Copenhagen and the Imperative for Sustainable Cities in India

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Mumbai flooding after 2006 deluge

Leading up to President Obama welcoming India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for the first official State Dinner of his presidency at the White House, The Bay Area Council Economic Institute yesterday released its new report, “Global Reach: Emerging Ties Between the San Francisco Bay Area and India.”

At a release event in downtown San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, a panel addressed why, according to the Institute’s president R. Sean Randolph, “No place else in the nation comes close to the economic connections that the Bay Area has in India.”

The sheer numbers of Indians employed by Bay Area firms in such as Cisco, Visa and Semantec are a testament of India moving from a contractual model (think of the call centers in Slumdog Millionaire) to being a true strategic partner, because of its rich base of domestic and ex-pat engineering, management and venture capital talent.

With a fast-growing population of 200 to 300 million earning “disposable income,” Hewlett-Packard and other Silicon Valley product manufacturers have been fighting for market share throughout the South Asian nation. Economic growth may lift some from the slums, but experts worry about the capacity of India to grow so quickly without detrimental climate and other sustainability impacts.

Like China, it now looks like the cities of India–both existing and new–are on the verge of an unparalleled urban population boom.

Michel St. Pierre, Director of Planning and Urban Design from San Francisco-based architectural firm Gensler, was the sole panelist addressing the topic of
Indian urban sustainability of the five other software, biotech and venture capital firms represented at the event.

“By 2022, there will be a need for up to 500 new cities in India to accommodate the urban growth in the country,” St. Pierre said. “Reduced quality of life could greatly affect the success of the nation’s economy if growth is not planned and executed properly.”

St. Pierre said the biggest challenge is to address sustainability in all aspects, with cities such as Mumbai operating its current systems–including transportation, water, energy and environmental analysis–at full capacity and beyond. Then there is the emerging threat of global climate change, particularly flooding.

“The livibility and sustainability of cities like Mumbai and Delhi are critical to the success of the country,” he opined about the city of 14 million, the largest city proper in the world. St. Pierre quoted Prime Minister Singh: “If Mumbai fails, then India fails.”

St. Pierre compared India’s urban growth to that of China in its scale, yet contrasted it with its neighbor to the north in terms of governance. Because India is a democracy, versus China, which has a planned, centrally controlled economy, India cannot so easily create whole-scale national programs around Eco-Cities, which China is in the beginning stages of trying to roll out.

India’s advantage as a democracy is that it more likely to successfully enact public-private partnerships in such complex endeavors as the densification of its cities and in providing more mixed-use real estate with access to public transportation.

Most of India’s so-called Eco-cities projects have attempted to create more healthy and sanitary conditions in such areas as those in the Kerala state by reducing pollution in rivers and drinking water supplies.

Indian cities have also been global leaders in converting their dirty diesel bus fleets to compressed natural gas (CNG), which emits far less particulates and other deadly air pollutants than diesel or gasoline-powered vehicles. Some fleets are even being switched to dual-fuel supplies of CNG and hydrogen.

But so far, there has been less success in redesigning slum areas or other development to take advantage of new innovations in renewable energy, green building and advanced water-conserving technologies, let alone district flood-resistant planning.

And then there are the masses of people, buildings and infrastructure. Mumbai has only .03 percent open space, one of the lowest rates in the world, according to St. Pierre–compared to an average of 5-7 percent open space in US cities. The country also suffers from constant power outages, chronic water shortages, and systemically contaminated water.

With the advent of corporate-backed city-wide sustainability initiatives, including the “Connected Urban Development” program from Cisco (with its global headquarters for development now in Bangalore) and IBM’s Smarter Cities initiatives, India stands to become a fertile land for bringing software innovations into 21st century applications in planning and management of energy, water and transportation.

HP even has its own nascent “Sustainable Cities/ City 2.0” initiative, which is less defined at this point, but hinges upon the mother of all data centers as a massive brain behind Smart Grid, telepresence, intelligent buildings and metro transportation systems.

There is so much more to be launched that can harness the deeply educated pool of talent in India and California’s Silicon Valley, particularly in light of climate change.

All of this brings us back to Obama’s meeting with Prime Minister Singh, and the coming of the Copenhagen climate summit, for which one major point of negotiations is the amount of funding available from developed nations for financing greenhouse gas reductions and climate adaptation in developing nations such as India.

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President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Singh at the G-20 summit.

Concluded Genler’s Michel St. Pierre, “India can lead the way worldwide for sustainability by addressing innovation just as it has done in software and all these other industries.”

Let’s hope that the buzz tonight at the State Dinner over the fresh veggies and herbs from Michelle Obama’s White House garden goes beyond the gossip of celebrities and at least touches on issues so critical to the future of India, the United States and the world at large. 

Warren Karlenzig is President of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability consultancy in San Anselmo, CA. He is author of How Green is Your Ci
ty? The SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute

 

   

 

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Korea Cities Tour: Wrap-up

This is final entry on my Korean cities tour, sponsored by the US Dept. of State and US Embassy in Seoul.

I’m back in the US after five days in Korea, on a hectic, though quite successful visit to cities of Seoul, Changwon and Busan to lecture at universities and meet with Korean officials about the development of green cities.

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Seoul Redux

I took a relaxed journey to Seoul on the high-speed Korean National Rail from Busan–I loved the way the conductors ceremoniously bow to the passengers after entering or before leaving each train car, and the Korean folk music that plays before each station announcement. We then went to Seoul National University, where I was to deliver a lecture at the school of Architecture and Urban Design and graduate school of Environmental Studies.

(Seoul National University is the top public educational institute in the nation.)

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First we made a courtesy visit to the Dean of  Architecture and Urban Design, Kiho Kim.  Dr. Kim told us he is preparing this summer to open the Asian Sustainability Institute on the campus, the first such institute for all of Asia. I look forward to collaborating with Dr. Kim and other partners on the institute’s positioning and planning.

Seoul National University in conjuncton with the city of Seoul is also hatching a plan to make the university campus a living model of a creative and green neighborhood, celebrating the arts, cultural attractions and the latest in sustainable urban planning, design and technology. Think of a green Dinkytown, the off-campus neighborhood near the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where Dr. Kim previously taught, he told us.

After lunch with Dr. Kim and professors Kyung-Jin Zoh and Jong-Sang Sung, I lectured to about 50 professors and students, including one professor that is working with the Korea Land Corporation on the Korea cities indicators project I mentioned in my second-previous blog entry (see “Halftime Report” blog from March 12).

Our final stop was Seoul City Hall to present to and meet officials from the city’s “Green Seoul” program. Seoul’s sustainability efforts appear to be more siloed than those of leading US cities, with “green” efforts having separate city management from such areas as city public transportation, fleet management and renewable energy.

On the subject of climate change and carbon action planning, however, I was told by Seoul Green deputy director Yoon Jong Choi that Seoul will be sponsoring the C40 Large Cities summit meeting of the world’s most populous 40 cities, sponsored by the William J. Clinton Foundation’s Climate Initiative. I attended the first C40 summit in New York City last spring and hope to be back in Seoul for the next C40 event in 2009.

green tea cappaccino

My final night in Seoul was spent checking out the very cool Myeongdong neighborhood with the US Embassy’s Eun Kyong. We had green tea lattes and cheesecake, made from local organic tea grown in the southwest of Korea. Turns out Koreans are also very concerned about pesticide and pollution food contamination from Chinese imports, especially heavily pesticide sprayed tea.

Huge thanks to Choi Eun Kyong, assistant cultural affairs officer Jeffrey Beller, Jean Vander Woude, John Dyson and my interpreter Kim Chi Young for all their excellent planning, cultural guidance and hard work in putting the trip, lectures and meetings together. It’s extremely heartening to know that the US Embassy has such high-caliber representation overseas!

I’m sure future developments resulting from this tour will be forthcoming. I’ll keep you posted.

Photos: Warren (top two); Flicker: LWY
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