To plan sustainable cities, good governance and role models are crucial.


Driverless cars and smart cities are interesting experiments, but they are not the real innovation that is needed to solve the challenges of dramatic urbanization. That is according to Ricky Burdett, Professor of Urban Studies at the London School of Economics where he is also Director of Urban Age, a project supported by Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society, which runs city-themed conferences, from Shanghai to Addis Ababa, and produces weighty tomes on the challenges of the world’s shift to urban environments.


And those challenges are rapidly growing. According to the United Nations, 55 percent of people globally now live in urban areas and that is predicted to climb to 68 percent by 2050. “But if you look at a world map, where this urbanization will happen is distributed completely unequally. Over 90 percent of it will occur either in the African continent or parts of Asia,” says Burdett. Cities such as Lagos in Nigeria and Dhaka in Bangladesh are growing by hundreds of thousands of people each year, some 60 or 70 people every hour. That means more hospitals, roads, sewers, schools and homes need to be built. “In these regions, the form of urbanization is particularly dynamic,” Burdett says, but warns that cities are currently designed in unsustainable ways, meaning we cannot look to them for help in planning the cities of the future. That makes it important to find examples of quickly growing cities that have good governance and sustainable design – and use those to inspire better ideas in the future.


How smart cities are tackling larger issues of sustainability, but don't necessarily account for elements of everyday living


And timing matters. India is expected to add 300 to 400 million people to its already massive cities in the next 20 years, he says, but it still needs to build the majority of its urban infrastructure. “Most of the decisions we make now will actually lock cities into patterns of sustainable, or unsustainable, performance for a very, very long time,” Burdett notes. “If we get that wrong, we’ve got a problem. If we continue in the way we are now there are going to be significant issues.”


But, believes Burdett, we still have time to get it right. “If we can channel our investments and policy towards more sustainable forms of planning and design, we could actually steer the urban ship in a particular direction rather than the one it is going in now.”


Since most urbanization is happening in cities with smaller economies that have less available energy, technological solutions such as driverless cars are not the answer. “You absolutely need to have low-tech, simple cost-effective measures,” Burdett says, noting that there are very few places that are truly ‘smart cities’, as it is expensive and complex to install connected infrastructure and analyze the data it collects. He points to India’s Smart Cities Mission, a plan to introduce smart systems to 100 cities around the country. “The problem was that everyone came up with autonomous vehicles and smart traffic lights in cities where there were no sewers or housing or toilets,” he says. “Wouldn’t those come first?” The smart city work by Sidewalk Labs in Toronto, Canada, is a valuable experiment, he adds. There the Google-owned company is redeveloping a large swathe of the city’s riverfront, building in connected sensors from the ground up to enable sustainable transport, energy and housing. However, Burdett predicts it will not do much to address the real challenges facing cities. “I think the niche application of some of these models, which are enormously expensive, will have limited impact in our lifetimes.”  


How a city's governance can have an impact on the innovation and implementation of sustainable ideas


What works for each city will differ, but it starts with good governance. Set aside expensive experiments with smart cities, the internet of things and driverless cars; instead, empower mayors to solve problems methodically, with sustainable ideas. “We’re sitting in London, a city that has only had mayoral elections since the year 2000,” he says. “But, as a result, London’s direction of travel has changed significantly.” In the two decades since, London has flipped between mayors affiliated with the left and right and back again, but each mayor has focused on necessary urban projects. That has led to cycle lanes and car-sharing schemes, increased funding for public transport infrastructure, and projects to reduce air pollution, such as the Congestion Charge zone.


Compare that to New York City, where state-level Governor Andrew Cuomo has more power to determine what happens with transport in the city than Mayor Bill de Blasio. “In New York City, there’s therefore much less investment in the city’s transport system than in London,” Burdett says. “Governance translates into vision and into implementation.”


The physical size of London is constrained by central government decisions to implement the Metropolitan Green Belt around the capital, which prevents urban sprawl. Cities often expand beyond their borders, though. Indeed, most cities that are growing at a pace are not planned or managed, but are spreading out in a laissez-faire manner. Most of the urban growth in Africa and parts of Asia is informal and unplanned. “There’s no one in charge. People just come to a city overnight and build a shack on its edges and hope to make a living,” Burdett says.  


Growth beyond borders is also seen in Paris and Mexico City. Both have strong mayoral structures, but those elected officials only represent citizens living centrally, leaving out many millions more in greater metropolitan areas, which makes implementing a wider vision difficult. In Mexico City, the Mayor and the Governor of the State are often from competing political parties and backgrounds. “Governance is not automatic,” says Burdett. “It’s not enough to have a mayor. You also have to make sure that he or she has jurisdiction over the region that actually affects the dynamics, and that people pay taxes towards the city and its infrastructure.”


Why public transport is a good place to start when planning how to make city more sustainable


Good governance in place, what should those mayors do? Public transport is a good starting point. Cities too often mimic the US model of sprawl and cars, Burdett warns, and that is not sustainable for cities with incredible population densities. There are better models to follow. Addis Ababa has between 3.4 million and 5 million people and despite Ethiopia being a very poor nation it has actively chosen to invest – with help from Chinese backers – in transport. “There is a very centralized government that has decided to try to stem the tide when it comes to issues of transport and urban growth by building a light rail transit system, as well as social housing,” Burdett says. “They’re promoting a culture in the city where they’re reducing the dependency on the car as much as possible.”


Long commutes have an impact on much more than the environment and productivity. Burdett relates a story about families in Bangkok in which the children sleep on the backseat of cars on their way to school and then have dinner there on the way home, in schedules dominated by multi-hour commutes. “These big things we’re talking about in terms of planning and infrastructure have very real consequences for family relationships, people’s state of mind and how they can perform as professionals,” he says.


Public transport has benefits beyond cutting commutes. The best examples of addressing urban ills via transport infrastructure come not from Europe, Asia or North America, but Colombia. Faced with heavy drug-related crime, between 2004 and 2007 Medellín’s then Mayor, Sergio Fajardo, introduced a series of projects under the banner of social urbanism, investing in ideas that benefit social equity, in particular public transport. “Medellín has very steep hills, with a lot of informal development stacked up over the decades on those hills,” says Burdett. They were inaccessible to police and became strongholds for drug cartels. “What this mayor did was introduce a system of connections, including cable cars, along with a series of public-space interventions such as parks, libraries and schools at the heart of these very difficult barrios,” he says. “The place has been totally transformed.” International campaigns against organized drug crime have contributed to this, but the city invested effectively, too.


Simple solutions such as giving mayors more power, focusing on public transport and managing growth may have more impact than expensive technological innovations. But while smart-city projects get plenty of media coverage, it is not always easy to uncover and understand the models that have already had impact. Knowledgesharing is vital to building sustainable lives as urbanization increases. And that means those influencing the future of cities, be they investors or mayors, need to get together and talk to share the models and ideas that do work. “There are good stories,” says Burdett, “but we just need to find out about them.”


CASE STUDY: How buses and bikes are transforming Bogota

Good governance and sustainable transport can help improve the lives of inhabitants in a sprawling city, as seen in the Colombian capital. The largest city in the country, Bogotá is still growing and has a population of eight million, with 11 million in the wider metropolitan area. In 2000, Mayor Enrique Peñalosa (who was reappointed to the role for a further four-year term in 2016) opened the TransMilenio, a network of dedicated bus lanes known as a bus rapid transit (BRT) system. “It’s been very, very effective, and it is still being expanded,” says Burdett. Alongside the bus lanes, Bogotá built cycle pathways – a smart choice in a flat city situated on a plateau, he adds. Though criticized by citizens for queues, safety concerns and fare hikes, the infrastructure has helped cut commute times by 46 percent, from more than 80 minutes to less than an hour in each direction, according to Burdett’s book Shaping Cities in an Urban Age. That has helped slash carbon emissions and improved air quality, though more can be achieved by rolling out electric buses, which the city has so far been slow to adopt.



Nicole Kobie is a London-based writer specialising in technology, transport and science. She is a contributing editor at Wired UK and has written for The Guardian, Vice and PC Pro.


This article first appeared in the May 2019 edition of WERTE, the client magazine of Deutsche Bank Wealth Management.


Read this article in Italian.

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