On Density and Happiness 2


Springing off from my last post (here) in which I identified an “ideal” density of 3800ppl/km2, I decided to directly chart population density against happiness for a selection of cities that belong to the following three categories: most livable, most global and most emerging.

A clear converging tendency can be observed, almost as a funnel, reaching to that “ideal density” zone. From this tendency and the selection of cities we can extract a series of observations that relate to some of the issues that we have seen in class: Continue reading


In the news: Urbanization, Resource Scarcity, Cities, and Political Stalemates

(Updated March 35)

By John Macomber

Once you start tying phenomena together, the topics of our course are in the news everywhere. As we head into the last days of the Q3 term, here are a smattering just from the last week or two. It would be plausible to spring from these into an original post that applies some analysis or frameworks or segmentation to add the “so what” utility. Continue reading

Measure twice & cut once

By Anonymous

Many people will be discussing the fact that relying on government to create vibrant communities from scratch flies in the face of thousands of years of human development. I do not disagree that the concepts behind these “planned” cities – the Masdars, KAECs and Tianjians – is a fundamental departure from the spontaneous growth of old, but I would argue that the raison d’être for cities has changed and disruption is necessary. In the past cities were built around resources – fresh water, ores (irons etc), fuels and forests – or transportation – natural ports and trade route nodes. When resources dwindled and trade routes changed cities died (Fatehpur Sikri – water, Gunkanjima Japan/Centralia PA – coal).

However, in a world of over-crowded cities, over-stressed public infrastructure, declining natural resources, widening inequality, environmental degradation and steadily rising seas, the disorganized organic conception of cities might not be the best solution. The average population of the 10 most populous cities in the world has risen almost ninefold (from ~2.5M in 1900 to 21.4M in 2005) as the mix of cities in that ranking has shifted from the developed to the developing world (see below – only 4 of the top ten are now in the developed world.) As most of the future growth will be in developing world countries already struggling with infrastructure provision and access to capital, creative solutions must be found to build new and “better” cities and distribute the pressures of urbanization. While I am naturally skeptical of the power of government to make efficient and effective decisions, I think government can play a significant role in hastening the genesis and spread of more livable and sustainable cities in areas of greatest need. Continue reading

Can you Succeed in the Bottom Right Corner?

By Anonymous

Emerging Economy, Greenfield Situation, Chaotic Governance, Entrepreneur

Emerging Economy, Greenfield Situation, Chaotic Governance, Entrepreneur

The matrix proposed by Prof. Macomber titled “How to Invest in Sustainable, Competitive Cities” points to the bottom right cell as one with the greatest potential opportunity. At a first glance this “opportunity” does not make sense: Who would want to be an entrepreneur investing in greenfield developments in regions with chaotic governance?  However, while thinking about this framework in the context of bringing order to chaotic situations with a lot of activity, one extremely successful business comes to mind. It does not erect the kind of barriers to entry that most HBS MBA students think about. Continue reading

Unlocking the Potential of Emerging Market Cities

By John Macomber

March 2

(This is a current events FYI post. For your own graded blog posts you should analyze, disagree with, or extend articles like this with your own thinking or with concepts from the Sustainable Cities course. For the most part our blog is not meant to be a clipping service).

Quote from McKinsey Global Institute: “A massive wave of urbanization is propelling growth across the emerging world. This urbanization wave is shifting the world’s economic balance toward the east and south at unprecedented speed and scale. It will create an over-four-billion-strong global “consumer class” by 2025, up from around one billion in 1990. And nearly two billion will be in emerging-market cities. These cities will inject nearly $25 trillion into the global economy through a combination of consumption and investment in physical capital…. Yet few business leaders focus on the importance of cities when establishing growth priorities.”

McK Center of Gravity

More here:  https://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/Strategy/Globalization/Unlocking_the_potential_of_emerging-market_cities_3015

And below:  Continue reading

On Density, Desirability, and Happiness


High density is often praised in relationship to sustainability because of the efficiencies in managing resources and benefits regarding shared transportation. Economists have also concluded that workers in denser places earn higher wages and are more productive. Studies show that doubling the density increases productivity by 6% or more. And there is an interesting 25% correlation between population density and gross metropolitan product per capita. (1) (2)

However, density is not a magic elixir. Many developing cities are struggling with overcrowding, traffic congestion, providing adequate infrastructure for water access and sanitation. In the case of Dharavi, we were looking at a slum redevelopment that would result in a population density of about 313,900 ppl/km2. The final image visualizing the massing of the proposed design, based on the 7 story’s maximum height policy, offered a terrifying view of the future – not that different from the Soviet housing projects developed during the 60s, many of which are now abandoned or soon to be demolished.

So, I wanted to explore if there is such thing as an “ideal” density. In other words, is there a correlation between the density and the perceived desirability of the city? How does it change with economical and growth differences?

If we look at the rankings of the “most livable cities” (3) and their density we can observe the following correlation:

Roure density

Cities that systematically appear on the rankings of “livability” are: Zurich, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Vienna, Munich, Melbourne, Sydney, Auckland, Paris… In this study I included the 20 most acclaimed cities amongst the 3 most important rankings: Monocle, Mercer, and EIU. The average density of these 20 cities is of 3800 ppl/km2 and the deviation can be disregarded.

Although there is much debate about the criteria behind these reports, they have to do with very high ratings on safety/crime, quality of architecture, public transportation, urban design, business conditions, environmental issues and pro-active policy developments.

On the other hand, all of the cities in this list are in stable, democratic countries, have gone through a diligent constant improvement over the last, not only decades, but also centuries, and stand today with some of the highest gross metropolitan product per capita of the world. These could be thought as the most desirable cities for the top 5% of the population.

The challenge arises when addressing emerging citites such as Mumbai, Bangalore, Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, New Delhi or Bogota (4), with densities from 3 to 10 times higher than the “ideal” 3800ppl/km2. Slums in these cities have a key socioeconomic role, they are often used as a gate for immigrants coming from rural areas to find a temporary settlement and to eventually be able to find a job and thus enter the formal market. The precarious living conditions, sanitation deficiencies and corrupted informal economies are a source of anxiety.

If we think back on the history of some of the chosen “most livable cities,” we find a recurrent pattern of explosion of growth with subsequent stabilization. Yet the scale of these new metropolis and building capabilities are unprecedented. Even if we can greatly learn from existing urban models, new challenges will need to be addressed – for which testing and a great degree of political will be needed.

(1) http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/13/why-humanity-loves-and-needs-cities/

(2) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/opinion/sunday/one-path-to-better-jobs-more-density-in-cities.html?pagewanted=all

(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World’s_most_livable_cities links to Monocle, Mercer and EIU

(4) http://www.atkearney.com/documents/10192/dfedfc4c-8a62-4162-90e5-2a3f14f0da3a  Global Cities Index and Emerging Cities Outlook


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)