September 2009 Archives


Last night's City Arts & Lectures program on "Bike Advocacy and the Urban Environment" featured former Talking Heads maestro David Byrne as lead-off for a panel friendly to the two-wheeled revolution that is transforming select cities in the US and abroad.

Byrne, who recently published Bicycle Diaries (Viking), acted as frontman for a bicycle-commuting San Francisco city supervisor, David Chiu, an urban planning professor, Mike Teitz, and the head of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Leah Shahum.

Byrne has been riding in cities around the world since the 1970s, and his new book features essays on his two-wheeled experiences in Paris, Istanbul, New York, Manila, Italy and beyond. Last year Byrne created designs for bicycle racks in nine Manhattan locations.

His slideshow began with cover shots of some favorite books: Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of An American City, Michael Sorkin's 20 Minutes in Manhattan and others, before he launched into an overview of the good, bad and ugly in urban planning.

The Good:
  • Copenhagen: "I show this photo (of about 15 people on bikes waiting at a stoplight) to people and they say, 'That must be a parade or special bike event," but it's not, it's just an ordinary day with everyone on their bike."
  • Amsterdam and Beijing bike racks filled with (or oddly stacked vertically 40 feet upward in the case of Bejiing) with hundreds or even thousands of bikes.
  • A termite mound, towering out of a pond. "It's water cooled housing."
  • The Velib bikeshare progrm in Paris. "It has changed not only getting around, but it actually changes the way people interact with the city, what they choose to do. You can spend the night riding a bike through the city as its own thing."
    VelibReady.jpgVelib bikeshare in Paris (photo by Diana Karlenzig)
The Bad:
  • Frank Lloyd Wright's sprawling design for Broadacre City, which featured Jetsonesque towers, complete with flying saucers, and endless expanses of cars ("Auto-mobile citizens" Wright called them) and landscaping. "Thank god he didn't get to do it," Bryne said. "Where would you buy groceries?"
  • A photo taken underneath a freeway exchange in Austin, Texas: "I ended up riding here. Everything is separated by giant highways. There's no one in this area and why should there be?"
  • Downtown Houston: "There's one person on the streets, and it's like 11 a.m. on a weekday. I did find a clump of people around the corner from here--they were the smokers."
The Ugly
  • Byrne showed aerial photos of sprawled suburbs outside Dallas, San Francisco and somewhere else he couldn't identify. "It all looks the same after a while."
  • Buckminister Fuller's plan for 100-story towers in Harlem. "I think these were supposed to be transparent and air cooled, and thankfully they were never built."
The night featured more than Byrne's ironic observations. Leah Shahum, as leader of the largest bicycle coalition in the nation (11,000 strong), discussed plans for San Francisco to double its bike lanes within 2-3 years, after it has been held up for three years from bike lane expansion by a civil lawsuit.

She cited newly released statistics that the city had increased its bike ridership 53% over a period of three years, with 6% of all trips in the city now being taken by bicycles. Compared to Copenhagen's overall 36% bicycle commuting rate or downtown Amsterdam's 50% rate, this seemed rather dinky.

Still, San Francisco is the leader of bicycle commuting of large US cities (not counting Portland, Oregon, which hit the 8% ridership rate in 2008) and only yesterday, it started an experiment to make its main thoroughfare, Market Street, largely free of private cars.

"We want to see more car-free space," Shahum said. "I'm not afraid to say it."

But not all in San Francisco's Herbst Theater were convinced that car-free was the best arrangement. "What will make bicycles begin to start following traffic laws, like stopping at streetlights and stop signs?" a man in the audience demanded of the panel.

Berkeley professor emeritus Mike Teitz aptly characterized the nature of the conflict: "We have been a uni-modal society, and uni-modal dominance is struggling with its transition to multi-modality."

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and co-author of a forthcoming book from the Post Carbon Institute on urban and societal resiliency.

Songdo International Business District, South Korea

On the eve of G-20 meetings this week in the heart of the United States, the momentum of climate change leadership is ironically taking shape in Asia and Europe.

That is borne out by new announcements on smart, green city programs, as well as other major developments coming from China and South Korea leading up to December's Copenhagen Climate Change Conference.

Before I get to the wired city news, some relevant signs from the tea leaves of Asian political leadership:

Both China and South Korea are home to an emerging model of cities that are being planned with combined IT infrastructure and management systems that reduce carbon and resource use in construction, waste production, water and energy use, teleworking, transportation and mobility.

South Korea, in particular, is designing its national stimulus program and economic development strategy around the convergence of sustainability planning, IT innovation and energy usage.

It's not surprising that South Korea's largest development project, Songdo International Business District, optimizes low-carbon design with ubiquitous information technology.

In China, IBM announced last week an eco-city research center, which will feature a collaboration between the global technology provider and the national government on the latest IT-based water management systems and more.

China is also designing Eco City standards through its central government's Ministry of Housing, Urban-Rural Development; it is looking to such planning and management systems that can scale up to meet 350-400 million more people that its cities will house by 2020. China is said to be looking beyond reducing carbon emissions and water use: it is taking into account other macro design factors such as as climate change adaptation, including natural disaster risk. 

The developer of Korea's Songdo, Gale International, and Cisco also announced last month an agreement with China to develop a city district in Changsha, Hunan Province.

Meanwhile, the European Union is not sitting idle when it comes to wiring its cities for sustainability. After hosting a "Green and Connected Cities" session before The European Union's Committee of Regions last year (at which I addressed delegates), Europe announced last week it is putting significant investment into wiring and enabling 30 cities for advanced IT energy efficiency capabilities.

And the United States? Beyond Boulder, Colorado, which has recently implemented the model for the nation's first Smart Grid-connected city, looks like we will be spending our days leading up to Copenhagen mired in a decades-old health care debate while the rest of world is shaping a future of innovation.   


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.


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.

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.


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, 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. 


Asian cities will be responsible for more than half of the world's increase in greenhouse gases over the next 20 years, according to a study from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

What's worse is that little is being done to regulate this increase not only in carbon, but also in water use, waste production and large-scale health impacts on urban populations and beyond.

Never has the need been greater for combining urban planning with the best management approaches and technologies in everything from transportation, construction, water use and treatment, regional food and energy production, and energy efficiency.

From the helter skelter expansion of cities in China, India and Bangladesh into the surrounding countryside to the precipitous rise in transport-related air pollution in Beijing, Jakarta, Manila and Shanghai, to massive loads of untreated or inadequately treated wastewater and air pollution, the impacts are already taking a staggering toll, climate change aside.

The urban sustainability innovation of developed or developing nations can be applied in some cases to Asian cities, particularly Amsterdam (bicycle and pedestrian planning); Portland, Oregon (green building, metropolitan area growth boundaries); London (congestion pricing); Bogota (Bus Rapid Transit, already making inroads in Beijing) and San Francisco (development of zero waste).

The nature of Asian cities, however, makes it difficult to simply transfer best management practices, because of inherent structural, political and economic limitations.

Take land use and planning. Only 10-20% of Asian land transactions are formally registered and in most cities more than 50% of urbanites live on land where title is disputed, so more sustainable land use planning and zoning measures, such as transit-oriented development, are loaded with cultural issues related to the rights of landless people

Other major disasters-in-waiting:

  • Water Supply: There is no ready drinking water for over 50% of urban residents in Asia.  Already severe water shortages have hit cities in India (Andhra, India ran out completely in 2002) and northern China. Beijing has millions more people than it can currently supply water for, its population is growing and water supplies are diminishing because of global climate change, while also becoming increasingly contaminated.
  • Wastewater: In China, only 16% of wastewater is treated. The raw sewage not only pollutes local drinking water supplies, but also threatens coastal fisheries that provide much of the protein in people's diets. Sixty percent of the world's population lives within 60 miles of the coast. By 2025, the majority of Asia's growing numbers of Megacities (10 million+) will be on coastal waters, putting untold stress on fisheries.
  • Health: Poor environmental conditions are globally responsible for 25% of preventable health problems, with two-thirds of those cases being children. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Asian cities. The World Bank estimates that deaths and illnesses from China's air pollution cost the nation 5% of its GDP annually.
  • Transportation: "Managing Asian Cities" asserts that the maintenance of viable densities for effective public transportation, biking and walking is the key to urban sustainability in Asian cities. If these metropolitan areas go the US Sunbelt car-only sprawl route (e.g., 8.4 daily car trips per household in exurban Los Angeles-San Bernardino), game over.
  • Energy: Urbanites use energy more intensely than rural residents. In China this means that coal fired power plants are being built at a pace of 50 a year to keep up with urban and manufacturing growth.
  • Land Use and Planning: Asian cities are increasingly merging into regional corridors and clusters (Hong Kong-Shenzen-Guangdong is on track to having 120 million people by 2010). This growth, much of it unplanned, creates spatial management issues never before experienced.  
  • Solid Waste: Most Asian cities use open dumps, and only about 10% of these wastes end up in properly engineered and managed landfills. In the cities of developing regions, solid waste is usually organic and recycleable, but as urbanites move "up the consumption ladder" (Malaysia and South Korea) to more processed and packaged products, recycling becomes more difficult and waste volumes equal those of urban areas in developed nations.        
The report, "Managing Asian Cities," was written by Michael Lindfield and Royston Brockman of the Asian Development Bank. With Asian urban population increasing 1.8 billion the next 40 years, I implore anyone interested in our global fate to consider how advances in urban sustainability can be applied to Asia and other developing Megaregions.

Next post I will address some of the emerging solutions that may help Asian cities continue being the drivers of national economies, hopefully without bringing down the natural and cultural systems upon which their economies are ultimately based.    


About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); United Nations Center for Regional Development (training of mayors from 13 Asian nations on city sustainable economic development and technology); provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong, China (urban sustainability master planning and green city standards); the United States White House and Environmental Protection Agency (Eco-Industrial Park planning and Industrial Ecology primer); the nation of South Korea ("New Cities Green Metrics"); The European Union ("Green and Connected Cities Initiative"); the State of California ("Comprehensive Recycling Communities" and "Sustainable Community Plans"); major cities; and the world's largest corporations developing policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years.

Present and recent clients include the Guangzhou Planning Agency; the Global Forum on Human Settlements; the Shanghai 2010 World Expo Bureau; the US Department of State; the Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the non-governmental organization Ecocity Builders; a major mixed-use real estate development corporation; an educational sustainability non-profit; and global corporations. Read more here.

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This page is an archive of entries from September 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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