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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Where are New Green Cities and How Can They Curb Asian Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

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Masdar Headquarters, Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

In my previous post, I highlighted how growing Asian urbanization is expected to contribute more than half of the world’s growth in greenhouse gases over the next 20 years. Now I will review what’s being attempted in Asian cities and elsewhere in order to positively alter that disturbing forecast.

The US and other Western nations are by no means immune from culpability in global climate change, since the US and Europe have contributed most of the existing excess greenhouse gases (GHGs) in our global climate over the last 100 years.

co2_us_vs_china-400.jpg 

Because of that history, the onus is upon more developed parts of world, including North America, Europe and parts of Asia, to help plan and develop models for new cities in Asia. These models need to take into account climate change, local culture, the latest IT and communications technologies, and more.

New cities or districts must not be only be low- or zero-carbon, they must also address climate change adaptation, which in practical terms means designing for water and food security and natural disaster risk management.

What are the best global models that Asia should draw upon? Masdar, in the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi), is one good model, though its small expected total population (50,000) and unique design can’t scale up to Asian-sized growth requirements.     

Masdar is piloting scores of new designs and technologies that reduce energy use, particularly in passive energy reduction (cooling and solar) and PV solar. Masdar also reduces water use with information system-linked leak-detecting sensors and by recycling dew. This desert-located site even recycles ambient moisture in the indoor air, which includes evaporated human sweat. 

Besides the techno-wizardry, Masdar offers economic sustainability, through a viable financing “eco-system”: it has created a tax free-foreign enterprise zone that has drawn in support from General Electric, Credit Suisse and the United Nations’ Clean Development Mechanism.

South Korea’s Songdo International Business District is planned to reduce energy use 30 percent in every building through the use of double building skins combined with sophisticated information technology and communications control systems. Songdo is on a scale to which China can relate, with 60,000 residents and 300,000 workers expected by completion in 2015.

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Songdo rises in South Korea (New York Times photo)

Some Chinese green new city false starts (so far) have included Dongtan and Qingdao Eco-Blocks, both of which were approved or studied by the national and local governments but have so far failed to be greenlighted.

While Dongtan was to be on a scale of 20,000 inhabitants to begin and was mainly to be powered by renewable energy, it had plans of increasing to 500,000 by 2030. That still wasn’t necessarily big enough for the needs of China, which may add 800 million or more people to its cities over the next 30-40 years, many of them in new cities or new city zones of 500,000 to 5 million. Because of local corruption, ground for Dongtan was never broken despite ambitious plans and international project participation from ARUP Engineering.

Qingdao Eco-Blocks, with 2,000 to 100,000 housing units and mixed-use, transit-oriented development, meanwhile, did have modular applicability to Chinese new city development. The Eco-Blocks project, though, did not get slated into Phase 1 of the city’s development pipeline, according to Harrison Fraker, retired professor from UC Berkeley’s Institute of the Environment. While at Berkeley, Fraker and the Institute helped devise the plan for the resource (water, waste, energy) “self-sufficient” city.

It seems the Eco-Blocks were too complex at their present stage of planning to fit into China’s massive national new city construction mechanism, which is constrained by the need for speed. The Eco-Blocks are now being considered as a prototype for NASA Ames research, Fraker said.

qingdao.jpg  

The immediate fate of Tianjin Eco-City has greater potential in China. A Chinese and Singaporean cooperative has been holding design competitions for a large section of Tianjin, the third largest municipality in China, which has an overall population of more than 8 million.     
Besides cultivating financing, the Tianjin Eco-City is attempting to develop sophisticated software that can model the use of materials, energy, water, land, transportation and other resources, in addition to carbon and waste outputs.

Other noteworthy green community models beyond Asia include the Kalundborg (Denmark) Eco-Industrial Park; Hammarby, Sweden; and Kronsberg, Germany.

hammarby.JPG 
Hammarby, Sweden

Kronsberg, a community of 6,600 near Hanover, addresses the critical element of local food with greenhouses using renewable energy, which can offer a large-supply of nutrition requiring less carbon than the transport-heavy global food model.

Combined with the myriad waste re-use and energy generation
opportunities that can come with sustainable organic agriculture and
food processing, the food element has been a significant missing
element in most “eco-cities.”

Kronsberg reduced its greenhouse gases by 45 percent compared to average new construction.This was accomplished through the use of advanced building insulation in concert with district heating systems, which use waste heat from municipal processes to warm water that is piped throughout the community for everyone’s use. The suburban area cut overall per capita CO2 by an estimated 60 percent through
transit oriented development including major bicycle infrastructure.

Reducing the life-cycle impacts of construction and infrastructure materials is another area not being well addressed by current eco-city planning and design–no large-scale pilot projects exist that precisely measure and manage life-cycle material impacts.

If new cities can combine integrated planning for better carbon management, regional food systems, life cycle material impacts, water scarcity and biological/ cultural diversity, they will be much better prepared to host the world’s new majority that is headed their way. 

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