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After providing the curriculum for training urban leaders from 12 Southeast and Central Asian nations a few weeks ago (Manila, Philippines is pictured above), the United Nations is now globally launching the full content of the Shanghai Manual: A Guide for Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century.


The free publication features 47 global urban sustainability case studies and dozens of timely policy recommendations, especially when one considers the lack of global climate treaties due to tactics of "delaying nations" at the Durban climate talks, including the US. Instead, the Shanghai Manual is a practical tool intended to help the world's major and medium-sized cities in developing nations further advance their local green economies. The "green economy" is also the key theme of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20.


Using integrated sustainability planning (across management, financing and technology), one of the main functions of the manual will be to provide a basis for capacity building through the UN's Center for Regional Development, with support from UN agencies or departments including UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, UN Habitat and UN Conference on Trade and Development Office and global consultancies.


As co-author of the Shanghai Manual, I engaged in thematic sessions with the 12 Asian nation mayors and city leaders at the United Nations Center for Regional Development (UNCRD) in Nagoya, Japan. What became clear during sessions--which were based off the ten chapters in the Shanghai Manual--was the urgent need to cover a gamut of sustainability issues confronting Asia's local leaders.

Participants at the UNCRD capacity building included James Chan Khay Syn, the charismatic mayor of Kuching, Malaysia (population 2.5 million),  the youthful Mayor Jejomar Erwin S. Binay Jr., representing Makati, Manila's downtown district, and the urbane Executive District Officer, Muhammad Maswood Alam, who administers to Karachi's 17 million citizens. Meanwhile, China will be using the Shanghai Manual as a compendium sponsored by the national government to train its city leadership at the China Executive Leadership Academy in Shanghai.


While something like the lack of green ordinances may, at this point in time, appear egregious to those in the United States or Europe, developing nations face a range of problems that render basic governance and provision of services much more challenging. For instance, in addition to pressing social-economic challenges, participants at the UN's Japan training center cited warfare, security and sensitive political issues as impediments in addressing sustainability. 


After an opening session by UN Habitat on strategies for working with "informal" communities (more than half of land in Asian cities has title in dispute or is unregistered), participants offered ideas for helping their own city's slum dwellers, who may number in the thousands or hundreds of thousands. One approach suggested by the participating mayors was to perceive slums not as informal but as "aspirational" communities. Such a consideration requires enabling a differing range of educational and social services, options by which the more ambitious could integrate into formal society. To better provide the most targeted city services, data gathering from slum dwellers--peoples' sex, age and special needs--was offered as an important first step for cities so they could plan essential services and outreach tactics based on surveys. City visits to community gatherings (i.e., clubs, mosques, temples, churches) was suggested by one city official as a key method for communicating sustainability policies. 


The training offered some surprises. During the Q & A following a presentation on green building principles and case studies, participants related that none of their cities had implemented large-scale green building measures, as these programs were thought to be too costly. At the end of the week's training, however, mindsets apparently shifted. A third of city participants said that they would soon start green municipal building ordinances and projects, as clear economic and operational benefits should result from combining energy efficiency audits and modeling better behavior (turning off unused lights and air conditioning in government offices). From such practical beginnings, green building ordinances and green building codes could provide an economic impetus. One mayor remarked how a municipal green building program seemed like a good way to help jumpstart the nascent Southeast Asian commercial green products and services market. 


Participants--both the cities and the officials running sessions--left with some answers but more importantly they gained new networks and strategic insights that they can share with their colleagues back home and around the world.


Global urban capacity building based off the Shanghai Manual, called a "living document" by the UN, is expected to continue. UN sustainable city sessions in other continents are in the planning stages. The ultimate goal? Addressing the evolving global landscape for financing, implementing and managing cities in rapidly developing nations to help mitigate and adapt to climate change and peaking resources. 

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, author of How Green is Your City? and co-author of the United Nations Shanghai Manual on global sustainable city planning and management.

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A powerful triumvirate, the United Nations, Bureau International Des Expositions and the mayor of Shanghai, released this week the Shanghai Manual: A Guide for Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century. This timely (and free!) manual is aimed at helping leaders of the world's cities use integrated urban planning, management, financing and technology to green their economies and build climate and economic resilience.

"The Shanghai Manual details the experience and practices of cities across the world in addressing common challenges and achieving harmonious development...and is therefore of great theoretical and practical value," Shanghai Mayor Han Zheng said at Monday's launch, according to the Shanghai Daily.

Aimed at a target readership of mayors and executive leaders of developing nation cities, the bilingual (English and Chinese) Shanghai Manual is the basis for capacity building and training being rolled out in Asia next week by the United Nations. City leaders representing 12 Asian nations will attend the United Nations Center for Regional Development in Nagoya, Japan, where UN officials and I will lead urban sustainability training for leaders ranging from Colombo, Sri Lanka, to Karachi, Pakistan, to Makati (Manila), Philippines. In addition smaller cities including Chiang Mai, Thailand are participating.

Shanghai, China's largest city (17 million+ in the city proper), earned the street cred of being the manual's namesake by hosting the 2010 World Expo (photo above), so its mayor was honored with the manual's unveiling. Also attending the launch was Sha Zukang, United Nations Undersecretary-General as well as Secretary-General of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development known as Rio+20. The Shanghai Manual is credited by the UN as an important contribution to the Rio+20 agenda.

The Shanghai Manual, which I co-authored with colleagues at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, emerged from the 2010 Shanghai Expo, the largest world's fair in history. Devoted to the theme of "Better City, Better Life," the expo was the first global event of its kind to recognize climate change, and was dedicated to sustainability education. The expo featured demonstrations on resource efficiency and new approaches in transportation, water and material use, biological restoration, industrial ecology and low-carbon, low-impact development.

Vicente Loscertales, secretary general of the World Expo Bureau called the Shanghai Manual, "The most precious legacy of the Expo Shanghai."

China now recognizes that its future is bound up in seriously grappling with sustainability issues: the country accounted for half the entire world's construction activities in 2010. Over the next 30 years, China's massive planned urbanization is adding hundreds of millions more people, so it must continually innovate low-carbon and resource-efficient urban planning and development.

The integrated sustainability approaches highlighted in the Shanghai Manual include the use of activities such as participatory budgeting and in-situ slum revitalization, while other planning investigates non-motorized transport, transit-oriented development, dedicated cycling tracks, as well as congestion and demand management of transportation.

Management strategies include coordination of the formal and informal sectors (i.e., the  rag-pickers of Pune, India), city-scale rainwater harvesting and zero-waste applications.

Social-cultural issues covered include the use of social networks, micro-finance and mobile communications, and bridging the digital divide with e-governance and e-learning. Technological investigations focus on distributed renewable energy, smart city applications including remote sensing and smart grids, along with analytical tools such as carbon-footprinting, eco-mapping and city sustainability dashboards.

Based on 47 case studies from a range of cities, the Shanghai Manual highlights successful integrated long-term urban planning, economic development, program and project implementation and multi-stakeholder participation.


Thematically divided into ten chapters it covers (case studies are listed for each):

·         Towards a Harmonious City: Sustainable Sydney 2030; Nairobi Metro 2030

·         Delivering Effective Urban Management:  New York City's Integrated Sustainability Planning and Management; Slum Upgrading in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Mexico City's Plan Verde; Porto Allegre, Brazil's Participatory Budgeting

·         Economic Transformation: Baoding, China's Clean Energy Economy; Bilbao, Spain's Ria 2000; South Korea's Smart Grid 2030 Roadmap; San Jose, United States' Green Vision; Germany's Feed-in Tariff for Renewable Energy

·         Transport: Guangzhou, China's Bus Rapid Transit System; Bogotá, Colombia and Copenhagen, Denmark's Planning for Cycling; Goteborg, Sweden's Planning for Multi-Mobility; Singapore's Traffic Congestion Management;  Berlin's Low-Emission Zone

·         Waste Management: Pune, India's Rag-picker Cooperative; Bogotá, Colombia's Contracting of Formal and Informal Sectors; Extended Producer Responsibility in Mauritius; Dhaka, Bangladesh's Community-based Composting to Convert Organic Waste to Resource and Generate Carbon Credits

·         Green Buildings: Madrid's Bamboo Ecobuilding; Hamburg, Germany's Haften City;  US Green Building Council's LEED Program; Masdar City, United Arab Emirates' Hot Climate Appropriate Design; Washington, DC's George Washington University's Landscape and Building Water Management

·         Science & Technology: Sophia Antipolis, France's Science & Technology Park Development;  San Diego, United States' Biotech Cluster Development; Mexico City's Biometropolis Medical Park; Singapore's Media 21 Global Media City; China's Torch Program Development; Gautang, South Africa's Innovation Hub 

·         Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) for Smart Cities: Singapore's Digital Master Plan 2015; Mumbai, India's e-Governance; Leeds, United Kingdom's e-Learning Vision; Bridging the Digital Divide in Zambia, Africa; Dhaka, Bangladesh's Monitoring of Land Use and Land Cover Change Using Remote Sensing; Eco-Maps in Amsterdam and San Francisco

·         Culture and Sustainable Cities: Quito, Ecuador's Historic Preservation; Frankfurt, Germany's Office of Multicultural Affairs; Development of a Bengali-British Identity in Spitalfields, United Kingdom; London and Toronto's Creative Spaces Project;  Johannesburg, South Africa's Creative Industries

·         Mega Events: 2010 Shanghai Expo's Global Platform for Future Urban Development; Ningbo, China's Leveraging Shanghai Expo 2010 to Boost Urban Transformation;  Aichi, Japan's World's First Eco-Expo; Beijing, China's 2008 Olympics; Torino, Italy's Managing Multilevel Partnerships; Lille, France's 2004 Olympics; Rio De Janeiro's Preparation for UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20)

(Photo: Shanghai Expo 2010, copyright Warren Karlenzig)

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, author of How Green is Your City? and co-author of the Shanghai Manual on global sustainable city planning and management.

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San Francisco's parklets (left, from top to bottom: #1, Valencia Street, #2 and #3 Divisadero, and #4, Castro and 17th, bottom) are a vibrant testimony to the city's Pavement to Parks Program, managed by a non-profit, the Great Streets Program. The city's 15 parklets all started with two to three parking spaces, or other poorly-utilized urban space (the city says 25% of its space is taken up by streets or auto rights of way, while only 20% of the city is parkland--still one of the highest totals in the nation). With the help of architects, artists and landscapers, the asphalt is converted into living, breathing social settings.
The parklets do continue to provide parking space for the non-polluting form of transit: bicycles. I took a cycling tour this weekend of the city's parklets, which offer cyclists a safe and convenient place to park their two wheels and take a rest with their steed.
In the Valencia parklet (top photo), which included edgy canopy steel structures, I counted 19 people hanging out, and 31 bicycles parked. The space was much livelier, more functional and attractive than any three cars could have ever been in the same space.
San Francisco is now analyzing the numbers, behind its parklets, which were started in 2010. The analysis includes the number of users, maintenance costs, and neighborhood economic benefits.
The City by the Bay admits it was inspired by New York City's public plazas, just as it confessed using Bogota's Sunday car-free streets Ciclovia concept for its own Sunday Streets program.
Imitation is of course the sincerest form of urban innovation these days. The beauty of such experimentation is that it can be adapted for local conditions, including climate, public tastes and zoning.
The Pavement to Parks program is one of the most exciting deployments in the trend of enabling reduced urban dependency on cars, while fostering artistic and nature-enhanced community. There are other major trends portending that the future of cities (and suburbs) is beyond cars: the increase in mixed-use zoning, transit-oriented development, car sharing and light rail.
To wit: adaptable use of public spaces has become a key indicator of urban resilience. (Photos by Warren Karlenzig: click on each photo for larger format view)
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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I was quoted in the lead article by Michael Totty in Monday's Wall Street Journal on "How to Build A Greener City." The article (and quote) leads off a special section, including the following articles:

  • An Apple Tree Grows in Suburbia
  • The Urban Quest for Zero Waste
  • Testing Their Metals (on reducing industry material use)
  • Building Owners Want Water That Never Leaves
  • Power Play: GE Makes Big Bet on Little Firms
  • In Fracking's Wake
  • Talking About Waste With P&G
  • Cities as Ecosystems a Fresh Look
  • Reduce Energy Usage at Home
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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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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"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.   


Between 2000 and 2030 the global urban footprint will double, mostly due to growth in developing nation cities. Urban carbon and resource impacts cannot, must not double during this period. What can be done by policymakers, the private sector, civil society and urban leaders to prevent the unthinkable, a global climate and ecosystem incapable of supporting stable species populations and food production?

A botched transition to the coming urban future will ensure stresses far beyond our comprehension.

So, I will be addressing the Global Green Cities Symposium in San Francisco Feb. 24 on "Enabling Future Global Green Cities." In my previous post I described how this event acknowledges a sense of urgency by taking a novel approach to expert and cross-industry collaboration.

Clearly, cities in developing nations are the crux of the matter: 90% of projected urban growth will occur in developing nation metros during the next decades. By 2040, the developing nation urban sector will benefit from an estimated total of more than $300 trillion in expenditures for the built environment and transportation, both in infrastructure and operations. Increasingly these city functions and services will be optimized to address both climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation.

Before getting to the how, let's address the issue of cities on the basic level of benefits and risks.

Pros of increased urbanism:

  • easier provision of lower-cost high-value services (healthcare, education, water, transportation, communications, commerce)
  • enhanced cultural activities and opportunities
  • urban economic innovation in global hubs benefit their surrounding rural regions, and especially national economies

Cons of increased urbanism:

  • increased pollution and concentration of wastes, congestion, urban-heat island effect
  • negative social impacts which can include loss of sense of community, isolation from nature and decreased safety and security, exacerbated by a large-scale lack of affordable housing
  • sprawled urban borders place natural resources (agricultural land, habitat, fisheries, watersheds) at much greater risk

Beyond the pros and cons of urbanization, the populations and economies of all cities are vulnerable to the increasingly severe impacts of global climate change, including rising sea levels, flooding, winter storms, drought and extreme heat events. Besides higher rates of death and disease from climate change-induced environmental conditions, mass population migrations are expected to occur in the not-distant future. From New Orleans to Bangladesh, urban climate-related population diasporas have already begun.

Cities will need to quickly begin shifting their spending from high-carbon intensity infrastructure to green infrastructure that produces very low carbon emissions in production, transport, implementation and maintenance.

Long-term and strategic action plans will be necessary to guide capital toward infrastructure solutions offering attractive returns on investment. Such returns can take many forms--reduced operating costs (including reuse and disposal), low embodied and operating carbon emissions, lower air and water pollution levels, and greater resource efficiency.

Global competitiveness may soon be defined in part by comparative carbon emission rates. Low-carbon urban economies, for instance, will gain a decisive edge over economies (urban, exurban or rural) that remain relatively heavy per-capita carbon emitters. This competitive advantage will be gained not only because of environmental and quality of life factors but also because of the potential merger of international trade rules and carbon emissions regulations.

The OECD Mayors Roundtable in 2010 recommended that urban policy makers pursue integrated policy in three areas: the adjustment of firms to new sustainability related business opportunities and energy volatility; enabling individual consumers or citizens to change their preferences for products and services, and, finally; developing and effectively diffusing green technologies in the marketplace.

Following are other leading strategies and recommendations that will be covered in the United Nations "Shanghai Training Manual for Sustainable Cities".  (In order to be more likely to succeed, multi-sector collaboration and transparency will be required of each):

  •  New integrated, long-term and multi-scale models for structuring, managing, measuring and financing city performance (e.g., World Bank Eco2 Cities program) including life-cycle energy/ carbon, maintenance and capital cost management across budgets, capital planning and large-scale investments. Early examples include Curitiba, Brazil, and a Stockholm industrial district.
  • Mega-region and regional planning approaches, including those with "cascaded" micro-planning, such as Greater London (pdf).
  • Community-based natural disaster management, such as the Dhaka example (pdf)
  • Core ICT Planning and Strategy: With e-planning ICT can help cities avoid high-carbon land use. Digital technology makes it possible for cities to achieve lower carbon emissions from better planning and management of infrastructure, buildings, energy and transportation. ICT can provide valuable public access in communications and governance, such as Mumbai's e-government platform.
  • Public-private partnerships that are well constructed. Early examples include South Korea's Smart Grid 2030, and China's Guangdong Province wastewater projects. Public-private partnership agreements should be part of a transparent public process that is beneficial to all parties, especially citizens.
  • "In situ" slum upgrading, versus indiscriminately tearing down slums. Vulnerabilities must be addressed for those slums that are located in areas particularly at risk to climate change, such as flood plains and land subject to severe storm erosion. The good news, however, is that most urban slums are high density, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, made from recycled material, adaptive to changing conditions and can be socially inclusive with strong neighborhood social networks.

Green urbanization has the potential to shape the 21st century as much or more than earlier economic and technological advances. The key difference between this trend and prior economic waves--transportation, communications, energy, advanced materials and industrialization--will be the use of integrated urban system approaches.

Bonafide global green cities will only be fully realized through combined cultural, managerial and technological innovation that is constantly guided by the active participation of the civil and private sectors, academia and government.

Let's all get busy...

("World Metro Map" image credit)

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


About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); the 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 sustainability policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years. Read more here.

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This page is a archive of recent entries in the Sustainability category.

Resiliency is the previous category.

Transportation is the next category.

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