Could Dubai’s $350 million sustainable supercity work in New York?

When judged from a distance, Dubai doesn’t exactly embody a shining example of sustainability.

The most populous city in the United Arab Emirates is a glittering, luxurious metropolis in the middle of a barren desert. It demands power and burns resources as-needed — and it needs a breathtaking amount. According to Reuters, three-quarters of all electricity produced in the UAE is used to cool buildings across the emirates and ensure that residents stay fresh, thriving and entertained.

The use of those resources can be mind-boggling. Consider Ski Dubai as an example; with just a short trip downtown, city residents can trade their light clothing and sunglasses for ski parkas and snow boots and revel in wintertime fun. On Ski Dubai’s indoor mountain, air conditioners work around the clock to maintain the slopes’ winter-wonderland illusion in a place where summer temperatures routinely top 113 degrees Fahrenheit.

For National Geographic journalist Robert Kunzig, Dubai’s ski slopes are just a symbol of Dubai’s unsustainable approach. “Dubai burns far more fossil fuel to air-condition its towers of glass,” he writes. “To keep the taps running in all those buildings, it essentially boils hundreds of Olympic pools worth of seawater every day. And to create more beachfront for more luxury hotels and villas, it buried coral reefs under immense artificial islands.”

And yet, despite the almost comic lack of sustainable thought that these day-to-day realities reveal, Dubai might just be on-track to outpace Western hubs in their collective race towards a green future. Only 15 miles away from the resource-gobbling slopes of Ski Dubai, a new — even opposing — philosophy has laid its first metaphorical bricks.

Now for something completely different

Dubai’s Sustainable City is an icon of sustainability. First established in 2015, the $354 million mega project aims to limit its negative environmental impact as much as possible and to become a net-zero settlement that produces all of the (renewable) energy it needs to run day-to-operations.

Today, the community encompasses 113 acres, 500 villas and over 3,000 residents. Every home in the settlement has a solar panel on its roof. Residents are permitted to use public transport and electric vehicles; however, gasoline-powered cars are banned outright from most neighborhoods. Rather than offering traditional fuel stations, the community hosts charging stops.

The environmental benefits of these and other sustainability-minded designs are inarguable. Analysts indicate that the average annual water consumption in Sustainable City is roughly 40 percent lower than an equivalent metric in Dubai proper. Similarly, electricity costs for the settlement are a whopping 40 percent less than the city’s green building standards require. According to a Khaleej Times report, the settlement has limited its carbon footprint by 150 tons of carbon dioxide per year by using biodiesel during construction.

The community’s approach to sustainable living also has had a significant impact on waste management. As writers for Energy Central recently reported, “Because of recycling, the average waste generation at [the Sustainable City] is only 1.17 kilograms per person per day, which is 60 percent lower than the average. With this, [the city] has successfully diverted 85 percent of its waste from landfills.”

Every home in the settlement has solar panels on the roof.

Taken together, these reports prove that a sustainability mindset can power an urban community — literally. Its very existence pushes those of us overseas to wonder if similar projects might find the same success in our backyards.

“The Sustainable City cannot end here,” Karim el-Jisr, chief innovation officer for the Sustainable City Institute, told Euronews last February. “Unless we see another 1,000 Sustainable Cities, we will not make a difference to the planet. A true measure of our success is not what you see [in Dubai], but […] replication by others and by ourselves.”

So, this begs the question — if a sustainable community can spring up inside a city as notoriously environmentally unfriendly as Dubai, shouldn’t a similar project work near a city such as New York City, which is already relatively green?

A tale of two cities

Unfortunately, the issue isn’t that simple. While New York undoubtedly could benefit from the car-free neighborhoods, energy-efficient buildings and recycling-centric resource management policies that the Sustainable City model offers, the likelihood of such a community springing up in the five boroughs is close to nil.

Unlike Dubai, New York City is already heavily built up. While Dubai has the space — and resources — to construct an environmentally friendly neighborhood from the ground up, New York definitively does not. The space issue aside, Dubai has put years of effort and hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private funding towards building Sustainable City. Needless to say, New York City is not in a position to contribute the same.

As Alessandro Melis, an architecture professor at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, put the matter for Reuters, “[Projects such as Sustainable City] are good experiments that can tell us many things, but at this moment in time it would be more important to focus on how we can transform the urban fabric that we already have.”

New York won’t be able to host a separate community the way that Dubai can — but it may be able to make a similarly effective change from within its existing framework.

It is worth noting that the city already has a robustly sustainable foundation; in 2016, New York ranked as the 26th most sustainable city in the world on the Arcadis sustainable index. This ranking is partially due to the city’s robust public transportation system and existing sustainability measures.

However, more can and should be done. It seems likely New York will undergo a sustainability retrofit in upcoming years, especially given recent legislative moves. Last year, the city passed the Climate Mobilization Act, which, as of last month will mandate that all buildings larger than 25,000 square feet post their energy efficiency grades near public entryways. In 2024, these rules will become even stricter, imposing fines on those that fall below a certain grade.

Writers for City Lab further report that the Climate Mobilization Act will institute a “Fossil Fuel Cap.” They write, “The cap will require buildings to be upgraded or retrofitted with things like more energy-efficient heaters and boilers, as well as solar panels and windows that reduce heat loss in the winter and heat gain in the summer.”

Taken together, this new legislation shifts the responsibility — at least in part — for reimagining a sustainable New York onto property owners. This choice poses a few challenges; unlike in Dubai, where efforts were coordinated and funded under one overarching vision for a sustainable community, New York’s sustainability efforts will be moved forward by a disjointed cohort of property owners as they abide by new legislation. It’s an ironically inefficient means to go about achieving sustainability, even if the government does offer some financial incentives to adopt sustainable building practices (PDF).

However, these roadblocks will not stop New Yorkers from achieving sustainability on par with Dubai’s Sustainable City. While a lack of resources and space prevents New York from mimicking the UAE’s cohesive approach to building sustainable communities, it does have the ability to retrofit and innovate within its existing urban framework.

Unlike Dubai, New York’s sustainability efforts won’t be an addition to its borders, but an evolution within them. It will be different, for sure, and perhaps take longer to achieve its sustainability goals — but the end result will be no less beneficial to the environment.

Originally published on GreenBiz

By |2020-06-12T21:06:47+00:00February 25th, 2020|Urban Planning|

How Cities Can Lead the Charge Against Climate Change

The encroaching issue of climate change is one that’s far too massive for one group to handle alone. It’s up to multiple corridors of power to enact the changes that will ensure a safe future for our planet–which is precisely why it’s become such a complicated state of affairs. With two-thirds of Earth’s population expected to be clustered into cities by 2050, it looks to be urban planners who hold the keys to our survival. It’s also a matter of accounting for the damage cities have done on their own: as it stands now, urban centers are responsible for two-thirds of greenhouse emissions.

As a citizen of New York City, I was proud when our mayor announced the city would divest money from fossil fuels. This move was part of a larger movement aimed at hitting the largest producers of greenhouse gases where it hurts and is certainly an important part of the prevention process. But failing to design sustainable lifestyles for all city-dwellers will result in certain ecological disaster, a situation which no amount of money can correct. Creating these lifestyles starts with tackling the two most ripe areas for change: our construction and transportation practices. With the right plans and initiatives, these will be the conduits through which our cities lead the country into a cleaner and more assured future.

Construction

The largest visible representation of urban life, our tall buildings must use energy sustainably and responsibly if we’re to address the climate crisis adequately. This can take several forms, including efficient design that maximizes sunlight, green roofs and outdoor spaces which support the oxygen cycle, reusing water and recycled construction materials. So-called “green buildings” are more than a trendy movement: they’re the frontlines of the fight against rising temperatures.

Efficiency can even work in supertall buildings: Taipei 101 in Taiwan, built in 2011, boasts LEED Platinum certification, the tallest structure in the world to be given this stamp of sustainability. In the midst of a skyscraper boom, cities like New York must take a leadership position in ensuring that while we build to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, we don’t forget about the ground we’re situated on. Earth-friendly building materials like recycled steel and precast concrete can eliminate much of the energy usage that goes into creating these massive structures in the first place, starting their lives off on a sustainable footing.

Transportation

While environmentally conscious building practices are pivotal, an even bigger aspect of taking on climate change is the necessary paradigm shift in the way we get around our cities. Even with a majority of us living in these population clusters, our dependence on pollution-causing automobiles has played a major part in bringing this climate crisis into being. Even electric cars won’t completely save us, as CO2 emissions will stay high regardless thanks to large-scale shipping and aviation transport that can’t run on electricity for the foreseeable future.

For maximum efficiency in sustainable travel, robust public transportation is an absolute necessity. Even zero-emissions cars only carry fewer than a half-dozen people at once, requiring more energy to be expended on transporting fewer people on a daily basis. By designing cities where public transport is a more attractive option, we create communities that aren’t only cleaner, but happier places to live.

It’s an unfortunate reality that many forward-thinking projects will require state and federal approval before cities can get them to the implementation stage. In these and many other areas, it’s our nation’s metropolitan centers where the front lines of the battle against climate change will be staged, but by taking control of the narrative, city planners, local leaders and advocates can spearhead the changes that need to happen. Yes, they’ll need political support in due time, but building and transportation plans in the works are the roadmap for a safe, continued existence.

By |2019-05-30T19:11:47+00:00February 15th, 2019|Technology, Urban Planning|

What New York City Could Learn from Toronto About Sustainability

When it comes to cities, the word sustainable comprises much more than the environmental connotation acquired in recent decades. As any cement-pounding city dweller can attest, sustainable applies to basic living conditions, as well as environmentally-friendly practices. So it makes sense to assess cities’ sustainability in terms of residents. After all, what qualifies a city as a city, if not for the people?

Cities must not only retain but attract people: to persist and grow, to pay for services provided, and even to turn a profit. So it also makes sense to score cities on financial stability.

And beyond its residents and economic standing, cities have to adapt. In the current climate, that urban adaptation often takes the form of environmental policy.

So while cities have been coined green and smart, what really makes a city sustainable?

Recent surveys generally give scores in three categories: people, planet, and profit, according to Arcadis’s Sustainable Cities Index, assembled by the London-based Center for Economics and Business Research. No city has managed to perfectly balance these three tentpoles yet. As more and more people gravitate toward urban centers, that sweet spot remains a moving target. Factors like population growth and climate change affect a city’s sustainability score from year-to-year, and though circumstances seem to primarily impact one target, the three are closely intertwined. Hence, the Sustainable Cities Index, intended to reflect a city’s overall health: “not to create a hierarchy of elite cities,” emphasizes John Batten, Arcadis’s Global Director of Water and Cities, “but to indicate areas of opportunity.”

The necessity of comparison brings us back to examination of the term city. Although you can compose a checklist of characteristics that constitute a city, no entity of that name will reflect those characteristics in quite the same way. In a column tracking minimum population, for example, you may see similar numbers, but not the wildly varying demographics they represent.

Again, John Batten puts these statistics in perspective: “‘Cities have unique identities that are heavily influenced by their cityscape, economy and culture. Some cities, particularly established European cities such as Zurich which tops our index, are positioned within a moderate climate and have an economically balanced population which gives them a clear advantage when it comes to their sustainability. Others have to deal with issues including extreme climates, rapid urbanization and lack of financial resources which can hold them back.’”

So, with all these disclaimers about awarding cities of all shapes and sizes with number scores that constitute a somewhat arbitrary measure of sustainability, how can these cities take cues from each other? Specifically, what can the relatively high-scoring New York City learn from the similarly successful Toronto?

The Sustainable Cities Index operates on a scale from 100, and Zurich tops the charts with a score near 75. New York is ranked overall 26th out of 100 cities surveyed, and Toronto comes in at 33rd. However, the cities’ scores are not far off from each other: New York scored 62.9% overall, and Toronto 61.7%. And while New York earned the title of most sustainable North American city for 2016, Toronto held that title in 2015, for the first Sustainable Cities Index report.

The cities’ sub-scores reveal a more detailed makeup: in the people category, Toronto actually beat New York, with a sub-score of 62.3% compared to New York’s 53.4%, placing them 40th and 77th out of 100 cities. They scored similarly in the planet section: Toronto at 68.1% and New York at 66.1%, ranking 28th and 33rd in this category. The profit category explains why New York outranks Toronto on the Index: New York scored 69.3% in this category and Toronto scored 54.8%, leaving them at 8th and 38th in this section.

So if New York is to look to Toronto for ways to improve its sustainability score, the planet and particularly the people sub-scores give some indication. Each city’s rating in the people sub-section is comprised of scores in several sub-categories: education, health, demographics, income inequality, affordability, work-life balance, and crime. The biggest discrepancies between Toronto and New York can be found in income inequality (10.7% > 6.5%); crime (13.2 % > 10.1%); and affordability (7.1% > 0.2%).

The planet sub-score is based on environmental risks, green spaces, energy, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, waste management, drinking water and sanitation. The most significant differences between Toronto and New York here are environmental risks (9.9% > 7.6%); energy (8.6% > 6.5%); and air pollution (13.4% > 12.1%).

Toronto has been especially successful in energy efficiency, waste management, and water. Toronto is one of the top three cities for ensuring a robust, effective, and healthy water supply, while New York’s resources are considered more vulnerable. Indeed, the report highlights some of New York’s perceived weaknesses, including poverty, an overburdened transportation infrastructure, and rising sea levels forecasting more storms, flooding, and other natural disasters.

Toronto, on the other hand, will have to deal with a 25% population increase expected in the next 15 years. “According to a report presented by the city, Toronto has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 25% since 1990 and expects to improve that number to 30% by 2030 even amid the city`s population growth, which has seen the metropolitan area swell to six million as of February 2015.”

Hopefully these sustainability assessments and metrics encourage cities around the globe to learn from each other and the myriad issues faced by such complex cosmopolitan organisms in the coming century.

By |2018-10-31T17:56:21+00:00November 17th, 2016|Technology, Urban Planning|

6 Green Innovations That Could Revolutionize Urban Planning

The world’s cities are in constant flux, being built or built upon to accommodate fast-growing urban populations. The standard approach to urban design has changed, as it has countless times throughout the ages. Today, a new trend has dawned: sustainable design for greener cities, and ultimately a greener planet.

Sustainable design boils down to two main goals: conserving energy and reducing waste. There are many innovations that deliver these goals that are worth paying attention to. After all, they could be staples in the future of urban design, construction, and renovation. As a seasoned real estate entrepreneur, I find it useful to watch these developments carefully.

Here are seven innovations that, though not necessarily new, I believe may explode in popularity as cities are designed and developed with sustainability in mind.

1.Green roofs

Not unlike the habitats of the Hobbit’s Shire, green roofs are structures either partially or fully covered by vegetation. Why? The benefits are extraordinary. Green roofs limit the need for heating and cooling, filter pollutants from the air, insulate buildings, and offer extra square footage for agriculture. They also help mitigate the “heat island” effect in urban spaces — when cities are hotter than the surrounding land — by lowering temperatures.

The modern trend started in Germany in the 1960s and spread to other European cities, many of which are known for their sustainable initiatives. It’s an effective use of space that reduces energy consumption and adds new functionality to formerly barren roofs. North America also has a growing market for green roofs and other types of eco-friendly “living architecture.”

2. High-speed transport

Elon Musk’s future-forward Hyperloop has been in talks for years, and recently the much-hyped high-speed rail had its first public test. It could take many years to be fully realized, but it’s not the first of its kind: also known as bullet trains, high-speed railways can be found in Japan, China, France, Germany, Russia, South Korea, the US, among other countries.

Though expensive to build, high-speed rails are generally eco-friendly and save in greenhouse emissions by providing a speedy alternative to more fuel-intensive transport. Just look to California, where high speed rails run on electricity and reduce the need for cars. In future cities, mitigating the need for vehicular and air travel by implementing high speed rails instead will save dramatically on energy usage and mitigate pollution, too.

3. Floating buildings

With so much land overtaken by human activity, expanding onto the water could preserve greenery for agriculture and other uses. There are various of types of floating architecture designed precisely to be eco-friendly urban solutions.

Self-sustaining floating house units already exist: for example, the WaterNest 100 by EcoFloLife is made of 98 percent recyclable materials, with photovoltaic panels embedded in the rooftop for solar energy. This type of innovation could work for an entire city, in theory. In fact, various eco-friendly floating cities have been designed, including Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut’s Lilypad, proposed as a city for climate refugees, and Silt Lake City, which would float atop the Nile River.

4. Water recycling

Speaking of water, droughts and shortages are predicted to become increasingly common as populations grow, supplies dwindle and the planet warms. Americans in particular use 100 gallons per day, 95 percent of which is wasted. Certainly there is a more efficient way to conserve water, in and out of cities.

Greywater refers to water in sinks, showers, washing machines, etc: essentially all streams but toilets. Greywater, along with stormwater and even wastewater can be better managed and recycled for reuse in urban settings through large-scale systems and smaller-scale innovations like this high-tech shower that recycles water as you wash.

5. Solar solutions

Solar is one of the fastest growing forms of sustainable energy and one of the most promising too. But for all the hype, it faces some key problems: mainly, the fact that sunlight isn’t always a guarantee.

Even so, solar technology is becoming better and more efficient, and more easily stored for not-so-sunny hours. One Swedish company is able to power 24 homes with one dish, and Tesla now offers a solar battery at the most affordable price yet. Individual solutions like these could be scaled up for implementation in urban areas, like this solar road used in the Netherlands that generates enough power for a year’s worth of electricity.

6. Microgrids

Solar energy is great for easing reliance on the electrical grid, but grids will likely be necessary in powering cities for a long time. However, there are less wasteful ways to provide electricity, like the use of microgrids for example.

Microgrids are small, decentralized energy systems that collect, store and distribute electricity in an even and balanced way. Where large-scale power plants are often powered by fossil fuels, localized grids are better suited to sustainable energy sources like solar and wind, and can act as backup in case of blackouts. For cities, a network of microgrids would waste less energy and derive it from a variety renewable sources. The market for microgrids is expected to grow to $40 billion by 2020.

These are just several of the innovations that are likely to inform sustainable design in cities as we move into a more environmentally-conscious future. Whether all at once or a little at a time, the urban greening trend shows no sign of sunsetting anytime soon — which is why it’s smart for those in the real estate industry to take note and adapt.

 

By |2018-10-31T16:17:02+00:00May 20th, 2016|Urban Planning|

Dying Sustainably: What Greener Burials Mean For Big Cities

The world’s cities have a grave problem. With limited space and growing populations, the dead outnumber the living in packed cemeteries that occupy valuable real estate, cost families exorbitant fees, and strain the environment to boot.

While land is abundant in more rural areas to respectfully bury the deceased, in cities like London and New York City space is increasingly scarce. Because cemeteries aren’t inherently profitable — the dead do not pay rent, after all — existing sites must grapple with an influx of demand without much chance at horizontal expansion.

So what is the solution? Pushing bodies further underground? Building mausoleum towns? Creating floating cemeteries and skyscrapers? As radical as these ideas may seem, they have all been explored and implemented in cities attempting to make room for the dead.

With 50 million people passing away every year, afterlife accommodation is as much a real estate issue as it is an environmental one. Just as the real estate industry has moved toward a more ethically and environmentally conscious ethos,  the funeral business is doing the same for deceased tenants. Some say as many as one in four older Americans are likely to opt for sustainable burial options in the future, given the growth of environmental awareness.

Though challenges lie ahead, especially in cities, many sustainable and space-saving burial options exist. It may take an extra dose of creativity — and maybe even some cultural change — but new earth and community-friendly burial solutions could do the world a great good.

A costly problem

Even if they want to, many city residents can no longer bury their loved ones the traditional way. Inground plots in Manhattan are in the single digits with six-figure costs. Even a burial outside of cities can cost upwards of $10,000, considering the price of coffins and other funeral services.

In US cemeteries alone, 30 million feet of hardwood caskets are buried, along with 90,000 tons of steel caskets, 14,000 tons of steel vaults and over 2,500 tons of copper and bronze. That’s a huge wealth of trees and minerals buried beneath the earth, unable to be recycled or put to use. Embalming chemicals can also be incredibly toxic to humans, animals and wildlife. Even cremation takes its toll: it’s an energy-intensive process that emits mercury from burnt teeth fillings.

With baby boomers aging, 76 million Americans are projected to reach life expectancy between 2024 and 2042. To give each a standard burial, an area about the size of Las Vegas would be required. This won’t be an issue for the many people living in rural locations, but with city populations growing there will no doubt be problems among denser populations. In fact, there already are.

City residents and urban planners are in perhaps the perfect positions to pursue sustainable alternatives, for the sake of space, money and the planet.

The Green Burial Movement

The concept of green burials is not a new one — in fact, it was once the norm, with burials often occurring at home in wooden boxes. At the turn of the 19th century, when deaths moved from homes to hospitals and funeral parlors, the post-death rituals we practice today became widely adopted. Embalming began during the Civil War to help preserve the bodies of soldiers during their transport, and though not legally mandated continues to be the standard practice.

The green burial movement, which began in the early 90s, seeks to return to the style of natural burial. Biodegradable caskets made of bamboo, cardboard, or wicker are less expensive and easier on the earth; for those that want to go the cremation route without the detriments, an alternative method called resomation is less toxic and energy exhaustive.

Today, people who want green burials need only consult with the Green Burial Council (in North America) to find a certified green burial provider, the number of which has increased from just one in 2006 to over 300 today. Unlike other services bearing the “organic” label, green burials tend to be even cheaper than traditional ones.

The Green Burial Council estimates that about one-quarter of older Americans want green burials — an opportunity to take the trend from niche to mainstream. Because city residents face the biggest dilemma and tend toward progressive social leaning, it’s no surprise that New York City boasts great green options like Brooklyn’s Greenwood Heights Funeral & Cremation Services.

Saving space and memories

Just making the switch from steel to straw caskets won’t solve space issues, however green they may be. With the last open cemetery in Manhattan selling vaults for $350,000, it’s worth wondering if there’s a better way to die without shipping yourself to faraway fields a day-trip away from family.

Other cities have tackled this problem, some to great success. Countries like Belgium, Singapore and Germany practice grave recycling, through which families get a free public grave for the first 20 years or so, after which they can either pay for renewal or allow the cemetery to move the body to make space for another. Locations without this practice balk at the idea of disturbing the dead.

Some Asian cities have decided upon large, mechanized columbariums, which store thousands of urns that can be retrieved with an electronic card. Hong Kong has plans for a columbarium island called “Floating Eternity,” and other cities are considering vertical cemeteries. A Norwegian student won a design contest with his vision of such a skyscraper, which would house coffins, urns, and a computerized memorial wall.

As our virtual selves gain credence during life, digital memorializing has become more popular. A Japanese company offers virtual cemeteries for descendants to tour, while Hong Kong’s government created a virtual social network for families unable to.

Designing for the future

How do we negotiate respect for the dead with respect for the planet? And how do we negotiate these with cemetery real estate deficits and cost concerns? We don’t want to do away with cemeteries, after all. Like schools and hospitals, graveyards add a layer of emotional and cultural intelligence to neighborhoods. In cities, they are more akin to history museums and monuments — housing century-old skeletons instead of people more recently warm.

Moving forward, city residents will have to make tough choices, and urban planners will have to make smarter ones. As the number of people living in cities grows, the number of those dying there will too. Real estate developers may not be directly responsible for accommodating the dead, but one a larger scale urban planners may be wise to do so.

Grave as the situation may seem, so long as there are both private and public efforts to solve space and environmental issues, cities and their residents will grow to adopt the most efficient and green burial processes possible.

 

By |2018-10-31T16:13:37+00:00April 18th, 2016|Culture, Technology, Urban Planning|

How The World’s Most Eco-Friendly Cities Pull Off Sustainable Transport

With every population, urban or otherwise, carbon footprints collect like dirty clouds in the wake of human movements. Ironically, these footprints are often more like wheel tracks: roughly a third of America’s emissions caused by the transport of people and goods, 80 percent of which can be attributed to cars and other road vehicles.

The world’s cities are far from immune to travel’s impact on the planet, as many densely populated metropolises are crammed with vehicles. These cars, which zip between skyscrapers and line narrow streets, often belong to commuters that travel significant distances each day and emit Co2 all the while. Even idling cars are problematic, as emissions increase the more time is spent on the road accelerating and decelerating.

With urban populations growing, the opportunity to make city transport greener is one worth a deep dive for urban planners. Cities already have a leg up when it comes to sustainability: with robust public transportation systems in place, cities have lower footprints than their suburban counterparts. As downtown revitalization attracts a greater number of residents into cities that can live, work, and shop locally, cars may be rendered an unnecessary luxury in due time.

The rise of eco-friendly transport

The US is home to several cities considered eco-friendly; because of its public transportation and commitment to green initiatives, New York City is one of them. But it wasn’t always this way — in fact, many of America’s cities were influenced by the 1939 New York World’s Fair imagining of an ideal, car-based city. This utopic roadway concept took the States by storm post-war, after which car ownership skyrocketed and roadways sprawled.

Cities in Europe, on the other hand, were never designed based on the assumption that private cars are the pinnacle of urban mobility. Countries far older than the US boast more compact and walkable city streets. We know now that the World Fair was wrong, and author Jane Jacobs was right: “Traffic congestion is caused by vehicles, not by people in themselves,” she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Cities that invested in car-based infrastructure have proven to be less environmentally sustainable, among other issues.

As a result of this knowledge, cities across the world, no matter their original design, are striving to decrease their reliance on cars. The financial incentive for this is also clear: city residents without cars save money on automobile-related costs, and have a heightened ability to boost the local economy.

The planet likes bikes

Some cities are ahead of others in this regard, and when it comes to transportation innovations, it’s worth looking to some of the planet’s greenest urban spaces for solutions and ideas.

One prime example is Copenhagen, Denmark, sometimes called the bike capital of the world. 55 percent of citizens here ride a bike every day — it’s estimated that for every kilometer cycled, society enjoys a net profit of 23 cents. Bikers also save the city 90,000 tons of Co2 emissions annually.

Copenhagen’s bicycle culture has been over a century in the making; photographs show Danes in early 20th century biking to and fro enthusiastically. This culture was challenged mid-century by cars, but in the 1960s it became apparent that their prominence was leading to traffic accidents and congestion. To counter this, Copenhagen put energy and investment into extensive cycling infrastructure and branding campaigns.

With over 390 kilometers of bike lanes, Copenhagen’s cycling is not only a healthy, green alternative to driving, but a well-defined symbol of freedom and personal energy. The Danish city continues to expands their bike culture with new policies, marketing initiatives, projects, pathways and more.

Other cities look to Copenhagen as an example, and the idea is certainly catching on — and not only in Europe. Buenos Aires in Argentina has become a latest poster child for urban biking, and Chinese city Hangzhou boasts the largest bike share in the world with a 78,000  fleet.

Have feet, will travel

Cites that are pedestrian friendly also tend to be much greener than car-centric ones. When urban space is made walkable — a task that may take development and beautification — residents rely less on cars and more on their feet. Some cities have even closed down roads to cars to create public walking spaces. You can see examples of this in New York City, where Times Square has been transformed into a shiny, commercial pedestrian paradise.

There are many big cities cutting down on cars, including London, Madrid, and Hamburg, in addition to already mostly car-free cities like Venice, Freiberg, and Groningen. Cities like Istanbul and Mexico City are also embracing the importance of people-oriented mobility to incredibly promising results.

Pedestrianization has been touted as a great necessity in urban design: it preserves the health and safety of city residents, reduces pollution and noise while improving tourism, and heightens retail income and community involvement.

Air, land and sea

Part of reducing reliance on cars means finding alternative ways for people to travel. This goes much further than biking and walking: there are many other complex systems of transport including travel via bus, tram, boats and more.

Perhaps the quintessential example of a carless city is Venice, which was built with canals instead of streets. Though some boats there are indeed pollutants, the city is accessible by foot and gondola.

Medellin, Colombia takes the concept of gondolas to a new level, literally: the city implemented gondola lifts called metro cable that go up and down the city’s steep mountainside. This is part of a greater metro system called Metro de Medellin, which saves 175,000 tons of Co2 every year along with saving $1.5 billion in respiratory health costs. Areas that were once violent and dangerous have been utterly transformed due to the modern ease of mobility.

Share or beware

Lastly, the share economy is a growing trend in transportation and travel that has proven to be a green alternative to cars and hotel rooms. By renting space in an existing cars and homes, travelers don’t contribute to excess energy consumption.

Carsharing in particular is on the rise everywhere from the US to China, India, Brazil and Mexico. If people share rides, theory has it, car ownership decreases and complements a growing array of public transportation options. Car ownership is already declining, and the Ubers and Googles of the world are knee-deep in plans for a future of automated ridesharing.

Gilles Vesco, a politician that switched the city of Lyon to a sustainable model, agrees that sharing is the future: “Sharing is the new paradigm of urban mobility,” he said. “Tomorrow, you will judge a city according to what it is adding to sharing. The more that we have people sharing transportation modes, public space, information and new services, the more attractive the city will be.”

But non-sharing car-owners should perhaps beware, because the other side to encouraging alternative transportation is discouraging car use. Tolls, gas taxes, high occupancy fast lanes, no-car days and other measures that bar cars can make driving unpleasant and expensive. Maybe this isn’t the fairest way to push sustainable transport, but seems to be working in cities like Portland, where congestion charges have been implemented to cut down on traffic.

100 percent green transport may still be impossible, and the organic dissuasion of excess car use certainly won’t happen overnight. But as we all become more aware of our collective carbon footprints, it wouldn’t hurt to gradually relax our wheels. Instead, we can push for a future of mobility that elevates both community and the environment. The trick is prioritizing these elements over the luxury of plush leather interiors.

By |2020-05-07T19:49:55+00:00March 9th, 2016|Urban Planning|