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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Cities and Smart Grids: latest from US and China


smart grid3.jpg

The internet, distributed renewable energy, electric
vehicles and energy management are ready to coalesce: the impact on cities and
our lives will be profound. The US-China
Green Energy Conference (sponsored by the US-China Green Energy Council) held Friday in the Silicon Valley took a deep bi-national dive
into what smart grids are and what they will mean for so-called smart cities,
their wired citizenry and the future of global carbon emissions.

Smart grid specifics are finally starting to emerge from
the marketing haze. They will rely heavily on smart buildings, and are a
critical solution in making renewable energy more scalable through more
efficient energy transmission systems. Cities
like Dubuque, Iowa are working with 1,000 residents to test smart grid
applications and have reportedly lowered their water use by 6% in early trials
with IBM
.

Elsewhere, China is testing a four-square kilometer smart
grid pilot area in its national urban eco showcase, Tianjin Eco-City. The smart
grid includes a 30kw PV solar microgrid on the roof of the Tianjin “Eco-City Business Hall,”
where residents will be able to charge their electric vehicles while they view
virtual reality demonstrations of how the smart grid works, including its
“self-healing” capabilities within the Eco-City’s network.

In terms of renewable energy, smart grids will be a killer
app. Right now, when the wind completely dies in larger areas of wind power
generation, such as the West Texas plains, the transmission system supplying
electricity to cities, including Austin and Dallas, suffers a “mad scramble,”
according to Liang Min, of the US Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). In fact, according
to Chuck Wells from OSISoft, such power hiccups are currently so disruptive, that 45% more fossil fuel is
needed to back up regional energy grids having large-scale wind and solar
generation versus regional grids that rely only on fossil fuels.

On the home or business side, people are responsible for
about 30% of a typical building’s energy system performance, said John Skinner,
Managing Director of Intel’s Open Energy initiative. The more reliable information people have,
the more likely they can make smart decisions about energy use, and the more
likely they can pay less for energy than they do with analog meters (the ones
with the wheels turning inside them).

Energy transactions will become more transparent through
next-generation smart grid transaction languages, such as TeMIX which was
presented to the US-China energy conference by Edward Cazalet, CEO of TeMIX. Cazalet’s presentation reminded me of how the internet
was optimized when TCP/ IP, the unifying data transfer protocols behind the web,
were created. The capability for energy systems to use a unified language
around energy use and transactions will be critical. This language will allow governments,
businesses and residents to better manage their energy consumption. Currently,
energy costs can  vary tremendously based
on factors including climate, usage and equipment, costing as much as five times or more during
peak hours. Few people outside of large businesses realize they can
cut energy costs dramatically by changing their behavior, which can be as
straightforward as running energy
guzzling appliances during off-peak hours.

None of this means that smart meters are a panacea. In
cities throughout California, smart meters have been rolled out clumsily by the
utility Pacific Gas and Electric
.
After four years of replacing residential and business analog meters with wireless smart
meters, a vocal and well-organized group
of citizens are objecting to the continuous signals they transmit. Others
object based on invasion of privacy or fear the new meters would overcharge
them. PG&E has finally gotten around to a public education program extolling
the benefits of smart meters, which they say are mandatory for their
customers. Besides the heavy handedness,
even with the new PR campaign, PG&E has not made the case for compelling
consumer benefits.

Consolidated Edison of New York City, on the other hand has managed their
smart meter pilot program more effectively. Con Ed ran an extensive public
education program and transparent opt-out option for those that did not want
smart meters (2% did not want them) on their home or business for their New
York City pilot program
. The
utility offered participants in its pilot program rebates of $25-50. Six rate
structures with hourly rate changes and a web-based consumer dashboard
explained and demonstrated different rates, according to EPRI’s Liang Min.

Many companies including Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, General
Electric and Google are eyeing the nascent smart grid for its potential not
just to make cities more eco-efficient, but for also for lucrative smart-grid
revenue streams as they penetrate the last major untapped digital pathway into our lives.

“We are cooperating with many high tech companies,” Kai Xie,
General Manager of the US Office of the China State Grid told the US-China Energy
Conference. “We have also developed some in-house products for our customers,
including a dashboard (with Intel) as part of a two-way communication combined
smart meter and consumer portal. “

Our information, communications, photographs, entertainment
and medical industries are all now increasingly digital, and soon our energy
will be digitized, too. Let’s hope the planet and our cities will benefit from a smooth and well thought out transformation.

Warren
Karlenzig is president of Common
Current
. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute,  and co-author of
a
forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and
management. 
 

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What’s an Ecocity and Why Should We Care?

tianjinEcoCity master plan.jpg

“Ecocity” is a popular designation for dozens
of global urban centers. Indeed the 9th Ecocity World Summit next week in Montreal,
Canada will be packed with city officials, planners, activists, educators, and
corporations from 75 nations, as well as the United Nations–all trying to plan how the city can
be designed and conducted more in harmony with ecosystems, culture and the biosphere.

The summit will also present a scheme to assess ecocities on
defined standards and indicators. Seeing that international standards for overall
sustainability at the city level do not yet exist, how can ecocities take
things to the next level and collectively push forward urban sustainability
performance across borders, languages, cultures and local conditions?

Cities are where sustainability meets true systems approaches
and economic need: they’ll go from harboring more than half of the planet’s
people to about 70 percent of humanity by 2050.
The Earth is undergoing the greatest mass migration in its history as hundreds
of millions of rural residents of China move to its booming cities.

Some of the largest ecocity projects include Tianjin, China (pictured above);
Waitakere, New Zealand (208,000 pop.) was self-designated as an ecocity before
it was absorbed by neighboring Auckland
in 2010.

A host of other
cities in China including Changchun, Rizhao and Tangshan (“Caofeidian International Eco-city”are modeled as eco-cities, while India is
also planning development of several eco cities along its new Delhi-Mumbai
transportation and industrial corridor
. Japan, which has been
helping India plan its largest ecocity, is also sponsoring development or retrofitting of numerous ecocities or “eco towns.”

The term “ecocity” was first used by Richard Register in
1987: Register went on to found in 1992 Ecocity Builders, a non-profit based in Oakland, California. (Disclosure: my consultancy Common
Current just finished helping Ecocity Builders
and its international advisors develop standards and indicators for ecocities,
called the International Ecocity Framework and Standards, or IEFS.)

Ecocity Builders’ Register, Executive Director Kirstin
Miller, Ecological Footprint co-creator Bill Rees and other participants will be addressing the Montreal Ecocity
Conference to present the IEFS to participants and partner cities. Four Early
Partner Cities (EPCs) for the IEFS–Vancouver and Montreal, Canada; Curitiba, Brazil and Kirtipur, Nepal–will also participate.
These cities or communities are already gathering information and data for the
IEFS in order to provide initial feedback on the standard and indicator development
process.

The IEFS consists of 15 system “conditions” or
categories. Cities will eventually be
analyzed and measured based on the performance of these components, which have
an integral relationship to the city’s bioregions (bioregional mapping will
become a key IEFS activity). The 15 IEFS categories include:

·        
Access by Proximity: Walkable access from housing to basic urban services and transit access
to close-by employment options.

·        
Clean Air: Air quality conducive to good health within
buildings, the city’s air shed, and the atmosphere.

·        
Healthy Soil: Soils meet
their ranges of healthy ecosystem functions as appropriate to their types and
environments; fertility is maintained or improved.

·        
Clean and Safe Water:
Access to clean, safe, affordable water; the city’s water sources, waterways
and water bodies are healthy and function without negative impact to
ecosystems. Water is primarily sourced from within the bioregion.

·        
Responsible Resources/
Materials
: Renewable and non-renewable resources are sourced, allocated,
managed and recycled responsibly and equitably, without adversely affecting
human health or the resilience of ecosystems.

·        
Clean and Renewable
Energy
: The city’s energy needs are provided for, and extracted, generated and
consumed, without significant negative impact to ecosystems or to short- or
long-term human health and do not exacerbate climate change. Energy consumed is
primarily generated within the local bioregion.

·        
Healthy and Accessible
Food
: Nutritious food is accessible and affordable to all residents and is
grown, manufactured and distributed by processes which maintain the healthy
function of ecosystems and do not exacerbate climate change. Food consumed is
primarily grown within the local bioregion.

·        
Healthy Biodiversity: The
city sustains the biodiversity of local, bioregional and global ecosystems
including species diversity, ecosystem diversity and genetic diversity; it
restores natural habitat and biodiversity by its policy and physical actions.

·        
Earth’s Carrying
Capacity:
The city keeps its demand on ecosystems within the limits of the
Earth’s bio-capacity, converting resources restoratively and supporting
regional ecological integrity.

·        
Ecological Integrity: The
city maintains essential linkages within and between ecosystems and provides
contiguous habitat areas and ecological corridors throughout the city.

·        
Healthy Culture: The city
facilitates cultural activities that strengthen eco-literacy, patterns of human
knowledge and creative expression, and develop symbolic thought and social
learning.

·        
Community Capacity
Building
: The city supports full and equitable community participation in
decision making processes and provides legal, physical and organizational
support for neighborhoods, community organizations, institutions and agencies.

·        
Healthy and Equitable
Economy
:
An economy favoring
economic activities that reduce harm and positively benefit the environment and
human health and support a high level of local and equitable employment options
– the foundation for “green jobs”.

·        
Lifelong Education: All
residents have access to lifelong education including access to information
about the city’s history of place, culture, ecology, and tradition provided
through formal and informal education, vocational training and other social
institutions.

·        
Well Being–Quality of
Life
: Strong citizen satisfaction with quality of life indicators including
employment; the built, natural and landscaped environment; physical and mental
health; education; safety; recreation and leisure time; and social belonging.

While some of these categories are being matched to existing
tools and indicators (i.e., Walk Score and similar GIS mapping for Access by
Proximity), other categories will need a period of innovation around analytical processes or tools such as the Gini co-efficient (which may be used to measure income level disparities in the category Healthy and
Equitable Economy) and the Ecological Footprint (to determine Earth’s Carrying Capacity).
These have been extensively modeled on the national level, for instance, but have
yet to be consistently applied on the local level.

The lack of international urban sustainability standards has
perplexed and bedeviled cities, planners, developers and companies wanting a
consistent scorecard across global urban management and development.

True,
international sustainability standards exist for buildings, such as the US
Green Building Council’s LEED, and the BREEAM
standards from the United Kingdom, even neighborhoods (LEED for Neighborhood Development). China is also developing its
own Three Star standard for buildings. Emerging from the Harvard School of Design is the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure, while BREEAM is launching BREEAM for Communities.

But the time has come for consistent urban sustainability
frameworks and indicators across everything from infrastructure and mobility, to
urban agriculture, energy, water, materials and biodiversity.

The International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS) is
one of the main entrants in the global race to define and measure what makes a
city sustainable. With the cooperation
of its Early Partner Cities, Ecocity Builders and the IEFS will hopefully begin
to answer these key questions along while getting down to the real business: helping solve how the cities of the world are
remaking themselves as ecocities or more sustainable cities to prepare for a future
of more extreme risk–which equals opportunity.

Warren
Karlenzig is president of Common
Current
. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute,  and co-author of
a
forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and
management. 
  

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