Planning / Land Use: 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.


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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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Planning / Land Use category from September 2009.

Planning / Land Use: August 2009 is the previous archive.

Planning / Land Use: October 2009 is the next archive.

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