Most Commented through Friday, March 8th

Readers might be interested in knowing which posts which have garnered the most comments.  See also tag cloud for a sense of what people wrote about and discussed. There have been over 200 comments posted in this blog through March 8th.  (The site has also received more than 8,000 hits). Continue reading


India’s bold new market-based energy efficiency system

By Saravana Sivasankaran

A large reason why the Clean Development Mechanism (a mandatory process for certifying carbon credits) never really took off was because of the bureaucracy and ambiguity behind the requirements of the process. Project developers never knew with certainty if their projects, whether a clean coal plant, an energy-efficient building or a renewable energy project, would absolutely qualify for credits.

Take the case of India. I worked for a company that manufactured wind turbines for the regional Indian market. The price of the turbines we sold ultimately relied on the project’s IRR which in turn relied primarily on the site’s wind characteristics. However, with intensifying competition, a significant portion of the developer’s return increasingly came from income derived from selling carbon credits. I have seen first hand how the reliance on carbon credits killed deals or gave false hope to developers on risky projects only to be let down during the certification process. To further exacerbate the situation, India offered tax breaks for such projects resulting in many poor projects being funded. This in turn created havoc on the grid’s capacity to handle renewable energy’s erratic supply.

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Reframing Urban Sustainability Through Community Owned Energy Assets

By Drew Pierson

I recently reflected on the fact that “urban sustainability” is a term that typically narrows discussions about planning and development on environmental issues, in spite of related factors that may contribute to the general welfare of cities, such as jobs, income, and social well-being. Given that environmental problems often stem from economic processes and the social needs that drive them, one could assume that “urban sustainability” should extend its definition to include relationships among the three spheres of environment, economy, and society. As such, why isn’t “urban sustainability” more readily discussed within this framework and in a way that integrates goals from these three underlying areas at the onset? What opportunities exist that would allow entrepreneurs and planning practitioners to promote a more holistic version of “urban sustainability?” Continue reading

Causality and Hierarchy

By Jan Dolezal

I was thinking whether there are some frameworks for ranking and organizing different initiatives, for example those on the menu of PlaNYC (here).  PlaNYC is not conveyed with costs (or benefits) and it’s only part of the overall approach of the City and State of New York so it’s hard to quantify the components, but here are some qualitative thoughts:

Hierarchy of Needs

One is a pyramid mirroring Maslow’s pyramid (’s_hierarchy_of_needs) with a similar pyramid for cities (e.g. you don’t care about energy efficiency if you don’t have energy. You don’t care about climate change if you don’t have housing…) On the bottom level, there are basic infrastructure needs (housing, transportation, water, energy). If this is not met, nobody will really care about what is higher. Above that initiatives that improve immediate quality of living, such as Air quality or Parks. Only when this is met, people might be thinking more about recreational Waterways and problems that are not troubling them directly such as Solid waste management. At the top of the pyramid is climate change that people will be more willing to address only when their lower needs are met.

This pyramid also demonstrates why cities in developed countries care more about the higher levels than in developing countries where even the lower levels are not met.   We could place the PlaNYC (or KAEC or Tianjin or Dharavi) initiatives in such a pyramid.

Dolezal's Hierarchy

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Decision Rules: New city vs. Retrofit/Expansion

By Bryan Mezue

An important debate in our class has centered on the relative benefits of building new cities up from the ground up versus retrofitting old cities for growth. It is clear that we have no choice but to do one of the above to accommodate for the great urbanization trend, especially in the developing world. I do not think one model is always right. Instead, this blog post seeks to propose a theory of decision-making to support a choice between the models. I believe the choice should come down to an assessment of three key factors. Continue reading

We’ve forgotten the ‘land’ aspect of sustainable cities

By Ruchi Jain

In all our discussions on the replicability and segmentation of ‘model’ sustainable cities, we have assumed that the land has been available for the four ‘actors’ in Professor Macomber’s framework. Living PlanIT was granted the exclusive rights to purchase land in Paredes by the government, Phu My Hung received the land as capital contribution by the state-owned enterprise it was partnering with, and Masdar and KAEC were monarchy-led initiatives.

Step #4 from Professor Macomber’s Overall Framework for Sustainable Urbanization

The ease of availability of land is a critical assumption for some emerging markets, especially democracies such as India. The Law of Eminent Domain is a tough lever to pull for a democratically elected government, as officials often adopt populist policies which have short-term views. West Bengal has seen widespread protests over farmers being forced to sell their land at below-market rates for the Nandigram SEZ and for Tata Motors’ car manufacturing plant in Singur.[i] Reliance Industries’ SEZ planned as a satellite city outside Bombay has also seen farmer protests.[ii] Continue reading

Is sustainability of vertical cities just a fad?

By Jan Dolezal

In many discussions and articles, “sustainable cities” and “vertical cities” are used almost as synonyms and many imply that floor-space-ratio correlates with sustainability. In this post I present arguments to challenge this popular belief.

Look at China for example. Shanghai Tower – the world’s second tallest building under construction boasts to be “sustainable best practice” and Broader Group’s Sky City which would become world’s tallest building is all intended as a role model of replicable sustainability.

Yes, there are clear energy efficiency advantages of going vertical. Less surface area per usable floor space results in less heat loss and less material required for enclosure. Large scale HVAC systems are more efficient. High density reduces the need for transportation.

But there are also numerous disadvantages to offset the gains. Bottom floors need to carry the full weight of all the upper floors, resulting in significantly more materials for primary structural systems. High buildings require extensive foundations to achieve stability in high winds and earthquakes, which drives material requirements further up. Less surface per floor space may result in less natural light. Smaller roof area versus equivalent horizontal buildings provides fewer opportunities for solar installations. Smaller parcel area does not provide opportunity for geothermal heating and cooling, which can sustainably reduce energy demands of a family house by 40-70% with ~10 year payback. Vertical transportation also requires additional materials to build and energy to operate. Given all these drawbacks the real resource efficiency advantage of vertical construction is at best questionable. Continue reading