What is the first step in China’s sustainable growth?

By Liz

For the past 5-10 years, academics, politicians and pretty much anyone who has set foot in China have agreed that pollution is a huge problem in the country. As the world’s largest developing economy, the country is expected to see a rapid increase in its urban population over the next decade—only further increasing their carbon footprint. Most people agree that the Chinese cannot continue to expand using their current cities as a model.

In class, we discussed the merits of the Tianjin Eco-city, Masdar and other green cities. Those cities take years, if not decades, to plan, design and build. The Chinese need solutions now. What is step one of the process? We’ve been talking about China for a long time and have yet to see any policies from the Politburo. I believe the first step towards solving China’s environmental problems is greater public awareness.

The issue of Chinese carbon emissions is being blogged almost everywhere, scrutinized in American think-tanks and discussed in Harvard classrooms, yet aside from improvements during the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government has done relatively little. A few weeks ago due to heightened public awareness and outrage, the Politburo for the first time publically addressed the air quality problem in Beijing. Premier Li Keqiang asked for patience in dealing with the problem, saying it was created over a long period of time and will take a long time to ameliorate.1 Unfortunately, China does not have a long time. They need to see action now. Continue reading

Resident Annoyance

By Galen Laserson

“My idea of a perfect school…is one that has no children in it at all.  One of these days I shall start up a school like that.  I think it will be very successful.”

– Headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (from Roald Dahl’s Matilda)

Building sustainable cities would be easier without the presence of a confounding factor:  the people who live in them. Living PlanIT illustrates some challenges of building and attracting people to a green field “city.” For the most part, sustainability efforts focus on making infrastructure improvements to existing cities teeming with residents who are accustomed to or aggravated by the status quo (or both). Thus, managing change is integral to urban redevelopment.

Residents are the gatecrashers poised to overrun the public-private partnership party.  In the Dharavi case, the interests of the area residents, which should arguably be a central priority of any city plan, were expressed as an afterthought.  Though Dharavi offers a pointed example, the complexities that residents surface through their behaviors and desires are omnipresent and powerful – from the dueling interests of groups of citizens in Bogota to the conflicts between citizens and water bandits in Mexico City.

People generally do not like change, especially when it involves accepting short-term pain to achieve a long-term goal (ask anyone who lives on Second Avenue about Manhattan’s new subway). How, then, do entities responsible for championing infrastructure improvements or urban development engage effectively in change management? Continue reading

Bogota’s Future

By Deepa Raghunathan

According to Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogota, “The worst thing for a Latin man is to find himself raising another man’s child,”[1] which explains the political culture that requires new plans under each mayor, president and politician. With the government and development banks able to provide funds to begin infrastructure improvements in growing cities, politics are the stumbling block to network expansion.

In contrast to its rival-city Medellin, the home of Colombia’s only metro line, Bogota is much more chaotic and crowded with a population of around eight million. The Transmilenio has max ridership at 45,000 users per hour, far below what is necessary for a growing city in a developing country. Medellin’s metro is used by approximately 500,000 users daily, compared to 1.7 million Transmilenio users in Bogota.[2] Though its metro is used far less, it has the potential to serve many more users with increased headways and longer trains. Due to its completely separated nature, it is faster regardless of road traffic.

As shown in the Transmilenio case, Bogota’s BRT line was unveiled as a great success, but it was only an initial step in what needs to be a grander transportation networking scheme that allows greater and more efficient integration of the growing city. For Bogota, BRT is a temporary solution.

As an intern at the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, I was briefed on the five key areas the President saw as growth “locomotives,” including infrastructure.  I had numerous meetings with the Office of the Presidency, Ministry of Transportation and academics at the Universidad de los Andes discussing the current state of transportation infrastructure and how to move forward, and quickly realized that there were numerous plans but no political will to execute.

For my daily commute to work, down Avenida Septima, I initially walked thirty minutes to the government office. I soon realized the small buses were a much more convenient method of transportation – I did not need to walk extra blocks to Caracas to catch the Transmilenio, I was picked up and dropped off exactly where I needed to be, and if one was too full, I could simply wait five seconds for the next. Transportation alternatives should exist, but the needs of the growing city should not be held hostage by the temporary needs of a few.

Asking everyone I came across their thoughts on the BRT that I had moved to Colombia to learn about, I was sad that the overwhelming response was, “It’s bad because it’s too crowded.” Riding once during rush hour, I felt more packed than I had in any NYC subway, most likely because the standing room due to seating arrangements and the start-stop nature of traffic.

There is no question that the Transmilenio has served Bogota well, but unless a more extensive system is put into place it will fall prey to over-use and under-maintenance. With government support and foresight, a metro line will serve the city well and support the overcrowded existing infrastructure.


[1] Kimmelman, Michael. “Past Its Golden Moment, Bogotá Clings to Hope.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 08 July 2012. Web. 10 Feb. 2013

[2] Hutchinson, Alex. “TransMilenio: The Good, the Bus and the Ugly.” TheCityFix. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.

Leveraging Transit toward a Strategy of Anticipatory Urbanization

By James Cody Birkey

Most human geographers predict an unprecedented pace of urbanization to occur over the next half-century. This is a result of a broad set of convergent factors, one of which is the migration of poor rural populations to urban areas. This rapid growth has placed particular demands on cities, especially in the developing world. Very often, cities and governments either ignore these communities, or see them as a problem. It is hard to say which is worse.

As response to the development of slums, many national and local strategies try to “deincentivize” their growth. The assumption is that by intentionally disenfranchising these areas by limiting access to urban services, rural-urban migration might be kept at bay.

Billy Cobbett, head of Cities Alliance at the World Bank, explained recently at Harvard not only how pervasive this stance is in the developing world, but how unbeneficial it is. He argued for the inevitability of the trend of urbanization, and that it ought to be harnessed rather than distained. Assuming he is right, what kinds of tools might governments and the private sector have to approach this phenomenon constructively?

To pair this notion of a city that “anticipates” the inevitable influx of population with some of the financial efficaciousness of transit systems like the BRT might open up some very interesting possibilities. Transit has the power to drastically shape economic geographies of cities precisely because cost (in time and money) of commuting overwhelmingly shapes land values. Therefore, in cities struggling to dictate urban form in the face of growth of unserviced slums, could a BRT-linked land development strategy positively incent growth in currently undeveloped areas best for the city as a whole?

In the United States during the early 1900’s, large-scale landowners struck deals to bring trolleys out to lands they owned on the edge of the city. In a time when most people commuted on foot, a transit offering drastically changed the value and urban relevance of a parcel of land, and these new “suburbs” developed rapidly. Using the same principal, is it possible to coordinate with local entities to stretch BRT—which is much less expensive than trolleys or subway—ahead of time out into areas the city ought to grow? Is it possible to do this in a coordinated fashion, such that financial opportunities exist for private enterprise to engage cohesively or even take the lead? Perhaps governments could agree to build systems like this in trade for certain percentages of inclusionary housing, or other strategies that might engage the poor.

Doubtlessly, dealing with urban growth, especially regarding economically-constrained populations, is multi-faceted and will require a broad set of tools. However, this idea—particularly with transportation—to move ahead of growth rather than simply to respond to it, might open up doors to much better-planned transit systems in the long term, as well as unlocking newly valuable land at a price that can be attainable for the populations that will inevitably move in.

Somerville’s Green Line Extension

By Matt Bornstein

Last December, Boston’s public transit authority began construction on an extension of the Green Line light rail system.  Today, the Green Line runs from the near western suburbs, through downtown Boston, into East Cambridge.  The planned expansion would add seven stations serving Somerville and Medford, Cambridge’s neighbors to the north.  (See map; the extension is marked as a dashed green line.Bornstein 1

If you are an average HBS student, your response to this news is probably, “what is the Green Line?”  For a typical Boston resident, the reaction is probably more like, “why extend the slowest, most cramped, least reliable public transit line in the country?”  In Somerville, though, this project has people buzzing and emotions flowing.

Home to about 80,000 people, Somerville is the most densely populated neighborhood in Boston and among the densest areas in the country.  Historically, its residents were working class and diverse (for Boston) at “only” 70% white.  In the mid-1990s, however, gentrification hit.  Condos, restaurants, and shopping areas began to move in.  Property values quadrupled from 1991-2003.  Long-time Somerville residents came into contact with new yuppie entrants and, worse, a massive wave of young hipsters.  The causes?  Many, including urban expansion, the repeal of rent control, and thriving businesses in nearby Cambridge and along I-95.  The trigger?  The Red Line subway added one stop in Somerville.[1]

You can see, then, why seven new stations are a cause for controversy.  Most residents – or at least the most vocal – support the project and have berated the state for delays.  Lawmakers, including the governor and local congressman, are touting the recent groundbreaking as a major success.  Long-time Somerville residents, however, are on the fence.  And looking below the surface reveals the usual brewing disaster of a Boston public works project.

The Green Line extension is currently slated to be completed in 2019 at a cost of roughly $1.3Bn.[2]  Sounds reasonable for a project of this scale.  But there are a few problems:

  1. No one knows who will pay for it.  The state is seeking ~$550M in financing from the federal government, money which is by no means guaranteed.  The balance (~$750M) is expected to come from state bond funds which have not yet been approved.  Meanwhile, the MBTA is facing revenue shortfalls and the Mass. Department of Transportation is fighting an uphill battle for moderate increases to its operating budget.  Public-private partnerships are being put to good use (e.g., real estate developments near stations in exchange for needed right-of-way) but will not meaningfully reduce the $1.3Bn figure.  (More financing details here.)
  2. Construction started two months ago, and it’s already five years behind schedule.  The state is legally obligated to complete this project by 2014, a deadline imposed by a Big Dig lawsuit.  Right now, though, 2019 looks optimistic.  As a result of the delay, the state must simultaneously pursue other, near-term environmental improvement projects.  This has the potential to dramatically increase costs and create a vicious cycle of further delays caused by distraction and diversion of resources.
  3. Political cover is shaky.  Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has championed this project as a tangible part of his legacy.  Rumors are circulating that Patrick may leave his post in 2013, though, to fill a spot in the US Senate or another federal position.  If he departs, the project could face even steeper delays.  At the December groundbreaking, Congressman Michael Capuano was quoted as saying, “We need to get as much of this project done and committed in an irrevocable way before [Patrick] leaves office.”

The ingredients are there for this to become an albatross around the neck of the next governor.  It’s hard to argue against increased mobility and reduced pollution in Boston’s most densely populated neighborhood.  But whether the project will become another public works sinkhole – and drive out the last of old Somerville – remains to be seen.

Bonus: Boston’s own “MRT vs. BRT” evaluation process ( light rail vs. BRT vs. commuter train)

Bornstein 2

Table: Tier 1 Green Line Extension Alternatives Analysis (Source: GLX project)

Bornstein 3

Table: Tier 2 Green Line Extension Alternatives Analysis (Source: GLX project)

[1] Wikipedia & local knowledge

[2] “Preliminary Engineering Approval for the Green Line Extension (GLX) Light Rail Transit Project,” 6/11/2012

Making Sustainable Decisions

By Yiran

There are thousands of “sustainable” ideas in the world, BRT, metro, GPS, etc.; but not every city is adopting every single one of them. Why not?

Despite the financial and technological constraints, the major question we should ask at the beginning is, “Is this idea really suitable for our city?” Only when the answer is “Yes” can the quote mask could be removed from the defining word “sustainable.” However, in rapidly urbanizing cities, this question has been long forgotten and the supposedly “sustainable” ideas that are not suitable for the cities are now creating an unsustainable future for them. Therefore, how public sector and private sector can work together to make real sustainable – sustainable and suitable (S2) – decision for cities remains a critical problem.

Public Sector: Decision Maker

Focusing on the public sector’s needs is very important because they are the final decision maker. What do those politicians want? Political benefit, economic growth, and, if it is a moral politician, public good. It’s not uncommon that first two needs could outweigh the third pursuit, and this situation produces unsustainable decisions that are not in the long term public interest. For example, following the first subway project started in 1965, China now has 25 cities constructing subways[1], and 18 cities constructing BRT[2]. Are metros and BRTs really necessary and feasible for so many cities? Unfortunately the answer might be “No”. My investigation with World Bank Transportation unit of one of the cities, Nanchang, China, indicates that the massive 5-line subway construction plan will add a heavy financial burden to the small second-tier city. However, subway and BRT projects are attractive to politicians because they meet their needs as follows:  First, the “large” and/or “advanced” projects could bring to the city huge funds from various sources as well as achieve apparently high GDP in short time [from short term construction projects], from which the leaders could obtain economic interests. Secondly, these projects are “advanced”, “sustainable” and very visible, so that they could easily draw attention from the central government, and thus the politicians could build up their political profiles.

Private Sector: Game Player and Change Maker

Despite the perception that some leaders tend to make decisions for their own interests, there are entities who are trying very hard to make the decision making process more scientific. The auxiliary forces include experts from planning and design department and institutes, and from non-government sectors such as the World Bank, etc. To some degree they could influence a mayor’s thoughts, but more often they have to give up their insistence and choose the second best alternative in order to meet the leaders’ requirements. Without guaranteed authority, the experts’ power is limited.

A smart move for private sector firms to increase their influence is to tailor their sustainable ideas to meet the politician’s needs. One example is to visualize the proposal of a transportation mode using a simulation modeling to help the politician see the possibilities to could really understand what result their decision would lead to[3].

Institutional & Legislation (I&L) System: Regulator and Interest Balancer

Not only could politicians make unsustainable decisions solely for their own political and economic interest, but the private sector could also make unsustainable proposals that could maximize their financial benefits, and cater to politician’s interests, but not be beneficial for the people. Thus, an I&L system that guarantees public good is indispensable. The I&L system should have an institutionalized project prioritization process that could make the selection of competing projects to be invested more scientific. The I&L system should have a regulatory and punishment mechanism that could prevent the sole realization of city leaders’ political and economic interests by ensuring experts’ power. The I&L system should include a viable public participatory institution that is special-designed for each municipality’s condition, so that the peoples’ voice could be heard and the I&L system and democracy could be mutually-promoting and mutually-supplemental.  Therefore, in the long run, a scientific I&L system could lead to a more collective and rational selection among competing goals and interests.

In sum, by focusing on the needs of decision-makers first, then making private sector and public sector work collaboratively with each other, the best decisions can be identified and then adapted through an institutionalized project prioritization process that leads to sustainable decisions.

Sustainable Southern Systems: Developing Mass-Transit Solutions for the American Southeast

By John Clayton

The Southeastern US continues to see significant population growth, clustered not just in large cities such as Dallas, Atlanta, or Houston, but increasingly in mid-scale cities such as Charlotte, Austin, and the Research Triangle region. Migrants to the region are pulled by a relatively high quality of life at a low price tag, fueled by large inventories of cheap housing. When coupled with a lack of natural land barriers, denser development is inherently discouraged in favor of massive urban sprawl. As the attached graphic shows, Atlanta is home to a population roughly equivalent to Barcelona’s, yet has a 20x larger geographical footprint. Raleigh has an average density of 4 people per square hectare compared to Barcelona’s 176 people. Given such sprawl, what type of transit solution could possibly work?

As we discussed in the Bogota TransMilenio case, large metros work well and can be sustainably financed in a handful of mega-cities (Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore), particularly when strong government can derive additional funding sources from rising land values around metro stations. BRT systems offer less capital-intensive solutions, but may be less palatable to a population with high car ownership rates. Light rail is a lower-cost alternative to heavy-rail systems in major urban areas, both less expensive than traditional metro systems yet differentiated enough from existing transit options to convert drivers.

Applying light rail transit systems to less dense cities, however, is tricky: it requires connecting existing higher-density nodes (universities, shopping complexes, downtowns) with green- or brownfield spaces that can channel future high-density development. Charlotte’s new Lynx light rail system offers an excellent example of the ideal mix of transit stations: it connects highly-trafficked areas such as Uptown, the convention center, and Southpark Mall, with previously undeveloped tracts of land; it then worked with developers to incentivize the construction of residential, commercial, and retail units around each station.

Assuming a city finds a suitable transit system, the most significant obstacle still remains: the financing hurdle. Faced with a populace generally skeptical of increased taxes and local government largesse, cities should turn to innovative financing schemes to help offset the infrastructure and operating costs. As our discussion of Hong Kong’s system highlighted, planned urban infill offers three key benefits: 1) it builds city density, thereby reducing sprawl; 2) it clusters residents around the transit stations, diverting more traffic and increasing ridership rates; and 3) it causes land values in surrounding areas to appreciate.

To harness this financing opportunity, cities should design transit systems that both connect high-traffic areas and traverse undeveloped land tracts, then enter into public-private partnerships with developers to build high-density mixed-use neighborhoods. Such collaboration would not only allow governments to capture a slice of increased land values, but also directly influence features such as below-market housing units and city infrastructure such as schools.

Of course, such a partnership would have its share of skeptics. Many Southerners are skeptical in general of government involvement in projects and unfamiliar with PPP schemes, and could perceive a government conflict of interest in development promotion. These concerns could be assuaged by a public relations campaign and consultations with PPP experts. Coupled with long-term development plans that continue to prioritize smarter, higher-density development, Southern cities from low-density sprawling giants to sustainable transit meccas.

Clayton Atlanta Barcelona


Comparison of the geographic footprint of Atlanta and Barcelona (source: Alain Bertaud, www.alain-bertaud.com)