights program (“City of the Future”) that leverages Fraunhofer’s 12 complementary technological and social research institutes with the city-focused sustainable economic modeling of Economic Transformations Group (ETG), with which I am teaming.

“The Fraunhofer Morgenstadt City Insights initiative is bringing together the power of Europe’s largest organization for applied research with global corporate partners and a limited number of city applicants,” says Alanus von Radecki, of Fraunhofer IAO. “These participants, fa

Von Radecki added that for the first time this will be done in a systemic way, combining research results on sustainable cities from eight different sectors in an innovative and action-oriented approach.cilitated by North American partner ETG, will research, model and implement powerful new integrated sustainability market opportunities in everything from finance, to energy, the built environment, mobility, communications and retail.”

Says ETG president Eric Hansen, “The ‘City of the Future/Morgenstadt’ Initiative is forging a radical

new way of urban systems research by developing insights and systemic analysis tools derived from 100 global best practices across six sustainability-leading cities Copenhagen, Singapore, Freiburg, Tokyo, New York, and Tokyo. Now ‘City of the Future’ is applying its robust action-oriented model and developing new breakthrough urban sustainability innovations/projects in selected cities worldwide.”


Similarly, VERGE will feature a line-up of major policymakers, scientists, technologists and business hybrids who span spheres of influence, such as former US EPA chief Lisa Jackson, who now directs Apple’s sustainability programs, Rocky Mountain Institute chairman/ inventor Amory Lovins, and author/ entrepreneur Paul Hawken, who wrote the prescient foreword to my 2007 book, How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings.

“Urban sustainability is not an option….” Hawken wrote. “While international action is required to prevent global catastrophe, cities must lead the way in creating a post carbon environment where people can thrive.”

Cities participating in VERGE include the chief data officer of Philadelphia, the sustainability director of Houston, the director of San Francisco’s Environmental Department, Phoenix’s mayoral sustainability adviser, and the CIO of small but influential Palo Alto, CA, which just announced it will require all new homes to have electric vehicle power hook-ups.

Others in areas such as research and funding will be in the house: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which I have collaborated on in designing an indicator and assessment tool for the 663 cities of China to manage themselves using a Low-Carbon Eco-city framework; and the Energy Foundation, which has funded sustainable city work in China and Latin America.

Executives from companies presenting at VERGE will include Google, Microsoft, Airbnb, GM, Sprint, Shell, AECOM, Schneider Electric, NRG Energy, GE Software, Autodesk, Whole Foods, Trulia,  Intercontinental Hotels, Perkins + Will, Lyft and Zimride, eBay and many more.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, which is based in the San Francisco Bay Area


US Climate Study: Cities Center of Risk, Opportunity

The US National Climate Assessment, a new draft study by 13 federal agencies under the Dept. of Commerce, warns that climate change is introducing to cities ample societal and business risks, but also economic opportunities. Because extreme weather is expected to increase, our changing climate is our future, especially in urban areas, where 80% of the nation lives.

The unprecedented 1000+ page draft report–the most ambitious scientific exercise ever undertaken to catalog the real-time effects of climate change, and predict possible future outcomes–came out Friday from top federal research agencies, state agencies, private industry and university experts. Today the report became available for public comment.

The report pulls no punches: “Climate change threatens the well-being of urban residents in all regions of the U.S….systems such as water, energy supply, and transportation will increasingly be compromised by interrelated climate change impacts.” And for California and the Southwest: “Snowpack and streamflow amounts are expected to decline, decreasing water supplies for cities, agriculture and ecosystems.”

In the longer term, the study asserts that sea level rise or superstorms ala Sandy will “affect coastal facilities and infrastructure on which many energy, transportation and water delivery systems, markets, and consumers depend.”

My takeaway is our nation’s most potent response will be to embark upon comprehensive urban planning, engineering and technology based on these new risks, which present almost limitless opportunities for adaptation and mitigation. Put another way, there will be a need to (as the study says) “test and expand understanding of the effects of different climate and integrated assessment model structures.”

As new investments in energy technologies occur, future energy systems will differ from today’s in uncertain ways–depending on the changes in the energy mix. This portends unprecedented opportunity, so look for some of the largest industry sector changes and resultant new business models in utilities and energy.

The National Climate Assessment cites several studies in predicting, “if substantial reductions in emissions of heat-trapping gases were required, the electricity generating sector would decarbonize first, given the multiple options available to generate electricity from sources that do not emit heat-trapping gases, such as wind and solar power.”

Significant opportunities will range across planning and design, combined with public and private investment in:

  • Distributed systems of all types will proliferate: renewable energy; wastewater, water and waste reuse. These technologies in many cases will provide better alternatives to large-scale centralized energy generation or water treatment systems and their outdated regional transmission networks, which are at risk to coastal flooding, severe storm outages, wildfires, and critical drought. Smaller localized or regional power outages lasting for weeks all the way up to the large historic Northeast US power outages (2003: 55 million impacted in US and Canada) are prime examples of events that could regularly occur as a result of such threats.
  • Smart grids and energy systems incorporating system redundancy. The Netherlands grid provides an example of a circular grid (versus hub and spoke) that is almost completely ensconced safely underground.
  • Water efficiency systems and water-conserving buildings, landscapes and materials
  • Cooling technologies and heat mitigating building design and urban landscapes
  • New materials, sensors and automated feedback systems that protect against, and warn and respond to extreme events of heat, wind, flooding, drought and wildfire

In order to reduce future risks and to cope with already occurring events, comprehensive urban climate planning, management and technology approaches are needed to implement massive upgrades to vulnerable infrastructure.

Extreme weather events are already affecting energy, and energy delivery facilities. Consider the regional gasoline shortages that occurred after hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike because there was (and is) only a single pipeline from impacted areas to markets in the Southeast. Cities and smaller communities are more risk adverse to climate change impacts (or other natural disasters) with alternatives to private cars such as public transit, walkability and cycling infrastructure.

Policy makers, the private sector and academia will need to jointly collaborate to better “understand the relationship between climate change, energy development, and water- dependent socioeconomic sectors to inform national and state-level energy policies.” These sweeping new policies are likely to include everything from watersheds and aquifers to land development and other agreements for metro and city general plans and utility districts.

The bottom line is that global climate is apparent across a wide range of US geographies and sectors. Global human-caused climate change is projected to continue to occur over this century and beyond. The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades depends on our actions now, combined with how sensitive the climate is to increased carbon emissions.

Confirmed findings of the report include:

  • U.S. average temperature has increased by about 1.5°F since record keeping began in 1895; more than 80% of this increase has occurred since 1980. The most recent decade was the nation’s warmest on record. U.S. temperatures are expected to continue to rise.
  • Global sea level has risen by about 8 inches since reliable record keeping began in 1880. It is projected to rise another 1 to 4 feet by 2100.
  • Heavy downpours are increasing in most regions of the U.S. Further increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events are projected for most U.S. areas.
  • Certain types of extreme weather events in some regions have become more frequent and intense, including heat waves, floods, and droughts. The increased intensity of heat waves has been most prevalent in the West, while the intensity of flooding events has been more prevalent over the East. Droughts in the Southwest and heat waves everywhere are projected to become more intense in the future.
  • There has been an increase in the overall strength of hurricanes and in the number of strong hurricanes in the North Atlantic since the early 1980s. Strongest hurricane (Category 4 and 5) intensities are projected to continue to increase as the oceans continue to warm.
  • Winter storms will increase. Other severe storms, including the numbers of hurricanes and the intensity and frequency of tornadoes, hail, and damaging thunderstorm winds are uncertain and are being studied intensively.
  • Rising temperatures are reducing ice volume and extent on land, lakes, and sea. This loss of ice is expected to continue.
  • The oceans are currently absorbing about a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere annually and are becoming more acidic as a result, leading to concerns about potential impacts on marine ecosystems.
  • The length of the frost-free season (and the corresponding growing season) has been increasing nationally since the 1980s. The largest increases have occurred in the Western U.S., affecting snow-pack water supplies and related ecosystems and agriculture.

The National Climate Assessment findings mean that public policies will be of little value that are solely based on either past business or operating models, past (or even existing) resource or energy prices, as well as so-called “100-year” flood models.

This is a new game and we can’t play by the same old rules with the same teams. But we now have, for the first time, the parameters of the playing field–the geography of observed and projected impacts. The fields of industry, economics and timescales are less defined.

Adapting to the climate and climate-impacted economy of the future that we are just beginning to experience will require the emerging collective intelligence of our society through the use of collaborative technologies including social networks, which was the subject of a San Francisco TEDx talk I gave last year.

We will need to leverage our institutions, particularly our educational system, while building upon the body of global knowledge that shows that if we act now, we can successfully avert the worst impacts of climate change that are daily becoming evident in the United States and throughout the world.

(Top: Photo of Lower Manhattan blackout during Sandy by Iwan Baan, New York Magazine)

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, a global consultancy based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Chicago’s amazing street trees and parkways

I recently visited my hometown of Chicago, which 25 years ago, featured many neighborhoods that looked and felt like the proverbial concrete jungle. The street trees and lush and creative parkways throughout the city now make virtually unrecognizable some of the old northside neighborhoods I used to haunt.

The city wasn’t always denuded: a massive infestation in the 1960’s and 1970’s of Dutch elm disease wiped out most of the city’s street trees (a warning against mono-species planting). That left city parkways and sidewalks bare for a few decades, and might have exacerbated the city’s deadly 1995 heat wave that killed more than 700 citizens (possibly including my grandmother, who died during the event of unexplained causes). With climate change, the urban heat island effect is a threat all cities should be preparing for with street greening, along with green roofs and white-painted cool roofs: many of those that died in Chicago were elderly residents that lived in top-story apartments under black tar or asphalt roofing. They were literally baked to death, according to cool roof expert Lisa Gartland of PositivEnergy.

Mayor Richard M. Daley accelerated a massive street and city greening campaign around that time in preparation for the 1996 Democratic convention, and the city was transformed to this day (despite having to cut down of hundreds of diseased trees again around 1999-2000 due to an infestation of the Asian Longhorn Beetle). From planted and thickly mulched medians and boulevards, green rooftops, and lush bioswales under the city’s El, Daley’s Chicago legacy is evident. During previous visits, I’ve even come across steaming piles of rich-smelling free compost that the city has left at convenient pick up points for residents.

The only thing missing would be some strategic curb cuts to better accommodate soil filtration of storm run-off. Also, Norway maples dominate the street trees, which could be supplemented with other appropriate species that do not block the understory so much, something my friend and local master gardener Martie Sanders pointed out to me.

Still, walking four miles from the Roscoe Village neighborhood to the far north Hollywood lakefront neighborhood, I was enchanted by the green urban landscape in one of the nation’s largest and most diverse cities.

Enjoy the last of the summer greenery You’ll notice that the streets are devoid of people in the photos, as they were taken during the Bears National Football League game–one of the most dependable times to explore US cities in peace.

Street calming in Uptown neighborhood

The way it used to be: Clark Street in Uptown neighborhood

Lazing on a sunny afternoon (Photos by Warren Karlenzig)

Serious mulching for young Clark Street tree



My TEDx Talk: Collective Intelligence for Sustainable Cities

Warren Karlenzig at TEDx Mission

TEDx Mission recently invited me to speak at their San Francisco event on how cities are using collective intelligence approaches to address climate change and climate change adaptation. Crowdsourcing and savvy planning are producing healthier quality of life and more resilient urban economies.
The talk drew upon my experience with Common Current, which is working with governments, the private sector and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) globally on urban sustainability master planning, policy and technology around energy, water, infrastructure, mobility, land use and economic issues.
An underlying premise is that as we increasingly become an urban planet, diverse cities will provide the key to sustainability innovations. Others, such as Asian Development Bank’s Guanghua Wan and UCLA’s Matthew Kahn in a report released last week (pdf), “Key Indicators for the Pacific (2012)“, have made similar observations.
Common Current is now helping Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory design indicators software for China’s Ministry of Urban Rural Development so China can better manage its 654 cities as “Low Carbon Ecocities.” China has been leading the trend toward urbanization, going from approximately 20 percent urbanites in 1980, to 53 percent now, to an estimated 70 percent by 2030. In our lifetimes, China has already experienced the fastest and largest mass migration of humans in the history of Earth.
Within this dynamic context, Common Current collaborates extensively with the United Nations, China, South Korea, Japan and the United States, as well as individual cities and communities, on green urban development policy and projects.
As you will see in the TEDx talk, effective strategy and management by city leaders is critical, but bottom-up approaches are also having surprisingly dramatic and replicable impacts that address climate change and resilience.
Climate change has been shown to be linked to prolonged drought, more frequent and damaging heat waves, record number of high temperatures (a 2-to-1 ratio over record lows in US over past decade), wildfires, record urban flooding, record urban rainfall amounts and record deadly superstorms, including violent tornadoes.
Nonetheless, on every inhabited continent, legions of talented and dedicated urban citizens (yes, suburbanites are included) are acting to slow climate change and protect us from its worst impacts through collective crowdsourcing, large-scale citizen participation and social media.
As you will see in the TEDx talk, green urbanization utilizing collective intelligence will assist a needed turnaround from our current plight. Instead of needlessly facing the brink of a volatile future completely unprepared, we are beginning to experience how the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its individual parts.